January 18, 2009

A new word to hate

I've just come to the realisation that I hate, hate, HATE the verb "humble", particularly as used in the passive voice and referring to oneself, though with a number of related variants. I hate it because the word in that context has become utterly meaningless; it is now the word that anyone recently nominated or elected or selected for a position feels that they are expected to use: "I am humbled by this appointment." And yet it is quite clear, at least in most of these cases, that they are nothing of the sort. They feel great! They're thrilled! And they should be, most of them, as the appointment in question is usually an achievement that is the result and recognition of talent and hard work.

You can see where it came from, I guess: a sense of, wow, those people wield a great deal of power over this major decision point in my life—I better not let my head get too big. And the early users of phrasing like "I am honored and humbled..." probably even meant it. Some current users might even still mean it. But the word, the phrasing, has become so bleached of meaning, so formulaic, and it has been used by so many people who haven't a humble bone in their bodies, that it now connotes almost the opposite: wow, I have such little regard for y'all that I'm giving you a form-letter for my acceptance speech.

So I hate it.

"The Book of Revelation reads like it was translated from Aramaic to Greek by someone who spoke neither." --Jack Collins

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August 30, 2007

Language in song

During Spring Break of 2003—my last at Brown—I went on a road trip to Québec with my friend Theresa. It was a great trip, but I remember being disappointed in one respect: she vetoed playing French stations on the radio, which I had actually sort of looked forward to. It might be a false feeling, but I like listening to audiostreams in other languages, even ones I don't speak well or at all, because I like the feeling of immersing myself in a different culture. (When I lived in Providence, I would occasionally switch the TV to RTP for the same reason.) If it's in music, it's even better, because you get all that feeling of foreignness while also getting some perfectly good music. Theresa didn't like not being able to understand the lyrics.

This was brought to mind just a few minutes ago when "Honey honey" started playing on my iTunes shuffle—in Swedish. Now, I don't speak a word of Swedish, and that song is even available in English, but somehow I like the foreign version better. Indeed, I have an awful lot of foreign-language stuff in my catalogue, probably more than most, including quite a few languages I don't speak at all.

Which inspired me to write a blog post listing all the languages represented in my iTunes library. :) Here they are, in approximately ascending order of frequency:

  1. Maori
  2. Catalan
  3. Kreyol
  4. Bulgarian
  5. Arabic (Maghreb)
  6. Romanian
  7. Welsh
  8. Hebrew
  9. Swedish
  10. Norwegian
  11. Hindi (?)
  12. One or more from sub-Saharan Africa
  13. Portuguese
  14. Irish
  15. Hawaiian
  16. German
  17. Italian
  18. Yiddish
  19. French
  20. Latin
  21. Spanish
  22. English
Oddly enough, only the first five are singletons. Conspicuous in its absence is the entirety of east and southeast Asia; I certainly have Europe and the Western Hemisphere covered, and at least a scattering from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Actually, it's also a little weird that there's no Russian or Greek. I think I'll have to remedy that. :)

On the Iowa straw poll: "It's an election with no Democrats, in one of the whitest states in the Union, where rich candidates pay you $35 for your vote. Or as the Republicans call it, 'our vision for the future'." --Jon Stewart

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August 28, 2007

Ummm... bitte?

This is so gratuitous, and so Apple. I just filled out a survey about my recent AppleCare call, and after I clicked submit, I was presented with the following page:

[Thank you in a dozen languages]

It is, in case you can't tell, a massive (and abused) HTML table with "Thanks" written in a dozen languages.* Of course, the AppleCare call was to their US line, the call was conducted in English, the followup survey was in English, and they certainly know that I'm an English speaker that lives in the US. SO VERY Apple.

*English, French, Spanish, Italian, two different Germans (or maybe "Bedankt" is also Dutch?), Russian, Japanese, I'm guessing Finnish, and three that are evidently related to each other but I don't know what they are.

"The breakthrough idea that seals my allegience to Christ is that goodness may pour out abundantly even from a chalice of wickedness, and so it is in forgiving the wicked that we cultivate what good is to be found, for great good and great evil often mingle inextricably in the same vessel." --Jonathan Prykop

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March 24, 2007

Successful linguification

The folks over at Language Log (well, mostly just Geoff Pullum) rail with some regularity against what they've termed "linguification": using a linguistic claim about a situation as a metaphor for the actual situation. The canonical linguification would be something like this:

I wouldn't even mention Sam in the same sentence as Alex.
Taken literally, this is obviously false (the speaker just did mention them in the same sentence), and Pullum complains that this is abusive of linguistics, and not at all the same thing as hyperbole.

I don't really buy it.

I mean, a lot of the examples do show an unfortunate dearth of linguistic training, as when people make claims like "I don't use adjectives or adverbs; I exclusively use good solid nouns and verbs" in order to make some claim about the forcefulness of their discourse, usually contradicting themselves immediately by using adjectives and adverbs (like "exclusively", "good", and "solid"). But in at least some cases, a linguification can be quite effective as a rhetorical device. In today's column "An image tarnished", Eric Zorn concludes:

Police Supt. Philip Cline has said the right things about the attack: "It was disgusting. It was despicable conduct. ... The fact that he is a police officer is even more damning."

