Friday, August 31, 2007

Erin McKean's gone fishin'

Erin McKean is editor in chief of the Oxford American Dictionary. On the side she holds a position as editor of Verbatim. On the other side she has written several books. But most impressive is that she runs two blogs at the same time: A Dress a Day and Dictionary Evangelist.

McKean says "Deciding what words are good and what words are bad is actually not very easy and it's not very fun." In this presentation she offers an image of lexicographers gathering--not regulating; fishing--not directing traffic.* Watch this just to be smothered in analogies.

Polyglot and Mr have commented (over at Mr's blog) on the new trend of PR announcements going out to "lowly linguablogs." Receiving such an email announcement is a little flattering. Just a little. But I too considered letting it slide. I thought Why should I put this up? Surely once Ben Zimmer mentions it on Language Log my contribution is effectively null.

Well nearing null maybe. Almost null. But not null. No. ('nuff nasals?)

So watch the video.

*I was going to write "fishing, not policing" but the parallel structure of that contrast makes for a distracting joke along the lines of "talcum powder is to talc as baby powder is to...?"

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Cleaning out the back of the fridge

I have about 20 posts sitting unfinished in the holding bin. I usually give them an obvious title and I write out a brief outline of my observations on quotes and clips and arguments and phrases and words. The oldest draft (an unfinished--and barely started--post on diminutive suffixation) goes back to October of last year.

Many of these post topics are still interesting to me and I'll eventually get to a lot of them. But occasionally a draft is tossed into the bin. Sometimes the observation has been plumbed by another source--"Brizendine is spreading lies about sex differences in brain structure and language!" Sometimes the observation is too obvious--"Have you noticed that people pronounce things differently?" And sometimes I just can't remember what I was going to say. Consider the following passage taken from a story by Arthur Spiegelman.

Reuters: O'Donnell, known for her unabashedly liberal views, and Hasselbeck, who is a political conservative, have sparred frequently on the show, although they profess to be good friends off-camera.

I have no idea what I was going to say about this. It's not memorable or interesting. It's direct writing in a fluff story. It's no longer relevant to anything that's happening in the media. And I'm not even sure why I chose to reveal that the little clip was sitting in my draft file.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

You should have heard it before I said it

This clip has been making the rounds. Watch it if you must. But note that I'm not intent on making unkind jokes.

Here's how I transcribed the clip--leaving out all the 'um's 'er's and 'uh's.

Aimee Teegarden: Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can't locate the U.S. on a world map. Why do you think this is?

Lauren Caitlin Upton: I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because some people out there in our nation don't have maps and I believe that our education--like such as in South Africa and the Iraq everywhere--like such as--and I believe that they should (our education over here in the us) should help the U.S....or should help South Africa and should help the Iraq and the Asian countries so we will be able to build up our future for our...

Issue #1: Its disturbing to see the questioner given a name while Lauren Caitlin Upton is simply "South Carolina." She has an identity other than her home state. This is just one of the problems I have with pageants.

Issue #2: Or rather the non-issue here is intelligence. This is probably all about nerves and a temporary collapse in fluency. I've been there. We've all been there. Some of these disfluencies are clearly more than a simple stammer--there's evidence of extreme emotion affecting her speech. Repeating "like such as" is the type of halt that comes from a profound confusion regarding such simple phrases as "such as" and "like so" or "like such." Probably temporary.

My disfluencies are commonly the repetition of a frozen murmur like "and uh..." or "but uh..." or "and so..." The phrases usually end in a meaningless extension. The mumbly uhhh... or a word like "so" that often leads into an unstated implication. Something like "I'm...uh...really hungry." But she ends the phrase "like such as" with a clear sense of the completed thought. Just because it's fresh in her memory it becomes her tie-over phrase even tho it doesn't work.

Her confusion reminds me of the odd responses I've often uttered when nervous and confused and anxiously anticipating the importance of a specific appropriate response. Many many years ago I took a phone call from a pretty young lady and I expected she was going to say she missed me. She opened with "How are you?" and I responded with "Good. Me too!" She said "What?" and I shot back with "Yeah...I know!"

With enough charity of interpretation her thoughts might reasonably be paraphrased as "The educational system here in the US has gaps just like those that exist in other countries. Remedying these gaps would help not only the US but would allow us in turn to help other countries."

Say what you will about about clichés and simplistic arguments. But if she had used those words to express the same ideas no one would be saying anything about Lauren's intelligence.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Admittedly a few birds did act strange...

It's only Monday night of the second week of the semester and already I feel like the vultures are circling.

It gives me a good excuse to post this illustration to bring it to life.

It's a banner image from The Truth Cave's template. "Brian" has rolled back the stone from the mouth of the cave. We're allowed back in.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Minimal pairs of another sort

This post might be a silly excuse to post a picture from a Victoria's Secret promotion.

For some reason the fashion industry likes to turn plurals into singulars. Many a runway show announcer has called attention to "a pleated pant."

Over on this JCPenney page the heading uses singular "pant" tho the individually men's Dockers® are listed as "pants" while the women's Cabin Creek® item is listed as a "pant". But I can't find a pattern because on this page, five of the women's Dockers® take the plural and one (the Sydney pant) takes the singular.

This CBS Sports Store page uses the singular for every pair of pants on the page.

In Spanish it's possible to use both the singular and plural as well. Either pantalón or pantalónes. Buffy tells me there's a lyric out there "llevaba camisa oscura y pantalón claro" in a song titled "Desapariciones" by Maná. And of course there is an episode of the French television series Le Mythomane (The Pathological Liar) titled "Un pantalon tout neuf" (A Very New Pant).

And for the stage directions of The Taming of the Shrew to call Gremio "a pair of pantaloons" would just be silly. The singular form predates the plural form as it is a shortened form of pantaloon a word that rose from San Pantaleone and settled into use as both a type of character in Italian comedies and the typical costume. The OED mentions "the Venetian character Pantaloon" dating from 1561 or sooner.

