Geoff Nunberg


Posts by Geoff Nunberg:

    "Perform a sex act"

    How to be circumspect and explicit at the same time, from the Washington Post, Sept. 5: "Metro Transit Police arrested a man Monday afternoon whom they say exposed himself to a woman on an Orange Line train and tried to force her to perform a sex act." My mind isn't exactly racing: there aren't a whole lot of she-on-he sex acts that are introduced with the verb perform.

    Comments (31)

    "Slide down my cellar door"

    In a 2010 NYT “On Language” column, Grant Barrett traced the claim that “cellar door” is the most beautiful phrase in English back as far as 1905 1903. I posted on the phrase a few years ago ("The Romantic Side of Familiar Words"), suggesting that there was a reason why linguistic folklore fixed  on that particular phrase, when you could make the same point with other pedestrian expressions like linoleum or oleomargarine:

    …The undeniable charm of the story — the source of the enchantment that C. S. Lewis reported when he saw cellar door rendered as Selladore — lies the sudden falling away of the repressions imposed by orthography … to reveal what Dickens called "the romantic side of familiar things." … In the world of fantasy, that role is suggested literally in the form of a rabbit hole, a wardrobe, a brick wall at platform 9¾. Cellar door is the same kind of thing, the expression people use to illustrate how civilization and literacy put the primitive sensory experience of language at a remove from conscious experience.

    But that doesn't explain why the story emerged when it did. Could it have had to do with the song "Playmates," with its line "Shout down my rain barrel, slide down my cellar door"? There's no way to know for sure, but the dates correspond, and in fact those lines had an interesting life of their own…

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments (61)

    More Metadata Muddles on Google Books

    Mark's discovery of a mistitled Google Books entry—a book on experimental theater filed as a 2009 book on management—is entertaining but not that unusual. Like the other metadata mixups at Google books (involving authorship, genre classification and publication date, among other things) that I enumerated in a 2009 post "Google Books: A Metadata Train Wreck," there are probably thousands of cases in which the metadata for one book is associated with an entirely different work. Or at least that's what induction suggests; Paul Duguid and I have happened on quite a number of these, some as inadvertantly comical as Mark's example. Clicking on the entry for a book called Tudor Historical Thought turns up the text of a book on tattoo culture, the entry for an 1832 work on the question of whether the clergy of the Church of England can receive tithes turns up a work by Trotzky, the entry for Last Year at Marienbad turns up the text of Sam Pickering's Letters to a Teacher, and so on (see more examples below the fold). What's particularly interesting about Mark's example, though, is that the work is similarly misidentified on Amazon and Abe Books, which indicates that for many modern titles, at least, the error is likely due not to "some (perhaps algorithmic) drudge on the Google assembly line," as Mark suggests, but to one of the third-party offshore cataloguers on which Google and others rely for their metadata.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments (9)

    The English language's Twitter feed

    I have a piece on Fresh Air today, behind the curve as usual, on the discussion that followed the Oxford Dictionary Online's inclusion of twerk, which Ben Zimmer covered in a post a couple of weeks ago ("Getting worked up over 'twerk'"). Actually I don't care much about twerk, whose coolness and credentials Ben defended definitively. But I think it's worth looking at the whole list of new words that appeared on the ODO blog post announcing the quarterly update, headed "Buzzworthy words added to Oxford Dictionaries Online – squee!":

    apols, A/W (“autumn/winter”), babymoon, balayage (“a technique for highlighting hair”), bitcoin, blondie (small cake), buzzworthy, BYOD (“bring your own device”), cake pop, chandelier earring, child’s pose (yoga), click and collect, dad dancing, dappy, derp, digital detox, double denim, emoji, fauxhawk, FIL (“father-in-law”), flatform (shoe), FOMO (“Fear Of Missing Out”), food baby (“a protruding stomach caused by eating a large quantity of food”), geek chic, girl crush, grats, guac, hackerspace, Internet of things, jorts, LDR, me time, michelada (“drink made with beer, lime juice…”), MOOC, Nordic noir, omnishambles, pear cider[see comment below], phablet, pixie cut, prep (v. “prepare”), selfie, space tourism, squee, srsly, street food, TL;DR, trolly dash (UK supermarket promotion), twerk, unlike (v.), vom (“vomit”)

    I’ve bolded the ones that seem to me to have a chance of being still current by the end of the decade, including a few that have been around for quite a while. Some of this is pure guesswork (if you have inside knowledge about bitcoin, let me know) and others may scrape by, but it's a fair bet that the vast majority are not going to survive your hamster.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments (38)

    The case for plural "data"

    Comments (14)

    "The data are": How fetishism makes us stupid

    Pedantry, Dr. Johnson said in the Rambler, is the unseasonable ostentation of learning. And learning is never so unseasonable as when its display impedes the workaday business of making sense. Take the sentence from The Economist that I ran across when I was writing my word-of-the-year piece for Fresh Air on "big data":

    Yet even as big data are helping banks, they are also throwing up new competitors from outside the industry.

