Archive for April, 2014

258 FAKE

The following address plate is affixed to the outer wall of Ai Weiwei's studio in Beijing:

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Choke a small chili

Paul Obrecht called to my attention the fact that the phrase "choke a small chili", which is widely used on Chinese wholesaling websites (especially for jewellery and accessories), gets 1.5 million Google hits (it received 307,000 ghits when I checked at 6:16 p.m. Tuesday evening, but that's still a lot for such an unusual expression).

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Automatic electric mugging

In response to "Traductions de Merde" (4/26/2014), S.S. wrote to tell me about the Bad Translations Flickr group, which she runs. The picture below shows one of her favorite examples, where English mug in the nominal sense "A heavy cylindrical drinking cup usually having a handle" is translated into French as if it were the verbal sense "to rob at gunpoint or with the threat of violence", and auto in the sense of "automobile" is translated as if it were "automatic":

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Is a fish a "tangible object"?

Or more precisely, is a fish a "tangible object" in the sense that throwing undersized fish overboard would fall within the purview of 18 U.S.C. § 1519, which states that

Whoever knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States or any case filed under title 11, or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.

John Brewer alerts us to the fact that the Supreme Court has recently agreed to review the holding of a lower court that the noun phrase "'tangible object,' as § 1519 uses that term, unambiguously applies to fish.”

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No word for "I" or "me" or "mine"

A.S. sent in this quotation from Jeremy Fogel, “A Reasonable Expectation of Privacy”, Litigation Journal, Spring 2014:

Different cultures understand privacy in different ways. In societies in which large numbers of people typically live in close proximity to each other, often in very small spaces, very little truly is understood or expected to be private. There are entire languages without words for “I” or “me” or “mine.”

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James Higginbotham, 1941-2014

James Higginbotham, professor of philosophy and linguistics at USC, died on Friday at the age of 72. USC News details his professional career, which straddled the disciplinary boundary between philosophy of language and theoretical linguistics.

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Editing the world

From the description of Alison Dianotto's "Downworthy: A browser plugin to turn hyperbolic viral headlines into what they really mean":

Downworthy replaces hyperbolic headlines from bombastic viral websites with a slightly more realistic version. For example:

  • "Literally" becomes "Figuratively" "Will Blow Your Mind" becomes "Might Perhaps Mildly Entertain You For a Moment"
  • "One Weird Trick" becomes "One Piece of Completely Anecdotal Horseshit"
  • "Go Viral" becomes "Be Overused So Much That You'll Silently Pray for the Sweet Release of Death to Make it Stop"
  • "Can't Even Handle" becomes "Can Totally Handle Without Any Significant Issue"
  • "Incredible" becomes "Painfully Ordinary"
  • "You Won't Believe" becomes "In All Likelihood, You'll Believe"
  • … and so on. (see the spoilers list below)

Mike Walker's "Literally, a better browsing experience" is a more tightly-focused plugin, literally just changing "literally" to "figuratively". I learned about both of these from Will Oremus, "Browser extension changes 'literally' to 'figuratively'" (The Sydney Morning Herald 4/28/2014), sent in by R.P.

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Carmen in Korean and Cantonese

Reader Jean-Michel found an odd example of a Sinographic typo and it's got him stumped. This has to do with the Korean Blu-ray release of "As Tears Go By," the 1988 debut feature by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai.

In Chinese the film is known as Wàngjiǎo kǎmén 旺角卡門 ("Mongkok Carmen") after the Bizet opera (though the resemblances are very superficial). What is strange, however, is that the Korean Blu-ray art, as illustrated below, initially gave the characters as Wàngjiǎo xiàwèn 旺角下問.

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P.S. cited this sentence (from Vrinda Agarwal,  "Let’s run the world, girls", Daily Californian 4/26/2014):

It matters that we have men and women representing women, especially because we still have politicians such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who referred to the recent debate over equal pay for women as “nonsense,” and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who said he would not support making lawsuits easier on pay for women.

Puzzled, P.S. wondered whether the wording "… making lawsuits easier on pay for women" might be the result of blind application of some grammatical prejudice:

To me, it seems that the more natural construction of the emphasized clause would be "making lawsuits on pay for women easier", and the construction in the article is a result of following (perhaps) some automated grammar advice on keeping adjectives and noun together.  But then, I am not really a native speaker, so maybe this is just a perfectly natural construction I have never seen before.

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Ask Language Log: "Niger", "Nigerian", "Nigerien"?

Email from D.D.:

After reading an article in The Economist about Nigeria's Boko Haram terrorists on my subway to work today, I asked an Oxford-educated Nigerian co-worker a question: if people from Nigeria are call Nigerians, what are people from the nation of Niger, to the north, called? The guy was stumped! Wow. (I have since done enough googling to learn that they are called Nigeriens — all French-like.)

But anyway, before I learned that, my co-worker and I discussed the issue. He suggested that the common origin of the two nations’ names was due to the Niger River that flows thru them both (according to him; I didn't consult maps).

My question of my co-worker—me being a guy who grew up near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers—was whether it was the French (as it was in early Missouri) who originally transcribed the name of the Niger river (and then some Anglicized the pronunciation), or was it the English.

The answer is "neither one" — it was the Berber/Arab/Andalusian etc. civilization of North Africa and Spain, transmitted via Italian, Latin and other European languages by al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, later known as Leo Africanus.

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Traductions de merde

Fans of LL's Lost in Translation feature will enjoy the Facebook group Traductions de merde ("Shitty translations"), and a collection of the "Top 40 des traductions de merde" at For example, there's an echo of the famous "Translate server error" signs:

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"Forgetting is a highly erotic experience"

Over the last couple of days, I read Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem The Triumph of Life, and Paul de Man's essay "Shelley Disfigured", which is presented as a close reading of that poem. The essay quotes extensively from the poem, but its analysis struck me as telling us more about de Man than about Shelley:

Forgetting is a highly erotic experience: it is like glimmering light because it cannot be decided whether it reveals or hides; it is like desire because, like the wolf pursuing the deer, it does violence to what sustains it; it is like a trance or a dream because it is asleep to the very extent that it is conscious and awake, and dead to the extent that it is alive. 

Whether Shelly's or de Man's, these are ideas evoked by highly inferential connections among aspects of the poem's content. Which is fine, except that I was looking for "an examination of the structure of language prior to the meaning it produces".

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Character amnesia in 1793-1794

The first British envoy to China was George Macartney; his mission is referred to in the historical literature as the Macartney Embassy.  The basic purpose of the embassy was to open up trade between Great Britain and China, which theretofore has been greatly restricted in various ways by the Chinese authorities.

Naturally, Macartney would have needed translation assistance to communicate with Chinese officials.  However, due to some peculiar circumstances that will be related below, translators were not easy to come by, as is detailed in this passage from the Wikipedia article on the Macartney Embassy:

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