The etymology has nothing to do with the outfit. It goes back to a combination of Gr pantos (gen pan, universal, in combinative use all, or every); and leōn, lion.

It probably picked up the plural use because of the obvious bifurcate construction of the suit.

So is the fashion and garment industry preserving an original use or has it introduced a form that only happens to coincide with an earlier form? (This is one of my favorite issues in language use/change and one which will get a lot of attention in my dissertation).

Well there is evidence that the fashion industry just likes to call things by the singular. Buffy has received in the mail about 7 postcards from her favourite outfitter: Victoria's Secret. The offer sounds like a lame giveaway of only one little sandal. But she went anyway to claim her gift and sure enough--they gave her one for each foot.

Pink Flip Flop

What kind of picture did you expect I would post?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

OK. But what do you mean?

Continued from here here and here.

Fay claims there are also connotative and semantic problems with Read's proposed etymology of OK. The first problem he identifies is that "'OK' has always had some widely understood and accepted special connotations of impropriety to it." He cites two occurrences from the theatrical weekly, Paul Pry that Read uses as evidence: the first, a story about a benefit for the widow and children of Henry J Finn; the second, a story about a "horde of bloods" from Boston who engage in a "hob-a-nob": probably a round of drinking.

Though Fry claims that "Read says the editor apologized the next day for using the expression" it is not clear from Read's article that the expression was the reason for the apology. What Read says is that "in the next issue the editor apologized for the article that had contained O.K." While the expression could possibly be the reason for the apology it doesn't seem likely. The apology appeared the day after the article about the drinking buddies: three weeks after the article about the benefit. Such timing suggests that the apology addressed something other than the OK abbreviation. As Read recaps: the OK was "in a piece that slipped past the editor by mistake." It was the piece, not necessarily the OK that slipped by.

Evidence that OK was considered an undesirable form could help Fay's argument that it was a borrowing from the Choctaw. Fay pulls a quote from "O.K.; a True Tale of the Late Election," a fictional piece in Brother Jonathan (21 November 1840): "Drums beat in the street and shouts of O! K! made the night hideous." Perhaps the line assures him of the etymological connection to Choctaw. Such assurance must come by courageous conjecture.

As further evidence that many viewed the Choctaw language as undesirable and inferior, Fay relies on "Brinton's implication that Choctaw was the language of 'ignorance and immorality' while English was the language of 'godliness and civilization.'" Brinton did in fact make the ethnocentric and bigoted claim of "ignorance and immorality" but he was not saying anything about the language. He was giving misguided praise to the missionary efforts of the Reverend Cyrus Byington. The statement is found in the biographical introduction to an article on Choctaw grammar published in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (4 February 1870). It offers little more than circumstantial support for the argument that OK was decried because of an undesirable origin.

The semantic "problem" with Read's etymology: "No one would seriously argue that in any but one or two instances the expression 'OK' has been used to express 'Old Kinderhook.'" It's true that there is only light evidence of the occurrence of "O.K." as a substitute for the words "Old Kinderhook." But Fay shifts his focus claiming that "even 'Oll Korrect' is often not a good semantic fit for the expression 'OK.'" He suggests rather that "the traditional, non-abbreviation 'okay' seems to fit perfectly" in those otherwise awkward uses.

We may presume that he relies on the 'non-abbreviation' because it shakes loose from the need to represent either "oll korrect" or "old Kinderhook." Fay's entire argument predicates the etymology from the Choctaw "okeh" which he glosses as "it is so and not otherwise." (I will address his discussion of the Choctaw connection in another post.) He cites a linguist (Herbert A Badger) who in his 1971 dissertation notes "the occurrence of okeh in Choctaw conversations in much the same syntactic and semantic environments as the American OK."

Abbreviations do not always function syntactically or semantically as their long-forms. Especially when they represent forms that are not nouns. Consider such up-and-coming abbreviations as PO or LOL. These are far from standard. The former takes the past-tense marker after the "O" (I was so PO'd) even tho the long form takes the marker after the first segment (I was so pissed-off) and the latter (when pronounced "ell oh ell") is heavily mocked even in extremely casual speech. And although there are some who use "ell oh ell" in speech (yes--I have heard it) they rarely intend it as a replacement for "laughing out loud". I've never heard anything close to "I elled oh ell when heard the joke!" Abbreviations--especially slang abbreviations--often work within patterns that differ from the rules applied to the long form.

Read addresses the flexibility of casual forms in his "First Stage" paper saying that "slang expressions are notoriously loose, and it should not be expected that either O.K. or all correct would be used in a strict sense." Fay does not share Read's willingness to accept such loose interpretations from an abbreviatory etymology. He finds the "all correct" gloss suspect in the following passages where he feels that long form does not fit as well as "it is so and not otherwise."

  1. The net proceeds was upward of $1,200, O.K.

  2. [O]ur Bank Directors have not thought it worth their while to call a meeting, even for consultation, on the subject. It is O.K. (all correct) in this quarter.

  3. The house was O.K. at the last concert, and did credit to the musical taste of the young ladies and gents.

Holding to the premise of Fay's argument we find the very fault with his "okeh/okay" gloss that he posits on the "O.K." gloss. The first example can take the "it is so..." gloss easily. But examples 2 and 3 work better when the abbreviation is replaced with "all correct". In sentence 3 it is hard to see how a re-affirmative would be intended or even how it would make sense.

Fay then relies on a nebulous argument regarding the impressions made by the differing etymological definitions.

But in almost all of those cases, the essential "feel" of the word is not conveyed by "all correct." To use the terminology of the Choctaw linguist, the "syntactic and semantic environments" do not quite fit. In all of those cases, the tradition "feel" of "okay" is a much better fit.

The better fit is not clear.

