As a small child, few songs had as much power over my imagination as the classic Sesame Street jingle “Silent E,” written and composed by Tom Lehrer. It was hilarious to watch, easy to memorize, and a solid lesson on just how precious each letter is to the whole meaning of the word. For your enjoyment:
Fast forward to the present. Fed from a sturdy diet of William Safire’s “On Language” column and NPR’s puzzle master Will Shortz, I have become an avowed Word Geek.
Back to Silent E. As I said, removing a single letter can have dramatic impact on the word’s meaning, and I’ve been collecting examples recently where a “good” word takes on more sinister tones when a letter goes missing. Here are a few of my favorites:
Brother and bother
Friend and fiend
Affluent and effluent
Focal and fecal
Moral and morel
See how it goes? If you can think of other examples, send them my way.
Side note: I see this as different from phone autocorrect issues, where more than a single letter is replaced. There are some hilarious examples of that here: http://www.damnyouautocorrect.com.
Like the Hobson’s Choice, here’s another adage you may find useful for spicing up the occasional cocktail party (or industry conference, board meeting or weekend with the in-laws). Years ago, when I was remarking how our workload never seemed to ease, even in the draft of increased staffing, my wise coworker Fred clued me in on Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
This was first humorously articulated by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in a essay published in The Economist in 1955. Hence the naming rights. And I’ve seen this Law in evidence for most of my professional life. Purchase a new CRM tool to streamline the sales and marketing process? Instead of freeing up time for market research, you’ll find you’re just processing more data in the same amount of hours. Decide to hire an assistant to offload some of your responsibilities? Your schedule is guaranteed to be no less dense. The demand for your time increases with the availability of that time.
Interestingly, Parkinson’s Law comes with some clever corollaries:
If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do. (Stock-Sanford Corollary)
Data expands to fill the space available for storage. (for computers)
But don’t confuse this Law with Michael Pollan’s “Snackwell Effect,” which is based on the self-defeating phenomenon where people eat more low-calorie cookies (like the Snackwell brand) than they would eat regular-calorie cookies. The same applies for agave nectar, which as a replacement sweetener should actually be used in smaller amounts than the equivalent honey or sugar. In these cases, I believe the stomach expands to fill the available notches on your belt.
I’ve always loved language, especially simple words and phrases that evoke complex expressions. This is the first of an ongoing series about language that I’m going to call “Vocab Rehab.” The idea is to provide you with a few handy terms that you may not know but could use in the right circumstances.
One expression I love and am intimately familiar with is a “Hobson’s Choice.” In my childhood, my mother – an excellent cook and a nutritionist by training – would provide us with creative and wholesome dinners. We had it better than we knew. On the occasions when my ungrateful brothers and I would whine about her menu, she would smolder for a moment and then announce that we could eat what had she made or…she could make us peanut butter sandwiches.
Never once did we summon the chutzpah to take the second option. As her children, we knew that there was, in reality, no option at all. She would never have made the sandwiches, and we would have been in deep trouble. And that’s a Hobson’s Choice: a free choice in which only one real option is offered. Well played, mother.
Wikipedia, chronicler of all things, has an excellent description of this term, its origins and uses. According to that source, the phrase is said to originate with Thomas Hobson (1544–1631), a livery stable owner in Cambridge, England who, while owning many fine horses, only “offered customers the choice of either taking the horse in the stall nearest the door or taking none at all.” He apparently liked to save his best horses for other uses.
A more modern example: on film, when the nasty antagonist tells his co-conspirator that she can either assist him or depart unharmed, we easily intuit that he’s never giving her the second choice. If she chooses to leave, she’ll be snuffed (and she nearly always is). It’s not only become a rather cliché plot point, it’s also a Hobson’s Choice.
Seriously. Should I willingly utter any of these words, realize that this is not me, that I have in all likelihood been abducted and brainwashed or inhabited by an alien or otherwise malevolent spirit. Please release me from whatever has forced me to use any of these words in my business or everyday conversations. In no particular order: