Archive for the ‘Terminology’ Category

A little more on dog whistles etc.

April 7, 2014

In the previous installment (4/4/14, here), Geoff Nunberg was looking for a good term to use for a particular class of racially coded vocabularly, for a discussion on public radio: dog whistle, euphemism, whatever. He makes the point that the purpose of this vocabulary is crucial.

On the next day, on ADS-L, from Geoff:

the figure is designed to avoid unambiguously suggesting certain social attitudes to listeners who disapprove of them (as distinct from euphemisns, which enable the speaker to avoid uttering a coextensive term that some listeners find unsavory).  “Obliquity” conveys one part of this, and “conivinutation” nicely conveys the other, though neither is a word they would let you use on public radio.

Obliquity, though rare, is not unattested. But conivinutation?


We don’t need no steenkin’ land lines

November 7, 2012

Today’s Zits returns to a familiar topic on this strip and on Zippy: changes in how we communicate across a distance:

Once we wrote letters by hand; then we had the telegraph for important messages; then for quick everyday communication we had phones with dials and (later) phones with buttons; then came cellphones (making us mobile) and e-mail (combining the speed of phones with the asynchronous advantages of letters); and then texting, social media, and tweeting. Who uses which modes of communication for which purposes changes, and very different styles of using the technologies emerge.

Jeremy is so over land lines.


March 20, 2012

In the mail today, an ad for the game Morphology:

Morphology, the hilarious guessing game where CREATIVITY WINS!

Morphology is a fun, creative and challenging party board game combining simple shapes, your imagination and creativity. Using wooden sticks, glass beads and colored cubes how would you create a “butterfly”? …or “airplane”? Now try doing it with your eyes closed or using only the string! Morphology takes unique twists and turns, and has everyone laughing out loud. For ages 13 and up.

The name of the game turns on the Greek root morph- ‘form’. Morphology is a much-used term, though the different senses are very unlikely to interfere with one another in actual practice.


Evolutionary epistemologist

September 15, 2011

Another thing that came past me first thing in the morning on NPR’s Morning Edition on September 12: a KQED opinion segment by Jeremy Sherman, who was identified by the KQED announcer as “a Berkeley-based evolutionary epistemologist”. I wasn’t familiary with evolutionary epistemologist as a job title, so I checked it out.


“autistic toddler” offensive?

November 5, 2010

A letter to Scientific American Mind (in the November/December 2010 issue) from Greg O’Brien of Gray, Maine:

In Erica Westly’s article “Too Much, Too Young” [Head Lines]. she uses the phrase “autistic toddlers.” I feel it is important that the editors recognize the disrespect inherent in that construction. The reverent phrasing would have been “toddlers with autism,” because people with autism (or any disability) are people first! This sentiment is exactly why we have the Americans with Disabilities Act and not the Disabled Americans Act. I would recommend, or at least request, editing articles of this ilk with an eye out for lapses in judgment.

There’s a shorter expression, autistic toddler, and a longer one, toddler with autism, both have toddler as the head noun, and they’re truth-functionally equivalent. In addition to the length difference, though, they differ as to which of the characteristics, autism or toddlerhood, is mentioned first. Perhaps that’s why O’Brien sees the shorter expression as disrespectful; perhaps he judges that mentioning the autism first highights it. (Though you could also argue that the highlighted characteristic comes with the word that gets the heavier phrasal accent: toddler in the shorter expression, autism in the longer.)



February 28, 2010

From Michael Quinion in his World Wide Words #679 (February 27):

BOTTLED  I’d previously heard of the TOTTLE, a combination tube and bottle, a term of the packaging industry that’s been around since the early 1990s. But this week I learned of the NOTTLE. It appeared in a packaging supplement in my daily paper. Details are sparse and an online search is befuddled by all the references to Gussie Fink-Nottle, but it appears to be a bottle that has been turned upside down so it sits on its flat lid, to make squirting the last of its contents easier. My tomato ketchup has been sold me in a bottle like that for some years, but I never knew there was a name for it. Nor do I know where the term comes from. “Not a bottle”? “Negative bottle”?

I have now added HOTTLE (hot + bottle), defined in’s 21st Century Lexicon as:

a thermal or glass carafe (often with black-banded neck and a lid) for holding a hot beverage, as coffee, with which one can refill one’s cup

There’s an illustration of a “Glass Hottle with Cover” here.

In e-mail today, Quinion writes about HOTTLE:

Another new word for me. So far as I can discover, this is a product that came on the market around 1950. The oldest I can find is a snippet (but with a pic) in Popular Mechanics for April 1950.

