Archive for July, 2010


[This is a guest posting by Larry [Laurence] Horn (of Yale), taken, with his permission, from a posting he made today on the American Dialect Society mailing list. If you comment on it, remember that these are his words, not mine.]

In the first paragraph of a letter to the editor in this weekend's NYT Magazine, a writer offers the following grammatical argument against the use of transgendered:

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More on the early days of obscenicons

Last week I posted about the early history of cartoon cursing characters, aka grawlixes, aka obscenicons. I had managed to unearth examples of obscenicons on comics pages going back to 1909, from Rudolph Dirks' "The Katzenjammer Kids." I've had a chance to do some more digging, and I've found that Dirks was getting creative with obscenicons as early as 1902 — and he wasn't the only cartoonist indulging in them.

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This binary here

Rachel Aviv, "Backpacks Among the Briefcases", NYT 7/15/2010, writing about students at the New School's liberal arts college:

Suzanne Exposito, a junior from Jacksonville, Fla., who describes herself as a feminist and anticapitalist, says she can’t understand why some people fail to throw away their trash. “There’s this binary here between the people who have a cause and those who don’t,” she said. “Some people only came here to be in the city, and they just don’t care. I think they’re the ones who dump their cigarettes on the ground.” [emphasis added]

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Peter Sellers, Yogurtiere

While we're on the subject of yoghurting sprezzatura, let's not overlook the scene in the 1966 After the Fox in which Peter Sellers plays a monolingual Italian criminal masquerading as an American tourist in Rome:

(In his native Italian persona, Sellers speaks in Italian-accented English. Of course.) (I love this movie.)

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The art of conversation

The Onion News Network, 7/20/2010:

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Polyscriptal Taiwanese

Having just returned to Hong Kong after a whirlwind trip to Taiwan, I find myself stunned by the multilingual, polyscriptal creativity of the people on that "renegade island" (formerly known as Ilha Formosa, Portuguese for "Beautiful Island").  One thing that could not escape my notice is the widespread use of English letters for English words as well as for Taiwanese morphemes and Mandarin words.  A fair amount of Japanese also gets thrown into the mix, but I shall not discuss that in the present post.

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Six words

According to Dan O'Brien, these are "Six Words That Need To Be Banned from the English Language": moist, jowls, bulbous, yolk, slurp, pulp. (Sorry, Dan.)

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"Context is everything" again

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Yoghurt medley

An amateur Brazilian competitor for Adriano Celentano:

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Resume depassivization — this time, zero for 4

Doostang is a job-search platform and advice service that, for a fee, will try to help you get a job. It provides on a blog such helpful things as tips on spicing up your resume. And one of the things it suggests is that you should avoid (are you ready for this, Language Log readers?) the passive voice! So here we go with another piece of expert advice on passivity from someone who is a real authority on language because he went to college and therefore doesn't need to know anything about actual grammatical structure, he can just make stuff up. I quote:

Passive Voice

Many people write in passive voice because that is how we've been taught to write "formally" in high school composition and then in freshman college English. It is habit and as a result of the habit, the passive voice is prevalent in self-written resumes. The problem with passive voice, however, is that it is just that — passive! A resume needs to have punch and sparkle and communicate an active, aggressive candidate. Passive voice does not accomplish that. Indicators of the passive voice:

  • Responsible for
  • Duties included
  • Served as
  • Actions encompassed

Rather than saying "Responsible for management of three direct reports" change it up to "Managed 3 direct reports." It is a shorter, more direct mode of writing and adds impact to the way the resume reads.

Now, you are a Language Log reader, and you know my methods. Do some counting. How many of the examples given in the quotation are indicators of the passive voice?

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Character Amnesia

Pessimists and alarmists have long been lamenting the negative impact of computers upon the ability of Chinese to write characters by hand.  See, for example, Jennifer 8. Lee's article entitled "In China, Computer Use Erodes Traditional Handwriting, Stirring a Cultural Debate" in the Technology section of the New York Times for February 1, 2001.

If the situation was bad already a decade ago, it is far more grave now that short text messaging is so wildly popular.  In "China worries about losing its character(s)," Los Angeles Times (July 12, 2010), Barbara Demick provides graphic evidence of the starkly diminishing powers of supposedly literate Chinese to produce many characters that are essential for daily usage.

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The language of "Mad Men" and the perils of self-expurgation

My latest "On Language" column in The New York Times Magazine (along with a followup Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus) takes an in-depth look at the language of "Mad Men," the critically acclaimed AMC series that begins its fourth season on Sunday. Though I'm not as hard on the show as fellow Language Logger John McWhorter, I do single out various linguistic anachronisms (or at least potential ones) that have cropped up thus far.

Despite this caviling, I was impressed to hear from the show's creator and head writer Matthew Weiner about the extent to which words and phrases are researched during the vetting of the scripts. He even revealed two such words that were checked out for inclusion in coming episodes, despite the code of silence surrounding Season 4 in advance of the premiere. I was unable to make explicit mention of one of those words in The Times, so I'll come clean here.

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"Context is everything"

That's the first sentence of Andrew Breitbart's explosive recent article, "Video Proof: The NAACP Awards Racism–2010", posted on his web site

Breitbart is a sort of new-journalism entrepreneur who developed the Huffington Post for Adriana Huffington, but is better known as the current proprietor of various popular right-wing web sites, and the promoter of last year's controversial ACORN undercover videos. And the "context" that he had in mind was the media furor over the NAACP's call for "Tea Party leaders to repudiate those in their ranks who use racist language in their signs and speeches".

The explosive part of Breitbart's article was a video clip, a bit less than two minutes long, presented under the title "NAACP: Bigotry in their ranks". The video's content is taken from a speech at the NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet, 3/27/2010, given by Shirley Sherrod, who was then the US Department of Agriculture's Director of Rural Development for the state of Georgia. Graphics in the intro to this video proclaim that "Ms. Sherrod admits that in her federally appointed position, overseeing over a billion dollars, she discriminates against people due to their race". In the video, Ms. Sherrod describes what happened when a white farmer came to her for help in saving his property from foreclosure. She indeed says that that she reacted to him in racial terms, and "didn't give him the full force of what I could do".

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