Archive for July, 2011


In our recent discussions of anti-Americanisms-ism in Britain, commenters have occasionally brought up the question of whether or not Americans ever show similar linguistic xenophobia. The fact that we're as human as the Brits is demonstrated by Marc Lacey, "'Haboobs' stir critics in Arizona", NYT 7/21/2011:

The massive dust storms that swept through central Arizona this month have stirred up not just clouds of sand but a debate over what to call them.

The blinding waves of brown particles, the most recent of which hit Phoenix on Monday, are caused by thunderstorms that emit gusts of wind, roiling the desert landscape. Use of the term “haboob,” which is what such storms have long been called in the Middle East, has rubbed some Arizona residents the wrong way.

“I am insulted that local TV news crews are now calling this kind of storm a haboob,” Don Yonts, a resident of Gilbert, Ariz., wrote to The Arizona Republic after a particularly fierce, mile-high dust storm swept through the state on July 5. “How do they think our soldiers feel coming back to Arizona and hearing some Middle Eastern term?”

Diane Robinson of Wickenburg, Ariz., agreed, saying the state’s dust storms are unique and ought to be labeled as such.

“Excuse me, Mr. Weatherman!” she said in a letter to the editor. “Who gave you the right to use the word ‘haboob’ in describing our recent dust storm? While you may think there are similarities, don’t forget that in these parts our dust is mixed with the whoop of the Indian’s dance, the progression of the cattle herd and warning of the rattlesnake as it lifts its head to strike.”

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Ask Language Log: One = only one?

Keith Ellis got into an argument with a friend about the meaning of the number one, and asked us for help:

In a discussion I had today with someone about the probability puzzle of "one of my two children is a boy, what is the probability that my other child is a girl?" we got hung up on her (very strong) inference of "only one of my two children is a boy" from "one of my children is a boy". […]

She insisted that if one "takes the statement literally" that the statement necessarily has this ["one is" == "only one is"] meaning.

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Don't read this post: Be a Language Log reader!

The big deal in a new paper "Motivating voter turnout by invoking the self" (see also the official PNAS site, or e.g. this Discover magazine article "The power of nouns….") is that people can be manipulated into voting simply by clever use of nouns instead of verbs in a questionnaire. In each of several studies, potential voters were split into two groups and given (amongst other questions which didn't vary by group) one of two questions to answer:

Group 1 question: How important is it to you to be a voter in the upcoming election?

Group 2 question: How important is it to you to vote in the upcoming election?

Turned out that Group 1 turned out. Really. In one of the studies an amazing 95.5% of them actually turned out to vote, whereas only 81.8% of Group 2 voted. That's obviously a huge effect on voting behavior. And it appears to be caused by the use of a construction with the nominal "voter" instead of the verb "vote".

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Last night, with some diffidence, for the first time since Barbara's death, I made an attempt at cooking the excellent mushroom risotto that she used to do. I knew how to do it in broad outline. But through a careless fumble when adding more olive oil to the pan at the sauteeing stage, I put way too much olive oil in — like about half a cup too much. Barbara (mistress of delicious low-fat cooking) would have thrown the whole mess in the bin. I made a different decision. I decided to reconceptualize. This was not going to be Barbara's mushroom risotto at all; this was an olive oil risotto with mushrooms. Qua mushroom risotto it would not have ranked highly, but qua olive oil risotto it wasn't too bad.

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More "screaming and spluttering" from Matthew Engel

Several readers have pointed out that Matthew Engel, the author of last week's odd BBC News peeve about Americanisms (discussed here and here), fired a couple of  earlier salvos last year in the Daily Mail. The first one was "Say no to the get-go! Americanisms swamping English, so wake up and smell the coffee", Daily Mail 5/29/2010:

In 1832, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was fulminating about the 'vile and barbarous' new adjective that had just arrived in London. The word was 'talented'. It sounds innocuous enough to our ears, as do 'reliable', 'influential' and 'lengthy', which all inspired loathing when they first crossed the Atlantic.

