Archive for September, 2009

The F Word, take 3

The third edition of Jesse Sheidlower's dictionary The F Word is now out, to much (and much-deserved) acclaim. The book has a scholarly introduction (of 33 pages) on the etymology of fuck; its taboo status; its appearance in print (including in dictionaries) and movies; euphemism and taboo avoidance; and this dictionary and its policies. The many uses of fuck are then covered in detail in the main entries.

There's an excellent review of the book by slang scholar Jonathon Green on the World Wide Words site. From Green's review:

… as a fellow lexicographer (and, I must admit, a friend — slang is a small world) what impresses me most is the excellence of the overall treatment. The subject happens to be fuck, but this is how any such study should be conducted and sadly so rarely is. Not via the slipshod infantilism of the Net’s Urban Dictionary, but disinterestedly, seriously and in depth. The F Word, I would suggest, is a template that we would all be wise to follow.

Website for the book here.

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Convention, uniqueness, and truth

Kevin Drum recently laid out a long-standing unsolved problem, one that has preoccupied such luminaries as Paul Krugman, James Fallows, and Glenn Beck ("Saving the Frogs", Mother Jones, 9/23/2009). The problem is that there's no good substitute for the over-used and untrue story about how a frog, if placed in a pot of gradually heated water, will eventually allow itself to be boiled without jumping out.  And since this is a rhetorical problem, Drum describes the failure as a linguistic one:

So here's what I'm interested in. The boiling frog cliche is untrue. But it stays alive because, as Krugman says, it's a useful metaphor. So why aren't there any good substitutes?

This is very strange. Most useful adages and metaphors not only have substitutes, they have multiple substitutes. "Look before you leap" and "Curiosity killed the cat." "Fast as lightning" and "Faster than a speeding bullet." Etc. Usually you have lots of choices.

But in this case we don't seem to have a single one aside from the boiling frog. Why? Is it because it's not really all that useful a metaphor after all? Because the frog has ruthlessly killed off every competitor? Because it's not actually true in any circumstance, let alone with frogs in pots of water? What accounts for this linguistic failure?

Yesterday, Jonathan Lundell sent me a link to Drum's article, with the comment "Sounds like a job for Language Log". That was almost enough to make me move on immediately: when Geoff Pullum and I started Language Log, I promised myself that if it ever got to feel like a job, I'd quit.

But this morning, after half a cup of coffee, I realized that Jonathan's remark was just an instance of the conventionalized phrasal template "sounds like a job for ___". And this one usually refers to the super-activities of superheros, which are by definition superfluous to their day jobs.

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Kingsoft Strikes Again

Yesterday, I received this message from a young person who has been corresponding with me about ancient DNA and the movements of peoples across Eurasia during the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age:

The police reaved my computer due to I reprinted a news report of US about the National Day of China yesterday. I came back home from police department just now. They said they will check my computer exhaustively. I'm afraid about my thesises on each area. It is not constitutional to do like that. All acts in violation of the Constitution and the law must be investigated. But this is in China. I doubt [VHM: he means "I suspect / fear"] that they will install a detectaphone on my computer and destroy my essays. I feel like crying but shed no tears. The only feeling is indignation for an intellectual.

Although the young man's English is generally quite good, my immediate assumption was that the third word of his message was a typing error for "removed" or that he simply misremembered some other word meaning "seize." However, considering that quirky archaisms are rampant in Chinese use of English, a phenomenon that I have often documented on Language Log, e.g. here and here, I thought that I had better give the young man the benefit of the doubt, so I trudged over to my dictionary and looked up "reave."

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Crash blossom du jour

A crash blossom, you'll recall, is an infelicitously worded headline that leads the reader down the garden path. Here's a fine example from today's Associated Press headlines:

McDonald's fries the holy grail for potato farmers

(Hat tip: Stephen Anderson via Larry Horn.)

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One for the Fellowship of the Gapless Relative

According to Michael Goldstein, writing one of the opinion pieces in the NYT's 9/22/2009 symposium on "National Academic Standards: The First Test":

The politics has changed. All governors now recognize a problem: incentives to set low passing scores. Currently, a kid in Alabama might pass a 4th grade reading test that, if he lived in Massachusetts and took our version, he would fail.

