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September 27, 2007
Linguist Mark Liberman, scourge of pop statisticians, debunker of myths about sex and language, has a post at Language Log dismantling yesterday’s story in the New York Times on the “growing happiness gap between men and women.”
According to new research, says Times reporter David Leonhardt, women now spend more time than men at tasks they don’t enjoy -- the reverse of the situation 30-plus years ago.
But which women, and how many of them? Liberman reprints the graph from the study that supposedly demonstrates the trend. “When I show readers of the NYT article the graph of the data . . . they're flabbergasted,” he writes. And no wonder:
The words paint a very different picture, he says:
What people take away from the journalistic description of this study is that women used to be happier than men, and now men are happier than women -- and they think of this as a fact about all men and all women. In fact, we're talking about effects whose size is such that perhaps the happiest half of the population, on an optimistic reading of a complex statistical reconstruction, contains a couple of percent more of one sex than the other!
You’ll also want to catch up with Liberman’s pursuit of the latest junk science in the sex-differences realm: The discovery of the (aptly named) “crockus,” allegedly a brain region that makes girls better at detail work.
There is a real guy, Dan Hodgins, out there spreading the gospel of the crockus to parents and teachers. But his sourcing for the existence of that organ -- a so far nonexistent Dr. Alfred Crockus and the definitely fictional Boston Medical University Hospital -- is looking increasingly shaky.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 05:03 PM
September 13, 2007
No, I haven’t yet mingled with the throngs of shopperazzi celebrating the arrival of Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus at the newly upscaled Natick Collection, formerly Natick Mall. (That’s why we have the Stylephile crew). But I’ve been monitoring the excitement in my own sedentary, text-centric, nitpicking way.
The first language oddity came in a mailing from Nordstrom, inviting me to enjoy the rewards of using a Nordstrom credit card. The (modest) perks escalate, of course, as the outlay does: To hit the top level, you need “a minimum annual net spend of $20,000 at Nordstrom on your Nordstrom card.”
No doubt the lawyers are responsible for all the preemptive redundancy. But what’s with the “net spend”? That’s not English -- at least, not everyday consumer-friendly American English. The Nexis news database found the phrase only 13 times (over 30 years) in US papers, and five of those were in the trade-oriented Variety.
It’s not that spend can’t be a noun, of course. But net spend is budget jargon; in an invitation aspiring to stylishness, it clashes like a cheap handbag.
But wait, there’s more: Next came a newspaper insert from Neiman Marcus, offering free treats at its opening. In honor of the store’s 100th birthday, visitors were invited to sample “one of those infamous chocolate chip cookies you’ve heard about.” I didn’t bite; I don’t know how a cookie achieves infamy, but I can’t say I’m eager to find out.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 12:47 PM
August 20, 2007
John McIntyre, who blogs on language and editing at the Baltimore Sun, marks his 21st anniversary there with a roundup of things he has learned about newspaper culture. The list will have print journalists intoning "Amen, brother," but readers should also find it amusing and maybe enlightening. Some highlights:
A reporter, seeing a copy editor’s deletion of an adjective or prepositional phrase, will react as if a chapter has been ripped from the Pentateuch.
The dumber the comic strip, the fiercer the loyalty.
To a reporter, a 50-inch story is, by definition, twice as good as a 25-inch story.
The reader who spots the error you [the editor] let into print after you caught 19 others will write to ask if anyone on the staff has been to college.
But one of them stopped me:
No reader cares as much as a thin belch about how hard you worked on the story or photo or headline.
The main point is clear: You don't get credit for effort, only for results. But what the heck is a "thin belch"? Google turns up enormous belches, appreciative belches, loud belches, even a few fat belches, but no thin belches. I have asked the author for enlightenment; check for an update in a day or two.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 08:55 PM
August 15, 2007
Today's "Mr. Boffo" strip has a new eggcorn candidate for Chris Waigl's online collection.
The text reads: "It's all about people. Money is only a bi-product you get when you squeeze them hard enough and long enough."
I had never seen bi-product for byproduct, but it's a logical enough mistake: Here, Mr. B (as corporate executive) is interpreting by-product -- an incidental outcome of a process -- as bi-product, one of two simultaneous results. (But what is the second product he refers to -- simply sadistic pleasure?)
This by- prefix, meaning "aside, apart from the main issue," is fairly uncommon now; an illegitimate child, for instance, is no longer called a by-blow, as Fielding's Tom Jones was. But we still have byplay and bypass to remind us of why it's byproduct.
Biproduct is also a real term, says Wikipedia, but it's not exactly a household word: "In category theory and its applications to mathematics, a biproduct is a generalisation of the notion of direct sum that makes sense in any preadditive category."
All right, then. But I suspect the mathematical biproduct is too arcane to be tempting writers into careless misspellings. In Mister Boffo's use, at least, biproduct has all the marks of a genuine eggcorn.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 11:41 AM
August 13, 2007
Last Monday the New York Times reported what a CT scan revealed about the insides of "Demetrios," a 2000-year-old Egyptian mummy owned by the Brooklyn Museum:
Dr. Boxt also spotted a tiny mass in the mummy's abdominal captivity measuring about 1.2 inches across. Curators and conservators suggested that it was a scarab.
That same day, the Times's corrections box confessed to having misspelled Alberto Gonzales's name at least 14 times and the name of the law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher at least 50 times (since 1958). But a week later, there has been no mention of the "abdominal captivity" malapropism.
It might be a spellcheck-induced mistake, but I haven't found a plausible misspelling of cavity that makes Word suggest subtituting captivity. (Nexis, which is smarter than Word -- not that that's saying much -- asks if I mean to search "abdominal CAPACITY.")
So maybe it's just a slip. A rare one -- Google turns up only three other examples of "abdominal captivity" -- and apparently one that doesn't punch readers in the eye (or the gut). And unlike the attorney general, Demetrios is in no position to complain.
(CT scan of an Egyptian mummy -- though not Demetrios -- from the University of Illinois Mummy Project.)
Posted by Jan Freeman at 01:30 PM
August 7, 2007
I was on vacation last week, out where the corn is sweet and the frappes are milkshakes and the soda is pop, so I didn't respond to readers who complained about the Globe's misuse of flaunt in a July 31 op-ed and headline: "Flaunting subpoenas is not permitted." I didn't need to, since a letter to the editor printed last Friday set everyone straight: "The correct word is flout, which means 'to openly disregard.' "
But in this summer slip, the Globe was in good company. In the July 30 issue of the New Yorker, David Remnick, in his Letter from Jerusalem, made the same mistake when he wrote of "Burg’s . . . flouting of the fact that he holds a French passport, because his wife is French-born."
Geoff Pullum commented on the New Yorker's flub on Language Log:
I think (I have no quantitative backup) it is more usual for flaunt to be used where flout was meant, and I can see why there is confusion in that direction: you can boastfully exhibit your contempt for normal standards, and thus flaunt your flouting of them.
I too think of flaunt for flout as the more common mistake, but a week's worth of newspaper data doesn't back up that guess. In the Nexis database of US newspapers, flaunt appeared 41 times; it was correct 39 times and incorrect twice.
Flout was indeed less common overall -- it showed up just 16 times -- but in one of those, it should have been flaunt. So flout was used wrongly twice in 41 cites, or nearly 5 percent of the time; flaunt was wrong once in 16 outings, or 6 percent of the time.
No, that's not a big enough sample to prove anything. But just for fun, I checked a couple of other common errors over the same one-week period:
Infer was used to mean imply seven times in a total 19 instances, or 37 percent of the time. Feel bad, the topic of a discussion in Miss Conduct's blog, got about 200 hits; the less accepted feel badly got only 19, about 9 percent of the total.
Most of the allegedly common errors in English are harder to interpret, though, because they're often just spelling errors. For instance, 12 of the 36 examples of loathe in my sample week were not uses of the verb ("I loathe him") but misspellings of the adjective loath ("She was loathe to admit it"). That's a high percentage of goofs -- but they're all misspellings, not "confusions" of words.
I don't mean to suggest that spelling isn't important. But when someone mixes up the spellings of Neiman Marcus and the Nieman Foundation, we don't say he's confusing the department store with the journalism outfit. Why do we think it's so much worse to type your for you're or flack for flak? (That's not a rhetorical question; send answers, please.)
Posted by Jan Freeman at 08:07 PM
July 17, 2007
Language bloggers, not surprisingly, have a couple of nits to pick with "grammar vandal" Kate McCulley, who goes around town adding commas and apostrophes to defective signs like a Reebok ad reading "Run easy Boston." A feature in Sunday's City Weekly explained:
The Reebok sign should have read "run easily," McCulley observed, and it should have had a comma after "easily," before "Boston."
(Grammar note: “Easy” is an adjective, which must never be used to describe a verb, such as “run”; that task calls for the adverb “easily.”)
"Run easily, Boston"?
Not so fast, said the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar:
While we appreciate the zeal, easy can be used as an adverb that means "with ease," and has been used this way since 1400. (We checked in the Oxford English Dictionary.)
Over at Language Log, Mark Liberman asks if we think Shakespeare's line should be edited to read "The course of true love never did run smoothly." Anyone who thinks "easy" is only an adjective, he says,
needs to take the general grammatical point up with William Shakespeare, Jack London, Francis Beaumont, Wilfred Owen, and many other worthies, as discussed in an earlier Language Log post: "Amid this vague uncertainty, who walks safe?"
Mr. Verb was stopped in his metaphorical tracks by something else entirely: McCulley's declaration "Without punctuation, we have nothing."
What's so striking about the use of "without X, we have nothing" is how it's traditionally been used: Check around a little and you get love, hope and dreams filling that X. . . . all matters with some metaphysical heft. I'm fairly sure you have never been so high that punctuation made that list.
Zeno, blogging at Halfway There, says McCulley's comma campaign warms his prescriptivist heart. Still, he agrees that her objection to easy is wrongheaded, and warns (too late?) that the entire grammar-vandal enterprise is hazardous:
No one can safely wave an admonitory finger and hold forth authoritatively on exactly what is right and what is wrong. That is a fool's errand. Anyone who tries too hard to fill the role of grammar police is certain to find him- or herself brought up on false arrest charges.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 04:46 PM
July 12, 2007
Wave goodbye to "just deserts": In today's entry on his Oxford University Press blog, Ben Zimmer reports that the upstart "just desserts" -- the version that confuses dessert, the after-dinner treat, with desert, something you deserve -- is beating the standard idiom by 58 percent to 42 percent.
Zimmer used the Oxford English Corpus -- a database of "more than 1.5 billion words pulled from newspapers, blogs, magazines, scientific papers, journals, books, websites, transcripts," and other sources, according to the OUP -- to check on the condition of some beleaguered familiar phrases.
There is some good news for traditionalists. The standard sleight of hand, fazed by, and home in on are trouncing the challengers (slight of hand, phased by, hone in on) by 2 to 1 or better.
But vocal chords is neck and neck with the standard vocal cords, and strait-laced scores a pitiful 34 percent against straight-laced. "Poetic innovation or descent into linguistic anarchy?" asks Zimmer. The strait-laced will have one answer, I suppose; the rest will have desserts.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 03:49 PM
July 8, 2007
Commenting on today's substitute-Safire column, a lament about the short supply of grammatically acceptable single men, the irrepressible Mr. Verb sees an entrepreneurial opportunity:
Subject: Enhance your 6r@mm@r!
Isn't it time you did something about your problem? Finally the genuine stuff -- without money tricks! Want harder grammar? Want to make your sentences up to three clauses longer? . . .
