Archive for January, 2010


January 23, 2010

From Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words #674 (1/27/10):

AVATARD  A chorus of disagreement came from readers over this. All were sure it’s from “Avatar” + “retard”, as are “celebutard” and a few other slang terms, using “retard” in its current abusive sense of a mentally retarded person. Another term of similar origin, I am told, is “freetard”, which was supplied by several correspondents. Jeremy Ardley described it thus: “it’s an epithet used by those who pay for their software for those who choose to use free open-source software. The implication is that if you get it for free it ain’t worth diddly-squat and you’re mentally challenged if you choose to use it.” Others mentioned politically motivated insults of similar formation, such as “conservatard” (by coincidence, my newspaper last Sunday included the related term “Libtard”, though the initial
capital letter showed that it referred specifically to the British
Liberal Democrat party).

And then:

AFFIXES  Various comments on word endings last week and this have persuaded me to add three entries to my site about the building blocks of English: the three are “-tard“, “-flation” and “-naut“.

Ah, here’s a topic that combines three of my interests: playful word formation, portmanteau words, and the “liberation” of parts of words (like the three Quinion just listed), to yield word-forming elements that are semantically like the elements of compounds but are affix-like in that they are typically bound.



January 23, 2010

A simple back-formed verb in Bizarro:

The cartoon helpfully supplies the source of the verb, the noun information.



January 22, 2010

A few days ago, Benjamin Barrett wrote to ADS-L to report that in a discussion about the computer language VBA, he had found:

Date variables are really Doubles in drag.

(noting that both date variables and doubles are data types).

This is a use of drag (OED2: ‘feminine attire worn by a man’) in a snowclonelet pattern X drag, conveying roughly ‘attire appropriate for/to X’ (OED2 glosses this use of drag as ‘clothes, clothing’, and gives a 1959 cite for teenage drag and a 1966 cite for Arab drag), followed by a semantic extension to figurative uses, referring to something that appears in a form appropriate for/to X (that is, figuratively ‘dressed like X’), as in Barrett’s quote above.


X magnet

January 22, 2010

In my posting on Einstein quotes in Zippy, I referred to Einstein as a “quote magnet” (using a felicitous expression from Fred Shapiro) — that is, someone who attracts quotes (meaning that quotations from other sources are attributed to that person).

The X magnet pattern for ‘someone or something that attracts Xs’ is a snowclonelet, the model for which might have been chick/babe magnet, used to refer to someone (a guy, or sometimes a girl) or something (a car, for instance) that attracts women. A few examples:

Want to be a Chick Magnet?
How to make any woman want you (link)

Solar electric car a chick magnet? Wall Street Journal Uncovers ZAP Xebra Xero (link)

It’s Official: The Tesla Roadster Sport Is A Babe Magnet (link)

From chick magnet came dick magnet, referring to someone (a girl, or sometimes a guy) or something that attracts men. As in:

[Theory of a Deadman, “Bad Girlfriend”] My Girlfriend’s a dick magnet, My Girlfriend’s gotta have it (link)

There are probably also examples of dick magnet ‘someone who attracts dicks, i.e. jerks’. Certainly there are examples of jerk magnet:

Are You a Jerk Magnet? … You’ve been known to attract real jerky guys from time to time (link)

No doubt there are more X magnet examples, for other X, out there.

Einstein said it?

January 21, 2010

A Zippy cartoon in which Pinhead parents deal with an exceptionally precocious child:

All three quotations have been attributed to Albert Einstein (hence the title, and the reference to Princeton in the last panel). They all look suspicious to me — especially the last, which some sites maintain was on a sign in Einstein’s office.

Sites that are scrupulous in sourcing Einstein quotations don’t seem to list any of them, and each of them appears on one or more sites that list quotes that are not attested from Einstein or or misattributed to him. (There are quite a few such spurious quotations attributed to him; Einstein, like Mark Twain and Winston Churchill and some others, is a “quote magnet”.)

Pederasts and pedophiles

January 21, 2010

Benoit Denizet-Lewis reports (in the “Boy Crazy” chapter of his 2010 collection American Voyeur: Dispatches From the Far Reaches of Modern Life) on a terminological distinction made by members of NAMBLA (the North American Man/Boy Love Association):

NAMBLA members have long disagreed over what they are and what kind of unified front they should show the public. [NAMBLA member] Socrates insists that the group is made up of a majority of pederasts (people attracted to boys in or after puberty) and a minority of pedophiles (people attracted to prepubescent children). Yet the Bulletin has rarely reflected that, angering many of NAMBLA’s members.

“The Bulletin is turning into a semipornograhic jerk-off mag for pedophiles,” NAMBLA cofounder David Thorstad wrote in a December 1996 letter to the magazine. “Has the Bulletin forgotten that NAMBLA has always consisted not only of pedophiles, but also of pederasts?” (p. 171)

Though I’m familiar with the conceptual distinction, the use of this terminology for it was new to me. Well, I am familiar with the restriction (in somewhat technical contexts) of pedophile (British paedophile) to people sexually attracted to prepubescent children (and ephebephile or ephebophile to people sexually attracted to older children, specifically boys). But pederast specifically for an ephebephile was something of a surprise, though I can see a etymological/historical justification for the usage, given that the ancient Greek practice involved an adult man and an adolescent boy.

Both common usage and the dictionaries vary as to what’s a pederast and what’s a pedophile, and there’s a considerable area of unclarity surrounding the words.


twitter tweet

January 19, 2010

Headline in the Inquirer (U.K.):

Airport Twidiot gets banged up

The story is about a young man who got into a lot of trouble for tweeting a prank bomb threat from Robin Hood Airport Doncaster Sheffield (that’s its official name). Hard to believe that there are people who haven’t heard that the authorities don’t take at all well to prank bomb threats, but there it is.

