Tuesday, September 30, 2008

It's not personal. It's cause you're one of 'them'

A couple weeks ago I heard Henry Paulson comment on a "taks" ahead of us (or him or them...). In context it was clear that the word he used was one that would normally be pronounced tæsk. Was this a dialect difference? I assumed no because I hadn't heard it from him before and I haven't heard it from him since. So I figured it was just a mistake.

We move on from mistakes. And the peevologists? They don't always. They pick on typos and 'purposeful' spelling mistakes. But that's spelling -- not language. Peevologists really don't pick on actual language mistakes.

Why not? Why is it that complaints about sloppy language don't focus on actual mistakes? They focus on systems that have become regular and follow rules. Their complaints grow louder and more troubled in rough proportion to the regularity of the system that creates those forms.

There are those who will snicker and rattle when a speaker stumbles or stutters on a line. But such surface forms are rarely used as examples of the language deteriorating or of speakers getting lazy. Why? Those are precisely examples of the rules of language breaking down. That's when we see real evidence of what happens when a rule doesn't govern speech.

I suggest that explaining why such performance errors are ignored will help illuminate the nefarious premise of many judgements about usage.

  • Convention is necessary, but that those who adopt another convention are not less intelligent, less capable or less flexible.

  • These complaints are ultimately not about performance. They are about a system.

  • The fear that a language system will take over might not be based on a judgment about those who use it, but it promotes itself and seeks to replicate itself by promoting an eventual judgement through explicit rationalization.

  • In order to counter the judged system, an oppression of that system is planned and executed.

  • When you judge a system you judge the people who use that system.

  • When you seek to categorically subvert a convention you subvert the people who rely, even occasionally, on that convention.

  • This judgement further extends to judgment of ability to perform non-linguistic tasks.

  • Everybody makes mistakes so it's impossible to separate and stratify groups based on who makes a mistake.

  • Judgment that both seeks and relies on separation is the heart of bigotry.

  • Thursday, September 25, 2008


    I will mention politics here and I will occasionally evaluate the use of language by politicians. But I don't need to share my opinions about policies and people unless those policies and people are focused on language.

    I will discuss political tactics here. But I will hold back on saying which tactics I hope to see succeed.

    I've shared enough of my political views on this blog. And I will now stop. But I will share them elsewhere. I have a little retreat in the moors where I will feel free to speak with a lot more judgment and a lot less objectivity.

    Some of you know how to get there. Anyone else can ask.

    [this blog's name] at gmail [period] com

    --Non-political posting will of course continue here. Don't bail on me.

    Stumped speech

    I don't know why people think Palin is dodging questions. Let's look at the video and transcript.

    Couric: You've said, quote: "John McCain will reform the way Wall Street does business." Other than supporting stricter regulations of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac two years ago can you give us any more examples of his leading the charge for more oversight?

    Palin: I think that the example that you just cited with his warnings two years ago about Fannie and Freddie -- that … that's paramount. That's more than a heck of a lot of other senators and representatives did for us.

    Q: What else has he done?
    A: He's done enough.

    That's a fair response. Not a comforting one. But a fair one.

    The CBS page provides this important exchange that didn't make it onto the video.

    Couric: But can you give me any other concrete examples? Because I know you've said Barack Obama is a lot of talk and no action. Can you give me any other examples in his 26 years of John McCain truly taking a stand on this?

    Palin: I can give you examples of things that John McCain has done, that has shown his foresight, his pragmatism, and his leadership abilities. And that is what America needs today.

    I went to college with a kid who made a habit of treating the homeless with disrespect. When a homeless person would ask 'Do you have any spare change you could give me?' and my friend would say 'I've got plenty of spare change' and he'd keep walking. We called him an ass.

    The difference here is that if the homeless person had demanded to see the change, my friend could have produced it. When Couric demands more evidence of McCain having supported more regulation:

    Couric: I'm just going to ask you one more time -- not to belabor the point: Specific examples in his 26 years of pushing for more regulation.

    Palin: I'll try to find you some and I'll bring 'em to ya.

    Is this unfair to Palin?

    In Grand Rapids Michigan (17 Sept 2008) a member of the town-hall gathering gave her a big ol' opening. No major parameters. No trick question. Nothing specific. On the issue of Palin's limited foreign policy experience the questioner handed her the baton:

    Audience member:I want to give you your chance. If you could, please respond to that criticism and give us specific skills that you think you have, to bring to the White House to rebut that or mitigate that concern.

