Archive for June, 2009

"The risk that the taxpayer does not bear a disproportionate burden"

In a recent IMF report on Ireland, point 47 of the "Staff Appraisal" (p. 28), dealing with a proposed "National Asset Management Agency" (aka "Bad Bank"), reads:

47. With regard to NAMA, risk-sharing structures should be considered to address the well-known pricing problem. The pricing of distressed assets is complex and can slow down the transfer of assets from the troubled bank. Risk-sharing can potentially create better incentives for managing the bad assets. And they also guard against the risk that the taxpayer does not bear a disproportionate burden of the costs cleaning up the banks. [emphasis added]

Breffni O'Rourke, who sent in this example of overnegation, comments that "My fear is that they actually mean exactly what they say."

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Ancient Cybertronian text

Tomorrow is the U.S. release of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. (Warning: clicking on that link will cause Linkin Park to start playing the chorus of New Divide through your computer's sound system, which may not be what you want…)

Some parts of the movie were shot here at Penn — including one scene in the Quad, where I live:

In this screenshot from the trailer, the (added by me) red ellipse marks my dining room window, next to which I generally sit while blogging at breakfast. The trailer suggests that I can expect to get cinematically blown to CGI bits along with pretty much every everything else in the movie.

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A head wound from a falling what?

I'm sitting at San Francsico Airport waiting for my ride (my plane came in half an hour early from London — take that, air travel grumblers!), and beside me is a British Airways cabin crew member waiting for a friend. He just told me about a flight he was once on where an overhead bin opened accidentally and a didgeridoo fell out and hit a passenger on the head so hard that medics on the flight recommended he be taken off the flight at the first opportunity to land. It's hard to believe people would take seriously the idea that you were just sitting reading when you suffered a head wound from a falling didgeridoo. On the same flight there had been a case of vomiting, and a passenger who had fouled his pants. At the end of the whole flight the pilot said to the crew, "Let's take stock. We've had a spew, a poo, and a didgeridoo. You couldn't make it up, could you?" And I swear I didn't. Poetry in real life. My flight to California, I'm so glad to say, was much less eventful; nothing to write poetry about.

[This post is uncategorized, and I really think it has to be. If our system of categories allowed it, I would mark it "uncategorizable".]

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The first proposal for "Ms." (1901)

It's been a long time coming, but I'm happy to report on an important linguistic discovery: the earliest known proposal for Ms. as a title for a woman regardless of her marital status. The suggestion for filling "a void in the English language" appeared in the Springfield (Mass.) Republican on November 10, 1901, and was reprinted and discussed by other newspapers around the country. I had been on the trail of this item for a few years, and plumbing digitized newspaper databases finally revealed the original use.

You can read all about it in my latest Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus.

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Quoting from the new blog The Translation and Interpretation Intitiative for Iranian Protesters:

The Translation and Interpretation Initiative for Iranian Protesters (TIIIP) is an ad hoc initiative to produce free, publication-ready translations and high-quality interpretations of the written and spoken communication streaming out of Iran in the Farsi (Persian) language in the form of e-mails, YouTube videos, Facebook entries, press releases, etc.

The work is being done at the translate4iran wiki. The biggest need is for people who can translate from Persian into English, but they add that

Please recall that you don’t have to be a Farsi translator or even a Farsi bilingual to help! We desperately need help from English writers, editors, proofreaders, publication relations professionals, techies, geeks, and administrative personnel. There is a role for everyone!

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Conferenece of dunces

From a conference on the theme "Building the New Majority", sponsored by Pat Buchanan's organization The American Cause, and featuring a panel discussion on English-only initiatives:

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Experiencing language death

Usarufa speakers experience the webUsarufa is a language of Papua New Guinea with just 1200 speakers (ISO-639 code "usa").  There's no fluent speakers under the age of 25, so the language must be considered moribund.  Before posting recordings of this language online, I needed to get informed consent, so I introduced some speakers to the World Wide Web.  We poked around for a while, finding useful sites about about insecticides for dealing with the taro beetle.  Then we turned our attention to audio.

I played them a recording of the "last words" of the Jiwarli language of Western Australia.  After some questioning looks I explained that this language is now dead, and we were listening to its last speaker before he died.  As one they all looked down, shaking their heads in disbelief and saying sorry, sorry, sorry….  It was as if I told them a mutual friend had died.  They urged me to put that recording on a cassette tape so they could take it back to their village.  That way, everyone would surely understand what will happen to the Usarufa language unless there are serious attempts to revitalize it.

