Archive for February, 2010

Lame rap

February 16, 2010

… in Dingburg, in this Zippy:

Brevity plus

February 15, 2010

That’s the title of an abstract of mine that was just accepted for delivery at the Stanford SemFest (#11) on March 12. And here’s the abstract. Remember that it’s just an abstract; it’s also missing references to discussions of the phenomena (though readers of this blog will recognize some of them).

Brevity plus

The innovation and spread of lexical items very often is favored by considerations of brevity: items are invented by some people and adopted by others because they are more compact than earlier expressions. (And for some reasons not having to do with formal considerations: they have the virtue of novelty, suggesting fashion, ostentatious cleverness, or playfulness; and they usually have the virtue of contextual or social specificity, via ties to specific contexts, like sports, journalism, business, radio/television, the tech world, gaming, etc., or to specific social groups, like young people, Australians, women, etc.)

But these innovations also frequently (perhaps almost always) have the virtue of semantic/pragmatic specificity. The innovations usually allow for shadings of meaning that are fuzzed over in the older expressions (which, typically, have radiated and generalized in their meanings over the years). This point is scarcely a new one, but it tends to be buried by usage writers and language peevers who are hostile to innovations and treat them as “unnecessary”.

Here I look mostly at category conversions in English, in particular zero conversions and subtractive conversions (back-formations), concentrating on plain nounings (a disconnect vs. a disconnection), plain verbings (to extinct vs. to make extinct, drive to extinction), simple back-formations of verbs (to incent vs. to provide an incentive), and two-part back-formations of verbs (to cheerlead vs. to serve as a cheerleader). The larger point is that people have good (if unconscious) reasons for creating and adopting such innovations.

I look at several case studies, including that of the simple nouning an ask, which has been innovated several times in several very different senses over the years.


February 15, 2010

Mark Etherton’s comment on Geoff Pullum’s “Isms, gasms, etc.” posting gives a wonderful quote from Balzac’s Le père Goriot (1834-35) about play with the libfix -orama. Etherton’s summary:

the characters come up with santérama, froitorama, soupeaurama (to which Madame Vauquer says “Pardonnez−moi, monsieur, c’est une soupe aux choux”), Goriorama [based on Goriot, of course], cornorama, monsieur le marquis de Rastignacorama, patriarchalorama, bouteillorama, sexorama, A la portorama, la comtesse de Restaurama and mortorama.

It all started with the Panorama, invented in 1787 and first publicly displayed in 1788-89. The name was coined from Ancient Greek elements pan- and -orama. Then later came another invention, the Diorama, first exhibited in 1823, again based on Greek components. (Both names were quickly lower-cased.) By 1834, the residents of the fictional Maison Vauquer had extracted the element -orama and were attaching it to all sorts of first elements.

The Anglophone world followed a similar path, with panorama and diorama serving as models for other inventions (from the OED), at first with Greek-based initial elements: in particular, cosmorama (1823) and georama (1847). Then in the 20th century there was another wave of -orama-ism. Here are some inventions (from the OED and Michael Quinion) from the 20th-century fashion (which continues into the 21st century):

Futurama (1938), Cinerama (1951), audiorama (1954), striporama (1954), ugly-o-rama (1973), swaporama (1977), donutorama (1992)

plus, from Quinion (undated) but not in the OED: sensorama, Scout-O-Rama, odourama, smellorama. Then there’s the 21st-century diorama-orama I reported on here, and the predictable Obamarama, reported by a commenter on that posting.

As I usually say in these circumstances, no doubt there are many more.

Short shot #37: titles full of pronouns and ennui

February 15, 2010

Todd Pruzan reviews Justin Taylor’s Everything Here Is the Best Ever in the NYT Book Review of February 15:

In 1981, Raymond Carver advanced a literary genre with “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The movement wasn’t dirty realism or minimalism, but “vaguely titled fiction”: stories concealing their intensity and anxiety behind titles full of pronouns and ennui, signifying nothing much about their narratives. The device is now well established, thank’s to Joshua Ferris’s “Then We Came to the End,” Miranda July’s “No One Belongs Here More Than You,” Maile Meloy’s “Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It” and the Everest of the genre, Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here.”