Impelling Fay to question and counter Read's conclusions is an article on the Folk etymology of OK that Read wrote in 1964. Fay also introduces another voice, the writings of Woodford Heflin who questions some of Read's earlier conclusions. Further posts will consider several new voices and other arguments, including those specifically those in favor of a Choctaw origin.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Taking a break from summer

Today is the first day of classes. Posting may now be a little lighter than the summer blitz. Several new officemates have wriggled their way into 215 and I've been told that 2 of them are linguists. Odd that everyone assumes that's important to me. Have you met LING1? Have you met LING2? Yeah we told them about you too!

And it's not just for linguistics. All fields get the same reaction. Oh you're a medievalist! Have you met...? I've never been a very compartmentalized person. I like to blend the colours of my life to a nice neutral tone instead of a sharp plaid pattern. Well let's say the pattern is so tightly woven that although the threads retain distinct colors they appear (at not much of a distance) a rich umber.

Of course the linguists will blend in fine.

Tomorrow I meet with the history of the English language class (327). It's going to be a new experience. So far all classes I have taught here at Purdue have had a heavy cant towards engineering. So far the roster shows that all 29 students in 327 are enrolled in the College of Liberal Arts. This could be fun.

All of a sudden the fabric of my class loses the steely-blue tint of math and engineering; it takes on the earthy tone of a leather-bound tome. Of wooden bookcases gilded by thumbprints and coffee.

Saturday, August 18, 2007


Three loosely related topics in this post:

A) Nancy Friedman at Away With Words has posted on a recent trend of bubbles popping up everywhere.

2) In a comment I mentioned favicons and she hadn't heard of them. Those are the little icons in the address bar that change on each webpage. They are often used as logos in toolbar button links. I've struggled with the pronunciation of these little visual gewgaws. Does the first syllable rhyme with save or with salve? Does the second syllable preserve the "long" 'I' of icon or does the third syllable get secondary stress so that the "I" is an unstressed schwa? Some possible pronunciations I imagine:

  1. [ˈfej.vɪ.kan]/[ˈfej.və.kan](similar)

  2. [ˈfej.ˌvaɪ.kan]

  3. [fej.ˈvaɪ.kan]

  4. [ˈfæ.vɪ.kan]/[ˈfæ.və.kan]

Number two is what I imagine most people say because it's the closest to the two words being combined: fave and icon. However it's an awkward rhythm because it puts two diphthongs together which draws a stress to both syllables but it's a little unsettling to have two near equal stresses right next to each other. It's packing a phrasal contour into one word. It feels awkward to me.

So if I didn't know what the etymology or meaning of the word was I would guess it was pronounced as #4. Perhaps this preference is by analogy: Rubicon opticon Farrakhan comicon decepticon...

Last)As I mentioned in my comment to Friedman's post I've been looking for a decent 'favicon' to associate with this blog. Just a little image that looks good in the address bar. For some reason one image keeps staring at me. But it has nothing to do with my usual topics and I don't know why I'd pick it.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Exclamation point

Read Helen DeWitt's post about her struggle to publish a book with the punctuation and capitalization of her choosing. The story does not pit Editors against Art. It's Ignorance against an author.

And note how well her writing rhythm captures the acceleration and elevation of the conflict.

[via Languagehat]

Yankin' your Cheney

I've tried to stay away from purely political posts. So for now I'll leave the heavy commentary to everyone else out there who has a take on this recent video. I'll only say this. Of course Dick Cheney is entitled to change his mind. And maybe he did so honestly. A big question is why? What were his priorities then and what are they now? And did it ever have anything to do with a moral policy?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Gobbling up the competition

After Tiger Woods won the Bridgestone Invitational by margin of 8 strokes the announcer proclaimed that Woods had "lapped the field." (Yes. I know this was about two weeks ago.) Here's a metaphor that is continuing to move away from its original meaning.

Of course Tiger didn't run one complete extra lap and pass the competition from behind before the race was over. There's really no way for that to happen in golf. But he did beat them easily. Very easily.

What would be a golf analogy to lapping the field? Completing 4 rounds in the same number of strokes that the 2nd place player does 3? That's not going to happen on the PGA. Doing 72 holes in the same number of strokes as the 2nd place player does 71? Close but it's a little too easy. According to the tournament announcer lapping the field is doing 72 holes in the same number of strokes as the 2nd place player does 70. That's about 8 strokes.

I see on the fuzzy horizon a possible shift in the metaphor. Not just a generalization to a sense of winning decisively; I see a new metaphor promising to emerge. If Tiger does this enough we'll start to see some puns on 'lap' becoming more common. 'Lap' will be connected to the way a cat drinks milk from a bowl and 'lap the field' will work as metaphor alongside 'lick' -- tho lick in the context of victory doesn't seem as common as it use to be and the whole thing is actually pretty unlikely. And would it count as an eggcorn if the sound is exactly the same? I think misinterpretations don't count.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The wrong typo disorder

Picking on spelling errors is not the high road for a linguist. We usually let people like Richard Lederer and Lynne Truss and George Bernard Shaw fling that mud 'cause we get dirty and they like it.

But we need to get a little dirt under our fingernails every once in a while right? Sometimes that's how the important work gets done. And sometimes the pigs are right; it can be fun. And sometimes its a genuine question of the intended meaning of a phrase.

So...The NFL has become a lot more strict regarding concussions. Some players have been put back into games without fully recovering from brain injuries and something has to change.

The new policy apparently wants to raise the standard of mental functioning necessary for permission to suit-up.

The guidelines include prohibiting any player who has lost conciseness from returning to a game or practice. It outlines the symptoms, which include confusion; problems with immediate recall; disorientation and blurred vision and says that a player should have no concussion symptoms and normal neurological test results before returning to play. [emphasis added]

So I guess when an athlete is hit in the head they ask him to state his name, give his age, and defend capitalism in fewer than 25 words.

Read the story here. Looking for this form on GoogleTM I got these results.