    Palin responds to the criticism first by explaining why some people have focused on the issue. And as for the specifics:

    Palin: But as for foreign policy: you know I think that I am prepared and I know that on January twentieth if we are so blessed as to be sworn into office as your president and vice president certainly we'll be ready. I'll be ready. I have that confidence. I have that readiness. And if you want specifics with specific policy or countries, go ahead and … and you can ask me. You can even play stump the candidate if you want to. But we are ready to serve.

    What? She answered. She gave us the specific skills. She is prepared and ready. She has confidence which isn't a skill but it's important. She also has readiness. She needs that specifically doesn't she? She can even answer questions about specific policy or countries. We can even ask her.

    Lay off, people.

    Monday, September 22, 2008

    One might be amused

    Jeff Deck and his red-pen rovers stepped in some legal trouble and now they're talking about it.

    A few months ago I commented on some of their less than insightful comments and corrections. A short while later I mentioned the editors' escapades to a friend and she responded with a "cool" of approval. I felt the need to point out -- she must not have read my post -- that some of their ideas were mistaken. But I agreed that if it's done with the right attitude there's no harm.

    But is that possible? Perhaps it's only a bad attitude that leads to such a cross-country correction crusade. And it's arrogance that imposes a correction on people who have not asked for it. And it's ignorance that leads to defacement of a landmark.

    For a while after the arrest the TEAL website has been a single page with simple black text promising a statement.

    Now it's a single page with simple black text making the statement.

    The punctuation and spelling are clean. But the prose is rough and heavy. I'll pick out the salient clumsy construction:

    …one should not vandalize…
    … for one to think that one can tell others…
    …one never knows…
    …One should ask…
    …one cannot underestimate.…
    …One risks tarnishing the image…
    …One might, for example, be…
    …One might also face…
    …One’s sense of civic duty…
    …should prevent one from…

    And that's within four short paragraphs. So let's say that he chose this horrible pattern for effect. For humor. To be cute.

    It's an ill effect. It's not funny. It's ugly. Three misplaced commas an unnecessary semi-colon a wrong there and two mistaken apostrophes would be less obtrusive than this clumsy form.

    Read Dennis Baron's post.

    Sunday, September 21, 2008

    Dormie: considering the links

    My favourite golf term: dormie (also dormy).

    In match play the score is kept by counting the number of holes each competitor wins. The total number of strokes doesn't matter.

    When a player is leading by the same number of holes left in play, that player is dormie, or dormie-X (where X is the number of holes left to play). The trailing player then has to win every remaining hole just to halve the match (you don't tie; you halve). The player who is dormie will win the match by winning or halving any of the remaining holes.

    A player who is dormie is in a position to likely win the match outright and is guaranteed at least a half.

    Two very different theories on its origin:
    The Wikipedia page takes an ambitious stance, connecting it to the plural of dormouse, a little rodent found in Scotland. It further connects the word to golf competition by claiming that the reclusiveness of the little beasts made any sighting on the links a good omen.

    The USGA settles on a derivation from dormir meaning 'to sleep' since the leading player can rest easy as it is now impossible to lose. I must admit this is the derivation I always assumed. The connection to being dormant, just waiting emerge, makes intuitive sense.

    Funk & Wagnalls 1960 takes it back to dialectal English dorm meaning doze -- and further back to Latin dormire.

    Webster's New Twentieth Century 2nd ed simply calls it Scottish in origin.

    But it's hard to attest. And few dictionaries have much confidence in any derivation.

    The OED doesn't offer an etymology.
    The American Heritage Dictionary claims unknown origins.
    Webster's New World Third Edition puts only a question mark in the brackets.
    Merriam-Webster also throws up its hands.
    The Historical Dictionary of Golfing Terms agrees that it's Scottish but offers no further derivation.

    John Ayto doesn't offer an entry in his Dictionary of Word Origins but he does wonder if hibernating dormouse gets its name from connection to French dormeuse: sleeper (fem). Similar etymologies of dormouse are possible and they get some nods from dictionaries as a possibilities. Something that muddies the lucky dormouse connection mentioned above as well as the arguments against it.

    ...so the US team won the Ryder Cup. Is it just me or do chants of USA! USA! really make little sense in sporting events?

    Friday, September 19, 2008

    The abyss is always deeper than we thought.

    I'm right there with Mxrk on the horrible horrible most horrible entries that win the New Yorker caption contest each week. Go ahead. Find the best winning caption. It'll suck.

