Archive for September, 2009


September 24, 2009

Ad for Chex Mix: “a bag of interesting”. The phrase is even trademarked.

This is an adjective zero-converted into a mass noun — an instance of a larger pattern that Neal Whitman (summarizing earlier discussion) posted about a while back, under the heading “Buckets, Boxes, and Bags”, about

bucket/box/bag of awesome [Adj] / fail [V]

and related expressions conveying high degree (of awesomeness and failing, in these examples; of interestingness, in the Chex Mix case).

The ‘large amount’ or ‘high degree’ component of meaning is contributed by the head noun — bucket, box, or bag in these examples, but others are attested (see the comments on Neal’s posting): bowl, bottle, world, shipment, etc. (often modified by high-amount adjectives like big or giant). The converted words are affectively marked, as positive (interesting, awesome) or negative (fail as above, awful in the following example).

Steve Jobs would call this a bag of awful.

(an allusion to Jobs saying that Blu-Ray is “a bag of hurt”).

A few more words about extended senses of bag, in addition to uses with nounings. There are uses with ordinary partitive complements (of + NP), to sum up a state (cf. bundle):

Jethro had turned into a bag of bad temper. He would be eight next week and his big brother had promised to take him deep sea fishing when he was that old. Now Thomas said he was too small to go! (link)

Apparently she freaked the mediums out and some of them actually demanded she leave. One relayed the message that “she was a bag of bad energy,” and that her aura was telling the spirits to “back off.” (link)

And ‘large amount’ uses with partitives, similar to such uses of bunch, pile, and the like:

At least your wife will have something to show for shopping. She will NOT be acquiring a bag of bad habits, at the end of your bad dream vacation. But you will [in playing golf], I guarantee it. (link)

Finally, there’s an insult that was new to me (and to comedian Louis CK, who riffs on it in this video): “Suck a bag of dicks!” (conveying, roughly, ‘Fuck you!’).

(None of these uses of bag made it into OED2.)

Parallel universes

September 24, 2009

In Zippy’s parallel universe, some things are backwards, some upside-down:

Lifting shirts

September 23, 2009

A little while back I made up some notecards using an ad from (reproduced below), adding the caption:

ABS Show
A few of the guys weren’t
Into shirt-lifting.

The ad shows various degrees of lifting shirts in front, to display the male torso, especially the guy’s “six-packs” (the abs, that is, abdominal muscles). It celebrates fitness, and homoeroticism as well.

Linguistic point here: the synthetic compound shirt-lifting, which turns out to have two families of senses, only one of them illustrated  by the ad. There’s also a synthetic compound shirt-lifter, with two families of senses; the guys in the ad are shirt-lifters in one sense, but not (necessarily) in the other.

And then, of course, from shirt-lifting and shirt-lifter, we get a back-formed compound verb to shirt-lift, again with two families of senses.


Short shot #13: a lack of give a damn

September 21, 2009

A nouning of a VP, in “So Much Food. So Much Hunger.” (by Andrew Martin), NYT Week in Review, 9/20/09 (p. 3):

How can so many people be hungry when farmers produce enough food, at least in theory, to feed every person on the planet?

The answers are complex and involve everything from American farm politics and African corruption to war, poverty, climate change and drought, which is now the single most common cause of food shortages on the planet.

But David Beckmann, president of the antihunger group Bread for the World, boiled the causes down into one unifying theme — “a lack of give a damn.”

“It’s mainly neglect,” he said. “Political neglect.”

And then there’s

The Department of Give-a-Damn (link)

Compare the nouning of the adverbial PP back to school, as discussed by Neal Whitman in a recent Visual Thesaurus column (with a link to an earlier posting on his blog).

More initialism complexities

September 20, 2009

My posting here on acronyms vs. initialisms led to some further complexities with initialisms, in particular things that are written as sequences of upper-case letters but are (at least usually) not pronounced either in the fashion of acronyms (as ordinary words) or in the fashion of initialisms (as sequences of letter names). Instead, if they’re pronounced at all — some seem to be purely orthographic entities — they’re “read out” as a sequence of words making an English expression.

The world of e-mail, newsgroups, message boards, texting, and so on has a rich assortment of such abbreviations (though some people don’t use them at all, or use them very sparingly): FWIW, AFAIK, BTW, IM(H)O, TMI, WTF, BFD, and on and on. FWIW, for example, is read out as “for what it’s worth”, and it has the semantics of that expression.

These “eye initialisms” are therefore a lot like ordinary abbreviations, which go right from an orthographic entity to an expression of a language (from N.Y. to “New York”, for instance), without a pronunciation as a sequence of letter names.

In “regular initialisms”, the sequence of letter names is available as a pronunciation, and is in fact the usual pronunciation, although the full expression is sometimes read out. So FBI can be read as “eff-bee-eye”, though “Federal Bureau of Investigation” is also possible.

