Thursday, September 08, 2022

No pun intended. None taken. when someone says the kids were literally bouncing of the walls I'm not likely to imagine a bunch of kids pressing against the upright surface of a room's physical limit with enough force to create potential energy in the opposite direction resulting in a shift to kinetic energy away from that surface. Unless I've seen it happen before. Some kids are pretty acrobatic. My niece likes to literally climb the walls. Really. Put her in a narrow enough hallway she will climb the walls. Like most linguists I don't care when people use literally to mean something other than 'in a non-metaphorical sense.' Really I don't. Because words are allowed to be flexible. Phrases too. I'm getting used to 'begs the question' when it's used to mean 'makes the question obvious.' The key here is recognizing that I've grown accustomed to a meaning simply through a convention that is no more intrinsically appropriate than any other convention. It also helps that there are plenty of ways to figure out what a speaker means when using words and phrases in a new way. It's what we're constantly doing while communicating. You hear a phrase and if it doesn't work with your first understanding, you try another one or you read the context and figure out a more feasible understanding. Now consider a phrase like no pun intended. It's often used when a phrase or word is used in a way that could have two meanings -- usually a literal one and metaphorical one -- one of which provides a humorous or biting or satirical comment on the topic discussed. Believe it or not I'm willing to do a little complaining about the phrase. But not on linguistic grounds. What I hold against this parenthetical is that in writing it's almost always a lie. And it's used to celebrate a joke that wouldn't need the attention if it was good enough in the first place. When spoken it's often a quick reaction to the sudden realization that a phrase could be taken more than one way. And sometimes it helps to assure the listener that no disrespect or lightness is intended. A friend of mine once wrote an article about a young boy who died of AIDS. He began the touching story with a reference to the boy's "infectious laugh". It was not until I read the story in the paper and called it to his attention that he caught the double meaning. He really didn't intend that pun. Had he noticed it he would have changed the wording. He would not have simply added the parenthetical disclaimer. Writing allows that type of edition. When speaking we can't delete. So the phrase is sometimes useful. Tho when great offense might be taken I can't imagine that a simple 'no pun intended' is really going to do the trick. It's more likely to be another similar but effectively different phrase like 'I didn't intend that pun' Probably with an apology. In writing it's the annoying equivalent of an elbow nudge. Or worse yet that "baDUM-pum" rimshot performed by overeager class clowns up until their first year in college. Here are two examples [bad link removed] from a writer who likes the trick enough to stack them back-to-back. In the headline: Porn Star Sticks Up (No Pun Intended) For Gene Simmons And in the lead: Porn star Taylor Wane is coming (no pun intended) to the defense of porn star Gene Simmons. Not intended? Sure. Sometimes the phrase lets you know there was a pun. Sometimes it lets you know that one is on the way. In the latter case the parenthetical will often come between the determiner and the NP -- My pods are in a holding pattern and growing at a (no pun intended) 'snail's pace'. (here) he gives Jumper a no-pun-intended jolt of much-needed electricity. ([malware link removed]) -- or before the conjunction but No pun intended but I am in the same boat as you. ([link broken]: in a comment to a woman whose husband ignores her for his fishing and hunting errands) No pun intended, but we thought, with the Navy afloat, we'll be afloat, DaSilva says. ([link broken]) So you hear the phrase and you either think (or read) back to find the pun or you wait for it to reach you. Tony Rafael uses the phrase twice early in a presentation on The Mexica Mafia --the topic and title of his book-- speaking in Los Angeles. The event was hosted by the David Horowitz Freedom Center. October 23 2007.

You have to wonder if it's insanity or some kind of hubris that would bring fifteen thousand known criminals out into the open in broad daylight to assemble and have essentially a gang summit within the very shadow of the Los Angeles Police Department Academy. And no pun intended but law enforcement at that time in 1992 as recently as 1992 really didn't consider the Mexican Mafia as a significant threat. Some gang cops saw evidence of it on the street. They attributed a few crimes to it but they never really saw it as an organization until that day in September in 1992. They were literally caught flat-footed -- again no pun intended. The fact that they could do this in broad daylight really started law enforcement scratching their heads about the power and influence of this group.
The second use probably refers to the phrase flat-footed. It's an interesting use of both literally and no pun intended in reference to the same phrase. He's announcing that he's aware of the double meaning but assuring us that he doesn't intend it. The first use isn't so clear. Is he referring to the double meaning of within the very shadow? It's odd that he offers the parenthetical after the and setup to the next topic. But that changeover is fuzzy. He might in fact be using the phrase reactively. Or is he really anticipating on the street as the possible pun? I doubt it. There's quite a gap between the two. I'm not sure. It sounds like he thought he was about to offer a pun but he never actually puts it out there. The C-SPAN2 page on the program is here. You should be able to watch if you have a RealMedia plugin. This section is about 5 minutes in. What do you think?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Good Days

I'm now in another country. And not just visiting. My wife has a job teaching at a university and I've taken a break from teaching to finish my own studies and writing. Except that now that I'm in this country, I'm taking a language class. It's an odd experience, as I've never taken a language class. I took Old English, which used to be a language, but now she's dead.