    You can see what happened here—the copy editor (it had to be a copy editor, since nobody competent to write about big data would dream of treating the phrase as anything but singular) saw data followed by a singular pronoun and a singular form of be, and corrected them to plurals. The problem is that if you construe big data as a plural then it has to denote a collection of large things, in the same way that big elephants denotes a set of elephants that are each large, not a large set of elephants of any size. In that case, I suppose big data would have to be a collection of facts like this:

    π = 3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993751…

    rather than, say

    π > 3

    which is a little bitty datum. If you took the sentence at face value, that is, it would be what we grammarians term “idiotic.” But I doubt whether the Economist's copy editor gave a toss, as they lot say. Sense, shmense—he or she wasn’t about to get caught out treating data as a singular noun.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments (76)

    What ho, Mitt!

    Commenters on Mark's post about my remarks to the BBC about Briticisms asked if I really had it in for Briticisms in general, and in particular, what was I found so objectionable about "spot on." For the first, the answer is no; as I told Ms Hebblethwaite, some loans are quite useful, like "sell-by date" and "one-off." And I like "twee," with its evocation of Laura Ashley preciosity, though it seems to have lost some of those associations in its application to a genre of indie pop.

    But there are others which add nothing more than the fact of their Englishness—what I think of as "motorcar" words. "I liked the funny bits"—what does that convey that "the funny parts" doesn't, other than to say that the speaker is familiar with how the English talk? And given that Anglicisms generally flow to us via a narrower pipe than the one that pours Americanisms into British speech, and one that with some exceptions tends to deposit its effluvia into the cultural upper stories, the practice often suggests a whiff of pretension.  But with "spot on," there's something else going on. I don't think I would have called it ludicrous, as Ms H reports me as saying. But I might very well have said "awfully silly."

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments (77)

    Spot off

    In an otherwise reasonably well-reported BBC piece on American adoptions of British — really English — expressions, Cordelia Hebblethwaite described me, accurately, as generally deploring the practice, but tricked out my remarks in a tone that made it sound unfamiliar to me or others, as Mark noted in his post.

    "Spot on – it's just ludicrous!" snaps Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley.

    "You are just impersonating an Englishman when you say spot on."

    "Will do – I hear that from Americans. That should be put into quarantine," he adds.

    Now, as Mark surmises, that report wasn't entirely spot on. For one thing, I wasn't snapping anything (at best, I was going for a crackle). To be sure, that could be the fault of it one of those cross-cultural misunderstandings arising out of intonational differences that John Gumperz explored in his research.

    But I suspect that it was something more deliberate than that, particularly since Hebblethwaite later has me "quivering" with "revulsion" over British loans. Listen, when I quiver, I quiver, but the target is generally United Airlines, not some piece of English usage. But it's a weary cliché among the feature-writing classes that opinions about usage are made to sound more comical when they're rendered in the tone of operatic indignation that Lynn Truss has made a specialty of, even when that tone has to be spun from the writer's imagination. Indeed, it wasn't only my tone that Ms Hebblethwaite, well, misremembered.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments (24)

    Romney: playing the devil with the details?

    From an interview Mitt Romney did with CBS News last week:

    Scott Pelley: You're asking the American people to hire you as president of the United States. They'd like to hear some specifics.

    Romney: Well, I can tell them specifically what my policy looks like. I will not raise taxes on middle-income folks. I will not lower the share of taxes paid by high-income individuals. And I will make sure that we bring down rates, we limit deductions and exemptions so we can keep the progressivity in the code, and we encourage growth in jobs.

    Pelley: And the devil's in the details, though. What are we talking about, the mortgage deduction, the charitable deduction?

    Romney: The devil's in the details. The angel is in the policy, which is creating more jobs.

    Pelly: You have heard the criticism, I'm sure, that your campaign can be vague about some things. And I wonder if this isn't precisely one of those things?

    Romney: It's very much consistent with my experience as a governor which is, if you want to work together with people across the aisle, you lay out your principles and your policy, you work together with them, but you don't hand them a complete document and say, "Here, take this or leave it.".

