Sunday, 12 April 2015
I'm not one of those people who will carefully note new and unfamiliar terms, look them up, and diligently add them to my vocabulary. (Well, sometimes I am, but only when I make a special effort.) But now and then I'll encounter a word or phrase that piques my curiosity—it seems clever or apt, it describes something new to me, or perhaps it just sounds like a fun term.
Here's a list of such terms, with definitions and a little context. Most of these, I now realize, are linguistics-y.
liquid dissimilation. I wrote about this recently; it's a term from linguistics (phonology) for the phenomenon whereby people drop the R or L sound from a word.
lalochezia. This is a medical term, defined as "emotional relief gained by using indecent or vulgar language." I'm not able to find much context here, but I imagine that you if you hit your thumb with a hammer, lalochezia often results. I actually heard this from Mike Vuolo (I think it was) on one of the excellent Lexicon Valley podcasts.
negative polarity item (NPI). Another linguistics term, referring to terms or expressions that (per Gretchen McCullough) "tend to be found in the scope of negation and serve to emphasize that negation." Examples include give a hoot and lift a finger, which are both actions that are really only expressed in the negative, i.e., using don't. The NPI-ness of an expression tends to become evident when it's contrasted with a hypothetical positive version: *I give many hoots! This all was brought to my attention by a slew of articles and posts (example, example, example—none are for the easily offended) that address the playful use of NPIs in positive constructions: Look at all the damns [or other--M.] I give! etc.
criterion of embarrassment. A means of gauging veracity: a story seems true because it makes the storyteller look bad, since why would the teller recount an embarrassing story if it weren't true? Apparently this has theological implications; per Wikipedia, "Some Biblical scholars have used this criterion in assessing whether the New Testament's accounts of Jesus' actions and words are historically probable."
critique drift. This term was invented by Fredrik deBoer to describe "the phenomenon in which a particular critical political lens that correctly identifies a problem gets generalized and used less and less specifically over time." His examples include mansplaining, tone policing, and gaslighting, which he claims have specific meanings that however can be "employed in a sloppy, unhelpful, or dishonest way" to shut down debate. The idea is interesting, if controversial.
malaphors. Also known as the somewhat less colorful idiom blend, this describes an idiom mashup—keep your finger on the ball, that's a breath of relief, it's not rocket surgery. I got this term from Arnold Zwicky, but it goes back to the 1970s, apparently, and was used by Douglas Hofstadter.
That's the current crop. If you like these, I published a list of amusing (to me) corporate phrases (dogs not barking, keep the lights on) not long ago on the Vocabulary.com site.
And now on to a new list ...
Sunday, 5 April 2015
A linguistic nugget for those celebrating Easter today. In the KJV, Matthew 28:6 says: "He is not here: for he is risen." If you think about the latter part ("he is risen"), you might think, correctly, that today we would say "He has risen." So why "is risen"?
In modern English, the auxiliary for the perfect is have—he has gone, we have eaten, they had seen, etc. However, up through Early Modern English (and thus into the age of Shakespeare and King James), English still had two auxiliaries for the perfect: have and be. This was another trace of the roots of English as a Germanic language.
The auxiliary be was used for verbs that represent movement or a change in state, like to go, to come, to be, and to become. Here's a list of examples I'm swiping from Wikipedia:
These days, using be as an auxiliary (assuming you do it correctly, like Tennyson and Conrad did) can instantly add a touch of the archaic to what you're saying, for literary effect.
- Madam, the Lady Valeria is come to visit you. (The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Shakespeare)
- Vext the dim sea: I am become a name... (Ulysses, Tennyson)
- I am become Shiva, destroyer of worlds. (Baghavad Gita)
- Pillars are fallen at thy feet... (Marius amid the Ruins of Carthage, Lydia Maria Child)
- I am come in sorrow. (Lord Jim, Conrad)
Your assignment for the week is to practice this and spring it on unsuspecting friends during conversation. Let me know how that goes.
Wednesday, 11 February 2015
I am all for writing that conveys factual information and that’s written in an informal style. But some rigor is still required, even then, to keep thoughts and facts on track.
Here’s an example, one complete paragraph, from the book Countdown by Alan Weisman, which (as here) sometimes reads like a novel.
