Sunday, July 30, 2006


Calling Mr. Verb

Cringe and Wince

This post by Tonya put me in mind of a linquistic issue that's been irritating me like a hangnail. Mr. Verb, what is the name for this process -- using a similar, sound-alike word in place of the "dictionary-correct" word?

Here are two words that sound alike, and whose dictionary definitions, while overlapping, have a subtle but significant difference. According to the American Heritage Dictionary*:
cringe: 1) To shrink back, as in fear; cower. 2) To behave in a servile way; fawn.

wince: To shrink or start involuntarily, as in pain or distress; flinch.
"Cringe" has become the word of choice signifying the emotional pain that accompanies intense embarassment. It's a figure of speech,** since the "cringe" is presumably the physical expression of the pain. This is how Tonya used "cringe" (and the delightful "cringeworthy") in her post, and how Ira Glass used it in the This American Life episode Tonya was riffing on.

As you can see, people are using "cringe" when they mean "wince." While both cringe and wince involve physical shrinking back, it's fear-based in "cringe" but more broadly pain-based (including the pain of embarassment or shame) in "wince."

You can see the attraction in preferring "cringe." It sounds more like the desired meaning. And "cringeworthy" -- as in the "cringeworthy story" Tonya was telling -- sounds so much better than "winceworthy."

At some point, the dictionary definitions have to conform to real-world usage, right? Maybe cringe and wince are now synonyms in fact. Only pedants will insist on "correcting" people who say "cringe" to mean "wince."

The pedants do have one point, though: when cringe primarily means wince, what word do we have to describe the demeanor of, for example, Golum in Lord of the Rings? I guess there's still "cower."

*Is there a good online, preferably free, dictionary? This one kinda sucks.

** Right on the border between metonomy and synecdoche. Do you notice how this is a blog in which the word "synecdoche" will appear the day after the word "boner"? "Boner," by the way, is often used as a synecdoche.

In A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner uses the unsexy (asexy?) phrase "Word-Swapping" to describe the phenomenon of similar-sounding but incorrect words taking over the correct ones. The examples he gives are "fortuitous" (accidental) taking over "fortunate"; "laudatory" (expressing praise) taking over "laudable" (deserving of praise); etc. Over time, these become "skunked terms" (in his words), and preservationists rarely prevail.

But since "cringe" and "wince" don't really sound alike, a better term might be "Slipshod Extension," which Garner describes as "the mistaken stretching of a word beyond its accepted meanings, the mistake lying in a misunderstanding of the true sense." He cites "literally" and "protagonist" as terms that have undergone some "slipshod extending" of late.

Word Verification: louyev--a diluted and less committed form of "love." "'I louyev you,' he said to the woman he planned to break up with."
Sorry, took a while here to get my heart rate down after seeing that subject line ... a guy goes out for a bike ride and comes back to this ...

First, 'cringeworthy' is a thing of true beauty and as a humble laborer in the rich vineyard of language, I marvel at the word. Tonya, did you coin that or know it already? (It did exist apparently -- -- but I didn't know it offhand).

Second, Major Steel gives a good account of how non-linguists talk about this kind of thing. His problem (or rather Garner's, since it lies in Garner's definition) of sounding alike is simply definitional: In linguistics, we call this 'contamination', and it's defined (in Trask's Dictionary of Historical Comparative Linguistics) as "any unsystematic change in which the form of a linguistic item is influenced by the form of another item associated with it." The deal is just that the association here is semantic (about meaning, of course), not phonetic-phonological (about sounds). It's just a different kind of swap.

But 'contamination' sounds bad, sadly, and the cold fact is, this is how language works. Always has, always will (in use by humans ... if I could get a computer to do this stuff, we could ALL retire on the windfall.)

Pretty much all of us regularly invent new words -- Tonya put together the verb 'cringe' and the suffix '-worthy' and got a really nifty turn of phrase out of it, giving at least this reader that little 'oh, she said that just right' feeling. And most of us really appreciate smart examples like this -- 'blog' (< shortened in a somewhat surprising way from 'web-log') has a nice ring to it, I think, and 'vlog' (< video-blog) is even cooler in a sense, because we don't have words in English that begin with vl-, yet we can easily pronounce it. (Vladimir and Vladivostok are naturally borrowings of a sort.)

And we also often use words in new meanings. Obviously, we extend meanings to new situations (web, post, etc. are very old words).

But -- at long last -- let's get down to the issue at hand: word meanings are incredibly slippery creatures. I know some lexicographers, and they struggle mightily to get really precise definitions of words. But real users in the real world don't necessarily use all the bells and whistles of a dictionary meaning and this kind of variation is, I'm pretty sure, just rampant.

Sometimes, it's a swap or even slipshod usage, but frequently, speakers are being creative with language. That's where I part with Garner -- I can't see the new, figurative meaning of 'literally' as 'slipshod' ... people were looking for ways to intensify things and 'really' and 'damned' and 'very' just don't do it anymore -- new intensifiers like 'literally' (in its new meaning) are constantly being generated while old ones fade -- 'very' comes from a meaning like 'truthfully' but has been bleached out to where it meaning only 'very' for most of us, and now weak for that. When we REALLY want to emphasize something, it doesn't do much anymore: 'it's very hot in the sun' doesn't get across what 'it's way hot', 'wicked hot', 'egg-frying on-the-sidewalk hot', etc. can.

--Mr. Verb

What a way to class up this blog.
Welll, dude, you should be happy I didn't get around to posting a comment about 'boner' ....
You can also blame Roget's Thesaurus for the cringe-wince substitution. Looking up "cringe" in the index, one is presented with the following entries:
be servile 907.6
bow down before 765.10
cower 892.9
flinch 891.21
retract 297.3
stoop 318.8
wince 284.7

peaqoemb: (1) the sister ship to the Peaquod, whose deranged and obsessed captian spent his life searching for a box-shaped yellow sponge that stole his fiance. (2) the display feathes of a male peacock, located on top of the head, as distinguished from the tail feathers.
BTW, this is Wendy, using her new blogger user name.
Oscar: This post made me wince.

Mr. Verb: I hadn't heard the term before, so I think that my use of cringeworthy was original -- at least to me. Maybe, though, you can help me with a language question of my own over at The Tonya Show. My question is posted here. The rest of y'all are welcome to join us over there too.
Linquistic? (Tell me you don't spell "penguin" with a "q".)

Anyway, is the sort of online dictionary you were looking for, or does that have problems as well?
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