    S'mores club? Really?

    For a glimpse into the rotting void that must be the average submission take a look at the PBS equivalent.

    It's a terrible cartoon for this contest in the first place. There's too much information, the situation is clear and it already makes a point and a very weak joke: there are too many bloggers -- even more than there are newsmakers politicians and traditional media.


    But worse yet are the captions. I have to say that even tho the NYer captions are disappointing they at least have a rhythm. They pick an angle and come in cleanly. But the captions on the PBS page... They have all the wit and elegance of a joke with no wit and no elegance.

    What's most disturbing?

    NOW editors will select qualified submissions to appear on this page (captions may be edited).

    So these are among the captions that made it.

    Guy1, "How does a BLOGGER get put into Office?" Guy2, "How?" Guy1 "You take away his computer and send him back to school to pay attention in Politics class this time!"
    —Annette C.

    Politics class? Is that right after Chemicals class?

    If these bloggers were interested in truth they would be discussing the lies Biden has told about his first wifes accident to cover the fact she was at fault.

    If these captions were interested in humor they wouldn't.


    Shouting really doesn't make it any funnier.

    Cop1: This is the puniest looking group of Bloggers I've ever seen. Cop2: That's BLOGGERS phil, not LOGGERS.

    If you had actually written 'loggers' in the first line it still wouldn't be a good caption.

    What does BLOGGER mean? Biggest Load Of Garrulous Gossip Ever Read.
    —Sta Fitz

    "I don't know what a BLOGGER is... But they look pretty harmless to me"
    —Sta Fitz

    Thanks for persisting, Sta. I'm sure your third try would have been pure gold.

    Where is the line for when you bring your babies with you?
    —shirley crosby

    Uh Shirley? Who would be asking this? And why?

    Don't tase me bro!
    —Kitty o

    The best thing about this caption is that it works on every cartoon I've ever seen!

    Thursday, September 18, 2008

    Latest political flap

    Over at Mr. Verb you'll find some discussion of Sarah Palin's dialect features. (Check out James Crippen's long comment on the second link.)

    Most of Palin's dialect features are familiar -- maybe jumbled from various regions. The salient features seem to put her somewhere in the northern plains at first. But as Susan comments, it almost sounds affected. I don't think it is. It's just pronounced -- so to speak (so to speak).

    One odd feature that I heard in her interview with Charles Gibson: intervocal flapping outside the typical environment in prioritize: [pɹɑɪɔɹɪɾɑɪz] (around 4:10)

    It might actually be a voiced stop [d] instead of a flap. Close call. I don't know if this is a regular pronunciation of hers. If it's not then a [d] could be some sort of partial preservation of the stop in the middle of an overgeneralization error.

    The typical flapping environment would allow alternation before the final syllable in priority but it is just picky enough to exclude the alternation before the final syllable in prioritize. The necessary unstressed syllable environment is lost (at least in my dialect) with a secondary stress which is often heard in a syllables whose nucleus is a diphthong.

    And not just with diphthongs. It can be simple stress. Some might process words such as retail and retard more like spondees than as trochees. And then there are some morphemic considerations that might be complicating the rule. But not for this post.

    A somewhat related counterfeeding effect of the diphthong can be heard in the regular preservation of [t] in anti when the prefix is used as a free morpheme (it's not common but in focussed use it sometimes occurs: e.g. decide whether you're pro- or anti- the proposal.) Normally we would see t-deletion after the [n]. Say the sentence 'I see plenty of bounty hunters.' In my dialect I would usually delete all 3 of the /t/s. But I might preserve one or two of them occasionally. I'd never say all three unless I was making some sort of point about pronunciation.

    Monday, September 15, 2008

    Word of mouth. But whose?

    This happens all the time. I have to call it out when it happens on my own blog.

    I was going to just leave a kind response to "anonymous" who said in a comment on my recent post that I was wrong to be skeptical about the Brain Fitness Gym/Program. No need to argue or scoff.

    It's something to do out of respect for someone when you don't know their full story.

    Here's the comment (cut and pasted):

    I stumbled across your blog looking for more information on Dr. Merzenich. I bought my parents the Brain Fitness Program 3 years ago. You couldn't be more wrong about your conclusions. they are completely different people. the last 5-7years I had seen them slipping. They are right back on track these days. They continue to use the program every 6months or so. they love it and I couldn't be happier with the results.

