Car Talk linguistics

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For people interested in language, linguistically-interesting bits grow on  pretty much all of the trees in the forest of communicative interaction. In order to get on with life, we let most of the specimens pass without comment. But the first two segments of this week's Car Talk radio show, which I listened to with half an ear while I waited for a computer program to finish running, rose to the threshold of bloggability: the first segment because it offered a nice exchange on what an "accent" is, suitable for use in my new lecture notes for this year's Linguistics 001;  and the second segment bcause it relates to a recent and celebrated British libel case.

The first listener who called in with a problem was Mary from Atlanta, and the interaction started like this:

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For non-American readers, I'll note that Tom and Ray Magliozzi are actually from Cambridge MA, and exhibit (perhaps sometimes in exaggerated form) the accent characteristic of working-class residents of the Boston area.  And when Mary suggests that they're from New jersey, this is clearly intended as a jocular insult (New Jersey is the Belgium of the United States, just as Belgium is the New Jersey of Europe), which Tom and Ray recognize and respond to with the remark about the "witness protection program".

The second caller was Mike from Vergennes, VT, who called because his 1993 Cadillac Fleetwood was bouncing up and down whenever he turned hard to one side or the other at low speed.  As is often the case, Tom and Ray disagreed about the diagnosis. (I'm not sure which brother is which in this passage, so I'll transcribe them as B1 and B2):

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B1: I'm assuming that it's in the alignment, somehow.
B2: Oh no, I think it's ((indistinct))
B1: You don't think so.
B2: No. Nah.
B1: Fleetwood.
B2: Think about it.
B1: See, I'm thinking that one of the wheels…

That sets up the disagreement. Now listen to how it develops:

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B1: See, I'm thinking that one of the wheels
Mike: Yeah.
B1: is not turning right.
B2: Nah, that's bogus!
B1: I know it is, I know it is, but that' s the feeling I'm getting, I'm using- I'm using all my intuition here.
B2: Here's what you do.
Mike: Yeah.

The critical question is, what does bogus mean in this context?

According to Sir David Eady, the presiding judge in the English High Court, when Simon Singh used the word bogus to describe chiropractic treatments for "children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying" as "bogus", he was asserting that such treatments are dishonest or fraudulent. (See here, here, and here for some background and discussion.)

Could bogus be used in that sense here? I don't think so. Tom and Ray are not above accusing one another jocularly of fraud, but in this case, I believe it's very clear that the word is used to mean "unsupported by evidence". That's why Brother 1 admits that his diagnosis is "bogus", but defends it anyhow because "that's the feeling I'm getting" and "I'm using all my intuition here". In other words, he has a hunch, not an inference from facts to conclusion.

And of course, "unsupported by evidence" is exactly what Simon Singh clearly (in my opinion) meant bogus to mean in his Guardian opinion piece of April 19, 2008, "Beware the spinal trap".

In the end, B2 suggests a more plausible etiology for Mike's problem: a slipping power-steering belt. And in the real world, Mike has long ago figured out what the problem really was (or junked the car) — this was an "encore presentation", i.e. a re-run, originally broadcast in 1997 or so, more than a decade before Simon Singh's article. But even if the problem turned out to be a wheel not turning properly, that diagnosis would still have been bogus, in the sense that it was unsupported by evidence. Even a bogus idea can be right from time to time.


  1. Joe Abley said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 9:26 pm

    What exactly is the phrase "New Jersey is the Belgium of the United States, and vice versa" intended to mean? That Belgium is also the New Jersey of the United States? That New Jersey is also the United States of Belgium?

    Just curious :-)

    [(myl) Well, I meant that Belgium is also the New Jersey of Europe; so I've revised the post to say that directly.]

  2. dr pepper said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 9:51 pm

    Considering that the New Jersey stereotype just got a big boost, perhaps Belgium should ask to be upgraded to, say, Louisiana.