It exasperates him to think of agriculture’s driving incentive being not to feed, but to profit. Reynolds rises and stalks to the window. Both these men have made their careers here, working alongside Dr. Borlaug, authoring papers with him. A Nobel Peace laureate, and yet money to continue his work on the veritable staff of life that launched human civilization, and on which it still depends, is so damned scarce.So, two moments of potential confusion. First, who does “A Nobel Peace laureate” refer to here? Choices seem to include:
Second, what exactly is the relationship between the Nobel Prize and, well, anything in the rest of the sentence that the term appears in?
- Dr. Borlaug
- Someone who does not otherwise appear in this paragraph.
As I say, informal style is ok with me for a book like this. But if a sentence gets to the point where the reader has to stop and think, even informal writing needs some tightening up.
Wednesday, 4 February 2015
Another in the annals of singular they—I found this poster on Netflix recently:
I won't blather on about epicene pronouns my own self (I already did that), but for reference, I'll include some links to discussions about it, courtesy of an FB post by Katharine O'Moore-Klopf:
Thursday, 22 January 2015
My wife came home the other day and said, “I have a language thing for you.” (This is always an excellent way to get my attention.) Her story: “I noticed that a person I work with says fustrasting for frustrating.” In other words, they leave off that first R in fru-.
That sounded interesting. I tried some web searches, but this proved, um, somewhat frustrating, because search engines overwhelmingly want to auto-correct your fat-fingered entry. (Did you mean...?) But I managed to get some hits, including Urban Dictionary, the Grammarphobia blog, the amusingly named Ottawa Valley to English Dictionary, and some cites on the Wordnik site. I didn’t get a lot of insight, but these hits did tell me that the pronunciation of my wife’s colleague was not an idiosyncrasy and that a fair number of people say (and apparently even write) this.
When you encounter a pronunciation that’s “wrong” but is nonetheless often attested, it’s a good bet that there’s a linguistic basis for the pronunciation. For example, the (in)famous variation ask-aks/ax reflects dialectal variations in English that go back 1200 years. As another example, people often “add letters” when they pronounce words, like mason-a-ry and ath-e-lete. This turns out to be a well-understood phenomenon that goes by the name epenthesis. (Some words that are perfectly standard today, like thunder, reflect historical epenthesis.)
I had a hunch that the fustrating pronunciation had some phonological basis, so I sent a query to a couple of actual linguists. One of them directed me to an entry on the Phonoblog, where I learned that R-less fustrating is an example of the delightfully named liquid dissimilation. (“Liquid” here is used here to refer to the “liquid” consonants: in English, R and L.) The exact mechanism isn’t nailed down, but Nancy Hall, the blog post author, mentions another linguist’s observation that the dropped R is in words that have another R in them next to a schwa sound, and a theory is that, to put it generally, the existence of one of the R’s is causing speakers to drop the other.
What made this vivid for me, and not just a weird thing that people with some other dialect do, was to see the long list of words in which this can occur. It’s very easy for me to hear, including possibly from myself, the dropped Rs in words like these:
As Hall points out, this can also occur with L—her specific example is Pache[l]bel’s Canon; there’s even a lovely example of this on Amazon.
- prost[r]ate (not to be confused with prostate [cancer])
- … and many more. (See the blog entry for her list.)
This is just another example of one of the wonderful things about learning linguistics—you go from “Why do people say this wrong?” to just “Why do people say this?” And the latter is actually a much more interesting question.
Tuesday, 20 January 2015
Apropos of the most recent post, I was using my phone to access the Dictionary.com site and found the following. I don't see this on the web-based site.
Monday, 19 January 2015
I haven't put a lot of thought into this yet, so this is a, you know, thought in process. Consider the following utterances:
I saw it on my Facebook.
I've posted a blog about that.
I read this great Tumblr ...
There's a Wikipedia about it.
I think it's clear that these are synecdoches of one sort or another, but there is some subtlety to their usage.
Let's start with Facebook. Many times I've heard people refer to my Facebook:
A guy on my facebook just proposed ... [source
An Open Letter To The Women On My Facebook Whose Husbands are Policemen [source
What you might expect here is something like my Facebook wall or feed or page or timeline. But there are other usages where people might be eliding account.
So by logging into my Spotify, my Facebook was reactivated without my knowledge.I've heard this own usage ("my facebook") from my own kids (mid-20s).
I still haven't logged on to my Facebook [source]
Since I’ve had a Facebook, I think I got one in 2007, that’s a total of 1,274 hours, or 53 DAYS. [source]
I've had my Facebook since third grade. [source]
Comment (on FB): My Facebook is basically all about life's small dramas.