"I love how rapidly your product worked on my boyfriend, he can't stop talking about how excited he is having such a big new vocabulary and firm command of syntax!"
And yes, of course there's more, much more!
Posted by Jan Freeman at 06:34 PM
July 1, 2007
[Updated 7/03: Staples, whose catalog is the source of this ad, has changed the wording on its website: The refractory table ("stubborn, uncooperative") is now a refectory table (one meant for meals or refreshments -- though traditional refectory tables are large, heavy-legged dining-hall furniture, not modest tea table like this.)]
Posted by Jan Freeman at 10:13 PM
June 29, 2007
Idly language-linking here and there, I recently discovered that the most famous punctuation book of all time has not just a website but also an interactive quiz. Naturally, I couldn't resist.
It's only 12 questions, the first six on apostrophes and as straightforward as apostrophe questions can be. You click to add punctuation, as needed, to expressions like "the children's hands" and "four yards' worth."
The next six, on commas, are more complicated. "Stop, or I'll scream"? The quiz demands the comma, but does it really belong in that short, urgent command? When I check the book, I see the problem: Truss thinks "Stop" is an interjection, like "blimey" or "golly" or "heh-heh." But it's not -- it's a verb. And in a short compound sentence like "Stop or I'll scream," that comma is absolutely optional.
Then there's this puzzler:
Of course there weren't enough tickets to go round.
The test wants a comma after "of course." But for me, the punctuation would depend on what that "of course" is meant to do. And in the sample sentence, it's very hard to guess. The "of course" might be emphatic:
"Of course there weren't enough tickets to go round -- he always forgets to buy me one."
Or it might be parenthetical:
Jane gave us six tickets. Of course, there weren't enough tickets to go round, but we knew not everyone would want to see the play.
In the first case, the comma digs a pothole in the rhythm; in the second one, it's natural.
Oddly enough, in the book this test sentence is used to illustrate "weak interruptions" (like "of course") that don't always require commas: Truss says she, and you, can go either way.
Skipping the commas may drop your score down to "75 percent stickler," but that doesn't mean you're not 100 percent correct.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 11:32 AM
June 28, 2007
Several news reports of Paris Hilton's post-jail interview with Larry King quoted her as saying she wanted to help keep women from going to jail repeatedly. "I know I can make a difference and hopefully stop this vicious circle," she said.
Wow, I thought -- Paris Hilton knows it's vicious circle, not vicious cycle? That's unexpected.
As Paul Brians explains at his website, Common Errors in English:
The term “vicious circle” was invented by logicians to describe a form of fallacious circular argument. . . . The phrase has been extended in popular usage to all kinds of self-exacerbating processes such as this: poor people often find themselves borrowing money to pay off their debts, but in the process create even more onerous debts which in their turn will need to be financed by further borrowing. Sensing vaguely that such destructive spirals are not closed loops, people have transmuted “vicious circle” into “vicious cycle.” The problem with this perfectly logical change is that a lot of people know what the original “correct” phrase was and are likely to scorn users of the new one.
Unfortunately, Hilton's "vicious circle" was even more surprising once I'd seen the interview. (I had to watch it -- tediously, in segments, on YouTube -- because other people's ears can't be trusted; in fact, one website did misquote Hilton's words as "vicious cycle.") King looked as if he might nod off, lulled by the soporific stream of inanities: "Everything happens for a reason," "everyone makes mistakes," "I'm an Aquarius."
I suppose there must be, somewhere in the vast crowd of the momentarily famous, a celebrity whose conversation is less spellbinding than poor Paris Hilton's. But at the moment, I'm finding it hard to imagine.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 05:33 PM
June 12, 2007
Browsing the Google News headlines last week, I stumbled onto a new verb -- new to me, that is, though familiar enough in Britain for the past quarter-century.
It came up in a story of sudden death in the English countryside: A lamb belonging to celeb-chef Gordon Ramsay, put out to graze on the grounds of David and Victoria (Posh Spice) Beckham's estate, had been killed and eaten by a mysterious predator.
And Ramsay, who'd been fattening up the lamb for a starring role on his TV menu, wanted to know whodunit, reported the Daily Mail:
One downmarket rag last week suggested Gordon -- pictured [above] with the lamb -- had callously made up the story to publicise his show "The F Word." But the chef has been doorstepping neighbours of the Beckhams in Sawbridgeworth in an effort to track down the wild cat said to be the killer.
A not uncommon word in the British press, it seems. To doorstep someone is to confront him or her on the way out of a building, demanding answers or quotes, or, more generally, to hover about or stalk him.
The Oxford English Dictionary, which dates the transitive doorstep to 1981, quotes the Daily Telegraph (1987): "The incident . . . came amid mounting Royal Family anger with newspaper and freelance photographers ‘doorstepping’ their annual holiday."
There's an intransitive doorstep, meaning "sell or canvass door to door," that's a couple of decades older: "Dr. David Owen, a young St. Thomas' Hospital research graduate, is doorstepping assiduously in politically doubtful streets" (Daily Telegraph, 1966).
But in all those decades, doorstepping has barely made a dent in the American vernacular: Nexis shows only about 20 uses of the "ambush interview" sense since 1981 (plus a few of the "canvass" sense). (These numbers represent doorstepped and doorstepping, but for obvious reasons, I didn't search plain doorstep.)
Why have Americans resisted doorstep, while embracing gone missing and at the end of the day? We know doorsteps, both literal and figurative, whether or not our own homes have them.
Maybe it's because in this country doorsteps rarely lead to our celebrities and notables. Anyone doorsteppable is perched in the hills above Los Angeles or on the shores of Santa Monica, or barricaded in a Manhattan tower or Washington monument, with a straight path from door to taxi, limousine, or helicopter, no doorsteps involved.
But doorstepping is still young, as usages go. It may yet be coming to a newspaper near you.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 05:58 PM
June 2, 2007
Since Wednesday, I've been expecting the Times to publish a letter (or two) objecting to the tack Thomas Friedman took in his column, "Iran Arrests Grandma"($) :
Yes, big, tough President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- the man who shows us how tough he is by declaring the Holocaust a myth -- had his goons arrest Haleh Esfandiari, a 67-year-old scholar, grandmother and dual Iranian-U.S. citizen, while she was visiting her 93-year-old mother in Tehran. Do you know how paranoid you have to be to think that a 67-year-old grandmother visiting her 93-year-old mother can bring down your regime? Now that is insecure.
Now, you don't have to be Judge Judy to see the holes in this argument. Friedman doesn't really think "67-year-old grandmother" is synonymous with "feeble, harmless old lady." (Golda Meir? Indira Gandhi? Aung San Suu Kyi? He also knows he couldn't use "67-year-old grandfather" that way, to imply "harmless, powerless husk." (Not so long ago, Saddam Hussein was a 67-year-old grandfather.)
So what's with the poor-old-granny rhetoric? (He used the word "grandmother" five times in the column, not counting the headline.) Is the language there to taunt Iran, to fire up American sentiment, or just for "human interest"?
Whatever Friedman's end, readers apparently don't have a problem with his means. I've seen only one blog comment pointing out the illogic of the little-old-granny argument.
Did other readers think that a bit of sexism and ageism in defense of liberty was no vice? Or that the whole grandma angle was just too lame to deserve comment?
Posted by Jan Freeman at 10:12 PM
May 21, 2007
I've been meaning to post about the pleasures of reading Miss Snark, the literary agent, though her blog is less about the fine points of language than the gross points -- like how to query an agent without sounding like a nitwit.
Nitwittery is in plentiful supply, though, so Miss Snark (with the aid of her poodle, Killer Yapp, and a pail of gin) has been dispensing a stream of straight talk (and sometimes a shot from the cluegun) to would-be novelists. When she turned on the crapometer, offering free advice on sample queries, those who braved it got responses like this:
You're absolutely awash in more words than you need. Pare! Pare! Take that dagger and cut off about half of what you have here. Get the action moving. Quit telling us how all fired moody and Heathcliffian all these "he's" are. Kill someone! Now!
Miss Snark, alas, has abruptly hung up her stilettos, effective yesterday, saying that she has answered all the questions she has answers for. But the website -- two years' worth of tough love, Clooney swoons, and haiku in honor of Thomas Pynchon's 70th birthday -- lives on.
(P.S.: Miss Snark's "book" cover is only a joke. For now.)
Posted by Jan Freeman at 11:17 PM
May 13, 2007
Today's Word column deals with readers' eggcorn favorites, but the harvest was too abundant to be contained in that small space. Here are more contributions (some in edited form) from the current e-mail crop:
Margaret Menamin: "I have encountered the confusion of hearken and hark, gauntlet and gantlet. I once knew a judge who referred to bodyhouses instead of bawdyhouses, and that certainly made a great deal of sense."
Jim Sciulli: Prostrate for prostate, road to hoe, maddening crowd. "[Former Pittsburgh Pirates coach] Bill Cowher always said, 'Sorta speak.' Is it so to speak or sort of speak, or neither?"
Nancy May: "How about hone in on? I hear/see this one all the time."
Matt Seccombe: "My favorite eggcorn (in my editing work) is just desserts for just deserts. It has metaphorical possibilities, with the good boy receiving chocolate cake and ice cream while the naughty one gets stale biscuits and bruised apples."
John F. Guthrie, Jr.: "Chomping at the bit instead of champing at the bit."
Anabeth Dollins: "There's a Chinese food seller in the food court of a local [Pittsburgh] shopping mall that has been selling 'Fried Wanton' for years."
I'll have to make due
Don't make a big tadoo about it
I chocked it up to experience
It was chalked full of apples
That is just not exceptable
It peaked my interest
It will cause a fervor for sure
I had to either wear sunglasses or glint (squint)
He thinks he has exulted status
He honed in on it like a laser
We went to a potlatch supper
Add some Cheyenne pepper
They use no mast-produced products
David Westlake: "I've always felt that the granddaddy eggcorn of them all is momento for memento. Our brains are too good at making associations with things we already know, such as, in this case, 'Un momento, senor.'"
Edith Maxwell: "My son, now 20, used to talk about furnichair for tables, chairs, couches. My younger son used to say we were going on daycation. My goddaughter used to say she wanted to go out and play in the back yarden. Maybe those are less eggcorns than sensible new formations."
Jennifer Cox: "In 1996, when our entire office was being laid off, my colleague Pierre did his best to convince me that it was a blessing in the skies. I've always loved his imagery and the reinforced idea of 'heavenly' intervention."
Joseph S. Lieber: I suspect I am somewhat less tolerant than you of eggcorns; I tend to view them as little more than mistaken usage. Have you heard for all intensive purposes?"
Nick Giarratani: "Supposively or supposebly in lieu of supposedly. I work at Salem State College and am always
calling my kids on their misuse of those words!"
Sally Harris: "I've talked with several people who insist on using wheelbarrel instead of wheelbarrow. I guess it
sounds like a barrel on wheels."
Ray Smith: "How about the perennial children's eggcorn: chicken pops for chicken pox."
Harold Hyman: "Chaise lounge for chaise longue."
Elliot Singer: "I enjoyed your heart-rendering article."
Greg Nash: "One of my children told his friend that his grandmother had old-timer's disease."
Chaz Scoggins: "Here's one that makes me cringe: safety deposit boxes for safe deposit boxes]."
Bob Vanasse: "I have long suspected that children's common vocalizing of flutter-by, instead of butterfly, might actually be closer to its original name. It is certainly more descriptive."
Joe Donohue: "Sparrowgrass = asparagus. When I was called up in the Berlin crisis of 1961, and assigned to a Kentucky national guard tank battalion, I was asked, 'Do you like sparrowgrass?' I have an image of a huge flock of sparrows, settling down in a field of asparagus and pecking away at it until there is nothing left."