  3. Brett said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 10:24 pm

    "Bogus" seems to be one of the Magliozzi brothers' favorite words on the show, and they use it to convey a reasonably broad spectrum of meanings. It may mean, as in this case, "unsupported by evidence and hence probably wrong." However, Tom also regularly uses it in a way that definitely implies a level of disingenuousness; this happens when Ray's solution to the previous week's puzzler involves some kind of trick. Of course, it's jocular (they have a special sound effect "booooogus" sound effect that Tom may call for the engineer to play), but it is definitely used to imply Ray has "cheated" with the solution, not merely that the solution is wrong.

  4. David said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 10:26 pm

    These guys are also MIT alumni, and engineers tend to take liberties with the term bogus, usually used in the "unsupported by evidence" or more commonly "imprecise" sense. It's pretty common for the measures derived from a klugy way of arriving at a measurement to be described in terms of bogomips, bogoflops, bogo-any other standard unit of measurement.

  5. John Cowan said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 10:28 pm

    Thus saith the Jargon File:

    [(myl) Transcluded by reference to the background post linked above, "Knowing bogosity", 5/11/2009.]

    I suggest that the meaning used by B2 hovers in the amboguous area between senses 3, 4, and 5.

  6. anon said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 11:02 pm

    Further disambiguation of The Car Guy's use of "bogus", especially since they're from MIT, can be found in the Jargon File.

    [(myl) Yes, that's why the Jargon File was linked and extensively quoted in the background post linked above, "Knowing bogosity", 5/11/2009.]

  7. Douglas McClean said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 11:05 pm

    Clearly, especially given the speakers in this exchange, the jargon file must be the ultimate authority.

    [(myl) Yes, that's why the Jargon File was linked and extensively quoted in the background post linked above, "Knowing bogosity", 5/11/2009.]

    Sense 4 would seem to be in use here, although I suppose 6 is possible.

  8. Douglas McClean said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 11:07 pm

    I knew something was wrong that no one had mentioned it yet. The poster above beat me while I was looking it up. :)

    I just can't believe the OP didn't link it. What's up with that, I thought you guys were the kings of obscure dictionaries? ;)

    [(myl) Well, you guys are certainly not the kings of following hyperlinks. The Jargon File was linked and extensively quoted in the first background post linked above, "Knowing bogosity", 5/11/2009.]

  9. john riemann soong said,

    August 2, 2009 @ 11:24 pm

    "By the early 1980s ‘bogus’ was also current in something like hacker usage sense in West Coast teen slang, and it had gone mainstream by 1985. A correspondent from Cambridge reports, by contrast, that these uses of bogus grate on British nerves;"

    Wow, that link also sheds some light on the libel case.

  10. Douglas McClean said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 12:05 am

    Hey hey, fair enough, my tongue was firmly in my cheek anyway.

    Seriously, you guys rock.

  11. Jonathan Lundell said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 12:21 am

    B1 is Tom; B2 is Ray.

  12. roscivs said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 2:26 am

    Hey Mark … if five people all link to the Jargon File, I think that might suggest that there is more of a problem with the clarity of your backreferencing links than with the reading comprehension skills of your visitors. ;-) Just a thought.

    [(myl) Clearly true. But it goes to show that you can't win for losing — I made a conscious decision in this case not to summarize the whole backstory ("My posts are always way too long", I thought to myself," because I explain all the references, quote all the background, etc. LL readers don't need all that." Mostly they don't, I guess, except when they do…]

    On a more serious note, I think elements 3-5 are all in play here. (I'm not sure about 6, though.)

  13. Jangari said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 2:51 am

    I'm afraid I don't know what either expression, New Jersey is the Belgium of the United States or Belgium is the New Jersey of Europe, mean.

    What characteristic do New Jersey and Belgium share with respect to their respective geographic superordinate?

    [(myl) I wrote here: "New Jersey is to New York City roughly as Belgium is to France — a place that can get a laugh just by being mentioned. I say this as someone who lived in New Jersey for 15 years."]

  14. Stephen Jones said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 6:06 am

    Belgium can easily get a laugh in Belgium itself.