But to understand why this story is so big and feels so ominous to so many, he needs to look beyond the attack. Cynical, street-smart Chicagoans are weary of adjectives. They want answers.

Now that's what I call linguification!

"I think sometimes we focus a little too much attention on whiz-bang medical technology (like stents) while losing the broader picture that, basically, the only things we have found to save people from the #1 killer is what you learned in second-grade nutrition lessons." --Keith Winstein

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January 19, 2007

The headline that wasn't not quite right

I opened today's Register-Mail to page 3, and found a big, above-the-fold headline that read

The winter that wasn't not done yet
and I immediately thought, hey, this'll be good. What a stunning example of overnegation, or rather, bad copyediting, eh?

Turns out, it's even better than that. If you think about the phrase "the winter that wasn't done yet" (or its uncontracted counterpart), that doesn't sound especially headliney, does it? A complete noun phrase? And it has too many verbs: the expected version would be something like "winter not done yet", to make a short, snappy assertion with a minimum of auxiliary verbs. Unless...

Unless the subject was not "the winter", but rather, "the winter that wasn't". It is the subject of a perfectly headlinese verb phrase "not done yet" (omitting the main verb "is"), and indeed in the body of the article we find the clear inspiration for this particular title:

It turns out that the winter that wasn't, isn't done with us yet.
It is not normally considered grammatical to put a comma between subject and verb, but you see it a lot with this sort of heavy subject phrase, especially when the verb in the relative phrase ("wasn't") is very similar to the clause's main verb ("isn't"), as here. It's also a bit of a flourish in the first place to use the "the X that is/was/n't" construction—that wasn't what, exactly?—but, again, quite idiomatic and well-known. So the source sentence is perhaps not perfectly standard, but well within the range of rhetorical variation.

It's just when you convert it to a headline that everything goes terribly wrong. Unfortunately, without "isn't" there to block it, and no punctuation to let the reader pause, nothing is overriding the seemingly more likely parse that lets "wasn't" gobble up the rest of it into a single modifier for "winter", until you get through it and think: WTF?

How could they have fixed it? Well, headlinese traditionally only includes relative phrases when absolutely necessary; "winter not done yet" would probably do just fine here. And half of the cuteness of the original sentence comes from the parallelism between "wasn't" and "isn't"; but if they really wanted to use the whole thing, all they needed to do to block the wtf reading was to put a colon in there, or even a question mark:

The winter that wasn't? Not done yet
But of course, nobody asked me.

"I see NCLB much like the initiatives that created the high-density housing projects of the War on Poverty era. Both are programs that were created with good intentions, but are simply, irretrievably broken and end up doing much much more harm than the original creators would ever have thought and go on for much longer than should ever have been allowed." --Tori O'Neal

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November 24, 2006

The perspective of a four-year-old

My cousins came to visit today, among them my little cousin K——. Aside from being totally adorable, she's pretty smart and comes up with clever statements often enough that sometimes you forget you're dealing with a four-year-old.

So it was that when she asked for more milk, I went to pour it for her and said, "say when."


And when she said this, my instant first thought was that she was teasing me; I interpreted it as her saying to stop even before I started pouring. Momentarily nonplussed, I paused, processing.

Meanwhile she wasn't understanding why I'm not actually pouring it, and evidently came to the conclusion that I was teasing her, or at least doing one of those obscure "what's the magic word" things that all those crazy adults seem to be obsessed with. Because then, she revised her response:

"Oh. Right now!"

I had just been realising that her "when" response was a "Goodnight, Dick" (or "Goodnight, Gracie") sort of response, and starting to laugh, so when she remisinterpreted the initial line, I just lost it (as did everyone else in the room). Poor K—— didn't understand why we were all laughing at her, and of course she still wanted her milk, but first I needed to stop laughing so I could explain to her how "say when" works. Then, of course, after I'd explained it, I was pouring the milk really slowly, and kept glancing sidewise at her, which was making everyone else crack up, but finally at about 2/3 full she said, "stop now." And so the episode came to an end.

"The inheritance we've received in our beliefs is like a priceless work of art that draws the masses wherever it appears. But if you throw it at someone or handle it improperly, it breaks." --Rocco Palmo

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October 06, 2006

Drawn together

Drawn together is an offensive little show on Comedy Central that just gets better each season. Part of what makes it great is that although there's no shortage of potty humour and over-the-top cheap-shot jokes, there are layers and layers of funny, some of which are pretty subtle (and not explained!). The fraternity that Captain Hero starts this week? "[phi-alpha-gimel]"—that last letter is Hebrew "gimel". The Jewish fraternity is meant to be "[SH-L-M]"—i.e. "Shalom"*—although it's in fact "[M-L-SH]", because they wrote the letters backwards, in left-to-right order. The terrified little Greek kid shouts "[evcharisto]!"—which, not that the majority of the audience would know this, means "thanks!".

Ling Ling goes meta: since he speaks in pseudo-Japanese, you need to read the subtitles to know what he's saying, and just as you're cursing the bunch of idiots at Comedy Central who put a Daily Show ad up as a superimposed lower third—blocking the subtitles—the other characters react as if Ling Ling is talking about TDS ("Oh, I love that Jon Stewart"). Magnificent!