Stan Fleischman: "Does the misuse of tow the line for toe the line qualify?"
Jay Gold, M.D.: "Don't forget medicine (stuff that patients say) as a fertile source: Blood clogs, hard attack, old-timer's disease, sick-as-hell anemia."
Sandra Sweeney: "I was in the airport on Friday and heard a man say: They were wrecking havoc with it."
Elaine Bakal: We humans are always trying to make sense out of things we don't understand. In a memoir writing class I was in a few years ago, one of the students referred to a female character in his story as a pre-Madonna instead of a prima donna."
Julian Smith: "I opened a screenplay from one of my former scriptwriting students and discovered a reference to an anxious character being on tender hooks. My old student clearly meant tenterhooks -- but tender hooks struck me as a very useful description of the way lovers 'hook' one another or hook up."
Linda M. Elsmore: "The Globe ran a TV commercial depicting people from different neighborhoods in Boston. One, reflecting the neighborhood of Cambridge, used the word vervacity in her description. Didn't she mean vivacity or verve?"
John Bonavia: "I wonder if you noticed this extraordinary expression attributed to a Boston police officer (Globe, April 8): 'Sometimes parents just defend their kid until they're blind in the teeth.' I've heard of lie in their teeth or in a blind rage, but blind in the teeth?"
Barb Crook: "Isn't heart-wrenching just a corruption of heart-rending (or as some few others prefer to say, heart-rendering)?"
Earle: "KFI, a talk radio station here in Los Angeles, has a reporter covering the Phil Spector murder trial. This morning he reported on a defense motion to exclude evidence that Spector referred to women with an obscenity. [The defense argued], according to the reporter, that potential women jurors would have a guttural reaction to hearing the word. I found this mixture of gut reaction and visceral reaction pleasant on many levels."
P.R.: "Bare with me, tow the line, tough road to hoe. And a co-worker once offered me a kitten she referred to as a ferro cat; I could not convince her that she meant feral."
Sheila Hallissy: "As a retired English teacher, I have heard a
lot of fractured English. My favorite eggcorn is a student's estimation of her self of steam."
Posted by Jan Freeman at 07:24 AM
May 10, 2007
If you think airline language is worse than airline food, you've got a friend in the cockpit: Boston-bred pilot Patrick Smith, author of Salon.com's Ask the Pilot column, takes on the lingua franca of flight in the current installment. (Part 2, on air-terminal talk, will be online tomorrow.)
Some of Smith's entries are simply informational (and sometimes reassuring). Air pocket "has no precise meteorological meaning," he says; it's just a bump in the ride. And wind shearis "one of those buzzwords that scare the crap out of people, but in fact it's very common and rarely hazardous."
But others entries note pet peeves, which aren't all that different, it turns out, from yours and mine.
AT THIS TIME "At this time, we ask that you please put away all electronic devices and place all cellular phones in the off position." Meaning: now, or presently. This is air travel's signature euphemism, and one whose needlessness really sets my teeth on edge.
TAMPERING WITH, DISABLING OR DESTROYING "Federal law prohibits tampering with, disabling or destroying a lavatory smoke detector." While we're at it, this is another example of fatty verbiage that serves no purpose other than to bore passengers. Meaning: tampering with.
Smith goes too far, though, when he declares that the emphatic do -- "We do appreciate your choosing United" -- is a usage with "no grammatical justification." It may not be necessary in the friendly skies, but this has been normal English for a millennium and more.
The OED quotes (to pick examples with readable spelling) the16th-century Tyndale Bible ("Of whom Moses in the lawe and the prophetes dyd wryte") and Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" ("Not so, sir, I do care for something, but . . . I do not care for you").
And Smith ignores momentarily, the top complaint of flying language conservatives. "We'll be landing momentarily," they say, means "for a moment," not "in a moment." (They would also point out that presently means, or did mean till recently, "soon," not "now.")
Still, if you've ever recoiled at being "beveraged" at 30,000 feet, you'll be glad to hear that someone on the front lines shares your dismay, if not your every pet peeve.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 07:12 PM
May 7, 2007
Today's Language Log has a guest post by Reinhold Aman, editor of Maledicta, The International Journal of Verbal Aggression, on the ineptitude of translators around the world when confronted with Don Imus's nappy-headed hos.
Almost all translators mistranslated nappy-headed or hos or both. Below are samples from 16 languages to prove my assertion that foreign readers were severely misled by the wrong translations and that Don Imus was depicted as having been far nastier than he actually was.
Outside North America, English-language news media did no better than Germans and Romanians, Aman reports:
My four U.K. dictionaries (Chambers, Collins, Concise Oxford, Longman) define nappy only as "(baby's) napkin," American English "diaper," without any reference to hair, except for Collins which also lists "having a nap; downy; fuzzy" among its seven definitions of that adjective. For whatever reason, those translators were not puzzled by their strange translation "diaper-headed" or by the bizarre image of black women having diaper-shaped heads or wearing diapers on them. Perhaps those translators thought that nappy-headed was a synonym of "rag-headed" or "towel-headed," common pejoratives applied to Arabs because of their customary headdress.
Readers might take issue with Aman's judgments about the offensiveness of ho -- perhaps because he's immersed in abusive language, he considers it closer to "broad" than "slut" -- but his examples are fascinating.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 10:44 AM
May 2, 2007
Though I'm occasionally willing to poke fun at ad language, I'm not really annoyed by the slogans that purposely take liberties with "proper" usage. From "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should" to "Think different," taglines have always been formulated to get our attention, by fair means or foul.
But language accidents are a different story. How does an obvious blooper make its way into a giant company's print ad, an ad that is surely rewritten, designed, tested, and proofread for months, at vast expense? Right now I'm wondering about a splashy Merck newspaper ad that urges people over 60 to hotfoot it to the doctor's office for a shot of the company's new shingles vaccine. Among the bold red reasons:
The older you get, your risk for Shingles increases.
We'll give them the silly capital S; the writers want to make shingles look scarier and, perhaps, to distinguish the disease from the roofing material. But can there be one native speaker of English, either at Merck or its ad agency, who thinks that is normal English syntax? One who would say to a co-worker, for instance, "The more I write, my grasp of grammar declines"?
Well, maybe there is -- the construction is common enough on the Web -- but there shouldn't be. This is not one of those linguistic tight spots where "correct" grammar sounds overformal ("Whom do you trust?") or wordy ("Each patient should ask his or her doctor"). Some casual yet correct alternatives come to mind:
The older you get, the more you're at risk for shingles. (This one actually appears on the Merck website.)
The older you get, the higher your risk of shingles.
As you get older, your risk of shingles increases.
The risk of shingles increases with age.
Older adults are more at risk for shingles.
"Ask about the facts," the ad concludes. OK, I'm asking: who signed off on this sad excuse for a sentence?
Posted by Jan Freeman at 07:32 PM
April 27, 2007
I had never tried Gender Genie, but Chris's* reminder was timely, since I recently got one of the periodic inquiries I receive from readers who wonder (given my somewhat unisex name) whether I'm male or female.
The answer is female, but is my writing somehow telegraphing testosterone? I asked Gender Genie, feeding it four Word columns. Sure enough, it says I sound like a guy: The columns scored, on average, male 1346, female 964.
As a blogger, I'm more girly: The item I tested was rated female, 840 to 521. But looking at the keywords the Genie scores, I suspect this was because of my quotes from The Economist's stylebook, along the lines of "Aggravate means make worse, not irritate"; those nots, for some reason, count as strongly feminine words.
But is it the writer or the topic that's being measured? Just for fun, I plugged in Barbara Wallraff's latest Word Court column. That scored masculine too, 1005 to 768.
So did Ruth Walker's last Verbal Energy column on the Christian Science Monitor website: male 1168, female 530. And linguist Heidi Harley's recent post on Language Log: male 713, female 495.
Turns out this is just what happened when a columnist at The Guardian put the Genie through its paces a few years ago: Only one of the newspaper's female columnists was identified (and just barely) as woman.
This does make me wonder: Is journalistic prose typically more "masculine" by the Genie's yardstick? And if so, what sort of prose was used to develop the algorithm for nonfiction? Some corpus, apparently, in which women use with, if, not, where, and be a lot more than men do.
*Corrected 4/29: I originally credited the Genie post to Josh. Sorry, Chris!
Posted by Jan Freeman at 06:17 PM
April 23, 2007
Until Evan invited us to a grammar scolding last Friday, it hadn't occurred to me that reading usage rules could be a source of masochistic pleasure. But he's right about the Economist's style guide: If you want to be lectured about loose usage, the editors will tell you that "Aggravate means make worse, not irritate," that "Pristine means original or former; it does not mean clean," and similar things they wish were still true.
But for guilt-free entertainment, I prefer the entries you wouldn't find in an American style guide, like the caution on King Canute, who ordered the tide to stop coming in:
Canute's exercise on the seashore was designed to persuade his courtiers of what he knew to be true but they doubted, ie, that he was not omnipotent. Don't imply he was surprised to get his feet wet.
(That's some fancy negation, huh? "They doubted . . . that he was not omnipotent" -- that is, they flattered the king that he was omnipotent. )
Other unexpected and fascinating entries:
Garner means store, not gather.
Scotch: to scotch means to disable, not to destroy. (“We have scotched the snake, not killed it.”) The people may also be Scotch, Scots or Scottish; choose as you like.
Specific: a specific is a medicine, not a detail.
There's also a multiple-choice test and a section on Americanisms, acceptable and otherwise:
Do not write meet with or outside of: outside America, nowadays, you just meet people. Do not figure out if you can work out. To deliver on a promise means to keep it. A parking lot is a car park. Use senior rather than ranking, rumpus rather than ruckus, and rumbustious rather than rambunctious.
Cars are hired, not rented. City centres are not central cities. Cricket is a game not a sport. . . . Ex-servicemen are not necessarily veterans. In Britain, though cattle and pigs may be raised, children are (or should be) brought up.
The British, however, ignore a couple of our obsessions:
Americans tend to be fussy about making a distinction between which and that. Good writers of British English are less fastidious. ("We have left undone those things which we ought to have done.")
And they've thrown off the shackles of the subjunctive, judging by a subhead in the April 14-20 issue of the magazine. "Mitt the Moneymaker," the headline read, and under it: "If only that was all you had to do."
Posted by Jan Freeman at 05:00 PM
April 16, 2007
Who'd have guessed that my 1922 quote from Emily Post in yesterday's column -- on the gaucheness of "Pleased to meet you" -- would be so timely? It was just such language, so the London press is saying, that scuttled the romance of Prince William and girlfriend Kate Middleton.
It was not Kate's own language, though -- contrary to the Reuters item in today's Globe -- that was deemed too rough. It was her mother, Carole, who was heard saying "Pleased to meet you" instead of "How do you do" and "Pardon" instead of "What?" And, worse, "using the word 'toilet' not 'lavatory,'" according to the Daily Telegraph.
Novelist and biographer A.N. Wilson, defending the Middletons in today's Daily Mail, reviewed some of those shibboleths: "If you say 'notepaper' rather than 'writing paper'; if you say 'spectacles' rather than 'glasses'; if you say 'serviette' for 'napkin,' you are almost certainly a member of the middle classes, rather than upper."
Or you may be an innocent foreigner. Last month, Lynne "Lynneguist" Murphy blogged about the trials of moving from the States to South Africa to England, each time having to learn the preferred way to ask for the bathroom, restroom, toilet, or loo.
