Careful, that newbie's skeevy

The first definition of “neologism,” as you would expect, is “a new word, usage or expression.” The second definition is “a meaningless word coined by a psychotic.” Today's meditation skips over the distinction. Professional writers love neos because it is their nature to do so. They are, so to speak, nuts.

Writing in July in The Washington Post, staff writer David Segal discussed the arrest of an alleged swindler. The fellow “is accused of some memorably skeevy crimes.”

Skeevy? The adjective hasn't passed muster with the gnomes of Merriam-Webster, but it appears in the new two- volume Oxford English Dictionary. Here we learn that “skeevy” is rooted in the Italian “schifo.” In English it means “unpleasant, squalid, nauseous, disgusting, distasteful.” I would put “skeevy” on a shelf reserved for very special occasions.

Credit Quindlen

Skeevy is a “newbie.” That coinage bobbed up in a recent column by Anna Quindlen in Newsweek. She was writing about a “newbie teacher” in California. Random House dates the word from 1965 in the sense of a newcomer, especially an inexperienced user of computers. All my other dictionaries concur.

On a higher level of technology is a “grab.” It turned up a few weeks ago in the caption of a photo from Reuters: “A video grab from Al-Alam television shows missiles being fired from a test in Iran.” The caption provides a textbook example of linguistic obstetrics, as old verbs morph into nouns and the nouns give birth to variant definitions. The film clips we see on TV are good grabs – or so the producer hopes.

It is wholly irrelevant, but for the record: A “grab” is also a two-masted coasting vessel and a children's card game. Carry on!

Thinking of new uses for old words: The Oxford University Press just sent along a new pocket-sized “little” dictionary and thesaurus. The review copy fell open to page 100. A wandering eye lit upon “catapult,” there defined solely as “a device with elastic fitted to a forked stick for shooting small stones.”

That's a CATAPULT? Great Caesar's ghost! I would have taken oath that a catapult was either an ancient piece of artillery or a device for launching planes from an aircraft carrier. In my own nonage, those homemade weapons were never called “catapults.” They were “slingshots,” fashioned from forked branches and old inner tubes. Firing acorns, I must have irked a hundred squirrels. I never wounded a single one.

An old irk

Thinking of weapons: A note comes from Lois Binkley from Somewhere in Cyberspace. She is irked by a report that five more “troops” have been killed in Iraq. Since when, she inquires, did “troop” get to be so singular?

The noun is universally defined as “a body of soldiers,” or “an assembled company,” or “soldiers collectively” or “a cavalry unit commanded by a captain.” A troop is also a bunch of Boy Scouts or a flock of swallows.

Reader Binkley's irk is an old irk. Several years ago I frittered away most of a fruitless day on the telephone, trying to get a definition out of the Pentagon. No luck.

The “troop” that once was plural has morphed amorphously. It has become a noun of unknown dimensions, a quantity widely but uncertainly defined, like a short putt or one glass of beer.

I plead indifference

Another recurring question comes from Stan Jones in Haleyville, Ala. He asks, “What is the preferred past tense of ‘to plead'? The defendant pleaded? Or the defendant pled?”

After a lifetime of covering criminal courts, I have concluded that the writer's choice is wholly a matter of the writer's ear. Do we want a short “e” or a long “e”? Two syllables or one syllable? I plead indifference in the cause.