Via ADS-L Ben Zimmer reminds me of the Cupertino effect "wherein an automatic spellchecker miscorrects an error. MS Word gives "conciseness" as the first alternative for various plausible misspellings of "consciousness", such as "conscisness", "conscesness", "conshisness", "concisness" and "concusness". (I like the last one as a possibility, since the error could have been influenced by the frequent use of
"concussion" in the article.)"

He also provides links to two Language Log posts on the issue.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Knees and ankles...I mean niece and uncle

My 9-year-old niece just told me that she sprained her ankle. "Yes. You told me" I said. "Did you still sprain it?" I asked (playing around with the telic sense of the word--she didn't catch that and it wasn't that funny anyway).

"How long ago did you sprain it?" I asked.

"Two days ago" she said. Then she corrected herself. " and a half day ago."

"One and a half day ago?" I asked thinking she had misspoken.

"Yes" she assured me. "One and a half day ago."

When OK became OK

[continued from here and here]

Fay's summary of Read's second paper on the history of O.K. begins with a criticism of the evidence it presents. Fay claims that although the Read repeats the connection to oll korrect he "is able to offer only two examples of clear cut instances of this 'general usage.'" He dismisses the relevance of all examples that were found making reference to a story about Andrew Jackson's legendary poor spelling. Read provides a total of six examples of "oll korrect" spelled-out. Not all include the abbreviation. This is still good evidence connecting O.K. to "oll korrect" as an intended meaning. Especially considering the several examples Read provides in the first paper that convincingly connects "O.K." to "all correct" without the facetious spelling.

Fay misstates a few of Reads arguments claiming that he entirely dismisses the relevance of any occurrence that connects O.K. to Andrew Jackson and he even quotes Read as claiming that any attempt to connect William Harrison to "Oll Korrect is "simply a transference from one false story to another." In fact the transference that Read refers to is the claim that Jack Downing authored the story connecting Jackson to O.K. Downing wrote a letter saying that "Gineral" Harrison used the phrase "Oll Korrect" and was subsequently accredited with attributing the phrase to Jackson. Throughout his treatment of this story Read asserts that the story was most likely false and born of political motivations. Far from entirely dismissing the relevance of the stories Read grants that the stories show a political connection and interest in the meaning of OK.

Countering the attribution does not counter the general usage. Examples tied to a specific story are not proof that it didn't occur generally. Read's First Stage paper gives especially strong evidence of the connection to "all correct" and the motivation of the Jackson digs very reasonably provide a 'spell-out' to make sure the joke makes the point of his failings with letters. Even the examples connecting OK to Jackson remain relevant.

They are particularly relevant to Fay's earlier claims that there was no evidence of "oll korrect" as an intended meaning of OK. Tho Read's first "First Stage" paper doesn't meet Fay's expectations of evidence, such is amply provided in the "Second Stage" paper.

Fay writes:

The evidence he presents in the "Second Stage" paper documents extremely persuasively that "OK" was very widely used during this time as a colloquial expression of affirmation, but it was not employed in general usage as an abbreviation for 'oll korrect' (except in connection with Jackson) any more than it was in dozens of other ways.

This attempt to detract from the connection between oll korrect and OK overlooks the very simple explanation that the meaning would likely widen since the first appearance of the abbreviation. Read relies on C.G. Greene's use in 1839 which stands well as the earliest use complete with gloss. Because Fay feels justified in dismissing the bulk of examples he is able to allow two examples originating in Ohio where he is better poised to connect the phrase to Choctaw influence which would of course be more likely on the "frontier." This of course requires that he defy the argument that all examples are relevant. As all examples are relevant we find several that do originate in New England.

Fay's thesis that OK is an affirmative by influence of a similar Choctaw form then takes arms against Read's antithetical support of the connection to "Old Kinderhook." A Newark NJ paper told the story of a group demonstrators using OK as a rallying cry. Read quotes the Tammany editor who writes in New Era (27 May 1840) explaining the bifurcate significance of OK: he mentions a pin

having upon it the (to the 'Whigs') very frightful letters O.K., significant of the birthplace of Martin Van Buren, old Kinderhook, as also the rallying word of the Democracy of the late election, 'all correct.'

Fay challenges the explanation arguing that the Tammany Society "delighted in using what they perceived as Indian expressions whenever possible." He introduces his argument by explaining: "In 1812 a branch of the Tammany Society was formed at Hamilton, Ohio. They called their meeting place 'Wigwam No 9,' and met to listen to 'long talks.'" He then claims "The New York Tammanies of 1839-40 were not very different, nor were they perceived as very different, from the Ohio Tammanies of 1812." From six months of New Era microfilm archives Fay provides a few accounts as evidence that the Tammany meetings served as little more "than an occasion to delight in Indian speech and practices." Although the number of these accounts is good evidence that there was interest in such activity the details do not preclude other interests or purposes.

Fay further claims that Read's faith in the importance of the New Era pin advertisement is mistaken and misplaced. He writes:

Others have not always share Read's interpretation of the notice. The notice does not materially seem to be particularly about "Old Kinderhook." On the contrary, it is hard to imagine a more explicit argument that in 1840 the expression "OK" was popularly associated with Jackson and the Choctaws at the Battle of New Orleans. At least the writer of the ad saw no need to explain the connection. Both "Old Kinderhook" and "all correct" seem rather to be afterthoughts to exploit the sportive acronym fad.

It makes little sense to discard the relevance of a provided gloss because a contrary unmentioned gloss is more likely to be assumed. It is mere conjecture that the writer intended the connection that Fay claims he "saw not need to explain." Jackson is mentioned in the ad (as "the hero") because he wears the "old white hat with a crape" depicted on the pin. While Van Buren is mentioned by name and is certainly more likely the focus of a campaign pin as the incumbent candidate in the roiling election.

Fay then argues that the ad would not have been and influential instance of the use and that there is little evidence of "Old Kinderhook" in wide circulation, stating that "the one example Read cites of general usage of the name "Old Kinderhook" may have been more tongue-in-cheek than an example of 'general usage.'" But he makes no sound argument that a tongue-in-cheek example is not a reflection of "general usage."

