Private meanings

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Bizarro takes on a species of semantic error:

From my 1980 booklet Mistakes (p. 14):

Corresponding to the semantic errors above are PRIVATE MEANINGS … I have one friend who thought for a long time that Indo- meant 'southern, lower' (from its occurrence in Indochina) and another who believed that ritzy meant 'in poor taste' (as a result of her parents' deprecating tone in using the word).

My two examples illustrate two routes to private meanings: a misapprehension about the meanings contributed by parts of a word (Indochina); and a misapprehension of a word's meaning based on its use in context (ritzy). Just yesterday I posted on my blog about another instance of the first sort: spendthrift used, in a Cathy cartoon, for 'penurious person', no doubt because of a connection of the element thrift to the adjective thrifty.


A discussion in ADS-L in February 2008 unearthed several further examples.

It began with a 15 February posting by Jon Lighter:

In his prepared public statement on yesterday's campus shootings, NIU President John Peters described the outpouring of public sympathy as "renewing and heart-rendering." He used the word "heart-rendering" in this connection twice within one minute.

That is, heart-rendering 'heart-warming'.

This one comes in two pieces: first, a well-known malaprop, heart-rendering for heartrending, with lots of Google hits, complaints going back at least to 1987, and some discussion on Language Log; and then a positive interpretation of the word, possibly based on the element heart in the word, possibly on the influence of heart-warming, possibly on a perception, in context, of a strong affective component in the word (without an appreciation of its being negative rather than positive) — or, of course, on several of these.

Lighter went on to add two more cases:

In a similar vein, a few years back I knew a student who used "tearjerker" in a positive way. E.g., "'Come Up from the Fields, Father,' is Whitman's famous tearjerker about the Civil War." He went on to say how affecting it was.  I suspect this is pretty common.

(Here student appreciates the affective content of the word, but identifies it as positive.)

Another dude, in a letter to the Atlantic, insisted that a "stemwinder" was a long, tedious speech, because it made the audience check their watches; then they'd fiddle with them.

(This one gets a connection to the type of watch known as a stemwinder and to the word's use to characterize speeches, and then the writer devises a story that connects all these things. A stemwinder is in fact a particularly rousing speech, one that "winds up" the audience.)

Considering that you can't know other someone else's intentions in choosing words, and that context is often inadequate to point clearly to these intentions, it's surprising that more private meanings haven't been reported (except, of course, in child language). Maybe they're really common but mostly escape notice.

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74 Comments »

  1. bianca steele said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

    Hm. I used "heart-rending" in a blog post a few months ago (don't ask me why I remember specific words I used weeks ago), discussing human-interest stories (and the nasty online comments they apparently generate). Probably "heartwarming" would have been a better word, and possibly the word I used was simply a mistake. Obviously those stories are printed to make people feel good and to take readers' attention away from all the bad news the paper prints, so "heart-rending" is the wrong word. A casualty of lack of editing time for blogging.

  2. D.P. Roberts said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

    My first impression was that the joke turned on the ambiguous use of the double quotes. Cheesy is a plausible definition for "classy" (ironic quotes).

  3. philosoraptor said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

    Several years ago, one of my relatives died and we went to her hometown for the funeral services. During the funeral prayer, the minister prayed, among other things, that God would "upbraid" us, the surviving family members.
    Some months later, that relative's sister died and we were back in that same town with that same minister. He made the same request of God.

    I never could bring myself to ask him what he actually meant. "Uplift", perhaps?

    Or, maybe he said exactly what he meant…

  4. Kanou said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

    I interpreted this as a punctuation joke, with the mother somehow hearing the sarcastiquotes around "classy" and giving an in-context definition.

  5. comwave said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    In some sense, the mother's "cheesy" may be intrepreted as a "public" meaning because her social experiences probably gave her the meaning.

    [(amz) Virtually all meanings for words in ordinary language come from people's social experiences; learning the meanings explicitly, by instruction from someone or by looking it up in a reference work, is rare for ordinary vocabulary, though it's not uncommon for technical vocabulary. What's at issue here is not what the source of the meanings is, but whether these meanings are generally shared by the speech community. They are "private" in the sense that they're idiosyncratic.]

    [PS] I guess a "h" is missing in "a misapprension" in the first sentence of your third paragraph.

    [(amz) The missing "he" has been supplied.]

  6. KCinDC said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

    I think the explanation for that use of "spendthrift" could include confusion with "skinflint".

