Archive for Semantics

Feeling wet

Yesterday in one of my classes, a female student from China said that she didn't like to exercise in the morning because she felt "wet".  At first, I couldn't believe my ears, so I asked her, "Did you say 'wet'?"  "Yes," she said, "wet".  I couldn't understand in what way she would feel "wet" in the morning and how that would prevent her from doing exercises.

We wouldn't use the English word "wet" to describe a morning condition that would discourage us from doing exercises, so I tried to think of other related words (synonyms or near-synonyms for "wet") that would work better.  "Logy"? "sodden"? "heavy"?  But I couldn't come up with any equivalent words that would fit the bill.  I specifically was disinclined to choose the word "shī 濕", which literally does mean "wet", but didn't believe that's what she meant because it would signify something like "drenched", "dripping", "soaked", not a systemic condition of the body, unless it means something in traditional Chinese medicine that I'm not aware of.

I puzzled over this conundrum for a while without making any significant progress, so today I sent her an e-mail asking the following question:  "What Chinese word / concept did you have in mind when you said you felt 'wet' in the morning"?

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When "irrelevant" is not "not relevant"

Evan Boehs, "Everything I Know About the Xz Backdoor", 3/29/2024:

In April 2022, Jia Tan submits a patch via a mailing list. The patch is irrelevant, but the events that follow are.

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Ask Language Log: Manchu Blue Dragon

Continuing our series on dragons, this note and illustration come from Juha Janhunen, the Finnish linguist:

Happy Blue Dragon Year to everybody! Below is the official flag (1889-1912) of the Manchu Empire (in the west misleadingly known as "China"), which happens to have a blue dragon on it. Manchu muduri 'dragon' still seems to lack an external etymology. Any suggestions?

(See at the very bottom of this post for a possible connection to "otter".)

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Normative language

A matter that requires nuancing: Jinyi Kuang and Cristina Bicchieri, "Language matters: how normative expressions shape norm perception and affect norm compliance", Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2024:

Abstract: Previous studies have used various normative expressions such as ‘should’, ‘appropriate’ and ‘approved’ interchangeably to communicate injunctions and social norms. However, little is known about whether people's interpretations of normative language differ and whether behavioural responses might vary across them. In two studies (total n = 2903), we find that compliance is sensitive to the types of normative expressions and how they are used. Specifically, people are more likely to comply when the message is framed as an injunction rather than as what most people consider good behaviour (social norm framing). Behaviour is influenced by the type of normative expression when the norm is weak (donation to charities), not so when the norm is strong (reciprocity). Content analysis of free responses reveals individual differences in the interpretation of social norm messages, and heterogeneous motives for compliance. Messages in the social norm framing condition are perceived to be vague and uninformative, undermining their effectiveness. These results suggest that careful choice of normative expressions is in order when using messages to elicit compliance, especially when the underlying norms are weak.

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Another garden path

…this one in a headline — Toby Helm, "Sadiq Khan: 'Free young people from Brexit work and travel ban", The Guardian 1/20/2024.

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Garden path of the day

Kate Riga and Nicole Lafond, "Congress Boots The Government Funding Can Down The Road, Again", Talking Points Memo 1/18/2024:

Under pressure from an impending snowstorm (translation for non-D.C. weather babies: a predicted couple-inch sprinkling), both chambers of Congress Thursday passed a continuing resolution to keep the government funded until early March.

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Semi-compositional compounds of the week

I've previously written more than once about the problem of compound words whose meaning is partly but not entirely related to the meanings of their parts, often referring back to a passage in my 1992 chapter with Richard Sproat, "The Stress and Structure of Modified Noun Phrases in English":

We now turn to N0 compounds where a paraphrase links the two words in the compound with a predicate not implicit in either one. We are limiting this category to endocentric compounds, so that their English paraphrase will be something like 'an N1 N2 is an N2 relative-clause-containing-N1,' e.g., 'an ankle bracelet is a bracelet that is worn on the ankle,' or 'rubbing alcohol is alcohol that is used for rubbing'. The range of predicates implied by such paraphrases is very large. Since this type of compound-formation can be used for new coinages, any particular compound will in principle be multiply ambiguous (or vague) among a set of possible predicates.

Consider hair oil versus olive oil. Ordinarily hair oil is oil for use on hair, and olive oil is oil derived from olives. But if the world were a different way, olive oil might be a petroleum derivative used to shine olives for added consumer appeal, and hair oil might be a lubricant produced by recycling barbershop floor sweepings.

Today's examples come from a Xeet due to Dr. Laura Grimes and Dead Soul Poetry:

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Just sayin'

The third verse of Ben Sidran's song Can We Talk (track 5 on the 2013 album Don't Cry For No Hipster) repeats the couplet "I'm not sayin'; I'm just sayin'":

This reminded me of a LLOG Post of Yore: "Just sayin'", 1/11/2012, which tried to answer a question about the meaning and origins of that phrase.

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"Jobs requiring a degree and above-average earnings"?

Richard Adams and Subrey Allegretti, "Sunak to force English universities to cap numbers of students on ‘low-value’ degrees", The Guardian 7/14/2023:

Rishi Sunak will force universities to limit the number of students taking “low-value” degrees in England, a measure which is most likely to hit working class and black, Asian and minority ethnic applicants.

Courses will be capped that do not have a high proportion of graduates getting a professional job, going into postgraduate study or starting a business, the prime minister will announce on Monday. […]

The numbers cap is unlikely to affect the bulk of courses offered by Oxbridge or Russell Group universities, whose students tend to go on to “highly skilled” jobs requiring a degree and above-average earnings.

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"The beautiful mind paper boxes"

The most recent Trump indictment reproduces this exchange of text messages (p. 11) :

Trump Employee 2:

We can definitely make it work if we move his
papers into the lake room?

Trump Employee 1:

There is still a little room in the shower where his
other stuff is. Is it only his papers he cares about?
Theres some other stuff in there that are not papers.
Could that go to storage? Or does he want everything
in there on property

Trump Employee 2:

Yes – anything that's not the beautiful mind paper
boxes can definitely go to storage. Want to take a
look at the space and start moving tomorrow AM?

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"Master the essence of solid"

From the website for Royal China Group, a famous Chinese restaurant group in London:

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TEAR here

The hotel where I'm staying in Morgantown, West Virginia kindly gave me a complimentary rectangular packet of freshmint toothpaste.  At the top right corner of the packet, there was a dotted, diagonal line with the words "TEAR HERE" printed above it.  Alas, no matter how hard I tried, I could not tear it open.

Then I thought that maybe I could RIP it open by pulling on the serrations along the upper edge of the packet.  No luck.

Then I tried to BITE and GNASH the packet with my teeth.  Abject failure.

Of course, I've been through all of this countless times before, and not just with toothpaste, but with packets of ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, and all sorts of other things.  It is especially dismaying when — after making a supreme effort — the packet bursts open and the contents spurt all over the place, including your clothing.  The worst case is when soy sauce flies out and drips everywhere.

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kempt and sheveled

From François Lang:

I did not know you'd invented "topolect" and "character amnesia"!
Now…since you have a predilection for naming heretofore unnamed things, I am wondering if you could work your linguistic magic to describe words like "unkempt" and "disheveled", which appear far more often than their equivalent without the negative prefix.

I hope that pushes some linguistic buttons (assuming, of course, that no such word actually exists!).

The best I've come up with is "arhizomorphic", but I'm sure you and your Language Log groupies can do better!

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