Archive for Usage

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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At the rind of the debate

Here are a couple of puzzling word-choices from Charlatan Magazine, sent to me by someone who was somehow put on their mailing list.

This one is from "The Politics of Immigration", 3/3/2024 [emphasis added]:

While Biden patrols the Texas border (taking a wide berth around the impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas) he assuages the American voter whose ire toward illegal immigrants under his presidency has doubled. “There were 49.5 million foreign-born residents in the United States (legal and illegal) in 2023,” according to the Center for Immigration Statistics, and the foreign-born population has grown by 4.5 million under Biden's exegesis.

My correspondent identified "exegesis" as a malapropism, but we couldn't figure out what it might be a substitution for. I guess the author might have meant something like "Biden's interpretation (of immigration policy)", though there's nothing else in the article to raise the question of alternative interpretations of such laws or policies.

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From Jeff DeMarco:

This is the de Young Museum in San Francisco, doubling down the -x construction for Spanish: Bienvenidxs.

Are most Spanish speakers ok with this?

I also note that none of the Chinese language materials use simplified characters (viz., huānyíng 歡迎 but not 欢迎).  Is this a snub against the mainland? They do feature a dress made up of images of Mao….

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Degendering "maestro"

Masterful essay by the Music Director of Symphony Nova Scotia.

"Maestro, Maestra, or Holly?"

We asked our Music Director Holly Mathieson how she prefers to be referred to on the podium!

Her reply may surprise you — or not:

The earliest record we have of the Italian term Maestro in connection to music is from 1724 (maestro di cappella, which translates as Master of the Chapel, similar to the German Kapellmeister). By the end of that century, there is evidence of it being used more generally in Italy as a single word, referring to a master or great teacher of music, or a composer. Etymologically, it shares its roots with the Latin magister, the offshoots of which include the musical term Maestoso, which instructs us to play majestically or in a stately manner, as well as more common language descendants such as magisterial and magistrate, words which connect to ideas of qualified authority.

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Recently, we've had occasion to discuss how waitpersons in restaurants tend to say "perfect" no matter what we order (see, for instance, in the comments here).  Lately, I've noticed how the craze for perfection has spread to the grocery business.

I have a habit of carrying cash (my Chinese students barely know what cash is) around in a change purse (for coins and dollar bills) and a billfold for fives, tens, and twenties.  When it comes to paying, I have two general rules of thumb:

1. If possible, I like to pay the exact amount of the bill

2. I like to get rid of an excess of heavy change and bulky dollar bills that rapidly accumulate in my purse

To meet both of those desiderata, that sometimes entails fussing around a bit to count out the right amount.  It might mean that I end up giving the cashier slightly more than the exact amount.  Sometimes I even come up a penny or two or three short, in which case the cashier might make it up from the kitty.  No matter what, they almost always say "perfect" — especially  if I give them the precise amount owed, or close to it.

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Hyper-inclusive Speaker-exclusive we

Yesterday evening in a restaurant, our attentive server frequently asked us things like "Are we ready to order" and "How are we doing?". This waiter-we is pretty common, so I didn't notice it, though one of the other diners did. But when another server brought us a complimentary bit of sushi with the explanation "Here's some unagi for us", that was striking enough to prompt a bit of discussion. Among the three of us at the table, I thought that the we uses were normal but the "for us" was unexpected; another one of us saw all examples of waiter-we as weird and annoying; and the third, a native speaker of Russian, said that in Russian it's called (in translation) the "mom we".