A further complexity, discussed on Language Log a while back (here and here), with lots of examples, has to do with “orphan abbreviations”, in particular orphan initialisms. These are historically alphabetic abbreviations (of one type or another), which have lost their connection, for most speakers, with their historical sources. Sometimes it is simply stipulated that the abbreviation “doesn’t stand for anything”: SRI (with headquarters in Menlo Park, California), a name now stoutly claimed not to stand for anything, though it started as Stanford Research Institute.

Sometimes the abbreviation just becomes the name commonly used by virtually everyone, and few can recall how it arose. Heidi Harley reports that her students at Arizona know that the GOP denotes the (U.S.) Republican Party, but few of them know that GOP was originally an initialism for “Grand Old Party”. As in so many cases, origins get lost over time; it’s important for speakers to know what expressions currently mean, but (fascinating though the details of language change can be) it’s not really important for them to know how these expressions came to mean what they do now.

to glimpse (at)

September 20, 2009

From the front page of the NYT on September 18 (Jenny Anderson, “S.E.C. Seeks to Ban Computer ‘Flash Trading’ “):

The S.E.C. on Thursday proposed banning what are known as flash orders, which use powerful computers to glimpse at investors’ orders.

What caught my eye was to glimpse at, the verb glimpse with an oblique object (marked by the preposition at) rather than a direct object. “Use powerful computers to glimpse investors’ orders” would have been possible, but (I realized) it would have a meaning somewhat different from the “glimpse at” version.

The phenomenon is one that I’ve looked at on Language Log several times: “intransitivizing P-addition” (the version with a direct object is the historically earlier one); see the brief treatment of P~Ø alternations here, with links to some earlier discussions. It’s typical of such alternations that the two variants are subtly different semantically.

Both variants are very frequent. Here are a couple more hits for to glimpse at:

IntelliScreen® allows you to glimpse at your critical data on your iPhone “Slide to Unlock” screen! (link)

To glimpse at the ways in which science and technology open new avenues for artistic expression, look no farther than Professor Brixey’s “Epicycle” project. (link)

Here’s the history, according to OED2. It starts with older intransitive uses of the verb, in senses like ‘glimmer, glitter’ (from c1400). Then from 1779 we have transitive glimpse in its modern sense, which the OED glosses as ‘catch a glimpse of (either a material or immaterial object); to see by glimpses’ — that is, ‘to catch sight of, briefly or partially’.

A bit later (from 1833) comes intransitive glimpse in its modern sense, glossed by the OED as ‘cast a passing glance’ — that is, ‘look at briefly or partially’. The OED says this one takes at or upon (but it’s easy to find cites with into as well).

The noun glimpse is a nominalization of the verb. Such nominalizations can occur with a NP argument that corresponds to the object of the V that is nominalized. But Ns in English can’t just take NP objects, so the NP must be marked by a P. If the V that is nominalized is transitive, the default P of is supplied: a glimpse of NP corresponds to to glimpse NP (and has the ‘catch sight of’ sense).

But if the V that is nominalized is an intransitive taking oblique objects, the nominalization normally “inherits” the P of the corresponding V: a glimpse at/upon/into NP then corresponds to to glimpse at/upon/into NP (and has the ‘look at’ sense).

Engines that could(n’t)

September 20, 2009

Another playful allusion, this time from Dennis Baron in his excellent and thought-provoking new book A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. From chapter 11  (“The Dark Side of the Web”), page 215, on Google in China:

Steering readers is exactly what search engines are suposed to do. It’s just that most searches aim to give users what they want, not hide it from them. Google’s Chinese adventure creates a search engine that couldn’t. Users who tried to access forbidden sites were greeted with this message: “Because of legal restrictions, your search cannot be completed.”

Note “the search engine that couldn’t”. This is an allusion to the moralistic children’s story The Little Engine That Could (Wikipedia page here), the little engine that succeeds (in pulling a train over a mountain) via the motto “I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can”. Baron’s characterization of Google in China as “the search engine that couldn’t” (succeed in finding things) is an ironic echo of the plucky engine in the story.

(Probably I should stop posting about playful allusions. There are just too many of them around.)

Someday, a Bill Will Pass

September 19, 2009

Speakers and writers use all sorts of stock items — words, idioms, clichés, proverbs, quotations, snowclones, common collocations, morphological patterns, syntactic constructions, and more — stuff “pulled off the shelf”. But they also play with this material, in many ways, all the time. As in the headline “Someday, a Bill Will Pass” on a Gail Collins op-ed piece about a bill to reform the student loan program, now being debated in the U.S. House of Representatives (in the NYT on September 17).

The head is a playful allusion to the song title  “Someday, My Prince Will Come”, originally from the 1937 Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, since recorded in many different versions. (The title appears in several variants: with initial Someday or — an older spelling — Some Day, with or without a comma following that expression.)

What’s carried over from the song title is the template

(T) Someday, NP will V

Now, you can understand the headline (and other instances of (T)) perfectly well even if you don’t catch the echo of the song. But what the allusion to the song contributes is the emotion of wishful longing in the Snow White original.

