Archive for December, 2009

Yip’s ish

December 24, 2009

Edward Rothstein’s column in the Arts section of today’s NYT (“Grandish Wordplay: Harburg’s Ish List”) is an appreciation of the skills of lyricist E. Y. (Yip) Harburg, prompted by two Harburg theater events: the making of a cast recording of this season’s revival of “Finian’s Rainbow”, and a short revival of “Flahooley” at the Theater for the New City. (And it’s the holiday season, when that Christmas classic “The Wizard of Oz”, to which Harburg contributed lyrics, is re-run on televison again and again.)

An entire section of the column is taken up with the word play in one song, the leprechaunish “Something Sort of Grandish”, from “Flahooley”. In this song, the leprechaun

joyfully see-saws about like someone trying to find a secure footing (“so sugar candish”).

But Harburg makes it clear that stability and clarity are not to be found. When the leprechaun sings of “something sweet, something sort of grandish,” the “sort of” suggests a vague resemblance, while the “ish” makes it even vaguer. And the leprechaun, who is not only new to the feeling but also new to expressing it, leaps about searching for comparisons, trying to describe a passion so “dareish” that is sweeping him limb to limb, something that is “terrifish, magnifish, delish.”

There is something endearing in the patter, as if we were listening to a child just emerging from an amusement-park ride who doesn’t feel on solid ground. “Please accept my proposish,” the leprechaun pleads. And Sharon [the object of his affection], more sober if not more experienced, stands “hand in handish,” feeling some “relish” for their “hellish condish.” Who wouldn’t hope, as the leprechaun does, that all their “ishes/Could come true”?

And who can listen without succumbing to the dizzying mixture of invention and description compressed into these ishes? Their pace is so unrelenting, it takes many hearings before you even realize what is being said when Sharon is asked to “be give-in-ish.” We have to work — or rather play — to decipher the playfulness.

An excellent point. The best verbal play is full of surprises and requires both attention and some work on the part of the listener.

Short shot #31: dogfood

December 23, 2009

Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky writes to report hearing “an employee of a large local company” say “I’ve been dogfooding for a while already”, meaning that he’d been betatesting a new product of his company’s. It turns out that the verbing dogfood has been around for a while in the tech world, though eat one’s own dogfood seems to be the original. There’s even a Wikipedia page.

It seems that the earliest uses of these expressions referred to a company’s using the product it makes and they were then extended to in-house testing, especially of software.

Dogfood has transitive uses as well as intransitive ones:

In an email, Google management blames the economic crisis and suggests that this is a great opportunity to “dogfood” the phones (link)

This same site has the noun dogfood in this specialized sense — with Google handing out “dogfood” (those phones) as its Christmas bonus last year.


December 23, 2009

In my posting on the shoplifting of books, I used booklifting as a portmanteau of shoplifting and book. I’m not the first person to use the word booklifting for theft. Here’s another occurrence:

The vendors couldn’t keep an eye on each of us as we stormed down the bookstore aisles like schoolgirls on a fun fair. It was an ordinary stealing foray. We were good. Synchronised booklifting, we’d invented the art. (link)

It’s not clear that such examples have portmanteaus. Booklifting could just be a synthetic compound based on the verb lift ‘steal’ (a slang use attested since the 16th century); after all, shoplifting is itself such a compound (attested since the late 17th century, with a backformed verb to shoplift developed later). And there are examples that look pretty clearly like synthetic compounds (not directly involving shoplifting):

A student in Kenya has turned to the BBC to help investigate the problem of continued theft of books from the country’s libraries. Ruben Gitahi asked BBC World Service’s Outlook programme to look into the practice of “booklifting” – which he said was becoming “rampant” in the country’s cities. (link)

And also examples of booklifting ‘raising books into the air’:

So today I took took 200+ books, and moved them off of shelves, and replaced them with (probably over) 200 more and then brought 150 of the former to Goodwill. I get my muscles from booklifting thank you very much. (link)

Back to booklifting ‘stealing books’. Predictably, I suppose, a back-formed verb to booklift has developed:

Have you ever booklifted? (link)

(This is a badly scanned text, but this part of it seems clear, and it’s about stealing books from a library.)