Fay also overlooks one stilt of Read's argument when he challenges the significance of O.K. He grants that it would have been a parallel reference to Van Buren and Richard Mentor Johnson (Old Kentuck). "For the Democrats to suggest that the popular nickname "Old Kentuck" referred to the Democratic Johnson was a gag to take a slap at Clay and the Whigs." This is a point that Read makes. It was appropriated to mock and frustrate the opposing party. Such a motivation does not discount another connection. In fact it makes the point that there was a struggle to cement the term in common usage. This is key to Read's main thesis that this time was an important one in cementing OK in general usage because political currents were greatly motivated to appropriate and claim phrases. Controversy is a reliable force of lexical influence.

Read’s reliance on the Kinderhook connection is to explain what caused OK to enter common and general use. This goal may withstand even an argument that OK stood for other things just as commonly.

And he provides extensive examples that point to a wide and varied awareness of "Kinderhook" as a common nickname. In two pages Read offers sixteen examples of "Kinderhook" used in references to Van Buren including a song containing the line "Then give three cheers for Kinderhook" in the Boston Morning Post (21 May 1840) and an account by the Englishman Edward Waylen who recalled travels towards Kinderhook and the impressive effect on passengers as the town grew nearer. His fellow Englishman Archibald Montgomery Maxwell produced the "curious" account of traveling past "Render Nook, the great centre of Loco-focoism in these parts."

Read concludes his paper confidently, saying

In the trajectory of O.K., "Old Kinderhook" represents a "booster shot" that marks an important stage of its course. Our historical information is now rich enough so that we can plot the trajectory of O.K. as it has rocketed across the American linguistic sky.

Fay does not share the same confidence and turns to another form of challenge. He takes issue with semantic and syntactic evidence. Such will be the focus of the next post on this textured question.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Unplanned speech events

Friday morning we headed over to the Purdue box office to buy tickets to see His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet when he visits to Purdue in October. After we bought our tickets a friendly WLFI (channel 18) cameraman stopped us and asked if we cared to talk to him. I suggested that Buffy would be the best on camera.

This is what you'd want to see on camera.

Not this. Am I right?

But Buffy can be timid and I'm always a fool so I agreed to speak to the camera to prove it.

If I would have made sure to relax before answering the questions I could have come up with something better than How often do you get a chance to hear something different? or why not take any opportunity to hear his message and learn from his wisdom?

What do I think he's going to tutor me? Sheesh.

I remember two of the questions I was asked.

1. Why do you want to see the Dalai Lama?
2. What is the cultural significance of this type of event?

In normal comfortable conversation this is how I would have answered those questions.

1. Jim Gaffigan was sold out so I thought I might as well.---Then I would crack up laughing and I would say---What do you think? He's the Dalai Lama. He's put more time into understanding and sharing a philosophy of charity and peace than I've been alive. It'd be arrogant of me not to try to go.

2. Cultural significance? I don't care if this is going to be a Big Event. Let's not try to predict the effect of his visit on anything but the individual. OK?

But instead I'm sure I came across like Beavis.

Friday, August 10, 2007

What's that Mistert Colbert?

Last evening we had several friends over representing the academic fields of renaissance medieval comparative and classic literature; Greek, Latin, Spanish, German, Old English and Old Saxon, linguistics and math. We spent the evening playing a board game and watching Ali-G on YouTube.

We took some time to watch Dave's videos as well. (Be sure to watch this one. I was particularly amused and pleased to learn that the football players at the end of the video had no idea what was going on. They were just heading out for a game and Dave jumped in to do his guerrilla filming.)

I found myself revealing my social ineptness when in the midst of several humorous stories about family, former students, odd professors, horrible bosses, funny movies, and dog-sitting I was carried away by a usage in one friend's story. She was reporting some of the misspellings she has encountered in her job as a tutor. In one paper a student wrote of 'robberts' 'gangsterts' and 'mobsterts'.

I don't know what anyone said for about 75 seconds after that. I kept going over those 3 words in my mind. My lips were moving and Buffy rolled her eyes when she looked over at me. She knows I have a happy little land in my mind full of shiny sounds and metallic IPA symbols happily flashing in the [sʌn].

"'robberts' 'gangsterts' 'mobsterts' 'robberts' 'gangsterts' 'mobsterts'..."

Why would this student spell and say all three of these words this way? Google™ shows 737 results for "gangstert" 179 results for "mobstert" (but very few English results, one of which is this same friend telling the story in the comments section on another blog) 1.4 millions hits for 'robbert'. But it's mostly a proper name and no relevant results that I could find. So I searched for "cops and robberts" and I got 9 hits.

This is a weak trend to be sure. But there's something happening here. Whether we can find the trend spreading or we have only this one student's usage the grouping of three makes me wonder what's behind this extra 'T' even if just in her idiolect.

I've come up four suggestions and I'm not sure how much laughter to stifle as I offer them.

Reduplicative metathesis: Two of these three words show a chiasmus or metathesized reduplication. The intrusive [t] turns [-stɻz] into [-stɻts]. Has 'robber' undergone the same process by analogy of related terms? But this does not work as elegantly if the singular also gets the final [t].

Voiceless plural morpheme after liquid: the plural morpheme [z] that we hear on words like bear bull and car is in some dialects sounding more like [s]. This is the same as saying the plural of whore exactly like horse. Might this voiceless alveolar fricative prime the environment for an intrusive voiceless stop in these words?

Corruption by another criminal -ert: Is it possible that the ending of pervert/s has influenced these three -er criminal words?

Hyper-correction by influence of Comedy Central: This is my favorite possibility. Stephen Colbert has allowed the silent 'T' in his name to corrupt his pronunciation of "report" in his show's title The Colbert Report: the "Colbare Repore" (if you will). For all I know this student only wrote the 'T' and she might not actually pronounce it. She might simply be following Stephen's lead.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Ok. Let's continue.

