Archive for February, 2009

What was she singing?

February 15, 2009

It’s sometimes difficult to work out the words that someone is saying, and it can be especially difficult to work out the words that someone is singing. We get mondegreens, and there are disputes about the words to songs, even when we have recordings that can be played over and over (in “Live and Let Die”, did Paul McCartney sing “in this world in which we live in” or “in this world in which we’re livin'”? — some Language Log discussion here). Now, in the latest Harper’s Magazine (March 2009), a spectacular display of disagreement about lyrics, in an exchange in the Letters section (pp. 4-5). 

The problem clearly lies in the articulation of the singer, Geeshie Wiley. One of the disputants, John Jeremiah Sullivan, actually takes the opacity of Wiley’s articulation to be a positive feature of her performances:

Part of those early recordings’ profundity and aliveness is that they’ll never close themselves to our guesses.


Swearing like a parrot

February 13, 2009

From Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine:

Time stamps

February 12, 2009

I posted to Language Log yesterday about a bit of complexity in saying that Darwin and Lincoln were born on the same day. At the beginning of the posting, I said that the day in question was “tomorrow, Thursday 12 February”, but added that it already was Thursday 12 February in some places — much of Australia, for instance. At the end of posting I noted that by that point it was Thursday 12 February throughout Australia.

The time stamp on that  message says it was posted on February 11, 2009, at 10:35 a.m. In fact, I clicked on Publish at 7:35 a.m., my time (US Pacific Time). Language Log time is US Eastern Time. So if I submit a posting at 10 p.m. on one day it will be stamped as posted at 1 a.m. the next day — which can make reference to previous postings a little tricky (“as I wrote yesterday”? “as I wrote earlier today”?).

For this blog, WordPress uses UTC, so that the time stamped on postings is eight hours later than local time, with occasional odd results: “An eye-catching headline” is labeled as having been posted at 2:07 a.m. on February 8, though I wrote it the evening before (local time).

Extraordinary playful allusion

February 10, 2009

Every so often I’ve posted on Language Log about “ludic locales”, places (especially in print) where language play of all sorts is displayed: puns, metaphors, rhymes, assonance, playful allusion to formulaic expressions (idioms, clichés, quotations, titles). Among these places are: advertising, feature stories (especially science writing), headlines in certain magazines, names of porn flicks. Yesterday I came across an extraordinary playful allusion in a description of a porn flick (clipped some time ago from some porn magazine).

First, the set-up, packed with expressions that you’d hardly ever hear from ordinary people, but mark the passage as porn writing:

… soon his meaty wand is waving and jerking wildly, with some portentous slime oozing from his swollen piss slit.

(I don’t think I’d ever seen “portentous slime” before. The slime in question is presumably pre-cum, and it’s portentous in the sense that it’s literally a portent, of ejaculation, not in the sense that it’s “done in a pompously or overly solemn manner so as to impress”, as NOAD2 puts it.)

And then comes the money shot:

Ah! What sperm from yonder penis spurts?

The allusion to Romeo and Juliet is astonishing in this context (though I admire the pairing of “sperm” and “spurts”, not to mention the preservation of the meter of “What light from yonder window breaks?”).

An eye-catching headline

February 9, 2009

First, I just saw the headline (in the 2/8 NYT Week in Review, p. 2):

A White House Swish List

and wondered if someone was fingering flamboyantly gay staffers at the White House. But then I saw the accompanying graphic, of Barack Obama launching a basketball, and realized that that it was an extended riff on administration strategies, analogizing from pickup basketball. (Not that gay men don’t play basketball.)

(On the opposite page was Sarah Lyall’s “Racial Epithets in Cultured Accents”, on the latest collection of UK stories about possibly racist speech by the elevated, discussed at great length on Language Log here.)

Comments as a social medium

February 8, 2009

A little while ago, a posting by Bill Poser (on the word snarge) on Language Log branched off into a totally unexpected direction: out of the blue, a commenter asked a technical question about font display. There was then an exchange of several comments about this matter (which had nothing visible to do with snarge), and eventually the original commenter got an apparently helpful answer to the query.

For a moment, I was baffled, but then I saw that the commenter who started all this was thinking of the comments section of blogs as just another “social medium”, like newsgroups (especially unmoderated ones), mailing lists (especially unmoderated ones), Facebook, and so on. So the commenter led off with “Argh I have a problem somebody here should be able to solve in a jiffy”.


Attititudes and attributions

February 3, 2009

A Language Log posting by Geoff Pullum  that started with the pronunciation of the composer Sibelius’s name in Finnish has diverged in many directions, one of them having to do with word-initial [h] in varieties of English. The presence or absence of this [h] is noticeable to most speakers, since the difference is phonemic, potentially distinguishing otherwise identical words (ham vs. am, heart vs. art, hail vs. ail, etc.). You are especially likely to notice an [h] where you don’t have one yourself or the absence of [h] where you have one yourself. Here’s the commenter Noetica on the subject:

In Australia we notice the American way with ‘erbs, and it sounds strange and pretentious to us.

This comment, clearly from someone who has an initial [h] in herb, both expresses an attitude about the (common American) [h]-less variant (“it sounds strange”) and attributes a motive to those who use it (it sounds “pretentious”). The attribution of pretentiousness was a surprise to me; it’s a reversal of the usual judgements about [h]-less herb from people who have an [h] in this word. (more…)

retired widow

February 2, 2009

Sim Aberson wrote me a little while back about a reference on NPR to someone as a retired widow. The clear intention was to refer to this person as someone who was both retired and a widow, as the truth-functional equivalent of widowed retiree. But it’s hard to read retired widow that way; instead, you’re likely to get the interpretation ‘someone who has retired from being a widow’, which is puzzling.

It’s a small point, but the question is: why?


A little more on quotative inversion

February 1, 2009

mollymooly comments on my posting on quotation sentences:

My intuitions disagree with your statements that 2 is neutral stylistically, and that 3 sounds journalistic. For me, 1 is the only version that sounds neutral in speech; 3 is better than 2 not just in journalism but e.g. in narrative fiction, where the subject is a noun phrase rather than a pronoun. (With pronoun subject 3 is literary and 2 is neutral.)

This comment touches on several factors I didn’t discuss in the original posting. The whole topic is very complicated, but I’ll explore some of these factors a bit further here. (more…)


February 1, 2009

I posted yesterday to the American Dialect Society mailing list on acronymphomania ‘fondness for acronymns’ and investigativive [rather than investigative] journalism, both caught on the radio, and added a note of complaint (slightly edited here):

Meanwhile, on an unrelated topic, it seems that this morning every page that Google pulls up in a web search comes with Google’s malware warning, “This site may harm your computer”.  News searches don’t get the warning, but web searches do.

After a little while, the warnings vanished. This morning Chris Waigl e-mailed me this report:

The Guardian, amusingly, reported this under the headline “Google blacklists the entire internet” (here). (Note: Lowercase “internet” appears to be widely accepted now. It’s improperly used by the Guardian of course: they just blacklisted the web, not the internet.)

Human error — someone added a URL alias that expanded to “every URL”.