Archive for April, 2010

Birtherism, socialism, and craziness

Christopher Beam, in a Slate magazine last Wednesday (published while I was winging my way back to the UK by a modified air route far south of Iceland), connects the strange business of birtherism (the political perversion of believing, or pretending to believe, that President Obama doesn't have a US birth certificate and thus isn't constitutionally allowed to serve) to lexical semantics:

Birtherism is here to stay. And not because more people are going crazy, but because crazy has been redefined. Birtherism isn't the only example. Consider how conservatives accuse Obama of peddling "socialism." Sure, some of them genuinely think that Obama is going to usher in a new Soviet state in which the government owns all means of production. But most right-wingers use it as shorthand for government overreach. So now that's what "socialism" means.

There is a fairly major difference between birtherism and the socialism charge: Birtherism has been disproved by facts. But they're similar in the way they get tossed around without much connection to their original meaning.

He isn't very clear in the way he puts this: "crazy has been redefined" isn't quite right, because everyone agrees that craziness is irrationality or mental disorder of a sort that gives rise to unpredictably strange behavior. But the idea that the word socialism has actually changed its denotation in modern American English might not be so crazy.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (70)

Mair on pinyin on BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4's Word of Mouth program for 4/20/2010 deals with relations between Mandarin and English.  Victor's segment of the program is about the role of pinyin.  LL commenters may find a nit or two to pick with the program's online self-description, but Victor thinks they did a good job in weaving the interviews together to create the program:

Chris Ledgard looks at the Chinese and English languages, and the meeting point between the two. Will the Chinese language be affected by the growing influence of English? Pinyin is the Chinese method of writing Chinese characters in our alphabet. It produces a simplified version of Chinese for children to learn, and is also used for texting, slang and to make it possible to type on a keyboard. It also helps the rest of the world to understand Chinese words. Beijing is a pinyin word, for example. Will the use of Chinese characters eventually die out as the influence of pinyin and English is felt there? And we hear about the language war raging in Singapore, the only country in Asia with English as its first language, between standard English and Singlish, the local variant. Contributors include William Zhou, Chen "Cathy" Liu,"Pinyin Joe"- Joe Katz, Victor Mair and Singaporean podcaster extraordinaire "mr brown", aka Kin Mun Lee.

Unfortunately, the online version of the program will only be available for a few more days. (Why? I have no idea.)

Comments (12)

Death or birth?

The most recent IEEE Signal Processing Society Newsletter has an interesting article by David Suendermann, "Speech scientists are dead. Interaction designers are dead. Who is next?".

His argument is that "Commercial spoken dialog systems can process millions of calls per week", and therefore "one can implement a variety of changes at different points in the application and randomly choose one competitor every time the point is hit in the course of a call", using techniques like reinforcement learning to adaptively optimize the design. As a result, "the contender approach can change the life of interaction designers and speech scientists in that best practices and experience-based decisions can be replaced by straight-forward implementation of every alternative one can think of".

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (17)

Feline ambulation and volcanic nomenclature

From The Oatmeal

[As Kate notes in the comments, Geoff Pullum evoked the "kitten on the keyboard" image a week ago. And see Mark Liberman's two recent posts for more on the name and its pronunciation.]

Comments (41)

Funniest peeve ever

Allie Brosh, over at Hyperbole and a Half, is annoyed by people who leave out the space in "a lot" ("The Alot is Better Than You at Everything", 4/13/2010):

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (42)

Hypothesis-driven research

Today's Non Sequitur:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (9)

A Ban on Roman Letter Acronyms?

Many people have written to me about the proposed ban of roman letter acronyms in China that was recently featured in a number of newspaper reports (e.g., here and here).

Since this fits right in with my recent posts on the ineluctability of "Q" and on the proposal by the Chinese chairman of the International Federation of Translators, Huang Youyi, to purify Chinese of English expressions (the proposed ban is probably the first step in an attempt to implement Huang's purification policies), as well as with a forthcoming post on the question of the inevitability of romanization (or at least some form of alphabetization), I will comment briefly on the current proposal to forbid the use of English acronyms in Chinese.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (17)

Varieties of scientific experience

This recent SMBC has a slightly odd idea of how today's (prospective) great scientists spend their time:

Certainly not an instance of the Fourth Paradigm, or even the third, or for that matter a stereotypical representation of the first or the second.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (16)

Traffic in the market in E's

Mark Liberman reports on care bomb (for car bomb). Where did that E come from?

Now we have an answer: from the extensive (but mostly subterranean) trading in letters. Note this E-less example from a posting today by Michael McGoff to the American Name Society mailing list:


Please not the following important announcement from our colleague Wayne Finke

Comments off

Doctors' denial

RR wrote:

I accompanied an elderly parent to a neurologist appointment recently.  As this was at a teaching hospital, the first meeting was with a resident who took a complete history and did an examination.  When the neurologist came in, the resident verbally reported the results of his history-taking as "The patient reports a sense of imbalance on standing.  The patient denies feeling dizzy." etc.  As my parent had few symptoms, the list of denials was quite long.

The use of 'denies' has a clear meaning in this medical context ("On being asked about symptom X, the patient said that they did not experience it"), but for the patient it carries unpleasant overtones (accusation, disbelief).

I tried to think of a more pleasant way that the same thing could be said, but couldn't come up with anything that wasn't cumbersome.  "The patient hasn't experienced…" doesn't make clear that the resident is only reporting what the patient has said, and 'The patient doesn't report…" allows for the possibility that the resident never asked).

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (46)

An HR bureaucrat, whom cannot write

When I give lectures on why you should not listen to prescriptivists' dimwitted prattle about the wrongness of constructions that are fully grammatical and always were, people sometimes ask me what I would regard as bad grammar, as if such cases were going to be hard to find. So occasionally I note down striking cases of failure to get English syntax right (especially written English, naturally enough), and discuss them here.

A friend (don't make me say who) with a middle-rank managerial position in a large bureaucratic organization (don't make me say which) recently received a memo informing him about which of his recommendations for staff promotions and pay increases had been successful, and part of it said:

…it is strongly recommended that you meet with staff, whom have been unsuccessful, in order to provide support after their receiving the disappointing news.

That's a rather astonishing ungrammatical case of whom, used without a shred of justification as subject of a tensed verb to which it is immediately adjacent; but also a crashingly salient case of punctuating a restrictive relative incorrectly. And the email version of the memo, amazingly, was even worse.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (49)

And next, a talk at MIT

Hearing of my desperate search for useful things to do while I am stranded stranded in the Boston area, some kind people at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory invited me to give a talk there today, and of course I was delighted to accept. Details below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments off

Pharoahs and care bombs

Back at the beginning of the volcano ash cloud flight chaos news story event sequence, on April 15, Bob Ladd sent me this quote from an item on the BBC News web site:

Philip Avery from the Met Office said: "It is showing up on imagery at the moment, extending down as far as the Pharoahs but it looks as though the wind will drag it a good deal further south.

Bob is a reliable witness, but unfortunately, by the time I found the article in question, the "Pharoahs" had turned into the Faroes.

When I notice a notable typo in a normally well-edited publication, I try to get a screen shot, as I did in the case of this striking New York Times headline:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (55)