Those groovy semicolons

At Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about semicolons and the word groovy. Links and excerpts follow.

Semi-attached to semicolons looks at some of the attitudes and strategies this punctuation mark inspires:

The usefulness of semicolons is apparent in all types of prose, yet the mark is not universally liked or adopted. Many writers gladly include it in their set of grammatical and rhetorical tools, and some positively adore it, but others avoid it altogether or even go out of their way to insult it.

Much as I love Kurt Vonnegut, I think he was wrong to dismiss semicolons, unpleasantly, as “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing”. In a video of the writer restating his line we hear a hall full of students receiving it with laughter and applause. But I doubt many of them have pondered the matter at length and reached the same conclusion.

The post continues with a look at the effect of Vonnegut’s remark and with a quick empirical assessment of my own semicolon usage (which I feared would be excessive). Comments so far are generally positive about the mark, and some are very enthusiastic. Where do you stand?

*

The different grooves of ‘groovy’ sketches the word’s development over the last century and a half, showing the different meanings it has had along the way. Its original 19thC sense was physical, having to do with grooves. However:

Within a few decades, groovy had taken on a figurative sense, as words tend to do. . . . From groove meaning rut or (routine) way of life, groovy came to mean staid, stuck in a rut, or tending to stick to a narrow or conservative way of life. So it was mildly pejorative, quite contrary to its familiar current meaning.

The jazz age in America gave birth to the phrase in the groove, and from this emerged another groovy: playing jazz or other music with seemingly effortless skill, or being capable of doing so.

Groovy is often associated with its hippie heyday in the 1960s and early 1970s. When this era ended, the word took a precipitous dip before regaining popularity in the 1980s, thanks in part to pop culture. You can read its groovy mini-history here.

Comments, as always, are welcome here or there, and older articles are available in my Macmillan archive.

9 Responses to Those groovy semicolons

  1. Marc Leavitt says:

    Hi Stan:
    Two points. First, I never used to use semi-colons; now I use them all the time. In fact, I think they’re a new addiction.

    And second, “groovy,” in my observation, has become “square.”
    It’s often used sarcastically, as in: “I lost my job this week. Isn’t that just groovy?”

    “In the groove,” however, is another matter. While it’s informal, it sends a direct message that someone is “really with it,” or in BrE especially, “at the top of his game.”

  2. aparnauteur says:

    I’ve recently begun using semicolons; they give just the right amount of pause somewhere between the comma and the full stop. I find it particularly effective when I’m narrating something.
    The word ‘groovy’ somehow reminds me of Frank Sinatra.
    I think it had a certain rhythm to it, which explains why it fits so well in song/dance situations.

  3. Stan says:

    Marc: Many writers seem to avoid semicolons for years before adopting them enthusiastically. You’re in good company. Thanks for the note on groovy: Chambers Slang Dictionary includes a “passé, out-of-date” sense of the word from US teens since the 1980s, but I don’t recall ever hearing it.

    aparnauteur: Yes, they can come in very handy in passages of extended description. Groovy does indeed have its own rhythm, and I guess it will never fully lose its musical connotations. Better Sinatra than Phil Collins!

  4. alexmccrae1546 says:

    “Groovy, man…..like I can totally dig it!—- a common refrain likely heard countless times (or a variant thereof), echoing thru the eucalyptus, live oak, and chaparrel-clad hilltops of L.A.’s legendary Laurel Canyon community, where the likes of budding musicians, (and future super-stars), Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Frank Zappa, and the Mamas and Papas were jammin’ up a storm back in the footloose-and-fancy-free decade of the groovin’ ’60s.

    Interesting that the word “groovy” was, in a sense, reinvented, reflecting an entirely different, more positive vibe than it’s earlier kind of negative-tinged meaning, i.e., being stuck in a rut, or immobilized, when it was later adopted by the jazz world. I’m guessing the related words “hip”, and “cool” likely came out of the jazz community, and the Beat literary scene, that was closely in sync w/ the jazz world.

    For me, the superb NYC-based folk-rock singing duo of Simon and Garfunkel captured the essence of ‘grooviness’ w/ their mid-’60s hit “Feelin’ Groovy”. At this point in time, the use of the jazz-rooted superlative, “groovy”, was rapidly picking up major traction w/ the hippie/ youth counter-culture across America. (The heavy involvement of U.S. forces in Vietnam was definitely NOT groovy”.)