    This subject reminds me of Clarence Thomas's use of "deign" in his confirmation hearing, though that's probably more an eggcorn for "dare":

    And from my standpoint as a black American, as far as I'm concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you.

    Kanou, why would they be "sarcastiquotes"? They're standard punctuation for a word used as a word, as an alternative to italics.

  7. Christopher Henrich said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

    Regarding Whitman's "famous tearjerker:"

    As far as I can recall, I never heard or saw the word "tearjerker" used for praise before this.

    Could one say that the poem was "pathetic"? Under this word, the OED cites examples with a favorable connotation as late as the 1880's, and gives no examples (or definitions) in which it expresses scorn. I guess that usage is a more recent development.

    Many evaluative words seem to have come far down in this world. Consider "silly" (cognate with German "selig" = "holy") and "cretin" (once "Christian", later a person whose body and mind are blighted by thyroid deficiency).

  8. Wordnut said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

    This reminds me of a John Mellencamp lyric: "I remember when you could stop a clock." He uses it as a positive, as a way of saying the person was really good looking at one time. Usually, though, "a face that could stop a clock" is used to describe an ugly countenance.

    Interestingly, good looks CAN stop traffic. I have always wondered if this had a role in his "misuse" of the expression.

  9. [ni:v] said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 2:42 pm

    It is interesting to see how words like this can be misinterpreted, but I have come across cases where slang terms do have different meanings in different geographical regions. Two friends had a dispute after a misunderstanding regarding the word "deadly". The person from the west of Ireland used the term to mean "cool, brilliant" while the person from the east of Ireland used it to mean "really bad". Also, the fact that Ireland is such a small country makes it even more intriguing that the word had almost opposite meanings in places that are not more than 3 hours' drive apart!

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

    "Classy" = "cheesy" seems basically identical to "ritzy" = "in poor taste." The tacit sociolinguistic minor premise in both usages seems to be "the sort of people who use the word classy/ritzy as an unironic compliment are (or at least tend to be) vulgar/unsophicated/non-U people whose sense of class and taste is defective." I have heard the phrase "Klassy-with-a-K" (ideally pronounced with an affected low-prestige accent) as another way of conveying the same point. This is an alternative in speech to making the sneer quotes explicit by saying "quote classy endquote." Probably especially helpful for those who are sarcastic so frequently that a "sarcastic" tone of voice doesn't stick out sufficiently in their discourse to alert the listener to what is intended.

  11. Andrew said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 2:49 pm

    My sister and I grew up in the US with Chinese parents – my sister thought for years that in Mandarin, "pianyi" meant expensive (it actually means cheap) because she always heard my parents saying "tai pianyi" (too cheap) as a reason not to buy something. She also thought that "zuo" (left) meant right and "you" (right) meant left. This private meaning persisted until my mother was teaching her how to drive!

  12. Mr Punch said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

    Rendering is a process of extracting fat from animal tissue by the application of heat; to render a heart one would therefore warm it. So I suppose "heart-rendering" can mean "heart-warming."

  13. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 3:46 pm

    I wonder if Arnold Zwicky's friend was confusing the Indo- of Indochina with the Yugo- of Yugoslavia. Yugo- really does mean "south", "southern".

  14. George Amis said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

    My first response to the cartoon matched J.W Brewer's analysis (above, at 2:44). But it took me a while to explain it to my verbally sophisticated 13 year old son. He remained a little skeptical, but I still think it's the best reading.

  15. hanmeng said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

    Considering that you can't know other someone else's intentions in choosing words, and that context is often inadequate to point clearly to these intentions, it's surprising that more private meanings haven't been reported (except, of course, in child language). Maybe they're really common but mostly escape notice.

    I wonder what you really meant by this.

  16. Anatoly Vorobey said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 4:39 pm

    I found out just recently, to some embarrassment, that I'd been mistaken about the meaning of the word erstwhile; to me, it meant something like "noble", "excellent".

    Googling phrases like "most erstwhile", "very erstwhile" (both unlikely to be used with the correct meaning) reveals many more instances of this misunderstanding. I've also discovered a few threads on the alt.usage.english newsgroup that over the years have discussed erstwhile and its meanings.

  17. Dave Rattigan said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 4:57 pm

    I'm still not sure whether TORMENT means TAUNT in quite the specific way I grew up understanding it. Basically, I used to tease my baby cousin, and I'd be warned to "stop tormenting her". Still not sure whether "taunt" is within the semantic range of "torment", or if it was just my aunt. Once you get these meanings in your head, it's really hard to shake them off.

