Archive for November, 2011

Towel-snapping semiotics: How the frontal lobe comes out through the mouth

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Flaming Napalmed Knickers

Or maybe it should be "Pantaloons in the Plasma State". Anyhow, we need a category of reckless mendacity beyond PolitiFact's "Pants on Fire" stage, to deal with Jim Meyers and Ashley Martella, "George Marlin: Obama Is ‘Narcissist, Classic Elitist’", NewsMax 9/14/2011. More specifically, to deal with their interviewee, George Marlin, who asserts that

Obama … uses the I word more than I think all presidents have used it collectively in the two hundred and some odd years of our nation.

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i2speak

There's a free web-based tool for IPA entry at i2speak.com:


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Potable and Non-Slip

A few weeks ago I stayed in the Xiányáng hángkōng dà jiǔdiàn / Xianyang Aviation Hotel (a more idiomatic English translation of that would be Xianyang Airport Hotel) 咸阳航空大酒店 near Xi'an, Shaanxi, China. When I went to the bathroom, I was much intrigued to see this sign over the sink:

and this sign on the wall above the bathtub:

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An inventory of postings on peeving etc.

A partial inventory of postings on language rage, language peeving, word aversion, and word attraction on Language Log and AZBlog, here. I ran out of steam early this year, so the inventory is reasonably complete only to that point.

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SUS as farewell formulas

Those who enjoyed the "semantically unpredictable sentences" in the S3-WG91 Standards Working Group's test of TTS intelligibility will appreciate the latest SMBC:

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Kolaviral

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POTY

Why can't we all get along? Let's end the argument about whether the Word Of The Year should sometimes be a phrase by having a separate competition for Phrase Of The Year.

And we can divide the POTY prize further into two categories: one category for phrases that remain entirely compositional in meaning, but are newly-common terms for newly-popular concepts; and another category for newly-popular phrases whose common usage is an opaque metaphorical or metonymic extension of its basic compositional meaning.

This doesn't end all possible arguments — the boundary between words and phrases is historically as contested as the boundary between Germany and Poland or Armenia and Azerbaijan. But it should restore relative peace to the Language Log Senior Common Room, as well as giving lexicographers more journalistic shelf space by multiplying the number of linguistic X-OTY items to display. (Next: Catch-phrase Of The Year; Genericide Of The Year; … We can use all 26 letters of the alphabet, from Allomorph Of The Year to Zeugma of the Year, and then we can start on the likely initial clusters, like Structural Metaphor Of The Year. )

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Squeezed Middles

Like Geoff and Ben, I was puzzled by choice of "squeezed middle" as the OED's WOTY. But I agree with Ben that it's reasonable as well as traditional for dictionaries to include semi-compositional compounds and phrases among their entries. In such cases, a word-combination X Y has a common meaning that's an unpredictable specialization of its compositional meaning, so that you may not be able to figure out what X Y means, even in context, and you're even less likely to be able to guess that X Y is the term that you should use to convey the concept in question.

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Listeners needed for TTS standards intelligibility test

Email from Ann Syrdal on behalf of the S3-WG91 Standards Working Group:

The "Text-to-Speech Synthesis Technology" ASA Standards working group (S3-WG91) is conducting a web-based test that applies the method it will be proposing as an ANSI standard for evaluating TTS intelligibility.  It is an open-response test ("type what you hear"). The test uses syntactically correct but semantically meaningless sentences, Semantically Unpredictable Sentences (SUS).

To take the test, click here.

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Spinoculars re-spun?

Back in September of 2008, a Seattle-based start-up named SpinSpotter offered a tool that promised to detect "spin" or "bias" in news stories. The press release about the "Spinoculars" browser toolbar was persuasive enough to generate credulous and positive stories at the New York Times and at Business Week. But ironically, these very stories immediately set off BS detectors at Headsup: The Blog ("The King's Camelopard, or …", 9/8/2008) and at Language Log  ("Dumb mag buys grammar goof spin spot fraud", 9/10/2008), and subsequent investigation verified that there was essentially nothing behind the curtain ("SpinSpotter unspun", 9/10/2008). SpinSpotter was either a joke, a fraud, or a runaway piece of "demoware" meant to create enough buzz to attract some venture funding. Within six months, SpinSpotter was an ex-venture.

An article in yesterday's Nieman Journalism Lab (Andrew Phelps, "Bull beware: Truth goggles sniff out suspicious sentences in news", 11/22/2011) illustrates the same kind of breathless journalistic credulity ("A graduate student at the MIT Media Lab is writing software that can highlight false claims in articles, just like spell check.")  But the factual background in this case involves weaker claims (a thesis proposal, rather than a product release) that are more likely to be workable (matching news-story fragments against fact-checking database entries, rather than recognizing phrases that involve things like "disregarded context" and "selective disclosure").

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The "Word of the Year" need not be a word

My colleague Geoff Pullum has objected to the selection of squeezed middle as Oxford Dictionaries' 2011 Word of the Year on the grounds that "the 'Word of the Year' should be a word." Allow me to provide a counterpoint to this view.

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The "Word of the Year" should be a word

The Oxford Dictionaries organization (responsible for marketing the Oxford English Dictionary and its many spinoffs and abridgments) picks a word at the end of each year that they think epitomizes the main currents of what happened in the world (or the anglophone parts of it). Or to be more accurate, they pick either a word or a phrase. And two years running they have picked phrases. I want to argue that this is a mistake, not just because they have chosen an utterly undistinguished item, but because what they have chosen is a straightforwardly compositional phrase, one that couldn't be argued to be a lexical item at all.

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Keeping up our standards

The lower-grade newspapers in Britain this morning have been making much of what happened to a group of birdwatchers, gathered excitedly in a coastal area for a rare chance to photograph a Hume's leaf warbler. It seems they happened upon a calendar photo shoot and had a rare chance to also snap a blonde model, draped over a motorcycle, wearing nothing but a thong.

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The dazed urgency of an Esperanto salesman

While we're talking about the politics of language peevers, I can't resist sharing with you the opening of Time Magazine's 1946 review of E.B. White's The Wild Flag:

E. B. White plugs federal world government with the dazed urgency of an Esperanto salesman. He has the same high purpose, the same rosy vision, the same conviction that all it needs is a try.

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