    Here’s a Yahoo! link to S&G’s catchy tune:

    http://search.yahoo.com/search;_ylt=AsavnSJcOEFFAq064mLE6AebvZx4?p=Feelin%27+Groovy&toggle=1&cop=mss&ei=UTF-8&fr=yfp-t-701

    If we hear “groovy” used in today’s conversation, for me, the word has a kind of anachronistic feel to it. It really does seem to have a decided mid-20th century identification, and sounds almost foreign to most ears, these days.

    Curiously, the word “cool” (interchangeable w/ either “groovy”, or “hip”) seems to have stood the test of time.Though its origins date back to the early jazz era, unlike the related word “groovy” which has fallen out of favor, “cool” appears to still be used ubiquitously, and often, by today’s youth, as well as many in society-at-large.

    (The word “awesome” has a lot of currency, today. Frankly, I think it’s over-used, often skirting the bounds of full-on hyperbole.)

    The popular Mike Meyers’ send-ups of bungling, faux-suave Brit sleuth, Austin Powers, partially sated us early boomers’ appetite for hip ’60s nostalgia w/ words like “groovy”, “cool”, “smashing”, “bird”, (Brit slang for a cool chick), “far out”, “shagging”….. Oh behave!

    Great fun.

  5. Laura says:

    I was a proponent of the semicolon until I started blogging; that’s when I realized it was too hard to discern onscreen. I may have to give it up in favor of a period.

  6. Stan says:

    Alex: Yes, it is interesting how groovy‘s meaning shifted several times over the decades. I’ve only ever heard or used it in a positive sense. Because I was born in the ’70s and grew up in the ’80s, the connotations it has for me are all neutral-to-pleasant. I love that Simon & Garfunkel song, and made sure to mention it and link to it in the Macmillan post.

    Laura: For what it’s worth, I hope you don’t give up the semicolon. True, it’s not a very conspicuous mark, but therein lies some of its appeal. Online readers can always enlarge the text size.

  7. alexmccrae1546 says:

    I posit a little ‘alimentary’ Q&A:

    Q: What did the lower intestine say to the upper GI?

    A: A semicolon is better than NO colon, at all. (groan)

    (I wonder what ‘Sigmoid’ Freud might have said about that lame stab at levity?)

    Too bad we can’t say the same thing when it comes to proper punctuation.

    I tend to use a semicolon at the terminus of a sentence where I have an additional follow-up thought (say an amplification, or clarification of my last point), where the added portion may not fulfill ALL the grammatical required criteria for a fully constructed sentence, i.e., subject, verb, object.

    I believe this is a fairly standard use of the semicolon.

    I do like the notion of the semicolon having the function of a ‘pregnant’, or significant pause’, if you will; as opposed to a fleeting pause rendered by a comma, or a full-stop w/ the period.

    One often sees the semicolon’s cousin, the colon (:), used in written-out book titles, separating the main title from the subtitle, which is generally longer than the main title, and provides an added amplification on the thematic core of the book. In written form, we also often see a backward slash (/) dividing the main title from its ‘sub’. But I digress.

  8. groovyscone says:

    Loved your piece, and look forward to seeing more of your work, fascinating words, I will definately be back =) groovy is one of the most underated words in the modern language, I believe it makes people feel good just to say it, but like so many great philosophical ideas and music and words and clothes and people, it got lost with the hippy movement, life is groovy, groovacious is a modern day varient that the kids dig!

    I’m an aspiring author if fiction and Ive started posting my first book (and several poems) as I write it, if you have time, or are bored and would care to take a look, I would appreciate it, especially any advice or critism you could give me would be groovacious =)

    groovyscone.wordpress.com

    Peace, Love, Happiness

    Scone

  9. Stan says:

    Alex: It’s a digression I intend to make myself sometime: a post dedicated to colon usage. I see the mark regularly confused with the semicolon, and some of its most practical uses are widely ignored. It deserves better! But I’ll save further comment for a suitable occasion.

    groovyscone: Thanks very much. I like your name! You’re right, I think, that people enjoy saying groovy; I know I do, though I take care not to overdo it (and I haven’t adopted awesome except in its traditional senses).

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