Archive for May, 2010

Inappropriate laughter

On Saturday, I went to another performance of the Chekhov play that I discussed a couple of days ago. And this time, I was struck by something that was neither in the play's text nor in the performers' interpretation, but rather in the audience's reaction.

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Drunk dog driver

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Crash blossom finds remain

A nice nominal-compound crash blossom was spotted by Nicholas Widdows on a BBC News web page:

Missing women police find remains

Like Missing comma, police decide to hire a grammarian, or Missing his mom, Joe called home? No, wait a minute, this isn't about the police missing womanly company — those first two words are not a gerund-participial predicative adjunct. Could missing be a modifier of women police, then? The remains were found in a remote area by some female police officers who had been reported as missing? A bit implausible. What about find? Is that really a tensed verb with plural agreement? Could it be a noun instead (as in a new find), with remains being the main clause verb, as in Paul Simon's line the roots of rhythm remain? No; it's not making any sense at all. You just can't figure out a plausible story.

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Two notes on Three Sisters

Last night, I saw an excellent performance of Chekhov's Three Sisters at the Vortex Theater in Albuquerque. I had never seen this play before, and based on descriptions of the plot, I didn't really expect to like it very much, but in fact I thought it was brilliant, in ways that are not captured by a plot summary. It's surprising that this suprised me, since I like Chekhov's short stories very much, and for the same reasons.

Two small linguistic footnotes follow, one intrinsic to the text, and the other related to last night's performance.

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The secret lives of lexicographers?

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Creative work metonymy

Sex and the City 2 premiered in London last night. Sarah Jessica Parker arrived in a black strapless dress from the house of her favorite British designer, and what she told her fans provided another interesting example of what Mark Liberman noted in a recent post on fashion talk:

There's only one person I could have worn tonight and that was Alexander McQueen.

Ms Parker didn't just say she was wearing Alexander McQueen; she actually used an expression quantifying over persons (only one person) as the understood object of wear (in the sense that she modified person with the relative clause I could have worn ___), and then clarified that the person was Alexander McQueen; and still the metonymic reading survived and was understood by fans and journalists alike.

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Two cultures

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Frog Crisis in Greece

It's bad enough to have to weather a disastrous economic crisis, but now the Greeks are faced with a frog crisis.  Millions of migrating frogs — a veritable carpet of the slippery, slimy fellows — have closed down a major Greek highway near Thessaloniki.

I believe that the usual word for "frog" in modern Greek is batrachos, but all of Greece is referring to the current batrachian horde with the Biblical word tzfardei'a.  In so doing, I suppose they wish to recall the Biblical plague of frogs that God inflicted on Egypt (the second of ten plagues that he sent against the Egyptians).  In fact, the plague of frogs was meant as an attack on the Egyptian frog goddess Heqt, whose job it was to assist women in labor.

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Nanjing Commie Academy

From Don Snow:

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This from a sign in a Nanjing subway station directing people to important places:

中共省委党校
Commie Academy of Provinial (sic) Committe of Chinese Communist Party

I can see why they wanted to shorten the English translation a bit, but still….Commie?

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I kept doingn it wrongn

Martin Gardner would have like the mouseover title text on the latest xkcd:

And of course I had to redo this like three times because I kept writing 'UNTIE'; I kept doing 'doing 'doing it wrong' wrong' wrong.

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No X No Y?

We've often discussed the stylistic choice between hypotaxis, where semantic and pragmatic relations are signaled with explicit connectives and syntactic embedding, and parataxis, which relies more heavily on context and common sense to communicate the same relationships, using phrases strung together like beads on a string.

The paratactic style is more modern, more demotic, and usually shorter. But sometimes, as in the case of this flashing highway sign, it's also harder to interpret:

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Fingerspitzengefühl

Most Americans visiting the Netherlands feel pretty much at home, I think, although there are a few oddities, like the large number of bicyclists and the fact that the trains run on time. But at a deeper level, the Netherlands is really a very foreign country.

Last fall, the editors of Onze Taal ("Our Language") asked readers for their favorite German word. They got 3,358 responses, with a suprisingly clear winner, as they explained in an article earlier this year:

1 fingerspitzengefühl 30.1% flair, intuition, tact
2 überhaupt 15.2% actually, at all, even, generally
3 sowieso 12.7% anyway, in any event
4 einzelgänger 12.4% loner, maverick
5 aha-erlebnis 11.9% eureka moment
6 ins blaue hinein 10.7% into the blue (= "at random"?)
7 quatsch 8.9% nonsense, hogwash, baloney
8 weltschmerz 8.1% world-weariness, sentimental pessimism
9 himmelhoch jauchzend 7.6% exulting sky-high
10 heimwee 6.6% (typo for heimweh "homesickness"
or heimweg "way home"?)

(The English translations are mine, and therefore not to be relied on, since I know little German and less Dutch.)

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(Not so) strictly spitting

According to Michael Grynbaum, "When Passengers Spit, Bus Drivers Take Months Off", NYT 5/24/2010:

It could be the cutbacks to the city’s transportation system, or a general decline in urban civility. Perhaps people are just in a collective bad mood.

What else could explain why New Yorkers — notoriously hardened to the slings and arrows of everyday life here — are spitting on bus drivers?

Of all the assaults that prompted a bus operator to take paid leave in 2009, a third of them, 51 in total, “involved a spat upon,” according to statistics the Metropolitan Transportation Authority released on Monday.

That apparent use of "spat upon" as a noun wasn't a mistake, as confirmed by another example later in the same article:

Almost no arrests have been reported for spitting on a driver, said Mr. Smith, who noted that a police officer “must witness the spat upon to give a summons.”

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and21

Martin Gardner has died at the age of 95.

His interest in language included unusual skill in manipulating the use-mention distinction, as in this spectacular example:

One that's less impressive, but a little easier to process:

Q: What 11-letter word do all Yale graduates spell incorrectly?

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Almost Lost in Translation

In our numerous posts on Chinglish here at Language Log, we have shown how unintentional errors of translation from Chinese result in ludicrous or impenetrable English.  In this post, I shall demonstrate how translations from English into Chinese can (and often do) intentionally differ from the original.

On March 15, 2010, Nicholas Wade published a long article entitled "A Host of Mummies, a Forest of Secrets" in the Science section of The New York Times.  Mr. Wade interviewed me extensively during the course of preparing the article, so I am intimately familiar with the issues he raised in it and am, in fact, quoted several times by him.

Shortly thereafter, one of China’s most widely read weeklies, Southern Metropolis Weekly (Nándū zhōukān 南都周刊), published a Chinese "translation" of the NYT article entitled "Invisible Cemetery" (Kànbùjiàn de mùdì 看不见的墓地).  It is now available online here.

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