Archive for September, 2009

Bull Fart

One of the most powerful pieces in the one-man exhibition of Chen Wen Ling now showing at Joy Gallery in Beijing 798 Art Zone is blandly entitled "What You See Might Not Be Real" in English, but the Chinese title is the raw and raunchy "FANG4PI4" 放屁 ("emit gas, break wind, flatulate, crepitate, i.e., fart [v.]"). Perhaps the artist didn't want to offend the linguistic sensitivities of potential foreign customers, but I must say that I much prefer to translate the title of the piece directly as "Fart," or, with a bit of license, as "Bull Fart" because the atomic cloud depicted by the artist is coming out of the anus of an enormous bovine.

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Memetic dynamics of low-hanging fruit

Commenting on a post about Dilbert's take on "the vacuous way managers speak", Garrett Wollman wrote:

I remember, or at least think I do, when "low-hanging fruit" was not yet vacant managerese. Is there any epidemiological data to suggest when this transition occurred?

I'm not convinced that "low-hanging fruit" is accurately described as "vacant managerese" even now. But let's leave that point aside while we consider the epidemiological data on the rise of this cliche among all classes of users, which suggests an index case in the late 1980s, with the main contagion starting in the mid 1990s:

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Gibberish Uyghur

On a very interesting and informative blog called "This is Xinjiang", we find the following sign over the entrance to an Ürümchi restaurant:


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Ann Althouse discovers the eggcorn

… or something very close to it, under the heading

Proposal for a new kind of slang following the pattern "metal fork" for "metaphor"

The idea is to replace boring abstract words with very specific concrete things that sound pretty close to the original word. I'd like to build on the single example of "metal fork" for "metaphor."

This idea is based on a recent mishearing. Did I hear "metaphor" and think I heard "metal fork" or was it the other way around?

Here the re-shaping began with a mishearing, which Althouse then reproduced deliberately. When such a re-shaping happens without conscious design, we have some sort of malapropism, and when the re-shaping yields something that seems (to some people) to be especially appropriate semantically, we have an eggcorn (hundreds of examples on the Eggcorn Database).

I've written about deliberately invented examples under the name mock, or play, malaprops. See my posting on "mock eggcorns and their kin", with examples of several sorts.

(Hat tip to Bruce Webster.)

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Another nail in the ATEOTD=manager coffin

Some people are hard to persuade. In response to my post "'At the end of the day' not management-speak", Peter Taylor commented:

I argue that the first question to ask is whether hearing someone use the phrase "At the end of the day" conveys information on whether they are likely to be a manager…

Well, a definitive determination of the information gain involved, aside from its limited general interest, would require more resources than I can bring to bear over my morning coffee. But we can make a plausible guess, and the answer turns out to be that the "information gain" is probably pretty small, and is just about as likely to point away from the conclusion that the speaker or writer is a manager as towards it.

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William Safire, 1929-2009

William Safire has passed away, and it is no small measure of his impact that even linguabloggers who were most critical of his "On Language" column in the New York Times Magazine (Languagehat, Mr. Verb, Wishydig) have been quick to post their sincere condolences. Grant Barrett has written about his generosity of spirit, and I too was touched by his personal kindness.

I'll be posting a longer remembrance tomorrow in my Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus, but for now I'd like to note one example where Safire, despite his occasional prescriptivist predilections, showed a willingness to heed the work of descriptive linguists. In a 2006 column, he described political "template phrases" such as "No X left behind" and "We are all X now." At the time, I was disappointed that he was unfamiliar with the work of Language Loggers on snowclones. But earlier this year, when Safire approached me for my thoughts on the expression "I don't do X," I nudged him to an appreciation of snowclones, and of Language Log. He followed up the column with another one ("Abbreve That Template") explicitly acknowledging Language Log's pioneering work in snowclonology. Even at the end of his prolific career, he was eager to learn something new.

[Update, 9/28: My Word Routes remembrance is here.]

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Recursive responsibility

Today's Dilbert:

(Click on the image for a larger version.)

I'm not going to quibble about this one.