Of course, while taking this class I have to bite my tongue when the teacher says something about her language (or anyone else's) that my linguistic training has taught me to bark at like a drug sniffing dog.* It hasn't been too much of a challenge because her opinions are moderate and a lot of her views are in line with current linguistic theories and accepted facts.

The first good sign was when on the first day of class she mentioned that Turkish is not a difficult language. "It's just different" she said. Good I thought. She's not going to brag about her language being more sophisticated, or other languages being less logical. Of course less than twenty minutes after saying this, she did say "Russian is a very hard language!" Merely a venial sin. There's usually a detoxing session after the class when Buffy will turn to me and say "I was wondering what you thought when she said…" Which is a nice sign that my ranting and raving has made an impression on my loved ones. They're starting to recognize what sorts of pitches I like to take a swing at.

*Don't they actually just sit down next to the drugs when they find them? Without barking? I don't know if that's true, but it feels true right now.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Thirteen untranslatable words

I'm a language lover. I have been since I was a kid. Just about eleven months after being born, I started saying words and I've been using them ever since. I probably use words every day and I've gotten pretty good at it.

But there's still so much for me to learn. And learning languages other than English is always a fun challenge. But what makes it so much harder is that a lot of languages have words in them that we just can't translate into English. Who knows if it's because we don't have the concept in English (which makes it impossible to make up a word to label the concept) or, more interestingly, maybe we don't have the concepts in English because we don't have the word! History's first linguist, a guy named Sapir Whorf, discovered that without a word, we can't think.

So in my research I went out and found some of the most amazing untranslatable words in the non-American speaking world. Here they are, in no particular order.

  1. Mamihlapinatapei
    This is one of the first words I learned about as an untranslatable word. It's spoken by using a ancient and primitive language from Chile, in Tierra del Fuego. (Tierra del Fuego, by the way, means "Fire, Having Land/Earth/Dirt, Which Land/Earth/Dirt Is Being This Land/Earth/Dirt".) The word, mamihlapinatapei, is unfortunately untranslatable.

  2. Toska
    This is a Russian word. It means… uhhh… it's sort of like… hm. Well it's a cool meaning, but you have to know Russian to understand it.

  3. Iktsuarpok
    The Inuits only have one word for this, and therefore altho we can't know what this word means, we do know that iktsuarpok isn't important or familiar to the Inuits, otherwise they'd have 231 words for it.

  4. Shlimazl
    The Yiddish word is used next to schlemiel a lot, both of them meaning something related to each other. The meaning is something close to… uhhhh… dammit this post is hard to write.

  5. Friolero
    No idea. Looks Spanish.

  6. The
    You might recognize this word, but there is no English translation of it. It is similar to 'a' and 'an' but it has a meaning that those two words just don't quite capture.

  7. Tartle
    Scotts talk funny, don't they?

  8. Torschlusspanik
    Germans use this word. You might notice it has the word "panik" in it which is close to English "panic" but those other parts mean some other sorts of things.

  9. Wabi-Sabi
    In Japanese culture, you have… there are these… ummm… It rhymes with itself. Like that other untranslatable word Oingo Boingo.

  10. Hwæt
    This Old English word used to be English when English wasn't yet old. Once it became old, hwæt became impossible to use.

  11. Cafuné
    Not even speakers of Portuguese from Portugal can understand this word. Only speakers of Portuguese from Brazil know what it means.

  12. L’appel du vide
    Altho the French have one translation of this that they can share with us (the call of the void), they have since given it another more interesting meaning that they are keeping from us.

  13. Schadenfreude
    This weird German word roughly translates into the English word, 'schadenfreude'.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"Evacuate": the premises

An hourlong wait for the answer to a simple question gets tiresome. So I'm not usually a fan of detective procedurals on TV. I suppose that's also why some people are so uncomfortable with ambiguous syntax, polysemous words, and language change more generally. Understanding is hard!

Well, I do like one cop show a lot: The Wire. It's intricate, precise, and consistent. Every character on the show is fallible. Every soul is broken. By addiction, betrayal, torture, improper English usage, murder…

I started watching three months ago and now I'm up to the first episode of season 5. One scene brought back memories of a conversation that took place several years ago in the language blog neighborhood. Here's the bit.

