Archive for Language and the media

Lei Feng: model soldier-citizen

If you don't know who Lei Feng is, you should.  He's China's equivalent of the Good Samaritan and Alfred E. Neuman ("What, me worry?") all wrapped up in one (for those of you who are not familiar with Alfred E. Neuman, one of my high school heroes, here's the real McCoy).

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Softy Calais goes ballistic…

Calais in north-western France, and Kent in south-eastern England, have been experiencing weeks of extraordinary chaos. Thousands of desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East are fighting to get into the Eurotunnel depot where they think they might be able to stow away on trucks that will make the train journey through the tunnel to the immensely desirable destination of Great Britain. The British think the Calais local authorities and the French government have been making only desultory efforts to prevent the migrants from clogging the approach roads, breaching the security fences, delaying train departures, and causing side effects like 24-hour traffic jams on the M20 freeway in Kent. So the headline writers at The Sun went to work, with feghoot based on a song from Mary Poppins:

Softy Calais goes ballistic… Frenchies are atrocious!

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A decision entirely

Urgent bipartite action alert for The Economist: First, note that my copy of the July 18 issue did not arrive on my doormat as it should have done on Saturday morning, so I did not have my favorite magazine to read over the weekend; please investigate. And second, the guerilla actions of the person on your staff who enforces the no-split-infinitives rule (you know perfectly well who it is) have gone too far and are making you a laughing stock. Look at this sentence, from an article about Iran (page 21; thanks to Robert Ayers for pointing it out; the underlining is mine):

Nor do such hardliners believe compliance will offer much of a safeguard: Muammar Qaddafi's decision entirely to dismantle Libya's nuclear programme did not stop Western countries from helping his foes to overthrow and kill him.

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Bad newspaper prose (yes, with passives)

Those who want a clear example of truly dreadful prose, dreadful in large part because of the use of the much-loathed agentless passive, should look at examples like this, from the UK Daily Mail website on Sunday, July 12:

The medical director of NHS England has disclosed that up to one in seven hospital procedures are unnecessary, it has been reported.

Sir Bruce Keogh is said to have described waste in the health service as "profligate" and called for it to be reduced.

According to The Sunday Telegraph, the former heart surgeon estimated that up to 15% of the NHS budget is spent on treatments that should not take place.

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Extravagant claims for the number of "Chinese" speakers

Journalists keep repeating the same bunkum about "Chinese" having 1.197 or even 1.39 billion or some other ridiculously large number of speakers.  Countering a Washington Post article, I debunked this notion in "Maps and charts of the world's languages" (5/1/15).

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Misleading headline

When you read this Radio Free Asia headline, what do you think?

"China Holds Two Activists Linked to Heilongjiang Shooting Death" (5/20/15)

Here's the photograph that accompanies the article:


Activist Wu Gan stages protest outside Jiangxi High Court, May 19, 2015.
Photo courtesy of Boxun.

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Headlines that do "absolutely not" scan well

At an event at Salem State University yesterday, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was interviewed on stage by sportscaster Jim Gray. Gray used the opportunity to ask Brady about the just-released Ted Wells report on Deflategate, and to ask him if the scandal "tainted" the Patriots' Super Bowl win. The headline that appeared on ESPN's news feed was: "Brady: Report does 'absolutely not' mar title."

The headline on MassLive was not so terse but used similar phrasing: "Tom Brady says Wells Report does 'absolutely not' take away from New England Patriots Super Bowl win."

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Himba color perception

Below is an email message from Steve Mah, posted with his permission. It follows up on my post "It's not easy seeing green", 3/2/2015, about the experiment on Himba color perception shown in the 2011 BBC documentary "Do you see what I see?" (video available here).  I've also appended an earlier email from Jules Davidoff to Paul Kay, telling essentially the same story:  This striking "experiment" was a dramatization, and the description of its "results" was invented by the authors of the documentary, and not proposed or endorsed by the scientists involved.