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"At the end of the day" not management-speak

Not, that is, unless you think that typical contemporary exponents of this linguistic register are Dick Cavett, Glamour Magazine, and Michael Bérubé.

I noted this morning that Scott Adams is far from the only one to suggest that "at the end of the day" (in the meaning "when all is said and done" or "in the final analysis") is typical of "the vacuous way managers speak".  This phrase is often cited as  "over-used" as well as "irritating", and  I did a little lunch-time experiment™ earlier today suggesting that over the past 30 years or so,  it's indeed been taking over its rhetorico-ecological niche from competing cliches.

However, an unsystematic scan of my searches seemed inconsistent with the hypothesis that it's especially likely to be used by "managers", however we define that much-maligned class.  I speculated that this might be another example of the common process of stereotype-formation, where some behavior perceived as annoying comes to be associated with a class of people who are also perceived as annoying, and the association is then repeatedly strengthened by confirmation bias. (See "The social psychology of linguistic naming and shaming", 2/27/2007, for some discussion.)

Several commenters were not persuaded to abandon their prejudices, and so I decided to do a slightly more systematic check across sources, by comparing the frequency of "at the end of the day" to the frequency of "in the final analysis" in texts on the sites of 13 business, finance or management magazines, and 21 other diverse kinds of magazines and weblogs.

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Google Scholar: another metadata muddle?

Following on the critiques of the faulty metadata in Google Books that I offered here and in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Peter Jacso of the University of Hawaii writes in the Library Journal that Google Scholar is laced with millions of metadata errors of its own. These include wildly inflated publication and citation counts (which Jacso compares to Bernie Madoff's profit reports), numerous missing author names, and phantom authors assigned by the parser that Google elected to use to extract metadata, rather than using the metadata offered them by scholarly publishers and indexing/abstracting services:

In its stupor, the parser fancies as author names (parts of) section titles, article titles, journal names, company names, and addresses, such as Methods (42,700 records), Evaluation (43,900), Population (23,300), Contents (25,200), Technique(s) (30,000), Results (17,900), Background (10,500), or—in a whopping number of records— Limited (234,000) and Ltd (452,000). 

What makes this a serious problem is that many people regard the Google Scholar metadata as a reliable index of scholarly influence and reputation, particularly now that there are tools like the Google Scholar Citation Count gadget by Jan Feyereisl and the Publish or Perish software produced by Tarma Software, both of which take Google Scholar's metadata at face value. True, the data provided by traditional abstracting and indexing services are far from perfect, but their errors are dwarfed by those of Google Scholar, Jacso says.

Of course you could argue that Google's responsibilities with Google Scholar aren't quite analogous to those with Google Book, where the settlement has to pass federal scrutiny and where Google has obligations to the research libraries that provided the scans. Still, you have to feel sorry for any academic whose tenure or promotion case rests in part on the accuracy of one of Google's algorithms.

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Memetic dynamics of summative cliches

Following up on this morning's post about phrases that some people find irritating, I thought that I'd take a look at the recent history of one of them, "At the end of the day", which was the Plain English Campaign's 2004 "most irritating phrase in the language". Geoff Pullum ("Irritating cliches? Get a life", 3/25/2004) took this phrase to "have a meaning somewhere in the same region as after all, all in all, the bottom line is, and when the chips are down", and he observes that it "may shock people by its complete bleaching away of temporal meaning", resulting in things like "at the end of the day, you've got to get up in the morning".

A Google News Archive search for "at the end of the day" shows a rapid recent rise in hits from around 1985 onward.  But so do some similar phrases, like  "when all is said and done", which doesn't seem to have incurred the ire of peevers to nearly the same extent. So I thought I'd look at the relative frequency of four phrases with similar meanings: "in the last analysis", "in the final analysis", "when all is said and done", and "at the end of the day".  I queried the Google News archive in 5-year increments from 1951 to 2009.

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Moving low-hanging fruit forward at the end of the day

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WTF? No, TFW!

