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Jewish World Review Sept. 29, 2003 / 3 Tishrei, 5764

Editors of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
Dictionary, Tenth Edition

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Consumer Reports

Where does the word "karaoke" comes from?; people or persons?; "synecdoche" | Dear Editor:

My friends and I are big fans of karaoke. Can you tell me

J.K., Reading, Mass.

Dear J.K.:

The word "karaoke" names a device that plays instrumental accompaniments for people to sing along with. It also names the activity of using such a machine for entertainment. Japanese speakers gave the machine and activity the name "karaoke," and English speakers adopted the Japanese name. "Karaoke" is one of a long list of Japanese borrowings that includes "teriyaki," "futon," "tofu," "bonsai," "honcho," "origami" and "tycoon."

In Japanese, "karaoke" literally means "empty orchestra." It was formed through the combination of the word "kara," meaning "empty," and "oke," a short form of the word "okesutora," meaning "orchestra." "Okesutora" was adopted by Japanese speakers from the English word "orchestra." So the etymology of "karaoke" takes us full circle from English to Japanese and back to English again.

Such reciprocity is not unique to "karaoke." In English, the word "anime" names a form of animation that was developed in Japan. Japanese speakers gave it the name "anime," and English speakers adopted their word. "Anime" was formed by shortening the Japanese word "animeshiyon," which in turn had been adopted from the English word "animation."

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Dear Editor:

I always thought the plural for "person" was "people," but I hear (and read) "persons" being used sometimes. Which one is correct?

E.G., Great Falls, Mont.

Dear E.G.:

"People" is used far more commonly for the plural of "person" than "persons" is, but both are correct.

Historically, this matter does not seem to have been much of an issue until the 19th century, when several usage commentators began to report objections to phrases like "many people" and "several people." These folks asserted that "persons," not "people," was the correct plural of "person" when modified by numbers or by terms like "many" and "several." Their objections were heard, and eventually the issue became a bit of a media hot topic.

In 1915 and 1916 there was a raging dispute on the pages of the Washington (D.C.) Times, but "people" managed to hold its place while the grounds of the dispute shifted. At first "people" was objected to when the context gave any indication that the word was thought of as a plural - "several" and "many" were the disputed modifiers. Then followed the dispute about numerical designators - 1,500,000, a thousand, etc. More recently the use of round numbers with "people" has been declared acceptable, but a few diehards still object to use with specific numbers, like "five" or "two."

The objections to "people" have continued to fade over the years, however, and there is no longer any serious question that the word is now acceptable in every plural context. ("Persons" is also acceptable after a number.) This state of affairs brings us back to the usage of Dickens, Defoe, and Chaucer, all of whom used "people" in the disputed contexts.

Dear Editor:

My English textbook keeps talking about "synecdoche." Can you tell me what that is, and where the word comes from?

D.B., Denver, Colo.

Dear D.B.:

"Synecdoche" denotes a poetic device for creating vivid imagery by replacing generalities and abstractions with concrete and vivid images. The word arrived in English in the 15th century from Latin, deriving ultimately from the Greek "synekdoche," formed by combining "syn-" (meaning "with, along with") and "ekdoche" (meaning "sense, understanding in a certain way, interpretation"). "Synecdoche" most typically involves the replacement of the whole by the name of a part (as when workers are referred to as "hands" or when "fifty ships" becomes "fifty sails"). A close relative of "synecdoche" as a poetic device is "metonymy," a figure of speech in which the name of one thing is used for the name of another with which it is closely associated (as when "Shakespeare" is used to mean "the works of Shakespeare").

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09/23/03: Using "eke'' correctly; fedora; why do we call an especially flattering biography a "hagiography''?
09/10/03: Why do we call a zero score in tennis "love''?; "biannual'' or "semiannual''?; Is there any difference between "further'' and "farther''?; dilemma of using "dilemma''
09/02/03: "Out loud'' rather than "aloud''; "pushing the envelope''; "without rhyme or reason''
08/25/03: "Cheesy''; "hold a candle''
08/11/03: "Halcyon days''; Why isn't "sacrilegious'' spelled "sacreligious''?; "red light'' and "green light'' as expression — which came first, the inaction or the signals?
08/04/03: "Votive'' candles; "cosmeticizing"; "potluck''
07/28/03: Why ‘debt’ has a ‘b’ in it; "south moon under''; why "Rx'' is used for prescriptions
07/21/03: "Romance" & "Rome"?; punching & clocks; "conversate"
07/14/03: "Lukewarm''; Where did we get the word "wig'' for a fake head of hair?
07/09/03: Why doesn't "Arkansas'' rhyme with "Kansas''? ; "Catawampus"; "Jimmie Higgins work"
06/30/03: "Foozle"; author who wrote an entire novel without using a certain letter of the alphabet?; "kith and kin"
06/23/03: "On the fritz"; "knuckle down''
06/17/03: How did "lazy Susan'' come to be used for the rotating tray?; woolgathering'' as synonym for "idle daydreaming''; "in harm's way''
06/09/03: "Clotheshorse"; a god named "Ammonia"?
05/29/03: With kid gloves; "receipt'' = "recipe''?; from soup to nuts

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