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…
May 3, 2013, 12:01 am
As we approach the annual rites, the degree of dudgeon rises again. Obama may say it; Barbara Walters may say it; our beloved children, on whom we have showered more than half our income annually over four years of university education, may crow it, but we as a nation of tut-tutters get the heebie-jeebies when we hear it: She graduated college. “I immediately went to the bathroom to be sick,” wrote one online commenter about hearing the term on a news broadcast. Another suggested that one can graduate college only by measuring it out as portions, as in the OED’s 1834 example, “Graduate that tangent, and place the crest of the traverse on a parallel plane ten feet above it.”
True, that august reference tool does not use the verb “to graduate” transitively except as the obverse of the usage to which the tut-tutters object. That is, Oxford can graduate you, and you can be…
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…
May 1, 2013, 12:01 am
Four decades ago, Fredric Jameson analyzed structuralism and formalism in an important book he called The Prison-House of Language. The title alluded to an aphorism in which Nietzsche cautioned that we’re stuck thinking within language’s limits (“in dem sprachlichen Zwange”).
The phrase “prison-house of language” seeped into the scholarly aquifer, perhaps getting an unintended assist from Foucault, whose own landmark work cheerfully directed us to similarities between social organization and prisons.
Since then the constraints of language have taken on new and interesting wrinkles, thanks in no small part to the digital reconfiguration of communications (I’m avoiding the word revolution here). Our mental structures have arguably shifted, but what is certain is that the Internet has given us access to an unimaginably vast corpus of words and thoughts, ideas and suspicions, truth and…
April 30, 2013, 12:01 am
“Slang creates a lot of new nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs,” said Anne Curzan here on Lingua Franca recently; “it isn’t that often that slang creates a new conjunction.”
She puts her finger on exactly the right point there. For English to add a new word is not news. But the classes of words that modern linguists call lexical categories (“parts of speech” was the quaint 18th-century term for them) are like clubs of varying selectivity. They all admit new members from time to time, but while Noun is the least discriminating (very much the club that you wouldn’t want to belong to given that it would take just anybody), the most exclusive one, with the slowest growth, is probably the one traditionally called “conjunction”—the category of words like and, or, and but.
New nouns are added to English probably several times per day, while for conjunctions the rate would be better…
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 26, 2013, 12:01 am
A recent article on the BBC News Web site mentions a wearable self-defense accessory: a bra designed to deliver a 3800 kv electric shock to would-be rapists. It was brought to my attention by an e-mail correspondent whom I will call KR. He pointed out that the following text (which raises a very reasonable question) contains an interesting example of the syntactically singular use of the pronoun they:
The bra is fitted with a pressure sensor connected to an electric circuit. So how can the wearer be sure they won’t be on the receiving end of a hefty electric jolt?
The article is about combating the very unpleasant practice that in India is casually called “Eve-teasing”: sexual harassment and assault targeted on young women. It is presupposed that the users of the electric taser-cum-brassiere are going to be female. The article could thus easily have used the feminine: So how can the …