And that was just the linguistic and metalinguistic humour in this one episode. The best line in the show had to be the one tied to one of Toot's bizarre Asian-themed euphemisms:

I deserve this money! I've been letting Jun-Jee ram his tank into my Tiananmen Square!
(aside in confessional, mournfully:)
Sadly, he always ignores the little student.
Although the line about George Takei was right up there. By the time they flew to Greece and disembarked at Rydell High (get it?), I was just howling. The full-on musical number at the end was just gravy.

*Even this would be incorrect, as the Hebrew for "shalom" has a vav in it, I think. But, I'm pretty positive that's what they meant.

'Can't offer details on individual units, but Kim, TiVo was made for you. Somewhere deep in TiVo central, someone's saying, "I can't believe she hasn't gotten one yet. I mean, we made it just for her."' --Jonathan Prykop

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May 22, 2006

Citation quest

In my last post I dropped in the phrase "one non sequitur after catfish" because, well, it's a great turn of phrase, managing to illustrate the idea within the sentence in a sort of higher-level onomatopoeia. I had thought that the phrase, catfish and all, was a moderately well-known way of accomplishing this illustration (hence decreasing their mutual information entropy and thus actually making it less illustrative, but anyway).

It turns out that googling for the phrase turns up only that post (as observed by Lee, who also pointed that damn, but google spiders this blog frequently). So where could I have gotten this from? I certainly didn't come up with it myself, though I'd like to think I'm clever enough to have done so. I have it as an entry in my quotesfile, though unattributed; based on its location in the file, it appears to date from early grad school, so say 1997. It looks like it got added as part of a batch, as I did from time to time back when people forwarded around lists of jokes that were actually funny. That would explain the lack of attribution, as by then I was already being fairly careful to attribute quotes of people I actually recorded myself.

Googling on a slightly less constrained search turns up someone else's quotesfile, who has terrible spelling but includes this quote otherwise identically. And here, it's attributed—to one Brian Postow, apparently a CS prof at Union College in Schenectady. Hooray!

Following up this lead, I landed on Postow's own quotes page, which like mine (and probably the other guy's) has its origin in a fortune database, the list of sayings and quotes that you get one of every time you type fortune on older Unix systems. Postow explains this at the top of his page, along with the caveat "Everyone else who isn't otherwise specified was probably a cs major at Oberlin, or a friend of mine from somewhere else... Or, of course some famous type person...".

So, he might not be the source after all. And the really funny part: his own version of the quote does not involve catfish. "Life is just one non sequitur after fruit bat." That page (along with, soon, this one) are the only hits for that formulation. Back to square one.

Continued slogging through Google hits turns up something that may or may not be directly related, but seems promising. Poem CXC in the book 111 2.7.93-10.20.96 by Kenneth Goldsmith ends with the line

...and catfish is a non-sequitur;
It was published in 1997, though, and remains somewhat obscure (well, to me), so I'm not totally convinced it would've had time to first morph into the "life is a..." form and then make its way into the geeksphere in time for me to add it to the 'file. It's possible someone familiar with the poem read Postow's fruit bat verson of the line, perceived that catfish would be funnier, and thus modified it. It's possible they're independent.

Or, it could be that non sequiturs and catfish go back a long way. I'm tapped for now; anyone got anything else?

Life is just one non sequitur after catfish. --??

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May 04, 2006

Oh, and also

I forgot to mention a crucial observation I made about one of Rachel's new songs: it's going to drive the prescriptivists batty. It's a pretty bitter song about leaving someone, and keeps coming back to the same phrase: "every room you've ever lived". As in, "in the corners of every room you've ever lived"; "to the doorway of every room you've ever lived", and so on. The meaning isn't even remotely in question. Probably the more grammatical way to say it would be "every room you've ever lived in" or something awful like "every room in which you've ever lived". But even the non-awful one doesn't have the same musical rhythmic flow, ending on an unaccented monosyllable. So she just dropped the semantically redundant "in", and ran with it.

I love it. But I bet it grates on a few people's ears.

"If we get into the voucher thing, everybody is going to position themselves, and they are going to scream and yell for the cameras, and nothing is going to get done." --Richard M. Daley, mayor of Chicago

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March 30, 2006

Comedy central, linguistics field station

Two different language notes on tonight's offerings from Comedy Central.

First, from the Colbert Report. Tonight's Wørd was "Merrier". The concluding bullet point—often a repeat of the Wørd—was "Marry 'er". With a setup like that, how could I not blog about this famous minimal pair? In a lot of dialects, including my own, "marry" and "merry" are completely homophonous, making this a good pun. But a significant percentage of American English speakers pronounce them differently (and some with yet a third pronunciation for "Mary", also homophonous in my dialect). So naturally, I had to bounce the TiVo back and forth to see what Colbert did with it. The verdict? Though I've heard even-more-distinct pronunciations, he definitely pronounced the two differently. I wonder whether he came up with the pun, or someone else? No dispositive evidence either way, of course, since puns work just fine even if the homophony isn't perfect.

Second observation: In tonight's South Park, Trey and Matt have to voice some characters as being hopelessly smug. The number one feature? Uptalk.

(Minor third observation: The park ranger comes up with a lovely construction at one point: "Well, you should have ... , shouldn't-you-'ve?" Sure, why not?)

