Archive for July, 2008

Barrack Abeam and John moccasin

Dino Capiello, "Gore: Carbon-free electricity in 10 years doable", AP 7/17/2008:

Gore told the AP he hoped the speech would contribute to "a new political environment in this country that will allow the next president to do what I think the next president is going to think is the right thing to do." He said both fellow Democrat Barrack Abeam and Republican rival John moccasin are "way ahead" of most politicians in the fight against global climate change.

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Reading Arnold Zwicky and Mark Liberman talking about when something is a real in-the-dictionary word (see the last two posts here), I was reminded of an occasion one summer a long time ago when I watched a nervous international student giving her first presentation to a graduate phonology class at a Linguistic Society of America Linguistic Institute. The student's hesitancy was enhanced by the presence of two extremely famous phonologists, MIT professor Morris Halle and Linguistic Inquiry editor Samuel Jay Keyser. The student was referring to a phonological alternation whereby certain vowels became consonants in certain phonetic environments, and called this consonantalization. She stammered over the word, and asked, uncertain of her command of English, "Is that a word?"

"Yes!" said Keyser very firmly, without a second's hesitation. "It used to be called Istanbul."

I don't know if the resultant gale of laughter relaxed the nervous student a little. I hope so. But I know I still remember the laugh many years later.

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Arnold Zwicky complained yesterday about people who take dictionaries as defining rather than documenting the existence of words ("In the dictionary or not", 7/27/2008). But sometimes, people take their own reactions as definitive, even when dictionaries disagree. Writing on Saturday about Lito Sheppard's contract dispute with the Philadelphia Eagles, Les Bowen went with a linguistic lede:

Granted, "disappreciation" might not be an actual word, but it was what Lito Sheppard came up with to characterize the Eagles' handling of him yesterday, and, syntax aside, his point was clear.

Technically, the evaluation of wordhood belongs to lexicography or morphology, not syntax. But in fact, Lito's choice is sanctioned by the OED, on the authority of none other than Noah Webster.

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In the dictionary, or not

There's a long tradition of popular peeving about dictionaries and what they have entries for: non-standard items, slang, taboo words, slurs, and so on. The complaint is that by listing these items the dictionaries are recognizing them as acceptable in the language, are "condoning" them (even when the items have appropriate usage labels attached to them). The complainers' position is that these items simply are "not words" of the language, an idea I have criticized here once, and plan to do so again.

The underlying idea is that dictionaries should be directive and prescriptive — authorities on how people SHOULD speak and write. Lexicographers do not, of course, think that way, though they are not in general opposed to the offering of advice on language use; it's just not what they do.

The underlying idea surfaces in another way, in criticisms of usages that are perceived to be (and actually may be) innovative on the grounds that they are "not in the dictionary". William Safire took up one of these in his "On Language" column last Sunday (20 June): inartful.

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May contain nuts

A comment by Frank on my "Correcting misinformation" posting:

Whether or not peanuts are nuts or not, the statement "May contain nuts" on the package cannot be rendered untrue. It could just as easily read "May contain chicken feathers" and still be true. They didn't say it did, just that it "may".

The background… Lloyd & Mitchinson had claimed in The Book of General Ignorance:

Peanuts… are not nuts. So the legendary health warning on a packet of peanuts ("may contain nuts") is, strictly speaking, untrue.

and I noted:

Obviously, peanuts must count as nuts for legal purposes (hence the health warning), so botany is not the only source of technical definitions.

Now Frank has taken us away from the question of what nut means to the question of what may means (or, rather, conveys).

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It shall be our unity that overcomes

At first, the email seemed like the only literate and competently designed phishing lure that I've ever received.  Most of them are obviously written by people who could never pass a TOEFL exam, and have no idea how a bank or an airline or a shipping company addresses its customers. But this message, which arrived under the Subject line "Beat Obama at NO COST to YOU" seemed pretty professional, and even had some competent graphics:

Still, I saw two clues that persuaded me it was a scam, designed to get me to click through to a site that would harvest my personal information for criminal purposes and turn my computer into a zombie tool of international racketeers.

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Philip Parker's House of Words

Something is rotten in Fontainebleau, and it isn't the cheese. There, a business professor and entrepreneur named Philip M. Parker INSEAD Chair Professor of Management Science at INSEAD, is creating a publishing empire of sorts, a very odd publishing empire. He claims to have published over 200,000 titles.

