Category Archives: Etymology

I’m not an entrepreneur and I don’t head a startup

I carry a love/hate relationship with networking events. Among the methods I have come to love is the 2-minute swap networking as carried out during the 2012 ATA Conference in San Diego last October. Dreading the worst —we introverts dislike gatherings with large groups of strangers— I sat in one of the long tables facing another colleague…one more stranger.

When the whistle blew, we acted as instructed: talk with your neighbor in front of you for 2 minutes, then stop and move to the next seat to your right. I didn’t need any prompting: just the thought of introducing myself and asking my colleague facing me what he or she did was enough to keep the ball rolling. Sometimes, 2 minutes were insufficient to wrap up an otherwise interesting conversation. Business cards and smiles were exchanged. The entire affair was over before you knew it.

I attended an annual business meeting/networking event at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History last Thursday (January 17), hosted by COSE (Coalition of Small Enterprises), an organization that connects its members with more than a dozen chambers of commerce. The business meeting highlights: a professionally made video and the awards ceremony. However, the networking that followed was not my cup of tea. I was looking to spend up to 3 hours with strangers. In this and other similar events, I noticed that, regardless of whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, you will find that most people are already engaged in conversation by the time you approach them to strike up a discussion.

A solitary home office

A solitary home office

This is the Upper Midwest, after all. People are cordial, courteous and willing to meet you. But the format for this networking activity is all wrong. You can’t possibly network with even a 10% of all of the people there. I did, however, manage to encounter a fellow translator who lives in Vermillion, as well as representatives of a couple of ad agencies, with whom I discussed a bit of typography and graphic design topics briefly.

Another contact I made was a COSE staff member who is involved in the marketing committee. He mentioned that his committee is going to introduce new services in March 2013 for startups and entrepreneurs, all COSE members. After listening to him for a few minutes, I volunteered my thoughts about the words “startup” and “entrepreneur.”

-I think these words are being overused today. I don’t consider myself an entrepreneur or a startup, even though I have my own small corporation.

He considered my words carefully and went on to expand how COSE had thought about using a word other than startup to refer to small businesses, to avoid the former’s negative connotations. He added that COSE had started to use the word “solopreneur” (a cringeworthy term in my book) to replace “entrepreneur.”

First and foremost, marketing people are not etymologists or linguists, nor should they be required to be. But so-called ordinary words, such as business owner or company manager or even sole proprietor carry more proven weight than faddish words such as mompreneur, solopreneur or any other feeble attempt at me-too linguistic pioneering for marketing or sales purposes.

How do other business owners see a startup? An IT outfit? A young company? What about their view on an entrepreneur? In the eyes of a well-established business owner, does the word entrepreneur carry the cachet of motivation, creativity and inspiration…or a can-do attitude? The more we use an otherwise particular or special word, the soon it becomes stale and obsolete, yielding an anemic impact. Which brings us to a topic of import: writing. Say what you want about the printed media or the impending death of newspapers and magazines, but no amount of slick YouTube videos or well-crafted Facebook page likes will ever replace a well-written message. Even if that message is a one-word label that you choose to apply to yourself or your company.

We may think it’s all semantics, but words, the written word, is the second most important invention since the wheel. We live and die by the word.



Filed under Branding, Buzzword, Etymology, Marketing, Networking, Public Relations

Revolutionaries, not mujahedin

The Libya situation is far from resolved, with Gaddafi unwilling to step down and rebels entrenched in cities in Eastern Libya. Every newspaper and evening newscast shows this, nothing new seems to happen in this impasse. I tune it out.

Except for an intriguing word usage, not by some Western journalist, Pentagon or NATO official or even by a politician. In the March 21, 2011 issue of TIME Magazine, the article titled The War Between The Libyas ends with the following paragraph:

Wanis Kilani, an engineer, reflects on the word mujahedin. “We are mujahedin in Libya only,” he says. “We don’t have any interest outside Libya.” Then he pauses. “Actually, don’t use the word mujahedin. Use revolutionaries.”

Wikipedia offers a succinct and quite complete definition and usage of the term mujahideen. Given the bigotry-filled image of Muslims in the Western World, a wise correction of the word usage is recommended by an educated Libyan looking in, reaching into our imageworld full of twisted visuals about Islam, the Quran, Islamic militants, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the jumbled misunderstanding of these elements.

Please join me in using revolutionaries to refer to the courageous Libyans who are standing for their own freedom and against oppression. Let’s honor them by using the right word.

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Filed under Cultural awareness, Etymology, Politically correct

Word for word

I love Latin phrases. The word verbatim means ‘word for word’ and it is used in legal documents mostly. In the translation industry, it is also used in the phrase ‘word-for-word translation’ to mean a translation that accounts for every word in the original document and that no word (as in meaning) should be left out from the translation.

There is confusion here, because word does not equal meaning. For example, dog by itself has at least two meanings: a) the four-legged man’s best friend and b) a way to address a man in a friendly way in some circles. The moment the word dog becomes part of a phrase, as an adjective (ie, dog days), the meaning changes. In dog days, we would all agree that it means days that have no relation to a dog.

Even among people and professionals working with translators on a daily basis, we find this subconscious confusion. That’s why, I suppose, back translations are popular among some translation buyers as a misguided attempt at performing translation quality control.