(T) isn’t a snowclone, at least yet. It isn’t a conventionalized pattern conveying wishful longing; instead, hearers and readers have to work out this connotation for themselves. (Over the years I’ve posted on Language Log several times about distinguishing playful allusions from snowclones: here, herehere, and here, for instance.)

No doubt, connecting the headline to the song title is facilitated by their having the same prosody. “Someday, a Student Loan Reform Bill Will Be Passed in the House” really wouldn’t work as well.


September 17, 2009

On the front page of the NYT on September 16, the story “On India’s Railways, Women Find New Peace in the Commute” (by Jim Yardley), about a pilot program introducing commuter trains exclusively for female passengers — “Ladies Specials” in India’s four largest cities. These trains give women respite from public harassment by men, a practice known as eve-teasing (also spelled Eve-teasing or eve teasing or Eve teasing).

There’s a lot to dislike in the euphemism eve teasing. Teasing is a mild term indeed for aggressive insulting, catcalling, groping, and the like. And the reference to the biblical Eve deflects the offense from the perpetrators by suggesting that the objects of the offense are temptresses. So it’s “just fun”, and anyway, they bring it on themselves — attitudes that the women in question most definitely do not share.

The term originates in Indian English, and the practice is widespread in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. It’s generally believed that the incidence of eve-teasing has dramatically increased as women appeared in increasing numbers in universities and in the work force and, generally, as independent actors in public life. And its appearance in movies and music videos (where it’s often framed as an overture to romance) has probably fostered its spread in real life.

The OED (draft entry of March 2006) has cites for the synthetic compounds eve-teasing and eve-teaser from 1960 (from a single issue of the Times). Many early cites have the words in quotation marks, suggesting that they had only recently come into widespread use.

So the synthetic compounds have been around for some time, and we can wonder if they’ve gone down the path to back-formation, of a verb to eve-tease. The verb is here:

Sanjay said that he passes comments at girls to please them, for Subash it was to get attention from the opposite sex whereas for Manish … it is just fun and it remains fun only when he gets to eve tease from a distance, like when he is on a bus or when he has a group of friends. (link) [from Nepal]

Me or my brother always had to accompany my sisters to the grocery shops because there was a particular stretch where the guys loitering around would try to eve tease my sisters…. (link) [from India]

Rawalpindi cops enjoy watching women being eve-teased (link) [from Bangladesh]

Girl commits suicide after being eve teased (link) [from India]

Perverse consequences

September 16, 2009

Ashlee Vance, “For Speech-Impaired, Insurance Fights Remedy”, front page of the NYT, September 15:

SAN FRANCISCO — Kara Lynn has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S., which has attacked the muscles around her mouth and throat, removing her ability to speak. A couple of years ago, she spent more than $8,000 to buy a computer, approved by Medicare, that turns typed words into speech that her family, friends and doctors can hear.

Under government insurance requirements, the maker of the PC, which ran ordinary Microsoft Windows software, had to block any nonspeech functions, like sending e-mail or browsing the Web.

Dismayed by the PC’s limitations and clunky design, Ms. Lynn turned to a $300 iPhone 3G from Apple running $150 text-to-speech software. Ms. Lynn, who is 48 and lives in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said it worked better and let her “wear her voice” around her neck while snuggling with her 5-year-old son, Aiden, who has Down syndrome.

Instead, public and private insurers insist that, if Ms. Lynn and others like her want insurance to pay, they must spend 10 to 20 times as much for dedicated, proprietary devices that can do far less.

The logic: Insurance is supposed to cover medical devices, and smartphones or PCs can be used for nonmedical purposes, like playing video games or Web browsing.

“We would not cover the iPhones and netbooks with speech-generating software capabilities because they are useful in the absence of an illness or injury,” said Peter Ashkenaz, a spokesman for the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Private insurers tend to follow the government’s lead in matters of coverage. Two years ago, iPhones and netbooks barely existed, so it may not be surprising that the industry has yet to consider their role as medical devices.

The ways of health insurance in the U.S. are often confounding. Some companies do not cover the expense of a wig following chemotherapy, on the grounds that a wig is merely “cosmetic”, but some do (at least in part), given a doctor’s prescription for an “extra-cranial prosthesis”. (Since 1998, federal law obliges insurance companies to cover prostheses or breast reconstruction following a mastectomy, but before that some companies did not cover such devices or procedures, again on the grounds that they were not medical treatments, but merely cosmetic.)

Some years ago, when my partner’s pituitary gland basically shut down and all the hormones controlled by the pituitary had to be replaced, I ended up spending lots of time over a year or so in fighting with his insurance company over the testosterone injections prescribed for him; every claim for the shots was initially denied, on the basis that some people got prescriptions for testosterone to increase muscle mass and strength, sexual performance, and energy, which are not medical uses. The company systematically disregarded the diagnosis of hypopituitarism in his records, and every month I had to wear them down.