Shopping for plumbing can be a puzzle too. My mom stopped into Home Depot not long ago and asked to look at lavatories, only to have a helpful fellow lead her to the towering wall of toilets. He thought she was being euphemistic, but no -- she was actually seeking a bathroom sink. At least her need wasn't urgent.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 06:41 PM
April 11, 2007
"Bifor Aprille was the cruellest moneth (whatever that meneth!), it was a moneth of coloures and cries, and pilgrymages," writes Geoffrey Chaucer at his blog. (Yes, Chaucer hath a blog; he also hath high cholesterol and a wyf who is glad he's dieting: "She seyd that ich was 'blowing up lyk post-Kevin Britney.' ")
There's a reason T.S. Eliot and Chaucer had different views of April, of course -- one of those reasons is bearing down on the Northeast even now. So if you prefer Chaucer's spring -- if you still can recite "When that Aprille with his shoures soote / The droght of March hath perced to the roote," and so on -- then hie thee to Chaucer's celebration of the month.
Chaucer asked his fans for poetic readings and tributes, and he got them. "FSJL" offered these lines on another aspect of April's cruelty:
Whan that Aprille doth March displace,
with weping, walinge, and cryes folk do disporte
for there beth ne shelter ne resorte,
The IRS doth every fotestepe trace,
and will nat grante even a minute's grace,
an ye paye not, thenne the kyng his courte,
shall distrain on ye, and ye shall falle shorte.
And Tremulus Aescgar responded with a translation of the Prologue to the "Canterbury Tales" in the English of two or three centuries earlier:
Hwæt! Ða Eostre-monaþ mid his regne swete,
þæt drygenysse of Hreð-monaþ þurhdrifode to þam wyrtrumum,
and baðeþ hwelce ædre on swelce wine,
fram hwilc gehwilce bloma bið weaxode.
If you worry that English is changing too fast, pity Chaucer's pilgrims, whose language had evolved in a comparative heartbeat. Unlike them, we can read centuries-old texts with barely a stumble; take, say, Swift's rhymes on rain in the first few lines of "Description of a City Shower" (1710):
Careful observers may foretell the hour,
(By sure prognostics,) when to dread a shower.
While rain depends, the pensive cat gives o'er
Her frolics, and pursues her tail no more.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 11:57 AM
April 8, 2007
In today's column on eggcorns, I only had space for a mention of mondegreens, those related (but different) misconstruals of poems and song lyrics.
The name mondegreen was coined by Sylvia Wright, in a 1954 Harper's magazine article where she explained her misunderstanding of an old Scottish ballad her mother used to read to her. "They hae slain the Earl Amurray / And Lady Mondegreen," Wright heard. As she pictured it:
He was lying in the forest clearing with an arrow in his heart. Lady Mondegreen lay at his side, her long dark brown curls spread out over the moss. She wore a dark green dress embroidered with light green leaves. . . She was holding the Earl's hand.
"They" had in fact slain the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green -- but Wright refused to correct herself: "I won't give in to it. Leaving him to die all alone without even anyone to hold his hand -- I won't have it."
I had often seen Wright credited with mondegreen, but I'd never seen the original article. Last week, however -- as Josh Glenn noted here -- Harper's put its archives online, all 157 years' worth, for the price of a subscription ($16.97 a year). So I zoomed back to 1954 and got acquainted with Wright's other mondegreens, like Good Mrs. Murphy (goodness and mercy), Pay Treats Day (that Massachusetts holiday), and the Donzerly Light of the Star-Spangled Banner.
(That same illumination, spelled "dawnzer lee light," would later puzzle Ramona, Beverly Cleary's beloved heroine, not just in English but also in French. In "Ramona la peste," the schoolchildren sing, "Oh voyez-vous, quand la lumiere de l'aube luit" ("Oh do you see, when the light of dawn shines"). But Ramona hears "l'aube luit" as the nonsense word "lobeluits," and decides -- as her English original did -- that it must be another word for "lamp.")
Popular songs, of course, have generated hundreds of mondegreens. In "The Enlightened Bracketologist: The Final Four of Everything," a line from Elton John's "Philadelphia Freedom" -- "a piece of Mama Daddy never had" (for "a peace of mind that Daddy never had")-- beats out other famous mishearings like John Fogerty's "There's a bathroom on the right" and the Beatles' "a girl with colitis goes by."
When I double-checked the lyrics at Kissthisguy.com, though, I found that the "correctors" had themselves used an eggcorn: they gave the real line not as "a peace of mind" but as "a piece of mind that Daddy never had," as if Daddy were a few bricks short of a load.
But then, mondegreens and eggcorns are sneaky little critters. There's even one on today's Ideas front, in the tease for "The Word," which makes me suspect that one of my editors was wantin' Chinese food last Friday: The column topic was wanton, but the cover line came out "Want, wonton, wont."
Posted by Jan Freeman at 02:54 PM
April 2, 2007
Over at Separated by a Common Language, Lynne Murphy looks at (among other social niceties) the salutation cheers as used by Americans and Britons:
Cheers is interesting because it is so flexible. In AmE, it is simply used as a salutation in drinking (or sometimes with a mimed glass in hand, as a means of congratulations). In BrE it has this use, but is also used to mean 'thank you', 'goodbye' or 'thanks and goodbye'.
"I find it very useful for those situations in which one wants to close an e-mail with thank you for something that hasn't been done yet," Murphy adds.
Americans, too, have noticed the usefulness of cheers. It has been gaining ground fast as an e-mail signoff here -- I've used it myself occasionally, since (the record reveals) fall 2005. And a count of total uses of cheers in my saved e-mail -- incoming and outgoing -- shows a dramatic rise:
Some of these instances, of course, must be repetitions of the greeting as a discussion goes back and forth, but still, the recent surge is striking. And though cheers may be a British import, nearly all the correspondents in my collection were Americans.
Before cheers was a drinking salute, says the OED, it was merely a cheerful greeting, like the slightly earlier cheerio (1910, as cheero), which also evolved into a hello/goodbye greeting.
That made me wonder if cheers had been helped along, in its transition to America, by its resemblance to ciao, another cheerful hello/goodbye (but one that declined from wordly to cheesy -- in non-Italian usage -- some decades ago).
I don't have an answer, but I do have this fascinating etymological note: Ciao, according to the OED, is a dialect version of schiavo, Italian for slave. Hence ciao means "I am your slave." And you thought "your humble servant" was as sycophantic as a signoff could get.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 11:07 PM
March 31, 2007
As its authors have been explaining to everyone who would lend them a microphone, "The Enlightened Bracketologist: The Final Four of Everything" is not a basketball book. It's a brackets miscellany, in which experts apply the March Madness method of winnowing to 101 cultural categories as varied as Economic Indicators, Paul Simon Songs, and Women's Undies.
And, of all things, punctuation. Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, staged the punctuation playoffs, arraying parentheses and tildes, capital letters and commas in competing pairs. Semicolon and space faced off in the final, and Sheidlower's final pick for punctuation champ was the space.
That's an obvious enough call; none of us want to return to the days when monks economized on parchment by running words together. But how did the semicolon get so far?
By beating the dollar sign and the pilcrow (the old-fashioned paragraph sign) and then, less understandably, the uppercase and the period. The semicolon more powerful than the period? Sounds like the decision of a semicolon sentimentalist.
And Sheidlower's commentary doesn't dispel that suspicion:
A tough battle indeed. While the period is objectively more important, in the end it has no soul. You master the period when you learn to write. The semicolon actually says something. What Nicholson Baker has called "that supremely self-possessed valet of phraseology" is a relatively modern mark, yet skilled use of it is what separates the pedestrian from the elegant.
I'd think a showdown between the period and space would have been even tougher. But that's the point, say "Bracketologist" authors Mark Reiter and Richard Sandomir: It's not about who wins, it's about the pleasure of squaring off over square brackets, apostrophizing ampersands, and debating em dashes with your fellow punctuation nuts.
And when you've had enough of that, you can move on to the Latin grammar shootout. (The smart money's on the ablative absolute.)
Posted by Jan Freeman at 06:21 PM
March 26, 2007
A couple of weeks ago, I ranted about the grammatically misunderstood woe is me, and promised (or threatened) to return to the question. And here I am, with a tentative diagnosis: I'm betting that Patricia O'Conner's catchy book title, "Woe Is I," has a lot to do with our current confusion.
Before that 1996 usage guide hit the bookstores, most people knew the idiom was woe is me, and most people never gave it a second thought. Now uncertainty reigns, and no wonder: O'Conner herself hasn't yet got the grammar straight.
Last fall, on her Q&A blog Grammarphobia, O'Conner answered a reader who wondered why the title was not "Woe Is Me" or "Woe Am I":
I chose the title "Woe Is I" to poke fun at hypercorrectness. The butt of the joke is the old rule of English grammar (now considered excessively formal) that required the nominative case after the verb “to be.” (Example: using “It is I” instead of “It is me” or “It's me.”) . . . Here’s how I put it in the preface to the second edition:
“While ‘Woe is I’ may appear technically correct (and that’s a matter of opinion), the expression ‘Woe is me’ has been good English for generations. Only a pompous twit -- or an author trying to make a point -- would use ‘I’ instead of ‘me’ here.”
Beside the point, almost every word of it. As I said in my previous post, woe is me has nothing to do with the predicate nominative. Woe is I is not "technically correct," and that is not just "a matter of opinion." "Woe is me" has been good English not merely "for generations" but (linguistically speaking) forever.
But O'Conner is not alone in her grammatical muddle. William Safire is also confused about woe is me, and, worse, he likes it that way.
In a 1993 New York Times column, Safire -- defending the likes of "it's me" -- wrote that "The grammatically pristine form of 'Woe is me' is 'Woe is I' (or even 'Woe am I'), but go tell that to Ophelia and Isaiah."
Bales of mail soon arrived, Safire reported, informing him that "the pronoun here is not a nominative at all: it is a dative. . . . In 'Woe is me,' the noun is not being equated with the pronoun. The meaning is 'Woe is to me' or 'Woe is unto me.' "
He continued his recap:
My interpretation of Shakespeare and the Bible held that, in this use, woe and me were one and the same, and my point was to show a long history of the use of the objective me, when formal usage would dictate the nominative I. After all, if both Shakespeare's heroine and the biblical prophet said, "Woe is me," who are the predicate nominatarians to insist on "Woe is I"?
And now, said Safire, I have to learn about the dative? He dutifully added a paragraph explaining how it worked, but his conclusion was, essentially, Dative, shmative:
I think Shakespeare knew what he was writing. If he had wanted to say, "Woe is to me," he would have said it (or if the poetic meter required three syllables, "Woe is mine"). Contrary to the opinion of all my activist-dativist correspondents, I think he did intend to equate woe and me. Sometimes the truth lies flat on the surface.
Indeed it does, and here it is: For 400 years before Shakespeare, the written record shows people using woe is me, woe is us, woe is unto me, woe to them. It was ordinary English. If Shakespeare had written "Woe is I," we might want to examine his reasons, but "woe is me" requires no deep interpretation.
Woe is us, indeed, when writers who claim to love language and grammar care so little about the facts.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 09:18 PM
March 14, 2007
I've been reading the new book by Ben Yagoda, "When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse" (you can read the first chapter here, and his recent piece in the L.A. Times on the gender-neutral pronoun -- also covered in the book -- here). And in the chapter on pronouns, I came upon this:
[When I answer the phone], how should I respond? Standard English mandates that the verb be be followed by the subjective case, which would have me say something like "This is he." . . .
