August 31, 2012, 12:01 am
The August 6, 2012, issue of The New Yorker carried a charming new short story about a travelling salesperson who wants a cigarette but whose sales visits turn out to be nonsmoking.
The author is a certain F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the “Contributors” column says it was written in 1936. If we didn’t recognize the name of the author or know the date of composition, could we tell by language alone that it was written three-quarters of a century ago?
The salesperson is “a pretty, somewhat faded woman of forty,” and the combination of “pretty” with “faded” seems odd in the 21st-century world, where 40 (or 50) is the new 30.
We are told she “sold corsets and girdles, travelling out of Chicago.” Not only are corsets and girdles obsolete, but except in sales circles we’d be unlikely to use “travelling” to mean going on sales trips.
There’s a reference to …
August 30, 2012, 12:01 am
This summer, while traveling in China, I delivered a lecture at the Changshu Institute of Technology to an audience of students, language teachers, and translators. Speaking (through an interpreter) about the challenges of translators who serve as bridges between two languages, I noted that they are inevitably “traitors” to each. In the question-and-answer session that followed, a professor stood up and passionately attacked me for demeaning the status of translators in Chinese society.
I soon learned that the problem wasn’t just that my own translator had missed the nuances of my speech. The word “traitor” also carries a connotation in today’s China that is far more dangerous than in the West. My American sense of irony didn’t travel well either, while I had inadvertently trashed the Chinese understanding of honor. Yes, just my point.
Then the conversation began to make me…
August 29, 2012, 12:01 am
Language Log discussions of what is categorized there as “prescriptive poppycock” often refer to zombie rules: Though dead, they shamble mindlessly on. The worst thing about zombie rules, I believe, is not the pomposity of those advocating them, or the time-wasting character of the associated gotcha games, but the way they actually make people’s writing worse. They promote insecurity, and nervous people worrying about their language write worse than relaxed people enjoying their language. Let me discuss a real-life case, a paragraph from a recent issue of The Economist. Note the ugly final sentence (in which I underline the relevant part):
The pressure on Mr Gudkov comes at a time when the state is pursuing a course of confrontation and intimidation against all opponents of Mr Putin. One front of that campaign is legislative, with the Duma—still a relatively feeble body that has a…
August 28, 2012, 12:01 am
It might have begun with that favorite question: “Who was the worst person of all time?” Many a late-night debate has raged over whether Mao or Stalin or Hitler wins that prize. (I recall Innocent III being once proposed on the grounds of launching the Fourth Crusade.) It was all a bit childish, but at least there was a sense of historical sweep. The best person of all time isn’t nearly as interesting a question, but history is filled with terrible people, and one forgets them at one’s peril. And we always want to know who’s on top. Even in hell.
It’s hardly a secret that we’re obsessed with lists and rankings—the top this and that, from pop-music hits to films and athletic champions. The best x, the greatest y, the most influential z, or the most fascinating z-minus-1. Some of this is our carefully groomed celebrity culture—the media’s insatiable need for announcement …
August 27, 2012, 12:01 am
“Awkward turtle” gesture
I admit, I’m a little slow on the cultural uptake. Only just this morning did Spanx complete its frontal assault on my consciousness, thanks to the one-two punch of hearing Robert Pattinson reference the wildly popular slimming undergarment during a Jon Stewart interview a couple of days ago and then reading about it in The Philadelphia Inquirer this morning.
It’s the same with words. I recently commented to my 21-year-old daughter, Maria, that the word awkward really seemed to be popular among people in their teens and 20s. “Yeah, that was big about five years ago,” she replied.
In my defense, I have some empirical evidence that big awkward still is. There’s an MTV teen-comedy show called Awkward, and a popular online series called The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl. Just…
August 24, 2012, 12:01 am
Vice President Biden, choosing the vernacular
In which I cogitate on the ways in which racial language enters the 2012 presidential campaigns through a side door and note the prevailing color patterns and relations in popular media.
Cooking recently for a dinner party and listening to NPR, I heard several times Joe Biden make his now-famous “chains” remark. The vice president, speaking in Danville, Va., said Governor Romney had indicated that he would unleash the big banks and “unchain Wall Street”; doing that, said Joe Biden, would put the audience and, implicitly, much of the rest of the country, “back in chains.”
I listened distractedly—party rhetoric, but Joe’s voice did sound a little odd. As I was stirring the risotto I heard the sound bite again, followed this time by some outraged…
August 23, 2012, 12:01 am
“This is an ex-parrot.” Monty Python’s classic sketch is a trove of death euphemisms.
Word came last week that Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary will from this moment on include the phrase f-bomb (along with such other newcomers as sexting, flexitarian, energy drink, aha moment, earworm, man cave, brain cramp, and life coach).
As Leanne Italie, who wrote an Associated Press article about the additions, observed, “It’s about freakin’ time.”
Merriam-Webster’s first citation of f-bomb dates from 1988 and the mouth of major-league catcher Gary Carter. Since then it has most frequently been dropped, although it is sometimes hurled or flung. It is, of course, a euphemism. Does that mean we should disdain it?
The question is not uncomplicated. Especially when it comes to military language, George Orwell and…
August 22, 2012, 12:01 am
Two weeks ago I announced a contest for the best new original limerick on language. Easy to ask, hard to do.
A limerick is one of the most demanding of verse forms. It gallops along in a tight circle, knocking out rhymes right and left (well, actually, just right). It demands nimble anapestic feet. Ideally it has two sets of rhymes precisely placed in a mere 39 syllables.
The form is difficult enough; the content is worse. A limerick needs to be both majestic and playful, straightforward and ironic. It’s often expected to be at least a little naughty. And it needs to be structured like a joke, with an unexpected but apt punch line at the end.
The constraints of the form are so maddening that writers sometimes flout them, not just cheating a little but adding a generous dollop of syllables, especially to the last line. That can add to the humor, but it’s not going to win a…
August 21, 2012, 12:01 am
I write during the summers at a house overlooking Excalibur Lake, just off Sir Walter Court and Lady of the Lake Circle. We pick up our milk at the Sherwood Shoppe. You get the idea. So it felt apropos to receive an e-mail from my Pakistani friend Aslam Khan detailing in part what he referred to as “some olde English history”:
- There is an old Hotel/Pub in Marble Arch, London, which used to have a gallows adjacent to it. Prisoners were taken to the gallows (after a fair trial of course), to be hanged. The horse drawn dray carting the prisoner was accompanied by an armed guard, who would stop the dray outside the pub and ask the prisoner if he would like “one last drink.” If he said, “Yes,” it was referred to as “one for the road.” If he declined, that prisoner was “on the wagon.”
- They used to use urine to tan animal skins, so families used to all pee in a pot,…
August 20, 2012, 12:01 am
Sometimes when I admit to being a grammarian, and to having the grammatical structure of Standard English as a research interest, people will ask me how that could possibly be a job. We all know the rules, don’t we? Mustn’t begin a sentence with a conjunction; shouldn’t split infinitives; can’t end a sentence with a preposition (though we all do! ha! ha!); have to put apostrophes in certain places: What’s to study?
So I try to explain that it’s an empirical enterprise to discover the subtle and complex rules that define English, and how it must be done through observation of people’s actual speech and writing under a variety of conditions, and how the set of rules certainly doesn’t include any blanket prohibition of sentence-initial and, or so-called “split infinitives.” And the moment my interlocutor realizes I’m saying people’s actual use of the language must have a bearing on the…