Archive for April, 2009

Flaming, snarking, ranting, and brooding

April 29, 2009

The always-angry Mr. Toad is joined by the decidedly uncute cat Dingy:

The imparseable dream

April 28, 2009

Mark Mandel posted to ADS-L yesterday (under the heading “the imparseable dream”) with this baffling headline:

Advocate happy credit-card companies called on the White House carpet

(from the Philadelphia Inquirer of 26 April). Contemplate this for a while, and then I’ll reveal the interpretation “under the fold”.


There’s an apostrophe in there somewhere

April 28, 2009

Here and on Language Log we post every so often on errant apostrophes (and, not infrequently, on non-errant apostrophes, in cases where there’s some variation in the standard and therefore some question about what the prescribed usage should be). Not very long ago I posted a photo illustrating the There’s An Apostrophe In There Somewhere theme (with THER’E for THEY’RE).

Now Ann Burlingham contributes yet another: COOK’IN, on this sign:

(That’s Forrest City, Arkansas.)

This is clearly intended to be down-homey (note OLE for OLD), and the apostrophe is one of the, um, marks of that tone. I’m guessing that the person who wrote the sign realized that the word called for an apostrophe, but felt that apostrophes belonged inside words (as, indeed, they often do), so located this one in a likely spot, separating meaningful parts of the word. (I’m not claiming to understand the writer’s actual motives — I very much doubt that the writer would be able to bring these to consciousness — only making a guess as to how the spelling might have happened.)

Losing/having the bubble

April 27, 2009

(I originally intended this posting to go to the American Dialect Society mailing list, but the Stanford mailer rejected it repeatedly. So I’m posting it here and will post a note to ADS-L about it. Sigh. This is a somewhat edited version of that posting.)

Ann Burlingham caught this on NPR’s All Things Considered, 4/23/09. Robert Siegel was interviewing Air Force Colonel Steven Kleinman, who objected to harsh interrogation techniques in Iraq.  At one point Kleinman said:

And so, people were reaching out to other methods, not understanding the subtle yet profound difference — using a method that was proven successful in obtaining propaganda, while on the surface it seems very effective, underneath it all it is very ineffective and counterproductive. … Any individual can force any other individual to admit to practically anything, but that’s not the purpose of interrogation. I could see these people had lost the bubble on that.

What attracted her attention was “lost the bubble” [roughly] ‘got off-course’.


Orphaned at 55

April 27, 2009

From Christopher Buckley‘s “Mum and Pup And Me”, New York Times Magazine, 26 April, p. 22:

To the extent that this story has a dimension beyond the purely personal, I suppose it’s an account of becoming an orphan. My mother and father died within 11 months of each other in 2007 and 2008. I do realize that “orphan” sounds like an overdramatic term for becoming parentless at age 55, but I was struck by the number of times the word occurred in the 800 or more condolence letters I received after my father died. I hadn’t, until about the seventh or eighth reference, thought of myself as an “orphan.” Now you’re an orphan. . . . I know the pain myself of being an orphan. . . . You must feel so lonely, being an orphan. . . . When I became an orphan it felt like the earth dropping out from under me. . . . A certain chill began to encroach, until I was jolted out of my thousand-yard stare by an e-mail message from my old pal Leon Wieseltier, to whom I’d written that I was headed off to Arizona for some R and R: “May your orphanhood be tanned.”

I wrote a bit about orphan and related lexical items on Language Log a few years ago. That posting elicited a huge number of responses, which I still have not replied to in a follow-up posting. But some of these responses mentioned the very extension of the meaning of orphan in Buckley’s passage above.

The central meaning of orphan in modern English is something like ‘a child whose parents are dead’ (NOAD2). That is, it refers specifically to a child. The point where childhood ends might be somewhat unclear, but a 55-year-old man is certainly way past that point. So the use above — to cover anyone, of any age, whose parents are dead — is certainly a meaning extension, but a natural one, especially to or about someone whose parents have recently died, since the language has no lexical item with this meaning.

Two tortured things from the NYT Week in Review

April 27, 2009

Two things from yesterday’s Week in Review:

First, from Frank Rich’s column (p. 14), “The Banality of Bush White House Evil”, about the recently released Justice Department “torture memos”, in a section on Judge Jay Bybee, author of an August 1, 2002, memo “endorsing in lengthy, prurient detail” various interrogation techniques. I particularly relished Rich’s reference to “Bybee’s perverted lawyering and pornographic amorality”. Now there’s a phrase!

