Archive for June, 2012


I'm in Groningen, where I participated in Martijn Wieling's PhD thesis defense and a workshop. Earlier in the week, I gave three talks at a workshop organized by DGA on "Traitement de l'information multimédia" at ENSTA in Paris. Between the various events and the travel I haven't had time to post anything for a few days, so when one of Martijn's paranymphs showed me this SMS message, it struck a chord:

mi no camin tumoro no andesten go x bas ni for tren you no camin for mi tumoro monin ansori

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The broccoli horrible

I was first struck by the expression "parade of horribles" back in April 2008, when then-Senator Barack Obama used it to describe testimony by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker about what might happen if U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq too hastily. I wrote a Language Log post about it, tying it to another expression that was in the news at the time: "false terribles," used by Rob Lowe to describe things that his nanny accused him of doing. "False terribles" turned out to be pretty much a one-off, but "horribles," usually of the parading variety, have shown up again and again in legal discussions, most recently in the Supreme Court's health care decision on Thursday — which featured, in Justice Ginsberg's pungent opinion, a "broccoli horrible" (referring to the slippery-slope argument that if government can make you buy health insurance, they might someday make you buy broccoli, too).

For a full explanation of how the legal putdown took shape, read my latest Boston Globe column (online now, in print on Sunday). I trace how "the parade of horribles" emerged as a satirical Independence Day tradition in mid-19th century New England, then made the metaphorical jump into discussions of judicial argumentation c. 1921, thanks to the legal scholar Thomas Reed Powell. Since then, the expression has lived a double life: with various shore towns in Massachusetts and Rhode Island keeping the actual "parades of horribles" going, and lawyers and judges debating over figurative ones. Fortunately, I was able to get The Broccoli Horrible into the column under the wire, noting that it would make a pretty awesome band name.

[Update, 7/4: For further documentation, see my followup Word Routes column.]

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"U.S. Supreme Court says upholds health care mandate"

That was the tweet sent out this morning by Reuters, which got the news out about the Supreme Court decision at 10:07:43 Eastern Daylight Time, evidently just 12 seconds after Bloomberg beat them to it. (They both trumped CNN and Fox, as those networks initially misreported the ruling.)

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One fracking word or another

I live in Alberta, where the oil and gas industry takes up a good chunk of daily media coverage. Since I sometimes get asked to comment on the persuasive effects of various wording choices by politicians or companies, I was especially interested to come across claims of evidence that public opposition to the method of natural gas extraction known as fracking might be bolstered by its problematic name. (Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, and the process involves injecting a highly pressurized fluid underground to create fractures in rock layers to release gas.) The finding originates from a survey conducted by the Public Policy Research Lab at Louisiana State University, which, as stated in the report, was designed to investigate the following:

It was hypothesized by the Public Policy Research Lab that the actual word "Fracking" may have a negative connotation that is separate from the environmental concerns that often accompany discussions of the process. Due to the harsh consonant sounds in the word itself, and an undeniable similarity to a certain other four letter word starting with the letter "F", it seemed plausible that some of the negative public sentiment about "Fracking" may result from how unpleasant the word itself sounds.

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US Department of American Redundancy Department

The Doonesbury site's "Say What?" feature today reports Mitt Romney as having recently said:

I believe in an America where millions of Americans believe in an America that's the America millions of Americans believe in. That's the America I love.

I often find I disagree with the views of Republican candidates, and my initial inclination was to mock this remark; but thinking very carefully through what it says, I find to my embarrassment that I have to agree with it.

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Blithering idiocy on the subjunctive

In the Glossary of Terms attached to the UK's National Literacy Strategy it says this about the subjunctive (as I learned from a useful and appropriately scathing post on Michael Rosen's blog):

The subjunctive form of a verb is occasionally used in very formal contexts to indicate unreality, uncertainty, wish, emotion, judgement, or necessity. Its inflection is complicated, because it does not always differ from nonsubjunctive forms.

