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 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 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 2, 2013, 12:01 am
“Literally” humor is common on the internet, as in this Cyanide and Happiness comic strip
It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it. Being an arbiter of language, that is. This one came from a friend via Facebook:
Ben, would you mind adjudicating a grammar dispute?
Here’s the quotation:
“As something as horrifying as this afternoon in Boston is literally unfolding, as we are worrying about loved ones who may be affected, we already have to worry about the consequences of backlash violence.”
I say the events were not literally unfolding. My friend says they were, because “reveal” is a valid definition of “unfold.”
Please put us out of our misery.
Here’s my reply:
I will give you my favorite kind of answer, which is that you’re both wrong! “Unfold” means “reveal” only through metaphor, a figure of…
April 29, 2013, 12:01 am
A petting zoo is usually a cute, cuddly place. But the zoo of pet peeves about language isn’t cuddly at all. It’s filled with creatures captured in the wild of everyday use—misspellings, grammatical solecisms, clichés—and visitors come not to pet them but to voice outrage at their mere existence.
Look—there’s that awful hopefully! Here’s no problem, you guys! There’s my bad and conversate and graduate college! There’s a complete collection of Lake Superior State University’s annual catch of banished words—double down, job creators, bucket list, guru, yolo and the rest. And look who’s sitting right here in our presence, the big bad historical present!
The zoo of language pet peeves is run by the vast sect known as Prescriptivists. They bring their children to the zoo to teach them to recognize those awful usages and keep away from them. True, there are…
April 25, 2013, 12:01 am
One left, two left—
Excuse me, I was just talking with a guy from 6,000 years ago.
Language, being learned rather than innate, has a natural tendency to change as each person learns it under slightly different circumstances.
It works like the game of Telephone, where each person whispers a message to the next, and the outcome isn’t the same as the input. Languages don’t change as fast as Telephone, because mispronunciations and misinterpretations usually get corrected by family, friends, teachers, editors, and busybodies. Still, a thousand years of Telephone can make a big difference. It certainly does in English, which received a thick infusion of French vocabulary, topped off with Latin and Greek, during the past millennium.
So the English spoken in England a thousand years ago, the true “Old English,” is quite different from ours.
But it’s good to know that …
April 24, 2013, 12:01 am
In the undergraduate history of English course I am teaching this term, I request/require that the students teach me two new slang words every day before I begin class. I learn some great words this way (e.g., hangry “cranky or angry due to feeling hungry”; adorkable “adorable in a dorky way”). More importantly, the activity reinforces for students a key message of the course: that the history of English is happening all around us (and that slang is humans’ linguistic creativity at work, not linguistic corruption).
Two weeks ago, one student brought up the word slash as an example of new slang, and it quickly became clear to me that many students are using slash in ways unfamiliar to me. In the classes since then, I have come to the students with follow-up questions about the new use of slash. Finally, a student asked, “Why are you so interested in this?” I answered, “Slang…