"An interesting thing...if you remove Garfield's thought balloons, it goes from an unfunny comic to a rather sad, poignant story about a lonely man who has wasted his life talking to his cat." --Lakin Malich

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October 16, 2005

A prime WTF

I was reading the paper today, and on page C3 of the Register-Mail I ran across a sterling example of what the Language Log folks are calling WTF coordinations. In a PSA from Ameren (the local energy utility), we are told

You can't see it. So we make sure you can smell it. It you detect the distinctive rotten egg odor we add to natural gas, don't turn anything off or on. Leave the house immediately, and the door open when you do. Then call us from another location.
I suspect that started out as "...and leave the door open when you do," and some smarter-than-thou copyeditor "fixed" the coordination, but I suppose it's possible it was produced naturally. (For the record, that original would have sounded funny too, but the fix is to change one or both occurrences of "leave" to something else, e.g. "exit".)

"I'm not an idiot, and if I really cared about any of that "to wit" shit I would have wasted years of my life in some law school." --Brent Spillner

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July 29, 2005

What would Spock say?

I'm an avid reader of Eric Zorn's blog, and I just don't know what to make of a recent entry of his. In this post, he talks about how he subscribes to the "don't fly with your spouse" school of thought (I wonder if he's seen that Mad About You episode?), and he makes a certain distinction between irrational and illogical behaviour.

I have to say, I have no idea what he's talking about.

Try as I might, I can't come up with a pair of definitions for these two words that makes the distinction, and I'm having a hard time even verbalising the distinction. Does anyone else understand it? It has something to do with cost-benefit analysis and doing the cheaper/easier things first, I guess, but ultimately I'm not seeing how this ties in with some sort of distinction between "logic" and "reason".

"On the upside, sex toys are the kind of plastic that is more fun than the kind of plastic that you put old food in. Think about it: Tupperware's big selling point is that it "burps." The big selling point of sex toys is that they provide mind-blowing orgasms." --Leigh Anne Wilson

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July 22, 2005

To subjunct, or not to subjunct?

On a completely unrelated note. The airplane toilet note that's floating around (heh) really isn't as funny as a lot of people are making it out to be. However, it does have one rather interesting edit. On page six, airplane toilet guy originally wrote this:

Seat 29E could only be worse if it were inside the bathroom.

A perfectly good sentence, and a robust use of the English subjunctive. But he must have looked at that sentence and decided that the verb "to be" wasn't strong enough to convey the sense of place that he was going for; "locate", or rather "to be located", would do the trick. And so he scratched out "were", and edited the sentence to read:

Seat 29E could only be worse if it was located inside the bathroom.

This makes me really curious. If his subjunctive instinct is strong---as we might surmise from his original word choice---why would he back out of that and actually scratch it out? Had he written "was" to start with, this wouldn't merit a single raised eyebrow; legions of English speakers have abandoned the subjunctive "were" entirely, much though their junior high Language Arts teachers might protest. But he has a subjunctive "were", and yet elected after some consideration not to use it. Is it possible that he has two different lexical entries for "be", one for the existential form (which has a subjunctive "were") and one for the passive constructor (which has a subjunctive "was")? That'd be kind of cool.

"The Chinese government is repressive---sort of like US big-city police departments, but less oversight." --Michael Kimmitt

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July 06, 2005

Dancing with the stars, pt 4

Somewhat belatedly, I just watched the DwtS episode from two weeks ago. Four couples enter, only three come out. (Hmm, that's not as catchy as it was supposed to be.)

First, Joey's samba. His footwork has definitely improved over previous weeks, but I still get this bleh impression; that he's out there doing stuff but I just can't bring myself to be interested. Was that a volta? I think it was supposed to be, but I just don't care. (And that ass slap was totally gratuitous.) His partner is whiny, his routines don't have enough basic, and he's just very enh. I was pretty ok with the score of 20.

Rachel's samba had a slightly-too-long intro to it, but from there on out it was a fantastic routine. Her cruzado walks were great, her voltas were great, and her samba roll! Beautiful! I felt like the music was a smidge too bouncy (I think because it's really a bossa nova), but it did make for a nice Austin Powers-esque costume on the guy. I was well-pleased, though, with the 25 this got.

There will be a waltz! A V! Waltz! In a group!

John's samba was really disappointing. As my selected favourite couple, I hold John and Charlotte to a high standard that they just didn't meet here. Throughout the routine I could think of nothing so much as the Strictly Ballroom mockeries---not the real sambas therein, but stuff like Fife's Bogo Pogo move, and Scott's dad's fast-foot-shuffling in flashback scenes. Funny, but not very inspiring as a dance. He had no hip movement whatsoever. Nice shish-boom, but it couldn't rescue an otherwise bleh routine. I think it was still a bit better than Joey's, so I was ok with the score of 21, but I really felt like it deserved to be numerically lower.

Kelly started her routine out incredibly awkward. She did a stompy bent-knee volta that made me cringe, and she did an arm flourish at the totally wrong time. And then came the wardrobe malfunction: her halter strap came undone. No indecency yet, but it certainly met the standard of "suspensefulness" that I've held up as a model of what not to have in a ballroom costume. Not really her fault here, of course. And actually, it may have been her salvation, though not for the crass, obvious reason. For the rest of the routine she was a model of grace under pressure, dancing very well in spite of the problem. Indeed, concentrating on that problem may have let her just dance without thinking too much, which possibly helped. For sure, the awkwardness was gone, and her footwork was good, and she was moving her hips. I don't think her performance was quite as good as Rachel's, but I was overall pretty satisfied with the 26 she was awarded.