  18. Bobbie said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

    Secret code words for elementary school teachers in the 1980s: If you had a kid in your classroom that acted up all the time, you described it as a "learning experience." And if the kid was totally awful, it became a "dynamic learning experience!" This was code for "brat" and "really obnoxious brat." But "dynamic learning experience" could be said in front of the brat's parents, and usually the parents were none the wiser…

  19. mgh said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

    Until reading this post, I thought "stemwinder" meant a "long tedious speech," with the same invented origin as the one you describe.

    My grandmother, I'm told, used to use "hoi polloi" to mean "too big for your britches," as in "don't you go getting all hoi polloi with me," presumably confusing it with "hoity toity".

    On TV last night I heard someone say "batting down the hatches," which is probably more of an eggcorn (right meaning, wrong word) than the mistakes here (right word, wrong meaning) — though for ones like "spendthrift" I think the line is blurry.

  20. Bloix said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 5:41 pm

    With all due respect, I think you miss the point of the joke, which is that a person who uses the word "classy" is a cheesy person, and therefore the things that that person would think are classy are likely to be cheesy things. So, "he's a classy guy" means that the guy is in fact a jerk. There's no misunderstanding here.

    Other examples: "world-class" means provincial. "Ladies" is an insult. A "gentleman's club" is a club for low-lifes.

    Oh, as you no doubt know – a "stemwinder" was a pocket-watch that had a winder on a stem, an advancement over key-wound watches, and so the word came to mean anything out of the ordinary or first-rate. Why it became obsolete with respect to everything but speeches seems to be a mystery. See, e.g., http://www.slate.com/id/2105971/

  21. Bloix said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

    Ah, I see JW Brewer got there first, and said it better. My hat is off to you, JW.

  22. AJD said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 7:53 pm

    I don't think Cathy's use of "spendthrift" counts as a "private" meaning—it seems to be extremely common. Bert Vaux apparently has an ongoing survey on the meaning of "spendthrift", and so far fully 45% of people have selected the meaning 'a person who doesn't like to spend money'.

    [(amz) So it originated as a private meaning, possibly hit on by a number of people independently, and then spread. The news hasn't reached any standard dictionary yet, as far as I can tell.]

  23. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 8:12 pm

    If you click on the word "booklet" in the post you get to an interesting 1980 publication from Prof. Zwicky that is well worth the reading if you haven't seen it before. But I wonder if I've uncovered a bit of an ancient LL scandal. On p. 33, Prof. Zwicky characterizes the sentence "She gave it to Charlie and I" as a "mistake" because "me" rather than "I" would be "correct." (He diagnoses the "Charlie and I" construction, in fact, as a hypercorrection.) Just between you and I, is that fully consistent with the present LL house position (admittedly almost 3 decades later) on what is and isn't "prescriptivist poppycock"?

  24. Fluxor said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 8:30 pm

    Isn't this similar to "bad" as in "good" or "sick" as in "awesome"?

  25. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 9:21 pm

    I remember my mother being confused by slang my brother would use. If something is "shit", it's bad, but if it's "the shit", it's good. And if it "licks ass", it's bad, but if it "kicks ass", it's good.

  26. Joe Fineman said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 9:59 pm

    I have twice, in my career as a technical copyeditor, encountered authors who use "vertical" to mean horizontal — not with regard to directions, lines, vectors, etc., but only with regard to planes, layers, etc. The idea seems to be that because (say) layers of the atmosphere are stacked vertically, they are vertical layers. It astonishes me that people can have gotten far into their professional lives without becoming aware of the oddity of their usage.

  27. Nathan Myers said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 11:21 pm

    I'm 100% with Bloix. I see "cheesy" as suffering the same process as "classy", in that articles of food with added cheese increases the price of food, but fails to improve it; similarly, gilding to add "class".

  28. Arnold Zwicky said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 11:30 pm

    To J. W. Brewer's extraordinarily pissy comments:

    I wrote something 30+ years ago that is hard to obtain but often requested. I consequently had a .pdf made and arranged to have it put it up on my website. I do not, of course, agree to everything in that publication; many things I would do differently now (I have since, in particular, written about nominative conjoined objects, and no longer treat them as simple hypercorrections — if hypercorrections at all). But if the old version offends, I will happily remove it, and others from those days. Apparently I made a mistake in trying to make old papers available, if doing so is going to make me subject to accusations of inconsistency and hypocrisy.

    I am certainly not in a position to rewrite hundreds of publications from years past. So perhaps the best solution is simply to remove them from the web, and to stop citing them for whatever value they might still have. I will undertake to do this in the next few weeks.