    'Great. I'm glad it worked for you' is what I would have said. As I said in the previous post: I don't know the particulars of the program. I agree that a mind can benefit from regular stimulation and continued learning. I just think you can do a lot of those mental calisthenics for free. But "anonymous" was so pleased with the purchase and I felt just a little bad for speaking dismissively of something that helped his or her parents so much.

    But I don't feel at all bad anymore. Take a look at the time-stamp on the comment.

    I occasionally check my comments against my stat counting software by comparing the time of the comment to the time of a visit. Typically a comment comes in just a couple minutes after the page view is logged.

    Perfect. We have a match. A comment coming in about three minutes after the page loaded.


    The comment comes from the Posit Science Corporation in San Francisco. Somebody browsing around while on the job? Just before clocking out at 5:00? Keep in mind that the commenter supposedly came across my blog while looking for more information on Dr. Merzenich.

    Dr. Merzenich is the Chief Scientific Officer and co-founder of Posit Science. Why would anyone at the company get on the internet to do a little more research on their boss? And even if you really are doing a little research on your company's founder, there's the ethical matter of full disclosure. Let us know that the testimonial is coming from someone who stands to profit.

    Since I've known very well that this sort of thing goes on why am I posting on it?

    Because it's my blog and I'd like to provide you, my readers, with relevant information that you don't have. Especially when someone pushing a $365 product is using this space to mislead you.

    But mostly because I'm amused by how stupid Posit Science was to leave such a trail. Maybe their videos have a section on how to be more sneaky.

    Sunday, September 14, 2008

    SNL sends viewers to Google: (we might have an answer)

    Flurge? Flurj? Flerge? Flirge? Flirj? Anyone? (I'm going with <FLIRJ> though <flirge> looks like the most common search term. And a crass answer will be found at the end of the post.)

    On the season premier of Saturday Night Live Tina Fey played the role she was born to play. And it was very funny in that 'oooh did that go too far? No absolutely not,' way that she does so well. (video below)

    So what did everyone come away with? A question: What the hell is a [flɹ̩ʤ]?

    I have to spell it phonetically because I didn't have the captions on and I only know what it sounds like. Amy Poehler (playing Hillary Clinton opposite Fey's Sarah Palin) uttered it in the following exchange (lines labeled with the initials of the character rather than the player).

    HC: One thing that we can agree on is that sexism can never be allowed to permeate an American election.

    SP: So please stop photoshopping my head on sexy bikini pictures.

    HC: And stop saying I have cankles.

    SP: Don't refer to me as a MILF

    HC: And don't refer to me as a [flɹ̩ʤ]. I Googled what it stands for and I do not like it.

    So what is it? And what do we look up? The line "I Googled what it stands for" is a clue that it's an acronym. On analogy with MILF it makes sense that FLI___ would be First Lady I'd___. So extending the analogy I'll spell it either FLIRJ or FLIRGE. Maybe not FLIRG unless the initial <g> of the last word is the voiced affricate or 'soft' <g> and the pronunciation of the acronym reflects that.

    Most of what comes up in a search for any of these is other people online asking the same question and guessing at the answer. One site (www.youbemom.com) suggests that FLIRG stands for first lady I'd rather get elected. (If so then maybe it's spelled <FLIRGE>).

    But that wouldn't make much sense given that the Clinton character in the sketch says that she doesn't like it. And it should be sexist to fit with the joke.

    Did SNL knowingly create a definition gap here? Put the acronym out there and see what rushes in to fill it? If so then this could be an organic competition. What's the best meaning and how do you promote it? If the word is too specific and only means something about Clinton then I don't see the word taking root.

    Or is there already a meaning out there that I just couldn't find? A spelling I didn't think of?

    [Update: For now I'm going to accept this as the answer because it works perfectly. FLIRJ: First Lady I'd Rim Job.

    Thanks anonymous

    Saturday, September 13, 2008

    Inflammation of the Emer

    Right now WTTW (channel 21 here) is sponsoring an infomercial for The Brain Fitness Gym. Or is it The Brain Fitness Program? They keep throwing both names out there. The info- part is hosted by Peter Coyote. The -mercial part is coming to us direct from the studio. The local hosts are the ones encouraging me to "call now."

    A local host (Cheryl) just introduced Dr. Michael Merzenich as a "professor emeritus" of something or other. Emeritus rhyming with colitis. Bronchitis. Appendicitis. Meningitis. The post title is an old joke that I have made too many times with Buffy, who learned the standard pronunciation late enough to be teased about it.