Next comment: Everyone's facebook is.
It's not hard at all to find instances of people using blog to mean something like blog entry:
I posted a blog today [source]I like the second example because the writer uses uses blog in a meronymic way, but doesn't do the same for MySpace. It wouldn't be unreasonable to expect to see I have a MySpace here, but we don't.
I have a MYSPACE account where I posted a blog [source]
Update: I found an example of this in a surprising place, namely on the mobile page for Dictionary.com.Tumblr
Probably the most common example of a synecdoche that I hear these days is my Tumblr, representing (mostly) my Tumblr blog:
just added a music playlist on my tumblr :D
Finally! I added music to my tumblr.
I was actually inspired to post this because I overheard someone at work say There's a Wikipedia about that. It was the first time that I recalled hearing an example of this elision with Wikipedia specifically.
So, more another time when I've thought about this further and have more examples. And btw, I go back and forth on whether these are examples of synecdoche or whether it's some other phenomenon besides simple elision.
Monday, 12 January 2015
This is an update to an earlier post, People who work at "___" call themselves "___". At the time I wrote that piece, I worked at Microsoft, which is to say, I was a Microsoftie. In the interim, I spent a couple of years as an Amazonian. Late last year I joined a new company—Tableau Software. Naturally, one of the first things I wanted to learn about is what people inside the company called themselves.
It turns out that people in the company have given this some thought. So much so, in fact, that there are factions. One of the senior executives is fond of the term Tablets. But the rank and file seem to be converging around the term Tabloids.
Update I had a discussion in Facebook about this and got two excellent suggestions: Tablafarians and vizards. The latter probably requires some explanation. Tableau software is used to make data visualizations, which the in-crowd refers to as vizzes (singular: viz). Thus viz-ards. Brilliant.
Nancy Friedman reminds me that a while back she investigated
the surprising etymology of the term tabloid
When I look through the list I have of other such names, I'm seeing just one other -oid ending (Proctoids), which surprises me. For reasons I cannot articulate, it feels like it should be a more commonly used particle. I still have not delved into this (future project perhaps), but there are presumably phonological, perhaps morphological, reasons why the names emerge as they do. Why not more -oids?
And then there is still the question of a name for this name. In the earlier post, I noted that folks had suggested corporanym, employeenym, idionym, and the somewhat esoteric ergazomenonym. A while back, I also challenged the readers of VisualThesaurus.com to come up with a term, and they variously suggested ergonym (work+name), salarionym, and emponym or employnym.
Well, just today I ran across an existing term, maybe two, that might fit the bill, altho these might require a little squinting: endonym (within+name) and autonym (self+name). Endonym is surprisingly obscure: the OED has no entry, nor does Dictionary.com, nor does Merriam-Webster.com. But Wikipedia does, in an article that discusses both endoym and exonym. These are (per the article) terms from ethnolinguistics:
... exonyms and endonyms are the names of ethnic groups and where they live, as identified respectively by outsiders and by the group itself. Endonym or autonym is the name given by an ethnic group to its own geographical entity (toponymy), or the name an ethnic group calls itself, often laudatory or self-aggrandizing. Exonym or xenonym is the name given to an ethnic group or to a geographical entity by another ethnic group.I don't think a term like Microsoftie or Tabloid could be considered particularly "laudatory or self-aggrandizing." Nor would one necessarily want to suggest that company employees constitute an ethnic group, in spite of much talk (especially recently) about (corporate) culture. But such names definitely are endo- and auto-. So I'll try out endoym for a while and see how that goes.
Sunday, 28 December 2014
I found an interesting intersection recently of two things I think about a lot. One is traffic, a topic of perennial interest to me. The second is data visualizations, something that I'm comparatively new to but very interested in.
Let me back up slightly. Not long ago (maybe in 2013?), the state of Washington introduced variable speed limits in a some areas that are prone to congestion, like on I-5 northbound approaching Seattle:
I was traveling with someone (my daughter, I think) who asked "Does that work?" To which my answer was that it could, if people actually obeyed these variable limits. (Which they don't at all.) What's the theory?