Meanwhile, there are various uses of a noun booklift: for a device for lifting books, for a device for holding copy up, and for shipping books to institutions in need.

And in investigating lift ‘steal’, I came across the slang verb boost with a similar sense (OED2: ‘To steal, esp. to shoplift; to rob’; originally U.S., and attested from the early 20th century).

meet, the noun

December 22, 2009

A reference to a meet in a drug context went by on television a little while ago, and I reflected on this particular nouning of the verb meet. In the context I heard, meeting might have been a possible alternative, but in drug meet I think not. Then I thought of meet in athletic contexts (on its own, or in combinations like swim meet), where meeting won’t do as an alternative.

So it was off to the OED, and its entry for the relevant noun meet (in a draft revision of June 2001). There I found an array of uses.


Address terms

December 22, 2009

The Economist piece on politeness in language (briefly described here) says a lot about address terms (in English, the possibilities include first name FN, last name LN, FN + LN, any of these plus a prefix, like Mr., or a title, like Dr., and a title on its own). This is a topic dear to my heart, ever since a paper (“Hey, whatsyourname!”) I wrote in 1974 on vocatives in English. And it links to a New York Times piece (Anne Marie Valinoti, “Exam-Room Rules: What’s in a Name?”) I’ve been meaning to post about briefly since it appeared on December 15.

Valinoti (an internist in northern New Jersey) mused on the address terms in medical contexts, noting that in her own career, she’s always been addressed as “Dr. Valinoti”, while nurses (no matter what their age, experience, or status) are addressed with FN, and going on to treat asymmetries (and symmetries) in doctor-patient relationships.

Doctor-patient address terminology often needs to be negotiated. Here’s Valinoti’s practice (which not all doctors follow):

Regardless of whether I am “Anne Marie” or “Dr. Valinoti” to a patient, I rarely call a patient by his or her first name. As a rule, patients who are my senior are always “Mr./Ms./Dr.” Patients I meet for the first time are always addressed by their title … Although many patients introduce themselves by their first name, I would never presume to address them as such without their specific permission.

Preferences differ:

A study published in The British Medical Journal looked at the question of patient preferences regarding how doctors address them. Interestingly, most [but by no means all] patients surveyed, particularly those younger than 65, preferred that their physicians call them by their first name.

Valinoti sees these things not merely as a matter of etiquette, but also as an important part of doctor-patient communication, since

Accurate diagnosis and treatment of medical ailments depend on the doctor’s clear understanding of the entire person who sits before her.

Annals of booklifting

December 22, 2009

Briefly noted: Margo Rabb’s essay “Steal These Books” in the December 20 NYT Book Review, about the shoplifting of books. There’s a lot of that going around.

Frequently stolen from St. Mark’s Bookshop in the East Village of Manhattan: volumes by Martin Amis, Charles Bukowski, William S. Burroughs, Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo, and Jack Kerouac. And

The Telegraph of London reported last year that Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel “The Virgin Suicides” was said to be “the most shoplifted book of modern times.”

Paul Auster is another popular target of booklifters.

The most frequently shoplifted books seem to be almost all by male authors. And Rabb quotes two bookstore managers saying that the thieves are mostly younger men. So it looks like a guy thing. (Of course, reliable statistics on what gets shoplifted and by whom are understandably hard to come by.)

Annoying holiday song

December 21, 2009

Joe Clark has forwarded this item to me several times, in the Christmas season, but I seem not to have afflicted my readers with it yet. It’s an exercise in singing the tune to “Jingle Bell Rock” (already an annoying “holiday song”) using only the words jingle, bell, and rock (plus some spoonerisms). This is something of a challenge, even if you have the words in front of you.

Here’s a rendition of “Jingle Rock Bell” on Joe’s personal blog, along with a transcription. Happy holiday singing.