The linguist in me is also compelled to note that "wardrobe malfunction" is now clearly a full lexical item in the language; I had written it down in my notes immediately, long before the judge and commentator used it. It's just the obvious term to use for this sort of situation, now.

Finally, we get to see the four couples in a Viennese Waltz. Sort of uninspiring all around, actually. John made a nice contra check but an incredibly awkward lift; Rachel was carried in an excellent, elegant lift, but was otherwise awkward. Kelly was concentrating too hard, and although the lift itself looked nice, it spun too fast and her handler drifted as he spun (not her fault, of course). Joey was just off-the-scale weird, with bell kicks (?) and some bizarro under-arm turns and other moves. And despite being billed as our chance to see them all on the floor together, the camera never let us see any of the non-central couples; as a result, we saw none of the actual viennese waltzing. And then, it turns out this wasn't actually judged. Laaaaame.

Also lame was the choice of eliminee. Joey was clearly the consistent worst competitor (of those remaining), but apparently Rachel was really unpopular with the audience. Despite consistent decent-to-good performances, and here ranking 2nd of 4, the audience voting went sufficiently against her to boot her from the program. Quel injuste!

"For all the dozens of sermons and homilies I've heard denouncing abortion, I have never once, in almost a quarter-century of regular church-going, heard a sermon denouncing those who throw their pregnant daughters out of the house." --Chris Tessone

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June 29, 2005

News from the front

For the last week I've been at the ACL conference, going to lots of talks and learning about stuff and seeing people I haven't seen since last year (or longer). I'm really psyched about getting back into things, and I hope I can sustain that and get some work done.

But today was the first day of workshops, the post-season if you will, and the conference is winding down. At lunch, I took a nap and then drove out to a nice little local yarn shop---Flying Sheep Yarns---which I'd been planning to do anyway but really needed to do since I unexpectedly finished the pair of socks I was working on. (My knitting speed has definitely increased in the last year; I was only about 2/3 done with one sock of the pair at the start of the conference, so I was knitting on the order of 4000 stitches a day, or---given that I was probably only knitting for four or five hours per day---a bit less than a thousand stitches an hour. Whew! Anyway, I bought some sockweight alpaca-wool blend in off-white and green that will make a nice pair of socks (not for in-meeting knitting; I'll have to pattern these to make them beautiful), and two skeins of a cotton-wool-nylon blend that I'm a little leery of but seems to be comfortable so far.

I went back to the workshops and continued drifting from one to the other, seeing a number of good talks and yet another one by a guy redoing exactly what I'd done without even citing me. After the last one, a bunch of us decided to walk over to the south campus for dinner, which we had at what was basically a sandwich shop, where we all ordered different varieties of reuben. The sandwichista nearly cut his finger off at one point, which was a bit exciting, but fortunately he turned out to be ok and after bandaging up his hand and putting on a fresh pair of gloves, he went back to making our various sandwiches.

After sitting around and chatting for a while, Eric, who grew up in Ann Arbor, suggested checking out a gaming store nearby. After some joking comments about how dangerous that was, we went to the little sidewalk mall it was in and discovered it was in a closeout sale, all stock must go, closing by the end of June---i.e. tomorrow. Uh oh. Going inside, we saw that most of their stock was already gone, which was a relief, but there was quite enough left in little piles labelled "20% off" and "40% off" and "60% off" to, um, keep us there for a while. Among five of us, I believe we purchased nine games and about fifty assorted dice, although there may have also been some five-cent Magic cards in the mix. I, of course, unconstrained by airline luggage regulations, was able to buy more than most, and after trying to decide which of four games to get, I just got all four of them: New England, Lunar Rails, Meridian, and Rumis.

We then came back to the dorm, and after sitting around in my-and-Sharon's room talking about what we'd go to tomorrow, we went downstairs to the lounge and played Rumis, a relatively new and really cool 3D block game that everyone in the world needs to go play right now.

And now, I'm going to bed. :)

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June 02, 2005

The vicar of Wakefield

The book-on-tape that I just finished listening to over the weekend was something of a departure for me; normally I go for the suspenseful thriller mystery, since one of its chief goals will be to keep me awake and alert while driving. But this one struck my fancy anyway, billed as the first comedic novel written in English: The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith, first published in 1766. And the voice actor's accent alone was worth the price of admission (which was free, but still); the novel itself was a little scattershot, but still a fun read. I was interested to note that the desire to tie up all the loose ends with a nice, happy little bow, currently billed as some sort of American weakness, was already alive and well in 18th-century England.

Indeed, I was pretty surprised at a lot of the ways in which this novel could have been written much more recently. Many turns of phrase were older than I thought, and aside from a leaning towards some now-less-used words like 'assiduity', there were very few places where the language of the novel would be out of place in modern Standard English. (Even the thees and thous seemed to be on their way out; I think by this point they were already restricted to intra-family conversation.) I was certainly pleased to note a bunch of split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions, the most delightful being in the second-to-last chapter: "She was now made an honest woman of." Magnificent.

