Thursday, July 31, 2008

The one that got away

I wish I could go back and re-edit one of the major papers from my M.A.

Just the other day I was thinking about 'real' words (no doubt because of some recent posts on LL) and I remembered a comment by a fine professor in the margin of my paper in which I investigated Virginia Woolf's commentary on ostracization and her use of Greek as a tool of inclusion intrusion and transcendence to the unobtainable.

Dr J-G wrote "I don't find enamoration in the dictionary" and suggested a word like enamourment instead.

And I just rolled over. I guess I wanted her to stamp her OK on the paper and send me on my way.

But enamoration was so much better! And in a paper that's all about daring to speak in ways that aren't expected or common and to say things that are not approved by existing systems I was supposed to say 'I don't want to pick a word that that meets your approval to indicate a state of rapture. I can't help but resist you.'

But I could have even used her argument against her. Enamoration is in the OED. And it falls under a headword with that gorgeous and the lovely Obs. rare tag. And it is defined simply as ecstacy of love. Oh I wish I had stuck with it. It was a paper that began with And as the first word of an interrogative sentence. I began with a presumptuous demand for an eely answer.

And yet I was unwilling to take either approach: to argue that the word was sanctioned by the OED; or (more romantically) stick with my word because I wanted to use it and it worked.

Plus those four nasals in enamourment are so klutzy.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Even Ben Zimmer is upset

The biggest news in the world of words today: The Scrabulous application on Facebook has been disabled in the US and Canada.

There go all my bingos and my .660 record.

Damn you Hasbro. What are you thinking. Scrabulous posed no risk to your precious little realm. In fact this was probably going to help you:

  1. People get into the game online.
  2. The game is no longer associated with Saturday night at Grandma's.
  3. Online play spills offline.
  4. College kids go to the store to buy the game and what do they find? Scrabble.
  5. You get the sale.

As evidence, I recently started a game with a friend and she wrote back:
I'm so there, it's insane! But why do I have the feeling that the linguist is going to kill me at scrabble?

Did you catch that Hasbro? It's still scrabble to her!

Puerto Ricans have a great exclamation for these situations. Ave Maria purisima!

And FWIW I would not have certainly beaten my friend at the game. She's a medievalist and plenty good at coming up with strange little words.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Relying on nuance to complain

When a complaint about language is merely a statement about preference I have no reason to argue against it. I have my preferences too. When it's based on faulty understanding or analysis of language structure or history my response should only go as far as saying that the logic is incorrect. So while the conclusion might still stand it needs a different rationale. But what if the complaint itself doesn't make any sense?

I've mentioned Minnesota Public Radio's Grammar Grater® podcast a couple times before. As I've said before the show is pretty good at not complaining about language abuses. The writers usually accept that language change is not a sign of weakness. And I find no major fault with last week's contribution Episode 56: The Essence of an Expression.

The episode is "inspired" by Bryan from Seattle's very uninspired complaint. They quote him:

I hear time is of the essence all the time, and it's almost always misused. It does not mean we are in a hurry—it comes from contract law, and means that cited dates and times are part of the fundamental trade-offs in the contract, or part of its essence. It means that if something is supposed to happen by noon the next day, before the end of the year is not good enough.

My response: What are you complaining about Bryan? You're saying it means pretty much the same thing. That a task has to be accomplished before a certain point in time.

He gets a fair response. GG turns to the business law expertise of Paul Muilenberg who says The reality is that in almost every case, time is very important essentially means the same thing as we are in a hurry,

Bryan is probably picking on a reading of the phrase to mean 'we are in a hurry' but that's a peevishly chosen reading. The phrase is similar to 'remember there's a deadline' or 'time is running out.' Those are true at any point in a timeline and they don't directly mean 'we are in a hurry' or 'you should hurry up.' But they are really only used when the fact might affect behaviour. It is typically the context that leads the conversation implicature that it's worth noting that time is of the essence because we are uncomfortably close to that essential time.

