Archive for Words words words

WT[bleep]?

Those LLog readers who aren't already Radiolab listeners should give their latest episode on translation a listen. There are 8 stories packed into this one episode, a few about language and a few not-so-much, but all of them well-worth the price of admission.

But I'm not just here to promote Radiolab. I'm also here to comment on something that happened in this episode that I am now very curious about (curious-enough-to-blog-and-solicit-comments curious, not curious-enough-to-do-some-real-research-of-my-own curious). There's a point in the show where one of the show's hosts (Jad Abumrad) warns listeners that there's going to be some raunchy language used and discussed for the next several minutes; even though the putatively offensive words were bleeped out in the version I listened to (via my iTunes podcast subscription), it was clear that I wouldn't have wanted my 5-year-old child to hear the piece so I appreciated the warning.

But at the very end of the episode, something very different happens. With no warning whatsoever, long strings of uncensored expletives assaulted my ears. I was wearing headphones and nobody else was around, but still I wondered: where was the warning? Why was there no bleeping? And then I realized that I wasn't listening to people speaking English anymore, but rather people swearing in other languages — and the first one was Spanish, which I am also a native speaker of.

But still: is Radiolab's audience (and their innocent children!) not at least potentially multilingual? Why the bleeping of English words and the elaborate warning preceding a story about their use, but no warning or bleeping whatsoever about the same sorts of words in other languages? It's not like I ever understood this sort of censorship and prudishness in the first place, but now I'm royally confused.

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RIP Frank Mankiewicz, coiner of "retronym"

Frank Mankiewicz at DARE press conferenceFrom the New York Times obituary for Frank Mankiewicz (son of Herman, nephew of Joseph):

Frank Mankiewicz, a writer and Democratic political strategist who was Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s press secretary, directed Senator George S. McGovern’s losing 1972 presidential campaign and for six years was the president of National Public Radio, died Thursday at a hospital in Washington. He was 90.

Mankiewicz was also a bit of wordsmith and coined a useful word now found in many dictionaries: retronym, defined by the OED as "a neologism created for an existing object or concept because the exact meaning of the original term used for it has become ambiguous (usually as a result of a new development, technological advance, etc.)."

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Unbecoming

Matt Murphy, "Is 'unbecoming' becoming a sexist word? Warren Tolman apologizes after calling opponent Maura Healey unbecoming during debate", State House News Service 8/27/2014:

BOSTON — Democratic attorney general candidate Warren Tolman apologized on Wednesday if anyone was offended by his use of the word "unbecoming" to describe his opponent Maura Healey's criticism of his private sector record, as female Healey supporters blasted the comment as "sexist."

Tolman used the word during a Boston Globe Opinion debate Tuesday as Healey criticized him for not being forthcoming about his registration as a federal lobbyist while working as an attorney at Holland & Knight.

The episode conjured memories of a 2002 debate when former candidate for governor Mitt Romney drew the ire of prominent women like Teresa Heinz Kerry and Hillary Clinton for describing then Treasurer Shannon O'Brien's attacks on his abortion position as "unbecoming."

D.C., who sent in the link, wondered whether "'Unbecoming' is to women as  'Burly' is to African-Americans?"

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Burly

Kyle Massey, "‘Burly,’ a Word With a Racially Charged History", NYT 8/25/2014:

As protests raged after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., two articles in The Times on Aug. 16 referred to both Mr. Brown and the state police captain overseeing security in the case as “burly.” Both Mr. Brown and the captain, Ronald S. Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol, are black.

Readers wrote to say that “burly” has long been a racial stereotype; the word hasn’t appeared in this context in The Times since the readers’ notes.

So here is the tale of a troublesome word with a fraught history and how The Times came to reconsider its use.

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Dissimilation, stress, sandhi, and other tonal variations in Mandarin

A few months ago on the Penn campus I heard a Chinese guy and a girl having a conversation in Mandarin, and I was surprised when he twice said, "Wo3 ming2bai4 le."  The rest of his speech was standard, but then he came out with this strange transformation of "Wo3 ming2bai le".  Of course, I shouldn't have been surprised, because I've heard the exact same thing before.  Nonetheless, it still sounded odd to me, since from first-year Mandarin on I've had it drilled into me that this sentence should be pronounced "Wo3 ming2bai le" and that any other pronunciation of ming2bai was wrong.  This was reinforced by the canonical pronunciation ming2bai given in dictionaries and other authoritative sources.

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"Cladly dressed"

From reader BKS:

Someone used "cladly dressed" in a comment to The Guardian, and it appears to be an up and coming 21st Century phrase.

A search of www.guardian.com didn't turn up any instances of "cladly".[Update -- but thanks to Mark Meckes in the comments below, here it is:]

And as BKS noted, there are a few examples in recent books:

With nakedness we find quite often the opposite of what the revealer expects to accomplish: the girl cladly dressed receives attention she is seeking but at cost to how she is perceived
Some of the elders heard rumors that Nathaniel was watching television by himself and paying specific attention to programs that featured females who were cladly dressed.
Meanwhile it is thirty eight degrees outside and Pastor Angie is cladly dressed walking down Gordon Parks Avenue.
My son was making out with this cladly dressed girl — I didn't even know who she was!

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Flabbering

Peter Mucha, "Lottery legend Joan Ginther bet flabbering sums on scratch-offs", philly.com 7/6/2014:

For years, people who dream of beating the lottery have puzzled over the amazing case of Joan Ginther, who made headlines around the world by scratching off “10MILL” on a $50 instant ticket in June 2010 to win her fourth multimillion-dollar prize. 

