No matter how you’re using your words, in emails or essays, poetry or presentations, you’ve got to start somewhere. Maxwell Perkins, the book editor best known for the writers he discovered including Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, once said, “Just get it down on paper, and then we’ll see what to do about it.”
No matter what you’re writing or planning to say, it’s true, isn’t it? Just get it down. Just spit it out. Nothing can be carved into a masterpiece if you don’t even have the lump of clay to work with.
Being an English language and grammar pro isn’t a matter of what degrees you’ve earned or what witty pun you might have on your coffee mug. Oh, yes, I’m talking to you with your, “The past, the present, and the future walked into a bar. It was tense” mug. Sure, I love it. Looking to comfort a word-lover? “There, their, they’re.” (Okay, that one makes much more sense if you could see the different spellings).
But witty mug in hand or not, let’s keep working on our words, and let’s keep amusing ourselves and discovering their fascinating roots along the way.
Season 3, Episode 2: “Bragging rights” (or “rites”)? “Rites (or “rights”) of passage”? And what’s the story about “braggadocio”?
Are grammar skills a rite/right of passage? Perhaps. Should you have bragging rights/rites about it? You’re better than that, aren’t you folks? My biggest question here though is how do you spell those “rights” and “rites”? “Rite” or “right” of passage? Bragging “rights” or “rites”? You think on that, and I’ll come back to it.
First, let’s get a bit language nostalgic and take a walk down word memory lane.
I recently stumbled on an amazing resource from the American Dialect Society that recorded most popular words of the year—words and phrases that filled American pop culture, words most likely to succeed, words that were the most unnecessary, and more—for every year between 1990 and 2018.
Some of the highlights I have to share.
In 1991, the word (or should I say set-up phrase?) of the year was “mother of all.” As in the mother of all writing tips, which I just said in last week’s “Mother Load/Lode” podcast. That gave me a smile. Though, then again, 1991’s most rapidly growing phrase was “in your face,” so there’s that.
1997’s Word of the Year was “millennium bug,” also known as “the Y2K bug.”
1998’s Word of the Year wasn’t a word or a phrase but a prefix, specifically “e-“ for adding “electronic” onto existing words like “e-mail” and “e-commerce.” Wild stuff. And of course, we’ve dropped the hyphen in those words over time.
2000’s Word of the Year was “chad,” but before you start getting heated over politics, let me cheer you up with the same year’s “Most Likely to Succeed Word”: “muggle.”
2005’s Word of the Year was “truthiness,” credited to Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report. Interesting. Relevant. And also relevant from the same year was the new and useful word “podcast,” an audio recording like what you’re listening to right now, which gained its name from the merging of “broadcast” and Apple’s “ipod.” Did you ever put that one together? It’s true.
2006’s Word of the Year was a verb of the year “to be plutoed,” as in to be demoted or devalued. Aw, poor Pluto.
I know I could go on here. I kind of want to, but I won’t. Links to the full list are in my show notes.
All right, so let’s circle back to those questions: “Bragging rights” or “bragging rites”? “Rites of Passage” or “rights of passage”? Do you have your answers?
Discussions of “Rights” are sometimes tricky. Discussions of “Rites” are often equally complicated. Discussions of why I capitalized both of those words might be intimidating. But discussing the differences between “rights” and “rites” shouldn’t be a matter that mystifies us.
- “Right” can mean correct; it can mean the opposite of left. It can also mean what is just, fair, and proper, or the embodiment of something that you can claim as your due.
- “Rite” is often (but not always) used in a religious sense, as a ceremonial act or initiation that one goes through.
Once these definitions are sorted out, we can tackle the question of a “Right” or “Rite” of Passage.
- A “Rite of Passage” is a moment or ritual that acts as a crossover to a new stage of life. A religious confirmation is a rite of passage, as is marriage, as is a middle school grilling in grammarian jargon that may or may not shape your excitement about the English language. This is a phrase that was first used in 1909, but I’m guessing it wasn’t because of that last example. Let’s all take a deep breath and move past the memory of that last example. I know many of you have lived through it.
- A “Right of Passage” doesn’t come up nearly as much as the first. It could refer to the ability or permission to cross through a certain territory. In fantasy writing, it might include trolls that are blocking a bridge. Or, in other writing, it might be a typo.
Yes, you can get this right. Correct language use is not a rite of passage—the understanding of “moot” vs. “mute” or “hone” vs. “home” as a gateway to adulthood?—but maybe it should be. Personally, I like the idea. What can we do to make that happen?
As for those bragging rights…
You’re probably absolutely right that it’s “bragging rights” spelled R-I-G-H-T, not “bragging rites” spelled R-I-T-E-S. There’s no holy ceremony involving bragging to the heavens, but “brag” as an English word does have stories of its own. And it’s more than the popularity of “#humblebrag,” contender for 2011’s Word of the Year.
Its origin is a linguistic mystery. There’s no Latin or Greek root. It appeared in Middle English, and no one quite knows why. The French actually get their word for “brag” from the English—that’s not a story you hear often, and it is one that makes you pause and think about different cultures over time, doesn’t it?
But as we’re thinking about English and French, I already hear it coming up in your mind. You’re thinking about the Italian word “braggadocio.” But may I let you in on a little secret? “Braggadocio,” as in cockiness or arrogance, was actually a word invented by the English poet Edmund Spenser. Yes someone writing in English, adding an Italian ending, to create a mock-Italian word to name a character in his 1590 epic poem “The Fairie Queen.”
And, of course, it stuck. Spenser most likely had no idea it would leave such a legacy, so there was nothing he could humble-brag about. Though this was the era of “braggarts.” Fun fact: in the 1500s, “braggart” came into English from a French version of the word, which of course came from “brag” borrowed from English. All of this unrelated to Braggadocio, which is the fake Italian.
Should you humble-brag on knowing all this? Nah, the secrets of communications like the secrets of life are all about how you connect with others. Try your best. Connect well. We can all step it up a notch, right? (And that’s right with R-I-G-H-T), of course.
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And if you’re looking for an Elements of Style for the Twitter Generation, check out my book, Get a Grip On Your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confused. Newbery-winning author Meg Medina says, “You should keep a copy on your desk.” Sounds like good advice to me!
Words. Language. Communications. You’ve got this.