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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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Rocking the snark

Today's Doonesbury:

This is actually a re-run of a strip from 1/8/2013, and not everyone got it then:

Apologies for the non-sequitur, but in today’s Doonesbury strip a character uses the phrase “to rock the snark”. Does anyone know what this phrase means?

Nobody answered the question on that 2013 comment thread, but we're here to offer lexicographic help to those who may still be puzzled a year later.

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Medieval ontology on the streets of Oakland?

A recent Twitter exchange between William Gibson and Simon Max Hill:

Wouldn't it be wonderful if a term from high philosophy had really penetrated the street slang of Oakland? Alas, it looks like a case of false cognates.

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"Because" with non-verbal complement

The American Dialect Society's recognition of because as Word of the Year has sparked a number of intriguing linguistic arguments. In its innovative use, because can take various different parts of speech as its complement: nouns, adjectives, interjections, and even adverbs. (See Tyler Schnoebelen's Idibon post for some corpus analysis.) While Geoff Pullum urges us to treat because as a preposition, regardless of its complement, Gretchen McCulloch has argued that we should be thinking of innovative because as a member of a "class of subordinating conjunctions that can relatively-newly take interjectionary complements." (The complements are "interjectionary" as long as they can serve as interjections, regardless of part of speech, like the adjective awesome or the adverb seriously.)

One of the most peculiar reactions to the ADS WOTY selection comes from "Stumblerette," a self-identified linguist who objects to the choice of because "because it is neither a word nor particularly zeitgeisty." Wait, because is not a word? In a previous post, Stumblerette explains that the selection "is stretching the meaning of the word 'word'" presumably because the innovative "because X" construction requires at least two words to work.

Or does it? On Facebook, Stephan Hurtubise shared a clip from last night's episode of "Parks and Recreation" demonstrating that because even works with non-verbal complements.

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Earlier today, Ann Althouse noted President Obama's use of the expression "hair on X" to mean that X is complicated, from David Remnick's New Yorker interview. The two Obama quotes that she discusses:

Because, if you’re doing big, hard things, then there is going to be some hair on it — there’s going to be some aspects of it that aren’t clean and neat and immediately elicit applause from everybody.

Having said all that, those who argue that legalizing marijuana is a panacea and it solves all these social problems I think are probably overstating the case. There is a lot of hair on that policy. And the experiment that’s going to be taking place in Colorado and Washington is going to be, I think, a challenge….

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More bee science

"Why Is This Bee Wearing a Sensor? Also, how did scientists get that sensor onto the bee in the first place?", The Atlantic 1/16/2014:

Australian scientists have devised a way to pinpoint the causes of the global die-off of bees that pollinate a third of the world’s crops: Attach tiny sensors to 5,000 honey bees, and follow where they fly.  

The sensors, each measuring 2.5 millimeters by 2.5 millimeters (0.1 inch by 0.1 inch), contain radio frequency identification chips that broadcast each bee’s location in real-time. The data is beamed to a server, so scientists can construct a three-dimensional model of the swarm’s movements, identifying anomalies in their behavior.  

Worker bees tend to follow predictable daily schedules—they don’t call them drones for nothing—leaving the beehive at certain times, foraging for pollen, and returning home along well-established routes. Variations in their routines may indicate a change in environment, such as exposure to pesticides.

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Lumpatious lexicography

In the latest episode of "Sam & Cat," a teen comedy on Nickelodeon, the plot takes a lexicographical turn. As Nickelodeon describes it,

Sam and Cat make a bet with the annoying older brother of a babysitting client that "lumpatious" is a real word. When they discover it is not, they must figure out how to get it in the dictionary.

Here's a clip:

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Pay for

It's common to nominalize already-lexicalized combinations of a verb and an intransitive preposition, like push-up, push-over, hand-out, walk-on, walk-out, and so on. It's less common to see nominalization of a semantically-transparent verb and transitive preposition, but a new one has recently (?) arisen in the halls of Congress. Thus George Nelson, "Brown Touts Benefits Extension, Job Creation Aid", Business Journal 1/8/2014:

“If we’re going to do a pay-for, we ought to look at what kind of pay-for actually creates jobs,” he continued. “The best kind of pay-for is one Senate Republicans have rejected repeatedly, to eliminate tax incentives that encourage companies to close plants in the United States and relocate those jobs overseas, he said.

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Because syntax

Many people will be somewhat surprised that the American Dialect Society's "Word of the Year" choice was because in its use with a noun phrase (NP) complement (though the Megan Garber's Atlantic Monthly article on it nearly two months ago should perhaps have been a tip-off). It seems to be unprecedented for a word in a minor category like preposition to be chosen rather than some emergent or fashionable word in one of the major lexical categories: recent winners have included 2012's hashtag (noun), 2011's occupy (verb), 2010's app (noun), 2009's tweet (noun and verb), 2008's bailout (noun), 2007's subprime (adjective), 2006's plutoed (past participle of verb meaning "downgrade in status"), and 2005's truthiness (noun). And it also seems to be unique in representing a new syntactically defined word use within a given category rather than a new (or newly trending) word. The syntax of because calls for a little discussion, I think, given that Megan Garber thinks the word has become a preposition for the first time, and every dictionary on the market is wrong in the part-of-speech information it gives about the word (write to me if you can find a dictionary of which this is not true: I'd love to see one).

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ADS WOTY: "Because"

I wasn't able to attend the ADS WOTY vote yesterday evening, but I understand it was a first-round landslide for because, beating out Slash, twerk, Obamacare, and  selfie. According to the ADS announcement,

“This past year, the very old word because exploded with new grammatical possibilities in informal online use,” [Ben] Zimmer said. “No longer does because have to be followed by of or a full clause. Now one often sees tersely worded rationales like ‘because science’ or ‘because reasons.’ You might not go to a party ‘because tired.’ As one supporter put it, because should be Word of the Year ‘because useful!’”

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I'm in Minneapolis for the LSA 2014 annual meeting, about which more later. For this morning, all I have time for is a note about the curious cover of the Mpls St Paul magazine that the hotel put out for me:

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"Words / Characters of the Year" for 2013 in Taiwan and in China

Back on December 17, 2011, I wrote a post entitled "Morpheme(s) of the Year" about kòng 控 ("control", but having lots and lots of other meanings, all covered in detail in my post).  The unusual title and thrust of that post were due to my dissatisfaction with the concept of a "character of the year" as a satisfactory parallel for or clone of Western "word of the year" competitions.  It was probably due to that dissatisfaction that I seem not to have written anything along these lines for the year 2012.

Now, however, we are inundated with Chinese words and characters of the year for 2013, so let's see what they convey and whether there has been any improvement in the grammatical understanding of what words are and how they function.

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