Archive for October, 2010

Leaf-blower metathesis?

Tad Friend, "Blowback: The great suburban leaf war", The New Yorker 10/25/2010:

Dr. Michael Kron, a Berkeley psychiatrist who had been canvassing studies on noise, addressed the problem's demographic valence. "Because we're not living in Oakland ducking the next hail of bullets, there's this idea that we're just some fat-ass fussy busses, rich white people in the suburbs, worrying about a little noise,", he said. "But noise is very powerful. We've used Britney Spears songs on Guantánamo Bay prisoners."

The actual noisiness of blowers is a vexed issue. The average new blower is rated at about sixty-nine decibels, only as noisy as a loud conversation. But that official rating is determined by measurements made fifty feet away in an open field. Those operating the blowers are subjected to considerably more noise, as are neighbors who live in cramped or reverberant terrain; Kendall had just clocked the Stihl BR 500, which is rated at sixty-five decibels, at ninety-eight decibels up close — nearly ten times as loud. Kron continued, "Children exposed to these noise bombs, it's a disaster: impaired concentration, impaired sleep, inability to learn to read and speak. Children in loud, loud places like East Oakland are the ones who grow up saying, 'Can I ax you a question?'" [emphasis added]

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George Fox, Prescriptivist

Jen wrote to inform me that today, being William Penn's birthday, is International Talk Like a Quaker Day. Jen explains that

I like to combine it with my pirate talk from International Talk Like a Pirate Day.  "Arrr, thee must give us all thy money to donate to the Friends Service Committee, or we will nonviolently board thy ship and elder thee."

And before you get on Jen's case for using thee instead of thou, that's her question too:

What I've never understood about Quaker plain speech is why "thee" is used in both the objective and and subjective cases.  I understand that early Quakers wanted to avoid honorifics and status distinctions, and so addressed everyone with the familiar pronoun.  But why isn't it "thou"?  And why is it "thee is" and "thee says" rather than "thee art" and "thee sayest"?

Is this just the opposite of the "who-whom" merger, with the subjective case being lost instead?  And was it unique to plain-speaking Quakers?

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Austen's alleged failings in style and grammar: we need examples

There has been a flurry of recent news stories suggesting that Jane Austen's famous style was not all her own but owed a lot to her editor.

I'm not at all sure that there is anything substantial in these stories. So far, the radio pieces I've heard and the newspaper write-ups I've seen have been extremely light on actual examples.

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Merle Haggard's ex-wives

Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden are long-time collectors of arguments for the final serial comma. They're responsible for publicizing the most famous (if probably apocryphal) example, "This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God", as well as the equally remarkable (and apparently real) "The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector".

Now Patrick Nielsen Hayden ("The return of the final serial comma's vital necessity", Making Light 10/21/2010) has posted another, describing the recent documentary about Merle Haggard: "Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall".

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Phonetic marketing

Several readers have drawn my attention to this passage in an Op-Ed by Daniel Gilbert, "Magic by Numbers", NYT 10/16/2010:

The hand is not the only part of our anatomy that gives certain numbers their magical powers. The tongue does too. Because of the acoustic properties of our vocal apparatus, some words just sound bigger than others. The back vowels (the “u” in buck) sound bigger than the front vowels (the “i” in sis), and the stops (the “b” in buck) sound bigger than the fricatives (the “s” in sis). As it turns out, in well over 100 languages, the words that denote bigness are made with bigger sounds.

The sound a number makes can influence our decisions about it. In a recent study, one group was shown an ad for an ice-cream scoop that was priced at \$7.66, while another was shown an ad for a \$7.22 scoop. The lower price is the better deal, of course, but the higher price (with its silky s’s) makes a smaller sound than the lower price (with its rattling t’s).

And because small sounds usually name small things, shoppers who were offered the scoop at the higher but whispery price of \$7.66 were more likely to buy it than those offered the noisier price of \$7.22 — but only if they’d been asked to say the price aloud.