    What is Romney using "the devil's in the details" to mean?

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments (11)

    "Zara Phillips, a granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II’s"

    I did a double-take at a photo caption in yesterday's NY Times: "Zara Phillips, a granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II’s, was part of the team that won a silver medal in eventing on Tuesday."


    "A granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II's"—why the unusual double genitive (was the term originally Jespersen's)? Despite all the attention given to Zara Phillips, that phrase appears only twice in Google, excluding duplicates, and "a granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth's" appears not at all—this against more than 600 hits returned for "a granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth II" and "a granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth." (Google actually estimates 230,000, but you know how much that means.) The double genitive seems to be very rare when speaking of family members, even those of whom one can have an indefinite number, unless the genitive itself is realized as a pronoun ("a granddaughter of yours," "no son of mine"). But of course the construction is fine when one is speaking of friends, colleagues or other alienable relationships. Search me. There's an extensive literature on this construction, from several schools, including contributions by Ray Jackendoff, John Taylor, Barbara Partee, Chris Barker, Gianluca Storto, and a number of others (see the bibliography in Chris's 2008 paper), and no doubt this point is covered somewhere — but where?

    Comments (36)

    Why "Hopefully"?

    I have a piece airing on "Fresh Air" today on hopefully. I recorded it about a month ago and it has been sitting in the can since then, so I didn't have the opportunity to profit from the observations made by Mark in his recent posts here, here and here; if I had, I would have mentioned his points about the changing frequency of the word, among other things, and some of the points made by Arnold in a one-stop-shopping post at his blog. I simply described the usage as "floating hopefully," so as not to tax the radio audience's limited patience for grammatical pilpul. Mostly, I wanted to stress a couple of things that seem to me to make hopefully sui generis in the canon of linguistic infractions.

    Start with its elevation to a shibboleth and the overwrought tenor of the denunciations, so disproportionate to the imagined offense:

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments (17)

    Winchester on Green and Lighter in NYRB

    I interviewed Simon Winchester some years ago for the City Arts and Lectures series in San Francisco, just after the publication of his book The Professor and the Madman (British title The Surgeon of Crowthorne). He's a personable and engaging story-teller, and of all the interviews I've done in that series, from Robert Pinsky to A. S. Byatt, his was the easiest and most entertaining (I said afterwards that it was like pitching batting practice to Barry Bonds). A few years later he published The Meaning of Everything, a very readable book about the creation of the OED, and the one I usually recommend to people who are interested in the topic. So he was a very good choice to review Jonathon Green's Dictionary of Slang for the New York Review of Books a few weeks ago. The review took an unfortunate turn, though, when Winchester brought in Jonathan Lighter's still uncompleted Historical Dictionary of American Slang and compared it invidiously, and quite unfairly, to Green's work. It's another in a long line of ill-conceived evaluations of dictionaries by writers who mistake their literacy and passion for the language for lexicographical expertise—think of Dwight Macdonald on Webster's Third, for example. I wrote the following letter to the New York Review. They haven't run it (not surprising, considering its length and the relative marginality of the topic), but because I think the review did an injustice to Lighter, I'm posting it here.

    To the editor: When it comes to the topic of slang, even writers as imaginative as Emerson, Chesterton, and Anthony Burgess have had only two or three things to say. You can celebrate the poetry and effervescence of the language of the common folk, you can revel in raffish identification with long-gone rakes and rowdies, and you can proclaim your embrace of slang in defiance of the (even longer gone) pedants and purists who disdain it. The thing can only be done badly or well. So one could do a lot worse than assign the review of Jonathon Green's Dictionary of Slang to Simon Winchester, an engaging writer who has produced two very readable popular books about dictionaries.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments (19)

    Don't get your kilt in a bundle

    I can't say I share Mark and Geoff's agitation about the Jeremiad about the disappearance of the apostrophe in the Daily Mail. True, the tone of these things is enormously tiresome, with the outrage camped up just enough so the writer can deter the charge of taking himself too seriously. (It's like karaoke singers who clown and mug as they sing songs by the Carpenters that they really cherish.) But these complaints actually leave one with a very reassuring sense of complacency about the state of English. If the greatest linguistic threats we're facing are things like the confusion of prone and supine and a deteriorating grasp on the lie/lay distinction, then we'll probably muddle through. It's like hearing someone warn of grave domestic security threats and then learning that he's mostly concerned about Canadian sturgeon-poaching on the US side of Lake Huron.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments (23)