Paul Kay

Website: http://www.icsi.berkeley.edu/~kay/

Posts by Paul Kay:

    Free Pre-Paid Cremation! DETAILS INSIDE

    Over the last year or so I've received several letters from an admirable organization called the Trident Society with the words "Free Pre-Paid Cremation! DETAILS INSIDE," on the envelope. Ordinarily, I don't open advertising letters, but the third time I got one of these I couldn't resist the urge find out what the writer(s) could mean by these words, which appear to pose a double conundrum. (1) What could a pre-paid cremation contrast with? A post-paid cremation? How would that work? (2) Anyway, if it's free, how can it be paid, pre- or post-? You might want to stop reading for a second and try to guess what's going on.

    I'm afraid the answer isn't all that satisfying. Inside there is a card on which the reader can express interest in learning about cremation services. The card also features the announcement: "WIN a pre-paid cremation. Return this completed card today …to be entered … " So I'm invited to participate in a lottery for which the prize is a cremation paid for before my death. I guess I would have been just as happy with a free cremation.

    By now, you may be saying , "Oh c'mmon, you know perfectly well what they meant!" Yes, of course, but what I find puzzling about the whole thing is the question of the relative shares of linguistic ineptitude and huckstering flimflam that went into it.

    Comments (17)

    Charles J. Fillmore

    Charles J. (Chuck) Fillmore died last week. Lily Wong Fillmore asked me to prepare some brief remarks for the press. Here they are.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments off

    No small wonder

    This example of hypernegation (it that's what it is) was sent to me by Karl Zimmer:

    From a review by Hilton Als of the play "The Madrid" in The New Yorker (3/11/2013; p. 76):
    In a recent interview, Falco pointed out how infrequently she's offered "first dibs" on new plays. She explained, "I get offered them, but only after other people turn them down." Given that Falco is, artistically speaking, the heir to the late Maureen Stapleton–another toweringly talented actress who insisted on bare truth, not truthiness, in her performances– it's no small wonder that producers consider her a commercial risk…

    This looks more to me like a blend of no wonder and small wonder than it does of negation-gone-wild. But of course that's just a guess.

    Comments (19)

    We're all Lake Woebegonians now.

    From this morning's New York Times:

    "Nationally, about 17 percent of children under 20 are obese, or about 12.5 million people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which defines childhood obesity as a body mass index at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex."

    There must be some explanation for this.  Comments definitely open.

    Comments (26)

    Did Harry Reid lie? Politifact says so.

    Harry Reid has made a lot people mad, justifiably in my opinion, by saying that a Bain Capital investor told him that Romney didn't pay income tax for ten years. Reid has repeated his claim of being told this, and also said that he doesn't know whether or not to believe it.  To be sure, this is below-the-belt innuendo.  Politifact, however, has given Reid's claim its "pants on fire" rating. In Time Entertainment, James Poniewozik argues that in so doing Politfact is damaging its own reputation for probity, because "pants on fire" in the context of truth and falsity can only serve to evoke "Liar, liar, pants on fire!"  And Politifact has no way in the world of knowing whether or not Reid was lying in reporting that someone had told him something potentially damaging to Mitt Romney.  Furthermore, although in its full article Politifact reports accurately that Reid claims only to have been told the damaging story, in its list of pants-on-fire headlines, Politifact writes, next to a captioned thumbnail of Reid, "Mitt Romney did not pay taxes for 10 years," nine words in a box that accommodates an entry of twenty-five words in the box above with space to spare. Politifact seems to have forgotten to preface this with "said he has been told." Let's say this unfortunate inaccuracy was just an oversight on the part of Politifact and return to the issue of whether "pants on fire" was justified.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments (26)

    Like the children of Lake Wobegon

    I received a few days ago a questionnaire from the League of Women Voters, which contained the following question:

    In your view, what is the single biggest problem with elected officials in Washington, D.C., today?

    __ They are out of touch with regular Americans.

    __ They are under the influence of special interests.

    __ They only care about their political careers.

    __ They are too partisan and unwilling to compromise.

    __  All of the above.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments (26)

    Are corporations really people, after all?

    By now everyone knows that Mitt Romney has said, “Corporations are people,” and lots of jokes have been made about it: “Let my corporations go!” — Moses, and so on. Paul Krugman gives Romney the benefit of the doubt, giving him credit for meaning, not that corporations are flesh-and-blood folks, but rather that “corporations are organizations that consist of people.” Krugman then takes Romney to task soberly for his ideas about what happens to taxes on corporations, since these are not taxes on the corporate entity per se but only on its profits — the part that workers and suppliers don’t get. But I wonder if even Krugman is cutting Romney too much slack here. Our Supreme Court has held that money is speech in their ruling that restricting the money one can spend on political advertising is an unacceptable restraint of free speech. If a metaphor can be reified by five conservative justices to the point of holding that what is actually money counts in the real world as speech, why isn’t it natural for those of a like turn of mind to feel free to reify the metaphor that corporations are (legal) persons to the idea that they should count in the real world as individuals deserving of all the rights and privileges of actual people.

    [Update 8/14/11 I think the bad links are now fixed. Thanks, SSH. Several commentators, and Eugene Volokh in an email, have pointed out that the Supreme Court decision holding that restricting political advertising expenditure is restricting free speech does not represent the unique occasion on which authorities have held that restriction of some non-speech behavior - for example, marching - counts as a restriction on free speech. In other words, the decision was not based on reification of the metaphor “money is speech’; rather the metaphor was a product of the decision. And of course neither I nor anyone else can know what was in Mitt Romney’s mind when he said “Corporations are people.” Points taken. PK]

    Comments (22)

    Why I disprefer The Dictionary of Disagreeable English to pretty near anything

    I recently used the word disprefer in an email, and my spellchecker objected. That led me to a web search that convinced me that disprefer is (1) widely used in linguistics, (2) not listed in the OED, American Heritage, or Merriam-Webster online dictionaries, and (3) abhorred by some prescriptivists.  This post is about to turn into another of those Language Log rants about some prescriptivist's blunders.  My excuse for adding to this already copious genre?  In this case the self-appointed critic aims his barbs directly at "linguists and their lackeys," (Yeah, really) who he describes as "idiotic" and "disaffected… from sense and thoughtfulness."  When a guy calls you names like that and then gets three out of four of his examples wrong, it's hard to keep a civil tongue, but I'll try.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments (94)

    Color vocabulary and pre-attentive color perception

    Do the well-demonstrated Whorfian effects in color discrimination really reach down to the level of perception?  Some recent research suggests that Whorfian effects may exist at a level that is literally perceptual.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments (48)

    Still ahead of his time

    This morning's NY Times science section is devoted to memorializing Charles Darwin, and the title of one of the featured articles is: "He was prescient in 1859, and is still ahead of his time." My first reaction to this headline was an unreflecting interpretation of it as simply meaning, 'Darwin was ahead of his time and his ideas are still on the cutting edge.'

    But my second reaction was quite conscious: Wait a minute; this is an error — perhaps akin to those frequently noted confusions like "falling between the cracks" or "No brain damage is too minor to be ignored."  (If indeed they are properly considered confusions, see below.)

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Comments (32)