Monosyllabic poisoning

December 21, 2009

A Zits in which teenage monosyllabism becomes contagious:

Well, not ordinary teenage monosyllabism (which is illustrated in Jeremy’s speech), but a speech style (sometimes mimicked in writing) in which the words of a sentence are produced as if each was a sentence on its own. (I’m pretty sure this has been discussed on Language Log, but I can’t seem to unearth a relevant posting.)

Holiday Economist 2: difficult languages

December 20, 2009

Another article from the holiday Economist, this time on a search for “the world’s hardest language”: “Difficult Languages: Tongue twisters” (beginning on p. 136). The premise is rather silly, though it does provide a way of talking about language differences; more specifically,

Assessing how languages are tricky for English-speakers gives a guide to how the world’s languages differ overall.

This is a much fluffier piece than the one on politeness, but it’s jam-packed with details about languages.

It focuses on phonetics/phonology, inflectional morphology, grammatical categories (there’s a good bit on noun classes), and morphological structure (agglutination especially). On phonetics:

For sound complexity, one language stands out. !Xóõ, spoken by just a few thousand, mostly in Botswana, has a blistering array of unusual sounds. Its vowels include plain, pharyngealised, strident and breathy, and they carry four tones. It has five basic clicks and 17 accompanying ones. The leading expert on the !Xóõ, Tony Traill, developed a lump on his larynx from learning to make their sounds. Further research showed that adult !Xóõ-speakers had the same lump (children had not developed it yet).

(The article is not talking about the phonetic inventories of languages, but about the phonemic distinctions in languages.)

The article opts for the eastern Amazonian language Tuyuca as the most difficult. The phonemic system isn’t especially remarkable; the morphology is heavily agglutinating; there’s an obligatory distinction between inclusive and exclusive plural pronouns; there are lots of noun classes. But:

Most fascinating is a feature that would make any journalist tremble. Tuyuca requires verb-endings on statements to show how the speaker knows something. Diga ape-wi means that “the boy played soccer (I know because I saw him)”, while diga ape-hiyi means “the boy played soccer (I assume)”. English can provide such information, but for Tuyuca that is an obligatory ending on the verb. Evidential languages force speakers to think hard about how they learned what they say they know.

Journalists might tremble at evidentiality, but it’s old stuff for linguists. There’s quite a literature on it (sampled in the Wikipedia article), and it’s not at all a rare phenomenon in the world’s languages: in her 2004 book Evidentiality, Alexandra Aikhenvald estimates that a quarter of the world’s languages have some type of grammatical evidentiality (marked by affixes, clitics, or particles).

Trash talking

December 20, 2009

On the front page of the NYT sports section today: a piece (“The Last Word in Trash Talking”, by Greg Bishop) about Jets linebacker Bart Scott, who

talks trash freely and incessantly, all day, on any topic, on matters from petty to profound.

… Scott views trash talking as an art, or science. He has developed and refined his method. He has studied loquacious athletes [and pro wrestlers] from years past. And he has practiced, from the first day he tugged on a uniform all the way to Sunday, when he will unleash another torrent of mostly unprintable barbs on the Atlanta Falcons.

For Scott, trash talking is a weapon of intimidation, designed to throw opponents off balance. He starts with research on things he can use to distract them:

He scours ESPN, Google and scouting reports, which include pictures. He wants to understand the opponents he will talk to, understand what angers them, what makes them tick. He looks for police incidents, problems with wives or girlfriends, expanding stomachs, funny faces.

He then goes on to

mixing fact with fiction. Scott wants his barbs to be believable, but he often uses exaggerations, or lies disguised as truth, for maximum effect.

Scott is always prepared:

“I keep ammo on everybody, even if they never joked on me,” he said. “Because I will never be caught off-guard. No one will ever out-talk me. Ever.”

For obvious reasons, there aren’t many direct quotes in the story.

I don’t know if trash talking has been studied systematically, by sociolinguists, scholars of discourse, and the like. There’s a huge amount of material about verbal harassment, verbal abuse, and threats, but mostly from practical and legal standpoints.