WordWatch roundup: comprise, blonde, diplodocus, and horror vacui
This series investigates changes in lookups for words and their meanings across OxfordDictionaries.com. The graphs are based on website data collected over a four-week period, and the accompanying commentary explores how news and other current events have influenced these word trends and sudden peaks in interest.
The big news in the language world in the past weeks has been the story of Wikipedia editor Bryan Henderson, who has single-handedly been waging a battle against the construction ‘comprised of’ in the English language. To date, Henderson has ‘fixed’ somewhere around 50,000 instances of this usage across Wikipedia. He claims that the usage represents a confusion of comprise with similar verb compose, and advocates finding alternative phrasing.
The verb ‘comprise’ is typically used to establish a relationship between a whole and its parts, as in this example: ‘The house [whole] comprises seven rooms [parts].’ The verb ‘compose’, although it typically follows a similar pattern, is usually seen or heard in the passive voice, as in this example: ‘The sample [whole] is composed of mostly teenagers [parts].’ Thanks to this passive construction with compose, a similar construction of is comprised of has arisen, as in ‘The sample is comprised of teenagers.’ This construction, it turns out, is nothing new, and has been around in English for several centuries.
The usage note for the entry on comprise on OxfordDictionaries.com observes,
Comprise primarily means ‘consist of,’ as in the country comprises twenty states. It can also mean ‘constitute or make up a whole,’ as in this single breed comprises 50 percent of the Swiss cattle population. When this sense is used in the passive (as in ‘the country is comprised of twenty states’), it is more or less synonymous with the first sense (‘the country comprises twenty states’). This usage is part of standard English, but the construction comprise of, as in the property comprises of bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen, is regarded as incorrect.’
So although many people use is comprised of, if you are writing formally, it is worth checking editorial guidelines for the preferred usage.
One possible reason behind the sudden interest in blonde in the past couple weeks may be the recent hair color change made by reality TV star Kylie Jenner, who went from a black and teal haircut to blonde as reported by a number of news sources on 3 February. A more probable explanation is a discussion thread on Reddit addressing the question of why English has two interchangeable versions of the word – blond and blonde.
The usage note on the OxfordDictionaries.com entry notes,
The spellings blonde and blond correspond to the feminine and masculine forms in French. Although the distinction is often retained in Britain, American usage since the 1970s has generally preferred the gender-neutral blond. The adjective blonde may still refer to a woman’s (but not a man’s) hair color, although use of the noun risks offense (‘see that blonde over there?’): the offense arises from the fact that the color of hair is not the person. The adjective applied to inanimate objects (such as wood or beer) is typically spelled ‘blond’.
The big news in the British museum world recently was that ‘Dippy the Diplodocus’ – the massive skeleton that greeted visitors in the central hall of the museum – will be replaced in the coming months by the skeleton of a blue whale. The announcement brought on lots of discussion in the UK media, including social media polls on whether people preferred Dippy, a herbivorous dinosaur of the late Jurassic period with a long, slender neck and tail, to the blue whale.”
Anyone out there arguing that the diplodocus skeleton is integral to the structure of the museum experience might be deemed at least partly correct if one were to take a closer look at the dino’s etymology. The name Diplodocus comes from the Greek words ‘double’ (διπλόος) and ‘beam’ (δοκός), so named for the dinosaur’s long neck and tail. Diplodocus, however, is just the genus name for the dinosaur; thanks to the discovery of a near-full skeleton, the public is most familiar with the species Diplodocus carnegii, which is named after Andrew Carnegie and is the species that ‘Dippy’ actually belongs to.
horror vacui, phrase
This Latin phrase is not as old as it may look – it actually dates from the mid-19th century. Meaning ‘a fear or dislike of leaving empty spaces,’ horror vacui is often used in an artistic context, referring to ‘white space’ in an artistic composition. A recent post on the website ArtSlant, however, deployed the phrase in a slightly different context, observing, ‘Our actions and conversations don’t take place in a vaccum [sic]—indeed, the horror vacui of the internet is effectively the opposite of a vacuum.’