    But mostly I am enraged that this commenter takes what I have have said to be (or to be against) the corporate opinion of the Language Log posters, as if we had some sort of party line on everything. We have no party line on anything. Sometimes we agree, sometimes not. Sometimes we change our minds.

    In any case, it's comments like Brewer's that make me sorry I opened this posting to comments, and indeed sorry that I am posting to Language Log at all. I have my own blog now, and I don't have to deal with crap like this.

  29. Nathan said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 11:51 pm

    I, for one, am grateful that so many academics provide ongoing web access to their publications. I also feel that the benefits of open blog comments far outweigh the cost of trolling and "crap like this". Please reconsider, Dr. Zwicky.

  30. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 28, 2009 @ 11:59 pm

    I apologize profusely to Prof. Zwicky and ask his forgiveness. I do not think that I have the technical capacity to withdraw the comment that offended him, but if he has the capacity at his end to delete it I would be very happy for him to do so.

    [(amz) I do indeed have the ability to delete comments (and to edit them, an ability I use on occasion to silently correct commenters' typos and spelling errors). In this case, I really can't do that, since there's now a whole sub-thread following up on my comment.

    Aside from being nettled by what I took to be a charge of inconsistency, even hypocrisy, I was annoyed that the thread was being hijacked to a discussion of nominative conjoined objects (as well as the beliefs and practices of Language Loggers). There have been several Language Log postings on NomConjObjs, and I have another one in the mill, but this is not the place to discuss the topic.

    I do appreciate the generous apology from J. W. Brewer. And I will not overact by removing material from my website.]

    I enjoyed the old work he linked to, and in fact found in it a reference to an interesting earlier article by other scholars that by googling I was able to find posted in a pdf elsewhere on the internet. I would be sorry for the loss to others if my ill-judged words caused him not to make such material widely available. Again, my deepest apologies.

  31. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 12:03 am

    Seconded. Just ignore those pissy comments. Life's too short. And please keep your old booklet up on the web. I haven't yet read it all!

  32. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 12:06 am

    PS I was seconding Nathan's comments, but I hope you will heed J. W. Brewer's apology and plea for forgiveness too.

  33. comwave said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 12:23 am

    When I clicked the "booklet" link in the thread, I was happily surprised at the resulting pdf file. It was such an INVALUABLE paper. Instinctively I saved it to my computer. A more than 30-year-old academic paper! My impression was "I am encountering a young promising linguist." The pleasure from this sort of experience makes me realize "To live, think and share is truly beautiful!"

    In this age of the Web, I have wintnessed in many sites not a few excessive comments make good people discouraged and upset. But I believe those comments cannot and should not block the beautiful sharing and thinking.

    I think most visitors who enjoy LL and learn from it know the comment by J.W.Brewer went too far. It's quite heartbreaking to hear Prof. Zwicky says he will "happily remove" his old papers from all links. It's truly sad.

  34. comwave said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 12:30 am

    While I was preparing my comment, an apology from J.W.Brewer. had been already posted. I don't think J.W.Brewer had any malign intention, but only a small challenging play to a giant. Please forgive his momentary "going too far."

  35. Dan S said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 12:34 am

    Please, Prof Zwicky, don't take away ANY of your old papers! That paper on errors, in articular, I enjoyed greatly today, and plan to share it with a few people, including my dear but stubbornly-prescriptivist mother.

    I, for one, read the offending comment by J.W. as a generous recommendation of the paper. (Generous not to you but to those lucky enough to take his advice and read the paper.) And I interpreted his observation of "inconsistency" as playful. Maybe trivial. Possibly trite. But not pissy.

    How could anyone resist loving an academic work that cites Faulkner, cummings, Groucho, S. J. Perlman, and toilet-graffiti?

  36. Dan S said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 12:49 am

    If J.W. was indeed misunderstood, then of course that's ironically appropriate to the subject of Prof Z's wonderful booklet.

    But my reason for posting again: Perhaps it's because I'm not at university, and have no opportunity to enjoy debate with fellow linguistics students, that I so enjoy the LL comments. At the risk of lowering the very statistic that I am positing, I'll suggest that LL's comments show one of the best signal-to-noise ratios online.

  37. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 1:04 am

    I also quite appreciated Dr. Zwicky making that 1979 publication of his available on the web. The reason I keep coming back here is that I'm glad there are several linguists interested in making their subject known and making it attractive to the general public.