In February of 1963 A.W. Read's article "The First Stage in the History of 'O.K.'" was published in American Speech. In this article Read establishes a culture of rampant wordplay and facetious abbreviations and spellings. The primary objective of the article is to show that his article "The Evidence on 'O.K.'" which was published 20 years earlier in The Saturday Review of Literature claimed too late an establishment of O.K. in American use. Read argues that by 1838 the "craze" of misspellings and initialisms had set the stage for O.K. to enter a wide use as an abbreviation for oll korrect. This was 2 years earlier than the 1840 campaigns that his prior article had identified as the first stage of development.

Read identifies several instances of O.K. used as early as 1839. In that year the announcement of a trip by the Anti-Bell-Ringing Society got attention from the Boston papers. Charles Gordon Greene wrote about the event using the line that is widely regarded the first instance of this strain of O.K.: complete with gloss.

...he of the [Providence] Journal, and his train-band, would have the 'contribution box,' et ceteras, o.k.--all correct--and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward.

Several instances of O.K. followed--Read gives seven instances that provided a gloss and five that didn't. In his article "The Choctaw Expression 'Okeh' and the Americanism 'Okay'" Jim Fay writes that the unglossed instances are evidence that the meaning is clear: "The reader is assumed to be already familiar with the term and its meaning." Several of these instances are in response to each other and 4 of the first 5 uses are given a gloss. It makes sense that the meaning of the phrase in a responsive succession would foment a fast familiarity.

Fay also advises that even with the gloss in a few cases "'all correct' does not seem to be a particularly good fit semantically or syntactically. In all instances the term is used in an informal, uncultured context." It's difficult to know what Fay means by "uncultured" but his reticence to grant felicitous use has been addressed by Read who provides good evidence of the "loose" and facile use of slang terms. Even addressing concerns (raised by W.A. Heflin in his article "'O.K.' and Its Incorrect Etymology") regarding the exact term "all correct" with the following example from a headline:


The returns of members to the State Legislature exhibit a great democratic gain, and what is of the utmost importance, the REDEMPTION OF THE SENATE FROM THE CONTROL OF FEDERALISM.

It's not clear what Fay intends by claiming that "In none of the dozen quotes offered by Read is the expression used as an abbreviation for anything." In several of the quotes the gloss indicates that it is most certainly an abbreviation for "all correct."

Fay questions the validity of the conclusion of Read's article calling it "startling." To Read's summation: the spring of 1839, O.K. became current as standing for 'oll korrect,' in a slang application of all correct, and from there it became widespread over the country. Thus the emergence of O.K. is well accounted for.

Fay responds: "except for one instance in which he speaks about the use of humor in 'the emergence of "oll korrect,"' that term does not appear any place in the paper until this summary." In fact the term does appear 2 pages before this conclusion when Read establishes the trend of humorous misspellings. Identifying such a trend is vital to Read's argument because the glosses "all correct" would not otherwise make sense as the full form of O.K. Read provides such examples as "O.W." (glossed "all right" presumably for oll wright) as analogous explanation. It is not a startling jump to recognize that the gloss does not need to reflect the jocular spelling.

Fay argues it is a liability to Read's argument that not a single instance of "oll korrect" is in evidence. This is certainly a huge lapse in the evidence. Even with other humorous spellings in evidence such as the gloss "pocket the kash" for "P.K." and "morning kall" for "M.K." Tho the humorous passages that contain "O.K." do not provide the same reflective humorous spelling in the gloss it is not clear that all writers were given to the convention.

Fay implicates the absence of a humorous gloss saying: "This includes instances in which the writer spells 'Boston' as 'Bosting' or uses N.S.M.J. for ''nough said 'moung[sic] gentlemen' or uses the phrase 'Vell, vot ov it!' but still glosses 'O.K.' as 'all correct.'" However the examples may be accounted for by noting that writers use these re-spellings to reflect an altered pronunciation and in one case the elision of letters in necessary to explain the initialism. It would make little sense to provide "enough said among gentlemen" as a gloss for N.S.M.J.

Still the case is far from proved. We may understand why stark evidence of a connection to 'oll korrect' is not found, but even a most reasonable explanation of the omission does not allay our desire for evidence. At some point we may have to admit that none of the competing etymologies are infallible. At this point we can say that Read has clearly demonstrated that the regular use of O.K. with the gloss "all correct" took root during a time when many phrases were abbreviated with letters that represented a "sportive" spelling.

In this essay Read does not make the case for the connection to Old Kinderhook and he has not shown the infiltration of the phrase into widespread everyday use in conversation. He notes this next step in a final footnote.

The relation of this first stage to the political development of 1840, when O.K. burst into overwhelming national currency, will be dealt with in another study, "The Second Stage in the History of 'O.K.,'" to appear in the May issue of American Speech.

A forthcoming post will focus on Fay's discussion of the "Second Stage" article.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Let's get started. OK?

The arguments should start slowly and continue at a deliberate pace because they can get boring quick. In a recent post I mentioned the ongoing deliberation between two sources of OK. I stated that one group claims the initialism originated from Martin Van Buren's birthplace of Old Kinderhook and that another group claims it started from oll korrect. That's not the most accurate abbreviation of the debate.

OK has is a long-contested etymology and it is familiar reading for most serious students of lexicography and etymology. And it is an interesting one. So I shall polish and clarify my statement regarding the Old Kinderhook -vs- oll korrect camps. Both phrases are widely regarded as co-contributors to the widespread use of OK. By many of the same people. The current meaning of approval is attributed to early association with oll korrect: a humorous misspelling of all correct. The same arguers who grant that much typically grant that the phrase was then cemented into common usage by the publicly repeated often reported campaign cries of Van Buren's supporters. This view is largely built on the findings of Allen Walker Read which he shared in a series of articles for American Speech in the early 1960s.