Continuing with the torture theme, Clark Hoyt’s Public Editor column “Telling the Brutal Truth” (p. 12) examines disagreements about the use of the word torture (and various adjectives) with reference to various practices, in particular waterboarding; the Times has used torture on its editorial pages for some time, but the question is how to refer to these practices elsewhere in the paper. Washington bureau chief Douglas Jehl weighed in; as Hoyt writes:

Jehl said that when the paper is discussing what is generally regarded as the most extreme interrogation method the C.I.A. used, waterboarding, “we’ve become more explicit that it’s a near-drowning technique” [rather than a “simulated drowning technique”] that Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and many other experts “have called torture.” But he said: “I have resisted using torture without qualification or to describe all the techniques. Exactly what constitutes torture continues to be a matter of debate and hasn’t been resolved by a court. This president and this attorney general say waterboarding is torture, but the previous president and attorney general said it is not. On what basis should a newspaper render its own verdict, short of charges being filed or a legal judgment rendered?” Jehl argued for precision and caution. I agree.

On the adjective front, Hoyt reports that

Until this month, what the Bush administration called “enhanced” interrogation techniques were “harsh” techniques in the news pages of  The Times. Increasingly, they are “brutal.”

But the paper’s not going all the way to calling it torture in the news pages.

One reader suggested avoiding all adjectives — no heads like “Memos Spell Out Brutal C.I.A. Mode of Interrogation” (17 April)! — but Deborah Tannen noted that “The search for words that are not in any way evaluative is hopeless”, but adding that there was a big difference between harsh and brutal.

One thing is certain: whatever the paper does, some readers are going to be outraged.

WSJ on tea-bagging

April 25, 2009

As a follow-up to my earlier posting on tea-bagging, here’s James Taranto in the Wall Street Journal‘s Best of the Web Today for 24 April:

Tea Time 

We’ve received more information bearing on the origins of the term “tea-bagging.” did an email interview with filmmaker John Waters, whose 1998 film, “Pecker,” includes the earliest known pop-cultural reference:

I didn’t invent the term or the act but DID introduce it to film. . . . “Teabagging” was a popular dance step that male go-go boys did to their customers for tips at The Atlantis, a now defunct bar in Baltimore.

That would support our initial description of the term as “gay slang,” as would this Sydney Morning Herald article that describes the HBO series “Sex and the City” as depicting heterosexual women behaving like gay men.

On the other hand, we heard from more than half a dozen readers–most of whom insisted we not identify them–who reported hearing the term used in a heterosexual context (most often from frat boys on campus) prior to 1998, in some cases as early as the mid-1980s.

There is also this YouTube video depicting Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett performing a vulgar celebration, described as “tea-bagging,” after sacking Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb in this year’s NFL championship game. So it would appear that, from origins that may or may not have been gay, this term has come into somewhat wider usage.

Now, we’re tired of this subject and could use a cup of coffee.

(Hat tip, once again, to Victor Steinbok.)


April 25, 2009

Zippy plays with the prefix un-:

Singular they comes to Iowa

April 24, 2009

… along with same-sex marriage. From the new “Application to Marry in Iowa” found on the Des Moines Register’s site, in the “Affidavit of competent and disinterested person”:

“I, ______________ affirm that I am acquainted with _______________, and they are ____ years of age; and that I am acquainted with_______________,  and they are ____ years of age.”

This gets around the awkwardness of he or she or he/she or (s)he. Of course, this person (with is) would also have been possible.

(Hat tip to Steven Messamer.)

have always been men

April 24, 2009

Recently on his blog, Russell Lee-Goldman looked at a moderately complex example that led to some discussion of

(1) Most of my friends have always been men.

with the intended reading ‘it’s always been the case that most of my friends are men’ (with wide-scope always). That’s certainly the reading I got at first. But if you think about it long enough you can see another reading, with narrow-scope always: ‘consider my friends; most of them have been men always, i.e. throughout their lives’ (implicating that some of the friends are F-to-M transsexuals). (You can think of this as the “tranny reading”.)

It seems to me that the tranny reading is much easier to get if the adverb is placed differently, in

(2) Most of my friends always have been men.

Another way to think of the two readings is that in the wide-scope reading always is a sentence adverbial, while in the narrow-scope (tranny) reading it’s a VP adverbial.

In any case, (1) and (2) are both ambiguous, but for me the tranny reading is easier to get for (2) than for (1). I’m not quite sure what this follows from, but that’s my judgment.

The original example was a coordination (of the Right Node Raising variety):

(3) Most of my friends are and have always been men.

Here I find the tranny reading easier to get than in (1). Perhaps this has to do with the accent pattern of Right Node Raising, which in this case puts matching accents on are and been.