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Pret-ty trick-y

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Sorkh Razil: Language Log asks you

The story line in the Doonesbury strip for the last week or so (I omit links because direct links to within the domain apparently don't work) has been about Jeff Redfern masquerading as an Afghan superhero figure of his own invention (and getting to meet a somewhat credulous and off-his-meds President Karzai). In his superhero persona, Jeff styles himself Sorkh Razil, the Red Rascal. But a minute or two conferring with online Pashto dictionaries fails to confirm the meaning and transliteration of either the word sorkh or the word razil.

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What does nth least X mean?

I've thus far avoided hearing or seeing many political ads (not having cable television or listening to commercial radio has its advantages), but yesterday I happened to hear an ad for Meg Whitman's California gubernatorial campaign. For those not in the know: Meg Whitman is the Republican candidate for governor, running against Democrat (and former California governor and current state attorney general) Jerry Brown; she's also the founder a former CEO of eBay. [Thanks for the correction, Atario.] As a successful businesswoman, much of her platform is about making California more "business-friendly", and so she talks a lot about the apparent fact that California is currently very "unfriendly" to business.

Anyway, in the ad Meg Whitman says the following. Please note that I don't recall the exact wording of anything other than the part in boldface.

California is the 48th least business-friendly state.

I know what she means, of course: of all 50 states, California is extremely unfriendly to business — near the bottom of the list, just two up from the absolute least business-friendly state (whatever that one is). But is that what "48th least business-friendly state" really means? For me it means there's a list arranged from #1 least friendly to #50 least friendly, with #50 being the #1 most friendly. Under that conception, #48 is pretty damned good for business, isn't it?

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Difficulty over not saying no on not being ready

Is the young soccer player Jack Wilshere ready to start playing on the England team? Don't dig into your sports knowledge, because this is Language Log, not Soccer Log, and we are interested in what Arsene Wenger (coach of Wilshere's team, Arsenal) said in answer to this question. According to Reuters (take a deep breath and start counting negations):

"Is he ready to start for England against France next month? If you asked me the reverse question, is he not ready to start for England, then it would be difficult to not say no."

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Excite your brain with negativity

Darryl Shpak writes to me: I came across the following surprising claim this morning; you might find it interesting:

"50 per cent of all words are negative, and only 30 per cent are positive, in both English and Spanish. So we tend to have a much more colorful, rich, negative vocabulary, and it's all because our brains are built to be particularly excited by negative things."

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Jean Berko Gleason

From Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky, a link to a Nova "The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers" piece on Jean Berko Gleason (shown with an enormous wug), here. Very charming.

My grand-daughter (now 6) is a fan of these "Secret Life" pieces (and also some short Discovery Channel programs, especially one on leeches); JBG is one of her favorites. And she learned about the wug test, though at first she thought wug was an error for bug. But then she got into the game, and behaved like a pretty typical kid her age, including imperfect control of the syllabic allomorph of the plural; kids are inclined to give a nonsense word like tass a zero plural (two tass instead of two tasses).

[Update October 21: EDZ provides a factual correction: "The leeches are also NOVA; Neal deGrasse Tyson. The black mambas are Discovery Channel." Ah yes, the black mambas. A kid with interesting tastes.]

[Update October 23: And at breakfast today Opal showed me the Nova program on black widow spider sex-and-death. Gripping.]

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Annals of animal communication

Christine Vendel, "Escaped chimpanzee causes a ruckus", Kansas City Star, 10/20/2010:

A 300-pound chimpanzee escaped from its owner Tuesday afternoon and ran rampant through a Kansas City neighborhood, scaring walkers, pounding on passing cars and breaking a police car’s windshield.

The 21-year-old ape, named Sueko, also pointed and laughed at residents and flipped off an animal control officer near 78th Street and Indiana Avenue, witnesses said.

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Barbara Phillips Long sent in a striking eggcorn that she spotted in a comment on a story in the Baltimore Sun:

401K fund managers have been ripping off employees blind for the past 30 years. the employers have known this and have hidden this from the employees. the SEC has known this, but really doesn't care or have the wear-with-all to go after every single 401K management firm because many of them are divisions within large financial firms that lobby congress every year to keep a lid on it. [emphasis added]

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