April 25, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: disconnect & abbreviating United States

Posted in disconnect, United States/US at 6:44 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Disconnect as a noun and vogue words

A reader writes:

Is the word ‘disconnect’ properly used as a noun in formal writing or is it a neologism?

Of course it’s not properly used in formal writing—that’s the short answer.

But this is fun; I get to write about vogue words, today. The noun form, disconnect, may be considered a neologism, that is, a newly made up word; a backformation, that is, a word created by removing the prefix or suffix—remember the original noun is disconnection; a casualism, that is, an informal word used often in conversation and less than formal writing; or a vogue word, that is, a fashionable or popular word (used by the cool kids and the ones in the know) that ultimately falls out of fashion or loses some of its meaning, only to become vaguely vogue.

The latter is what I wanted to think about today: Do most vogue words go out of fashion or do some become part of our language and even eventually achieve acceptability for formal use?

Let’s start with ‘disconnect.’ Of course, it’s too soon to tell, but I predict that it’s here to stay. (Still, I wouldn’t use it in formal writing yet!) My reasoning is simple—I like it. I think the brittle sound of ‘disconnect’ is much more in line with its meaning than the longer and old-fashioned sounding ‘disconnection’ which seems so awkward. ‘Disconnect’ is snappy and expressive. We’ll see.

To investigate this, I looked at some words that were identified as vogue words to see if they had staying power. Here, I wanted to send a heavenward thank you to William Safire who enjoyed writing about vogue words. Most of the words I am noting, here, were discussed in one of his many columns on vogue words.

Back in 2009, Safire identified ‘associate’ as a vogue word when referring to a store employee or worker, thinking that the terms worker or employee are considered pejorative or insulting. I guess, then, that ‘assistant’ is a vogue word also when referring to someone we used to refer to as ‘secretary.’ I don’t know if ‘associate’ will hang in (why do I keep thinking of Walmart, when I see that term?), but I think ‘assistant’ will last.

He also wrote about ‘model’ in the sense of exemplar, someone or something (such as an approach) to be emulated. Well, we use ‘model’ in this sense all of the time, even in our formal writing. I don’t consider ‘model’ a vogue word at all; I don’t even consider it jargon related to science or medicine—I think it is used pretty universally (but that may be because I’ve been in this ivory tower so long).

Way, way back in 1982, Safire wrote about ‘infrastructure’ being a vogue word; it may have been then, but it has clearly become part of our lexicon. He also wrote about how Henry Kissinger stole the vogue word, ‘colleague’ from academia, and it became used for co-workers in a much wider realm, using it instead of assistant or associate. I don’t know about that—we certainly use it (that tower thing again). He bemoaned that people were flaunting ‘daunting.’ But they still do, today.

Some of Safire’s vogue words have disappeared over time such as 2002’s ‘limn’ and 2009’s ‘to show ankle’—I never even heard of that. But many are in at least casual use such as 2003’s ‘crack down’ and ‘heartburn’ (used in a non-medical sense) and 2007’s ‘age-appropriate’ and 2002’s ‘makeover.’

So where does this leave us? I think we need to amend the definition of ‘vogue words;’ they do not always go away. They sometimes remain in our vocabularies for casual and, occasionally, formal use.

Tip 2: Abbreviating the United States

A reader writes:

Keeping with the acronyms:

What about US? If I am writing an article, do I need to specify the abbreviation (taking into account that it is an international journal). For instance, do I have to say the first time I mention it: “the prevalence of asthma is higher in the United States (US)…”

Also, should it be USA? And finally, what about possessives if using United States or US (e.g., United States’ NIH, US’ NIH, US NIH). As always, thanks for educating us!

We’re really talking about abbreviations or initialisms here. Remember, acronyms are pronounce as a word rather than as the letters, themselves. But no matter.

I’ve consulted five or six style manuals on this, and on one part of this, they all agree: When using the United States as a noun, spell it out, and when using it as an adjective, just use the initials (it does not have to be spelled out at first use.)

What the manuals disagree about is whether to use periods after the initials. APA Style uses the periods; AMA Manual of Style and other scientific style guides avoid the use of the periods. Chicago Manual of Style waffles on the topic. I would stick with AMA style.

The reader asks if it should be ‘USA.’  Nah, USA is rarely used in scientific documents; I wouldn’t use it.

And finally, what about possessives if using United States or US (e.g., United States’  NIH, US’ NIH, US NIH).

To answer this, I went to the source, the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH rarely qualifies NIH. I found just one reference to the US NIH—NIH does say that it is part of the US Department of Health and Human Services (NIH uses periods in the abbreviations), but NIH, for the most part, is just NIH, so I would stick with that. If asked to qualify it, I would simply write US NIH.

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