  38. Bloix said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 10:01 am

    Well, Prof Zwicky managed to make two mistakes in his post – he didn't get the joke, and he provided a false etymology for stemwinder. Then JW Brewer gently – very gently – ribbed him in a friendly way, and Prof Zwicky became all huffy and offended. Very professorial, in fact. I say, zero for conduct to Prof. Zwicky.

    Feel free to delete this, Professor.

  39. sjt said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 11:06 am

    Prof Zwicky, of course it is to everyone's benefit that you provide such materials online, and no one wants you to "overreact" by removing them from your website. But your response here is already an astounding overreaction. JW Brewer's comment was complimentary (read his first sentence again) and archly playful. He may well have owed you his apology for a misjudged joke, but you certainly owe him one for your virulently sarcastic — indeed, "extraordinarily pissy" — response.

  40. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 11:18 am

    I remembered a "private meaning" from my own life. When I was a kid, I was under the misapprehension that the word "concise" meant something like "thorough" or "detailed" or "leaving nothing out", which of course is almost the opposite of the true meaning. My reason for thinking so is that my mother had a copy of "The Concise Oxford Dictionary" on her bookshelf, which may have been more concise than a giant tomelike dictionary, but was certainly more detailed and thorough than the kid-friendly dictionaries I was familiar with.

  41. Arnold Zwicky said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 1:06 pm

    To Bloix (and others):

    First, on the facts about stemwinder: I'm not sure now where I got the "winding the audience up" account, but it seems clearly to be wrong. Here's what Michael Quinion has to say on World Wide Words:

    …in the second half of the nineteenth century, a stem-winder watch was state-of-the-art, something to boast about.

    As a result, by the end of the nineteenth century the term stem-winder had taken on a figurative meaning of something first-rate or excellent. As a further extension it meant something powerful or persuasive, and became attached in particular to somebody who was an effective public speaker or impassioned talker. Later still it was used of the speech itself, if it were entertaining and tub-thumping oratory. Various of these senses were used by writers of the latter part of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, such as Mark Twain, Jack London and O Henry.

    Second, once again, my profound apologies for my reaction to Brewer. I was having a bad day, and feeling pressed, but that's no excuse for taking it out on Brewer.

  42. mollymooly said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 3:04 pm

    When I'm driving my father and he is directing me, he uses the clockface to give the exits from a roundabout [~rotary] (e.g. "take the four o'clock exit").

    Except his "Six o'clock" is my "Twelve o'clock". No, don't explain which of us is right; it won't help.

  43. Stephen Jones said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

    What hasn't been considered is that Zwicky might have been right for 1979 and wrong for now.

    I am getting the impression that 'between you and I' has reached critical mass, and should probably now be accepted as standard and not a hypercorrection. (This pains me greatly since it is a locution I have the most intense dislike off; it comes from parents encouraging one to be educated and then expecting you to speak like Hyacinth Bucket instead of the glowering intellectual one's callow youth had set its sights on).

    It is difficult to prove that it's use has increased since most data for the earlier part of the last century has been subject to proof reading (the Time Corpus which goes back to 1923 has no examples, but that doesn't mean none of its journalists would not spontaneously use it).

    The COCA gives sixteen examples, compared to 153 for 'between you and me'. To me that percentage is verging on acceptability. The BNC on the other hand only gives two examples compared to 46. I'll try and explain why in a minute.

    In French we have the emphatic pronouns, and the first person is 'moi'. French uses the emphatic pronouns after prepostions, and also after the conjunction 'et'.

    In English I believe we do have the same idea, which is why so many people say 'John and me' or 'me and John' in subject position, and why we answer 'It's me' in answer to the question 'who is it?'

    However that is not completely true. Some dialects of Engish (South-Western I believe) have 'I' as the strong form. I believe what is happening is that people feel you should use the strong form after 'and' and for them the strong form is 'I', since they hear 'and I' in subject postion so often. And we are slowly seeing a linguistic change here.

    Now if someone has access to comparative data not subject to interference by proof readers and copy editors, then maybe my idea could be elevated to more than a hunch.

  44. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 6:59 pm

    It does seem very likely that "between you and I" at least originated in hypercorrection.

    This seems all the more likely given that I can scarcely be the only person to remember having my natural "Me and John went …" corrected to "John and I went …" more than once in my childhood, while not recalling very much else in the way of explicit linguistic correction. It's one of those little bits of linguistic folklore. In the UK at least it's also very plainly linked to class consciousness ("My husband and I …").