    I don't think the pronunciation is as silly as the suggestion that I pay $365 to "enhance" my "neuroplasticity" by reading their books watching their videos and playing their videogames.

    Now about that "something or other." I missed the line, and the wttw.com episode page doesn't say much more. Merzenich's Wikipedia page claims that he is "professor emeritus neuroscientist" at UCSF, and his own website says he is Professor Emeritus. He is listed in the University of California San Fransisco directory as professor of otolaryngology. Emeritus or not, he's a member of the National Academy of Science, elected in 1999.

    I'm sure he knows a lot more about this stuff than I do. But I can't keep from rolling my eyes at such a price for a product that promises to have you complete some puzzles so you can regain your mental youth.

    Friday, September 12, 2008

    A political Hail Mary

    Linguistics isn't political. So I'm about to look at language in order to defend Sarah Palin against some recent and common attacks. It's a risk†. Believe me -- I have no political interest in defending her. I disagree with just about every single policy position that she has endorsed. Not that my view matters.

    I haven't worked too hard to conceal my political opinions lately. Certainly many readers have no interest in my political leanings and would rather not have to stop in only to find my judgmental polemics. Most readers so far only trust me on matters of language (if that). Anything else and my opinion isn't worth the paper it's not written on. Is it ever?

    So here's the quote being used against Palin.

    Our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from G-d. (AP article*)

    The headline of the article: Palin: Iraq war 'a task that is from G-d'

    Watch this video and notice the pullquote that floats down the screen.

    These citations claim that Palin uttered a phrase of her belief regarding the nature of the war. But it's a misleading quote. Even tho she uttered the words our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from G-d it's not fair to say that she called the war a task from G-d.

    Our is not the first word of the phrase. The first word of the phrase is that. It's a complementiser introducing a complement clause. So we look at the full quote to answer an important question: of what word is the phrase a complement? Here's the full quote as I transcribe it from a full video of her talk.

    Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right. Also for this country: that our leaders -- our national leaders -- are sending them out on a task that is from G-d. That's what we have to make sure that we're praying for: that there is a plan and that plan is is G-d's plan. So uh bless them with your prayers: your pr- prayers of protection over our soldiers.

    So it's a complement of pray. There's a verb phrase ellipsis in the second sentence: a fragment. Let me set this out visually from the quote.

    ____ for our military men and women
    (also) ____ for this country
    ____ that our leaders are sending them out on a task that is from G-d.

    Then she adds that "That's what we have to make sure that we're praying for"

    This isn't an opposed difference in the semantics. It's not as radical a misquote as if she had said I don't believe that our leaders are sending them out on a task that is from G-d, but it is an important difference. It's closer to the difference between I know that I love you and I hope that I love you. And hoping that a war is such a task can be interpreted various ways.

    If I want to be charitable I'll say that she's praying that this war be directed by a desire to do good and to spread peace and to liberate a country. I'll add that she obviously has faith in war to do that. And so she hopes that all decisions by the war pigs will further those tasks of good service. That's as charitable as I can be.

    If I want to less charitable I'll say that she's hoping her G-d agrees that this is the best way to rid the world of evil non-Christians.

    Just a little more. She says Pray … that our leaders … are sending them out on a task that is from G-d.

    It's a football that's already in the air. So let's all just cross our fingers and hope that the job being given to the military is already a righteous one.

    I will only defend Palin's statement against the misrepresentations by incomplete quotes. I used it against her in conversations with Buffy and some office mates. When I saw the full quote I realized that I was claiming she had said something that in fact she hadn't.

    I still disagree with her belief that war can be a task from G-d. And I disagree with her view that prayer could even accomplish that. And that's based on what she really said.

    Here's a fuller version of these and other statements she made at her church in Wasilla. The passage in question begins around 3:39.

    † The only real risks of course are 1) that you'll think I'm a supporter of Palin 2) that you'll get upset with me for defending her at all for any reason 3) that you'll get sick of hearing me talk about politics. The first isn't likely. The second is fine with me. On the third I ask for your indulgence.

    *In several places I have taken the liberty of using an orthographical representation that is different from the original source. This is out of respect to varying sensibilities of readers. In a quotation this is sort of like choosing well-formedness over faithfulness. Ironic.

    Wednesday, September 10, 2008

    Wut duz this say bout me?

    Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl) doesn't say as many silly things as some of the other language commentators who focus on usage rather than actual language systems. But anyone who gives a lot of advice on any topic will eventually offer up a gem.

    From Jan Rosen's story about peevology (she doesn't use that term) a line from Fogarty.

    'If I were hiring someone for a job and knew they were on Twitter, I'd go on there and look,' she says. 'I don't think anything gives you a sense of a persona like a Twitter stream. They're so short and off-guard ... you learn about a person's attention to detail and about their opinions and daily habits.'

    Such faith in such little data.

    I'm not saying that employers don't do this. I'm not saying that people don't make up their mind based on something as silly as Twitter. And I'm not saying that it's wise not to care.

    I'm just saying that people who think such quick and lite posts say a lot about the writer are wrong.

    That's right. I wrote <lite>. And I meant it.

    Perhaps that ellipsis in the quotation is important. Maybe her claim is more nuanced and reasonable than this. I'll just pick on the idea as I found it. I'm not going to make up my mind about Fogarty on so little evidence.

    via John McIntyre

    No time for reverence

    Come on AP and Reuters! Where are those obvious headlines we pay you to come up with? You plastered the birdcages with Let the Games Begin! a few weeks ago. Where is that clever pen today?

    Why not

    Kim Jong...Ill?


    [Update: Well apparently someone. I'm not sure if I should be pleased or upset. At least I can say this. Look at the time stamps.

    thx casey

    It's kinda like a hissy fit.

    My father, a psychiatrist, puts a prudent amount of faith in how meaningful a substitution error is in speech. He doesn't believe a speech error tells us what you're thinking. But it does tell us what you're thinking about. If you slip up in your wedding vows and say "for better or for hearse" or "in sickness and in hell" there's something on your mind. Who knows why it's on your mind but it is.

    I agree to an extent. But I also trust that there's a reasonable amount of linguistic gravity, even if it's largely phonological. And frozen or reinforced phrases easily add mass to these bits and pieces of linguistic matter. Such a phrase is one that everyone has heard and everyone uses as a single unit. Often idiomatic, sometimes perfectly grammatical. Think of the Match Game. I say 'Keep off' and you say 'the grass.' I say 'Buy one' you say 'get one free.'

    It's also possible that the bare structure of a phrase is planned before it's spoken and some flourishes are added on the fly. So when a bare phrase is similar to a common phrase it can take the familiar form. That's probably what happened to Pat Buchanan while talking Rachel Maddow on her new MSNBC show. The topic was Sarah Palin. Isn't always these days?

    Buchanan: The press threw an apocalyptic fit on this thing--an apoplectic fit if you will--when she was announced. And I think she was treated horribly.

    His bare phrase is The press threw a fit. Before he says it he decides to add an adjective. What adjective would indicate a loss of composure and control. How would you indicate that the press was confused and slightly crazed? Well he can't go there of course. But it's fair to say that epileptic likely came to his mind pretty quickly. He avoids it and instead called it an apocalyptic fit. Well that one doesn't really capture it. He's going for an adjective that captures the behaviour of the press, not the historical or global implications. So he reaches into the bag again. This time he pulls out apoplectic, landing safely on a phrase that is out there. But his pronunciation of apoplectic provides a smidgen of evidence that epileptic is still rattling around his mind. The first vowel is pretty close to ɛ making apoplectic sound very close to it.

    Now as I said, apoplectic fit is out there and it's attested. It even gets an early citation from 1611 in the OED. It's not as common as epileptic fit according to a quick Google™ search. 32K vs 124k. But as an object of the verb threw the numbers are much closer. Threw an epileptic fit: 90 hits. Threw an apoplectic fit 64 hits:

    So what might have happened with Buchanan's statement is almost like a magnetic repellant from a dangerous phrase. He was thinking apoplectic, which is an appropriate phrase for what he's saying. But it's so close to a phrase he wants to avoid that he steps away from it and goes to apocalyptic which is fine but has an odd meaning. So he regathers and again approaches his original intention and goes juuuust a little past it to the first vowel of the word he was trying to avoid in the first place.

    Now this is mapping out quite a visual path. And it would be nice if language worked so tangibly as to give our processes a reasonable space model for analysis. But I've probably already gone too far. And for too little.*

    Mark Liberman has put up a few posts about such things recently.

    *How about the rest of Buchanan's points? That's where the meat is.

