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LIAR - The Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous RecommendationsA classic guide to intentional ambiguity

by David V. Appleyard

Robert J. Thornton, professor of economics at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA., was feeling frustrated about one of the worst occupational hazards of being a teacher—that of having to write letters of recommendation for people with dubious qualifications. In an attempt to address the problem, he decided to put together an arsenal of statements that can be read two ways, and he called his collection the Lexicon of Intentionally Ambiguous Recommendations—or LIAR for short!

LIAR may be used to offer a negative opinion of the personal qualities, work habits or motivation of the candidate, while allowing the candidate to believe that (s)he is being praised to high heaven. If you study the following examples, you'll soon get the hang of it:

  1. When called upon for an opinion of a friend who is extremely lazy, just say:
    "You will be very fortunate to get this person to work for you."
  2. To describe a person who is totally inept:
    "I most enthusiastically recommend this candidate with no qualifications whatsoever."
  3. To describe an ex-employee who had problems getting along with fellow workers:
    "I am pleased to say that this candidate is a former colleague of mine."
  4. To describe a candidate who is so unproductive that the job would be better left unfilled:
    "I can assure you that no person would be better for the job."
  5. To describe a job applicant who is not worth further consideration:
    "I would urge you to waste no time in making this candidate an offer of employment."
  6. To describe a person with lackluster credentials:
    "All in all, I cannot say enough good things about this candidate or recommend him too highly."

Thornton points out that LIAR is not only useful in preserving friendships, but it can also help avoid serious legal trouble in a time when laws have eroded the confidentiality of letters of recommendation.

In most American states, he notes, job applicants have the right to read the letters of ecommendation, and can even file a suit against the writer if the contents are too negative. When the writer uses LIAR, however, "whether perceived correctly or not by the candidate, the phrases are virtually litigation-proof."

Professor Thornton's book first appeared in October 2003 and is published by Sourcebooks Hysteria at a list price of $14.99. If you're stuck choosing a gift for the person who already has everything, this highly entertaining read might just be your answer.

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right-handedThe long-held perception that right is 'right'

David V. Appleyard citing veteran 'vocabularian' Norman Lewis

Back in our schooldays, how many of us didn't learn to tell left from right by saying our right hand was right to write with, and the other was what was left?

The notion that right is right seems to have been deeply rooted in western culture for a very long time. But not only there—throughout Africa and South Asia the right hand is used to handle food, while the left hand reserved for "other" activities.

Already at the time of the Roman empire, the Latin word for right or right hand, dexter, also meant handy or skillful. This positive connotation eventually found its way into English in the form of the noun dexterity and the adjective dexterous.

According to Norman Lewis in his now classic vocabulary builder Word Power Made Easy:

"The right hand is traditionally the more skillful one; it is only within recent decades that we have come to accept that 'lefties' or 'southpaws' are just as normal as anyone else—and the term left-handed is still used as a synonym of awkward.
"The Latin word for the left hand is sinister. This same word, in English, means threatening, evil, or dangerous, a further commentary on our early suspiciousness of left-handed persons..."
"The French word for the left hand is gauche, and, as you would suspect, when we took this word over into English we invested it with an uncomplimentary meaning. Call someone gauche and you imply clumsiness, generally social rather than physical. (We're right back to our age-old misconception that left-handed people are less skillful than right-handed ones.)
"A gauche remark is tactless; a gauche offer of sympathy is so bumbling as to be embarrassing; gaucherie is an awkward, clumsy, tactless, embarrassing way of saying things or of handling situations. The gauche person is totally without finesse.
"And the French word for the right hand is droit, which we have used in building our English word adroit. Needless to say, adroit, like dexterous, means skillful, but especially in the exercise of the mental facilities. Like gauche, adroit, or its noun adroitness, usually is used figuratively. The adroit person is quick-witted, can get out of difficult spots cleverly, can handle situations ingeniously. Adroitness is, then, quite the opposite of gaucherie."

Notice here how adroitly Mr. Lewis steers us clear of leftist politics, ha ha!

I'm sure you'll find his bestselling 500-page digest a timeless treasure-trove of etymological information, and outstanding value at a list price of just $7.99.