Archive for Semantics

Corpora and the Second Amendment: Responding to Weisberg on the meaning of "bear arms" [Updated, and updated again]

[An introduction and guide to my series of posts "Corpora and the Second Amendment" is available here.]

[Update: Broken link fixed.]

The Originalism Blog has a guest post, by David Weisberg, taking issue with the conclusion in Dennis Baron's Washington Post op-ed that newly available evidence of historical usage shows that in District of Columbia v. Heller, Justice Scalia misinterpreted the phrase keep and bear arms. That's an issue that I wrote about yesterday ("The coming corpus-based reexamination of the Second Amendment") and that I'm going to be dealing with in a series of posts over the next several weeks.

One of Weisberg's arguments concerns a linguistic issue that I'm planning to address, and I think that Weisberg is mistaken. At the risk of getting out ahead of myself, I want to respond to Weisberg briefly now, with a more detailed explanation to come.

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Cool slave / guy / tofu / whatever

Nathan Hopson spotted this "Cool Guy" t-shirt on Facebook:

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Mongolian priests and bugs, with a note on the Japanese word for "bonze"

An anonymous correspondent asked:

Are these actually related words, or just homonyms?

p. 127 of  Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Quest for God: How the World's Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom:

Male shamans were treated with cautious respect, but they evoked suspicion and even disgust. As one saying put it, “the worst of men become shamans.” The word boo, Mongolian for “shaman,” is part of a cluster of words with loathsome connotations: foul, abominable, to vomit, to castrate, an opportunistic person without scruples; it is also the general term for lice, fleas, and bedbugs. 28

His footnote 28: бѳѳ (бѳѳδийн), to vomit (бѳѳлжих), to castrate (бѳѳрлѳх), an opportunistic person without scruples (бѳѳрѳний хн), and the basic term for lice, fleas, and bedbugs (бѳѳс). Хvлгийг муу жоро болох. A Modern Mongolian-English Dictionary, ed. Denis Sinor (Indiana University, Uralic and Altaic Series, vol. 150, 1997),

Someone else asked whether Japanese boosan / bōsan 坊さん ("monk") were somehow related.

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Niggling nitpicking in Hong Kong bureaucratese

Did China "take back" (shōuhuí 收回) Hong Kong from Great Britain or did it "recover" (huīfù 恢復) the former colony?  Even though representatives of the Chinese government have used the former expression in the past, they now insist that there was no "taking back", only "recovering" what was always China's.

On July 1, 1997, was there a “handover of sovereignty” (zhǔquán yíjiāo 主權移交)?  Despite the fact that this phrase was widely used by diplomats to describe what took place between the governments of Britain and the PRC, the Protocol Division of the Hong Kong government is now attempting to retroactively excise this offending language from official publications, including school textbooks.

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"If I don't get into it not wanting to win…"

During today's episode of "Angelo Cataldi and the Morning Gang" on WIP sports talk radio, there was an interview with Doug Pederson, the coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.

One exchange caught my linguistic (as opposed to sports fan) attention:


 

Angelo Cataldi: Doug, did you ever think this would happen to you?
Doug Pederson:  I did.
Angelo Cataldi: You did.
Doug Pederson: I did.
I did.
I did, I didn't think it was going to happen in year two
but
you know, Angelo, listen, i- if- if-
if I don't get into this business
not wanting to win the Super Bowl,
I'm going to go do something else,
you know?

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What it is is what it is

Jay Livingston sends a compendium of tautologies from The Wire:

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The harmonics of 'entitlement'

A lot of the most effective political keywords derive their force from a maneuver akin to what H. W. Fowler called "legerdemain with two senses," which enables you to slip from one idea to another without ever letting on that you’ve changed the subject. Values oscillates between mores (which vary from one group to another) and morals (of which some people have more than others do). The polemical uses of elite blend power (as in the industrial elite) and pretension (as in the names of bakeries and florists). Bias suggests both a disposition and an activity (as in housing bias), and ownership society conveys both material possession and having a stake in something.