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Mental anguish from having too many English words in Japanese

One thing I revel in about the English language is the huge number of loanwords it has:  French, Latin, Greek, Native American, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Kurdish, Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, Russian, German, Spanish, Italian, Irish, Swedish, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, Japanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Maori, Hebrew, Yiddish, Afrikaans, Zulu, Swahili, and so on and on and on.  English has words from more than 350 languages, and they amount to 80% of our total vocabulary. (source)  Not to worry, however, that English will lose its innate identity, since around 70 % of words in a typical text derive from Old English. (source)

I've also long admired Japanese for its rich assemblage of foreign words, perhaps next to English in having the largest proportion of borrowings.  That's quite the opposite of written Sinitic, which has relatively few recognizable foreign words for a major language.  I attribute the difference to Japan having the easy ability to borrow words phonetically via kana and rōmaji ローマ字 ("Roman letters"), whereas the morphosyllabic Sinoglyphic script has not yet developed an officially sanctioned standard for transcribing loanwords directly into Chinese texts.  Informally (on the internet, in private correspondence, etc.), however, writing in China is gradually moving toward a digraphia of Sinoglyphs and the Roman alphabet.  (See the second part of "Selected readings" below.)

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Share your language

If you can't make up your mind what to do about something, then in French you would say "je suis partagé":  I'm torn or divided over it.  You can't decide what to do about it.  You can't make up your mind whether to be pleased or angry with something.  But the verb "partager" means "to share".  So how do we get from "share" to "torn"?

Etymology tells us that partager is from partage +‎ -er, i.e., Displaced partir in the sense of "to share, to divide", e.g.,
Nous allons partager les bénéficesWe are going to share the benefits


My attention was drawn (see below) to this subject by the following editorial in today's The Yomiuri Shimbun:

Japanese Language Survey:

As Words Constantly Evolve, Let’s Share Them Across Generations


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It's so hard to say "goodbye" in Chinese

From a photo sharing group on Facebook:

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The scatology and physiology of push and pull

Having just written about "Drainage issues" (6/25/23), with a graphic depiction of what causes the problem with the drainage system in question, I am emboldened finally to answer a question that one of my graduate students has been asking about for several years.  Namely, why do Chinese say "pull poo / shit / excrement" (lāshǐ 拉屎 / lā dàbiàn 拉大便)?  What's the logic of that usage?  How can one pull excrement when one defecates?  Wouldn't it make more sense to say "push" (tuī )?  Think about it.  A bowel movement involves peristalsis,

the involuntary constriction and relaxation of the muscles of the intestine or another canal, creating wave-like movements that push the contents of the canal forward.
(Oxford Languages on Google; emphasis added)

And what do doctors (and husbands) always say to a woman in labor?  "Push", of course.  And the baby comes out from the birth canal.

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"Literally CVS"

In at least two recent interviews, Eric Trump has objected to his father's recent indictment by complaining about the lack of prosecutorial attention to the factors leading NYC drugstores (he says) to lock up Tylenol and Advil. On Fox News:

And this is a city — I spend a lot of time in New York —
that is falling apart. I went into literally CVS the other day
and you can't buy Tylenol because it's locked behind these
glass counters

And on NewsMax:

I went to Duane Reade the other day
and literally you can't buy Advil in Duane Reade
without having somebody come up with a key and unlock
you know those little plastic things that you pick up

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The French?

Roger Cohen, "The French Want to Remain The French", NYT 1/27/2023:

As an exercise in style, the tweet from The Associated Press Stylebook appeared to strain taste and diplomacy: “We recommend avoiding general and often dehumanizing ‘the’ labels such as the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled, the college educated.”

At least it looked offensive to the French, or perhaps rather to people of Frenchness, or people with Gallic inclinations, or people under the influence of French civilization. The French noted that they had been placed between the “mentally ill” and the “disabled.”

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TIL: You can 'eke out' a bad situation

I've always associated the phrase eke out with cases where what's eked out is something good. That's the implication of the Merriam-Webster entry:

1: to make up for the deficiencies of : SUPPLEMENT
eked out his income by getting a second job
2: to make (a supply) last by economy

And similarly from the Wiktionary entry:

1. (transitive) To supplement.
The old man eked out his pension by selling vegetables from his garden.
2. (transitive) To obtain with difficulty or effort.
He eked out a living selling vegetables from the garden.

Wiktionary's etymology supports this view:

From obsolete eke (“to add to, augment; to increase”) + out.

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