Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

Many words possess two kinds of meaning. The basic, direct meaning we call denotation. The implied, suggestive meanings are connotations. Connotations are what give a word its individuality and color, its distinctive personality.

Take the word fist, defined denotatively as “the hand clenched with the fingers pressed into the palm and the thumb pressed around the fingers.” Then “the maiden held the white lily in her delicate fist” ought to be a perfectly correct sentence. We smile, however, at the clashing connotations of maiden, lily and delicate on the one hand and fist on the other, and clenched, hand. The denotation of fist is correct, but its connotations make it a grotesque choice for the sentence about the maiden and the lily.

Giggle has been defined as “to laugh with repeated short catches of breath.” But because of its connotations, giggled is strikingly misplaced in a sentence like “the grizzled cowhand giggled at the tenderfoot’s foolish suggestions.”

The British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell enjoyed fooling around with the connotations of words. On the BBC radio program The Brain Trust, Russell presented the following “irregular conjugation,” also known as “emotive verbs”:

I am firm.
You are obstinate.
He is a pig-headed fool.

Such triads demonstrate that human nature causes us to become less complimentary as we move from seeing and describing ourselves to depicting others.

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Recently, our town lost Chet Cunningham, the quintessential writer’s writer. Chet, who passed at the age of 88, generously nurtured other writers and founded the San Diego Book Awards, a nonprofit organization that annually honors published and unpublished works by local authors.

Chet also wrote 450 books (!), averaging about a book a month in his prime, and once gave birth to a novel in less than a week. His volcanic productivity once led me to share a joke with him.

I told him I’d heard that, one evening at his home, his wife, Rose Marie, picked up a ringing telephone. A voice asked, “Is Chet Cunningham there?”
“Yes,” she answered, “but he’s writing a book.”
“That’s okay,” said the caller. “I’ll just stay on the line until he’s finished.”

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Back in the madness of March, the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team lost its NCAA tournament semi final game in overtime, ending a streak of (gasp!) 111 consecutive victories. All athletic teams representing the university are called the Huskies. Why? Because of a clever pun. The shortening of the university’s name is U. Conn, and U. Conn sounds like Yukon, where husky dogs pull sleds.