The present perfect
Concoct your own free gifts for the verbally inclined
At this time of year, you can hardly glance at any publication without getting advice on choosing the perfect gift, often with alarming levels of specificity. You can find not just gifts for your mom, but gifts for your hang-gliding, cheese-loving, basket-weaving mom--gifts you can personally basket weave to hold her cheese while she hang glides. Multiply this times every significant person in your life, at price points ranging from “if you have to ask...” to “absolutely free,” and you have a solid plan for holiday overload.
Language columnists are not immune to the desire to provide helpful munerary advice (here’s one little present for you: munerary is a rare and more-or-less obsolete word that means “relating to gifts”). Usually this advice runs to lists of reference books that make great gifts. Everyone enjoys getting a new dictionary as a present, right? Or perhaps that’s just us.
But there are plenty of nonmaterial language gifts you can deliver this holiday season, without having to compile a comprehensive tastes-and-hobbies dossier first--and with no wrapping required. In fact, you don’t even have to announce that you’re giving these presents--treat them as anonymous spirit-of-the-season gifts, perhaps in addition to whatever fruitcakes or knit scarves you’re wrapping for loved ones.
The first and biggest gift of language is one that is always welcome, especially at this time of year, and it doesn’t require you to do anything. In fact, it requires you to do nothing, particularly if you’re a “correcting” person. As a holiday present this year, you can give the silent gift of slack.
If you routinely or absentmindedly murmur “between you and me” whenever someone says “between you and I,” or stop a conversation to say, “Wait, you were literally blown away? To where?”, why not see if you can turn off the part of your brain that rises to a grammar peeve like a fish to a lure? I’d bet it’s less than one time in ten that a minor grammatical faux pas blocks the sense of a message from getting through. By giving free passes on these little foibles throughout the holiday season, you may end up hearing more of what’s being said to you, and connecting better with the people doing the talking. This is the perfect gift for relatives and close friends--they’re sure to appreciate it.
The opposite of the keep-mum gift is the gentle pointing out of a perpetual mispronunciation--not minor variants, such as “ath-uh-lete” for athlete, or for words where there’s too much mud in the water to be able to make a ruling (sometimes called “skunked terms,” e.g., whether forte is “fort” or “for-tay”). But if you can kindly let someone know that most people say “AD-vur-SAIR-ee” and not “ad-VER-sur-ee” for adversary, or uh-NAL-uh-gus rather than –jus for analogous, you have performed a service akin to letting someone know they have spinach in their teeth.
Another “do less, not more” gift you can give, especially to officemates, is the gift of a jargon-free holiday. People are stressed out enough toward the end of the year; why not give them a break from trying to figure out what you actually mean? Replace “actionable” with “things we need to do,” and “offline” (as in “let’s take this offline”) with “let’s discuss after the meeting.” Perhaps you could talk about levels of detail, instead of “granularity,” or ask someone to make sure to get the right information to the right person, instead of “closing the loop.” And unless you are on an actual mission (preferably for NASA), perhaps you could describe something as “really important,” instead of “mission-critical”? If you’re taking some time off around the holidays, you might as well say that, instead of having your away message say that you’re “out of pocket.” Who knows? With a break from business jargon, everyone will come back for the new year refreshed and ready to work hard, if not “to give 110%.”
A gift you could give to not just your nearest and dearest but to all English-speakers, everywhere, is the gift of a new word. Why not put together a few letters of the alphabet into a new configuration and send it out with your holiday cards? If neologizing isn’t appealing, you could also share some unusual or silly words. There are plenty that are holiday-appropriate, such the adjective ferial (“pertaining to a holiday”) and the related word feriation (“cessation of work”). Other seasonal words that are fun to break out include galliardise, meaning “merriment or excessive gaiety,” and gilravage, “a noisy frolic, especially among young people.” Those might possibly result from bummock (a Scots word meaning “a large brewing of ale for a merry meeting,” or the ale itself). If you collect for charity at the holidays, you can repurpose the old word hoggler (“someone who collects food or money for the poor”) for yourself. And if you’re late with your more conventional presents, you can always re-label them as étrennes, or New Year’s gifts.
At this time of year, these language gifts fall nicely under “peace on earth, goodwill towards men.” But with a little effort, these seasonal gifts can turn into language habits you can aim to practice all year...just in time for next month’s resolutions.
Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.