Archive for Language and the media

VX in Chinese

By now practically the whole world knows that Kim Jong-nam, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un's older half-brother, was killed by the extremely toxic nerve agent called VX.  VX is much more potent than sarin, which was used by the Aum Shinrikyo cult to kill 12 people and injure thousands of others in the Tokyo subway in 1995.  Apparently, it's not clear why this series of nerve agents is called "V" ( "Victory", "Venomous", or "Viscous" are some of the possibilities).  Since research on these agents is restricted primarily to the military, not much is known about them in civilian circles.  Whatever the "V" stands for, and besides VX, other agents in the series include VE, VG, VM, and VR.

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Look at me

In his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, President Trump received contradictory instructions about where to look.

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Malapropism of the week

Jessica Taylor & Danielle Kurtzleben, "This week in Trump's 'Alternative Facts'", NPR 1/29/2017

Less than 24 hours after White House press secretary had spouted numerous falsehoods about inauguration crowd size and more, Kellyanne Conway went on NBC's "Meet the Press" to defend him. In the process, the counselor to President Donald Trump coined a phrase that's now deigned to follow Trump throughout his presidency — "alternative facts."

I imagine that they meant "destined", not "deigned".

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The temperature is struggling

I commented back in 2008 on the ridiculous vagueness of some of the brief weather forecast summaries on BBC radio ("pretty miserable by and large," and so on). I do sometimes miss the calm, scientific character of American weather forecasts, with their precise temperature range predictions and exact precipitation probabilities. In recent days, on BBC Radio 4's morning news magazine program, I have heard an official meteorologist guy from the weather center saying not just vague things like "a weather front trying to get in from the north Atlantic," or "heading for something a little bit warmer as we move toward the weekend," but (more than once) a total baffler: "The temperature is going to be struggling." What the hell is that about?

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Editing wars at London Bridge Street

As of the time of writing, you only get one hit if you ask Google to show you all the pages on the web containing the word sequence in order legally to minimise. That lone hit leads you to an anonymous leader in The Times (there is a paywall) in which this sentence occurs:

Companies are gaming the system in order legally to minimise their tax liability.

The highly unnatural syntax has the hallmark of having been created or edited by someone who would rather poison a puppy than allow an adverb to intrude between infinitival to and its following plain-form verb. But in this case there is more to the story.

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One last (?) piece of nonsense

Callum Borchers, "Count Obama’s references to ‘I’ and ‘me’ while you can, conservative media", WaPo 1/18/2017:

For eight years, tracking Obama's use of the personal pronouns "I" and "me" has been a cherished ritual in the conservative media — one small way to promote the idea that the president is self-centered and therefore out of touch with all the decent, hard-working folks out there. […]

Last week, the Daily Caller dinged Obama for referring to himself 75 times in his farewell address.

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Metaphor of the month

Joshua David Stein, "The Loud, Empty Word That Defines President-Elect Trump", The Daily Beast 1/1/2017:

Perhaps because there are so many casualties already accruing and so much damage already being done, it has gone less noted than it should that among the incoming Trump administration’s most endangered victims is the English language itself. Nouns shudder. Adjectives cower. The entire edifice of grammar quivers with fear as January 20th nears.

Of course, one could make the argument that at a time when all the groceries are up in the air, we must prioritize what to catch. Climate change and war are eggs; perhaps language is a loaf of bread.

But language, as any linguist, Lacanian or deliman knows, is the sandwich within which stuff our world. If a thing doesn’t fit inside our words, we can’t bring it to our mouths. It is fundamentally indigestible.

I'm going to guess that that there's a missing "we" in "the sandwich within which (we) stuff our world".

And are "linguist, Lacanian or deliman" three epistemological alternatives? Or are Lacanian and deliman subtypes of linguist? Compare "cow, sheep or goat" to "cow, Guernsey or Holstein"…

Morris Halle once told me about a lecture in Paris after which someone — perhaps a Lacanian — asked him suspiciously to define his philosophical orientation. Morris's answer: "Does a shoemaker need a philosophical orientation? If so, then that's mine as well." In this case, I guess I'll follow Morris in identifying myself as an adherent of the deliman school. Though someone that I respect has been trying to persuade me that Jacques Lacan was not, in Noam Chomsky's words, "an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan". So stay tuned.