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Spitzer's e-mail

Yesterday's NYT had a piece on Eliot Spitzer's e-mail while governor of New York: "Governor's Angry Moods Pour Forth in E-Mails", by Jeremy W. Peters (p. A17):

On e-mail he was "Laurence," [his middle name] a sloppy typist who often dashed off messages in fits, riddling them with typos, misspellings and terse abbreviations.

A sample of his on-line style, as printed in the Times:

"Why has the state pty not out out a full list if bruno fundraising and 1199 support for him etc as a way to respond to the fundraising bs?"

(The reference was to a Spitzer campaign to tarnish the reputation of Joseph L. Bruno, then the State Senate majority leader, in retaliation for attacks on Spitzer by Bruno.)

A few comments on his e-mail style…

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The happiness gap returns

Some more sociological platonism: Tamsin Osborne ("Are men happier than women?", New Scientist, 7/25/2008) explains that "I've just received the rather troubling news that I am doomed to be unhappy in later life". This turns out to mean that she will have a (very) slightly less than even chance of being in the happiest half of a gender-balanced sample of Americans older than 50 or so — and her way of expressing this is a typical (and thus interesting) example of the journalistic (and perhaps scientific?) tendency to turn small group differences into essential group characteristics.

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Correcting misinformation

I'm something of a fan of books that correct misinformation — about facts in general, about famous quotations, about medical matters, and so on. Among my latest acquisitions is John Lloyd and John Mitchinson's The Book of General Ignorance: Everything You Think You Know Is Wrong (2006) (with a foreword by Stephen Fry — yes, THAT Stephen Fry), a compendium of 230 misperceptions originally collected for the BBC panel game QI (Quite Interesting). As far as I can tell, it's pretty good (see some reservations below), but it has one serious defect: very few sources or references are given for the claims in the book. Lloyd and Mitchinson mostly just tell us what's so, and there's no way for us to check up on what they say. They do a good job on the Eskimo words for snow (p. 120), but how is the reader to know that what they claim (against "common knowledge") is right?

I've complained about such lack of scholarship at the low end of the literature on word and phrase origins, in particular Albert Jack's appalling Red Herrings and White Elephants (which I trashed here). But it's startling to see it in a book that purports to be authoritative.  And other recent misinformation-correcting books do considerably better: see Anahad O'Connor's Never Shower in a Thunderstorm ("surprising facts and misleading myths about our health and the world we live in") from 2007 and Nancy L. Snyderman's Medical Myths That Can Kill You ("and the 101 truths that will save, extend and improve your life"), published this year.

Now I'll turn to the coverage of language-related questions in The Book of General Ignorance.

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To serve is to rule

Today's Dilbert:


Yet another variation on the 1951 Damon Knight theme.

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Pop platonism and unrepresentative samples

A few days ago, Arnold Zwicky expressed some annoyance at the New Scientist's cover story of July 19 ("Sex on the Brain", 7/22/2008). Arnold couldn't stand "to reflect on yet another chapter in this story", and I'm not especially enthusiastic about this either, especially because as far as I can tell, the New Scientist's story lacks any news hook. But this case raises a couple of points about the rhetoric of science journalism (and sexual science) that are worth making yet again, even though they've been made many times before.

Hannah Hoag's story appears under a headline that's really strange, if you think about it for a minute: "Brains apart: The real difference between the sexes". The implication is that all that stuff about genitals and the uterus, breasts and facial hair and larynx and so on, are fake or at least superficial differences — the "real difference" is in the brain. Furthermore, if the neurological differences are so much realer than all those differences in other body parts, then male and female brains must be really different, right?

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Commercial categories

An e-mail ad from (purveyors of goods to the gay community) appeared on my screen a few days ago. Well, the top part, offering 20% off on PERSONAL PLEASURES, appeared there. 

So: an ad for a photo book? A DVD? A music CD? Gay fiction? An advice book on gay sex? All of these were possible, and more (but not everything; 10 Per Cent doesn't offer escort services or massage, for instance). But it turned out to be an ad for a category of products roughly characterizable as '(gay) sex accessories'.

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