Archive for January, 2013

Linguistic comics

In Dilbert for 1/30/2013, a rhetorical implied question:

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The mystery of the missing misconception

I recently wrote on Lingua Franca about my astonishment over Piotr Cichocki and Marcin Kilarski. In their paper "On 'Eskimo Words for Snow': The Life Cycle of a Linguistic Misconception" (Historiographia Linguistica 37, 2010, Pages 341-377), they mistook my 1989 humorous opinion column "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax" for a research paper, and bitterly attacked it for dogmatism, superficiality, offensiveness, and all sorts of scholarly sins. But there is an additional thing about the paper that puzzled me deeply. It concerns the word "misconception" in the title.

I have read the early sections of the paper over and over again trying to figure out what Cichocki and Kilarski think the misconception is, and I just cannot figure it out.

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Another language/script puzzle

On, someone recently posted the following query:

At the bottom of a letter written by one John England during the US Civil War (it is not by Bishop John England) is a paragraph in a script and (seemingly) language that I don't immediately recognize:

I think this is Irish Gaelic written in the old Gaelic script, but I'm really not sure. Anyone have any guesses?

I suspect that there are some LL readers who can do better than a guess.

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I learned a new word today: "hospitalist".  The fist time I saw it, in a paper on "Determinants of Hospitalist Efficiency", I mis-read it as "hospital's", then realized it wasn't that, and thought it might be a really spectacular typographical error. But in fact it's a real word, coined in 1996 by Robert Wachter and Lee Goldman, which now gets nearly 34,000 hits on Google Scholar (where hit counts seem to be more or less believable).

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What "the" means

According to Article 2, Section 2, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution,

The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.

According to a recent decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, "the term 'the Recess' in the Recess Appointments Clause refers to the intersession recess of the Senate", so that this option is not available "during intrasession 'recesses,' or breaks in the Senate’s business when it is otherwise in a continuing session". The court's argument is a linguistic one:

When interpreting a constitutional provision, we must look to the natural meaning of the text as it would have been understood at the time of the ratification of the Constitution. […] Then, as now, the word “the” was and is a definite article. See 2 Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language 2041 (1755) (defining “the” as an “article noting a particular thing” (emphasis added)). Unlike “a” or “an,” that definite article suggests specificity. As a matter of cold, unadorned logic, it makes no sense to adopt the Board’s proposition that when the Framers said “the Recess,” what they really meant was “a recess.” This is not an insignificant distinction. In the end it makes all the difference.


It is universally accepted that “Session” here refers to the usually two or sometimes three sessions per Congress. Therefore, “the Recess” should be taken to mean only times when the Senate is not in one of those sessions.

The result is of some political consequence, since it invalidates decisions made by the National Labor Relations Board during 2012, on the grounds that several of its members in this period were intra-session recess appointments. (These were recess appointments because some members of the Senate, opposed to the NLRB on principle, have made it clear that they will use Senatorial privilege and/or filibuster techniques to block any in-session appointments to that board.)

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Google Translate Chinese inputting

Google Translate is so incredibly good — especially for typing Chinese and producing Pinyin (Romanization) with tones — that I rely on it a lot and am always afraid that, like so many software developers (e.g., Microsoft), they are going to add some unwanted bells and whistles or take away some basic features.  So today, when I turned on my Google Translate and saw a new wrinkle in the bottom left corner of the box into which you input Chinese, I was worried that it would lose the features that make it so easy for me to enter text.

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Ask Language Log: "build out", "build-out", or "buildout"?

MDS wrote:

I have been frustrated in trying to figure out how to use verbal phrases consisting of a verb plus a preposition/adverb in an adjectival or noun context.  I'm sure I didn't use the right linguistic phraseology there, so let me tell you what I mean.  I'm speaking of verbal phrases such as "build out," "work out," "build up," "put in," "sell off," "sell out," etc., where the auxiliary word isn't really working as either an preposition or an adverb.  It's simply part of a verbal phrase.  When used as a verb, other words may either be placed in between the words of the verbal phrase or after it.   E.g., "sell it off" vs. "sell off your stock."  I would be interested to hear what the appropriate part of speech is for the auxiliary word in these verbal phrases.

That much is easy: out, up, in, off, etc. are all prepositions, and in the cited combinations with verbs, they are simply intransitive prepositions. But MDS continues:

However, that's not my main issue.

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Thai fish estimates sea thicket is angry

On BoingBoing, Jason Weisberger posted this photograph under the title "Found Poem", but without any explanation:

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Infant involved in crash blossom

A commenter on FARK noted this headline on the website for KMOV St. Louis:

Infant pulled from wrecked car
involved in short police pursuit

…adding, "No word on how far his short little legs took him before the police caught up with him."

The headline was quickly edited thereafter, and it now reads:

Infant pulled from car after police chase, crash

Victor Steinbok, who brought this to my attention, observes that "the updated headline is only marginally better."

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My country

Sima (long-term resident in China) from writes:

I've been a regular Sina Weibo [VHM:  PRC clone of Twitter] user for some time and enjoy default news updates on my phone. Each update usually has two stories and, of late, almost invariably, one is about the outing of a corrupt official (cash, apartments, mistresses) and the second is about the latest 'play' over those rocks in the sea near Taiwan.

My latest update says:


[VHM: wǒ hǎi jiān chuán zài rù Diàodǎo jùjué Rìběn kàngyì
literal rendering of each syllable or word:  I / We sea surveillance ship(s) again enter Fishing Island reject Japan protest]

Whilst I'm used to expressions like 我国 [VHM:  wǒguó {"my / our country"}], which I wilfully employ when talking about 'my England', much to some people's disgust, and 我校 [VHM:  wǒxiào {"my / our school"}], which I actually write in articles and official documents relating to the school cricket team [VHM:  in China] (which I may have bored you about at some time), I'm not accustomed to such flexible employment of 我.

Do you know whether this use of 我校, 我国, etc. has a long history (i.e., pre-1949, or pre-1919)? Can 我 be freely applied? Is there a name for this phenomenon?

It reminds me a little of Western attitudes to sports teams; 'we won the world cup', when obviously said cup was won by eleven or so over-paid men who kick balls for a living, and not (usually) by the speaker himself.

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The hi sign

Reader ESM sent in a link to David Weigel, "Democrats Say They Have the Votes for Filibuster Reform, and for the 'Nuclear Option'", Slate 1/22/2013:

…even if you're a reformer, do you think there's ANY filibuster reform that wouldn't be interpeted by the Rand Paul-Mike Lee-Tim Scott-Ron Johnson quartet as the hi sign to "blow up the Senate"?

and asked

I'm curious about the use of "hi sign." I've heard the phrase spoken, but always understood it as "high sign." A quick search online didn't turn up any meaningful commentary, even of the speculative or anecdotal variety.

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The form and content of Barack Obama's Second Inaugural have stimulated even more than the usual amount of commentary, including some analyses of linguistic interest. For today, I'll limit myself to noting that one aspect of the president's performance gave Bryan Garner a case of the vapors:

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Translingual slogan hacking

In the current Italian election campaign, Mario Monti's slogan has been "L'Italia che sale":

Although Google Translate thinks that this means "Italy and salt", in fact it means "The Italy that moves up" or "The Italy that rises", or something along those lines. (The verb is salire, which can mean "rise", "come/go up", "increase", "grow", "advance", "progress", etc.)

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