Lexicography corner

Unfortunately, the word we need to consider today is treason. Here is your friendly word nerd’s definition:


  1. A betrayal of trust or confidence, as among friends.
  2. Also high treason A betrayal of allegiance to one’s country, its sovereign (in a monarchy), or its fundamental institutions of democracy and of government (in a democracy or democratic republic), as by
    1. Overthrowing or attempting to overthrow the government or its institutions;
    2. Killing, committing violence against, or attempting to kill or commit violence against the representatives of the government or its fundamental institutions, or their families; or
    3. Collaborating or attempting to collaborate with the enemies of one’s country, whether in time of war or of peace.

Senator Reverend Doctor

I’m seeing people posting their ideas about the order of Senator-elect Raphael Warnock’s titles. Prior to the election, he had two titles: Reverend and Doctor. He’s not a medical doctor, but he has a Ph.D. (as well as two master’s degrees) from Union Theological Seminary (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raphael_Warnock). It turns out that the nature of his doctoral degree is relevant to the order of the titles: when the doctorate is related to the religious leadership, the more common order is “Reverend Doctor,” but when it’s not, then “Doctor Reverend” is another option, although Emily Post prefers to keep “reverend” first (https://emilypost.com/advice/professional-titles). Now that he has won his election, the question arises about how to handle his triple titles.

In German, it is not uncommon for highly titled people to preserve all their titles in formal situations, so that they may be addressed as “Frau Doktor Professorin,” “Herr Doktor Professor,” or even “Frau Doktor Doktor” for someone with two doctorate degrees, in English, at least U.S. English, there comes a point when most people say, “Enough already!” As a result, it is most common for senators with two or more titles to use only one at a time. After the initial excitement wears off, many will choose between addressing Georgia’s new triple-titled senator as “Senator Warnock” or “Reverend Dr. Warnock.” If you’re attending his church services on a Sunday, the latter makes sense. If you’re lobbying him, go for the former. Most doctors who become senators go by “Senator” when they’re functioning as politicians. But there are other options which connote greater respect. 

There are a number of senators and former senators who are also physicians, and most of them are usually addressed by only one of their titles. In fact, some senators change titles depending on the impression they want to make. When Rand Paul was running for president in 2015, his campaign website referred to him as “Dr. Rand Paul” in the hopes of inspiring greater trust than Americans usually accord to politicians. Bill Frist also opts for “Dr.” when he wants to establish trust (https://www.politico.com/story/2009/03/honorable-former-lawmakers-mull-title-020181).

Frist also sometimes goes by both titles, and in informal writing, these are hyphenated. People may address or introduce him as “Doctor-Senator” or “Senator-Doctor.” Frist considers “Doctor-Senator” less formal, and usually prefers it, but when he wants greater respect, he opts for “Senator-Doctor” (https://www.politico.com/story/2009/03/honorable-former-lawmakers-mull-title-020181). “Senator Reverend Dr. Warnock” would be the equivalent.

In the U.S., Black people typically receive far less respect than white people, and also far less than they deserve. That alone is a good reason to accord Senator Reverent Dr. Warnock his triple title. The full title here also reinforces the legitimacy of Dr. Jill Biden’s title, earned by completing an Ed.D. program parallel to the Ph.D. program that incoming Senator Reverend Dr. Warnock completed. So triple title it is.

Recent projects

Here are links to some of the projects I’ve had the pleasure of working on lately:

This book should help Chinese Medicine practitioners everywhere figure out strategies for helping people with Covid-19.

This book about how to decide whether to negotiate or fight is geared to activists trying to figure out their best strategy at a given moment, but it will also help other people figure out this crucial strategic question, even in much more mundane circumstances.

And here are two really interesting anthologies from Marla Brettschneider and her colleagues: Africana Jewish Journeys and LGBTQ Politics.

In my eagerness to share the books I’ve edited with you, I almost forget to mention one that I wrote together with Duchess Harris. Check out The Dreamers and DACA, especially if there are any middle-school or high school students in your life!

Word of the Year 2017: Respect

Many dictionaries, lexicographers, and others who write about language are choosing a word of the year, so I’ve decided to join them. The Word Nerd’s word of the year for 2017 is “respect.” I define it below only in the sense in which I’ve selected it; it has other meanings as well, but I’m omitting them from this post, because they’re not the meanings of the year.

respect, v.t. to regard and treat with dignity, consideration, and honor; to recognize the rights and dignity of; to regard and treat as inherently worthy

respect, n. recognition of (someone or something’s) dignity, rights, and worth

Why choose “respect” as the word of the year for 2017? Because all of the major issues of the year have to do with respect and lack of respect. One of the words many people have suggesting is #metoo. The #metoo movement is about insisting on respect, and about looking at the many situations in which men have not accorded women respect, and in which people with power have failed to respect people with less power. #BlackLivesMatter is also a movement insisting on respect in the face of a stark lack.

Merriam-Webster selected “feminism” as the word of the year for 2017; feminism is the belief in, and action to promote, the treatment of all people with equal respect, regardless of gender. The OED chose “youthquake;” “youthquake” is about recognizing the worth and contributions of youth. “Collusion” is another word mentioned as a word-of-the-year (or “WOTY”) contender. “Collusion” means secret collaboration for illegal or dishonest purposes. In other words, “collusion” means disrespect for the law and for honor. Another suggestion is the word, “complicit.” “Complicit” means contributing to wrongdoing; involved in criminal or improper activity. Once again, this implies disrespect for the law and for generally accepted rules and norms of behavior.

