Archive for April, 2009

Extreme Strunk and White

April 24, 2009

Over on Language Log we’ve been dissing Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style — it’s very much in the news, 50th anniversary and all that — and shrinking back flabbergasted at the veneration that so many people have for it; the word bible is often used in reference to it. (If you haven’t been following this topic and want to check it out, go to Language Log and search on “Strunk”. There’s lots of stuff, including piles and piles of comments.)

I’m here to report on another extreme positive response to S&W, supplied by Max Vasilatos reminiscing on her high school days in Falmouth, Maine, some mumbly-mumble years ago.


All our fish is farmed sustainably

April 22, 2009

A little while ago, some friends visiting from Boston (well, Cambridge) had lunch with me in Palo Alto and reported that they were scheduled for a dinner at Weird Fish in San Francisco, which advertised on its website that

All our fish is farmed sustainably.

I had a small grammatical twinge at this — not a judgment of unacceptability for me, much less a judgment that the sentence was non-standard English. But I would have preferred

All our fish are farmed sustainably.

To see what’s going on here, you have to recognize that there are (at least) three different word-forms fish in English.



April 22, 2009

Prejudice against zero-verbing of nouns is all over the place. Usually, the complainant thinks the word is a recent innovation and objects to it as unnecessary; usually, the word has a significant history, and even if it doesn’t, it has virtues, like brevity and specificity. The case I’ve discussed most recently (relaying discussion by Jan Freeman in the Boston Globe) is the verb foreground. John McIntyre said nice things about this posting in his Baltimore Sun blog; I forwarded McIntyre’s column to several friends, and Kathryn Burlingham reported that the social time at the last meeting of a discussion group was largely taken up with “grousing about the awful state of language today”, with one member going so far as “to point out ‘bad’ usage by others of us during the discussion time… My offense was to say that someone had asked me if they could tent in my yard.”

It turns out that this use of tent has been around since at least 1856; OED2 (1989) has cites from 1856 through 1952, from both American and British sources. And “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground” was a very popular song of the (American) Civil War.

Kathryn’s use of tent was as ‘pitch a tent’, but the verbed noun is shorter. Camp might have worked, though to me it suggests something more elaborate than just pitching a tent. But tent doesn’t have to be the best possible choice, only one possible choice.


April 21, 2009

Leah Hager Cohen, review of Follow Me by Joanna Scott, New York Times Book Review of 19 April, p. 1:

That’s Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind … — not to be confused with Sally Bliss … — heroine of Joanna Scott’s latest novel, “Follow Me.” But the Sallys bear more than a passing resemblance …

The point I’m interested in here is the plural Sallys. The English spelling rule for plurals that would normally apply to Sally would call for the final Y to be converted to an I and then for ES to be added; compare tallies, rallies, and in fact sallies (in various senses). The plural Sallies would be well-formed according to the usual spelling rules for English. Instead, we get the plural Sallys, which visually preserves the name Sally; it is faithful to the form of the name. There are two conditions here, both of which make sense, and they are in conflict, a conflict that has to be resolved in favor of one or the other (or the alternative Sally’s, which is faithful and also clearly sets off the mark of the plural, but is heavily disfavored because it looks like it has a “greengrocer’s apostrophe”).

This is familiar territory for me. I have quite a list of cases of conflicts between well-formedness and faithfulness, including this very case: the spelling of plurals of proper names ending in Y.


Teabagging and politics

April 20, 2009


Steve Benen, in his “Political Animal” column in the Washington Monthly on 14 April:

INNUENDO OVERLOAD…. I’m just a little surprised on “Countdown” last night, MSNBC’s David Shuster had the chutzpah to say this on the air about the “Tea Party” events.

“Tea bagging is not a spontaneous uprising…. The people who came up with it are a familiar circle of Republicans, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, both of whom have firm support from right wing financiers and lobbyists. […]

“We can only speculate why widespread tea bagging made [Fox News’ Neil] Cavuto think of the Million Man march, unless he got them confused with Dick Armey.

“And in Cavuto’s defense, if you are planning simultaneous tea bagging all around the country, you’re going to need a Dick Armey.”

Between all the talk about Tea Baggers, Dick Armey, and huge stimulus packages, I’m beginning to think the political discourse at least deserves a PG-13 rating.

Along the way, Schuster tossed out “going nuts for it”, “whip out the festivities”, and “give President Obama a strong tongue-lashing and lick government spending”. I suppose that once people started using tea bags in Tea Party protests (against the fiscal policies of the Obama administration), teabagging was a natural term for the protests, and then double entendres were inevitable (from Schuster and many others). And since Dick Armey has been a prominent protestor, his name was ripe for play .

(Hat tip to Victor Steinbok.)


Gramma’s rules

April 20, 2009

Rhymes With Orange takes on pronoun case in coordination:

No, no! It’s “Me and James are going out to play”.


April 20, 2009

Variants of the Are We X Yet? snowclone turn up in Zippy every so often. And now, in the tradition of this, this, and this, we get still another:

Handbook of WHAT?

April 18, 2009

Eli Anne Eiesland reports from Oslo:

I was accessing the Handbook of Morphology (edited by you and Andrew Spencer), in its electronic version on NetLibrary, and found a bizarre misprint. The thumbnail image of the book says “handbook of mythology”.

