Archive for August, 2009

Annals of offense-finding

From the Times Online of August 23, under the head "Quangos blackball … oops, sorry … veto 'racist' everyday phrases", a story that begins:

It could be construed as a black day for the English language — but not if you work in the public sector.

Dozens of quangos and taxpayer-funded organisations have ordered a purge of common words and phrases so as not to cause offence.

Among the everyday sayings that have been quietly dropped in a bid to stamp out racism and sexism are “whiter than white”, “gentleman’s agreement”, “black mark” and “right-hand man”.

Details to follow, but first a word about quangos, for readers unfamiliar with the term.

(Hat tip to Danny Bloom.)

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Please be careful

Not only are the stereotypical Japanese fastidiously clean,  they are also extraordinarily polite.  They will not just tell you to be careful not to endanger yourself.  They will be sure to preface the warning with a "please" (actually the word for "please" in Japanese, KUDASAI, comes at the end of the sentence).

In today's Japan mail (from Kathryn Hemmann) come two signs, one warning, "Please Be Careful to Strong Sunlight" and the other, "Please be careful to traffic."

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Walking into a buzzsaw

Michael Bulley made a profoundly incautious comment in a discussion in the Guardian newspaper's "Comment is free" online section today. He was following up a pathetic column on usage by the paper's style guide editor, David Marsh. Unsurprisingly, Marsh had attempted to defend the totally fake whichthat rule for integrated (or ‘defining’) relative clauses, which we have so often critiqued here at Language Log. Wrote Bulley, rather pompously:

No one would deny that there are numerous examples of "which" introducing a relative clause that defines (if they weren't any, no one would object to them as being bad style!), but are you just going to say to someone "This is what lots of people do, so it's OK for you to do it as well"? I'm reading Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad. I haven't checked, but I'd bet he never uses "which" as a defining relative.

Oh, no! It was like watching someone walking backwards toward a buzzsaw. I could hardly bear to look. You don't say things like that in the age of We-Can-Fact-Check-Your-Ass!

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Instigation and intention

A couple of weeks ago, Yale University Press decided to remove the illustrations from Jytte Klausen's forthcoming book The Cartoons that Shook the World. (See "Yale Press Bans Images of Muhammad in New Book", NYT, 8/12/2009). Among the many condemnations of this decision that I've read, Christopher Hitchens' ("Yale Surrenders", Slate, 8/172009) is the only one that makes a lexicographical argument:

[YUP director John] Donatich is a friend of mine and was once my publisher, so I wrote to him and asked how, if someone blew up a bookshop for carrying professor Klausen's book, the blood would be on the publisher's hands rather than those of the bomber. His reply took the form of the official statement from the press's public affairs department. This informed me that Yale had consulted a range of experts before making its decision and that "[a]ll confirmed that the republication of the cartoons by the Yale University Press ran a serious risk of instigating violence."

So here's another depressing thing: Neither the "experts in the intelligence, national security, law enforcement, and diplomatic fields, as well as leading scholars in Islamic studies and Middle East studies" who were allegedly consulted, nor the spokespeople for the press of one of our leading universities, understand the meaning of the plain and common and useful word instigate. If you instigate something, it means that you wish and intend it to happen. If it's a riot, then by instigating it, you have yourself fomented it. If it's a murder, then by instigating it, you have yourself colluded in it. There is no other usage given for the word in any dictionary, with the possible exception of the word provoke, which does have a passive connotation. After all, there are people who argue that women who won't wear the veil have "provoked" those who rape or disfigure them … and now Yale has adopted that "logic" as its own.

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Bierce's bugbears

Just a pointer to Jan Freeman's "On Language" column — she was subbing for Bill Safire — in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, about Ambrose Bierce's advice on English usage in Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults (1909), which Jan characterizes as "often mysterious, perverse and bizarre". With examples.

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Almost every 90 seconds

Max Heiman wrote to me with a nice point. I present it here as a guest post.

An ambiguity in a New York Times story caught my eye:

But in the wake of the financial crisis, attendance at the [Museum of American Finance] ― located at 48 Wall Street, near the epicenter of last year’s market collapse ― has risen to about 200 visitors a day, nearly double its tally last summer. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art averages that many visitors almost every 90 seconds.)

