Archive for Words words words

Tyrant's bling

Arguably the hottest term on the Chinese internet these days is tǔháo 土豪 ("[local] tyrant / despot"), but transformed to mean "bling", and with a sharply satirical edge.  How did tǔháo 土豪 ("[local] tyrant / despot") morph into "bling"?  The story is told in "#BBCtrending: Tuhao and the rise of Chinese bling".

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Pekingese put-downs

This will be the first of two successive posts on Pekingese.  This one is about insults that, on the surface, seem as though they should be praise.

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Musical maggots

In response to "Earworms and white bears", D.R. writes:

There is an interesting, now archaic, usage of the term "maggot" to mean, as I was told anyway, the same as the modern word "earworm." The OED describes it thus:

maggot, n.1

c. Formerly used in the names of many dance tunes (now hist.). Now also arch. in the titles of other musical compositions.

1689   2nd Pt. Musicks Hand-maid sig. G3v,   Motleys Maggot.
1695   Dancing-Master (ed. 9) i. 179   Betty's Magot.
1695   Dancing-Master (ed. 9) i. 180   Mr. Beveridge's Magot.
1695   Dancing-Master (ed. 9) i. 191   Huntington's Magot.
1695   Dancing-Master (ed. 9) i. 195   A Song made by Mr. Tho. D'Ursey upon a new country dance at Richmond, called, Mr. Lane's Magot.
1977   P. Maxwell Davies (title of musical composition)    Miss Donnithorne's maggot.
1994   J. Buller (title of musical composition)    Mr. Purcell's maggot.

When I used to do a lot of English country dancing, there were several such tunes we used, including "Mr. Beveridge's Maggot" and "Mr. Isaac's Maggot," both from Playford's English Dancing Master (first edition 1651, but the term "magot" appears in titles only from the 1695 edition, and is spelled "maggot" in later editions.

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Getting worked up over "twerk"

Perfect lexicographical storms don't come along like this very often. On Sunday night, Miley Cyrus egregiously "twerked" at MTV's Video Music Awards, in a performance that quickly became National Conversation #1 (even outpacing Syria). About 48 hours later, Oxford Dictionaries announced its quarterly update of new words — with the Associated Press and others trumpeting the news far and wide — and lo and behold, there was twerk, defined as a verb meaning "dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance."

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Mr. and Ms. in Chinese

Didi Kirsten Tatlow is trying to trace the roots of the word xiānsheng 先生 (lit., "one who was born earlier / first / before" –> "sir; mister / Mr.; teacher; gentleman; doctor / Dr. [dated]").  She writes:

Today of course it's applied to all men, women being nǚshì 女士 ("Ms.; lady; madam"); once upon a time I believe it meant a teacher. Yet a woman considered especially smart may be given the honorific xiānsheng 先生 (!).

Am wondering about its origins and when/how it came to be applied to all men, and whether perhaps it came from the Japanese, like many other terms in modern times (i.e., post 1911 or even earlier?).  Does anyone have any light to shed, with references?

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X-iversaries everywhere

Here are two anniversarial tweets that appeared Friday evening. The first is from the Technology account, celebrating the anniversary of the release of the source code for We the People:

The second is from Chris Messina, a.k.a. the hashtag godfather, on the occasion of the sixth anniversary of his proposal of the hashtag convention on Twitter:

(Messina didn't actually coin hashtag on that fateful day in 2007 — that was done a few days later by Stowe Boyd, another early Twitter adopter. See the Spring 2013 installment of "Among the New Words" in American Speech [pdf], which I co-wrote with Charles Carson, as well as Boyd's own recent post on the subject.)

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Frances Brooke, destroyer of English (not literally)

I don't have much to say about the latest tempest in a teapot over the non-literal use of "literally." It started, as such things often do these days, on Reddit, where a participant in the /r/funny subreddit posted an imgur image showing Google's dictionary entry for "literally" that pops up when you search on the word. The second definition reads, "Used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true." That was enough for the redditor to declare, "We did it guys, we finally killed English." As the news pinged around the blogosphere, we got such fire-breathing headlines as "Society Crumbles as Google Admits 'Literally' Now Means 'Figuratively'," "Google Sides With Traitors To The English Language Over Dictionary Definition Of 'Literally'," "I Could Literally Die Right Now," and "It’s Official: The Internet Has Broken the English Language."