And then there's entitlement, one of the seven words and phrases that the administration has instructed policy analysts at the Center for Disease Control to avoid in budget documents, presumably in an effort, as Mark put it in an earlier post, to create "a safe space where [congresspersons'] delicate sensibilities will not be affronted by such politically incorrect words and phrases." Though it's unlikely that the ideocrats who came up with the list thought it through carefully, I can see why this would lead them to discourage the use of items like diversity. But the inclusion of entitlement on the list is curious, since the right has been at pains over the years to bend that word to their own purposes.

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Evangelical over/under

Ross Douthat, "Is There an Evangelical Crisis?", NYT 11/25/2017 (emphasis added):

But it’s also possible that evangelical intellectuals and writers, and their friends in other Christian traditions, have overestimated how much a serious theology has ever mattered to evangelicalism’s sociological success. It could be that the Trump-era crisis of the evangelical mind is a parochial phenomenon, confined to theologians and academics and pundits and a few outlier congregations — and that it is this group, not the cultural Christians who voted enthusiastically for Trump, who represent the real evangelical penumbra, which could float away and leave evangelicalism less intellectual, more partisan, more racially segregated … but as a cultural phenomenon, not all that greatly changed. […]

Correction: November 26, 2017
An earlier version of this column misstated a possible belief among some Christians about how much a serious theology matters to evangelicalism’s sociological success. They may have overestimated it, not underestimated it.

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Stress, emphasis, pause, and meaning in Mandarin

In "Mandarin Janus sentences" (11/4/17), there arose the question of whether duōshǎo 多少 ("how many") and duō shǎo 多少 ("how few") are spoken differently.  I'm very glad that, in the comments, Chris Button recognizes that Sinitic languages can have stress.  (The same is doubtless true of other tonal languages).

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Mandarin Janus sentences

Here are two Chinese sentences that seriously mess with your mind, since they can also mean the opposite of what they seem to say:

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Semantics at the Supreme Court

“What is the difference between ‘reasonably necessary’ and ‘substantial need’?” asked Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito (see this story in the New York Times). “I have been racking my brain trying to think of something that it is reasonably necessary for me to obtain but as to which I do not have the substantial need. And I can’t think of an example.”

Several of the court’s more liberal justices disagreed, saying that “reasonably necessary” connoted matters that a reasonable lawyer with finite resources would try to pursue.

On the outcome there hangs the issue of whether death row inmates like Carlos Manuel Ayestas in Texas will get legal aid. A federal appeals court in New Orleans, which oversees cases from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, says there must a “substantial need” for the money, and denied funds to Ayestas. He challenged the denial.

So don't ever say there is no practical importance to the work semanticists do as they try to identify truth-conditional differences between terms of broadly similar meaning.

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GA

One of my favorite Chinese words is GANGA (pronounce as in "Lady Gaga", but put a nasal at the end of the first syllable).  It is so special and has had such a deep impact upon me since I began learning Chinese half a century ago that, in this post, I shall refer to it simply as "GANGA", in capital letters only, except when discussing its more precise pronunciation, derivation, meaning, and written representation in Chinese characters.  Referring to this unusual word as "GANGA" is meant to emphasize the iconic quality it has for me personally, in the sense that its nature reveals many verities about Sinitic languages and Chinese writing.

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Incrimination by presupposition? The Goldstone e-mail

Paul Kay offered the following item for discussion around the water cooler at Language Log central:

Here's an excerpt from the initial email from Rob Goldstone to Donald Trump, Jr.:

​"This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its  government’s support for Mr. Trump – helped along by Aras and Emin."​

Is it worth noting the use of the possessive determiner​? I guess it's generally accepted that possessive determiners involve  some kind of existence presupposition, though I'm aware that there's a lot more to that subject than I know. In the current instance, the presupposition would be that there is in fact Russian government support for Trump. …

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