On their website, the state explains variable speed limits this way:
Ideally, approaching traffic will slow down and pass through the problem area at a slower but more consistent speed reducing stop and go traffic. By reducing stop and go traffic we’re also reducing the probability of an accident by giving drivers more time to react to changing road conditions. This helps drivers avoid the need to brake sharply as they approach congestion.Hmmm. This sort of describes the theory, but only in general terms. I also found the following on a different state site, which explains the theory even less, but does include a curious bonus reason (emphasis mine) for variable speed limits:
Variable speed limits offer considerable promise in restoring the credibility of speed limits and improving safety by restricting speeds during adverse conditions.So let me give it a shot. Imagine that you want to go to the movies. You go to the ticket booth and buy tickets. Let's say that this transaction takes 30 seconds. Just as you finish, someone else walks up to buy their ticket. Just as they finish their 30-second transaction, a third person walks up, and so on. As long as people don't arrive at the ticket booth any more frequently than every 30 seconds, there's never a line.
But let's say that 15 seconds after you started buying your tickets, someone gets in line behind you. That person has to wait 15 seconds. And let's say people arrive at the ticket booth every 15 seconds from then on, but the ticket vender can't go any faster than one transcation per 30 seconds. The result is that the line grows, and it continues to grow as long as people arrive at the queue faster than they can buy tickets. The ticket booth is a bottleneck, and the queue is congestion.
Make sense? Congestion results from people being added to a queue (or otherwise approaching a bottleneck) faster than they can leave it. This is as true for people buying movie tickets as it is for cars approaching a slowdown. If you can prevent people from joining the queue faster than they can leave it, you can reduce the delay. If you're selling movie tickets, I don't know how you prevent people from getting in line. But if you're managing traffic, you can try to keep people out of the congestion by slowing down how fast they get to the point where the slowdown occurs.
Some people have understood this for a long time, and voluntarily slow down when it looks like traffic is heavy ahead. William Beaty has a great article (undated?) in which he dives deep on ways that even a few drivers who behave intelligently in congestion and during merges can improve flow for everyone. And while his suggestions undoubtedly work, they rely on people engaging in non-intuitive behavior, like allowing people to merge (gasp!) and leaving long-ish gaps ahead of them.
Since most people don't have the benefit of Beaty's insights, the state has decided to try variable speed limits: if people won't regulate their own speed in reaction to congestion ahead, the state (the state's computers) will attempt to do it for them.
This brings me to the visualization part of our story. Lewis Lehe is a graduate student in transportation engineering who's created a beautiful, interactive visualization that illustrates bottlenecks. (The viz is actually about the difference between bottlenecks, which I'm interested here, and gridlock.) Lehe's visualization shows cars arriving at and leaving a bottleneck, and you can adjust the arrival rate to see interactively how congestion grows if cars arrive faster than they can leave (or vice versa). Click the link and then play with the viz to get a great sense of how variable speed limits could work.
An interesting promise of self-driving cars, like the one apparently forthcoming from Google, is that they could be a whole lot smarter than human drivers about driving in congested conditions. Assuming, of course, that humans aren't allowed to take control of a car that's driving—per their own sense—exasperatingly slow. That remains to be seen.
Monday, 24 November 2014
We English speakers can occasionally have some hiccups sorting out the singular or plural nature of nouns, especially when the nouns
represents represent a collection of individuals.
Basically speaking, in American English, a mass noun tends to be treated as a singular:
Apple has announced a new version of the iPhone.
Microsoft releases a new update every week.
In British English, these tend to be treated as plural:
Apple have announced a new version of the iPhone.
Microsoft release a new update every week.
Not long ago, an FB friend of mine was posting about an upcoming tour by the rock band The Who. He wrote:
The Who is (are?) coming.
Following the general rule, this is The Who is coming in American English, and The Who are coming in British English.
But consider mass nouns of this type when the noun itself is marked for plural:
The Rolling Stones are
going on tour.[1
Not even Americans will treat this as singular.
I ran across another angle on this issue today when I saw a headline about Marshawn Lynch, who plays football for the Seattle Seahawks. Behold:
As with sports teams generally, the name is plural. And as with the Rolling Stones, even in American English, we'll treat this name—which is trademarked—as plural, since it's marked that way: The Seahawks have won the game.
But the writer here got in a bind: if the Seahawks are a team, and even if we think of them as a (plural) collection of individual, how do you refer to any one member?
I suspect that in informal settings, people will mostly use the singular: Marshawn Lynch will be a Seahawk. Perhaps an overly attentive editor got concerned about using a trademarked name incorrectly. But the result in this case comes out sounding very odd.