No word for journalistic indolence

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The latest, laziest, and most stupid things-there-are-no-words-for snowclone use I have seen in quite a while (contributed by a Language Log reader who supplies no name other than "Flintoff's Gusset"):

Herein lies a cricket tale of a heady concoction of exceptional talent laced with self-belief to match. Such gargantuan self-belief, in fact, that just as the Piraha tribe of northwest Brazil speak an obscure language in which there is no concept of numbers, so in the lexicon of Ian Botham's cricket existence, there is no word for "impossible". He does not, and never has done, "can't".

Thus Mike Selvey, writing about Ian Botham on the ESPN cricinfo site.

Therein lies a journalism tale of a heady concoction of lack of talent laced with indolence to match. Such gargantuan indolence, in fact, that just as the Whatsit tribe of somewhere-or-other speak an obscure tongue in which there is no concept of original literary devices, so in the lexicon of Mike Selvey's cricket writing, there is no word for "lame". He does not, and never has done, "think".

Have we touched bottom? Is this the last and lowest instance of the no-words-for-X trope? Only the future can tell. But in the language of the thus-and-such tribe there is no word for "never"…


  1. A said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

    Piraha is pretty fascinating though.

  2. greg said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

    so, what you're saying is original literary devices are officially deceased?

  3. Jim said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

    Well, it is sports writing/speak, after all. Use as many words as possible to relay a small bit of information, invent things, use as many cliches as possible. Much like political speak, but since the subject matter isn't as serious, much more fun to listen to…

  4. Tom Vinson said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 4:25 pm

    Have we touched bottom? Is this the last and lowest instance of the no-words-for-X trope? Only the future can tell.
    I doubt it. There's probably a proof of the non-existence of a lowest instance of the "no word" trope, analogous to Euclid's theorem that there is no largest prime number. I just haven't had enough sleep this week to figure it out.

  5. John Cowan said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 4:31 pm

    Well, at least what is said about the Pirahã is arguably true, whereas the eight-thousand-words-for-snow tale is inarguably false. I'd say that counts as being above zero.

  6. Giles Robertson said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

    I think you should refer to this variant as a "noclone".

  7. Jonathon said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

    Am I the only one having trouble parsing "He does not, and never has done, 'can't'"?

    [You're not alone (or you shouldn't be). Here's why: whatever "doing 'can't'" might be, it involves the lexical verb do, as in do laundry or do your homework. Lexical verbs cannot take not following them as a way to negate the clause. If you take "He does not…" as the lexical verb do, it's ungrammatical; but if you take it as containing the auxiliary verb do, then you're stuck for a way to interpret the second coordinate never has done. The phrase "He does not" should have been "He doesn't do". Possibly some myopic copy editor thought that seemed redundant and killed one of the two verbs without looking at the syntax of the whole thing. —GKP]

  8. Stephen Nicholson said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 4:56 pm

    Isn't this also Whorfism at it's worst?

    [Absolutely. That's what I'm getting at here. This is vulgar lexical Whorfianism at its intellectual lowest. —GKP]

  9. G said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 5:19 pm

    I don't understand. Isn't it true or at least claimed to be true that there are no numbers in piraha? Is that what you are objecting to? Or are you objecting to the description of a cricket lexicon not containing a word for "impossible"?

    [The claim about Pirahã is true. What I'm drawing attention to is the tired journalistic rhetorical figure; see my original post on the topic. —GKP]

  10. David Costa said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 5:31 pm

    The remarkable thing is that Selvey presumably got paid actual *money* for writing that.

  11. Kaviani said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 5:50 pm

    @ David Costa – Have you not read "sports journalism" before? It's embarassing for all of us.

  12. Björn said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 6:00 pm


    I parsed it as a list, with the commas separating list items not working like parentheses. So,


    *does not, and
    *never has done,

    but now that I break it down like that, the "and" provides a bit of a problem … but this reading did mean I could parse it – while leaving me unable to parse 'He does not, and never has done, "think"'.

    At any rate, I'm currently trying to find a language in which there are no words for "In [language x] there are no words for [thing/concept/phrase y]". Then we can solve the problem by just reading LL in that language …

  13. James said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 6:30 pm

    Say more about Piraha, somebody, please! Do they got numbers or don't they got numbers?

    [(myl) They don't got numbers. See here for a discussion, and here and here for lots more.]

  14. Electric Dragon said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 6:45 pm

    Is it not harsh to dismiss Lord Selv's writing on the basis of one figure of speech you happen not to like? Maybe you don't like that piece: very well, I refer you to his wonderful appreciation of Graeme Swann of last week, or his reminiscences of winning the county title with Middlesex of a couple of weeks previously.