The outrage was further heightened by the realization that (gasp!) pretty much every major dictionary from the OED on down now recognizes this sense of the word. So now we get vitriol directed toward the OED's lexicographers, who revised the entry for "literally" back in September 2011, coming from such sources as The Times, The Daily Mail, The Guardian, and The Telegraph. [Update: As Fiona McPherson points out on the OxfordWords blog, the usage was actually noted in the "literally" entry when it was first published in 1903. The 2011 revision reorganized the entry and expanded the historical record.]

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Garakei: Galapagos cell phone

Recently I've been hearing about a Japanese electronic device called a "garakei ガラケイ". Mystified by this katakana word, which I assumed to be at least partially the transcription of some foreign term, I set about trying to find out more about it.

It wasn't hard to discover (here and here) that the word basically means "Galapagos cell phone". What a strange name for a kind of cell phone!

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Today's Bad Machinery, in which Charlotte and Mildred explore a wormhole into the past (?) under the fume hood in their school's chemistry lab, includes these panels:

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Anne Curzan, "What to do about 'impactful'?", Chronicle of Higher Education, 7/19/2013:

If I were asked to rate new words on a scale from 1-10 based on their aesthetic appeal (note: words’ aesthetic appeal in my opinion—this scale cannot possibly be objective), with 10 being the most appealing and 1 being the least, I would give impactful about a 3. In other words, I notice the word, and I don’t especially like it.

Now, let’s be clear: There is no particularly good reason for my displeasure with this word. There are plenty of similar adjectives in the language, formed by a noun + -ful to mean “full of or having a lot of [the noun]”: for example, playful, joyful, eventful. The adjective impactful is relatively new to the language, but that’s not a good reason for my distaste either—there are lots of other new words that I like (e.g., the wonderfully playful recombobulate). The meaning of impactful is a bit vague (for example, is the impact good or bad?), but the same critique could be made of well-accepted adjectives like influential. The word may sound business jargony to some, but the data no longer fully support this connotation, as I’ll get to.

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Amber Woodward, an attorney for the federal government living in Dallas, TX (originally from the Kansas City area), recently had a run-in with her father-in-law when she called him "ornery". I'll let her tell her own story in a moment, but first I want to say that I personally never use "ornery" in a pejorative sense. In fact, I always use it to convey affection. For example, if I say "ornery little fellow" about a child, I mean that he is mischievous but loveable, and I'll go up and hug him after I call him that. If I say it about an animal (e.g., "ornery critter"), I intend to convey the notion that I respect it for its strength, agility, wiliness, etc., not that I despise it for being hard to handle. Even when I declare that someone is an "ornery old cuss", I usually want to let him know that I like him for being the curmudgeon that he is (cf. this Language Log comment [near the end, in red]).

By the way, I normally pronounce "ornery" with three syllables, but occasionally will lapse into two syllables ("orn-ree") when I'm relaxed or in a hurry. Oh, yeah, I'm from Ohio.

The Visual Thesaurus gives "cantankerous; crotchety" as first level synonyms for "ornery", and pronounces the word with three syllables. These seem to be standard for dictionary definitions of the word.

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Chinese loans in English

In "Why so little Chinese in English?", Robert Lane Greene ponders the paucity of recent Chinese loanwords in English, and there is a further discussion on Language Hat.   English loves to borrow far and wide, yet it is strange how few words of Chinese origin there are in English. This is particularly odd for recent times, when there has been so much contact between Chinese and English speakers, and there have even been campaigns on the part of Chinese officials, journalists, and netizens to promote particular expressions for adoption into English.

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No word for "textural truth"

Philip Maughan, "Colum McCann: 'What could be worse that [sic] being called a historical novelist?'", The New Stateman 7/4/2013:

Q: And, of course, there is a narrative element to any work of non-fiction.
A: I’m interested in the idea that these categories don’t really exist. Aleksandar Hemon says that, in Bosnian, there is no word for either “fiction” or “non-fiction”: there is only “storytelling”. He inserts himself into much of his work but it’s a construct. To put it another way, what Google or Wikipedia says about you might be an utter fiction. The storyteller must at least be responsible to a textural truth: not so much the dates and facts but the textural contradictions that he or she finds.

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New WSJ column: Word on the Street

For the past couple of years I've been writing a language column for The Boston Globe (and before that for The New York Times Magazine). Now I'm starting a new language column for The Wall Street Journal, called "Word on the Street." Each week I'll be focusing on a word in the news and examining its history. First up, cyber, which is showing up with increasing frequency as a noun.

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