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Babbler Birds and Babbling Journalists

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Chestnut-crowned babblers (Photo: Aviceda, via Wikimedia Commons)

We have seen it before, with bonobos and monkeys and parrots and dogs and cows and dolphins. Even bats. Heaven knows how many beasts of the field and birds of the air have been the subjects of irresponsible science journalism claiming that animal behavior reveals how human language originated, or (more commonly) that they use language just like humans.

I have written many times on Language Log and occasionally on Lingua Franca abo…

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Secondhand Emotion

388772-ba3bc018-b54b-11e3-961d-5192f6c25a65Not being a big user of emoticons or emoji, I usually have to pause to arrive at the difference between them. So I hadn’t given any thought to their function in the sentence until I came across Gretchen McCullough’s post querying how these little gremlins infesting our written language ought to be punctuated. She combines the two, as do most people who write about them. Emoji, after all, began as a colorful and labor-saving alternative to stacking up pieces of punctuation in order to create an i…

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The Prose Stylings of Antonin Scalia

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons

It was a memorable week at the Supreme Court. And the justices handed down some important decisions, too.

The memorability, in my nerdy world, stemmed from a double dose of dissenting opinions from Justice Antonin Scalia, that one-man movement to let the rhetorical freak flag fly.

In the matter of the Affordable Care Act, Scalia accused the majority of “interpretive jiggery-pokery.” The OED notes that the term derives from a venerable Scots expression, joukery-pawkery…

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Translation: A History of Synonyms

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William the Conqueror

When you take something from one language and put it into another, there’s a word for the activity: translate. It’s a nice carry-across from Latin by way of French, and its components amount to just that: “across” for trans, “carry” for late. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the word to 1300, in a history book known as Cursor Mundi: “This same book it is translated into English tongue to read.”

What did we say for “translate” before that? At the History of the English La…

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Derp and ‘tude

Mr. Derp

Paul Krugman’s attempts at being hip end up landing, I suppose, like hipness attempted by any of us blogging here: midway between cute and cringeworthy. A few weeks ago, his column noted an increase in what he called derpitude, “useful shorthand for an all-too-obvious feature of the modern intellectual landscape: people who keep saying the same thing no matter how much evidence accumulates that it’s completely wrong.”

Derp had a familiar ring to it, which grew louder as Krugman referenc…

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The Most Beautiful Word of All

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Henry James

Sitting on my patio the other day, listening to the birds, sipping a glass of raspberry seltzer, and admiring the contrast of the orange day lilies with the blue and pink hydrangea, I was reminded of Henry James’s remark that “summer afternoon” are the two most beautiful words in the English language.

The comment was attributed to him by Edith Wharton. The Master sketched out some of his reasoning in the opening of The Portrait of a Lady:

Under certain circumstances there are few hou…

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Killer Compounds

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 5.43.02 PMEnglish, like many other languages, abounds with compounds. Take two words and join them to create an inseparable unit, and you have a compound. There are compound verbs like undergo and overcome, compound adjectives like makeshift, compound adverbs like thereafter.

Especially abundant are compound nouns, like jumpsuit and strawberry, wristwatch and bookend. nutcracker and football. All those are noun + noun combinations, but you can have, among others, adjective + noun (software, greenhouse), …

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As Dull as a Torpedo

penThe ongoing White House v. Congress struggle has recently involved the charge that one side wants to torpedo the other’s plan. That sounds violent, even metaphorically speaking, but torpedo has a more complicated usage history.

In his account of Dr. Johnson’s life, James Boswell reports the Great Cham’s remarking that “Tom Birch is as brisk as a bee in conversation; but no sooner does he take a pen in his hand than it becomes a torpedo to him, and benumbs his faculties.”

The passage occurs in Bo…

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Revolutionary Methodological Preliminaries

MIT Photo

It is rather surprising that more has not been done this year (thus far, anyway) to commemorate a significant semicentenary: the 50th anniversary of what could reasonably be called the most influential linguistics book of the 20th century. It was published by MIT Press in 1965 as “Special Technical Report 11” of the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT, and has recently been re-released with a new preface, but it doesn’t seem to have inspired any major conferences or other celebra…

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Nibbling Away

Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 3.43.25 PMWhat’s a nibble?

You’d know the answer — or at least one answer — if you’d had the good fortune to attend the combined conferences of the Dictionary Society of North America and Studies in the History of the English Language this month, at the University of British Columbia. The first morning’s schedule specified, at 10 a.m., a Coffee & Tea Break With Nibbles. And those Nibbles turned out to be … various sweet rolls and breads.

In other words, a Nibble (at least this kind) is one possible answer…