  15. Des Ryan said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 7:13 pm

    In his popular book on the Piraha people and language,("Don't Sleep, There are Snakes") I remember Daniel Everett mentioning that the Piraha people count up to about three or four. Not surprisingly, he had no difficulty teaching young children to identify quantities larger than that, although he maintained that the adults struggled.

    [Not even three or four: the Pirahã seem to have absolutely no number words at all, and no concept of counting. The words that Dan thought might mean "one" and "two" turn out under experimental investigation to mean something more like "a teensy bit" and "a couple/one or two/some small amount". See the references Mark Liberman cites above in answer to another comment. —GKP]

    I don't know what words he used to teach them, or what system of numeration he used.
    I wonder what the lower limits are to systems of numeration, and how this relates to language. Whether, for example, we have an in-built capacity up to (say) four, but no further. It's not always easy to envision five-ness or six-ness, and these seem to break down into two+three and three+three.

    Five-sided shapes don't seem to appear much in metaphor. Onesidedness occurs in "the straight and narrow", twosidedness in "the flip side of coin", threesidedness in "love triangles" and even foursidedness (ish) in "back to square one", you don't hear much about pentagons or hexagons.

  16. Dw said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 7:17 pm

    "Is this the last and lowest instance of the no-words-for-X trope?"

    Not at all. Regardless of one one thinks of the quality of Selvey's writing, his actual claim about Pirahã is not a million miles away from what Everett claims about that language:

    [(myl) I'm afraid you've missed the point. According to Dan Everett's analysis, the Pirahã don't count, aren't interested in counting, lack the concepts of counting numbers, and also lack words for numbers. (See here for a discussion, and here and here for much more information.)

    The complaint is about the tired trope "just as X has (many or no) words for A, so Y has (many or no) words for B", where in fact the Y-to-B relationship is purely metaphorical. The fact that the X-to-A relationship is often a myth, and that there's little correlation between having a concept and having a (single) word for it, just makes it all worse.]

    [Mark explains exactly what I was alluding to. I am evidently assuming too much about people's acquaintance with Language Log and willingness to research its earlier posts. Dan Everett is fully convincing on the topic of whether Pirahã has number words: it doesn't. But this horrible use of the claim to begin a cricket article struck me as extraordinarily lame. I have seen the trope used too often. —GKP]

  17. David P. said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 8:48 pm

    Regarding "one, two, many…" there is an interesting anecdote about Ishi, the last California Indian, who lived for a while in a San Francisco museum of anthropology. He had told the anthropologists that there were no words for numbers above three or so. Later, one of the anthropologists, observing Ishi at a moment when Ishi was unaware he was being observed, noticed him counting his money and quite clearly going way above three. The anthropologist (I think this was Kroeber) speculated that perhaps Ishi felt parts of his language were too private or too sacred to divulge to others.

    My memory of this story might be unreliable — it's been years since I read it — but I've always been skeptical since then of these accounts that one tribe or other lacks numbers.

  18. Mr. Fnortner said,

    October 6, 2010 @ 11:40 pm

    @Des Ryan, maybe the upper limit is seven-ness. I quickly noted fifth wheel, sixth sense and six of one, half dozen of the other as examples of metaphors that go beyond four. But then again, we have seventh son, eighth wonder, nine lives and to the nines as further possibilities.

    I thought at first that complaints by LL moderators against the "just as X has (many or no) words for A, so Y has (many or no) words for B" form were only semi-serious, with a dash of humor to temper them. After today's latest, I am distressed at how willingly you have ceded power and control to the fools that write this tripe. Do you not recognize how easily your ire is provoked by nobodies? It would be far healthier, emotionally, to dismiss these writers with nothing more than a sneer than to allow them to trigger your unseemly response.

  19. Dan T. said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 12:21 am

    "Not" can be inserted after a verb to negate it in archaic English, and in some traditional recitations like "She loves me, she loves me not". There's also the idiomatically humorous use of "Not!" to append after an entire phrase to comically negate it, as featured for instance in the movie Borat.

  20. Will said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 3:10 am

    @Dan T.: Funny you should cite Borat for that, since I think the movie that comes to most people's mind for "Not!" jokes is definitely Wayne's World.

  21. Ginger Yellow said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 5:07 am

    It's not always easy to envision five-ness or six-ness, and these seem to break down into two+three and three+three.

    Five-sided shapes don't seem to appear much in metaphor.

    Clearly you haven't read the Principia Discordia or seen the Sacred Chao.

  22. Tom Saylor said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 5:12 am

    GKP said:

    Lexical verbs cannot take *not* following them as a way to negate the clause. If you take "He does not…" as the lexical verb *do*, it's ungrammatical.

    Is this true? Consider:

    * He knows not what he’s doing.

    * She has not a friend in the world.

    * He has done not one of the things he promised.

    * She drinks not coffee but tea.

  23. NW said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 10:38 am

    'He knows not' is an archaism, a fossil from when the language did allow this. In the other three, the 'not' is a modifier of the following phrase, not of the preceding verb.