It's not really the fault of GG but it is pretty clear that the listeners and readers feel it is their job to offer up simple complaints. The comment boards are riddled with peevological rants and opinions. Tho not uniformly. There are also comments disagreeing with the rants or just saying 'calm down.'

It's a fascinating if at times frustratingly common pattern of discussions about language being dominated by those who are just looking to shoehorn a complaint into an observation.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

McCain is too tense

John McCain has used some shameless sleight of word to get his claims past the lie detector. But a May 28 statement didn't get past Steven Pinker who passed it on to Geoff Pullum who then quotes foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann's promise: If you're going to start fact-checking verb tenses, we're going to make sure we start monitoring verb tenses a lot more closely than we have in this campaign.

Less than two months later and it's like McCain is playing with a new toy: verb tenses. He's just throwing them around as if trying to cover every possible span of time.

Of course Jon Stewart has to get in a jab.

Stewart: Ultimately through his frustration McCain insisted that he had the correct Iraq policies no matter which verb tense you use.

McCain (on video): We will succeed. We have succeeded and we will win the war in Iraq.

And we are winning!

Stewart: And then we will have won! Having been winning we will have had to win! My friends we will would have.

Watch the full episode here.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Raisins are dried grapes?!?

The episode "A Little Bit of Knowledge" on This American Life is one of the best ones I've heard yet.

The first story "When Small Thoughts Meet Big Brains" is about those things you find out embarrassingly late. Finding out at age 34 that Nielsen families are not all named Nielsen. Finding out in your 20s that <Xing> on a street sign is not pronounced 'zing.' Thinking that quesadilla is Spanish for 'what's the deal?' or that unicorns really exist.

When I was in high school one of my older sister's friends scoffed when I mentioned reindeer. They're not real she said accusingly. Yes they are I insisted. They're sometimes also called Caribou. Haven't you seen them? I explained that they live in northern regions and they look like a cross between a deer and a moose. Once she saw that I really believed my story she cautiously asked with skeptical realization: And they can really fly?

Last month Heidi Harley mentioned a blinding flash of light upon her realization several years ago

that the speech hesitations spelled "er" and "erm" in British texts are intended to sound just like the hesitations spelled "uh" and "um" in American texts. I'd been reading them internally as [əɹ], [əɹm], and if you'd asked me to read them aloud, that's how I'd have done it, even though never in my life had I heard anyone hesitate with such a noise. What a ninny.

And several commenters chimed in regarding the same surprise.

Lynneguist mentions her own related post from a month before.

(Shamelessly competitive aside: I posted on it about 20 months ago.)

Ray Girvan comments
For me, the epihany was recognising that the disapproving "Tut, tut", "Tch, tch" or "Tsk, tsk" said by comic-book characters represented a dental click. And yet, at least jokingly, people do say "Tut, tut" sometimes.

And in his own comment languagehat announces his own blinding flash of light caused by another comment mentioning Eeyore as a donkey's bray.

These blinding flashes of light are not worth hiding. It's great to admit that you've just learned something. It can be a little embarrassing but so what. It sounds a lot worse to say that you've always known everything that everybody your age knows. It's obvious that you're both bragging and lying.

  • Just a couple months ago I learned that there were no rooms in ancient Rome just for throwing-up called vomitoriums (vomitoria?). Buffy informed me.
  • I had my B.A. in English before I learned that the Norman Invasion was not just another name for the Roman Invasion.
  • I completed my minor in psychology, had secondary ed certification in 2 states and had taught it for 3 years before I realized that I had been flipping the roles of the ego and the superego.
  • About 2 years ago I realized that in Old English writing, <ea> was probably a simplification of <æa> and was pronounced with an initial [æ] not [e]. (I know! Right?)

    There are more. Many more. But I think you need to admit some now.


    Oh yes. The real gem in the episode of This American Life: the prologue suggests that people who say a lot about a topic they barely understand sound like a magazine: Modern Jackass. The magazine doesn't exist of course, but people who don't admit ignorance are in abundance.