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Nothing if not un____

Jan Eliot's Stone Soup for today:

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Friendly friend friendly

Yesterday's Sally Forth:

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The other shoe drops at Harvard

Carolyn Johnson, "Embattled Harvard psychology professor resigns", 7/19/2011:

Marc Hauser, a well-known Harvard psychology professor who has been on leave since an internal investigation found him guilty of eight counts of scientific misconduct, is leaving the university.

“Marc Hauser has resigned his position as a faculty member, effective August 1, 2011,” Harvard spokesman Jeff Neal wrote in an e-mail statement today.

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Third party

Sean Hoare, a British journalist who blew the whistle on the News International phone hacking scandal, was found dead yesterday. Today, the papers tell us that the police are calling his death "non suspicious". But there's a curious linguistic aspect to the police report:

There is no evidence of third party involvement and the death is non suspicious. Further toxicology results are now awaited and there is an on-going examination of health problems identified at the post mortem.

As reader MM asked me by email, "who's the second party?"

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Kung-fu (Gongfu) Tea

After being inundated with Bruce Lee movies in the 1970s and saturated with Kung Fu Panda films and TV series in the 2000s, only a zombie would be numb to the call of the Kung-fu masters.  Unless you are a tea aficionado, however, you may not have heard of Kung-fu Tea.  (N.B.:  Kung-fu is Wade-Giles romanization, gongfu is Hanyu Pinyin.)  For those who do know about Kung-fu Tea, even tea specialists among them are divided over both the meaning of the term and the way to write it in Chinese characters.  Should it be gōngfu chá 工夫 茶 or gōngfu chá 功夫茶?  And does the name mean "tea that requires a lot of effort and skill to prepare" or "martial arts tea"?

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Hating Americans and their Americanisms

I will say only two brief things about the list of 50 alleged Americanisms that British people hate just published by the BBC, and the hundreds and hundreds of supportive comments and new examples that are flocking in minute by minute. First, people don't check the origins of the words and phrases they cite; here on Language Log Mark Liberman found a rate of just 20% correct geographical attributions in the article that has provoked this latest tsunami of prejudice and peevery. (I checked number 10 on the new list of 50, the word physicality, and found that the earliest potentially relevant OED citation is from an 1827 book published in London.) And second, the clear hostility displayed toward us Americans in the statement of these linguistic grudges is not evinced in the streets.

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Corpus linguistics in a legal opinion

Gordon Smith, "A Landmark Opinion: Corpus Linguistics in the Courts", The Conglomerate 7/19/2011:

Last month I blogged about the "best student comment ever," the first law review article to rely on corpus linguistics as the basis for analysis. As I have worked with corpus linguistics (through the comment's author, Stephen Mouritsen) over the past few months, I have come to conclude that it will revolutionize the study of law, at least insofar as we are attempting to understand word usages.

Today, my former colleage and current Utah Supreme Court Justice Tom Lee used corpus linguistics in a lengthy concurring opinion (the relevant section starts at page 34). In this opinion, Justice Lee is interpreting the word "custody," and he brings corpus linguistics to the fight. […]  Justice Lee's collegues are not enamored with the approach, but you can read the opinions for yourself and see who gets the better of the argument.

This seems to be the first judicial opinion anywhere using corpus linguistics, but it will surely not be the last.

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One apostrophe short of a good hoax

The LulzSec hackers who broke into the computer systems of The Sun by exploiting a weakness in a mailback page on an outdated Solaris server really can program; they would never expect a script to work with a misspelled variable name, or a closing single quote omitted. But spell English correctly? They couldn't even write a simple four-word headline without a tell-tale error:

They meant media mogul's body. A nice spoof front page ruined by a failure to recall that genitive singular nouns are spelled with ’s in English. The curse of the forgotten letter strikes again.

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