Gus Haynes sits at his desk reading and typing. He calls out

"Ms Gutierrez. Gutierrez! Get your ass over here."


"You say that 120 people were evacuated."

"Yeah. They were."

"You can't evacuate people. I mean you can if you want. But that's not what you want to say here."
Another man—the fat, bald, bearded kind—offers his analysis.

"A building could be evacuated. To evacuate a person is to give that person an enema. The details, Miss Gutierrez. At The Baltimore Sun, god still resides in the details."

As she walks away, put in her place, the fat bald guy (Jay Spry) cries out with the anguish of all obsolete convictions. "What are we gonna do with these children today?"

Not to worry. His attempt to spread uninvestigated reassurance finds a home in Alma Gutierrez's eager little soul. She has picked up her Webster's New World desk dictionary, and the camera shows her staring as she reads it. "He's right" she says. "You don't evacuate people."

We have to remember that these are fictional characters. And altho The Wire is riddled with characters based on real-life Baltimorianders, we can rest assured that neither of these superstitious editors is our friend, the reasonable John McIntyre.

But what lesson can we learn here? You need soft eyes. Investigate. Know your sources. Put facts together. Neglecting or, more egregiously, refusing to do all that is too often what leads to peeves, complaints, feigned confusion, and the uninvestigated reassurance that stopped Ms Gutierrez from a fuller understanding of the word evacuate.

It also trips up many of our fellow web-trotters. I did a little searching to find conversations about this issue, and I came across a story about a bomb threat in Palo Alto. Three commenters—employee, darwin, and sketch—provide the action.

Click to enlarge so that you can read the tiny words.

Notice that sketch's attempt to defend employee's use of evacuate doesn't actually defend the distinction precisely. The entry merely supports the sense of evacuate as "leave empty". In other words, to evacuate a building is to remove people from the building. Darwin's snippy response is on point if we accept that entry as the only admissible evidence in our investigation of the word's meaning.

This is similar to what Gutierrez does after Spry limits the meaning of the word for her. This is also part of what I did when I saw that she was shown consulting Webster's New World. I went and got out my own copy of that dictionary. Not to see what I should believe, but to see what the dictionary actually says. And you know what? It's possible to read that as the only meaning of evacuate that my copy of WNW gives.

For the sake of this argument, let's say that we're trusting the dictionary to tell us which meanings are in common enough usage to be understood and relevant. Nothing in the entry clearly indicates that the object of evacuate can be the people (or objects) that are removed. Altho I would say that sense 3.a. can be read this way, with the evacuees as the objects of evacuate, it's a tricky transitive structure. If someone is just looking to prove, rather than learn, they could hang on to their belief and say that the implied object is "place or area" not "inhabitants". I say it's both. I say the parentheses indicate two different possible objects of the transitive verb. I'm also guessing that Gutierrez' Compact Office Dictionary has a whole lot of nothing where mine has something. So the debate continues, doesn't it?

Such assurance in a limited resource is what led darwin to respond to sketch's invocation of the dictionary entry so approvingly. "I'm glad you looked it up," he says. Clearly the dictionary is given the final word as he hears it. Gutierrez used it to check Spry's claim. Sketch used it (shakily) to debunk darwin's. And darwin is glad to see him hoist by their mutual petard.

So, case closed? No. Not even if we decide we're going to end our search with a look at just one dictionary. We have to admit that altho dictionaries try to be complete, they're not always. That's why most dictionaries have more than one edition: sometimes because of errors, but really because of changes in language and additions to our understanding. So in almost all cases, if you're trying to find out about a word, use more than one dictionary.

But here's the fun part: looking around. We don't have to just look at the specific entry for a word to know what a dictionary thinks of that word. Every once in a while, a dictionary entry is a little weak on the witness stand. In this case, look less than a centimeter down the page at the next entry, for evacuation (sense 2) and the entry right after that for evacuee.

See? The dictionary knows how to talk just like people do. If your god resides in the details, he resides in all of them.

Monday, December 10, 2012


It's been over a year since I posted anything on this blog, and I don't think the symbolism of an entirely silent 2012 is as beautiful and poignant as it is sad and discouraging. So here's a little throat clearing to keep my voice ready.

I've watched as several blogs, that were part of my regular reading, have winnowed down to archives and 404 errors. The saddest examples are those small blogs with light readership, that had something to say but felt ignored. They remind me of the timid introvert at a party who works up the courage to add something to the conversation. They speak so softly that they're interrupted and no one notices. So they stop halfway thru their sentence and look around with a nervous smile pretending it didn't hurt.