Other contenders for the 2017 WOTY include “fake news” and “alternative facts.” To decry legitimate news and reporting as “fake news” is to show disrespect both for truth and for the fourth estate; it implies ignorance of the foundational importance of journalism to democracy. Similarly, the concept that one may reject inconvenient facts and substitute “alternative facts” shows a similar disrespect for truth. Both, of course, show the utmost disrespect for listeners and citizens.

In short, all too many of the events that have demanded our attention throughout 2017 have been caused by lack of respect for people and for essential institutions of democracy. May 2018 be the year in which demands for respect crescendo and achieve their goal, so that respect becomes a given for all instead of a privilege for few.

For more words of the year, see:

Oxford Dictionaries





Recent work

I’ve had a variety of interesting projects lately, including editing an article on legal arguments for transgender rights, indexing a scholarly anthology of political science articles about lgbtq issues, and editing a doctoral dissertation on the history of Russian liberals and liberalism in the 19th century. At the same time, I’m continuing to contribute articles to Natural Herbal Living Magazine on a monthly basis, and to publish the occasional poem, most recently, once again, in The Rising Phoenix.

Your project could be next! Do you have a writing project that needs your friendly word nerd’s services?

Six Writing Tips

When you write, take care to avoid these pitfalls:

1) Excessive use of the passive. Тhe passive voice should appear rarely. Readers want to know who did whatever you’re talking about. “It is supposed that the famous local muffin recipe first surfaced during the Great Muffin Craze of the 1840s” leaves open the questions, “who supposes this?” and “how did it surface?” Readers want to know. Write instead, “Local residents hypothesize that the famous local muffin recipe first reached the island-nation of Muffinia when the Schmeckt family arrived from Bavaria and opened the island’s first bakery.”

2) Arguing against a make-believe opponent. Sometimes such arguments are called “straw men.” If there’s a point of view that you’re trying to disprove, treat it and its adherents with respect. Don’t make up an imaginary counter argument for the sake of knocking it down, and don’t oversimplify your opponent’s point of view. Readers will trust you more readily if you do justice to the ideas that you’re debunking.

2) Repeated reliance on the same words or phrases. If everything is “huge” or “great,” the words lose their weight. If you’re writing about music, don’t use the word “melodious” more than once. If you’re writing a review of a restaurant, choose one dish to call “delicious” and come up with other adjectives to describe other foods that you liked. You can alternate someone’s name with the person’s profession and write “Dr. Spurillio” in one sentence, “the physician” in the next, “she” in the third, and “the neurologist” in the fourth before cycling back to “Dr. Spurillio.” The verb “is” will, of course, show up fairly often in any English text, but you should use livelier verbs when you can. At the same time, if repetition sounds more natural or significantly clearer, than that is a situation in which you should repeat the name or phrase. Don’t abandon your common sense for a rule that may not be relevant to your situation.

3) Lack of proofreading. It’s hard to reread your own work, and even harder to reread it after you’ve already rewritten it three times. Nonetheless, before it leaves the privacy of your desk to face another pair of eyes, your work deserves one final proofreading pass. If you have access to a careful reader who is willing to do this for you, great! If not, print out your text and read through it one last time. It’s sometimes easier to catch mistakes in print than on a screen.

4) Incorrect use of a word. If you’ve heard a new word a few times and want to try it out, great! But first, check the details of how to use it. Some verbs require specific prepositions, some nouns require “the,” others don’t form a plural, and still others always come with another word from a limited set of options. Enter your word into a search engine and look carefully at the “company” it keeps, i.e. the other words with which writers whose language you trust use it. For example, in the sentence above, a word “keeps” company, but usually only people can keep company. At the same time, although one can either “keep” or “hold onto” a favorite object, one cannot substitute “hold onto” for “keep” in the phrase “to keep company.”

5) Extra words. In particular, choose your adjectives and adverbs with precision and restraint. “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” is okay, but “The fox jumped over the snoring corgi” sounds much better, while “The quick brown fox jumped gleefully over the large, lazy, white schnauzer” is excessive. Read the sentence aloud to yourself a few different ways to decide which version sounds best. Ask yourself whether you need an extra descriptive word, and ask whether a more precise word can substitute for a more general one. Choose language that will keep your readers engaged while maintaining your register. When you edit your work, ask yourself whether you can remove any words without significant loss of meaning.

6) Register inconsistent with your intentions. A register may be formal or informal, poetic or vulgar. Every text has a register, so a writer should give some thought to choosing it. The register for a tweet is usually informal. On the other hand, the register for a letter to the editor of a major newspaper is generally formal, but not necessarily as formal as the register one might use for a letter to the Queen of England. Slang may be appropriate in the lyrics of a pop song, but it doesn’t belong in a legal document or a job application. Creative fiction may achieve greater texture by combining elements of more than one register, but only one will be primary. Mixing registers is acceptable in a limited set of circumstances; for example, it would be inappropriate in an expository essay or a lab report. A blog post may be entirely informal, but still limit slang to words that most people know and don’t find offensive. Another blog post, on the contrary, may contain oodles of obscenities. Before you write something, think about your audience and decide what register will work best for your goals.