The portmanteau twidiot (twitter + idiot) is what caught Victor Steinbok’s eye and caused him to pass the story on to me. I’ll comment on it in a moment. But first a few notes on other usages in the story.


More on experience and evidence

January 19, 2010

A little while back I posted on Michael Specter’s attack on Andrew Weil for what Specter sees as “one of the most dangerous forms of denialism” (Janet Maslin’s wording), treating personal experience as of equal value to evidence from scientific testing: “The idea that accruing data is simply one way to think about science has become a governing tenet of the alternative belief system” (Specter). I connected this mode of thought to people’s inclinations to turn questions about language use into the retailing of anecdotes about personal experience.

But back to denialism. Yesterday on his blog, John McIntyre took up the topic of “virtuous ignorance”, echoing Specter’s outrage:

For a pure example of virtuous ignorance, it is hard to surpass Jenny McCarthy, the actress-turned-autism-advocate. Diane Sawyer invited her onto ABC News to denounce a study in Pediatrics, a medical journal, that determined that the special diets Ms. McCarthy advocates are ineffective. Her response was that it’s time that doctors “start listening to our anecdotal evidence.”

Ms. McCarthy, who has an autistic son, Evan, was previously granted a platform by Oprah Winfrey to discuss growing scientific evidence that there is no link between vaccines and autism. Ms. McCarthy rebutted it thus: ‘My science is Evan, and he’s at home. That’s my science.”

It is a puzzlement: In a technologically advanced society, in which lifespan and standards of living have been improved by more than two centuries of post-Enlightenment scientific research, a Jenny McCarthy can become an influential figure in public health. Increasingly, people believe what they wish to believe, against all evidence, especially if someone with whom they can identify, whom they see as a sincere person, agrees with them.

(I know, not a lot of linguistic content.)


January 17, 2010

Susan Dominus, “A Teenager’s Protest March, Mighty but Strictly Virtual” (NYT, January 16), reports on 15-year-old Tess Chapin’s campaign to be released from parental grounding (for five weeks, for “drinking at a party and missing her 11:30 curfew by an hour”). The campaign is entirely electronic — carried on in a Facebook group she created for the purpose. Dominus’s story quotes two bits of morphological inventiveness, the verb unground and the noun groundation.

The Facebook group is called “1000 to get tess ungrounded”. On it, she pleads, “please join so I can convince them [her parents] to unground me. please please please.” Here we have reversative un- creatively deployed, not a great surprise in a world that already has the verb unfriend (built on the verb friend).

And she refers to her grounding as her “groundation”, attaching the complex abstract-noun-forming suffix -ation to the verb ground. There are many models for this: ferment-ation, present-ation, quot-ation ‘act of quoting’, permut-ation, detest-ation, etc. What makes ground-ation stand out is that the verb ground is so clearly from the “Anglo-Saxon” stratum of the vocabulary rather than the “Latinate” stratum (including words that came to English via French). One result of this is that groundation is noticeable as an innovation, and also somewhat playful in character.

(Note that there are often subtle differences in meaning and use between the nominal gerund V-ing and the derived noun V-ation. These might carry over to grounding vs. groundation.)

A note on the verb ground as used in the NYT story. The noun ground has been verbed many times since Middle English. A relatively recent verbing is in the sense ‘keep on the ground, prevent an aircraft, pilot, etc. from flying’, attested in OED2 from 1931 on, with a metaphorical extension (originally U.S.) to the sense ‘confine (a child) to his or her home outside school hours, as a punishment’ (OED draft addition of May 2003, with cites from 1953 on).

As for Tess, her impassioned plea argues against her groundation in terms that should be familiar to anyone who’s dealt with teenagers or watched episodes of the television series 7th Heaven:

how much genuine remorse she had already expressed, her inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, other parents’ more lax standards, the injustice of so heavy a punishment for a first-time offense.

From the February Harper’s

January 17, 2010

Two items from the current issue of Harper’s Magazine, one on the translation of names, the other on taboo avoidance.

Item 1 is in “POTUS Blossom” (p. 23), on a selection of

questions submitted last fall by readers of the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua for President Barack in advance of his Number 16 town-hall meeting in Shanghai [as translated from Chinese by Colin Jones].

Some of the questions are pointedly political, some are personal-interest questions (among them the silly “Tell me, how do you like Eastern beauties?”), and then there’s one of linguistic interest:

The U.S. Embassy in China is about to change your Chinese name from Ao-ba-ma to Ou-ba-ma. Do you think this is necessary? The Chinese media and people have always called you Aobama. Now 1.3 billion Chinese have to change how they say it. It’s a real pain.

It wouldn’t have occurred to me that Chinese speakers would be obliged to follow the U.S. Embassy’s practice in pronouncing Obama’s name in Chinese, but then such matters often arouse strong emotions, as you can see by looking at the comments on a recent Language Log posting on Haiti.

Item 2 is “69 Across” (p. 24), on selections from

a “blacklist” file included with the latest edition of Crossword Compiler, a British computer program for designing various word puzzles.

As is usual with such lists, some of the items are obvious (diddlyshit, gobshite, pissoir) and some are puzzling (clitoridectomyhermaphroditismpsychosexual, sexy); the words in the second set aren’t racy in themselves but presumably get on the list because of sexual content in their referents. Slang in the sexual and excretory domains similarly makes the list: nooky, rogering, shtup, smoochstiffy, wee-wee. (Note that roger and wee can’t be banned, without sacrificing some innocent uses.) And of course the avoidance word effing is there.

All of this is intended to keep word puzzles as modest as possible. Keeping the world safe for puzzlers.