I've never felt ignored here, but I do need a drink. That'll get me talking.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Possible eggcorn hits close to home

Seen in a comment from a social networking site:

"Your alive ? I thought this was a line through a wishyboard...."

I wouldn't have understood what this meant without the context. But it's pretty clear that "wishyboard" is being used here instead of 'ouija board'. So we have the alteration/substitution necessary for an eggcorn. Do we have a reasonable semantic reanalysis?

It's a tough one. Is it likely that "wishy" refers to the divining, eking, asking, and pleading that might accompany a ouija board session? Is there wishing involved in the typical seance? Wishing upon a pentagram?

And beyond the possibility of a reanalysis here, this is nonce term with extra weight on the "once". I couldn't find any relevant hits in a quick search on Google™. This might be a true one-off. But there's just something about it…

Friday, February 25, 2011

On Language is turned off - The Old Grey Lady ain't what she used to be

Ben Zimmer was one of the first language bloggers to notice Wishydig and occasionally direct readers this way. I still remember that almost 4 years ago he was kind enough to mention one of my posts to Mr. Verb. It was a post I had written in response to one of William Safire's not very careful On Language columns on word history. Mr. Verb, writing with the same frustration I felt, remarked that it was time someone take over for the Times' resident Language Maven. Little did we know that in only a few years, the column would be Zimmer's.

Earlier today, Zimmer announced that his On Language column, "at least in its current incarnation," is being dropped from the redesigned New York Times Magazine. He has been trusted with that space for the past year, and he repaid that trust with careful, relevant, reliable, and interesting commentary on language. To make his columns interesting he didn't resort to making up facts, exaggerating claims, or stoking fears. He's a linguist who knows that language is fascinating on its own when represented accurately and analyzed reasonably.

I don't need to speculate about the business reasons for cutting On Language from the Times Magazine. I don't like it. Rational and insightful discussions of language are rare enough in mainstream news outlets. There are too many dilettantes and dabblers who go no further than to complain about variation and throw tantrums against change. Zimmer, on the other hand, provides calm and informed commentary. I'm sure he will continue to do so at Language Log, and the Visual Thesauraus. This is a coda, ending no syllable articulated by Zimmer, but by the New York Times.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Linguists know how to talk

Ben Zimmer and John McWhorter have done a diavlog hosted by Bloggingheads. If you know the names, you already know if you're interested. If you don't know the names, they're real linguists who will undoubtedly replace some of your mistaken beliefs and superstitions about language with observations that will prove to be much more interesting.

Zimmer has previously said of the word diavlog:

Diavlog is a second-order blend, by the way: it blends dialog and vlog, with the latter element representing a blend of video and blog. Or make that third-order, since blog blends Web and log.

My question has long been this: Do we distinguish, with a proper surface representation, a diavlog [dia(log)+[v(ideo)+[((we)b)+log]]] from a diavlog [dia(log)+[v(ideo)+log]] that isn't designed for the web?

And how do we know that [v] isn't just an infix, excised from video and inserted into dialog?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

IPA Palette now available for 64-bit Snow Leopard

About a year ago I asked if anyone could help me get IPA Palette working on Snow Leopard. I didn't get much of a response. I found some workarounds.

A couple days ago, Brian 'Moses' Hall, the author of IPA Palette, found the post and responded.

Snow Leopard "broke" some aspects of Input Methods (because it suddenly went all 64-bit crazy) so people like me (and those write screen saver plugins and such) suddenly had to scramble. IPA Palette 2.0 addresses all these changes and works great on SL. Cheers, Moses Hall.

So IPA Palette 2.0b4 is available for download.

A couple images:

It's a nice utility. I've set up some text replacement preferences for most of my IPA input, but I'll definitely use IPA palette for more of the fine tuning and narrow transcriptions.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Imagine how they treat your luggage

Seven dogs died because of a flight from Tulsa to Chicago. I know the reports say they died afterwards, but that's according to the airline, and how much trust can we put in puppy killers?

Whoever wrote or edited the article apparently subscribes to a mysterious usage rule that I wondered about a couple years ago: the rule is that you can't autopsy another species. So:

The incident was under investigation. The dogs are being necropsied.
Necropsied. When I first read about this usage belief, I asked if autopsies couldn't be performed on non-humans, or if it was just about a species other than that of the investigator.
[W]hat is it that technically keeps a pathologist from performing an autopsy on anything but another human? … The comment says the issue is "a different species" so does this mean that if horses were smart enough (and had opposable thumbs) they would be able to perform autopsies on other horses?
This is a sad story. It seems the airline didn't follow its own policies, and it's hard to imagine how to see them as anything other than sloppy enough to kill your pets. To borrow an old George Miller joke, I don't want to name the actual airline, but I will tell you that it's an american airline.