What an unbelievable piece of outright burbling nonsense.

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Anti-fascist impact

Tom Chivers, "Two cheers for Alan Duncan, grammar fascist", The Telegraph 6/25/2012:

Alan Duncan, the Minister of State for International Development, has become perhaps the first Conservative minister in history to describe himself as a fascist, rather than waiting for someone on Twitter to do it for him.

Specifically, "Lofty", as he is known, has awarded himself the title of Grammar Fascist, in a memo to staff at the Department for International Development in which he warned that using “language that the rest of the world doesn’t understand” damages Britain's reputation. […]

Of course, it's a fine and noble thing that Mr Duncan is trying to do: on the Today Programme this morning, John Humphrys called for him to be given a peerage. But, unusually for a fascist, Mr Duncan has allowed his terrorised subjects the right of reply. The memo ends: “Disclaimer: [Lofty] is always willing to be challenged about his judgement on grammatical standards and will not take offence at a properly reasoned opinion.” I hope that my honourable friend will not mind me challenging him in that spirit. […]

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Hearing Lincoln

Lila Gleitman wrote:

I now happen to be reading "Team of Rivals," basically a history of Lincoln's cabinet.  Anyhow, there is constant mention (and pix of venues) showing Lincoln talking to very large indoor and outdoor audiences (at least once 2000 is the number of listeners mentioned).   They say he had a slightly high clear voice that carried very well, but still I can hardly conceive that he, and others of those times who are mentioned as speaking outdoors to multitudes too, notably Douglas of course., could be heard without amplification.   You must know all about this.  Can you tell me? or tell me how to look this up?   It flummoxes me every time I read of these seemingly prodigious feats of speaking-listening, the authors don't even seem to remark on how astounding it seems (or seems to seem, to me).

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John Wells on the pronunciation of the letter H

If you have a friend who is confused about the 'iptivisms — or if you yourself have some doubts about the issues involved — I recommend John Wells, "ha ha", John Wells' Phonetic Blog 6/19/2012.

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Versus vs. Verses: Results

Following up on "Versing" (6/19/2012)  and "Vers(e|u)s" (6/20/2012), here are the perception-test results from the 56 people who sent me their answers before I posted the answer key.

Some overall statistics follow.

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The fabrication of "taikonaut" is not the first time that an attempt has been made to insert a made-up Chinglish word into English.  There have been a number of such instances in recent years.  A particularly notorious one that I recall is the case of bùgěilì 不给力 ("ungelivable", lamer variant "ungeliable").  Bùgěilì 不给力 is the antonym of gěilì 给力 ("astonishing, powerful, fantastic, cool, awesome, exciting, effective, enhancing").  The wide range of meanings and nuances for gěilì 给力 does not bode well for an easy translation of its opposite, bùgěilì 不给力, into other languages.  I shall return to the meaning and translation of bùgěilì 不给力 below.  But first let's take a closer look at gěilì 给力.

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From a correspondent in Taiwan who wishes to remain anonymous:

Sometimes the word 'taikonaut' will be seen in news articles about PRC astronauts. This cuto-chinoiserie is really stupid. The premise seems to be that since Russian astronauts are called cosmonauts, PRC astronauts ought to have a special name too.

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In a comment on "Versing" (6/19/2012), Tony from Toronto asserted that "versus and verses are quite distinct when written and when pronounced". I expressed skepticism about differences in pronunciation, in the form of a half-serious offer of a wager. Bob Ladd warned me that I might lose, at least with respect to some British speakers.

For most North American varieties, at least, I believe that my bet would be a fairly safe one. This is not to deny that facultative disambiguation might be possible, or even that there might be distributional differences in normal productions (among other things, due to the rather different phrasal distribution of the two words). But a pre-literate child in North America is likely to hear pronunciations in which "Thunder versus Heat" and "Thunder verses Heat" are essentially indistinguishable.

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