    Nancy Updike: You know my mother sends me information about um partially hydrogenated oils. And then when somebody says Wait why is partially hydrogenated oil bad again? and I say Well It's an unstable compound. Which it is. It's oil to which hydrogen has been added in order to make it solid at room temperature. That I know. That's a fact.

    Ira Glass: And why would that be bad Nancy?

    Nancy: Well that's where we get into Modern Jackass territory. It's unstable and your body … your … your … you know … it … there … there's an extra hydrogen atom that can interact with uh … things …

    I really hope calling Modern Jackass catches on. But so help me -- if one of you puts it in the comments...

  • Monday, July 21, 2008


    The pomegranates in the toes of my loafers have colored my blue argyle sock purple and my white argyle sock red.

    More later.

    Wednesday, July 16, 2008

    Finish him

    Nancy Friedman has posted a piece on the use of coup de grâce. She suggests reasonably that when we adopt phrases in form from other languages we would do well to keep content in mind. It reminds me of the use of mano a mano to mean man to man when the Spanish phrase really means hand to hand. There's also mano y mano out there which means hand and hand.

    Her advisement is not concerned so much with the literal meaning, nor does she rail against the evils of language change. Her point is reasonable because her concern is that the intended message of the phrase changes so much as to risk an undesired effect. And a merciful strike on a delicious dessert can sound a bit like tasty euthanasia.

    The problem with coup de grâce is that grâce reminds us of the everyday meaning of English "grace": "elegance," "attractiveness," "charm." But "grace" and grâce also have theological meanings of "mercy" and "thanksgiving" (which English retains in expressions like "by the grace of God" and "the grace before meals"). A coup de grâce relies on the latter meaning: it's a merciful end to suffering.

    I left a comment in defense not of semantic shift in general but of the possible appropriateness of the connotations. (Tho I do of course like to defend language change and semantic shift.)

    There's quite a tradition of the use of images of death and murder in connection with very positive and very enjoyable events. A comedian kills or murders the audience. It was so funny I died. You slay me. That musician is destroying that solo. Those sweets are deadly. Death by chocolate (which I mentioned in my comment). A dish to die for. And another French phrase: la petite mort -- most enjoyable.

    Coup de grâce is often used to indicate a final bit of flair or decoration that tops it all off. It's a bit like the finishing touches on a work of art (which the OED takes back to a literal last touch of a paintbrush). And I can accept that the original sense of a blow to end suffering might occasionally interfere with the sense of beauty or appreciation. But the idea of skill and artistry combined with style and elegance does a lot of skating back and forth between art and warfare and cooking and art and cooking and warfare and … I guess that's all of them.

    Art as used to describe the precision of violence.
    Remember the line from The Princess Bride?
    Inigo Montoya: Kill me quickly.
    Westley: I would sooner destroy a stained glass window than an artist like yourself.

    Killing as used to describe power of elegance.
    From a review of Sex and the City: The Movie: And the coup de grace: a pair of gorgeous vintage Italian black heels that a friend gave me last week.

    Violence as used to describe the effect of good flavour.
    From a blog post: this pizza made from scratch with fontina cheese and homemade tomato sauce and dough. It was so good I thought I would die.

    But for some reason it's hard to find descriptions of assassins and warriors with skills full of flavor and decadently sweet. He smote and slew his foe with such spice and savoury succulence... It misses the mark.

    Friday, July 11, 2008

    The meaning in demeaning

    Poor Buffy. I caught snippets of a conversation she was having during the ambient music. One bit that I overheard was her admission "Oh--I'm a musical disaster."

    She's not really. She can sing along to a song. Unless she's wearing earphones. (I have video of this. I'm still working on getting permission to post it.) But there's little shame in that. Most people sound horrible when they can't hear themselves singing.

    Still--my sister and I were having fun mocking Buffy's musical abilities a few years ago. And Buffy was laughing more than anyone. She's a wonderful sport that way. A word of advice: don't come near the family unless you can handle being ridiculed. It's nothing personal. That's just how we treat people that we feel superior to. (Group therapy didn't help.)

    We teased her by isolating segments of words to imply that the division and segment is morphemic altho we know very well that it is not.