But in the current millennium, that kind of thing sounds fatally stuffy. This is obvious to songwriters, who have given us such works as Todd Rundgren's "Hello, It's Me" and (better yet) Crystal Gayle's "If Your Phone Doesn't Ring, It's Me"; to Shakespeare, who had Ophelia say, "Woe is me"; and to the writers of the King James Bible, who used the same statement three separate times, including Isaiah 6:5: "Then said I, Woe is me! For I am undone."
Woe, indeed. We are wandering in the grammatical wilderness when a college professor thinks that "Woe is me" is the unstuffy, 21st-century corruption of "Woe is I." It's not so: "Woe is me" is the original, genuine, and grammatically correct expression, and it has nothing to do with the predicate nominative. "This is he" vs. "This is him" is a different thing entirely.
Why "Woe is me"? Because Old English had a dative case (you may have met the dative in Latin class), the form used for the indirect object. In the sentence "I gave him the book," him is the indirect object; in Old English, it would have appeared in the dative case.
This is not arcane knowledge. The OED explains the use of woe "construed with a dative (or, later, its equivalent), with or without a verb of being or happening, in sentences expressing the incidence of distress, affliction, or grief." It has abundant examples of "woe unto me," "woe is me," "woe were us" and the like, from "Beowulf" to the late 19th century. There are no instances of "woe is I" or "woe is they."
So why the confusion? Well, it turns out the fog has been gathering for a while. But I'll leave the rest of this woeful tale for a later post -- or two.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 10:02 PM
March 12, 2007
This morning John heard a WBUR reporter jokingly refer to the plural of the Toyota Prius as "Prii," and he wondered: Could that Latin plural be right, or was this plural form just a misbegotten language hybrid, as it were?
Well, my Latin is minimal and creaky, but Miss Madge Mossman (R.I.P) equipped me with enough grammar for a Google search. And the first thing I found was the much-quoted misinformation provided by a Toyota spokesman back in 2004. "Prius is a Latin word meaning 'to go before,'" he explained. "Toyota chose this name because the Prius vehicle is the predecessor of cars to come."
But prius can't be a Latin infinitive; "to go before" would have to be a verb, like, say, precedere. Actually, prius is just the neuter form of prior, the comparative adjective, meaning "earlier, anterior, superior." As a noun, it would mean "earlier one" or "superior one." And its plural would be, if I read aright, not Prii but Prioria.
Pleasant enough -- but as it happens, prioria is also medieval Latin for "priories." And while Prius drivers are a devout lot, they probably don't think of their cars as nunneries and monasteries. I'm guessing we'll settle down with the standard English plural; after all, we've got plenty of words weirder than Priuses.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 04:37 PM
February 27, 2007
John Leahy, responding to my observations on the inadequacies of Microsoft's grammar checker, asks a question I didn't have space to address: "Is it grammatically correct to start a sentence with And?"
Well, it's OK with Yahweh, at least according to all the English versions of Genesis I've seen: "And God said," "And God made," "And God saw," and so on.
But the grammar checker was programmed to obey a lesser authority -- someone's high school teacher, probably -- and it says no to And, But, and Or at the start of a sentence. (Strangely, it ignores initial However, another common teachers' fetish.)
Is there really such a rule? Coincidentally, the issue comes up in a discussion today on Language Log. Commenting on a series of posts at the Daily Telegraph's website, Mark Liberman notes that public griping can create or enshrine baseless linguistic prejudices: "Sentence-initial however, for example, annoys many people who would never have noticed it if they hadn't been trained to do so."
And he quotes fellow linguist Arnold Zwicky on the mythical rule of no-initial-conjunction, or NIC, which is rejected by the American Heritage Dictionary and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, among others:
Paul Brians, collector of common errors in English, labels sentence-initial coordinators a "non-error". Bryan Garner denies, all over the place, that NIC has any validity. Even the curmudgeonly Robert Hartwell Fiske tells his readers that there's absolutely nothing wrong with sentence-initial coordinators. . . . NIC is crap.
But still it lives on, as what I've called a zombie rule. . . . Hardly any usage manual subscribes to it, but it is, apparently, widely taught in schools, at least in the U.S., with the result that educated people tend to be nagged by a feeling that there is something bad about sentence-initial and.
But there isn't -- no matter what your editor or your grammar checker says.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 05:35 PM
February 21, 2007
As I mentioned in last Sunday's Word column, it was Jon Stewart's report on the Lisa Nowak incident -- with its multiple uses of diapers in a context that sounded singular -- that got me wondering about the status of the word. I e-mailed lexicographer Ben Zimmer for help untangling the singular/plural possibilities of diapers, and boy, did he answer the call.
His first round of results, "Astronaut drives 900 miles wearing . . . ", appeared on Language Log last week; the second, "Diapers, diapers, and more diapers," is up today, with more detailed evidence that both diapers and a pair of diapers can be used to mean a diaper.
Zimmer's oldest example (so far) of singular diapers dates from a 1915 infant-care book, which uses "dry diapers" to mean "a dry diaper": "Directly before the nursing or feeding time it [the baby] should be put in dry diapers and properly powdered."
And "pair of diapers" appears by 1930: "We wish that when the New Year is welcomed into Wisconsin that they'll give the poor little tyke something besides a pair of diapers."
James Michael Curley, Harold Ickes, and the comic strips "L'il Abner" and "Moon Mullins" also supply important evidence. Who'd have thought there was so much to discover in diapers?
Posted by Jan Freeman at 04:18 PM
February 19, 2007
As I was investigating the uses of stomach, the verb, for yesterday's Word column, I remembered being taught that I should distinguish between stomach, the digestive organ, and belly, the abdomen. At the time I thought the issue was scientific accuracy, but there was more to the story, it turns out: A belly reclamation project was under way through much of the 20th century, as usagists labored to restore the word to respectability.
Here's a sampling of the campaign literature, starting with H.L. Mencken in "The American Language" (1921):
The Englishman, on the whole, is more plain-spoken than the American, and such terms as bitch, mare and on foal do not commonly daunt him, largely, perhaps, because of his greater familiarity with country life. . . . But an Englishman hesitates to mention his stomach in the presence of ladies, though he discourses freely about his liver. To avoid the necessity he employs such euphemisms as Little Mary.
H.W. Fowler, Modern English Usage (1926):
Belly is a good word now almost done to death by genteelism. It lingers in proverbs & phrases, but even they are being amended into up-to-date delicacy, & the road to the heart lies less often through the b[elly] than through the stomach or the tummy.
Bergen and Cornelia Evans, A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957):
Belly is a good, sensible, established, time-honored word for that part of the human body which extends from the breastbone to the pelvis and contains the abdominal viscera. . . .
Stomach describes a particular organ, a sac-like enlargement of the alimentary canal. . . .
Tummy is simply disgusting when used by anyone over the age of four.
Kenneth G. Wilson, The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993):
Victorian American manners made the word belly, like leg, cock, bull, and many others taboo in most mixed company. Abdomen, stomach, midriff, and the cute tummy and jocular breadbasket were used as euphemisms instead. Today belly is Standard (although conservatives may prefer abdomen) in a range of literal and figurative meanings, the most central of which are the literal “the front lower part of the human body,” “the stomach,” “the abdominal cavity,” and “the underside of an animal’s body.” As a name for the womb, belly is partly archaic, partly Conversational: Where do babies come from? From Mommy’s belly.
Bill Bryson, "Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States" (1994):
On an early [TV] talk show when the English comedian Beatrice Lillie jokingly remarked of belly dances that she "had no stomach for that kind of thing," it caused a small scandal.
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994):
The committee for the defense of belly as applied to people seems to have been formed by Fowler 1926. . . . Although none of our 19th-century sources mention the word, there seems to have been a notion around that it was not polite. Krapp 1927 notes that belly was not then used in polite conversation or writing with reference to human beings. This newspaper article refers to the question:
"[It's time] to scrap the Victorian version of belly and explain that since the gay nineties it has not been necessary to confuse belly with stomach or abdomen in order to show your good breeding." (Bronx Home News, 1937)
Posted by Jan Freeman at 08:13 PM
February 16, 2007
In last Sunday's Word column, I mentioned the question of punctuating the title Ms. If it's not really an abbreviation, readers asked, why does it have a period?
No reason, was my answer, except to make it harmonize with Mrs. and Mr. -- and that answer still stands. But Ben Zimmer has sent along some Ms. information from decades before the earliest OED citations.
"Your reader who complains that 'Ms is not an abbreviation for anything and therefore does not need a period' might be interested to know that this has been a point of contention for quite a long time," he writes. "I discovered what is currently the earliest known cite, a 1901 article in the Humeston (Iowa) New Era commenting on the Springfield (Mass.) Republican's suggestion of Ms.":
As a word to be used in place of
"Miss" or "Mrs.," when the addresser is ignorant of the state of the
person addressed, the Springfield Republican suggests a word of which
"Ms." is the abbreviation, with a pronunciation something like "Mizz." But the Republican does not tell what the new word is or how it is to be
"Because the Springfield paper spelled the word with a period, the Humeston paper confusedly assumed it must be an abbreviation for a longer word," notes Zimmer. (And the Springfield newspaper's original citation has not yet been excavated from its hiding place. Maybe we'll learn one day that Ms., like scofflaw, debuted in Massachusetts.)
For more on Ms., see Zimmer's post at the American Dialect Society's Linguist List.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 05:06 PM
February 14, 2007
In a New York Sun article today, linguist John McWhorter uses the history of love -- the word, not the phenomenon -- to illustrate the way today's "mistakes" may morph into "simply tomorrow's version of the language."
Love was [used] as a noun, but quickly started being used as a verb as well. That is, when you say, "I love you" to someone, you are using a word that began as a noun just as fax, interface, and green-light did.
And long before that, the word's spelling and pronunciation had been evolving. Leubh is the root of love and believe, but
people started "mispronouncing" leubh just as you-know-who pronounces nuclear as nucular. But the planet keeps spinning and we have no sense that the "proper" pronunciation of belief is "beleubh." It was the same with the transformation of leubh into love. Every time we say love or belief, we are, technically, mispronouncing leubh!
Posted by Jan Freeman at 02:26 PM
February 13, 2007
Lynne Truss's comic rage against apostrophe abuse helped sell a zillion copies of her punctuation manifesto, "Eats, Shoots & Leaves." But according to a report in the Independent on Sunday, Truss isn't laughing about the parodies her book has inspired.
In an outspoken attack on the wave of imitators who have spoofed the book's quirky title and cover design, Ms. Truss said she did not know how publishers of such imitations "live with themselves."
The parodies include "Eats, Shites & Leaves: Crap English and How to Use It," and "Doctor Whom," a "send-up about poor grammar acting as a catalyst for universal entropy."
Even the Vegetarian Society has clambered on to the bandwagon, with a booklet entitled "Eat Shoots and Leaves? More Interesting Cuisine from the Cordon Vert School."
Curiously, reporter James Morrison does not say where or when Truss made her comments; I would have expected an "outspoken attack" to produce longer or at least snappier quotes than anything printed here. But maybe there's more and better invective to come.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 08:26 PM
February 12, 2007
In the past decade, books about language have been making a play for the Valentine's Day market, and why not? They're the no-calorie, no-wilt, low-priced alternative to you-know-what. Should your sweetheart be receptive to this sort of thing, there are several flavors to choose from.
Just out is Erin McKean's "That's Amore: The Language of Love for Lovers of Language." McKean, a lexicographer and author of "Totally Weird and Wonderful Words," takes her search for language tidbits international this time around. A taste:
Rouler un patin: Finally a great mystery revealed: this phrase is how the French say "to French-kiss"! Literally translated, Je lui ai roulé un patin means "I rolled a skate to him."
