Archive for Words words words

Totally Word Mapper

Jack Grieve Twitter-based Word Mapper (see "Geolexicography", 1/27/2016) is now available as a web app — like totally:

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Three words

As I write this, I'm sitting in the middle of  intend.agree.aware. Or alternatively, cèdre.permettre.lune.

Or, if you prefer, ambara.özüne.konuyu, or эпос.стукнуть.напрасный, or geflogen.aufhält.vollkommen, or mdogo.sokoni.yapenda, or …

What is this? and maybe more important, why?

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Annals of singular "they"

Shane Hickey, "The innovators: the app promising the perfect-fitting bra", The Guardian 1/10/2015:

The sizing technology works via an iPhone app. To use it, a woman must take two pictures of themselves while wearing a tight fitted top in front of a mirror. The phone is held at the bellybutton and a picture is taken from the front and the side. Software developed by Thirdlove then draws up measurements by calculating the distance between the mirror and the contours of the body.

Maybe an editor changed "women" to "a woman" and neglected to change "themselves" to "herself". But I prefer to think that it's just another brick in the singular-they wall — and maybe a vote for "themselves" as the reflexive form?

[h/t Bob Ladd]


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ADS Word of the Year is singular "they"

At the American Dialect Society annual meeting in Washington, D.C. (held in conjunction with the Linguistic Society of America), the 2015 Word of the Year selection has been made. The winner is they used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. They was recognized by the society particularly for its emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by someone rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she.

Check out the press release here and my full writeup for here. The WOTY vote also has received coverage from Time, the Washington Post, and Business Insider, among others.

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Chinese phrases of the year 2015

We've already had a look at the candidates for Chinese Word of the Year 2015, but apparently that is too tame and lame, so now we also have to think about the top Chinese phrases of the year.  This photograph illustrates (or perhaps I should say "spawned") one:

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Chinese characters and words of the year for 2015

China Daily has published "Top 10 shortlist of Chinese character of the year announced" (12/17/15).

Since this is only the short list, I will not describe it in detail, but will wait till December 21 (tomorrow) for the the winner to be announced.  For the moment, however, I'll just note that — after some years of confusion about the difference between a word and a character — China now seems to have settled on a clear division between Character of the Year and Word of the Year, so that they are running two contests simultaneously.

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Kanji of the year 2015

Our Language Log post on "Kanji of the year 2014", zei 税 ("tax"), was rather extensive, so it should suffice to give an indication of how the selection is made and the nature of the ritual surrounding the public unveiling of the choice.  I won't attempt to duplicate such a full treatment for the kanji that was chosen this year, but will focus on a significant difference between last year's KOTY and this year's.  For additional information concerning this year's selection, I recommend reading this report:

"2015 Kanji of the Year: 'An' Juxtaposes Security and Unease" (12/15/15)

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Bracchium to Brezel to pretzel

I'm in Frankfurt for a week, and a stroll through the Weihnachtsmarkt last night with Caroline Féry and Ede Zimmermann reminded me of something I've wondered about for a long time: Why was German Brezel borrowed into English with an initial 'p'?

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Lexical limits?

Earlier today, Victor quotes Jerry Packard quoting C.C. Cheng to the effect that "the human lexicon has a de facto storage limit of 8,000 lexical items" ("Lexical limits", 12/5/2015). Victor is appropriately skeptical, and asks  for "references to any studies that have been done on the limits to (or norms for) the human lexicon".  In fact there's been a lot of quantitative research on this topic, going back at least 75 years, which supports Victor's skepticism, and demonstrates clearly that Cheng's estimate is low by such a large factor that I wonder whether his idea has somehow gotten mangled at some point along the chain of quotation.

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Ask Language Log: -er vs. -or

From Matthew Yglesias:

A few of us at work were talking about why it's adviser and protester but professor and and auditor and after bullshitting around for 10 minutes I thought "maybe I should ask a linguist." Have you ever blogged on this?

I don't think that we have, though you can find well-informed discussions elsewhere, e.g. here or here/here. The executive summary is that -er is (originally) Germanic while -or is (basically) Latin, often via French.

But this doesn't help much with the particular examples you cite, since all four words are from Latin via French. Like most things about English morphology and spelling, the full answer is complicated, and also more geological than logical. But the OED seems to have the whole story — lifted from the depths of the discussion, the key point is that

Many derivatives [formed with -er as an agentive suffix] existed already in Old English, and many more have been added in the later periods of the language. In modern English they may be formed on all vbs., excepting some of those which have [Latin- or French-derived] agent nouns ending in -or, and some others for which this function is served by ns. of different formation (e.g. correspond, correspondent). The distinction between -er and -or as the ending of agent nouns is purely historical and orthographical.

For a (much) longer treatment — you have been warned — press onward.

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According to Merriam-Webster, a weasel is

: a small animal that has a thin body and brown fur and that eats small birds and other animals
: a dishonest person who cannot be trusted

It's the second sense — and the alliteration with winner — that leads a local sports talk radio show to offer "winner of the week and weasel of the week" pseudo-awards. The  Watcher of Weasels web site similarly has a "weasel of the week" award:

Every Tuesday, the Council nominates some of the slimiest, most despicable characters in public life for some deed of evil, cowardice or corruption they’ve performed. Then we vote to single out one particular Weasel for special mention, to whom we award the statuette of shame, our special, 100% plastic Golden Weasel.

But a couple of days ago, I saw something in the Daily Pennsylvanian that made me wonder whether there's some semantic bleaching going on, washing out the implications of dishonesty, evil, cowardice, and corruption, and thereby leaving weasel as nothing more than mildly derogatory epithet.

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Bakugai ("explosive buying"): Japanese word of the year nominee

The tension is building.  On Tuesday, December 1, the Japanese Word of the Year for 2015 ( will be chosen from among a list of 50 nominees.  It's a good group, with each of the nominees having intrinsic character and worthy credentials.  In this post, however, the focus is on just one of the more interesting candidates:  bakugai 爆買い ("explosive buying").

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Difficult Taiwanese characters

[This is a guest post by Michael Cannings]

This brief news segment features a poster with a lot of interesting points packed into three short lines of text. The billboard is a traffic safety announcement by police in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan.

[Screengrab with most of the text visible]

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