    Tuesday, September 09, 2008

    Most fun is less fun than funnest

    Take a look at the twitter page for the search term funnest. The posts are mostly in response to Apple's ad campaign for "The funnest iPod ever." How can we not bow down to Apple's grip on our minds. Steve Jobs has to be weeping with pride right now. It's a great ad campaign.

    Of course you know how I stand on the lexical issue. It's a word. Why? Because people use it and understand it. Lots of people.

    Some of the comments in the against column (and my childish response following each):

    marmon: Oh no. "Funnest" *is* in the dictionary?

    jessedyck: Does this mean it's officially ok to use funnest as a word?
    --Does this mean you've been waiting for permission?

    blankbaby: Language is a living thing, it is true. But additions should look/feel right... and funnest just looks and sounds wrong to me. So there.
    --Where can I submit my suggestions for your approval?

    gregscott: Think different and funnest cannot be considered grammatically correct, can they? At best this is slang.
    --No. At best it's grammatical. Slang isn't a grammaticality judgment. It's a style.

    RyanMtz: Um, Apple. Last time I checked, "funnest" wasn't a word. ;]
    --Check again. ;]

    jmelloy: My English teacher mother said this once re: funnest: *rolls eyes* It's not a word, but people use it like a word. So it's a word.
    --So does your English teacher mother know what she thinks?

    _ds: but i do hate the word "funnest"
    --At least you realize it's a word. But do you hate it as much as panties and moist?

    I could go on. But I'm already bored and you're not reading anymore.

    Thanks Mxrk

    Monday, September 08, 2008

    Political etymology

    From John McCain's interview with Bob Shieffer on Face the Nation.

    About 75 seconds in McCain says with some emphasis

    But we need to prove to Americans that this is the party of Abraham Lincoln, [pause] Theodore Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. We're the party of Abraham Lincoln.

    Notice the stress he puts on Lincoln's name. That's where the primary stress would normally go but he definitely increases the emphasis. Notice also the stress on we're in the next sentence. That one is typical of contrastive stress. It's the type of stress that you put on a word only when you're trying to emphasize that another word is not the right one. He uses a contraction but he's certainly stressing we instead of are. If he was stressing are he wouldn't contract it. What's the word he's trying to negate? Well they of course. And who are they? I doubt he's thinking of the Green or Libertarian parties.

    So he gives Lincoln a stress to indicated a semantic loading. Like the stress you give when someone asks 'Is she smart?' and you say 'She went to college' as if only one conclusion can follow. Not the stress that leaves the issue open 'Well she went to college, so...' But the stress that says 'Of course! You know what college means!' Note that the same word is stressed in both phrases. But in the emphatic stress the pitch starts higher and falls more clearly.

    And he gives we're stress to indicate contrast. As if he's trying to reclaim an identity that has been denied his party. Trying to wrest it from the party that has taken it from him.

    This argument is familiar. It's a lot like those arguments that use an etymology to argue the true meaning of a word. Even when all current evidence is contrary to that history. You can argue for instance that girl originally meant any child, male or female. But that history doesn't say anything meaningful about the way the word is used now.

    Saturday, September 06, 2008

    Another type of Engrish

    I've been waiting a long time to find something like this. Finally here's an example of someone performing the sound of English as he (a non-speaker I assume) hears it.

    (via languagehat)

    A lot of [ɹ]s and [l]s in there. And a few aspirated voiceless stops. I'm surprised to hear so many [o]s in what sound like 'word' final positions. And there's less of an off glide on some of them than I'd expect. The diphthongs stick out.

    Around 10 seconds in I'd say he catches a pretty important English pattern. The segment that sounds something like 'getterow' [gɛɾəɹoʊ]. (I can't tell exactly what the coda is. It could also be [l] or just nasalization.) But that flap after a stressed syllable and the schwa as a neutralized vowel in the unstressed syllable is pretty good.

    Thursday, September 04, 2008

    McCain: comedy killer

    Grice's maxims focus on the pragmatics and semantics of an utterance. Some people believe that the potential for humor can be semantically mapped. So can we apply Grice's maxim of relation to the following exchange?

    Leno: For one million dollars: how many houses do you [have]?

    McCain: {laughs} You know I di… Could I just mention to you Jay that um-- at a moment of seriousness --I spent five and a half years in a prison cell without … I di… not a … I didn't have a house. I didn't have a kitchen table. I didn't have a table. I didn't have a chair. And I spent those five and a half years … uh … because … not because I wanted to get a house when I got out.

    [A few readers might have access to the video on YouTube. Copyright issues have disabled embedding.]