  24. Vasha said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 10:43 am

    @Tom Saylor:

    None of those examples is a negation of a lexical verb in modern English. The first is a reminiscence of an archaic quote from the King James Bible "they know not what they do" (Luke 23:24); the second and third are negations of the following quantifier; the fourth is the "not X but Y" idiom for contrasting two items.

  25. Rebecca said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

    Anybody know of any online compilations of these "no word for X" stories? Could make for fun/frustrating reading.

  26. Joyce Melton said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 6:52 pm

    So the truthiness of his metaphor doesn't matter? There's an objection to the trope in and of itself, even if someone is careful to only use a legitimate comparison? I don't get that.

    Also, his ending phrase with the does-not-hasn't-done is something I've heard before in the context of sport. It's not an invention, it's an idiom.

  27. Chris D said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 8:03 pm

    "Just as ants don't have eight legs, humans don't have four."

    The problem is not the factuality of the two claims. The problem is the (implied) link between these facts. With the example above, you understand me as somehow implying that there is a connection between the "missing" legs in the two groups of animals.

    As Mark said, either or both claims being false only compounds the problem.

  28. John G said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 10:30 pm

    I would have thought that the falseness of the parallel (between group X not having A and individual Y not having B) is deliberate and intended to be funny, since it is so obviously not the same thing. It's just an exaggerated formula for 'he doesn't know the meaning of [fear][impossible]' = he has no word for … oh, it's like that story of … what was that tribe again? But it's a joke and not supposed to be taken as anything else.

    That would justify, if not claim elegance for, the sports writer. As for journalists or anthropologists who make factual claims that group X does not have a word for A (or many words for A), that's subject to verification, and doubt in most cases. Here the sports writer seems to have got his facts right, or close to right, at least about the Piraha. Whehter it's accurate about his cricketer, I have no idea.

  29. Joyce Melton said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 4:01 am

    Sorry. It's still coming across to me as just a quirky peeve. The implied link of similar causation is not implied so much as inferred. It's a hyperbolic figure of speech and not meant to be considered for syllogistic integrity.

    [Whatever the lame figure of speech might be, it certainly is not hyperbole. A hyperbole is an exaggeration of truth ("There were millions of people at the party"); this is a vaguely motivated analogy between a true claim about an Amazonian Indian language and a false claim about English as spoken by a certain cricketer. And my point is not about its integrity but about its lameness. —GKP]

  30. Tom Saylor said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 6:00 am

    @ NW and Vasha:

    What about expressions like "It matters not" and "I care not"? Are they not modern English? A search of the 1990-2010 COCA database gives 105 hits for "matters not" and 24 hits for "cares not." And then there are clauses like "Ask not what your country can do for you." All rather formal, maybe even archaic, but ungrammatical?

  31. Tom Saylor said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 6:18 am

    @Vasha, who said "None of those examples is a negation of a lexical verb in modern English."

    True, but GKP's claim pertained to clausal negation, not verbal negation ("Lexical verbs cannot take *not* following them as a way to negate the clause"), and I was responding to that claim.

    Huddleston and Pullum cite "She told me nothing" and "We were friends at no time" as instances of non-verbal clausal negation. I may be wrong, but I would think they would give a similar classification to "She has not a friend in the world," "He has done not one of the things he promised," and "She drinks not coffee but tea."

  32. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 9:54 am

    I too don't see anything false or even misleading in Selvey's line, and as John Cowan points out, we're far from the bottom. (I assume GKP intended the pun.) The reader knows that it's a hyperbolic way of saying, "Botham is very self-assured", and decorating the comparison. But if you want to analyze it, I think you can say, "The Piraha have no words for numbers because they're not interested in counting, and Botham has no word can't in his lexicon because he's not interested in the possibility that he might fail."

    The trope is certainly tired, though.

    Francisco: If I fail—

    Richelieu: Fail!
    In the lexicon of youth, which fate reserves
    For a bright manhood, there is no such word
    As fail!

    Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton, Richelieu (1839), II, 2.

  33. E said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 9:05 pm

    @Rebecca: Anybody know of any online compilations of these "no word for X" stories? Could make for fun/frustrating reading.

    Here are the ones of which the news has come to Language Log (there may be many others but they haven't been language-blogged):

  34. James Wimberley said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 10:29 pm

    gkp in a nested comment: ¨This is vulgar lexical Whorfianism …¨
    Why limit it to two levels as with Marxism? (Vulgar Marxism: interpretation of Marx I don´t like; real Marxism: my interpretation of Marx.) Whorfianism has an in principle infinite number of levels, known as factors. Capt. Pullum to Scotty: ¨Go to whorf factor ten¨.

  35. Snarkyxanf said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 2:13 am

    English has no word for, for, uh, for, you know, that thing.

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