Oh dear. I hope this isn’t an accusation that Andy and I made up the data in the Handbook.

(I hadn’t realized that the volume was available on-line. But, apparently, only through a library that’s affiliated with NetLibrary.)

NPR names

April 18, 2009

Porn actors and drag performers use stage names instead of their real names, and their porn names and drag names are usually chosen for their connotations: porn names in gay porn are hypermasculine, names of drag queens are elaborately feminine. Porn names in gay porn often convey specific personas (preppy, cowboy/country, etc.), and many project toughness or aggression (last names like Stryker and Panther, for example); some details here. Drag queens’ names are very often playful — punning, alliterating, rhyming, alluding to the names of famous people, and so on — and quite often are suggestive (Trixie Dick and Ophelia Dick, for example).

Eventually, people began to devise formulas for generating porn names and drag names, involving your childhood pet’s name (a female pet, for a drag name), your mother’s maiden name, the name of the street you lived on as a child, and similar items, in various combinations. Mother’s maiden name + street name is the formula I’m most familiar with; for me, that produces Rice Highland (not a bad pseudonym), and for a gay couple I know it yields the excellent Chase Palm and Johnson Kincade, but sometimes it leads to laughable names, like Liebowitz 59th and Castro The Alameda de las Pulgas.

Now the blogger Liana Maeby has devised a scheme for generating “NPR names”:

Eric and I recently discovered a shared fascination with the slew of impossibly named NPR hosts we listen to every day: Renee Montagne, Steve Inskeep, Corey Flintoff, Korva Coleman, Kai Ryssdal, Dina Temple-Raston.

In fact, we’ve often wondered what it would be like to be one of them.  A Nina Totenberg or a Renita Jablonski.  A David Kestenbaum or a Lakshmi Singh.  Even (on our most ambitious days) a Cherry Glaser or a Sylvia Poggioli.

So finally, after years of Fresh Air sign-off ambitions, we came up with a system for creating our own NPR Names.  Here’s how it works: You take your middle initial and insert it somewhere into your first name.  Then you add on the smallest foreign town you’ve ever visited.

So I’m Liarna Kassel.  And Eric is Jeric Bath.  I even have a new nickname for my little brother in Dylsan Rosarita.

And I’m Marnold [or Arnmold] Und. Though it’s not easy to decide which place is the smallest foreign town I’ve visited.

(Hat tip to Joe Clark.)

Biggering and ensmalling

April 18, 2009

From Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky’s blog, about her daughter (age 5):

… we were discussing mangos. Opal said they grew on bushes, I said they grew on trees. I cited Mangaboom as a source; she pointed out that it was a story. So I went to the Internet! On my phone. She was OK with the pictures of mango trees, but what she was fascinated by was the process of making the picture bigger. “Hey, can I bigger it?” she said. I explained that “bigger” made sense, but we say “enlarge”. She said, quite patiently really, “Can I enlarge it? And then ensmall it?” Boy, was I sorry to explain that the opposite of “enlarge” is, of all things, “reduce”.

It’s not just little kids. You can find some hits for bigger ‘enlarge’, mostly (but not entirely) in computer contexts. For instance:

How did you do that neat texturing? It really DOES look like an adobe wall, I clicked on the pic to bigger it and it looks very cool! (link)

And yes again, 3D glasses will actually work on this (red on your left eye, blue on your right). Oh, and as always, click to bigger it: … (link)

i am 16 and my penis is 13 cm and quite thin.i am quite tall for my age. is my penis going to grow any more? what can i do to bigger it? LENGTH AND WIDTH … (link)

As for ensmall, there are cites where it’s clearly treated as an innovation:

What is more logical than the opposite of ‘enlarge’, namely ‘ensmall’. There are many things in our daily lives that we might want to make smaller – cars, … (link)

in our families find ways to ‘ensmall’ rather than enlarge our spending, and make our presence rather than presents a sign of our interest and love? (link)

But there are other occurrences. OED2 has an entry for ensmall, though it’s marked as rare, and the dictionary has only one cite:

1857 THOMSON Land & Book IV. xl. 612 To reconcile my previous anticipations with the vastly ensmalled reality.

And it still crops up, again mostly in computer contexts:

For them and for anyone else who needs to ensmall a detailed image, here’s my amateur recipe for generating good thumbnails via PhotoShop: … (link)

This is a Craigslist ad that seems to be real. I’m going to ensmall it at the bottom in case the URL doesn’t persist. (link)

Bigger ‘make bigger, enlarge’ is a (causativizing) verbing of an adjective, a comparative adjective at that. Verbing of adjectives in English is usually affixal (as in en-large, damp-en, modern-ize); zero derivation is rare. But kids are fond of zero derivation (of all sorts), and for good reason:  it allows them to expand their vocabulary at essentially no cost.

Ensmall is a more sophisticated innovation, verbing the adjective small via the prefix en- (a pattern that is not productive in English). But it’s a natural innovation, created on analogy with enlarge (and exploiting the opposition of large and small), which is transparently what Opal, having just been offered the model enlarge by her mother, did.

There are several other possible verbings of small: zero-derived small, suffixed smallen, doubly affixed ensmallen, suffixed smallize. All of these are non-standard, but all are attested — a tribute to people’s fondness for regularity.