But the most interesting parts of the book were when characters were having discussions about politics and society, many of which are just as applicable today as they were 240 years ago. On class and the accumulation of wealth:

An accumulation of wealth, however, must necessarily be the consequence when, as at present, more riches flow in from external commerce than arise from internal industry; for external commerce can only be managed to advantage by the rich, and they have also at the same time all the emoluments arising from internal industry; so that the rich, with us, have two sources of wealth, whereas the poor have but one. For this reason, wealth in all commercial states is found to accumulate, and all such have hitherto in time become aristocratical.
That's from Chapter 19. On the nature of punishment and the role of the state therein:
Then, instead of our present prisons, which find or make men guilty, which enclose wretches for the commission of one crime, and return them, if returned alive, fitted for the perpetration of thousands....
Chapter 22 has more on this theme, starting around page 224. Some of it, it's like he's looking through time at turn-of-the-21st-century America, and all of us that even existed then was a bunch of colonies across the sea.

I enjoyed the book quite a bit. Perhaps because of its familiarity in language and politics, it helps to show me just how different some other things were about life in 18th-century Britain.

What could we say? We're only twenty five years old,
with 25 sweet summers, and hot fires in the cold.
This kind of life makes that violence unthinkable;
we'd like to play hockey,
  have kids,
  and grow old.... --Moxy Früvous, "Gulf War Song"

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May 13, 2005

Do: you think?

I'm working my way through Lynne Truss's Eats, shoots & leaves, agreeing with her on nearly everything. Indeed, there are a few rules she's set out that I didn't know or wouldn't have thought of.

She and I had our first little quarrel just now over the use of the colon. In addition to its venerable uses at introducing specific things ("three things: bread, milk, and cheese") and sometimes tightly, causally related clauses ("we went to the midnight show: we'd been itching to see it for weeks"---though even this usage seems a bit iffy to me), Truss claims that there are other valid uses:

  • "when there is probably more to the initial statement than has met the eye", e.g. "You can do it: and you will do it." (Ugh.)
  • "as a kind of fulcrum between two antithetical or oppositional statements", e.g. "Man proposes: God disposes." (Double ugh.)
I don't even think this one can be chalked up to the oceanic divide; even among British writers, I can't recall running across either of these in any significant number. I'd think I would, too, as they are so jarring.

However, having argued on page 119, we made up again on page 120. In demonstrating another use of the colon, she made one of the finest literary references ever:

Gandhi II: The Mahatma Strikes Back
Recognise it? It's from UHF; Lynne Truss is a Weird Al fan!

"The 'A' is for content, the 'minus' is for not typing it. Don't ever do this to my eyes again." --Professor Ronald Brady, Philosophy, Ramapo State College

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April 14, 2005

That's one less problem for me

Just yesterday I was reading a post by Neal Whitman on less vs. fewer, wherein he detailed a situation where "fewer" is wrong even if you are someone that normally uses it. (I posted a comment, because hey, the less-vs-fewer issue is one that prescriptivists call me on all the time, as if they can't understand what I'm saying or something.)

Then this morning, I managed to hear an instance of exactly the issue in his blog entry. My coworker John was talking about the convenience of a certain setup, and said:

"There was one fewer person, peh, uh, people in the loop...."

He plugged in "fewer" according to the rule, stumbled because it sounded odd to say "one fewer person", tried to correct it to "people", that sounded weird too, but ended up going with it anyway. Just a few moments later, he uttered basically the same construction:

"...one fewer ^ person in the loop"

The caret indicates where he paused briefly, presumably re-running the same lexical choice debate, in the end settling on the other unsatisfactory choice.

Of course, I don't know that "one less person in the loop" would have felt any better to him, and it's hard to find such things out directly without running into "this is what the rule says" recalcitrance. But it sure sounds better to me.

"In our modern, first world country, there is no reason why we as a society can't afford to support old people retiring after a certain age. They've paid their dues, we've seen to that in the "credits" requirement. Living your last few years in restful peace and quiet, with a $700 check every month as a "Thank you" for having been a productive member of society all your life, should damn well just be a benefit of living in America, God's greatest gift to this brave new millennium." --Eva Sweeney

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April 02, 2005

Ah, copyeditors

I will shortly post the text of a letter I just got published in the Register-Mail. But first, a letter I wrote to the editor (actually to the editor, not for publication) about their copyediting:

Generally, I'm happy to see letters go through a light editorial process, and I certainly won't object if typoes or other misspelled words are fixed. I don't even mind particularly when something gets edited to a different form with equivalent meaning, as long as it's grammatical.

But it's a little annoying when I see something that was grammatical in the original edited to an incorrect form. In my recent letter, I wrote

...teaching that in this country, our Fourth Amendment protects....

One could legitimately add a comma after "that", making "in this country" a parenthetical to the basic construction "teaching that our Fourth Amendment protects...." That would give you the also-grammatical

...teaching that, in this country, our Fourth Amendment protects....
What was actually printed was the ungrammatical
...teaching that, in this country our Fourth Amendment protects....
Removing the comma after "country" is incorrect; we would not usually write
In this country our Fourth Amendment protects....
without being accused of forgetting a comma. Adding a comma after "that" to introduce a subordinate clause is also incorrect, unless it's part of some parenthetical (as demonstrated above). We would not write
...teaching that, Washington was president.