    Jay Leno has clearly established a context of facetious interaction. And there's sometimes a point in an interview where either party can introduce a change in tone. But that works best when there is a reasonable break in the topic. An elegant segue is both smooth and well-placed. The joke has to be over.

    But this is of course not a true non-sequitur. McCain does laugh. And there is a conversational implicature. Leno has introduced a joke regarding McCain's inability to remember how many houses he owns. This lapse in memory has been used by some critics as evidence that McCain lives a privileged life. This then implicates the claim that he cannot understand the experience of many Americans. This is then used as a parallel contradiction of McCain's claims that he is not the type elitist he believes Barack Obama to be.

    McCain's response to Leno's joke has processed that line of implicature and it introduces a new implication. He would rather talk about the time when he was a prisoner of war. During which time his concerns about a comfortable residence were irrelevant. Further implicature is hazy. Does his experience counter any claims that he is as much an elitist as Obama? Is he simply trying to remind us of his suffering because it made him the type of man that could be wealthy while staying in touch with those who are not?

    Is it just an attempt to change the subject without saying something offensive to Jay Leno? Well it's not a real change of subject because he purposefully connects his new topic to the topic of houses and living quarters.

    It's conversationally inelegant. And it sounds like a canned response. He was just waiting for a chance to respond to this topic wasn't he? Look at the "I di..." disfluencies. Was he was planning on the "I didn't have a___" lines early on? By the beginning of his statement it sounds like he's champing at the bit to get to his money shot. I have no political commentary because that's neither my task nor my skill. But this does remind me of a line from Seinfeld.

    Priest: And this offends you as a Jewish person?

    Jerry: No. It offends me as a comedian!

    Wednesday, September 03, 2008

    Voice. Over.

    In a(n) X ...
    The snowclone inspired by a voice. And it's one of the simplest snowclones imaginable. It's usually a bare prepositional phrase. Sometimes followed by a simple phrase like 'one man..' or 'a sole warrior...' No more. Often no complete sentence. Just enough for everyone to know you're doing your impression of the movie guy. Don LaFontaine: who died Monday. No impression was as good as the original.

    He could sound young or old or fat or skinny or {come up with with your own binaries}. His voice was low but it didn't have that Barry White resonance. It was raspy. But brother it worked. Everyone loved his voice and after 3 decades of faceless work he was starting to get recognized on sight.

    A lot of the people who wrote his copy trusted him to move us, just by timbre, into places times and minds that sounded like a good two-hour trip.

    photo from here

    Monday, September 01, 2008

    What do you call it?

    The old brain-bender about 'how do we know that blue looks the same to everyone' is pointless. There's no way and really no reason to find out. We have our conventional labels and when we say 'point to the red square' everyone can point to the same square each time. Well almost.

    Rarely is there disagreement in identification of primary or secondary colors. And we can identify shades pretty accurately too. Once I was doing a color match with the additive RGB scale of 0-255 for each value and I matched the two areas within 3 total points difference. 3 points among 16,000,000. Our eyes can be pretty impressive.

    But the linguistic task gets fuzzy quickly. What's navy blue? What's dark blue? Sky blue? Baby blue? Powder blue?

    If you want to know what other people said in a study described on the Dolores Labs Blog just check the map below. Don't get mad when you disagree. Maybe you're the one that's wrong.

    (click image to enlarge)

    Now play with the labels. This page allows you to type in a color or a specifier and see which shades were called what. If you type orange only those shades that were called orange or have <orange> somewhere in the name will show up in the wheel.

    Several years ago a friend of mine was looking at some shirts in a nice store. The salesperson walked up and asked if he needed help.

    'Yes. What is this colour?' he asked. 'It's not on the tag.'

    She looked at the shirt then checked the tag. 'Sorry' she responded. 'I'm not sure exactly what it's called.' She shrugged figuring it wasn't a big deal that she didn't have such specific information. 'Is there anything else?' she asked.

    'Well can you just tell me?' he asked again.

    She looked confused. 'Sorry' she repeated. 'I don't have that information anywhere. It's not listed and I don't know where to find it.'

    'Can't you tell just from looking?' he asked.

    'Look, the names change from brand to brand. So your guess is as good as mine.'

    'No it's not' he said. 'I'm colour-blind.'

    She looked horrified. 'Ohh I'm so sorry. It's green.'

    He laughed and told her not to worry about it. Knowing him I think he was hoping she'd misunderstand.