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It's not easy seeing green

The whole dress that melted the internet thing has brought back a curious example of semi-demi-science about a Namibian tribe that can't distinguish green and blue, but does differentiate kinds of green that look just the same to us Westerners. This story has been floating around the internets for several years, in places like the BBC and the New York Times and BoingBoing and RadioLab, and it presents an impressive-seeming demonstration of the power of language to shape our perception of the world.  But on closer inspection, the evidence seems to melt away, and the impressive experience seems to be wildly over-interpreted or even completely invented.

I caught the resurrection of this idea in Kevin Loria's article "No one could see the color blue until modern times", Business Insider 2/27/2015, which references a RadioLab episode on Colors that featured those remarkable Namibians. Loria uses them to focus on that always-popular question "do you really see something if you don't have a word for it?"

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We play Haydn until the sun comes up

Kevin Knight wrote that "our approach to syntax in machine translation is best described in D. Barthelme's short story 'They called for more structure'", and a few days ago, Jason Eisner described what Kevin meant. So in the same spirit,  here's Donald Barthelme on the past future of journalism,  originally published under the title "Pepperoni" in the New Yorker, in the 12/1/1980 issue, and reprinted in Overnight to Many Distant Cities, 1983, under the title "Financially, the paper. . ."

Financially, the paper is quite healthy. The paper's timberlands, mining interests, pulp and paper operations, book, magazine, corrugated-box, and greeting-card divisions, film, radio, television, and cable companies, and data-processing and satellite-communications groups are all flourishing, with over-all return on invested capital increasing at about eleven per cent a year. Compensation of the three highest-paid officers and directors last year was $399,500, $362,700, and $335,400 respectively, exclusive of profit-sharing and pension-plan accruals.

But top management is discouraged and saddened, and middle management is drinking too much. Morale in the newsroom is fair, because of the recent raises, but the shining brows of the copy boys, traditional emblems of energy and hope, have begun to display odd, unattractive lines. At every level, even down into the depths of the pressroom, where the pressmen defiantly wear their square dirty folded-paper caps, people want management to stop what it is doing before it is too late.

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More on Boca Raton vs. Boko Haram

Following up on yesterday's post about Representative Paul Gosar's substitution of "Boca Raton" for "Boko Haram" ("Boko Haram, Boca Raton, whatever", 25/16/2015), I wanted to check the recording, since I know that journalist's direct quotes are often unreliable. I found the interview here (Paul Gosar interviewed by Carol Costello on CNN's Newsroom, Tuesday 2/10/2015; complete audio here), and transcribed the relevant Q&A:

Carol_Costello: If- if- if the family um I- I believe ISIS asked for a ransom for Kayla, should the U.S. government have considered that?
Paul Gosar: Well here's your problem, once you start doing that, then everybody, every American citizen traveling abroad becomes a- a subject
in regards for kidnapping and then the plight of we see uh
how much money has been uh cap- captivated in the Boca Raton uh uh group
uh there's liberties and freedoms that we have here in- in the United States
and it's a very hard choice but uh there's- there's consequences when we leave around the country, but that's why we have to hold people accountable for the injustices they do to humanity
um
but there's got to be a consistent policy, it's- it's heart breaking and heart wrenching
to see that people would attack those who only give the very best of humanity
uh for the plight of those people in war-torn areas
um or suffering debilitating diseases but
uh this makes it very very difficult uh on behalf of the- the security of this country and the future of- of terrorists

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The latest word soup from the Bloomberg headline crew

Bloomberg News headlines, as we've observed in the past, often sound like they've been written by someone with a bizarre journalistic strain of aphasia. Consider, as representative samples, "Ebola Fear Stalks Home Hunt for Quarantined Now Released" and "Madonna Addicted to Sweat Dance Plugs Toronto Condos: Mortgages." The latest specimen is especially inscrutable:

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The Shanghai Stampede: incident or accident?

On New Year's Eve, a fatal stampede broke out on the Bund in Shanghai.  Many people died (see below for a discussion of the total number) and many more were injured, some seriously.

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