Melvyn Quince

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Posts by Melvyn Quince:

    Honoring the elements

    Even jezebel.com is getting into the S&W 50th anniversary act (Sadie, "Stylistas", 4/16/2009):

    The Elements of Style, Strunk and White's timeless usage and composition handbook, is 50 today. Please place a preposition after the relative pronoun in its honor.

    I applaud this attempt to re-purpose words that have otherwise lost their meaning in popular culture, but frankly, the results are a stylistic disappointment.

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    Between libretto and lice

    In connection with my difficult work on Language Log's "Financial Good News" desk, where things have been arduous and slow, I was looking something up in the American Heritage Dictionary earlier today (possibly liberalism, possible lien; to tell you the truth, I have forgotten what — something beginning with L, but I got sidetracked), when I noticed something. In between libretto and lice it has a definition for Libyan Desert. The definition reports (and I just know you are going to get there ahead of me) that it is a desert, and it mainly is in (I know, I know, you are jostling me aside in your eagerness to predict it without having looked) Libya. Parts of it are in Egypt and parts of Sudan, actually; and no doubt there are areas that could be argued to be outlying regions of it that are in Chad (the dictionary did not deny it), but the Libyan Desert really is mostly a Libyan desert. The question that struck me was: wherever the hell it is, what the hell is it doing in a dictionary?

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    Take our survey

    For some weeks now I have been assigned to the Financial Good News Desk here at Language Log Plaza. It took me longer than it should have done for me to realize that this was just some sort of practical joke aimed at making sure I did not write anything, apparently because of pressure from the office of the Vice President of the United States (because of posts like this one, I suppose). I eventually applied for a transfer, and have now been assigned to the Research Survey Department. So I have to send out surveys. Please answer the questions below in your own time despite the considerable difficulties with format and the obscurity of the questions, and return by email at our convenience to surveys@research.languagelog.com, where an automatic system will use it to generate data entirely for our benefit rather than yours.

    Do you believe the world has gone survey mad and that nearly all surveys done are a gigantic waste of time? __ strongly agree
    __ sort of agree
    __ utterly undecided
    __ hardly care
    __ sort of disagree
    __ strongly disagree
    Do you think surveys asking for people's opinions about the way things are, rather than verifiable things they have done, are an even more extreme form of stupidity, resulting in nonsense like "43% of employees believe managers may be snooping on them" being passed off as news or even social science? __ strongly agree
    __ sort of agree
    __ utterly undecided
    __ hardly care
    __ sort of disagree
    __ strongly disagree

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    Don't ask Language Log

    I did get one question phoned in by a journalist during my long stint on the night semantics desk. A reporter from the New York Daily News called to ask me about some things that former yoga instructor Rielle Hunter had said, about former Democratic politician John Edwards being "an old soul" with a "special energy" who could be a truly "transformational leader" if only he would use his heart more and his head less; and about her purpose on this Earth being "to help raise awareness about all this, to help the unenlightened become better reflections of their true, repressed selves." The reporter wanted to know what this meant — what becoming a better reflection of one's true repressed self would amount to, in precise terms. Doesn't it suggest that one's real self is trapped inside, he asked, and one's apparently real self that walks around among us, and eats breakfast, and experiences temptations regarding sexual relations with blonde videographers, is merely a reflection of that inner reality? Is this not, he went on (having apparently majored in philosophy at Columbia), a remarkable inversion of the way language is normally employed by philosophers talking about the self? Has Ms Hunter not got the outside inside and the inside outside?

    I'm afraid I was unable to answer. In fact I have something of a headache, and since it is now breakfast time and I have been on duty all night I think I will have breakfast and go to bed. Ask Language Log, yes; but don't ask it absolutely anything at all. In particular, we are generally powerless to interpret reincarnationspeak and yogababble.

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    Dick Cheney, call your office

    The office of US Vice President Richard Cheney has said that Russia's aggression against Georgia in South Ossetia "must not go unanswered". That and the mention of "serious consequences" sounds like another war. But no, it turns out otherwise (see the Associated Press):

    Asked to explain Cheney's phrase "must not go unanswered," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, "It means it must not stand."

    I wish these people would just check with the Language Log 24/7 Semantic Inquiries desk before they talk to the press on linguistic topics. Here I sit, at two thirty in the morning at the Language Log offices in Philadelphia (I have been assigned the night shift again), and the phone has not rung in more than five hours. You are completely wrong, Mr Johndroe: "must not go unanswered" does not mean "must not stand." What on earth gets into the members of the current administration when they are asked semantic questions that relate to justifying war? Why are they so often driven into semantic incoherence? Call Language Log for a chat about this, Mr Johndroe. Your call will not go unanswered.

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    Enervate, disconnect, revolt

    A conference I recently attended — I conceal its identity to spare the blushes of the organizers — had apparently forged enough connections to industrially applicable linguistic research to make it succumb to the blandishments of business-school jargon. (If one sups with the devil one should use a long spoon.) Every participant was given one of those fancy plasticized file folders to hold the program and so on, and on this fancy folder was emblazoned the following slogan:

    • innovate • connect • achieve

    I stared at the unrequested folder for some time, thinking of Orwell, and trying to imagine what ghastly school of business management Newspeak must have spawned the slogan.

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    Trilingual bisexuals?

    I was scanning the staider newspapers this morning looking for items of linguistic interest for our readership when I encountered a story in the Daily Telegraph concerning one Lord Laidlaw, a British peer who was recently discovered by a tabloid newspaper of the British Isles to have been fairly extraordinary quantities of money on flying prostitutes from Britain to a $12,000-a-night presidential suite at a Monte Carlo hotel where the girls "drank champagne and fine wines before taking part in lesbian and bondage sex acts." The puzzling part for me, given my remarkably sparse experience of such champagne-fueled sex acts, was the only linguistically relevant remark in the story:

    One recent party was said to have involved a Vogue model, three prostitutes, a male gigolo and a trilingual bisexual.

    What on earth, I wondered, was the relevance of the bisexual participant's ability to conduct business in three languages? I would have thought it was rather difficult to speak even one language when one's mouth is full (and I am told that at events of the sort Lord Laidlaw enjoyed, one could hardly be said to be participating fully if one didn't have one's mouth full). Are trilingual bisexuals well known to be in special demand among devotees of the lesbian/bondage scene? Are there perhaps special agencies where peers of the realm go to rent them? Or do they post advertisements in the "Personal Services" section of free newspapers? "Versatile male, trilingual (English/Spanish/German) and bisexual (French/Greek), seeks generous House of Lords member for party work in Monaco area…"

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    Change is bad

    I have no idea why everyone here at Language Log Plaza is so pleased with the new hosting software and editing environment. <i>WYSIWYG</i> web editing indeed! &amp;quot;What You See Is What You Get&amp;quot; is neither what I want to see nor what I want to get. I have always entered my HTML code <b>by hand</b>, not with some fancy show-me editing product for wimps, all decorated with little icons and buttons to press; and I have done it <b>myself</b>. My cited data is properly placed in <i>in italics</i>, my indented quotes are in <blockquote>...</blockquote> environments, and when I want non-breaking spaces I simply insert non-breaking&nbsp;spaces. I intend to continue working as I always have. &quot;Progress&quot; is not always a good thing. In fact it is mostly a bad thing. And if the Language Log editorial staff want to try and cut me off for editorially incorrect formatting they will just find that the

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