I've added two new sites to our blogroll, both well worth regular visits:
In this blog, named for the dictionary-maker Samuel Johnson, our correspondents write about the effects that the use (and sometimes abuse) of language have on politics, society and culture around the world
Crikey’s very own language blog for discerning word nerds. Sit back and enjoy the spectacle of Australian linguists getting all hot and bothered about the way we communicate.
Last week A.T., an American colleague, tackled me, a Brit, about the title of this blog. Never has the nostrum about Britain and America being "two countries separated by a common language" seemed truer:
A.T.: I don't like the name Johnson.
G.L.: What would you suggest?
A.T.: Well, for instance, Fowler, who wrote the great guide to English usage.
G.L.: What's the advantage of Fowler over Johnson?
A.T.: Well, it doesn't mean dick.
G.L.: Hold on—are you saying you prefer Fowler, or Johnson?
G.L.: But is Fowler well-known in America?
A.T.: No, but nor is Johnson.
G.L.: So if Fowler doesn't mean dick to Americans and nor does Johnson, why is Fowler better?
A.T.: But it does mean dick.
G.L.: Fowler does?
A.T.: No, Johnson.
At this point light dawned, and I realised that A.T. was trying to communicate one problem, while I, thinking myself a connoisseur of American slang, had understood another. In fact both were true: the trouble with "Johnson" is that while Brits know the name well, to Americans it both doesn't mean dick and does mean "dick". Fowler, on the other hand, may not mean "dick" to Americans, but to my mind it doesn't really mean dick to anybody. So I proposed that we stop dicking around and simply explain, at the top right of the page, who Johnson was, so that even if it still means "dick", at least it no longer doesn't mean dick. I hope that's now clear to everyone.
Note that this illustrates the role of dick as a "minimal object", which can become a negative particle through the process that John Lawler has called "negation by association" (see e.g. "Most of the people in the world could care less", 7/16/2004). As a result, the reported conversation might have become even more confusing, since in general to VERB MINIMAL-OBJECT means not to VERB MINIMAL-OBJECT.
Thus the page "Fashion tips for women from a guy who knows dick about fashion"; or this quote from James Cayne, reported in William Cohan's House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street:
Managing partner of the firm means dick to me. I didn't take any orders from him. I had nothing to do with the guy.
In fact, in this particular case, I think that "doesn't mean dick" would count as a double negative, and therefore would be a non-standard form unlikely to be used either by Cohan's I-banker or The Economist's American colleague.
Fully (sic) is written by a bunch of linguistics grad students from Oz — can they match this subtle mix of politics, language, and culture? Well, here's the start of Piers Kelly's 6/9/2010 post "Rats from a sinking summit":
David Marr is probably spewing that almost all the attention on his Quarterly Essay is focused on Rudd’s flamboyant obscenities at the Copenhagen summit. What was it that our sombre and mealy mouthed PM was alleged to have said? (I’m quoting here from the extract because I don’t yet have access to the original):
“Those Chinese fuckers are trying to rat-fuck us,” declared Kevin Rudd.
In this mood, he’d been talking about countries “rat-fucking” each other for days. Was a deal still possible, asked one of the Australians.
“Depends whether those rat-fucking Chinese want to fuck us.”
So far as I can recall I have never heard rat-fuck or rat-fucking before and I immediately assumed that K-Rudd had thought it up on the spot – a surreal obscenity from a tired and frustrated leader who’d staked his reputation on climate action and a new relationship with China.
But dictionaries have more to say on the dubious practice of rat-fucking. The OED locates the first printed use of ‘rat-fuck’ in 1920s America, and it's been spotted in published US sources right up until the present decade. The F Word, a 1995 reference work on “the most controversial word in the English language”, has even more examples. My agents behind the apple-pie curtain have observed its continued use in spoken American English. So what exactly does it mean?
You'll have to read the rest of Piers Kelly's post to learn the answer. (And even those of us behind the apple-pie curtain may learn something about the origins and progress of rat-fucking.)
But this reminds me of different sort of speech, in a different language, by a different politician, without any rats, but with a… well, anyhow, take a look at "Begin arming Israel", 12/17/2004.