Justin makes the following comment in a response to my previous post:

At any rate, I've found Read's etymology questionable in its construction and especially in his approach to arguing it. Others have as well. It is curious that Read disregarded any Native origin of the word, and then ascribes its creation whole cloth to a group whose main unifying feature was mimicry of things they thought were 'Indian'.

He then provides the URI of a piece that also questions Read's conclusions and methods. The essay "The Choctaw Expression 'Okeh' and the Americanism 'Okay'" was written by Jim Fay in 2002 and a revision posted in 2007 less than one month ago.

I will distribute my discussion of this piece and its argument over several posts. I will not consider Fays claims in the strict order in which he presents them. Instead the order will follow the publication dates of Read's articles.

Although in 1941 Read had published "The Evidence on 'O.K'" in the Saturday Review of Literature, his series in American Speech began with "The First Stage in the History of 'O.K.'" in 1963. I will commence by evaluating Fay's criticisms of this latter essay which he lays out in his section "Read's 'First Stage' Paper."

But I promised to move slowly. So I shall let this introduction stand. Fay's essay is not a short piece but it's worth either perusing1 (if you're in a hurry) or perusing2 (if you have more time).

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The best laid grammars...

Stop that vowel shift! Kill that r-r-r-regionalism!

Around 1:30 into the following clip (~5:50 in the countdown) Martin dreams about being "wondrous wizard of Latin" "a dervish of declension" and a "conjurer of conjugation."

I've heard Buffy mumbling this in her sleep a few times.

Around 1:52 (~5:30 countdown) Groundskeeper Willie says "You've mastered a dead tongue. But can you handle a live one?" I say this question is key to understanding the fears of peevologists/language mavens/grammar police. "We have to kill that language before it spins out of control and strangles us!"

How's this? Peevologists are like George Milton and language is their Lenny. Or is language the little mouse and dialects are Lenny? Or are peevologists Steinbeck and linguists are Lenny and high school English teachers are George? or...


Monday, August 06, 2007

OK is just okay

A few days ago Buffy tried to convince me that writing out 'okay' is preferable to using the capitalized letters OK. Not more correct. Not preferred by style guides. Just better. She even enlisted the support of her professor Chris Blake who dedicated a chapter in his most recent book to the issue.

In his short chapter "KO @ the Okay Corral" Blake offers the following argument:

We should change our current aberrant house style whereby we capitalize the word okay. Okay does not deserve to be uppercased. OK stands out and up, heralded on a page of print, yet it is the epitome of mediocrity. All lower-class words such as okay deserve lower-case status.

The chapter is full of enough corny jokes and cutesy orthographic games to deflect any serious contention. It's a satirical transcript of a meeting about publishing and style issues. He's having fun here so the occasional blasts of prescriptivism work best with a nudge-nudge tone. I'll look beyond his warning "--- it all, let's / these flaws before we cave in completely." By using "---" for "dash" and "/" for "slash" (I think that's what he intends) this line says DON'T TAKE ME SERIOUSLY. And Blake does like to advise that quite often. He's dedicated to self-deprecation. How else could he dare to suggest (as he does in the chapter) that relaxed orthography is "Barbarism!" crying out that "These are the last gasps of civilization."

Now--Consider how you knew that one of the lines in that last paragraph implies a loud voice. Not the exclamation mark. The all caps. As Blake himself suggests--capital letters get attention and demand power.

And that is the core of Buffy's preference for okay and her dislike for OK. OK looks too eager. It yells. It's not understated or humble as the word should be. OK is only okay. It's not great or fabulous or amazing so it deserves no all-caps spelling. She has always thought so.

But it's an initialism isn't it? And we overlook the 'all-caps=loud' convention in most other initialisms. I've noticed several other initialisms in blogposts and email messages lately that are almost always written with all caps. I've mentioned them before. Putting them in all caps is a good way of calling enough attention to them and perhaps even assuring the reader that there is no typo. "This is really what I intended. Now figure it out."

But some take more effort than others. And some take very little effort at all. When I was a child I would ask my mother if it was OK for me to turn on the TV. And FWIW IIRC she usually told me WRT the TV to leave it off. OTOH she sometimes said it would be fine. IOW OK.

AFAIK none of you readers had to scream out those initialisms. But OK is so common it doesn't need the signal to attention. We know what it means immediately. And we have okay as an alternative. We have emcee for MC and deejay for DJ. They're all fine.

When Buffy told me how brash and aggressive OK looks to her I suggested a new way of reading a few phrases.

  • House MD! is on tonight.

  • The UN! is in NY!

  • I was born near Washington DC!

  • Do you use a MAC! or a PC!? (I know I know. It's Mac and it's not an initialism.)

  • I graduated from the U! of M!


Etymology Epilogue
In the chapter Blake has one character explaining that some people trace OK back to oll korrect. The character named "Chris Blake" counters this etymology and claims that it's more likely an abbreviation of "Old Kinderhook" the birthplace of Martin Van Buren because the US(!) president liked to sign off his notes with O.K.

The OED gives more credence to the Oll Korrect origin, relying on the "detailed evidence provided by A. W. Read" in American Speech. In its list of citations an 1839 source provides the gloss "all correct" alongside an uncapitalised o.k.. Old Kinderhook is only listed under O.K. as it refers to Van Buren his campaign or his supporters.

The source for all correct (C.G. Greene--Boston Morning Post) is also listed in Webster's New World 3rd edition as the earliest known use. John Ayto's Dictionary of Word Origins agrees with the oll (or orl) korrect origin claiming reinforcement from the Van Buren campaign cry.

WNW also suggests the possibility of an alteration of Scottish och aye 'oh yes'. This is harder to connect because of no clear trail like the 1839-40 explosion in the US.