    One of the more famous Belgian quotes comes when there is a lot of new army recruits and the NCO is asking them what they are in order to boost patriotic fervor.

    "What's your nationality?" he asks the first one. "Flemish" comes the reply.
    "What's yours?" he asks the second one. "Walloon" comes the reply.
    And so it goes on until he gets to the last one. "Belgian" comes the reply.
    The NCO is overjoyed. "A true patriot!" he explains. "And what's your name?"

    [(myl) Bill Poser used a more discursive version of this joke in "The Belgian Language", 6/16/2007:

    As the son of a Belgian, I know that the two major linguistic groups speak French and Dutch (formerly called vlaams "Flemish", but now officially called nederlands "Dutch") and hate each other to the extent that the joke is that the only real "Belgians" are the royal family and the Jews, everyone else identifying as a Fleming or a Walloon (Walloon being the dying Romance language now largely replaced by French). Some prefer the terms "Lemmings" and "Baboons". The Royal Family and the Jews are bilingual and avoid association with either linguistic faction.

    The web, of course, is a rich source of Belgian jokes. Most of them are not very funny, but this one is not bad:

    One day, the Belgians told their King they were fed up with the French making jokes about the stupid Belgians.

    So the Belgian king met with the French president and said, "We have to do something about this… how about you guys do something stupid so we can laugh about it?"

    The French president said, "Okay, we'll build a bridge in the desert."

    The Belgian king went home with news that the French had built a bridge in the desert, and the Belgians were laughing and laughing. In fact, they wouldn't stop laughing.

    Eventually, the Belgian king had put a stop to this. He went back to France and told the president, "Okay, that was funny but we really need to end this. You can destroy the bridge now…"

    The French president replied, "Well we would except for all the Belgians fishing on it."

    Similarly for New Jersey jokes — Q: "What do you call a smart guy in Bayonne?" A: "Lost."

    In both cases, the stereotype (not of course the reality) is of flat, ugly countryside, full of unsophisticated and unintelligent people with unpleasant-sounding accents.]

  15. Dan Lufkin said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 9:21 am

    That trope has many a shred-out: New Hampshire is the South Carolina of New England.

    [(myl) True – for a sample, see "X as the Y of Z, again", 3/25/2008.]

  16. Mr Punch said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 9:44 am

    So we can infer that despite appeareances, Sir David Eady may not be a complete idiot – just embarrassingly out of touch with the language?

    As for New Jersey and Belgium: New Jersey, like Belgium, has historically been divided between the cultural spheres of centers to the north (New York) and south (Philadelphia), and so may not be seen as a "real" place; also, of course, both New Jersey and Belgium are known for corrupt government.

  17. Mark P said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 10:23 am

    When state rankings for bad or good things are released, people in Alabama always say, "Thank god for Mississippi!" They might be thankful for New Jersey as well, but they keep quite about it to avoid drawing attention to themselves.

    [(myl) By all objective measures, New Jersey is actually a fine state, full of delightful places and nice people.]

  18. Bloix said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

    The joke about Belgians, I thought, was that they are stupid. The joke in this case, anyway, about New Jerseyans (Jerseyites?) is that they're mafiosi. There's something of an ethnic slur working here – the car guys' last name is Magliozzi, after all.

    [(myl) In the case of New Jersey, the traditional jokes also involve (alleged) lack of taste, lack of sophistication, ugly industrial scenery, and general worthlessness. For example: "Q: Why do seagulls in New Jersey fly upside down? A: Because they can't find anything worth crapping on." Or this Application to Live in New Jersey.]

    "Bogus" as I would use it is more than simply not supported by evidence, and less than outright lying. It's bullshitting – something that's said without regard to whether it's true or not, perhaps simply for the purpose of self-aggrandizement.

    [(myl) That seems just about right to me, at least for one of the sense-clusters.]