Yesterday morning (June 18), I found a wonderful play of words that illustrate this ongoing dilemma, the juggling of words with multiple meanings and its unintended consequences. In the comic strip Pearls Before Swine, created by the talented Stephan Pastis and published in yesterday’s issue of the San Jose Mercury News, Rat and Pig hold the following conversation:

-Where were you this morning? – asks Rat.
-At home. I’ve been spending every single morning listening to this really calming radio station. -replies Pig.
-Oh yeah? Do you know the frequency?
-I just told you.
-Told me what?
-I listen to it every single morning.
-Do you know the frequency with which I want to punch you angrily in the head?
-Oooh. Have I got the radio station for you.

We all understand the basic truth that a word has more than one meaning, even dozens of meanings, but we don’t stop to think about it in our daily conversations because we use context and situation to guide our coding and decoding of meanings. When it comes to translation, however, we stumble when we face a familiar word with an unfamiliar meaning. Competent translators are used to switching meanings to fit the situation, the document type, the medium and the audience. While most people would just react by jumping to the next familiar meaning –at the risk of inaccuracy and silly stylistic stumbling– competent translators have the right word at the tip of their tongue…and fingertips.

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Filed under Back translation, Etymology

Conspiracy theories

Two nights ago, I took part in a debate about whether the death of Osama bin Laden had been a CIA fabrication. The other two people in the discussion live in Argentina. They both favor certain conspiracy theories that have long been debunked, such as the 9/11 attack was orchestrated by the U.S. government or that Osama bin Laden had been dead for some time now.

Fringe myths have been with humankind since humans began to talk to each other. There is good and bad gossip, and there are entertaining and dangerous myths. Language is not without its tall tales and misconceptions born out of misinformation, prejudice, ignorance or fear.

In Spanish in particular, I found the following ‘theories’:

a) Spanish-speaking people in all 22 countries where Spanish is used speak the same Spanish.
b) Spanish-speaking immigrants in the United States are fully bilingual.
c) Spanish translators are bilingual typists.
d) Spanish interpreters can also translate.
e) Castillian Spanish is too different from Latin American Spanish.
f) The Real Academia Española is out of touch with the way Spanish is currently used.
g) Educated Spanish speakers everywhere love headings with all the words capitalized.
h) Spanish immigrants from Mexico are all uneducated.

I am certain there are more out there. If you have any stories or ‘theories’, please share them here.

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Filed under Etymology, Spanish language, Word formation

Roget’s Thesaurus would be envious

Thesauri bring back college memories for me. The first Roget’s I consulted was a tattered paperback in the School of Languages library in Córdoba (Argentina), back in the mid ’80s. Fast forward to 2005: not Microsoft Word thesaurus, not an unabridged book, but a visual thesaurus, produced by noted American linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer.

This electronic thesaurus is based on a mindmap, with a 3D look and feel (see below). Versions for Spanish, French, German and Portuguese are offered in the form of online subscriptions. Version 3 is available for the Windows and Mac platforms.

Interface of Visual Thesaurus 3.0

Visual Thesaurus is an exquisite and elegant solution to flipping through dozens of pages and combing indexes in a regular thesaurus to find not just a word but word relationships. The lexicographer in me appreciates the well-thought organization of this tool and the visual creature in me enjoys how families of words are portrayed in star and branch arrays, making quick work of word analysis.

But, you’d say, you write in Spanish, not English, when you translate, correct? Yes, I admit that my English writing benefits the most from this tool. However, my Spanish translations and writings are better informed and polished when I use this visual template for my own native language analysis.

For more information, go to

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Filed under Etymology, Lexicography, Terminology, Thesaurus, Visual Thesaurus, Vocabulary, Word formation

How to translate ‘cloud computing’ in Spanish?

The concept of cloud computing has been around for a while now. In Spanish, the cloud is simply “la nube”. With that noun in mind, phrases like cloud computing and cloud storage have been translated as computación en la nube/informática en la nube and almacenamiento en la nube, respectively. I find this construction quite laughable, actually, since it reminds me of the phrase en la nube as in Él andaba por las nubes durante la ceremonia (He was daydreaming during the ceremony).

Here’s my problem with it. Spanish already has nimbo, from the Latin nimbus, which means nube. Its morphology would allow it to be used as a prefix. My solution? Nimbocomputación or nimboinformática.

I think many translators are afraid to coin neologisms and, instead, refer to Google for word choices. This is equivalent to a software programmer asking a Best Buy employee for advice on how to build a mobile app.

Of course, the future of any neologism lies in widespread acceptance and usage. I recognize that usage has an inherent strong democratic power, regardless of reason, logic or level of education. Right now, the Wild West that is the Internet is informing specialized content with consequences both good and bad.

Although this is a quixotic effort on my part, I’ll keep using nimbocomputación…at least, in private.


Filed under Etymology, Lexicography, Syntax, Terminology, Vocabulary, Word formation

Vengeance or revenge?

Most dictionaries seem to define ‘revenge’ and ‘vengeance’ as synonyms, but I am not sure. ‘Revenge’ implies retaliation or the causing of injury to the offender, whereas ‘vengeance’ takes it one step further: harming the offender in retaliation for something harmful they’ve done. In Spanish, we have ‘venganza’ (noun) and ‘vengarse’ (intransitive verb).

This comparative thought was brought on by a reading of an article in this week’s The Economist, titled “Rough Justice.” One paragraph reflects on the sense of vengeance in its virulent form –apparently:

“The most dangerous criminals must be locked up, but states could try harder to reintegrate the softer cases into society, by encouraging them to study or work and by ending the pointlessly vindictive gesture of not letting them vote.”

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Filed under Etymology, Glossary, Terminology, Vocabulary