So, um, here endeth the lesson. Sorry to get so pedantic, but it bugs me when someone else's errors are attributed to me.

Too over the top? Probably. But I'm acutely aware that reading prose with poor spelling and grammar causes one to downwardly revise opinions of the author's argument (not to mention his intelligence), it just drives me up a wall when it's someone else making me look illiterate.

Interestingly, though, one of the errors is just the same sort of weird added comma as noted in a recent Language Log post. A trend?

(PS: notice me not talking about the elephant in the corner. Maybe tomorrow.)

"We're spending resources pat-searching teenagers, ferociously guarding our sacred cracked gong and checking every last Timex on the Circle Line. We're rubbing the rabbit's foot of the magnetometer, hoping that playing at security will keep us safe." --Eric Zorn

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March 22, 2005

Metathesis redux

Arnold Zwicky over at Language Log writes today (well, late last night, actually) about the pronunciation nucular as used by an awful lot of people. He's quite dismissive of the metathesis explanation that I and others have put forth before:

Metathesis of the /l/ and /i/ of /nukliər/ would give /nukilər/, with primary accent on the first syllable and secondary accent on the second (as in nuclear).  To get towards nucular, that second syllable would have to lose its accent (this is not particularly unlikely), yielding /nukIlər/ or /nukələr/.  This isn't all the way home, though, because there's still that /y/ to pick up.  It looks like Safire is assuming a metathesis and then a reshaping to match other -cular words, which would supply a /y/.  But direct reshaping is a more parsimonious account of the phenomenon; the metathesis is unnecessary (as well as insufficient).

But here's the thing: even when I'm pronouncing the word "correctly", it's more like /'nuk.lə.jər/, although the second syllable's vowel is perhaps a bit higher than schwas I produce in other contexts. It's definitely quite different from the vowel /i/ as in "beet" or for that matter "pricklier" (which is /'prɪk.li.ər/). The reason for this difference is probably morphological as he indicates, but once this still-"correct" pronunciation for "nuclear" is in place, it seems like it's a straight shot over to "nucular" by way of metathesis.

Of course, I still haven't read Geoff Nunberg's book Going Nucular, which Zwicky's post references; it's been on my to-do list for ages. If he's already addressed this argument, I guess I'll just feel dumb. :P

"it really sounds like you're trying to put a nail in a wall using only a cheese danish and a variety of expletives." --Neal Groothuis

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March 06, 2005

Influence update

I caught my dad using the alternate pronunciation of "influence" this weekend. He suggested that the stress goes on the second syllable when it's an active verb, but on the first if it's a passive participle or a noun, so

  • Sam inFLUenced Sasha's decision.
  • Sam will inFLUence Sasha's decision.
  • Sasha was INfluenced by Sam.
  • Sam had an INfluence on Sasha's decision.
I have no idea if this is borne out by even his own usage, but it's an interesting idea, and I'll have to keep my ears open.

"I believe that there are UFOs; I just don't know who's driving them." --Peter Jennings

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February 24, 2005

Hoo! hoo!

Why is it that I'm so much more efficient at night? I'm hard pressed to explain why my productivity shoots up so much when I take a nap in the evening and then work through the night, but it does. And really, it pretty much always has.

Some recent observed and reported linguistic usages:

"...the Virgin Mary...Joseph, her most chaste spouse..."
This is part of one of the Catholic adoration prayers, and it cracks me up every time. Of course, they're using 'most' in its emphatic sense (as in, "Most understandable, sir."), not its comparative one, but I still get a first reading from it that implies a whole series of spouses (or perhaps several in parallel) for Mary, of whom Joseph was merely the least unfaithful. What a thought.
"cogs in a wheel...cogs---but in a broken wheel..."
I was reading US News the other day (the 31 Jan/7 Feb issue, p74), and I ran across this usage. It's clear what they intended, but I don't think I've ever heard it that way before; it's usually "cogs in a machine", right? Google gives 4,820 occurrences of "cogs in a machine", but it does register 966 occurrences for "cogs in a wheel", so that's clearly far from unknown. Looking up the definition of "cog", I'm not even sure which one makes more sense---I had thought that "cog" was basically a synonym of "gear", with perhaps more emphasis on the individual round thing than on its role in the system, but it turns out it refers to the teeth around the rim. Which makes either phrase work, more or less, but I think it decreases the efficacy of the people-as-cogs metaphor. Or does it improve it? I can't even tell; now I've thought about it too much.
A while back I noticed Ryan pronouncing the word "influence" and its derivatives with the emphasis on the middle syllable, fairly consistently, and he had no idea that this was unusual or anything. At the time, I just sort of filed it away. But this weekend at the retreat, I counted no less than four people, all in the same 18-22 age range, pronounce it exactly that way. MW10 lists this as a secondary pronunciation and calls it "chiefly Southern", but I wonder if it's spreading.
"I'm for sure that..."
I was eating dinner the other day with a former math prof from QU, and he picked on me for one of my dialect usages ("less" with a count noun, if you're keeping track at home). This launched into a discussion of various dialect usages, and he reported that down in Quincy, a lot of people are saying "I'm for sure that...", meaning "I'm sure that...". I'm almost positive I've never heard this before, so this is kind of exciting; now I get to keep an eye out for it as I travel, and see where its boundaries are or if it's spreading. Neat!