Quiz: does the Met average more or less than 200 visitors every 90 seconds?

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Bloggingheads: Of Cronkiters and corpora, of fishapods and FAIL

My brother Carl, a science writer who blogs over at The Loom, has a regular gig on, interviewing science-y folks for "Science Saturday." For Carl's latest installment, the Bloggingheads producers suggested he interview me about lexicography and other wordy stuff. Many of the topics we cover, from lexical blends to snowclones, will be familiar to readers of Language Log and my Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus. So here is our nepotistic "diavlog" for your enjoyment. (Diavlog is a second-order blend, by the way: it blends dialog and vlog, with the latter element representing a blend of video and blog. Or make that third-order, since blog blends Web and log.)

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Modals of life and death

Rope 'may have saved girl', said the headline in the Metro alongside a photo of pretty 21-year-old British tourist Emily Jordan, and I felt my heart leap with new optimism. I had read the previous day that Emily had been trapped under water while riverboarding on vacation in New Zealand, and the story had said that although her river guide had been saved, poor Emily had drowned. Now it seemed that was inaccurate: she survived, and it may have been rescue ropes that saved her! But no, reading the full story confirmed again that she was dead. What had gone wrong with my interpretation process?

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Quadrilingual Washlet Instructions

Half an hour before touchdown at Narita, the pilot turns on the "fasten seat belt" sign.  Because something (or some things) served during the in-flight meals on the 14-hour flight did not quite agree with your alimentary tract, you are already experiencing ominous rumblings down in your bowels.

You do your best to ignore the bouncing and jolting of the huge 747 as it descends through the various layers of stormy clouds.  Breathing deeply and slowly, you focus all of your thoughts on the first toilet you will encounter when you enter the terminal.

Finally, the plane screeches to a halt, then slowly, ever so slowly and with many pauses and turns, it taxis to the gate.  Since you know that you will have a major evacuation and it may take some time,  you  deplane along with everyone else.  But, horrors!  You are guided down lengthy hallways and escalators, then stand in line to wait for a bus that will take you to another part of the terminal to go through immigration.  After arriving at the immigration hall, you stand in line, alternating between doing a jig and exercising maximum sphincter control.  At last you pass through immigration and customs, then race to the nearest toilet you can find, open the door, dash to he only unoccupied stall you can find, enter, and come face to face with THIS.

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Ask Language Log: Prescriptivism in Europe

From yesterday's mail:

An idle question from a big Language Log fan:  Do you have any idea if the nice folks in, say Germany or Italy or Spain, go as nuts as Americans seem to when native speakers make "fundamental" grammar errors?

It appears that the strong form of "going nuts" that we've called word rage is mainly an Anglophone phenomenon, with the British as the originators and still the champions. But the sociolinguistic settings in Germany, Italy, and Spain are very different from the situation in the U.S. — and as a result, they have their own kinds of language wars over there.

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Preaching the gospel of wrong is right?

If you want to see all the illogic and angst of the prescriptive poppycock merchants on display, Howard Jacobson provides one-stop shopping. I don't think the UK has a more unprepossessing columnist of the foaming-at-the-mouth language-is-going-to-the-dogs persuasion. Oddly, he is not in the Telegraph but in the relatively liberal Independent. You might (or you might not) want to look at the way his last piece of rambling, ranting, frothing bitterness ends. It is entitled "In the face of overwhelming ignorance, it is the pedant's duty to keep battling on". Read on if that title holds any appeal…

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Levels of misunderstanding

The most recent xkcd:

(The original has the title tag "You know what really helps an existential crisis? Wondering how much shelf space to leave for a Terry Pratchett collection.")

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Smallpox / Ceiling Light

Fail Blog has a picture of a panel with two switches labeled as follows:

天花燈                  夜燈

This photograph elicited considerable discussion at Fail Blog, but — despite well over 150 comments — there was much consternation and little comprehension of why or how the confusion occurred.  The quality of the discussion at ADS-L was much higher (though far more limited), yet still left a number of questions unresolved.

Since, in the past, many Chinese friends (and even many Chinese teachers) have asked me why the Mandarin words for "smallpox" and "ceiling" share the same two characters, I've decided to make a fairly determined effort to explain how it happened.  Here's the etiology, not of smallpox, but of the failure.

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