Evan Morris, otherwise known as The Word Detective, sticks with English in 2004's "Making Whoopee: Words of Love for Lovers of Words," a collection of etymologies:
When bimbo, which is a shortened form of bambino, Italian for "child" or "baby," first appeared in English around 1919, it originally meant a young person of either gender and, in fact, was most often applied to men. When a gangster spoke of a bimbo in the 1920s, chances were that he was referring to the sort of dim-witted street-corner thug we might today call a wise-guy wanna-be.
Mark Morton, in "The Lover's Tongue: A Merry Romp Through the Language of Love and Sex" (2003), also covers English etymologies, though in more (and racier) detail:
The word hot, too, has been featured in amorous idioms since at least the early 14th century. Shakespeare, for example, uses the word hot as a synonym for lusty. In "Henry IV Part 1," Hal refers to a "hot wench in flame-coloured taffeta," and in "Othello" Iago implies that Desdemona and her supposed lover are "hot as monkeys."
Posted by Jan Freeman at 01:44 PM
February 7, 2007
Let me second Chris Shea's praise for Seth Lobis's essay on "self-reliance," in which the BU professor uncovers the word's sinful 18th-century career. The Oxford English Dictionary has the 19th-century self-reliant -- the favorable Emersonian sense we know today -- but Lobis found the word used differently in much earlier texts, where self-reliance was denounced as a form of un-Christian pride.
Fascinating stuff -- but I have to take issue with one of Chris's characterizations. Because it has no citations of "self-reliance" before 1833, he says, "the OED seems to have gotten this one wrong."
But "wrong" is inappropriate here. No historical dictionary would claim that its first citation is the first-ever use of a word; it's only the earliest found to date. "Lexicographers are always delighted to discover evidence (called a citation) of early usage," noted a Merriam-Webster "Word for the Wise" broadcast last month:
Between the 10th and 11th editions of the Collegiate Dictionary . . . the first known print appearance of the term bona fides (meaning "evidence of one’s good faith, genuiness, achievements, or qualifications;" or simply "good faith; sincerity; the act of being genuine") shifted -- for real -- from 1798 to 1665.
And the OED's editors regularly beg the public for help in antedating words. A year ago, in fact, they took their quest on the air with a BBC TV show, "Balderdash & Piffle." The series is heading for a second season, and the new "Wordhunt" appeal list seeks earlier dates for hoodie (1990), marital aid (1976), identity theft (1991), and sick puppy (1985), among others.
Antedating gets easier by the day, as reams of text are moved to Internet archives; even amateurs can play. So go ahead, correct the OED on the dating of loo or scrunchie or one-trick pony. They'll be more than happy to hear from you.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 07:55 PM
February 5, 2007
The Wall Street Journal has a story today (subscription, $) about Beijing officials' push to revise the city's mangled English signs in time for the 2008 Olympics:
Teams of linguistic monitors will patrol the city's parks, museums, subway stations and other public places searching for gaffes to fix.
Signs like "Green Grass Dreading Your Feet" -- i.e., Keep Off the Grass -- have their fans, who collect them online. But the locals aren't laughing.
"We cannot leave [these signs] up just for the amusement of foreigners," one Beijing businesswoman told the Journal.
A few years ago, when "all your base are belong to us" was the catchphrase of the moment, I wrote a column about such off-kilter translations. I can understand why they're funny, I said, when they produce a pun or an off-color joke: "The lift is being fixed -- we regret that you will be unbearable," or "Special cocktails for ladies with nuts."
It's not so obvious, though, why we're amused when the mistake is not a joke but a near miss -- when a non-native speaker says "I have a new for you" or "I like to go naked-foot." Are we feeling superior, or are we enjoying a small revelation about language, as we do when a toddler says "Where doggy go?" or "I haved it"?
There's no reason, after all, not to call one news item "a new" or use a regular past tense for "have"; we just don't. And when someone (accidentally) reveals that we could, it makes us smile. Do psycholinguists know why? And if so, could they please share the answer?
Posted by Jan Freeman at 05:01 PM
January 30, 2007
In the last line of today's item on pornography, Evan has a nice example of undernegation.
Acknowledging that it won't be stopped isn't reason to point out that it should be.
He means (as readers surely understood) that acknowledging the permanence of porn is no reason not to oppose it. But it's not unusual to find one too few negations, or one too many, in expressions like this -- not just in unedited blog posts or e-mails, but in cold print, too.
"Been quite a season for mold," observed the Globe Handyman last summer. "Who has not escaped?" (Meaning "Who has escaped?")
And a Times story last winter had this sentence: "Although the Party Ride is a crowd pleaser, it would be misleading to suggest that the experience is not without its bumps." (Meaning "it would be misleading to suggest that the experience is without bumps.)
And even the best publications use "still unpacked" to mean "still not unpacked" – "a duffel bag still unpacked from a recent trip," for instance. After Geoff Nunberg kicked off a discussion about "still unpacked" at Language Log in 2005, the construction turned out to be so common that some linguists doubted it could be called a mistake.
Most faulty negations float by unnoticed, of course. Like the editors who missed them in the first place, readers fill in the intended sense and move on. "I'll miss not seeing my friends," says the retiring colleague, and nobody bats an eye. Only "I could care less" reliably gets a rise out of the blue-pencil brigade. Could it be that what they really object to isn't the grammar, but the attitude?
Posted by Jan Freeman at 09:23 PM
January 24, 2007
Maybe President Bush thought he was quoting the Bible (or maybe not) in last night's State of the Union. But actually, he was quoting John F. Kennedy Jr. Back in 1997, in a Word column, I rapped an editor's letter in JFK Jr.'s magazine, George, for its execrable prose, including the syntactically defective misquotation "To whom much is given, much is expected, right?"
President Kennedy had used a version of the quotation -- "For of those to whom much is given, much is required" -- that was grammatically complete, though less florid than the King James version of Luke 12:48: "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required." But John-John's stripped-down version is the one Bush has been using for years.
Of course, lots of familiar quotations get shortened or sweetened in everyday use: "Nice guys finish last," "Money is the root of all evil," "Play it again, Sam." (See Ralph Keyes's excellent book, "The Quote Verifier," for hundreds more.) But most of them remain grammatically sound, even when their sense is warped.
So how does this abbreviated Bible quote keep chugging along when essential parts of it have fallen off? I've always assumed that its users think that since it sounds quaint, it doesn't have to make sense -- like the people who think "their cups runneth over" is adorably archaic.
So I was pleased to see that theory echoed by Mark Liberman, at the end of a long and erudite discussion with fellow linguists, at Language Log this morning:
My current guess is that we encounter fused relatives in historical sources -- Shakespeare, some bible translations, and so on -- and we grasp the intended meaning without being able to process the form. . . . There's a sort of grammatical get-out-of-jail-free card given to high-sounding old-fashioned sentences in which relative clauses serve as noun phrases. Thus if you come across such a sentence, you should figure out what it ought to mean, and not worry too much about how it gets there."
That shouldn't be read as an endorsement of the mangled quote, though. Liberman headlines his blog post "Ungrammatical timeless truths."
Posted by Jan Freeman at 10:30 AM
January 22, 2007
In a post at the Guardian's opinion weblog, Comment Is Free, Brian Whitaker argues that the English-language press is subverting accuracy and promoting divisiveness by its overuse of the word "Allah":
There is no logical reason for this. Why use an Arabic word in English-language news reports when there is a perfectly good English word that means exactly the same thing?
Various Arabic words -- jihad and sheikh, for example -- have crept into everyday usage because no precise equivalent exists in English, but "Allah" is not of that type. It is simply the normal word that Arabic speakers use for "God" -- whether they are Muslims or not. Arab Christians worship "Allah" too, and the first verse of the Arabic Bible informs us that "In the beginning Allah created heaven and earth."
I've never heard a style directive on the God-Allah question, and in practice it seems to be up to individual reporters and editors. Some accounts of Saddam Hussein's hanging, for instance, translate his last words as "there is no god but God"; others quote it as "there is no god but Allah."
For Whitaker, the indiscriminate use of "Allah" is "yet another example of the subtle ways that news organisations can influence people's attitudes, perhaps unintentionally."
By opting for "Allah" they are aligning themselves, in effect, with those who view international politics in terms of a clash of civilizations.
Some of the many commenters on the blog beg strenuously to disagree, on political or theological grounds or both. Still, it's hard to deny that "There is no god but Allah" sounds like a very different sentiment if you translate it as "There is no deity but God."
Posted by Jan Freeman at 07:04 PM
January 9, 2007
Today on "Fresh Air," Terry Gross had a long interview with GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who's known for the kind of strategic relabeling that transformed the inheritance tax into a "death tax" and global warming into "climate change."
Luntz has just published "Words that Work," a book explaining how we can all communicate better by using his insights. In today's interview, he earnestly (though not convincingly) insisted that his only goal was to clarify the truth for the American people. It's worth a listen, if only to marvel that he can keep the radio equivalent of a straight face throughout.
His message is not new, though; what caught my ear was a hint of etymological reanalysis suggested by a particular pronunciation. As Luntz explained that environmentalism had given itself a bad name, he said, "A conservationist is seen as someone in the MAIN-stream. An environmentalist, more often, is seen as someone who is more EX-treme." An indifferent speller might well have thought he was contrasting two kinds of stream (or streme).
But of course there is no stream in extreme. The stream that flows into the river is a Germanic word, native to English from the beginning. Extreme, rooted in the Latin extremus -- "far out" -- doesn't come to English till circa 1500. The meanings contrast nicely, but the words aren't even kissing cousins.
Yeah, you know that, and I know that, and probably Frank Luntz knows that. But what about the people who generated the 400,000+ Google hits for exstream? All punsters, or victims of a new folk etymology?
Maybe our great-grandchildren will picture exstreamists as the losers who watch from the riverbank as the sensible people sail by on the mainstream. If "climate change" leaves any riverbanks behind, that is.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 11:43 PM
December 19, 2006
Maybe using nouns as verbs "weirds language," as "Calvin & Hobbes" famously observed, but according to a new report from the University of Liverpool, it also limbers up the little gray cells - at least when it's Shakespeare who does the verbing.
"Bard boosts brain," "Shakespeare excites brain," and, most implausibly, "Shakespeare used advanced brain theories" say the various headlines on the story, which claims that brain imaging shows how Shakespeare's inventive language stimulates mental activity.
Philip Davis, professor of English at Liverpool, explains:
"It works in a similar way to putting a jigsaw puzzle together. If it is easy to see which pieces slot together you become bored of the game, but if the pieces don’t appear to fit, when we know they should, the brain becomes excited.
"Research has shown that there are parts of the brain that are responsible for the processing of nouns and others for the processing of verbs. . . . If you throw something in that looks like a noun, but is used as a verb, a new level of consciousness might have to be created as they talk to each other.
"For example, Shakespeare uses the phrase, 'he godded me' in the tragedy 'Coriolanus.' Godded looks like a noun, but is a verb and the brain is confused by the anomaly."
Confused in a good way, Davis is certain: "One of the things that makes us dull is simply going back over established pathways."
But wait, there's more:
The research could help stave off old age, claim the researchers, who are conducting more experiments to identify the precise regions of the brains that are involved.
"All's well that ends well," indeed. It's not clear, though, whether verbing nouns is supposed to be good medicine only in great literature, or wherever it turns up. Reading Shakespeare sounds like a fine prescription for mental longevity. But if officing, incentivizing, and solutioning are the brain boosters on offer, some people might prefer oblivion.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 10:15 PM
December 6, 2006
Today's serving of spam included a salvo from the war-on-Christmas camp, an e-mailed book promo headlined WAR ON CHRISTMAS TEACHES OUR CHILDREN THAT CHRIST IS A FIVE-LETTER WORD.