"The Charter was enshrined to ensure that the rights of minorities are not subjected, are never subjected, to the will of the majority. The rights of Canadians who belong to a minority group must always be protected by virtue of their status as citizens, regardless of their numbers. These rights must never be left vulnerable to the impulses of the majority." --Canadian PM Paul Martin

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July 27, 2004

The languages of Barcelona

One thing I'm still trying to figure out is just what the place of la llengua catalana is around here. All signs, with very few exceptions, are in Catalan. Some are only in Catalan, some in Catalan, Spanish, and English; a very few are in Catalan and Spanish only. That indicates to me that, at least officially, Spanish is regarded as about the same as English: a language that a lot of visitors to the city will use, and so worth putting on signs.

When people talk, I definitely hear a fair number speaking in Spanish, not Catalan, even in the less touristy areas. There certainly is some Catalan too, but not as much as I'd guess from looking at the signage.

The thing that really gets me, though, is when people interact with me. I guess it's reasonable to speak to me in Spanish, since I'm obviously not a local and therefore probably can handle Spanish better than Catalan. But I'd think that if there really is this nationalistic feeling that Catalan is a full language, the local language, and just as good as Spanish, they'd want to try using it more, relying on Spanish (and English) more as fallback languages. I find it especially odd when I order something in Catalan, and almost inevitably, they confirm it in Spanish. (That, or they just write down the order or yell it back to the cook staff in Spanish.) Clearly, I need some sort of button to wear to indicate that Spanish isn't going to work for me any better than Catalan will, so you might as well try the latter. (Especially since my French will help me a lot more with Catalan than with Spanish!)

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February 28, 2004

Laundry lists

It's a balmy 55° out there, and I have my windows open. Magnificent! Of course, it's not supposed to get above 50 again for another week... ah well. Monday's supposed to be really stormy, so perhaps that means that the end of March will be more mild.

I was just reading something that said Dr Seuss wrote most of one of his books on the back of a laundry list in one afternoon. What struck me here was the notion of a concrete, physical "laundry list". This set me to wondering about the idiomatic expression---as in, "He's got a whole laundry list of stuff for us to do", meaning a big long list of possibly not-very-related items. But what would that be, non-idiomatically? Did people at some point itemise their laundry somehow? I know that even when I was doing laundry at a laundromat, this involved piling it all into a big wheeled hamper and divvying it up into four to six loads, which weren't much more itemised than "white load #1" or "blue load #2". Or was a "laundry list" just some sort of "to-do" list, of which "do laundry" was but a single item?

"The weakening of marriage has been heterosexuals' doing, not gays', for it is their infidelity, divorce rates and single-parent families that have wrought social damage." --The Economist

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February 23, 2004

Ambiguous antecedents

I was just reading the farm supplement in the Register-Mail, just for the heck of it, and I hit upon the following article, quoted in full. Note the last sentence.

Crystal Steck of Knoxville was recognized for raising one of the highest quality beef animals exhibited at this year's National Western Stock Show in Denver, Colo. Her home-raised heifer, Cherri, was named Grand Champion Female among competition in both the junior and open Shorthorn Shows. The heifer, born in January 2002, beat 173 other animals to covet the title of National Champion Shorthorn Female. Steck is a member of the American Junior Shorthorn Association and has had success in show rings all over the country. The Steck family raised this female, which was the offspring of one of their own cows. She is the daughter of Dean and Janice Steck of Knoxville.
I'm just sitting here giggling. That "she" really really wants to attach itself to the cow, or perhaps to the heifer. I had to look a couple times, but the antecedent ("Steck") was indeed most recently listed two full sentences previous. Congratulations to Ms. Steck, of course. Tee hee.

"As a sailboat owning Orienteer, I can assure you contour following doesn't work well on the water and reentrants are really hard to see." --Gerard Weatherby

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February 04, 2004


It is the year 2104, and you are looking up a word in the dictionary---not to find out what it means, because everyone knows that---but to find its etymology. You look it up and find

1ham n [ME hamme, fr. OE hamm...] ...

No, that's not the one you want. You skim down past the various senses of this word to its homograph:

2ham n a message or transmission with non-commercial purpose ...

Ah, that's the one! Now, what exactly is its etymology?

  • From spam, meaning "an unsolicited (and undesired) message or transmission, usu. with commercial purpose", by analogy between the first homograph of ham and an earlier, mostly obsolete definition of spam
  • ...from the title of a comedic sketch and song by British comedy troupe Monty Python, "Spam, spam, spam"
  • ...from the brand name of a processed meat food product, Spam
  • ...from a contraction of the words "spiced ham".

Are etymologies normally allowed to trace back around to themselves?

And lest you think this is some obscure bit of techno-jargon, this article on the BBC uses the word ham without so much as a definition. Awesome.

"The buffet table is properly set so that it would form an attractive pattern if viewed by a guest hanging from the chandelier." --Miss Manners

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October 11, 2003

Midwestern names

We're still out in the boonies just west of Plano, but we just passed a car dealership owned by someone named "Gjøvik". This is at least slightly remarkable because the big lit-up sign outside the dealership actually said "GJØVIK".

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