All three -ottle portmanteaus seem to be  “terms of trade”, used by people who manufacture or sell the items in question, or buy them for commercial use. They are, in effect, technical terms used by a relatively confined community, which has a real need for such terms: people who manufacture, sell, or buy such things need terminology — “in-house terminology”, if you will — that discriminates among the many sorts of thing that they deal in, and people outside this community rarely have such a need.

Going up one level: the usual technical term for such terminology is jargon, defined by NOAD2 as:

special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and and are difficult for others to understand

Unfortunately, probably because of the difficulty jargon presents to outsiders, the word has picked up strong negative connotations. As NOAD2 puts it in a secondary definition:

a form of language regarded as barbarous, debased, or hybrid

The word has now been so poisoned by this sense development that I find it hard to use except in professional contexts having to do with language varieties.

Short shot #36: exact terminology

February 12, 2010

Susan Orlean, “Riding High”, in the New Yorker of 15 & 22 February, on the use of pack animals, mules in particular, in the U.S. military. One captain working with a reconstruction team in Afghanistan

said that there was authorization for his unit to rent pack animals when they were “essential to mission accomplishment.” He told me, “The category is ‘animals for missions.’ ” Then he interrupted himself and said, “No, the exact terminology is ‘live animals for training aids and cargo and personal transport.’ “

Hard to imagine a situation where anyone would use the exact terminology in speech. Even the less technical “animals for missions” scarcely trips off the tongue. I wonder what the captain and others like him actually say on the job.

Illness and disability

January 13, 2010

Along with an article on the failure of other primates to develop a system of communication comparable to human language, the January 12 Science Times in the NYT has a letter from William J. vanden Heuvel (founder and chairman emeritus of the Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt Institute), following up on a January 5 article about the spot over FDR’s left eyebrow. The letter begins:

Your article perpetuates the idea that there was a concerted effort to conceal how sick President Franklin D. Roosevelt was, using as an example the fact that he had had polio at age 39, which caused him to be disabled to the extent that he could never stand or walk without assistance.

To F.D.R., this was not “a sickness” — one of the reasons he is an icon for people with disabilties. He educated Americans to understand that disability is not illness and that we can master the limitations caused by disability.

Some Republicans used the fact that he could not walk unaided in political attacks, even to the point of maintaining that “a cripple” should not be elected president. He did not conceal his physical limitation except to prevent his opponents from making political capital out of it.

The linguistically interesting point here is the contrast between illness/sickness/disease and disability. The two states are sometimes confounded, because people may be inclined to take disability as a sign of disease. In Roosevelt’s case, his disability was a consequence of an earlier illness (disabilities can, of course, arise in a number of other ways), so there was a connection between the two, but his disability was not itself a sickness.

In addition, some people are inclined to treat both disability and illness as sources of stigma, and that’s something that can’t be addressed by distinguishing the two.

(The topic is of special interest to me, since my right hand and arm are somewhat disabled, ultimately as a consequence of disease, namely necrotizing fasciitis. The event intervening between the illness and the disability was a series of surgeries in which my ulnar nerve was damaged. So I’m now disabled, but not now suffering from NF.)

Just two days before vanden Heuvel’s letter, the NYT Magazine had a fascinating piece on the vocabulary of disease: “The Americanization of Mental Illness”, by Ethan Watters. Watters notes the Western drive to conceptualize mental disorders as just another kind of disease (“mental illness”) and details some counterintuitive and not necessarily welcome consequences:

For more than a generation now, we in the West have aggressively spread our modern knowledge of mental illness around the world. We have done this in the name of science, believing that our approaches reveal the biological basis of psychic suffering and dispel prescientific myths and harmful stigma. There is now good evidence to suggest that in the process of teaching the rest of the world to think like us, we’ve been exporting our Western “symptom repertoire” as well. That is, we’ve been changing not only the treatments but also the expression of mental illness in other cultures. Indeed, a handful of mental-health disorders — depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anorexia among them — now appear to be spreading across cultures with the speed of contagious diseases. These symptom clusters are becoming the lingua franca of human suffering, replacing indigenous forms of mental illness.

… at the same time that Western mental-health professionals have been convincing the world to think and talk about mental illnesses in biomedical terms, we have been simultaneously losing the war against stigma at home and abroad. Studies of attitudes in the United States from 1950 to 1996 have shown that the perception of dangerousness surrounding people with schizophrenia has steadily increased over this time. Similarly, a study in Germany found that the public’s desire to maintain distance from those with a diagnosis of schizophrenia increased from 1990 to 2001.

Grammar vs. syntax

December 10, 2009

One more follow-up to my posting on Ned Halley’s Dictionary of Modern English Grammar, this time on grammar vs. syntax. The sub-title of the book says that it’s about grammar, syntax, and style, so that I wondered how Halley distinguished these three things.

Style first. Then grammar vs. syntax, a distinction that crops up in many other places, in particular in discussions of the “grammar and syntax” of some language.



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