Skeptics wondered if she cheated or had an ingenious system for pinpointing winners. After all, Ginther received a Ph.D. from Stanford and has lived for years in Las Vegas. News reports at the time, citing mathematicians, fueled the fire: They put Ginther's chances of four such wins at 1 in 18 septillion. Remarkably, all four of her winners were purchased in or near her tiny hometown of Bishop, Texas. [...]

Finally, answers have been found.

A series of discoveries based on painstaking analysis by Philly.com of newly obtained Texas Lottery records, with the help of experts, has led to a surprising conclusion: Basic gambling principles — like card counting in blackjack, money management in poker, and timing in progressive slots — may have inspired Joan Ginther to buy a flabbergasting number of $20 to $50 tickets, perhaps 80,000 worth $2.5 million or more.

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Headbanging and hairfloating

Ariyan Islamian et al., "Chronic subdural haematoma secondary to headbanging", The Lancet 5-11 July 2014:

A 50-year-old man presented to our neurosurgical department in January, 2013, with a 2 week history of constant worsening headache affecting the whole head. He had no history of head trauma, but reported headbanging at a Motörhead concert 4 weeks previously. His medical history was unremarkable and he denied substance misuse. Neurological examination and laboratory studies, including coagulation screening, were normal. Cranial CT showed right-sided chronic subdural haematoma with pronounced midline shift (figure). He underwent burr hole evacuation of the haematoma and closed system subdural drainage for 6 days after surgery.1 His headache resolved and he was discharged home after 8 days.

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Suspect

Keith Ablow, the Fox News Channel's resident expert on psychiatry, on Outnumbered, 6/26/2014, explaining why the World Cup is a plot to distract the masses from Benghazi or whatever:

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I'm suspect. Uh I am suspect. Because here's the thing,
Um why at a time when there're so many national issues that-
and international issues that are of such prominence,
I- I'm a little suspicious of yet another bread and circus routine.
Let's roll out the marijuana, pull back the laws, and
get people even more crazy about yet another entertainment event.

Since this is Language Log rather than Paranoid Politics Log, my interest here is not the content of Dr. Ablow's outburst, but its form: specifically, his use of suspect to mean suspicious.

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Adam Gopnik gets it

Adam Gopnik, "Word Magic", The New Yorker 5/26/2014:

These questions, about the hidden traps of words and phrases, are the subject of what may be the weirdest book the twenty-first century has so far produced: “Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon,” a thirteen-hundred-page volume, originally edited in French by the French philologist Barbara Cassin but now published, by Princeton University Press, in a much altered English edition, overseen by the comp-lit luminaries Emily Apter, Jacques Lezra, and Michael Wood. How weird is it? Let us count the ways. It is in part an anti-English protest, taking arms against the imperializing spread of our era’s, well, lingua franca—which has now been offered in English, so that everyone can understand it. The book’s presupposition is that there are significant, namable, untranslatable differences between tongues, so that, say, “history” in English, histoire in French, and Geschichte in German have very different boundaries that we need to grasp if we are to understand the texts in which the words occur. The editors, propelled by this belief, also believe it to be wrong. In each entry of the Dictionary, the differences are tracked, explained, and made perfectly clear in English, which rather undermines the premise that these terms are untranslatable, except in the dim sense that it sometimes takes a few words in one language to indicate a concept that is more succinctly embodied in one word in another.

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Incoherence is in our DNA

Commenting on Victor Mair's reference to Xi Jinping's statement that "There is no gene for invasion in our blood", Bob Ladd wrote

Surely what Xi meant was simply "It's not in our DNA to invade others and seek hegemony over the world". People say things like that in English all the time without being genetic determinists (or indeed, without even having much of a clue what DNA is).

I agree with Bob that people do say things like that in English all the time these days. The Oxford Dictionaries (American English) entry gives the gloss "The fundamental and distinctive characteristics or qualities of someone or something, especially when regarded as unchangeable", and the examples

diversity is part of the company’s DNA
men just don’t get shopping—it’s not in our DNA

But that's not the whole story. A bit of web search revealed that the interpretation given to "DNA" in such statements is a strange blend of ideas about essential character, effortful transformation, and contagious inspiration. This popular adaptation of the term "DNA" is simultaneously essentialist, Lamarckian, and not only seen as determinative of culture but as essentially equivalent to it.

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Birthday words

The OED has a "birthday words" feature:

Do you know which words entered the English language around the same time you entered the world? Use our OED birthday word generator to find out! We’ve scoured the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to find words with a first known usage for each year from 1900 to 2004. Simply select the relevant decade and click on your birth year to discover a word which entered the English language that year.

Please note that the dates given for these words refer to the current first known usage of the word. The OED team is continuously researching the histories of words (something you may be able to help with), and it’s therefore possible that we will find an earlier sense of the words during our research.

It's been available since December of last year, but I just learned about it today.

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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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Holacracy

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Led astray by the corpus of memory: a response to Hendrik Hertzberg

The following is a guest post by Ammon Shea, a researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary's Reading Program and formerly a consulting editor for American Dictionaries for Oxford University Press.


Hendrik Hertzberg has made a series of claims recently on the New Yorker web site ("Nobody Said That Then!") about the ostensible inaccuracy of the language used in the television show Masters of Sex. His main contention is that many of the characters' utterances are improbable, asserting that certain words and phrases were not in use at the time that the show takes place (the mid-1950s). One of the problems with making bold and declarative statements about the origins of specific words is that these words have a nasty habit of first appearing much earlier or later than memory or intuition would attest.

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