    In other words:

    She puts the can't in cantata
    She puts the phoney in symphony
    She puts the no in piano/soprano
    She puts the retard in ritardando
    She puts the commode in comodo
    She puts the wreck in requiem
    She puts the dim in diminuendo
    She puts the harm in harmony
    She puts the ghetto in larghetto
    She puts the pew in più mosso
    She puts the ass in classical
    She puts the flaw in flautist
    She puts the rebel in treble
    She puts the phew in fugue
    She puts the joke in giocoso
    She puts the mad in madrigal
    She puts the why? in choir
    She puts the ach! in nachtmusik
    She puts the silly in Siciliana
    She puts the shun in notation
    She puts the lewd in prelude
    She puts the sin in sinfonia
    She puts the itch in pitch
    She puts the bad in Badinerie
    She puts the rump in trumpet
    She puts the cuss in percussion

    I know. Some of these don't really work or make sense.

    Thursday, July 10, 2008

    Manitas de plomo

    I'll get back to some more regular posting now. The wedding was lovely and my music didn't ruin it. There was one point there where Gabriel Fauré's Pavane stumbled but not enough for me to give up the guitar completely for 3 years like the last time a performance derailed.

    As I predicted I only got through 22 bars of the prelude for the processional. I didn't get any recording of the music but to prove that I've been playing a good amount here are some images of my sacrifice. And I'm versatile. The first is Gary Moore on a surprisingly nice '78 strat. The other is James Taylor on a typical Takamine.

    Friday, July 04, 2008

    Gluttony: emphasis on 'ton'...well not really.

    In a recent AP article about a hotdog eating contest is the following sentence.

    Thousands gathered at Coney Island on the Fourth of July to watch the glutinous gladiators compete in the annual event.

    There are a few possible explanations.

  • A cupertino: <gluttinous> and <gluttnous> both offer up <glutinous> as the first suggestion and <gluttonous> as the second.
  • A simple typo that wasn't caught.
  • The writer chose that spelling but doesn't realize that the word he wanted is spelled gluttonous.
  • The contestants were all sticky (which is probably true anyway).

    The first vowel in gluttonous isn't the same as in glutinous. The former is pronounced with the 'strut' vowel and the latter with the 'boot' vowel (AmE) or the 'you' glide+vowel (BrE).

    In deliberately slow speech I would expect 3 vowels in the pronunciation of each word. In the first (gluttonous) they are all likely be the same sound: ʌ. In the latter (glutinous) they are likely 3 distinct vowels: u, ɪ and ʌ.

    Normal speech reduces vowels and the last vowel in each word is probably closer to ə. In AmE the second syllable of both words loses a vowel. In place of the vowel is a syllabic 'n' which radically neutralizes any difference between ʌ and ɪ. The typical AmE pronunciations are ɡlʌʔn̩əs and ɡluʔn̩əs. A writer who has heard gluttonous but doesn't know how to spell it is easily going to accept <tin> as the orthographic representation of -ʔn̩-.

    And tho I would expect a double <t> after the 'strut' vowel it's not unheard of to have a single consonant. In one-syllable words it's especially common: but cut gut hut &c. In multisyllabic words it's less common. Especially in a stressed syllable. A long time ago a single consonant belonged to the following syllable (as an onset) which left the vowel in the stressed syllable open. Vowels that were in those open syllables now sound like what our elementary school teachers call 'long' vowels or sometimes the tense vowels in bee or boo. So the <u> in glutinous (representing BrE ju diphthong/ AmE tense u) makes sense before a single vowel. But that's not much help when the writer or reader doesn't realize that <glutinous> is not an adjective meaning 'characterised by or given to overindulgence -- especially in food.'

  • Tuesday, July 01, 2008

    If music be...

    My fingertips need to dance on the frets instead of the keyboard for now.

    Thursday I'll be performing J.S. Bach's Prelude No 1 in C major (BWV 846/1) from Book 1 of the The Well Tempered Clavier.

    I'll also be performing Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World as combined and arranged by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole.

    Oh yeah and a couple of people are getting married too.