Archive for Semantics

Reversal of meanings

From Cecilia Segawa Seigle (9/18/15):

Yesterday morning's Asahi Shinbun reports that some Japanese words (or argot in certain cases) seem to be changing (reversing) meanings.

For example "yabai" (やばい), originally an argot used by criminals (thieves) meaning "not good" or "not propitious," seems to have changed its meaning among teenagers. 90% of the teens use the word "yabai" to express "wonderful," "good," "delicious," "smart-looking."  Only 5% of the people above 70 years of age used "yabai" for positive meaning; in other words the older people still use the word for negative situations.

For the word "Omomuroni" (おもむろに), an adverb meaning "unhurriedly," "slowly," 44.5% answered with the traditional meaning "slowly." 40.8% answered that "omomuroni" meant "suddenly."

This is only a small part of the phenomena revealing the breakdown of the Japanese language according to the recent survey made by Bunkacho (文化庁), Japanese government's Agency for Cultural Affairs.

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Inverting inversely

Paul Kay wrote to point to a sexist joke that inverts a scalar predicate, in a way that's similar to what happens in the "No head injury is too trivial to be ignored" / "No wug is too dax to be zonged" type of misnegation:

The speed in which a woman says "nothing" when asked "What's wrong?" is inversely proportional to the severity of the shit storm that's coming.

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Absolved of having done nothing wrong

Last month, the hockey star Patrick Kane was accused of rape, and investigations of the matter continue. Last week, he joined the Chicago Blackhawks' training camp, and at a press event organized by the team, he read a statement that addressed the accusations as follows:

While I have too much respect for the legal process
to comment on an on-going matter

I am confident
that once all the facts are brought to light
I will be absolved of having done nothing wrong

[Chris Hine and Stacy St. Clair, "Patrick Kane 'confident' he will be 'absolved' of wrongdoing", Chicago Tribune 9/17/2015.]

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The growing expletive deficit at the White House

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In the European Union or out?

Over the past week there has been a change in the officially ordained wording of the referendum question about European Union membership that will be put before the people of the United Kingdom some time over the coming two years. On the face of it, the change seems trivial or even pointless, because it does not allow for any new decision to be made by the voters. They will vote either to continue the UK's membership in the EU or to discontinue it. But the change provides a very clear and useful example showing the real-life importance of a linguistic distinction.

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Non-programmer friendly

Brad DeLong linked to a paywalled Financial Times article by Lisa Pollack about problems with spreadsheet usage, and observed that

[C]onsiderations like these make me extremely hesitant when I think of asking my students in Econ 1 next spring to do problems sets in Excel. Shouldn’t I be asking them to do it in R via R Studio or R Commander instead? Audit trails are very valuable. Debuggability is very valuable. Excel ain’t got it…

The first comment, from "Captaindomestic":

I'm biased as a MathWorks employee, but you may want to look into MATLAB. It is really strong in the kinds of data analysis and plotting that econ students need to do. MATLAB has a pretty non-programmer friendly editor and model that helps new users.

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How can you (not) help but (not) __?

Here's another example of the power of negation to confuse us –Jonathan Capehart, "Marco Rubio’s powerful American story", WaPo 4/14/2015:

Rubio’s up-from-nothing life story is inspiring. “I live in an exceptional country where even the son of a bartender and a maid can have the same dreams and the same future as those who come from power and privilege,” he said. How can you not help but puff out your chest in pride for the promise of this nation?

This seems to be a blend of "How can you help but puff out your chest in pride?" and "How can you not puff out your chest in pride?".

Such expressions are fertile ground for misnegation: Given the combination of explicit or implicit negation with a question and an implicit scalar predicate (here the strength of the chest-puffing motivation), how can you not help but not throw in an extra negation or two?

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Hyperbolic scalar indifference

From Larry Horn

Eliza Kennedy, I Take You, 2015 (p. 69):

[narrator has just been asked by wedding planner to choose one of six identical-looking swatches]

I look at her, then at Rose. “Ladies? To say that I do not give two shits about this vastly overestimates the value I place on shits.”

They puzzle that one out for a while. So do I. Those Bloody Marys must have been pretty strong.

Trollthumper, in the context of an online discussion of TV shows:

Yeah, and while I'm not one to uphold a show as "the documentary experience," having such inaccuracies can just leave this ringing sense of disconnect with those who know the language. And I know that sometimes, that's just me – I've gotten into fights with friends over blatant inaccuracies in media, because in their eyes, such things only matter to a few people – and I don't believe you need to give a fuck about EVERYTHING. But there does come a point where a viewer's "lack-of-fucks-ometer" is going to tick over the red line, and when it does, they'll start to wonder if the scriptwriter gave a fuck about ANYTHING.

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Disastrous ambiguity

Talking of the possibly impending Grexit, what an unfortunate sentence The Economist chose to conclude its leader article on the ongoing Greek monetary crisis:

This marriage is not worth saving at any price.

A quirk of English syntax and semantics makes this radically ambiguous.

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"There's not a player who doesn't deserve it less"

Cited by Nick Miller, "Stuart Bingham shocks Shaun Murphy in World Snooker Championship final", The Guardian 5/5/2015:

Misnegation or (un-)compliment?

[h/t Paweł Nowak]

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It's not for (lack of (not)) trying

Andrew Hood, "With second at Amstel Gold, Valverde confident for remaining Ardennes races", Velo News 4/19/2015 (emphasis added):

Perhaps Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) will never win the Amstel Gold Race. It’s not for trying. And for the third time in his career, he was on the final podium Sunday, behind a superb Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick-Step), who relegated Spain’s “Green Bullet” to second in the Dutch classic.

Francisco Almeida writes to suggest that there's an under-negation here, since the usual expression is "It's not for lack of trying".

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"A year ago, we don't win tonight".

Ron Stack writes:

Here is Manager Terry Collins on the Mets' victory over the Marlins last night: “A year ago, we don’t win tonight. It’s a different mentality in our clubhouse now."  

I'm almost certain LL has covered this time-shifted present tense but since I don't even know what to call it I couldn't do much of a search.  

So, what is it? And why does it sound right but look strange? And why does it seem (anecdotally, anyway) to be so popular among coaches and managers?

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No, totally

Kathryn Schulz, "What part of 'No, totally' don't you understand?", The New Yorker 4/7/1015:

Not long ago, I walked into a friend’s kitchen and found her opening one of those evil, impossible-to-breach plastic blister packages with a can opener. This worked, and struck me as brilliant, but I mention it only to illustrate a characteristic that I admire in our species: given almost any entity, we will find a way to use it for something other than its intended purpose. We commandeer cafeteria trays to go sledding, “The Power Broker” to prop open the door, the Internet to look at kittens. We do this with words as well—time was, spam was just Spam—but, lately, we have gone in for a particularly dramatic appropriation. In certain situations, it seems, we have started using “no” to mean “yes.”

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