    There *is* something particularly irritating about hypercorrection compared with other deviations from standard, doubtless for the very sociolinguistic reasons Stephen Jones alludes to.
    (It goes back a long way: Catullus has a whole poem mocking a contemporary not for dropping his H's like a salt-of-the-earth farmer or soldier, but bunging them in where they don't belong, like a horrid parvenu)

    I seem to remember even Leonard Bloomfield objecting to hypercorrections somewhere, but sadly can't locate the reference.

  45. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 29, 2009 @ 10:00 pm

    The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language may be worth quoting here (see page 463):

    "Because these coordinate nominatives are perceived to be associated with avoidance of stigmatised accusatives in subject coordinations they are often described as hypercorrections. This is to imply that they are 'incorrect' . . . [The construction] with _I_ as final coordinate is, however, so common in speech and used by so broad a range of speakers that it has to be recognised as a variety of Standard English, and we will reserve the term hypercorrection for [other] examples . . ."

  46. dr pepper said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 2:19 am

    I read the "Classy" cartoon as the mother noting that soming described that way usually isn't

  47. dr pepper said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 2:22 am

    "Yugo" means "south"? I'd heard it meant "united", which made sense to me as a name for a place with lots of diffferent slavs were.

  48. misterfricative said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 2:26 am

    I suspect there may be any number of these things — semantic eggcorns? as opposed to orthographic eggcorns? — sauntering around in the wild. Several examples spring to mind:

    For years I mistakenly believed that serried (as in 'serried ranks') meant 'full of gaps'. Probably this arose from guessing from context, possibly with some contributory spillover from 'serrated', but really I don't know.

    A more recent, and more consciously self-aware, example would be the British slang 'pants'. I guess this usage started a few years ago now, but when I first encountered the word with this new meaning (IIRC in music/band reviews and comments mostly), I could never figure out from the bald written context (eg 'these guys are pants') whether it meant brilliant (as in 'the cat's pyjamas') or rubbish (as in 'a pair of unsightly underpants').

    And lastly, the lyrics of Jason Mraz's hit 'I'm Yours' have 'It's our God-forsaken right to be loved', where God-forsaken must surely be intended to mean something like 'God-given' (or 'for the sake of God'; as opposed to its actual meaning, ie abandoned by God).

  49. Barbara Partee said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 3:18 am

    When my son Morriss was in 4th grade, they were beginning to learn to proofread and edit their writing, and he brought me a homework essay that started out "Seth and I went to the mall, …", and he pointed at "Seth and I" and said, 'That's the way you spell "me and Seth", right?'

  50. Val said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 10:05 am

    For a few anecdotes about private meanings and other childhood misunderstandings, check out the first act of this episode called A Little Bit of Knowledge, which first aired on NPR's This American Life in 2005.

  51. Bloix said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 10:37 am

    David Eddyshaw – I agree that object "John and I' may be a hypercorrection – but that simply moves the question back a step. Why would anyone use subject "John and me" but never subject "me" by itself? "John and me went to the movies" is "incorrect" but natural. "Me went to the movies" is comic.

  52. Nigel Greenwood said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    @ Bloix: With all due respect, I think you miss the point of the joke, which is that a person who uses the word "classy" is a cheesy person, and therefore the things that that person would think are classy are likely to be cheesy things. So, "he's a classy guy" means that the guy is in fact a jerk.

    This is what the Joycean critic Hugh Kenner refers to as the Uncle Charles principle.

  53. Simon Cauchi said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 11:38 am

    @ dr pepper: "Yugo" means "south"?

    Yes, it does. The cognate Russian word for "south" is юг (yug), which is how I know, having learnt some Russian in my youth. The name Yugoslavia means "the land of the south Slavs".

  54. comwave said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

    @ Bloix: So, "he's a classy guy" means that the guy is in fact a jerk.

    A little confused. Here, who is a jerk, "he" or the speaker?

  55. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 1:22 pm

    Bloix:

    So far as I can analyse my own idiolect by introspection (not a very rigorous process), except when influenced by childhood correction by adults and my adult knowledge how to talk proper:

    For me, unless deliberately using a formal register, "I" is pre-verb phrase subject when standing by itself, "me" everything else.

    Left to my own devices and speaking informally I would say:

    "I went"
    "Me and John went"
    "John and me went"
    "between you and me"
    "It's me".

    Nominative and accusative cases do not exist in my pronoun system; the same rules apply to she/her, he/him, they/them. "Whom" does not exist.