Yes, those evil secular progressives "are teaching kids that Christianity = profanity." Scary, isn't it? But not so scary as teaching them that Christ, that's C-h-r-i-s-t, is a five-letter word. Even people who count on their fingers should be able to get up to six.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 01:15 PM
December 3, 2006
In his Sept. 24 Ideas article, "Sex on the Brain," linguist Mark Liberman scrutinized the claims of some recent books -- like Louann Brizendine's "The Female Brain" -- that women talk more than men.
Not likely, he concluded, based on the actual science that's out there, and certainly not proven by anything in these authors' flimsy footnotes. For instance, Brizendine's sexy stat -- "A woman uses about 20,000 words per day while a man uses about 7,000" -- was sourced to a self-help book that offered no evidence at all.
A bit of Googling easily turns up at least nine different versions of this claim, ranging from 50,000 vs. 25,000 down to 5,000 vs. 2,500. But a bit of deeper research reveals that none of the authors of these claims actually seems to have counted, and none cites anyone who seems to have counted either.
His dissent did nothing to slow the urban legend's spread, which Liberman has been grimly documenting at Language Log. Last week, however, the truth squad caught up with Brizendine, in the person of Guardian reporter Stephen Moss, who wrote in a Nov. 27 story that Brizendine
has accepted the criticism of the numbers . . . and will be deleting them from future editions. Nor will they appear in the UK edition, to be published by Bantam in April. "I understand Mark Liberman's point and I am grateful to him," she says. "He felt I was passing on data that was not nailed down, and thus perpetuating a myth."
So, the truth will out? Not so fast. The very next day, the Daily Mail reported the bogus Brizendine numbers as fact ("Women talk three times as much as men, says study"). That story hasn't been corrected, and people who tried to post objections told Liberman their comments have been ignored. (The published comments are all in the yahoo-humorous vein: "Someone had to do a study to figure this out?")
Liberman is reasonably philosophical about our collective weakness for any bunkum that confirms our gender stereotypes. But he wonders why journalistic standards so often don't apply to science reporting. Heads rolled at CBS after "Memogate," but ABC's credulous September reports on the neuroscience of sex were just fine: "No one at '20/20' is in even the slightest bit of trouble, although the sheer amount of fabricated evidence presented on those programs was a great deal larger," he writes.
In fact, the folks responsible for those "20/20" segments probably got praise and credit from their employers, since the pseudo-science of sex differences is a very popular topic, and those segments were effectively presented and presumably got good ratings. The same thing can be said about the dozens, if not hundreds, of editors, producers, pundits, reviewers and reporters who have spread the same fabrications through the global media over the past few months.
You know who you are, I want to add -- but then again, maybe you don't.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 09:27 PM
November 19, 2006
The History Channel's three-hour treatment of the Mayflower voyage, "Desperate Crossing" (which airs tonight and repeats all week) may turn out to be terrific. But the tagline for the print ads is a headscratcher:
It was a True Test of Manhood
Even for the Women and Children
Since the traits most in demand for Pilgrims seem to have been disease resistance, endurance, and luck – virtues not especially "manly" in anyone's dictionary -- "manhood" seems like an odd word to choose. And the verbal paradox -- manhood for women! -- adds an incongruously joky note to the otherwise solemn ad. What were they thinking? (Seriously: What were they thinking?)
The jokiness is entirely intentional, on the other hand, in the current Dunkin' Donuts ad mocking Starbucks' menu language. "Is it French? Or is it Italian?" sings the chorus of customers. "Maybe Fritalian?"
The punchline: "Delicious lattes from Dunkin' Donuts. You order them in English, not Fritalian."
Wait -- you order "lattes" in English?
OK, "latte" is English, in a sense; it's in our dictionaries, defined as the short form of Italian caffe latte. But it's not fully assimilated English, like "ghetto" and "casino." We cook fettuccine al dente, but we don't brush our "dente" with Colgate. And we order lattes, but we don't call the milk in the fridge "latte." So DD gets points for humor -- but it loses a few for its fuzzy linguistic logic.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 03:02 PM
November 13, 2006
The Word of the Year is carbon neutral, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, which announced its 2006 pick today.
Being carbon neutral involves calculating your total climate-damaging carbon emissions (your carbon footprint), reducing them where possible, and then balancing your remaining emissions, often by purchasing a carbon offset -- paying to plant new trees or investing in "green" technologies.
Not that NOAD gets the last word -- or the first word, or the only word. The Word of the Year parade started in early October, when the Oxford English Dictionary chose bovvered, from a catchphrase on Catherine Tate's BBC comedy show. ("Am I bovvered?" means "Am I bothered? Do I look like I care?" See it in action here.)
Next, on Nov. 1, Webster's New World chose Crackberry -- a play on the addictive properties of the BlackBerry PDA -- as its 2006 WOTY. (But the WNW word squad, like NOAD's, was thinking globally; one of its runners-up was carbon footprint. Will it be a green year in the WOTY world?)
These are just for starters; dozens of WOTYs will be proposed in coming weeks, and the season won't end till the American Dialect Society votes on its list in January. We'll be back for more.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 11:14 PM
November 5, 2006
Food porn, apartment porn, investment porn: "As a kind of nominative suffix, porn is in," writes William Safire in today's "On Language" column. "In is not a dirty word," he adds. "Neither is porn."
He's right about that: Porn, the word, is not itself taboo, whether you're talking dessert porn, house porn, or sex videos. But not everyone gets the distinction. In January, for instance, cartoonist Scott Adams told his blog readers that his editor had made him substitute "smut" for "porn" in a "Dilbert" strip.
And last month, Ireland's internet registrar banned the word porn in the country's domain names. (The Dublin man who owns Sex.ie was surprised to hear that his next venture, Porn.ie, had been rejected as a danger to public morality.)
More important, though: What the heck does "nominative suffix" have to do with anything? Last time I looked, a nominative suffix was a word ending that marked grammatical case, like the –us on domus in Latin. Unless I'm missing something, the porn in "apartment porn" is a plain old noun (with an attributive modifier) -- not a suffix, not necessarily nominative, and not at all in need of a fancy new name.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 12:10 AM
November 4, 2006
Remember the SAT scandal last March, when nearly 5,000 college-bound students learned that their tests had been misscored? That was no fluke, say Bloomberg reporters David Glovin and David Evans. Bad tests and faulty scoring, their new report says, have affected "at least 500,000 people taking tests from 2000 through 2006 -- from Nevada third graders to aspiring teachers."
The SAT snafu was a hardware problem, but human scorers are also fallible – and sometimes unqualified. Florida's testing contract specified that scorers would have bachelor's degrees in academic subjects, but the records show that promise wasn't kept:
A person from Hungary wrote he was a "pyshical education'' major. A physical education major from Methodist College in Fayetteville, North Carolina, wrote that she had attended "Methidist College.''
Sometimes the problem is the test itself:
In 2003, the Minnesota Department of Education found flaws in questions proposed by [its test provider]. About 6 percent had no correct answers or multiple correct answers.
Money, of course, plays a part, especially when companies bid on low-margin No Child Left Behind contracts.
Companies often scrimp when they bid on No Child contracts, Eduventures analyst Tim Wiley says. . . . ``As with any bidding situation, it definitely requires a lot of cost cutting,'' Wiley says. ``Or, in some cases, cutting corners.''
Educational Testing Service, which wrongly flunked 4,100 teachers on certification tests, will pay $11 million to settle their lawsuit. But one of those teachers, fired after four "failures" on the test, remains bitter: ``I was just about to get tenure, and I had to start all over again.''
Posted by Jan Freeman at 12:58 PM
October 30, 2006
When you've just published a column citing results from Google's Book Search, the last thing you want to see in your in-box is an e-mail with the subject line "Beware of Google Book Search." But there it was, first thing yesterday morning: a warning from Ben Zimmer, editor of American dictionaries for Oxford University Press and a crack word sleuth, that Google's document dates were probably off by decades.
My quotes illustrating "silver bullet" and "magic bullet," which Google dated 1950 and 1955, are really from about 1999 and 1986, Zimmer estimates.
But finding that out is a chore. "There's no easy way to get the dates until Google gets its act together with these government documents," he says. All you can do is search the text for various dates, hoping to find a "snippet view" that includes a reliable clue. "It's particularly silly because these documents should all be public domain," says Zimmer; there's no reason to limit them to the tiny snippet view format.
So, if "silver bullet" and "magic bullet" weren't interchangeable images in the '50s, when did they reach that point? My now-earliest "magic bullet" in the non-medical sense comes from a 1965 New York Times story: "The good showing of the economy last year evidently suggests to [President Lyndon Johnson] that tax reductions are a sort of magic bullet for the economy."
"Silver bullet" is more elusive. It's not clear what Times book reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt meant when, in 1968 and again in 1973, he called William F. Buckley Jr. "the silver bullet of American conservatism." But a Washington Post report in 1977 quotes a former FDA official, talking about the contentious process of drug approval, who said there were "no magic solutions, no silver bullets" to quell controversy.
The search continues – though this time, with a healthy dose of Googleskepticism.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 10:49 AM
October 16, 2006
What could be worse than the stereotypical smooth-talking salesman, all unctuousness and flattery? Now we know: It's the gloomsayers of today's appliance departments, who are cultivating a new apocalyptic style in retail rhetoric.
I heard it myself last week, when I phoned a big chain store to change an order for a microwave oven. Once that was done, the salesman, George, went into his extended-warranty spiel.
Now, in my family we tend to shun extended warranties; sometimes, when I'm face to face with the salesman, I'll explain the economic rationale, just for the fun of watching his eyes glaze over. But we were on the phone, so I just said no thanks.
George wasn't having it. He launched into the sad tale of his own microwaves: The first one, the house brand, had lasted less than two years, and the next failed before its first birthday. If not for his warranty he'd have been screwed.
"I'm sorry you were so unlucky," I said. "But my last one was still going strong at 20 years."
"Well," said George testily, "I can guarantee you this one won't last that long!"
What's next? Buy the warranty or we'll shoot this dog?
Turns out Consumer Reports ran a story on this spreading phenomenon in the August 2006 issue. They found salespeople at several big chains assuring shoppers that only a warranty would keep that fridge or dishwasher alive. “Manufacturers are cutting corners," said one salesman. "Everything is being made in Mexico, and God only knows what they’re doing down there.”
The truth? Warranties are cash cows for stores and ripoffs for consumers. CR quotes a warranty trade newsletter: "You sell a $400 television set and maybe make $10. But you sell a $100 warranty and make $50.”
For margins like that, apparently, salespeople will say just about anything to customers – even "You knucklehead, that appliance I just sold you is a piece of junk."
Posted by Jan Freeman at 08:53 PM
October 15, 2006
Which popular musician do lawyers and judges quote most? According to a report today on WNYC's "On the Media," it's Bob Dylan (whose lyrics, coincidentally, are the subject of today's "Word" column in Ideas).
The top 10 also include the Beatles and the Stones, Woody Guthrie and Joni Mitchell, and Paul Simon, both solo and with Garfunkel. But author Alex B. Long doesn't just report the rankings. His analysis, online at the Berkeley Electronic Press, also covers the demographics of musical taste:
While it is unlikely that the volume of Tupac, 50 Cent, or Ludacris lyrics will ever rival those of Bob Dylan in legal scholarship . . . "rap music vernacular" will become more prevalent as the legal profession becomes more diverse.
