What do “chutzpah,” “pitted prunes” and “as well as” have in common? They’re among the words and phrases I’ve been asked about within the past few months, and I’m finally getting around to writing about them. And there are more to come.
What do “chutzpah,” “pitted prunes” and “as well as” have in common?
They’re among the words and phrases I’ve been asked about within the past few months, and I’m finally getting around to writing about them. And there are more to come.
In English, says Webster’s, “chutzpah” is informal for “shameless audacity; impudence; brass.” It’s a Yiddish word that came from Hebrew. It has a variety of spellings and pronunciations; for the latter, Webster’s first listing is “HOOTS-pa,” with the first syllable rhyming with “foots.”
Other definitions are “extreme and offensive brashness; arrogant presumption; hubris.” Those are given in “American Slang,” which includes this as an illustration:
“Chutzpah is that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.”
And as Bryan A. Garner points out in “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” “chutzpah” has “both negative and positive connotations in American English,” depending on the point of view of the person applying it.
One person’s bold move is another’s recklessness.
My thanks to Sue Crandall of Rockford for asking about this.
Back in early January, I received an e-mail from J. David Wood (no relation) of Rockford, asking why prunes with no pits are called “pitted” instead of “depitted.”
This is one of those curious aspects of English, where a word could mean one thing and its opposite. In the case of “pitted,” the adjective comes from the verb sense of “pit,” “to remove the pit from.” The “pit,” of course, is “the hard stone, as of the plum, peach or cherry, which contains the seed.”
Fortunately, they’re not called “stoned prunes,” which would be something entirely different — maybe closer to “stewed prunes.”
Similar “food preparation” terms in this category include “cored” and “peeled,” which clearly indicate removal of parts.
However, although “skinned” conveys this sense, we also use it with terms such as “thin-skinned” and “pink-skinned” where the skin remains.
The same goes for “shelled” and “boned,” although “deboned” also is used — and leaves no doubt, or bones.
Make no bones about it, though, English can be challenging.
In early February, an e-mail from W.C. Fuller of Rockford asked about the rising use of “as well as” instead of “also” or “and.” Here’s an example:
“The chef said his favorite cuisines are Italian, Mexican and Greek as well as Thai.” There should be a compelling reason to single out an item in a list in this way. If there is one in this example, it isn’t clear.
Not only is it wordier, but “as well as” can cause grammatical problems. The phrase is an example of what Garner calls “misleading connectives.” As he points out, such phrases tend to have a misguided influence on verb choices. For example:
“The rising price of oil, as well as the high jobless rate, have hurt tourism.” “Have” should be “has.” Even though the sentence tells us the two things are both influencing travel, the subject is still the singular “price,” calling for the singular “has.”
Americans love excess, and I suspect that’s what’s going on with “as well as.” We tend to favor more letters or syllables — “following” over “after,” “approximately” over “about” — and multiple words over just one — “prior to” over “before.”
Saying more things doesn’t necessarily equate with having more to say.
Contact Barry Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org or read his blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/woodonwords/.