    The formally correct

    "John and I went" sounds nearly as odd to me as the hypercorrect (or whatever) "between you and I", and I only use it because of the effects of school grammar teaching.

    Deviations from this system sound to me pretentious if formally correct but used in the wrong register, wannabe-pretentious if formally incorrect. In the latter case my childhood-derived prejudice is often evidently in fact wrong, as the "between you and I" type is obviously the natural unaffected form for many speakers, just like my "John and me went".

  56. Bloix said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 7:25 pm

    Comwave, you are right, what I wrote is ambiguous. JW Brewer did a clearer job. Let me try again: A and B are new acquaintances. A says to B: "C is a classy guy." B has already formed the tentative opinion that A is a tool. A, by using the word "classy," confirms B's opinion, and further, leads B to infer that C is also a tool.

    NIgel Greenwood- what Kenner calls the "Uncle Charles Principle" appears to me to be what is sometimes called "free indirect style." My knowledge of this comes from David Lodge's lovely little collection of essays, "The Art of Fiction." Lodge thinks it may have been invented by Jane Austin – at least, he says it goes back "at least as far" as Austin..

    David Eddyshaw – so what you're saying is that the difference between "I" and "me" is not subject-object, but stand-alone or compound. That had never occurred to me but it certainly seems correct.

    I say "John and I went," of course, but I have to admit that "John and me went" sounds just fine. "Me and John went" sounds childish or vulgar, but not wrong in the way that "Me went" is wrong. The most natural, least schooled version for me would be John and me, we went."

  57. comwave said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 8:30 pm

    Much clearer. Many thanks to Bloix.

    My inquiry is a typical example of incomplete communications. And my personal point of view is that kind of incomplete communications may be caused by "private meanings." To me, "private meanings" is a sort of "everyone's invisible individual dictionary." This dictionary may cause more miscommunications and misunderstandings than thought. As I have no scientific tools and capabilities to verify the assumption, Prof. Zwicky's further development on the issue would shed lights on people's understanding of the causes of rootless misunderstandings in this world.

    Regarding "John and me went," I have my own analysis which also has no scientific foundation but personal conjecture. When somebody says two subjects in a sentence, I guess he or she thinks the relation between the two subjects and then the relation between the subjects and the verb. This kind of two steps of thinking may resulting "John and me." (E.g. A contraction of "John met me. And we went.") I am not sure whether there's already some scientific findings to support my crude analysis.

  58. comwave said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 8:39 pm

    A critical typo: "may resulting –> may result in". "there's –> there're" (This mousepad on my Eee PC, an Asus netbook, really makes me always worried on typos. Espeically my thumbs are embarrassed when I type.)

  59. marie-lucie said,

    March 30, 2009 @ 8:51 pm

    comwave, you don't need to postulate a contraction of two sentences. "John and me" is correct for everyone in "Mike went with John and me", where "John and me" works as a unit, and this single-unit use of the phrase is extended to other contexts.

  60. RobWeaver said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 12:44 am

    A Russian friend told me that as a child he'd misunderstood the meaning of the traditional Russian greeting Здравствуйте (literally "Be healthy") to be "Eat more" because elder relatives kept shouting it at him during meals while exhorting him to finish his greens and so on. Then when he was an adult he couldn't understand why people he'd just met would immediately tell him he should eat more.

  61. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 1:12 am

    I just remembered another private meaning from my own childhood. I learned the expression "peer pressure" before I learned the word "peer" meaning an equal. Misled perhaps by the similarity between "peer" and words like "sheer" or "pure", I thought "peer" was some sort of intensifying adjective, and didn't realize it told you who the pressure was coming from.

  62. dan piraro said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

    A reader alerted me to this post so I thought I'd check in. As some of the other commentators surmised, my meaning in this cartoon was that so often in modern language, "classy" is used to dress up something "cheesy." A classy gentlemen's club was specifically what I had in mind, but the word is used in myriad places in this same way. It seems to me that when I see the word "classy," it is most likely to mean the opposite.

  63. Alec said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

    Joe Fineman:

    I have twice, in my career as a technical copyeditor, encountered authors who use "vertical" to mean horizontal — not with regard to directions, lines, vectors, etc., but only with regard to planes, layers, etc. The idea seems to be that because (say) layers of the atmosphere are stacked vertically, they are vertical layers.

    Some of these people work at Microsoft. If you ask many Windows applications to "arrange all windows vertically" they will arrange them beside each other in a horizontal row, and "arrange horizontally" means stacked one above the other.

