Archive for March, 2009

Snowclonelet composites

March 29, 2009

Since it just came up on ADS-L with reference to “X porn” (in examples like “food porn”): English has a number of N1 + N2 composite patterns, most of them non-subsective (the denotation of the composite is not within the denotation of N2), but all of them exhibiting some semantic oddities, and all of them formulaic to some degree, hence snowclone-like. In other words, “snowclonelet composites”. My current collection — which I’m sure is far from complete — has instances of

X fag, X porn, X queen, X rage, X virgin, X whore

The details are different for different cases. Some of them have been discussed on ADS-L (“X porn”, “X rage”), one (“X virgin”) on Language Log (here and here), the rest documented so far just from my e-mail and from Google searches.


March 28, 2009

Nicholas Kristof, in an op-ed piece (p. A23) in the NYT on 26 March, “Learning How to Think”, attacks appeals to “experts”, citing a 2005 study by Philip Tetlock of experts’ forecasts on economic matters that concluded:

The predictions of experts were, on the average, only a tiny bit better than random guesses — the equivalent of a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board.

Though Tetlock’s findings were unsurprising to me, I was dismayed at the way Kristof framed the discussion, as a denunciation of “experts” and “expertise”. Dismayed because I’ve become accustomed to having people dismiss what I (and my colleagues) say about language, in particular grammar and usage in English, as tainted because I’m an “expert”, and therefore in some way prejudiced. This is especially galling because because one of the messages of many technical disciplines (of which linguistics is one) is

Some things you are sure are true are significantly mistaken.

So slamming “experts” and “expertise” is a way of buttressing folk wisdom in these matters. Pointy-headed self-aggrandizing “intellectuals”!



March 28, 2009

A very small (and not at all original) footnote to the recent flap over AIG’s awarding hefty bonuses to many of its executives (after the U.S. government had taken over a substantial part of the company’s indebtednes). There’s been a lot of rage about this, including a lot of rage about the company’s defense that the bonuses were contractual obligations. This is, in a way, a language issue.


spendthrift ‘penurious person’

March 27, 2009

Benita Bendon Campbell passes on this wonderful bit from Cathy Guisewites’s strip Cathy:

Here we get a series of ‘penurious’ items: cost-conscious, penny-pinching, prudent, budget-minded. In the midst of these comes spendthrift, clearly intended to convey ‘penurious’, though in fact its standard use is to refer to a profligate spender.

How does this happen? Well, spendthrift has thrift in it, suggesting thrifty. ‘Thrifty in spending’ and all that. People are forever trying to figure out the meanings of multi-part words from the meanings of their parts, but that doesn’t always work. As in this case.

Act of show

March 26, 2009

From the Palo Alto Daily News of 21 March 2009, “Palo Alto shooting suspect still at large”, by Diana Samuels, p. 3:

Police said Gil-Fernandez claimed affiliation with the Norteno street gang, though that claim may have been mostly an act of show in Palo Alto, where the Norteno gang doesn’t have much of a presence.

This is the mass noun show ‘display’, also seen in “That was all show (and no substance)”, “That was nothing but show”, and “That was just show” (notice the subtle contrast with “That was just  a show”, with its greater sense of pretense). But “act of show” was new to me.


Talking cats

March 25, 2009

Nico Muhly’s latest posting on his blog is mostly about language, but it also supplies a weird YouTube clip, “She’s a Talker”. Students of English dialect phonetics might also enjoy the variety of realizations of the accented vowel in talker.

(Hat tip to Ned Deily.)


March 23, 2009

  Brians’s Common Errors in English Usage warns against it, as do other advice books, but the pull of the prefix ex- is strong:

Linking i

March 22, 2009

Geoff Pullum’s Language Log posting “Retching schedule” elicited comments on each of the pronunciations that drove the Guardian‘s Tim Footman to displays of anger and disgust: mischievious, schedule with [sk-], somethink. I had something to say on the first of these, which I’ll expand on here.


Malaprop from Calgary

March 20, 2009

In his first speech since leaving the presidency, George W. Bush announced that he plans to write a book, and in so doing stumbled into a malapropism. From the 17 March AP story by Rob Gillies, as carried by MSNBC:

CALGARY, Alberta – Former President George W. Bush said that he won’t criticize Barack Obama because the new U.S. president “deserves my silence,” and said he plans to write a book about the 12 toughest decisions he made in office.

… The invitation-only event titled a “Conversation with George W. Bush” attracted close to 2,000 guests who paid US$3,100 per table. Bush received two standing ovations from the predominantly business crowd.

… Bush said that he doesn’t know what he will do in the long term but that he will write a book that will ask people to consider what they would do if they had to protect the United States as president.

He said it will be fun to write and that “it’s going to be (about) the 12 toughest decisions I had to make.”

“I’m going to put people in my place, so when the history of this administration is written at least there’s an authoritarian voice saying exactly what happened,” Bush said.

This could be an ordinary classical malapropism (Bush thinks authoritarian means ‘authoritative). Or it could be a Fay/Cutler malapropism, an inadvertent error in word retrieval, based on phonological similarity. Many commenters have suggested it was a Freudian slip.

(Hat tip to Geoff Pullum.)


March 19, 2009

Robbo comments on my “first female congresswoman” posting:

This one drives me up the wall because I’m in the military.
Why are these are OK: ‘airmen’, ’seamen’, and ‘midshipmen’; but yet we have ’servicemen and women’ — which is too cumbersome, so we just use ‘troops’. Can we not get the idea that a ‘chairman’ can be a woman? Or a congressman? What about yeoman or alderman? Truly we can are enlightened enough to accept a historical title to be filled by either gender?

[The last sentence has a nice error — “we can are enlightened enough” — that’s probably a cutnpaste error, the result of shifting from an original formulation, probably with “we are enlightened enough”, to a somewhat more hedged formulation with “can”, but without fixing the “are”.]

This is a separate issue from the one I talked about in my posting, which was about the error “first female congresswoman” for the intended “first black congresswoman”, in a caption.