Archive for Language and the media

The moos you can moo

Geoff Pullum, always forthright, looks at some typical journalistic anthropomorphisms about animal communication and calls them "lies" ("Now it's cows that use names (sigh)", LLOG 12/20/2014):

The bottom line is that when it comes to language, journalists simply make stuff up. They are shockingly careless in all sorts of ways (in accuracy of quotations, for example, as Mark has pointed out many times), but when it comes to animal language it's far worse than that. They actually print what are obviously lies, even when the text of the same article makes it clear that they are lying.

I was curious about the background of this case, which as Geoff notes is a particular instance of a generic class of untruths, so I looked into it a bit more closely.

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Sony hacker language

Everybody is in a tizzy over the hacking of Sony Pictures.  Most people assume that North Korea was behind the hacking, which caused Sony Pictures to withdraw "The Interview" shortly before it was supposed to open in theaters.

Some of the coverage: "U.S. Intelligence Connects North Korea to Sony Hack: Reports", Newsweek 12/17/14; "A Look At North Korea's Cyberwar Capabilities", Huffington Post 12/18/14; "Obama May Have Forced Sony To Release 'The Interview'", Business Insider12/20/14.

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Now it's cows that use names (sigh)

According to a sub-headline in Full-Time Whistle, new scientific research has shown that "Cows and their calves communicate using individualised calls equivalent to human names."

How interesting. Cows have enough linguistic sophistication to employ the high-level device of personal naming? Let us delve into the details just a little, without moving away from the article itself.

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Which is what we what?

Charles Belov sent in a link to an AP story that contains a puzzling quote from SONY's CEO Michael Lynton ("Sony responds: 'We had no choice'", AP 12/20/2014):

Since Wednesday when Sony cancelled the film’s Dec. 25 release, the studio has come under withering criticism by those who have said capitulating to hackers sets a dangerous precedent. Everyone from George Clooney to Newt Gingrich has bitterly reproached Sony for what they've called self-censorship that goes against American ideals of freedom of expression. Obama said the same Friday morning.  

‘‘I wish they had spoken to me first,’’ said Obama in a press conference. ‘‘We cannot have a society in which some dictatorship someplace can start imposing censorship.’’  

But in an interview with CNN on Friday, Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton disputed that, saying: ‘‘The President, the press and the public are mistaken about what happened.’’ He also said that he spoke to a senior adviser in the White House about the situation.  

‘‘We were taken by surprise by the theaters, which is what we wanted to do first. Now we’re trying to proceed and figure out what the next steps would be,’’ Lynton told CNN.

As Charles noted, the sentence in bold doesn't seem to make any sense.

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Xinhua breaks ban on puns

I was going to write "Xinhua brakes ban on puns".  Upon reconsideration, I thought that would only lead to confusion, but it might at least have given an idea of how bad their pun is.

First of all, just so everyone knows, Xinhua is Xinhua ("New China") News Agency, the official press agency of the People's Republic of China.

Carl Minzner tweeted:

Open violation of ban on wordplay! Name of new Chinese state website dedicated to Xi Jinping? 学习进行时

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Nut rage

The biggest news in South Korea these days is the macadamia nut tantrum that occurred on Korean Airlines last week.  Heather Cho, the eldest daughter of Korean Air Lines chairman Cho Yang-ho and herself a high-ranking executive at the airline (though since resigned), threw a monumental hissy fit when she was served macadamia nuts in a manner that she thought was not suitably elegant.  Amongst the usual media accounts of the incident, there was this statement from the UK Guardian:

Bloggers and the Korean press lambasted Cho for her arrogance, and took to social media to mock her for going “nuts”.

and reports of this tweet in Korean from an online shopping mall/auction site that makes a sort of punning reference to “that nut.”

Jeff Weinberg asks whether “nut” or “nuts” in Korean is used for “crazy person” or “crazy” as it’s used in English (and maybe primarily American English).

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"Not a verb" is not an argument

This morning, when I checked out the website of The Atlantic, I saw an article by Megan Garber with the headline, "Gifting Is Not a Verb":

Megan has written perceptively about language before, notably in her piece from last year, "English Has a New Preposition, Because Internet," which played a large role in bringing attention to the emerging use of "because" — shortly thereafter recognized as the American Dialect Society's 2013 Word of the Year. (Some might argue that the new "because" isn't a preposition; Geoff Pullum defends that classification here and here but says it actually was one all along.)

The article itself is a seasonally appropriate exercise in word aversion, and Megan quotes one of Mark Liberman's posts on the topic to try to understand the source of her intense dislike of "gift" as a verb. But the headline goes much further, declaring that it is not a verb, despite the fact that the article clearly demonstrates that it is a verb, even if it's one that many people don't care for.

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Today's headline harvest

"Blindfold sex knife attack ex-wife jailed for murder attempt", BBC News 12/8/2014 — Although the five-noun pile-up doesn't give us any syntactic help, the facts are more or less what you'd guess by putting all the words on the table and making up a story about them:

A woman who tried to murder her ex-husband after blindfolding him following sex and telling him she had a surprise in store has been jailed.

Andrea Santon, of Lancaster, stabbed her former partner with a kitchen knife after luring him to her home and bedding him after a night out in June.

But in this one, the syntax takes us down a garden path, with baffling results: "World's Oldest Womean Just Pleased Every Other Human On Earth When She Was Born Now Dead", The Onion 12/8/2014.

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It's not just puns that are being banned in China

Even non-linguists and those who are not China watchers could hardly escape the momentous announcement of the Chinese government last week that casual punning was being outlawed:

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"Closed minds": open to interpretation?

CNN International recently sent out this tweet, linking to an interview with Stella McCartney:

The headline, which also appears on CNN's website, left some people perplexed. Was Ms. McCartney saying that her parents closed minds, or did they open closed minds?

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U.K. political snobbery mostly ignored in U.S. media

At brunch on Saturday, a friend who gets his news from The New York Times observed that he'd read nothing about the Plebgate trial, which has been covered obsessively in the British press (see "Plebgate judgment", 11/28/2014, for some links). And he didn't miss an obscurely-placed item — as far as I can tell from searching the site, the Gray Lady covered the earlier stages of Andrew Mitchell's defense of his reputation ("Britain's Bobbies in the Dock", 3/18/2014; "Cloud is cast over Britain's Institutions", 10/24/2013; "The Fall Guy and the Bobbies", 10/18/2014; "British Police on Defensive Over Downing Street Clash", 10/16/2013), but has not yet published anything about the defamation trail and its 11/27/2014 verdict.

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Dead-end sentences

Tim Leonard sends in "one for your hard-to-parse-headlines file": Tim Worstall, "The EU's Very Bad Turn $26 Billion Into $390 Billion Investment Plan", Forbes 11/23/2014. Tim observes that it's "not really a garden path, since it hits a dead end less than half way in".

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Clause attachment ambiguity

The newspaper headline interpretation confusion problem is usually associated with noun piles: "Coin change 'skin problem fear'", ""Ben Douglas Bafta race row hairdresser James Brown 'sorry'", "China Ferrari sex orgy death crash", and so on.

But here's one that depends on ambiguity in the attachment of a pile-up of three headline-final subordinate clauses — Richard Spillett, "Family's agony over when to tell mother her premature babies died while she was in a coma after she woke up", Daily Mail 11/18/2014.

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