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Noun pile of the week

"Corpse sex kill threat prisoner gets 45 year sentence", BBC 12/14/2016.

This is a case where even after reading the story, the structure is unclear.

Is it [[[corpse sex] [kill threat]] prisoner] ?

Or [[[corpse [sex kill]] threat]] prisoner] ?

Or has the BBC decided, in this post-truth era, to go post-syntax as well?

Philip Cummings, who sent in the link, commented that

I call these ‘noun car crashes’ particularly when I have to attempt to translate them into Irish and work out the appropriate case relationships between the various nouns.

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To more than justify the split infinitive

As long ago as 1914, an article by the grammarian George O. Curme made the point that more than can modify the verb of an infinitival complement, and since it must be adjacent to the verb, that actually forces a split infinitive: shifting the more than modifier to anywhere else creates clear ambiguity. I found a small measure of comfort in seeing that even The Economist, so often driven to deleteriously unnatural phrasing in its efforts to avoid split infinitives, acknowledges this grammatical imperative. In the November 26 issue for 2016 (online here) we read:

A string of purchases of A380s, starting in 2008, helped traffic to more than double to 51m in 2015.

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Kilometers and miles

Sometimes the obeisance to style guides by newspaper editors and journalists looks not so much craven as robotic. The Telegraph provides an example. Like many newspapers, it has a policy of reporting distances in kilometers but appending parenthesized equivalents in miles (it's a conservative newspaper, and is not going to push its mileage-oriented readers toward metric units any time soon). Often that's useful: when it reports that The behemoth Airbus A380 … is capable of carrying 544 passengers up to 15,200km (8,200 miles), the parenthetical suffix serves to assist metrically challenged Americans and older Brits in forming an idea of what 15,200 of those little bitty European kilometer things might amount to. (At least, it would have done if it were correct, but as Bruce Lin has pointed out to me, it's wildly wrong: 15,200 km = 15200/8 * 5 = 9,500 mi. They're off by 1,300 miles. They must have meant nautical miles: 15,200 km = 8207.34 NM. That could be a life-threatening error for a jetliner running low on fuel. But never mind; who's counting.) Sometimes, though, doing such conversions is rather less useful.

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Telephone or telegraph?

There's a controversy over whether President Xi Jinping called President-elect Donald Trump to congratulate him on his victory in the November 8th election.  The problem is summarized in this passage from The Economist:

Chinese officials pay obsessive attention to ensuring the Communist Party’s line is reflected accurately by the country’s main media. But Mr Trump’s victory caught them in a muddle. Several outlets said Mr Xi had telephoned his compliments to Mr Trump. But Mr Trump said he had spoken to or heard from most foreign leaders—except Mr Xi. The phone call did not take place until six days after the vote. In most countries such a mistake would be insignificant, the result of sloppy reporting or ambiguous phrasing (in Mandarin, the phrase “sent a congratulatory note” can also mean “congratulate by phone”). In China it suggested that media overlords were not sure what line to take.

(emphasis added)

From The Economist, November 19th, 2016, "China" section, page 59 of British edition.

"Weighing up Telangpu:  A victory for China?  Some Chinese see much to like in Mr Trump" (11/19/16)

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Big-league metaphors: the role of sports language in American politics

Yesterday I had the pleasure of joining fellow Language Logger Barbara Partee on Josh Chetwynd's KGNU radio show, "The Real Deal in Sports." Josh is the author of The Field Guide to Sports Metaphors, and he spoke to Barbara and me about how the metaphorical language of sports pervades American politics (especially in the latest presidential campaign). We mulled over how those metaphors shape our political discourse, and callers joined in with their own thoughts. You can listen to the hourlong broadcast here.

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How "whopping" is 78 percent monosyllables?

The other day, someone asked me about the claim that "a whopping 78 percent of the words that Trump uses are monosyllabic".

We've previously debunked the idea that Trump's speeches aim at a fourth-grade reading level ("More Flesch-Kincaid grade level nonsense", 10/23/2015).

And long ago, we took aim at careless assertions about how young people/media/txting/etc. are degrading the language to the point that "the top 20 words used … account for a third of all words": "Britain's scientists risk becoming hypocritical laughing stocks, research suggests", 12/16/2006; "Only 20 words for a third of what they say: A replication", 12/16/2006; "Vicky Pollard's revenge", 1/2/2007.

So here's a quick evaluation of that "78 percent" claim.

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