You could add a resumptive pronoun: "a kid in Alabama might pass a 4th grade reading test that, if he lived in Massachusetts and took our version [of it], he would fail".

For some background, read "Ask Language Log: Gapless Relatives" and "More gapless relatives", 10/14/2007. This case is especially interesting because it might alternatively be construed as having a gap after fail, though that would seem to make the sentence self-refuting.

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Quotation marks, non-necessity of

One is in favor of diversity in the blogosphere, of course. And yet somehow, when one learns that there now exists a blog entirely devoted to pictures of signs in which quotation marks are used incorrectly (used as if they were some sort of special font face like italics), one is somehow tempted to think that we are in danger of running out of words like esoteric and arcane. Still, check it out. Some of the pictures are quite astonishing. Keep in mind that in many cases people paid good money to have these signs made. They may even have paid a dime or two extra per quotation mark. Or "quotation mark", as they would put it. All one can tell you about one's own reaction is that one found some of them jaw-dropping. One's jaw actually dropped.

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Volitive polarity items

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The Vulture Reading Room feeds the eternal flame

If I and my friends and colleagues could just have found the strength of will to not talk about Dan Brown's new novel The Lost Symbol, perhaps we could have stopped his march to inevitable victory as the fastest-selling and most renowned novelist in human history, and The Lost Symbol could have just faded away to become his Lost Novel. If only we could just have shut up. And we tried. But we just couldn't resist the temptation to gabble on about the new blockbuster. Sam Anderson at New York Magazine has set up a discussion salon devoted to The Lost Symbol, under the title the Vulture Reading Room, to allow us to tell each other (and you, and the world) what we think about the book. Already Sam's own weakness has become clear: he struggled mightily to avoid doing the obvious — a Dan Brown parody — and of course he failed. His cringingly funny parody is already up on the site (as of about 4 p.m. Eastern time on September 22). Soon my own first post there will be up. I know that Sarah Weinman (the crime reviewer) will not be far behind, and Matt Taibbi (the political journalist) and NYM's own contributing editor Boris Kachka will not be far behind her.

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Missing the point

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A bit more about content

I got a nice email from Joshua Fruhlinger about my post on Harper’s denial about having any content in their magazine. It seems that I’m a bit in the dark about how this word is being used in the tech industry these days, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Here’s what Joshua wrote to me:

The ad is a somewhat cheeky response to a particular way that the word “content” has come to be used in the publication industry in the last decade or so. As the internet has become the main (or at least the most novel and talked about) publishing platform, the tech folks who are designing the new infrastructure tend to label and lump together as “content” the stuff that isn’t in their department – the actual text, video, audio, or what have you that various exciting new publishing platforms are designed to present.

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Garden-path lede sentence of the day

In response to my (admittedly feeble) garden-path post a couple of days ago, Tim Leonard writes:

Ha!  That's not a garden-path sentence.  This is a garden path sentence:

"Police in Washington state captured a schizophrenic killer who had escaped during an outing from the mental hospital where he had been committed to a state fair."

Source: Dean Schabner, "Escaped Insane Killer Captured After Four-Day Manhunt", ABC News, 9/20/2009.

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The Happiness Gap is back is back is back is back

What may be the most widely-discussed statistical over-interpretation in history is coming around for the third time. The first gust front of commentary blew in with David Leonhardt in the NYT Business Section in September of 2007, echoed a few days later by Steven Leavitt in the Freakonomics blog. In May of 2009, Ross Douthat's NYT column recycled the same research for another round of thumb-sucking. And the same material has just been promoted again by Arianna Huffington ("The Sad, Shocking Truth About How Women Are Feeling", "What's Happening to Women's Happiness?", etc.), with an assist by Maureen Dowd ("Blue is the New Black", 9/19/2009).

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I'm a?

That's not a-the-indefinite-article, it's a-the-immediate-future-marker, as in Kanye West's infamous "I'm a let you finish" interruption at the MTV awards. Steven Poole at Unspeak has a poll, where you can register your preference for how to spell it. (So far, "I'ma" has a plurality of 45%, with "I'm'a" next at 20%.)

Steven links to the discussion that Ella and I had about this back in 2005.

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