Archive for May, 2009

Pardon my mock French

May 21, 2009

The McDonald’s people have rolled out an advertising campaign for their McCafés, which offer (in their words)

expresso coffee, gourmet cakes & muffins and delicious snacks

The television ads show ordinary English words that are spelled with a final E re-spelled as mock French, with an acute accent on the E (as in café), and pronounced with a final stressed /e/, thus converting everyday experiences into something fancier, more exciting (by the addition of something from a McCafé): choré, rinsé, sprinklé. Have the Café Experience!


Stick to those good old irregular plurals

May 19, 2009

Back on 7 April, Philip B. Corbett’s “After Deadline” column in the NYT (which “examines questions of grammar, usage and style encountered by writers and editors of The Times”) noted a new stylebook entry on dwarf, which begins:

dwarf(s) (n.) Use this as the usual term for people with a genetic condition resulting in unusually short stature. Midget, once used to describe dwarfs of otherwise normal proportions …

Two commenters objected strongly to dwarfs as a plural of dwarf. These objections surely arise in part from an adherence to One Right Way: variant usages are not allowed, so if the writers themselves use dwarves, dwarfs must be wrong. But something further is going on here: a belief in the superiority of irregular forms over regular forms, especially where the writer believes the irregulars are older. (At least some usage critics seem to think that regularization is the work of the ignorant, the less educated, the lazy, and so on.)

But sometimes, as in this case, critics are wrong about the history and about current usage.


Coerced acronyms

May 19, 2009

Back in 2007, I posted on Language Log about various types of abbreviation via initial letters of words (in particular, initialisms and acronyms, as in my recent posting on this blog, about hybrids of these) and about which ones are arthrous (with the definite article the) and which anarthrous (without it). As I said back then, one of the crisp generalizations about (an)arthrousness is:

The Acronym Principle: Acronyms are anarthrous (even when the full names they abbreviate are arthrous).

This covers NASAFEMAMOMAUnicefNOAA and other acronyms whose full forms are arthrous.  It covers at least some hybrid abbreviations, like SFMOMA (part initialism, part acronym), and covers in general “coerced” acronyms, where vowels are inserted to make strings of letters (especially long strings of letters) pronounceable. Like NOGLSTP, pronounced like “nogglestup” and standing for “The National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals” …

My interest in this note is the coerced acronyms. Take NOGLSTP. This is awfully long — seven letters — to be comfortable as an initialism. The NOG part can be read as an acronym, but then you’re in trouble, so you make the L syllabic and break up STP with a vowel between the ST and the P — /ʌ/ in my pronunciation, but I’ve also heard /a/. That gives you a three-syllable word, with heaviest stress on the first syllable and somewhat less stress on the third, with the middle syllable unstressed — the pattern of paramount and a number of other words.

Another example from my life: AGLBFS, the Association for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Faculty and Staff (of the Ohio State University). The AG part can be read as an acronym, and then, again, you’re in trouble, so you make the L syllabic and break up BFS. There’s more than one way to do this: as BFS (giving something like “buffs”) or as BFS (giving something like “buffus”). The first sounds too much like a plural for my taste, so I prefer the second. The stress pattern is again predictable: heaviest stress on the first syllable, then alternating stress.

(Note that the stress patterns don’t have to be learned, but represent one of the default patterns for English.)

Now for a somewhat different case: FNMA (the Federal National Mortgage Association) and FHLMC (the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation). The Federal National Mortgage Association came first (in 1938), and its abbreviation could have been treated as a straightforward initialism, but someone decided to treat the MA as an acronym, pronounced like the word may (or May) — or the girl’s name Mae. That left FN, which got expanded to Fannie, giving the Fannie Mae that’s so often in the news. That’s a name, so it gets the stress pattern for two-part names in English: stress on both parts, but heavier stress on the second.

All of this development, except for the stress pattern, was a creative act, not a kind of automatic filling-in of material to make the abbreviation pronounceable.

With Fannie Mae as a pattern, when the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation came along (in 1970), further creativity was called for. FHLMC ends in MC, which can be read as the masculine name Mac, parallel to the feminine Mae. FHL, however, presents a serious problem, and in the end someone just disregarded the HL and looked for a common masculine first name that started with F and was formally parallel to Fannie: Freddie. And so we got Freddie Mac: Fannie and Freddie (as they are known for short), or FNM and FRE (on the NYSE).

Hybrid initial-letter abbreviations

May 18, 2009

A while ago (on 5 May), I posted to ADS-L (somewhat revised here):

NSAID is an abbreviation for “non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug”.

How is it pronounced?  Apparently, as /ɛn sɛd/ (with compound stress, greater stress on the first element than on the second).  At least that’s what I hear in television ads. That is, the N is pronounced as a letter name (as in initialisms) and SAID is pronounced the same way as the verb form said (as in acronyms).  So this is one of those mixed abbreviations that we don’t really have a name for.