The comments on my post "The inherent ambiguity of WTF" drifted to other possible expansions of WTF, like the World Taekwondo Federation. That reminded me of something I saw back in July on the blog Your Logo Makes Me Barf, mocking the abbreviatory logo of the Wisconsin Tourism Federation. The ridicule got some attention from local Wisconsin media, such as Kathy Flanigan of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Folks at the Wisconsin Tourism Federation couldn't possibly have seen how the Internet would change the lingo when it was established in 1979.
But now that it's been pointed out, the lobbying coalition might want to rethink using an acronym in the logo. To anyone online, WTF has a different meaning these days. And it's not the kind of thing you want visitors thinking about when they think Wisconsin.

I decided to check out the tourism board's website, and lo and behold, they've bowed to pressure and changed their name to the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin. The old logo lives on, however, at the Internet Archive. Compare:

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The inherent ambiguity of "WTF"

I'd like to echo Arnold Zwicky's praise for the third edition of Jesse Sheidlower's fan-fucking-tastic dictionary, The F Word. (See page 33 to read the entry for fan-fucking-tastic, dated to 1970 in Terry Southern's Blue Movie. And see page 143 for the more general use of -fucking- as an infix, in use at least since World War I.) Full disclosure: I made some contributions to this edition, suggesting possible new entries and digging up earlier citations ("antedatings") for various words and phrases. I took a particular interest in researching effing acronyms and initialisms. For instance, I was pleased to contribute the earliest known appearance of the now-ubiquitous MILF — and no, I'm not talking about the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. (For the record, a Buffalo-based rock band adopted the name MILF in early 1991, based on slang used by lifeguards at Fort Niagara State Park.) Another entry I helped out on is the endlessly flexible expression of bewilderment, WTF.

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The F Word, take 3

The third edition of Jesse Sheidlower's dictionary The F Word is now out, to much (and much-deserved) acclaim. The book has a scholarly introduction (of 33 pages) on the etymology of fuck; its taboo status; its appearance in print (including in dictionaries) and movies; euphemism and taboo avoidance; and this dictionary and its policies. The many uses of fuck are then covered in detail in the main entries.

There's an excellent review of the book by slang scholar Jonathon Green on the World Wide Words site. From Green's review:

… as a fellow lexicographer (and, I must admit, a friend — slang is a small world) what impresses me most is the excellence of the overall treatment. The subject happens to be fuck, but this is how any such study should be conducted and sadly so rarely is. Not via the slipshod infantilism of the Net’s Urban Dictionary, but disinterestedly, seriously and in depth. The F Word, I would suggest, is a template that we would all be wise to follow.

Website for the book here.

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Convention, uniqueness, and truth

Kevin Drum recently laid out a long-standing unsolved problem, one that has preoccupied such luminaries as Paul Krugman, James Fallows, and Glenn Beck ("Saving the Frogs", Mother Jones, 9/23/2009). The problem is that there's no good substitute for the over-used and untrue story about how a frog, if placed in a pot of gradually heated water, will eventually allow itself to be boiled without jumping out.  And since this is a rhetorical problem, Drum describes the failure as a linguistic one:

So here's what I'm interested in. The boiling frog cliche is untrue. But it stays alive because, as Krugman says, it's a useful metaphor. So why aren't there any good substitutes?

This is very strange. Most useful adages and metaphors not only have substitutes, they have multiple substitutes. "Look before you leap" and "Curiosity killed the cat." "Fast as lightning" and "Faster than a speeding bullet." Etc. Usually you have lots of choices.

But in this case we don't seem to have a single one aside from the boiling frog. Why? Is it because it's not really all that useful a metaphor after all? Because the frog has ruthlessly killed off every competitor? Because it's not actually true in any circumstance, let alone with frogs in pots of water? What accounts for this linguistic failure?

Yesterday, Jonathan Lundell sent me a link to Drum's article, with the comment "Sounds like a job for Language Log". That was almost enough to make me move on immediately: when Geoff Pullum and I started Language Log, I promised myself that if it ever got to feel like a job, I'd quit.

But this morning, after half a cup of coffee, I realized that Jonathan's remark was just an instance of the conventionalized phrasal template "sounds like a job for ___". And this one usually refers to the super-activities of superheros, which are by definition superfluous to their day jobs.

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