Archive for November, 2009

Oxford W.O.T.Y. 2009: unfriend

We've been remiss in not linking to the New Oxford American Dictionary's 2009 Word of the Year, which Rebecca Ford announced on the OUP Blog a couple of days ago.

The modern (non-obsolete) positive verb to friend isn't in the current NOAD yet, or for that matter in the OED,  so I hope that it gets in as part of the package deal.

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In my recent go rogue posting, I reported a comment on an earlier posting from Daniel Gustav Anderson on go rogue as a sexual euphemism, saying that at first I suspected the comment of being spam, but decided it was legit. Then Jake Townhead commented on my posting, questioning my use of the word spam and suggesting that Anderson's comment was merely "bespoke mischief". So now some words on spam.

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Faults "intollerable and euer vndecent"

I haven't read Jack Lynch's The Lexicographer's Dilemma yet — all I know about it comes from Laura Miller's review in Salon, "Memo to grammar cops: Back off!", 10/25/2009. But on the basis of her description, it seems to me that one of his claims is not quite right:

According to Lynch, the very notion of correct English is only 300 years old; in the days of Chaucer and Shakespeare, the idea that native English speakers could be accused of using their own language improperly would have seemed absurd. The advent of printing — and, especially, the growth of general literacy — led to efforts to establish authoritative standards of spelling and usage in the 18th century.

It's certainly true that Tudor and Elizabethan spelling was catch-as-catch-can, and it's also true that prescriptive rules of usage blossomed in the 18th century, along with the standardization of spelling. But it's not true that native speakers in Shakespeare's time never accused one another of using their own language improperly.

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Dell Hymes

I just heard that Dell Hymes died peacefully in his sleep last Friday (13 November 2009).    Linguists, anthropologists, and folklorists will all mourn his passing.  According to the grapevine, there will be a memorial gathering to remember him at the upcoming American Anthropological Association meeting in Philadelphia (specifically: Saturday, December 5, 7:30-9:30 P.M., in Grand Ballroom III at the Courtyard Marriott).  Dell's many scholarly accomplishments will be praised by others, people who know his work much better than I do; I have mostly admired his work from a distance, although I've often consulted his 1955 dissertation, The Language of the Kathlamet Chinook,  in my efforts to understand the structure of  the Northwest pidgin language Chinook Jargon.   But I have always been most grateful to Dell for the role he played in my own career — I'm reasonably sure that I would not have gotten tenure, all those years ago, if he had not written such a detailed and generous letter about my few and flimsy publications.

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Another go rogue

In a November 14 comment on Mark Liberman's "Going rogue" posting, David Gustav Anderson says:

In many parts of the English speaking world (UK and Commonwealth), "going rogue" is a euphemism for heterosexual women engaging in anal intercourse.

(I was at first suspicious, since the comment appeared over a year after the original posting, and many such long-delayed comments are spam, but this one looks legit.)

[Added 11/18: As I say in a follow-up posting, DGA is legit, and so is the comment, in the sense that he did post the comment and did so earnestly. But it turns out that his sources were playing a prank on him.]

Such a euphemistic use of going rogue was news to me, but then there are lots of usages I haven't noticed. Anderson didn't give any cites, and I haven't been able to find any, so that for the moment I suspect that euphemistic uses are neither widespread nor frequent, but I'm open for evidence (beyond some individual readers saying that they're familiar with the use).

[Added 11/18: I'm now convinced that claims about this use are sheer invention.]

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The Igon Value Effect

Steve Pinker's recent NYT review of Malcolm Gladwell's latest book suggests a valuable coinage ("Malcolm Gladwell, Eclectic Detective", 11/7/2009; emphasis added) :

An eclectic essayist is necessarily a dilettante, which is not in itself a bad thing. But Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “saggital plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.

In support of creative lexicography, I plan to be on the look-out for future opportunities to refer to the Igon Value Problem.

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The hunt for the Hat Gene

Nicholas Wade is an inveterate gene-for-X enthusiast — he's got 68 stories in the NYT index with "gene" in the headline — and he's had two opportunities to celebrate this idea in the past few days: "Speech Gene Shows Its Bossy Nature", 11/12/2009, and "The Evolution of the God Gene", 11/14/2009. The first of these articles is merely a bit misleading, in the usual way. The second verges on the bizarre.

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Meep Ban Update

Ethan Forman broke the Danvers High School meep-ban story in the Salem News on 11/10/2009 (See "Meep: Truth or Onion?").   Over the past few days, the story has been picked up by several wire services and other outlets, none of whom provided any information beyond what was in Forman's original story.

Yesterday, NPR's All Things Considered looked into it, and actually added something to the story by interviewing a student, Mike Spiewak ("Principal Tells Students 'Meep' Is Off-Limits"):

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The rise of douche

The Taboo Desk here at Language Log Plaza is piled high with reports about taboo language and offensive language — about the classification of particular expressions as obscene/profane or otherwise offensive, about the open use of such expressions, about ways people avoid them, and so on. Now, on the front page of the New York Times on November 14, a story ("It Turns Out You Can Say That On Television, Over and Over", by Edward Wyatt) about expressions that don't reach the level of obscenity or profanity but are offensive to many people — and have now been appearing with increasing frequency on television (in prime-time network series), where they can serve as approximations to even stronger stuff.

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Dudespeak 2

In this morning's Stone Soup, another take on that highly efficient language, Dude:

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Body and One: Corpus count fail

This morning we're continuing to explore the difference between somebody and someone, which all started on 11/10/2009, when David Landfair wrote to Arnold Zwicky ("Ask Language Log: someone, somebody") to ask for protection against the bizarre idea that someone is nominative (like he/she/who) while somebody is accusative (like him/her/whom).

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Body loses Supreme Court appeal

This morning, I appealed the somebody-vs.-someone story to the Supreme Court of the United States. The decision came quickly — details are below.

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Happy Web Day!

In my latest Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus, I consider the enormous linguistic impact of an internal memorandum published at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) on November 12, 1990. The memo, by Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau, was entitled "WorldWideWeb: Proposal for a HyperText Project," and needless to say, we've all been webified ever since. Read all about it here.

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