Archive for Language and culture

Playing philologist at summer camp

In response to "What would a "return to philology" be a return to?", Omri Ceren proposes a simple explanation for Paul de Man's assertion that literary "theory" was just a return to philology:

You might be overthinking the de Man thing.

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Jon Kabat-Zinn's estimable (2013) Full Catastrophe Living (Revised edition): Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness has an odd "Chinese character for X" blooper: "Maybe there is something to be learned from the fact that the Chinese character for 'breakthrough' is written as 'turning'" (e-book loc 8495, last sentence in chap 12).

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British "gentleman" in China

Will Spence has an article on "Why 'gentleman' matters" in Caixin Online, part of a Mainland media group, with the following lede:  "The Chinese government often says it wants to build up its soft power, but for this to happen it may have to embrace its heritage and adopt a gentler approach".

A key passage is the following:

It is interesting to note that the the word itself is rarely translated – it is much more common to hear "gentleman" than to hear shenshi or junzi – suggesting that there is something uniquely British about the notion, in a similar vein to English adopting the words of Chinese concepts like taichi and yin yang.

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Analytics, Prior and Otherwise

Analytics is all the rage. Thus Keith Pompey, "Sixers aide immerses Brown in analytics", Philadelphia Inquirer 4/7/2014

Brett Brown is inherently curious.  

The first-year 76ers coach was eager to learn as much as possible about the data that tell us where every player is during every possession of an NBA game. It's called analytics, and the Sixers are among the NBA franchises that are shifting toward basing major decisions on data and model-driven analysis.  

"There's always the thing that they call unintended consequences," said Brown, who was introduced to analytics this season. "That's where my curiosity combined with, yeah, you know, there's a bit of defiance in me that I don't believe it. Prove it. And what about this? What about that?  

"And if you can get through all those type of layers, I say, 'Wow.' And I feel like I've improved."  

So much so that the 53-year-old is fond of Lance Pearson, who deals with advanced analytics and statistical scouting for the Sixers. Pearson was hired away from Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Ky., where he was an assistant coach and special assistant in analytics.  He has a Ph.D. in computational neuroscience from Boston University. Pearson also has bachelor's degrees in computer science, mathematics and philosophy from Kentucky.

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Laowai: the old furriner

Lǎowài 老外 (lit., "old foreign") is a ubiquitous term for a certain type of person from abroad in China, and dictionaries almost invariably gloss it as "foreigner".  Yet the subtleties and nuances of the term seem almost endless, and they can sometimes lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings.  To try to get a handle on this colloquial expression, I asked a number of laowai who have had long experience in China what they thought of this appellation that they had doubtless been called hundreds of times and some Chinese friends who most likely had had occasion to employ that designation themselves.

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Eskimo words for freedom

Under the heading Freedom 2014, "Whether it’s freedom from surveillance or freedom to be single, this spring the BBC is investigating what freedom means in the modern world". One of the BBC's own contributions to #Freedom2014 is a lovely addition to our No Word For X archive:

I'll leave it to better-informed commenters to tell us how to express various concepts of freedom in Inuit — but my guess is that "not caught" is one of a number of perfectly reasonable Inuit phrases for various senses of English free. Certainly as hunter-gatherers in marginal terrain the Inuit must have experienced many kinds of freedom in their history — though perhaps they would echo what Matthew Arnold said about philistinism: "We have not the expression in English. Perhaps we have not the word because we have so much of the thing."

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"When there's no Hebrew word for something, it's a bad idea"

From Pat Robertson's 700 Club, 3/31/2014:

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"Slide down my cellar door"

In a 2010 NYT “On Language” column, Grant Barrett traced the claim that “cellar door” is the most beautiful phrase in English back as far as 1905 1903. I posted on the phrase a few years ago ("The Romantic Side of Familiar Words"), suggesting that there was a reason why linguistic folklore fixed  on that particular phrase, when you could make the same point with other pedestrian expressions like linoleum or oleomargarine:

…The undeniable charm of the story — the source of the enchantment that C. S. Lewis reported when he saw cellar door rendered as Selladore — lies the sudden falling away of the repressions imposed by orthography … to reveal what Dickens called "the romantic side of familiar things." … In the world of fantasy, that role is suggested literally in the form of a rabbit hole, a wardrobe, a brick wall at platform 9¾. Cellar door is the same kind of thing, the expression people use to illustrate how civilization and literacy put the primitive sensory experience of language at a remove from conscious experience.

But that doesn't explain why the story emerged when it did. Could it have had to do with the song "Playmates," with its line "Shout down my rain barrel, slide down my cellar door"? There's no way to know for sure, but the dates correspond, and in fact those lines had an interesting life of their own…

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"Let It Go!" in Chinese

Natasha Heller called to my attention the fact that there are several Chinese covers of the Oscar-winning song "Let It Go", from the blockbuster Disney computer-animated film "Frozen".

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Torrential language politics in the forecast for Quebec

In Canada, an early election can be called by the leader of the ruling party, and naturally, this power is often wielded for strategic purposes. And so, Quebec premier Pauline Marois, elected to office a mere eighteen months ago, has called for a general election to be held on April 7. Marois leads the Parti Quebecois, which took power in September 2012 with a minority government, and is now gunning for a majority. This would allow the PQ to pass several controversial pieces of legislation that have met resistance by the opposition parties. One of these is Bill 14, which proposes additional restrictions on English-language education and the use of English in the workplace. Language politics are sure to be in the foreground during the election campaign, and if the PQ is re-elected with a majority, for the foreseeable future.

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Lake Bell and Jackie Kennedy

I was a guest yesterday on Radio Times ("What language says about who we are and where we live", 3/6/2014), and the host, Marty Moss-Coane, brought up the movie In a World, and Lake Bell's assertion that "There is a vocal plague going on that I call the sexy baby plague, where very smart women have taken on this affectation that evokes submission and sexual titillation to the male species".

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Sushi in Sochi

David Craig sent in this picture which showed up on the Facebook Armchair Linguists page, originally posted by Olexa Stomachenko; no one seems to know what it means:

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31% more meaningless: Because algorithms

In "Whom loves ya?", 2/12/2014, Geoff Pullum riffed on one of the outcomes of  "a large-scale statistical study of what correlates with numbers of responses to online dating ads", namely that "men who use 'whom' get 31% more contacts from opposite-sex respondents".

It suited Geoff's rhetorical purposes to take this number at face value, but I wondered about where it really comes from, and what if anything it means.

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"Plagiarism" vs. "ghostwriting" again

Jim Romenesko, "Brent Bozell urges liberal media to 'tell the truth,' while he fibs about writing a column", 2/13/2014:

The conservative Media Research Center often urges liberal news outlets to TELL THE TRUTH, but the Reston, VA-based press watchdog isn’t telling the truth about its own leader: Brent Bozell doesn’t write the syndicated column that appears under his byline. 

It is longtime MRC media analysis director Tim Graham who writes “almost everything published under [Bozell's] name,” a former MRC employee tells me in an email. “That includes his weekly column. Same goes for his books, which at least carry Graham’s name in a secondary billing, but also aren’t written by Bozell (but Bozell keeps 80-90% of the advance and all profits!)”

Two other people with ties to MRC confirmed that Graham is Bozell’s ghostwriter – and that Graham is not happy with the assignment.

“Tim just resents having to do it,” says a former employee.

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Pronoun envy

In the New Yorker for February 10, 2014, a poem by Anne Carson:

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