  64. Terry Collmann said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 4:52 pm

    I recently came across a writer – not a native English speaker, I suspect, although their English was generally very good – who used "underscore" as if it meant "undervalue". It's a logical interpretation of the word, I suppose, if you don't know that "to score" originally meant "to make a mark on".

  65. Nigel Greenwood said,

    March 31, 2009 @ 7:19 pm

    Re: "Between you & I" etc. The UK Channel 4 News routinely ends with the phrase "From John & from me, that's Channel 4 News — Good evening!" This formula was presumably chosen so as to offend no one, since it avoids antagonising either diehards or linguistic liberals.

  66. Nathan Myers said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 3:50 am

    Aha, the comic strip author Dan Piraro confirms my (and Bloix's, and Brewer's) interpretation.

    I predict a day when the comic strip authors come to LL to verify that their meaning came through, and a day when the Webcomic Convention awards a trophy for "Most Language Log Placements". Soon they will come to LL to get ideas for their strips.

  67. krum said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 8:09 am

    Show-stopper is an expression that seems to be in a trasitional state with regards to this. The new meaning seems useless to me, while I love the old meaning, it's reasonably rare to be useful.

  68. mae said,

    April 1, 2009 @ 8:13 pm

    I just received a Spam that provides an example of the cheesy meaning of classy. Its subject line was: "We offer you truly undetectable watches which look classy and professional."

    But I think it's "undetectable" that may be an example of private meaning here; that is, private to the spammer.

  69. Simon Cauchi said,

    April 2, 2009 @ 4:03 pm

    Surely "undetectable" here is pretty clear? That's to say, the imitation is claimed to be so good that you can't tell it's not a real Rolex (or whatever).

  70. Bloix said,

    April 3, 2009 @ 10:07 am

    Another "classy":

    In an attempt to prove that Obama is a "tool" because he gave the Queen an iPod, [link] informs us that we were all much better off when the suave, debonaire man of the world George W. Bush was in charge, because his gifts were just so delightfully classy:

    “President and Mrs. Bush gave Her Majesty a bronze statuette “High Desert Princess” with a personal inscription on the bottom of the base. It is a replica of the original life size statue that is located in front of the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Ft. Worth, Texas.”

    And, if you unscrew the head off that statuette, it contains gen-u-wine Texas American sippin' whiskey!

    http://whiskeyfire.typepad.com/

  71. Linda the Copyeditor said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    What a great thread. I guess you have your truly "private" meanings shaped by a context that just happened to occur in one person's life, and then you have fairly common misunderstandings derived from a context that's more widely shared or replicated. I guess that's what happened with the ideas that "nonplussed" = "unfazed" and "prodigal" = "went away and came back again."

    One I've noticed, which I think derives from watching "M*A*S*H," is that "triage" means something like "crisis/bloodshed/emergency." I've met a lot of reporters who think this. I personally once believed, under the influence of some other TV show, that "forensic" meant "having to do with dead people."

  72. Matthew said,

    April 16, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

    Doesn’t “forensic” mean having to do with dead people? I mean, if you’re a doctor who consorts with lawyers, then aren’t you dead to the rest of the profession?

    Linda, I have never met reporters who don’t consider themselves smarter than they are. They are usually dumb as rocks. Indeed, they are encouraged for poor writing, so a misuse of “triage” hardly astounds.

    Although “tearjerker” is not complimentary, it’s not highly pejorative. It connotes something about our own human frailties as much as about the work.

    Philosoraptor, there are so many people whom I wish God would “upbraid”. Of course, since there is no god, I must do it myself.

    Zwicky, I’m glad that you will keep the booklet here & not get too pissy yourself. “Nominative conjoined objects”: That sounds like my adventures every Saturday night.

    Comwave, can one “instinctively” save something to one’s computer? (Just a bit of pissiness myself.)

    S. Jones, I agree with you that “between you & I” is still ugly, but please don’t berate others’ usage before you proof your own remarks.

    D. Eddyshaw, I worry about this self-examination. How do you know what sounds odd to you? In addition, can you precisely trace the cause of the oddness? Isn’t it odder to be looking for what sounds personally odd?

  73. NickB said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 8:32 am

    On similar lines, may grandmother referred to garibaldi biscuits as 'dead fly biscuits' (the dried raisins in them looking like dead flies). I carried on this tradition, but my children believed me and refused to eat them !

  74. Tom S. Fox said,

    July 16, 2011 @ 11:44 pm

    @Christopher Henrich: I know the answer is late, but “pathetic” originally meant “full of pathos.”

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