Archive for the ‘Variation’ Category


April 25, 2015

From the April 18th Economist, in the article “Putin’s targeted strike: The meaning of Russia’s weapons sale to Iran”:

In July 2013 Russia remained silent when an Israeli air strike destroyed anti-ship cruise missiles that it had recently supplied to Syria and were on their way to Hizbullah. And Israel kept shtum last October when Syrian rebels released footage of the involvement of Russian intelligence officers at a Syrian military listening post on the Golan Heights that had been overrun.

Israel kept shtum. With the adjective shtum ‘silent, mute’ — an item that, apparently, few Americans know, unless they have some experience of British English. (The Economist is a British publication.) On the British side, the item is ordinary slang, commonly used in the collocation keep shtum (and in some other contexts). It seems to be derived from Yiddish, though I believe that very few British speakers appreciate that; for them, it’s just slang. So there’s something of a puzzle as to how it became naturalized in BrE but not AmE.



April 22, 2015

Two recent items about alternative expressions: an occurrence of whimsiness (where you might have expected whimsicality), and one of the count noun mistruth (where you might have expected untruth).

Both are in the OED and both are in the Collins online (and count as legitimate words in Scrabble), but neither is in NOAD2 or most other one-volume dictionaries.


Doris Roberts

April 20, 2015

Not a morning name or (thank goodness) an obit, but a brief appreciation of the actor (as a result of seeing her featured in an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent), plus some reflections on tv sitcoms.


-ity and -ness

April 15, 2015

In the NYT on the 13th, a piece by Patricia Leigh Brown on the pursuit of the Pacific lamprey by Yurok Indians in the Pacific Northwest (where the fish are called eels): in print, “In Pursuit of a Wily, Elusive, Tasty Adversary”; on the website, “Hooking a Slippery Prize Where the Klamath River Meets the Pacific”. Both the fish and the Yuroks would be worthy of attention, but here I’m picking out one very small point, from this passage in the story:

It is not for the faint of heart: Eelers die with some regularity, misjudging the intensity of the currents or being swept out to sea by sneaker waves. “We’ve lost quite a few people down there who wanted that one more eel,” said Dewey Myers, who smokes his catch in his backyard and is known for his exquisitely carved hooks.

[Eeler James] Gensaw said, “It teaches you humbleness and respect for the river.”

Genshaw uses the derived noun humbleness (with the all-purpose nominalizing suffix –ness) rather than humility (with the very restricted and specialiized suffix –ity). There is some tradition for complaining about the choice of -ness when a variant in -ity is available — on the grounds that using the -ness version makes it look like you’re ignorant of the more learnèd variant, that is, makes you look illiterate.

I don’t have a lot of patience with such complaints in general, in part because -ity variants are so often specialized in their semantics: no doubt some people would find the connotations of humility to go beyond mere humbleness. In this particular case, I simply find both variants natural; there’s no reason to insist on One Right Way.



March 22, 2015

In yesterday’s NYT, a piece by Patrick Healy, “For 2016 Run, Scott Walker Washes ‘Wiscahnsin’ Out of His Mouth”, beginning:

Columbia, S.C. — Out on the presidential campaign trail, Gov. Scott Walker has left “Wiscahnsin” back home in Wisconsin. He now wants to strengthen the economy, not the “ecahnahmy.” And while he once had the “ahnor” of meeting fellow Republicans, he told one group here this week that he simply enjoyed “talkin’ with y’all.”

The classic Upper Midwest accent — nasal and full of flat a’s — is one of several Walker trademarks to have fallen away this month after an intense period of strategizing and coaching designed to help Mr. Walker capitalize on his popularity in early polls and show that he is not some provincial politician out of his depth.

Although Healy leads with pronunciation matters, they are not the focus of the piece, which is about how Walker is being coached in general on ways to make himself attractive to a wide range of voters.

Now on the main dialect feature in question, the Upper Midwest “flat a”.


Knob in a red top

March 18, 2015

On Facebook yesterday, Chris Waigl posted the beginning of this story from the (UK) Independent, dated today:

James May calls Jeremy Clarkson a ‘k**b’ after Top Gear star suspended by BBC

Top Gear presenter James May has defended his co-presenter Jeremy Clarkson following his suspension, by calling his colleague “a k**b” but saying he “quite likes him.”


critique your dick pic

March 4, 2015

That’s the name of a site devoted to criticism of photographs — of penises. “Critiquing your dick pics with love”, says the Critic (who I will refer to with generic they, since they view their sex as irrelevant to the enterprise). (There is some evidence that they are in New Zealand: they use the grading scheme from a high of A+ to a low of D- because that’s what’s used in New Zealand schools; certainly the lexical choices are British rather than American.)

People send photographs of penises in to the Critic, who then provides a thoughtful critique of the photography (not the penis), with a summary grade. There are two sample photos on AZBlogX, here: the mince photo and the duvet photo.


Local pronunciations

February 28, 2015

Two notes on the pronunciation of proper names: on the city of Bangor ME and on the actor Ryan Phillippe.



February 25, 2015

Yesterday’s Rhymes With Orange:

Presumably Hilary Price’s intention was that the spelling FRAUG, pronounced [frɔ:ɡ], should represent a combination of FROG — pronounced [frɑ:ɡ] or [frɔ:ɡ], depending on your variety of American English — and FRAUD, pronounced [frɔ:d] for many American speakers, but [frɑ:d] for American speakers who level [ɔ:] and [ɑ:] in favor of the latter (the “COT-CAUGHT merger”: both these words are pronounced [kɑ:t], DAWN and DON are both [dɑ:n], and SHAW and SHAH are both [ʃɑ:]).

[Addendum: an earlier posting on frog and fraud has a Discover Card commercial that plays on a confusion between the two.]

Quotative moments

February 7, 2015

Yesterday, Geoff Pullum posted an xkcd strip citing Patricia Cukor-Avila on “quotative like“, I linked to it, and lots of people on Facebook were impressed by the concept. So here a few words about quotative constructions, beginning with a wonderful exchange in a song from the 1996 album Love Is Dead by The Mr T Experience:

I’m like “Yeah”
but she’s all “No”
and I’m all “Come on baby, let’s go”
and she’s like “I don’t think so”

(with the quotative elements bolfaced). The guy and the girl go back and forth between quotative like and quotative all in their bargaining.



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