[There are all sorts of abbreviations. My interest here is in those composed of initial letters of words, of which there are two main types: initialisms, which are pronounced as a sequence of letter names (MIT or M.I.T., standing for Massachusetts Institute of Technology); and acronyms, which are pronounced as if they are ordinary words (PET, standing for positon emission tomography and pronounced just like pet). (The terminology here is mine, and the one followed in my Language Log postings, but other writers have used different labels.) NSAID is an instance of yet another type of initial-letter abbreviations.]

I’ll now go to to comment a bit more on NSAID, to suggest a name, and then to make some further observations about these hybrid abbreviations.


Tykes ease drop fears

May 18, 2009

That’s the summary-page version of the longer Yorkshire Post headline

Barnsley 3 Crystal Palace 1: Tykes ease drop fears after storming Palace’s defences

(from Chris Waigl).  Like the baffling


recently reported by Geoff Pullum on Language Log, Tykes ease drop fears can be parsed, in the sense that each word can be assigned to a part of speech and a constituent structure can be assigned to the whole thing, but it’s not interpretable without inside knowledge.


Male or female, at the bar

May 17, 2009

Jennifer Finley Boylan (author of the affecting She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders and I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted) wrote in the 12 May New York Times about “gay marriage” (that is, marriage between two people of the same sex) — “Is My Marriage Gay?” on the op-ed page — poignantly observing how complex the legal situation of transgendered/transsexual people is in these matters, especially in “marriages where at least one member of the couple has changed genders since the wedding”. (Boylan is a M2F transsexual in just this situation.) She says that

the definition of what makes someone “legally” male or female is part of what makes this issue so unwieldy.

Here’s the problem: is it genitalia that make the difference? or chromosomes? or sex as stated at birth? There are gray areas and subcases within each of these determinations. Unfortunately, different jurisdictions in the U.S. use, or have used, different tests.


Donuts & Chinese Food

May 16, 2009

Zippy comes across what he takes to be an oddity in San Francisco (16th and Folsom, in the Mission neighborhood):

The sign around the corner says:


So, not just donuts and Chinese food, but teriyaki and burgers as well!

Donut and Chinese food restaurants seem to be mostly a SoCal thing: in Los Angeles itself (7 Star, Honey, Town), in L.A. County (Jimmy’s in South El Monte, Lys Fresh in Paramount, L&H in Santa Fe Springs), or nearby (Pam’s in Temecula, Riverside County; K D’s in Foothill Ranch, Orange County), plus Savy (two locations) in Victorville (San Bernardino County), and further north (Judy’s in Clovis, Fresno County), and much further north (Galt in Galt, Sacramento County). The one outlier in the first 40 pages I googled up is Kaufman Donuts & Chinese Food in Kaufman, Texas.

J. Georgie’s seems to have started as Jim Georgie’s Donuts and then added stuff. They do breakfasts (sausage, pancakes, muffins, croissants, bagels, and more) and do serve some Chinese food (like sweet and sour chicken). There’s another location in the Portola neighborhood.

I haven’t had the D&CF experience myself, so I can’t report on it.

Yes, this is just silliness on a Saturday morning, with no significant linguistic content.

Toons and tunes

May 15, 2009

At breakfast yesterday, my granddaughter Opal (aged 5) used the word tune in conversation, and I noted with some surprise that she said [tjun]. Surprise because these days around here, I would have expected [tun]; “yod-dropping” after alveolar consonants (including t d n) when they are in the same syllable is widespread  in “General American” and has been increasing for many years (though the details are very complex), despite mockery of pronunciations like “Toozday” in the media. Opal no doubt picked the yod up from her parents (and her mother, Elizabeth, from her mother, Ann; my usage is variable).

We moved on to the Warner Brothers series of animated comic short features (Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, the Roadrunner, and so on), the name of which Opal pronounced as [luni tjunz], and she was quite firm about the yod. My visual recollection was that the second word was spelled TOONS (as in cartoons), though Elizabeth was sure that it was TUNES (sometimes misspelled TOONS, so that I might well have seen that spelling) — and since Opal is fond of some of these cartoons, especially the Roadrunner, Elizabeth had seen the LOONEY TUNES logo many times. Of course she was right.

Then it turned out that Opal had [tjun] in cartoon (where [tun] is standard) as well, quite possibly as a carryover from the tunes of Looney Tunes. We didn’t press a correction on her; little kids are resistant to explicit correction in such things, and Opal is especially resistant (well, obstinant).



May 13, 2009

Rhymes With Orange looks at “peek-a-boo”:

Yet another playing with babies’ knowing much more and speaking in a much more adult fashion than they really could; the conceit is that it’s all in there, but just needs some time to be manifested.


May 12, 2009

What to call the influenza virus that’s so much in the news, the one that most people refer to as “(the) swine flu”? There’s been considerable dispute about the name, since no name that’s been suggested so far is entirely satisfactory. The CDC (the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has recently weighed in in favor of a name with “H1N1” (for the family of viruses responsible for the infection) in it, but even that somewhat unwieldy label (which is unlikely to become an everyday usage) still won’t quite do.