  19. Aaron Davies said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

    @joe abley, myl: this seems to call for "& v.v. m.m." (of my favorite latinisms)

  20. Mark P said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

    Something was nagging at me while I read this and I finally remembered that I have seen "bogus" used in a slightly different context, one in which the term indicates something other than full truth but where there are no negative connotations. It is sometimes used in atmospheric modeling. For example, there might be a large data base of observations but with some missing points. In order to increase the accuracy of the outcome of a model based on the data, the missing points might be replaced by synthesized data based on (let's say) previous observations of those points. The process is called bogusing.

    @myl: I suspect that by many objective measures, Alabama would rank far below New Jersey. As we in Georgia sometimes say, thank god for Alabama. Except in the case of water use in Atlanta, where the opposite sentiment is probably more common these days. (Atlanta was recently ordered by a federal court to stop drawing water from a reservoir that feeds a river that flows into Alabama. There are fears that Atlanta will dry up and blow away.)

  21. Nathan Myers said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

    A meta-observation: the Jargon File, in its present form, may no longer be suitable as a reference of last resort. The most readily accessible online edition has been hijacked by an Ambitious Individual who has been inserting entries that are his private foibles (e.g., "Aunt Tillie") and altering existing entries according to his prejudices (e.g., "kluge"). When we refer to the Jargon File, it is now, sadly, necessary to distinguish versions, particularly pre- and post-ESR. I have, instead, stopped referring to it, as much of it (pre- and post-) is obsolete anyhow.

  22. vanya said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

    "That trope has many a shred-out: New Hampshire is the South Carolina of New England."

    I'm from New Hampshire and I've never heard that one, or no one dares say it to my face. I'm familiar with "Rhode Island is the New Jersey of New England", and "Maine is the Mississippi of New England".

  23. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

    About NJ and Belgium: the difference is that the French tell jokes about Belgians (histoires de Belges), not about Belgium; in fact, more often than not the Belgians of the jokes are in France, not in Belgium. I am not aware of any "Jerseyite jokes" being told in New York.

    [(myl) Hmm. Most of the Jersey jokes that I know are about the inhabitants, not the landscape. Thus here we have: "Q: What do you get when you cross a New Jerseyite and a monkey? A: A retarded monkey"; "Q: What's the difference between a New Jerseyite and a comb? A: The comb has teeth."; "Q: What's the difference between a porcupine and a bar on Long Beach Island? A: The porcupine has the pricks on the outside."; etc. etc.]

    About languages: I would have thought that Bill Poser would know that while nederlands is the designation of the official language of the Belgians who speak various Dutch dialects, what these people call their spoken language is vlaams, and the name of their "community" is Vlaamse Gemeenschap. The Walloons, on the other hand, are only a part of the Communauté française, since the French-speaking inhabitants of Brussels are not generally called Walloons. They are of very diverse origin, but their core consists of descendants of Flemings who, in the course of the centuries, adopted French as their language.

  24. Dan Lufkin said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 5:21 pm

    When someone tells you they're from NJ, say, "Oh, really, what exit?"

  25. John Cowan said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 7:16 pm

    Dan Lufkin: put me down for 138.

  26. Alexandra said,

    August 3, 2009 @ 10:26 pm

    Can someone please explain what "New Hampshire is the South Carolina of New England" means? I live in New Hampshire, but I don't know enough about (stereotypes about) South Carolina to know in what way I'm being made fun of.

  27. john riemann soong said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 8:08 am

    Something I've been wondering is what it's like to perceive an accent in other languages natively — and whether the mentally effect is like English. For intralingual differences French/Chinese I rely on paralinguistic cues (I "sense" something in the speaker) but it's not as strong as say, recognising a Southern drawl. However, I do notice Beijing Northerner Chinese sounds really different from Singaporean Chinese t the extent that I call Beijinghua "the northern drawl".

    To an extent, Singaporean Chinese sounds "homely" to me and though Putonghua is much more common internationally, Putonghua sounds more foreign to me … but I don't even speak Chinese.

  28. Forrest said,

    November 23, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

    I'm surprised how long it took "… what exit?" to come up, given all this talk of New Jersey.

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