Archive for March, 2011

Twin talk

If you're one of the ten people who haven't seen the twin-baby-conversation video, here you go:

(Part 1 is here.)

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Chinese sign in Benghazi

In "Maybe Mubarak understands Chinese," I dissected a couple of Chinese signs held by protesters in Egypt. Now we encounter another interesting Chinese sign in Libya:


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Resisting stylistic inversion no matter what the cost

In a post here last June I asked for editorial staff at The New Yorker to come forward, anonymously if they wish, and explain something to me. Why do they so resolutely refuse to employ subject-verb inversion with reporting frames, even when the policy drives them to print sentences that are not just inept but almost incomprehensible?

Chris Potts first documented the strange practice in one of the earliest Language Log posts back in 2003.) Nobody from the magazine came forward to explain, either then or last year. Instead, New Yorker staff redoubled their efforts to show that nothing could make them consider verb-subject order. On March 21 (p. 54, left column) they published what I think is the worst example yet, buried in the middle of an article by Dana Goodyear about Hollywood writer's-block therapists Barry Michels and Phil Stutz:

"We're like carnies, always out there trying to sell some idea," another writer, who sees Michels, and whose husband, also a writer, sees Stutz, told me.

I continue to wonder, what the hell is wrong with them that they could believe this is fine prose style?

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Yardley disses the classics

The conclusion of Jonathan Yardley's otherwise favorable review of Michael Frayn’s “My Father’s Fortune” in the Washington Post:

What a pity it is, therefore, that from beginning to end “My Father’s Fortune” is marred by Frayn’s apparent inability to distinguish between subject and object, or, as grammarians have it, between the nominative and objective cases. To wit: “John, ten years older than me. . .,” “with as much aplomb as Lane and me,” “she’s thirty years younger than him.” Really, what are they teaching at Cambridge these days? Are editorial pencils no longer used at Faber & Faber, Frayn’s British publisher, or Metropolitan, his American one? This may seem mere nitpicking, but it’s not. These are basic, rudimentary grammatical errors, and the ones I’ve cited are merely three among many. For a writer of Frayn’s reputation and accomplishment, they are inexcusable.

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Dueling linguists

According to Ian Sherr, "Apple, Microsoft Hire Linguists to Duel Over App Store Name", WSJ 3/30/2011:

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) and Apple Inc. (AAPL) have both hired linguists to serve as experts in the tech titan's ongoing battle over whether or not the government can grant a trademark for the term "app store."

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Palin perseverates

According to karoll at Crooks and Liars ("Sarah Palin Wonders Aloud if Libya Action is a 'Squirmish'", 3/29/2011):

Madam Malaprop, thy name is Sarah Palin. […] Called in by Fox News to deconstruct President Obama's speech, she wonders aloud whether the Libya action is a war, an intervention or a "squirmish".

And so she does, at about 0:21 of the Fox News clip below:

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"I know, right?"

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H what?

The mouse-over title on the latest xkcd points us to a classic argument over etymology vs. usage:

I don't know what's more telling–the number of pages in the Wikipedia talk page argument over whether the 1/87.0857143 scale is called "HO" or "H0", or the fact that within minutes of first hearing of it I had developed an extremely strong opinion on the issue.

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Lexicalize different?

Ben Zimmer, "The Great Language Land Grab", NYT 3/27/2011:

When tech companies engage in legal squabbles about who gets to use our everyday words, what are ordinary speakers of the language to make of it all?

Microsoft is suing Apple, and Apple is suing Amazon, all over the right to use a simple two-word phrase: “app store.” […]

It’s not the first time the tech industry has claimed commonplace language as its own.

Facebook has been notorious in this regard, filing trademarks on an array of common four-letter words: “like,” “wall,” “poke” and, naturally, “face” and “book.” […]

Microsoft, of course, has long been playing this game by fiercely upholding prosaic brand names like Windows, Office and Word.

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Gang fight

I've gotten several requests from readers for a phonetic analysis of Rebecca Black's mega-viral hit Friday. I'm still thinking about that, but meanwhile, here's the Bad Lip-Reading version:

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Celebrity voices

In current rotation on Doonesbury, Bernie (Mike's boss) is pitching an idea to Sid (Boopsie's agent):

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"New unexpected life events provider" — doesn't.

Reader JC reports getting an email with the subject line "New Unexpected Life Events Provider Effective 4/1". He was disappointed to learn that this "'new unexpected life events provider' will not, in fact, provide me with life events of any kind".

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Somewhere east of Aachen

Adam Goodheart, "Civil Warfare in St. Louis", The American Scholar, Spring 2011:

The leading city in one of the nation’s most populous slaveholding states, St. Louis was a strategic prize like no other. Not only the largest settlement beyond the Appalachians, it was also the country’s second-largest port, commanding the Mississippi River as well as the Missouri, which was then navigable as far upstream as what is now the state of Montana. It was the eastern gateway to the overland trails to California. Last but far from least, the city was home to the St. Louis Arsenal, the biggest cache of federal arms in the slave states, a central munitions depot for Army posts between New Orleans and the Rockies. Whoever held St. Louis held the key to the Mississippi Valley and perhaps even to the whole American West.

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Linguist List (2011)

It's that time of the year, and Linguist List is begging for money to keep its services going. Unlike Language Log, Linguist List has a staff (enthusiastic grad students), because it couldn't possibly do what it does without one. Check out the site, and donate here.

Small donations are very much welcome. If you have currency exchange problems, mail Barbara Partee or me.

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WAG rage

WAG is a curious word in British English, confined mainly to journalism, and at first mostly spelled in capital letters (I actually discussed it here once before, here). It's an acronym, not an abbreviation. (Abbreviations are the other kind of initialism: they are pronounced by saying the names of the successive letters, as with IBM; an acronym is an initialism with a sequence of letters that can be pronounced in the usual way as a word, e.g. AIDS.) The etymology of WAG comes from the initial letters of the phrase Wives And Girlfriends. The word denotes the class of people who serve in the sometimes arduous but newsworthy role of wives and girlfriends of British sports stars, especially soccer players. There is always a cluster of glamorous women hanging around top professional soccer team members, and some players choose brides from among these admirers. Hence the headlinese word "WAGs". The puzzling thing is that WAG has developed a singular. It is increasingly well established. See for example, today's story Dundee football star Kyle Benedictus facing jail over 'wag rage' attack, where the word is not just in the singular but lower-cased. (It's an inspiring story of professional soccer culture: a young player going to his ex-girlfriend's home, violently assaulting two men he finds there, and then accusing her of having made him do it.)

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