And what makes a lyricist quotable:
[Chuck] Berry has been dubbed the poet laureate of rock 'n' roll, yet his lyrics are rarely used in legal writing. This may be because his poetry is often though of as the poetry of cars, girls, and being young and bored. Important themes all, but only infrequently do they find their way into the courtrooms.
And when – as in the case of an opinion that cited both the Beatles and Pink Floyd -- quoting lyrics may do more harm than good:
While the music of the Beatles . . . transcends any number of age or cultural barriers, the music of Pink Floyd is not nearly so universally loved. In order to be effective, a metaphor must not only be descriptive, but it must be easily accessible. . . . The "Another Brick in the Wall" reference is likely to be lost on a sizable portion of the readers and may, in fact, be off-putting.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 05:12 PM
October 8, 2006
Like Chris Shea, I was surprised by the TV ad that takes the trouble to footnote Sofia Coppola's new movie, "Marie Antoinette," as "based on a true story." But when I mentioned it to a friend last week, she reminded me of another dumb-Americans tale, this one attached to 1994's "Madness of King George."
The film (with wonderful Helen Mirren as yet another English queen) was originally titled "The Madness of George III," the story went, but the distributors renamed it, worried that Yanks would think it was a sequel to two movies they'd never heard of.
False, says Snopes.com, debunker of urban legends. The Alan Bennett play on which the film was based was indeed "The Madness of George III," but the movie itself was always and everywhere "The Madness of King George."
But is it as "false" as Snopes's red-lettered verdict implies? The explanation goes on, a bit defensively:
Although Nicholas Hytner, the film's director, admitted that the claim is "not totally untrue," he also divulged that the most important factor was that "it was felt necessary to get the word King into the title." The change was not primarily motivated by a perceived need to cater to Americans' alleged gullibility or ignorance, but by a prudent recognition of cultural differences. . . . America has always been a nation without royalty, and thus using "King George" in the title established much more clearly to American audiences that this was a film about a monarch than "George III" would have.
By the end, the author of the entry is admitting "perhaps there is a little bit of truth to this one."
And Bennett himself, if he didn't come up with the "sequel" joke, liked it enough to use it. A 1999 report in Literature/Film Quarterly says that the story "is probably apocryphal -- though with typical slyness, the author himself claims it was true."
"This was a marketing decision," Bennett writes in the preface to the published version of the screenplay, "a survey having apparently shown that there were many moviegoers who came away from Kenneth Branagh's film of Henry V wishing they had seen its four predecessors."
An insult to the audience, or just the awful truth? Ask the Hungarian Cultural Center, whose billboard in Times Square is pictured in today's New York Times. It might be an ad for an art film, this bleak photo with "1956 Hungary" lettered across a Soviet tank, and that's the point. The tagline: "Our revolution was not a movie."
Posted by Jan Freeman at 03:30 PM
October 3, 2006
A number of reporters on the hot, hot trail of Rep. Mark Foley's suggestive instant messages to teenage congressional pages have described those e-mails as lurid. Now that I've read the exchanges, though, I'm wondering if some journalists these days think lurid is a euphemism, or maybe a dysphemism, for lewd.
It's not. Lurid, from the Latin for "pale, wan," means "Causing shock or horror; gruesome," or "Marked by sensationalism," says the American Heritage Dictionary. In a note on synonyms, it adds:
[Lurid] describes what shocks because of its terrible and ghastly nature: lurid crimes. At other times, it merely refers to glaring and usually unsavory sensationalism: a lurid account of the accident.
So there's nothing inherently sexy about lurid. Lewd, on the other hand, has one thing on its mind: "Preoccupied with sex and sexual desire; lustful," it means, or "obscene; indecent."
Coverage of the Foley story may well achieve luridness ("unsavory sensationalism"); the facts, too, may prove to be more lurid ("terrible and ghastly") than we know today. But the congressman's icky e-mails don't deserve the drama of the lurid label; they're just plain old lewd.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 08:41 PM
September 24, 2006
Since Fox TV is calling its new comedy series "'Til Death," my comments in today's Word column deal only with the absurdity of the spelling 'til, not the mystery of the phrase from which the title is taken. But "till death us do part" presents a puzzle beyond the proper spelling of till: Why the plural verb do?
I learned the answer only a few months ago, when a colleague e-mailed to ask "why the traditional Christian wedding vow has 'till death do us part' instead of 'till death does us part.' I cannot think of a reason, or of a grammatical explanation that makes sense," he said.
Me neither, though I vaguely thought there must be a subjunctive in there somewhere. Luckily, the Random House Mavens' Word of the Day website has the explanation.
"In a way, we can thank the six-times-married Henry VIII for this ringing affirmation of lifetime devotion," writes James E. Clapp, since it was Thomas Cranmer, named archbishop of Canterbury by Henry, who wrote the liturgy for the new Church of England, the Book of Common Prayer.
In the marriage ceremony prescribed in that 1549 book, the marriage vow included the phrase: till death us departe. In those days the word depart (with or without the final e) meant 'to divide, separate'. . . .
The reason that the verb was depart rather than the third person singular indicative departeth (which today would be departs) is that in those days it was customary to use the subjunctive mood in subordinate clauses describing action to take place in the indefinite future.
A century later, however, depart had lost the sense of "separate," and in the 1662 prayer book, "depart suddenly became do part." That maintains the rhythm of the phrase, and the verb is still a subjunctive, notes Clapp: "The indicative would have been doth -- in modern English, does."
The Word of the Day site shut down, sadly, in 2001, but the hundreds of words and phrases its contributors covered remain available in the archive.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 03:16 PM
September 19, 2006
"What do you get when you combine an over-educated populous, beer, and the lure of fabulous prizes?" asks the Harvard Book Store's website, plugging an upcoming spelling bee to benefit the Brattle Film Foundation.
I don't know if that was a test, but even if you can't spell populace, you can enter the open bees -- one for all ages, another for adults -- scheduled for Oct. 5 at the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square. The theater, the bookstore, and cosponsor Houghton Mifflin -- publisher of the American Heritage dictionaries -- are coughing up prizes, among them "100 Words to Make You Sound Smart." (There'll be a movie, too, but I don't know where the beer is coming from.)
So if you've always been a spelling-bee spectator, complacently watching as contestants struggled with seiche and haulm, it's time to find out how the other half sweats. Info and tickets here.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 06:09 PM
September 18, 2006
A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled onto a story (archived, fee only) in the MetroWest Daily News about a Marlborough man who'd been livening up the evening commute with his one-man anti-Bush protest. John de Bairos, the report said, was demonstrating several times a week at a busy intersection, sometimes with a placard that read "Impeach the lying bastard."
A parent had objected to the public use of bastard, the writer said, but the police chief had declared the sign legal. Then came a bit of language commentary:
"As most people know, dictionary.com defines bastard as "a person born of unmarried parents . . . an illegitimate child.
"It's also a term used in the printing business. A bastard width, for
example, is a column width not consistent with the standard one-column or
"But we all know that's not what de Bairos is implying. He's suggesting
the insulting meaning that we can't print in this newspaper."
He is? And we "all know" this secret meaning? It was news to me -- and to everyone I've asked since -- that bastard was a euphemism for some ruder, more vulgar insult. I e-mailed the writer, asking what word she had in mind – she must think it's pretty obvious, since she assumes it's what de Bairos really meant -- but so far she hasn't replied.
Eventually, I did come up with a guess, but I'm not going to throw a red herring into this kettle of fishiness till I have more information. So tell me: When you see the word bastard, do you think some other, nastier word is intended? (And if so, what is it?) Or is bastard simply bastard, and neither better nor worse than I've always believed?
Posted by Jan Freeman at 04:05 PM
September 13, 2006
The odium heaped on Hewlett-Packard for its internal spying has spilled over, in several commentaries, to the word for H-P's particular brand of subterfuge. Among those questioning its legitimacy was Hal Plotkin:
"The word 'pretexting" is simply a euphemism -- invented by its practitioners -- for obtaining something that does not belong to them by lying and committing fraud."
And Elana Centor chimed in at Blogher:
"Like a rock star who becomes an overnight success, pretexting is [a] word that seems to have come out of nowhere."
Not so fast, folks. Euphemism it may be, but pretexting isn't a nasty neologism dreamed up by middle managers to torment the buzzword-averse. In fact, it’s a French- and Latin-derived verb that had a respectable 300-year run, according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online, which quotes, among others, Horace Walpole: "A decency was observed, and conscience always pretexted" (1797).
Of course, in that earlier incarnation, pretext meant merely "put forward as a pretext or excuse," not "pretend to be someone else in order to get his private phone records." But its revival in this modern, tweaked sense doesn't make it a new word.
And having faded into obscurity more than a century ago, pretexting seems unlikely to muscle out scamming, lying, and impersonating this time around. In fact, it faces a new 21st-century barrier: In the text-messaging era, pretexting sounds as if it should be a kind of texting. (Pre-texting -- is that texting a friend to warn that you'll be texting her later?)
No, I think pretexting, the revival, is probably doomed to a life in the jargon demimonde. But it won't have earned that fate by being new, ugly, euphemistic, ill-formed, or lacking in pedigree.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 03:52 PM
September 8, 2006
Good news: It turns out that the CBS News logo I complained about the other day – "freeSpeech," with the quotation marks included – is not the official name of the broadcast's new commentary segment, just the whimsy of an overcaffeinated graphic designer. The preseason press releases called the feature "Free Speech," presumably intending those quote marks to be the usual, detachable kind.
Better news: Of the 150 mentions of the "Free Speech" segment in the Nexis news database this week – not counting CBS's own transcripts -- 118 ignored the idiosyncratic style, calling it simply "Free Speech." And of the 32 that did print it as "FreeSpeech" or "freeSpeech," several made fun of its "oddCapitalization."
Journalists sometimes forget that there's no reason to style the PBS show as "NOVA," or the restaurant as dante, or the musical as "Oklahoma!" – and good reasons, like reader comfort, to ignore most stylistic quirks. It's not illegal to capitalize k.d. lang and bell hooks, and nobody stopped the presses till they could find a way to reproduce that symbol Prince tried to substitute for his name.
I could go on, but I don't have to: Bill Walsh,chief of the Washington Post business copy desk, has wrestled the weird-orthography monster to the ground, and he covers both theory and practice in his 2000 book, "Lapsing Into a Comma," and (more briefly) in an entry at his website. A taste:
"You might be hard pressed to find a consumer product or show-biz title whose packaging or publicity doesn't take liberties with the rules of capitalization. But does that mean we have to write THREE'S COMPANY or KRAFT Macaroni and Cheese DINNER? Of course not."
Of course not. Let's stamp out "freeSpeech" before it spreads.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 11:24 PM
September 5, 2006
I haven’t logged enough Katie Couric hours (or minutes) to rate her CBS News debut on the perkometer, so I’ll wait for the judges’ decision on whether her anchoring was sufficiently sober. But for me, the only cringe-inducing moment was the unveiling of the logo for the show’s personal essay segment: It’s "freeSpeech."
Not just freeSpeech, though that’s bad enough, free speech smushed into a sort of trendy trademark. No, this logo is "freeSpeech," furnished with its own irony-scented quotation marks. What are they for? It’s not a consistent style for the broadcast – the logo on the following segment was SNAPSHOTS, all caps, no quotes. Could it be that someone thought, "It’s a first-person essay, so we’ll put it in quotes to signal that someone’s speaking"?
Then again, Couric introduced the segment as a showcase for "civil discourse" – which, desirable though it is, is not quite the same thing as free speech. Maybe "freeSpeech" is exactly the right label, after all.
Posted by Jan Freeman at 11:52 PM