May 17, 2013, 12:01 am
News flash in the etymological world: Two new antedatings of hot dog!
In the etymological world, prospecting for earlier instances of a word is like prospecting for gold in the geological world. You look in the online Oxford English Dictionary for the earliest known date of a word and then go data mining in the archives of old publications for something earlier.
One of the leading prospectors is Fred Shapiro of the Yale University Library. He announced his findings in the first instance earlier this year on the American Dialect Society’s discussion list, ADS-L. That got the attention of the assay office, a.k.a. Comments on Etymology, a paper and ink journal I’ve written about before. It’s published by Gerald Cohen at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and it’s the first draft of etymological history. The news about hot dog came in the recently arrived Vol. 4…
May 16, 2013, 12:01 am
Quickly, now, without checking any dictionaries or usage guides: which of the following expressions is original, standard usage?
- Once and awhile
- Set and stone
- Try and get
- Spit and image
- All and all
- Hand and hand
- Tongue and cheek
I’ve run into all of these recently, mostly in student papers, but also in published work. So many of our habitual expressions have lost their connection to the original meaning that students—and sometimes professional writers—set them down as they sound without regard to whatever sense they might make. Given the aural similarity of and, in, and -ing, it’s no surprise that malapropisms like in this day in age crop up—for how often do we actually think about something being common in this day and also in this age, or era? And why would we?
If we think carefully or have background knowledge, of course, we can and do make some sense…
May 15, 2013, 12:01 am
Word came—via Twitter, Tumblr, I don’t remember, something that starts with a t—that The New Yorker has been featuring on its Web site the five best sentences of the week. That was good to hear, as I collect great sentences, the way some people collect beach glass, small statues of turtles, or perceived insults.
I was disappointed to find, however, that “Backblogged: Our Five Favorite Sentences of the Week” consists of sentences from a rather small subset of published work, The New Yorker itself. No one admires The New Yorker more than I do. However, I judge a magazine, even The New Yorker, to be too small a sample to yield each week five sentences worthy of collecting: that is to say, sentences which you cannot think of a way to improve and which might have a chance of living on when the immediate circumstances of their publication are long forgotten. Here, for example, is…
May 14, 2013, 12:01 am
“The Scream” (1893), by Edvard Munch; mug from Yizzam.com
Last summer I had the chance to see two versions of a work by Norway’s greatest artist, Edvard Munch. If you go to Oslo you can see it in one version at the National Gallery (no photos, please) and another in the lovely Munch Museum (cameras welcome). In recent years each of them has been stolen and recovered. A third version of the work has been on view this year at MoMA.
Of course, you know the picture—it’s an icon of modernity’s anxiety. The figure has been thought to depict a psychiatric patient, or even a mummy.
Munch himself spoke of his synesthetic response to the world, where ideas and words presented themselves in chromatic terms. His recollection of a particular urban moment inspired him to create the various versions of a visual arrangement that would…
May 13, 2013, 12:01 am
I promised last week that I would discuss three developments that turned almost-useless language-connected technological capabilities into something seriously useful. The one I want to introduce first was introduced by Google toward the end of the 1990s, and it changed our whole lives, largely eliminating the need for having full sentences parsed and translated into database query language.
The hunch that the founders of Google bet on was that simple keyword search could be made vastly more useful by taking the entire set of pages containing all of the list of search words and not just returning it as the result but rather ranking its members by influentiality and showing the most influential first. What a page contains is not the only relevant thing about it: As with any academic publication, who values it and refers to it is also important. And that is (at least to some extent)…
May 10, 2013, 12:01 am
Over the past two decades, the use of they as a singular generic pronoun has been defended often and eloquently by linguists in various venues, including here on Lingua Franca. Geoff Pullum has written about the topic twice in the past year and a half: “Dogma vs. Evidence,” and “We Do Not Seek to Rule.” Pullum and others have written about the use of they with a singular antecedent extensively on Language Log. The Lousy Linguist, in yet another defense of the construction, provides a useful list of Language Log posts on the topic, through 2008.
I myself have taken part in the effort to defend singular generic they on numerous occasions. I happily climb on my soapbox about this construction because (a) they is singular in common usage, so it doesn’t make sense to call it “ungrammatical” in the descriptive sense (it is completely meaningful to both speakers and…
May 9, 2013, 12:01 am
Try typing this, or any question with roughly the same meaning, into the Google search box:
|Which UK papers are not part of the Murdoch empire?
Your results (and you could get identical ones by typing the same words in the reverse order) will contain an estimated two million or more pages about Rupert Murdoch and the newspapers owned by his News Corporation. Exactly what you did not ask for.
Putting quotes round the search string freezes the word order, but makes things worse: It calls not for the answer (which would be a list including The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, etc.) but for pages where the exact wording of the question can be found, and there probably aren’t any (except this post).
Machine answering of such a question calls for not just a database of information about newspapers but also natural language processing (NLP). I’ve been…
May 8, 2013, 12:01 am
Image from Aberdeen Bestiary, 12th-century collection, U. of Aberdeen
“In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Adam was the guy whose first job, on direct orders from God, was to name all the animals. Not so easy, at the rate God created them! Thanks to his rush job, today we’re left with lots of animal misnomers.
(And don’t try to tell me that Adam didn’t speak English. What language do you think the Lord used when he inspired King James to write the Bible?)
Here’s the full story, as reported in the King James Bible, Genesis 2:19-20:
“And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
And Adam gave names to all cattle,…
May 7, 2013, 12:01 am
We may be seeing the death spasms of lol, and few will mourn its passing. Emerging a couple of decades ago as an initialism for laugh[ing] out loud, it suffered misuse through most of its brief life by well-meaning parental units who construed it as lots of love. Since the millennium it has devolved through irony to sarcasm until it arrived, as Katie Hearney at Buzzfeed points out, at meaninglessness.
What’s brought lol into prominence recently is its appearance in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s e-communications, in situations where the supposed meaning of the term renders the accused bomber eerily heartless: Lol those people are cooked and the like. As it turns out, Tsarnaev was most likely referring, not to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, but to members of Westboro Baptist Church who picket funerals; and the word cooked here most likely means “crazy” or “high from…
May 6, 2013, 12:01 am
Obama at the Correspondents’ Dinner: “But I kid Mitch McConnell. … “
At 10:14 PM on April 27, Barack Obama took the podium at the Washington Hilton to the tune of “All I do Is Win,” by DJ Khaled. According to the official White House transcript (which includes indications of laughter and applause), the president began by telling the crowd at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner:
How do you like my new entrance music? (Applause.) Rush Limbaugh warned you about this — second term, baby. (Laughter and applause.) We’re changing things around here a little bit. (Laughter.) Actually, my advisers were a little worried about the new rap entrance music. (Laughter.) They are a little more traditional. They suggested that I should start with some jokes at my own expense, just take myself down a peg. I was like, “Guys…