Funk&Wagnalls (1960) and Webster's New Twentieth Century (1979) both recognize "Old Kinderhook" as the likely origin. Because of the available evidence and the clearer semantic connection I'm siding with Ayto WNW and OED. In any case there's no reason to think it's more likely to have originated with Van Buren. It makes more sense that Van Buren supporters fell upon an initialism identical to theirs that was tied to a sense of approval so they appropriated that connotation for their own use of O.K.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Stress management

In a recent post (Problems with lexical stress--27 July 2007) John Wells suggests that compound adjectives such as "long-term" and "sabre-toothed" are probably double stressed and should be marked in isolated occurrence with primary end-stress: ˌlong-ˈterm, ˌsabre-ˈtoothed.

These adjectives usually occur in a phrase before a noun (long-term plans; sabre-toothed tiger) and as Mr Wells hears them the stress in this environment would shift, creating a contour: long-term plans; a sabre-toothed tiger.

Because lexical stress is usually determined by the contour of the word in isolation Wells identifies a problem of contrastive implication. As he sees it, if the stress in predicative position remains initial "we would implicitly be contrasting sabre- with some other kind of toothedness."

Since stress is lexical it's also prone to dialectal variation. While reading his post I kept repeating "sabre-toothed" and realized that primary stress on the initial syllable sounded most natural in almost all contexts. The contrastive exception would be if someone misunderstood me and thought I had said "sabre-hoofed" the correction would be: "No. I said 'sabre-toothed'.

Buffy used the same initial stress when I asked her to answer using the isolated compound adjective. And the same result with "Was the tiger Siberian?" "No. It was sabre-toothed."

Of course there are some phrases that are frozen in their stress pattern. Wells identifies "pear-shaped" as one such fixed contour in which the primary stress is the only option. In his dialect 'sabre-toothed' is not such a phrase though it is in mine.

A while ago (19 June 2007) he wrote about the emerging spelling pronunciation of 'wort' in St John's Wort. He grew up hearing it pronounced [sənt ˈdʒɒnz wɜːt] with the same vowel as word and worse. Now he hears many people pronouncing the 'wort' as 'wart' a spelling pronunciation influenced by the short snort report pattern.

This makes some sense considering that the traditional contour did not put stress on 'wort' but the emerging contour does. Wells notes that the traditional pronunciation "is still generally the botanists’ pronunciation." While the new pronunciation is common among "British aficionados of herbal remedies." American ones too.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Intellectual naked dreams

Calling all linguists. The news has been going around for a while and I just saw it mentioned by Mr. Verb that the glottopedia project is ready and willing to host your expertise. I'm excited about this as both a consumer and a possible contributor.

Right now I'm mostly interested as a consumer. It's a nice list of topics and terms that can keep me in line regarding my studies. I'll probably use it to make sure I can hold a conversation about every heading on the page. It's a good list of terms even before any entries are put up. And watching the entries develop is a good way to keep questioning all claims and holding every fact to a standard of evidence and arguability. Arguablness? Arguabilation? Adequatitude?

As a possible contributor my goal would be to achieve the next level of familiarity and competence at which I would feel comfortable making judgments about a comprehensive and representative discussion on each topic; then subjecting those judgments for the approval of the experts.

The internets have added a wonderful level of accountability to all arguments. Even a squeaky-voiced railer like me can't get away with false witness and specious logic.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Poorly chosen fields

According to Stephen Colbert (just 73 seconds ago) the lowest tier of marketability among college majors includes "classics, comparative literature [and] linguistics."

There's a perverse honour in being mocked so satirically. Buffy is slightly more honored than I am because two of her areas were the object of his derision.

I might could say something. But oughten should I?

Last weekend I found myself talking about linguistics more than usual. I was in a college town away from home making new acquaintances and explaining to most them what I'm studying. One nice fellow made the common joke "Oh well then I'll be careful with what I say." I laughed and assured him that he misunderstood what most linguists do. I told him that I'm not a grammarian. I'm not a high school English teacher. I'm not a copy editor. I'm not a pedant. Well I try not to be a pedant.

"In fact" I said to him "I'm probably your biggest advocate. I cherish the view that language is what people do with words. Not what they think they're supposed to do with words." He gave a nod (halfway between "cool!" and "really?") then the discussion turned to mountain biking.

Another conversation with someone later in the weekend stayed on track a little longer. This fellow grew up in Massachusetts then moved to Tennessee. No marker of either region in his speech. I was very disappointed with him and I let him know. "You could have one fascinating blend of accents" I told him. "But you sound like a broadcast posterboy." He laughed and told me that his mother was from Colombia which I jokingly told him made his story all the more tragic.

Our discussion of Southern speech brought up the writings of Richard Mitchell. He spoke in agreement with Mitchell's claim that unless you can organize your words you can't organize your thoughts. I wasn't comfortable in going along with this claim but neither did I want to attack a new friend's sensibilities. So I asked if this was a strict or relative Sapir-Worfian view he was promoting. We agreed on relative before continuing.

But I held my tongue when he made one statement that I would have had to tear apart if I addressed it. The claim that education in the south is atrocious because of phrases like "mighta could" corrupting the minds of the students. "How can they teach anything if they can't apply any rules to their language?"

I understand that this phrase conforms to a standard that many people do not respect. I think the standard should be respected but I understand the role of register and decorum. Know your audience and do what you can to preserve your credibility with them. If you lose their respect it helps to understand what might have contributed to that.

But I must say this again and again. Language that ignores your rules is not ignoring all regulation. It simply heeds other regulations. All language has rules. Some people think certain dialects are rebel dialects due to the following types of reasoning:

They only ignore rules because they don't know them.
If they ignore certain rules they must hate authority. So they will ignore all rules.
Give them an inch and they'll take a mile.

These are basic complaints common to prescriptivists. When a linguist offers evidence of rules the argument relies on a history of laziness. 'Well they might have some rules now but the change came about because of laziness and ignorance.'

At some point in my conversations I have to sit back and wonder how much to "correct" these ideas. I have a bad habit of trying to show when I have information that counters any claim I hear. If the claim is a threat to equality or justice maybe I should be a little more brash about asserting it. But is it possible for me to be a vigilant defender of language variation without being a jerk too?