I wasn't prepared for the intensity of their response.  Now I'm wondering if a collection of such recordings might be a useful tool in promoting language revitalization, and also in explaining the concept of language archiving.  (Thanks to Ima'o Ta'asata, James Warebu, Sivini Ikilele, and Waks Mark for their dedication to the preservation of Usarufa oral culture, and to Aaron Willems and SIL-PNG for facilitating this work.)

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Annals of Passivity

We've noted, more than once, that the grammatical meaning of "passive voice" is pretty much dead in popular usage, while the ordinary-language meaning, struggling to be born, remains inchoate, a sludgy mixture of dessicated grammatical residues and vaguely sexualized associative goo. Sometimes passive voice is used to mean "vague about who's at fault", which seems to be the grammatical sense gone adrift; sometimes it means "listless, energyless, lacking in vigor", which is one of the more general, non-grammatical senses of passive; sometimes it seems to mean "on the fence, not taking sides", which is a sort of transmuted combination of the two.

Recently, I've come across several additional pieces for the collection.

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Grammar grouch elected speaker?

A political reporter remarked on BBC Radio 4 this morning that the 157th speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, elected last night, is much hated by many members of his own party (the Conservatives). Among other things, when they are giving speeches he sometimes mutters under his breath and "corrects their grammar." Not a good sign. Nobody likes a grumpy grammar pedant.

(Except that just about all American intellectuals all seem to be in love with Strunk and White, of course; but set that aside — I believe I may have mentioned them in one or two previous Language Log posts.)

[Update: Bercow's grammatical interventions have in fact not been merely sotto voce mutterings. An excellent post at Joel Segal Books gives evidence that he has been recorded in Hansard as taking up the time of the House with grammatical peevery. More public money being wasted as paid members pontificate about supposed grammatical slips in the speeches of other paid members. Parliament is in a worse state than I thought.]

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There are a bunch of insulting sk- words — scummy, scurvy, scruffy, scuzzy, sketchy come to mind. And everybody, even a snoot, seems to like negative-vibe phonetic symbolism. So if you try to make up a new word on this general pattern, say "skudgy", you'll probably find that many others have been there before you: "…by the next time we drag them out for bath-time play, we find that a skudgy sort of water is dispelled from the interior"; "The poet noted that the garage had a 'skudgy down-to-earth-ness'". Maybe skudgy is just a portmanteau of scummy and sludgy, or maybe we need to recognize the resonance with other words like scuzzy and dingy; but in any case, it's out there, waiting to be re-invented.

And that's how I reacted to the last word in today's Tank McNamara:

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Out of pocket

The governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, has been missing since Thursday ("SC governor's whereabouts unknown, even to wife", Associated Press, 6/22/2008).   The linguistic hook here is the way that his spokesman, Joel Sawyer, described his status ("Have you see [sic] this man? SC GOV, MIA", MSNC, 6/22/2009):

The governor put in a lot of time during this last legislative session, and after the session winds down it's not uncommon for him to go out of pocket for a few days at a time to clear his head. Obviously, that's going to be somewhat out of the question this time given the attention this particular absence has gotten. [emphasis added]

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I before E

There was a brief brouhaha this week over the UK government's guidance to schools in a pamphlet called "Support For Spelling" aimed at elementary schools. The familiar spelling rule that says "i before e except after c", according to the document, "is not worth teaching". The reason is supposed to be that it doesn't account for words like "sufficient", "veil", and "their". The discussion about it on Radio 4 was just about the most stupid I have ever heard on a serious national talk station. There was a man who equated abandonment of the teaching of this rule with the abandonment of rules altogether; there was an outright claim that English has no rules at all; there was a woman (a senior lecturer in education) who appeared to think that believe was a counterexample, when of course it complies; there was an interviewer who seemed to be pushing the interviewees to talk about whether spelling should be taught at all…

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Septic poetry

I once wrote a Language Log post called This isn't poetry, this is abuse. It was about a poem that had been sent to me by my mortgage company. I don't know why a mortgage company in 2004 was dabbling in poetry instead of inventing new sub-prime mortgage-based securities that could go off like time bombs under the entire banking establishment in 2008, but the results were pretty terrible. About as bad as poetry gets, I thought, except perhaps for Vogon poetry, and the two bodies of poetic art that are claimed in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to have been even worse — those of the Azgoths of Kria and Paul Neil Milne Johnstone). I was wrong. A company in Perthshire specializing in septic tanks and biowaste macerators (shitgrinders, to put it bluntly) supplies customers with a poem that is considerably worse. Bad enough that you really don't want to see it. Don't read on. Go somewhere else. Read something pleasant and interesting instead. You really do not want to see a poem about excrement disposal technology.

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