I wouldn’t take these titles to indicate ennui (I concede on pronouns), but rather a reticent masking of strong emotions. But what do I know? I’m no literary critic.

Annals of spam

February 14, 2010

A spam comment on my iPad posting, from a clearly commercial site:

I was studying something else about this on another blog. Interesting. Your linear position on it is diametrically contradicted to what I read in the first place. I am still contemplating over the diverse points of view, but I’m leaning heavily towards yours. And regardless, that’s what is so good about modern democracy and the marketplace of thoughts online.

Totally devoid of substantive comment — in particular, not connected at all to the material in the posting it’s “commenting on”.  Just designed to attract clicks to the originating site. Still, for a spam comment, pretty well written.

Predictably, the very same message appears, with various names as the “poster”, in comments on a number of blogs, sometimes more than once on a single blog. Not on my blog, since I spammed it to death.

Others have complained about it. For instance:

Amusing. You win. Your prize is that I won’t post your spam in my comments because it’s still spam and obviously crap; but I will take your pathetic words and use them to amuse myself for the three minutes or so it took to deride you in public. (link)

There are two points of usage interest, though: be contradicted to something, contemplate over something. Both caught my eye, but the first struck me as odd, possibly non-native English.

Googling on {“contradicted to”} pulls up some entirely grammatical examples in which the to begins an adverbial complement to the verb: a purpose adverbial, a degree adverbial (to some degree), etc.

Then there some odd usages that look malapropistic to me: contradicted ‘contraindicated’ (in medical contexts), as contradicted to ‘as contrasted to’. Be contradicted to ‘be contradictory to, be opposed to’ (as in the spam comment), if from a native speaker, might also be malapropistic.

There are also a fair number of examples of a different sort, which look like instances of “intransitivizing P-addition” (here), with intransitive contradict to as a variant of standard transitive contradict, for instance:

These are just a few of the great names who had laid down the foundations to the massive world of mathematics. People had contradicted to their views and theories, but as they always provided a mathematical explanation to each of their theories, they are all recognized today. (link)

It was generally believed that teleportation was impossible, for it contradicted to all scientific laws imaginable. (link)

Both of these seem to be from non-native speakers, however, so it’s not clear what the extent of the phenomenon is for native speakers.

Contemplate over is different. OED2 has contemplate on, upon, over, with the object of the preposition denoting something contemplated, but all are marked as obsolete. OED2 doesn’t list about, but I’d venture that it’s now the most common P for complements of intransitive contemplate. But there are a fair number of instances of over in this function: I am contemplating over whether…, contemplating over weight loss products, contemplating over a new car. As well as a large number of instances of about in this function.

Of course, transitive contemplate is also available, so this does look like a case of intransitiving P-addition — with the usual twist that the transitive and intransitive variants are often subtly different in meaning.

(Contemplate about has an ambiguity parallel to one for think about: “contemplating about art” ‘musing about art, thinking deeply about art’; “contemplating about relocating to Charlotte” ‘considering (as a possibility) moving to Charlotte’.)

For me, when I want an intransitive construction in such cases, I find about much more natural than over. But others seem to find over natural in many circumstances, so I suppose I can’t fault the blog spam on that account.

Alfred Ayres

February 13, 2010

Over on his blog Motivated Grammar (subtitled Prescriptivism Must Die!), Gabe Doyle attacks the idea that healthy is incorrect with the meaning ‘promoting good health, healthful’. Where does this come from? Gabe:

MWDEU says that the whole notion that something’s wrong with that usage can be traced back to 1881, when a fellow named Alfred Ayers declared it so in a book called The Verbalist. (Google Books has the 1909 edition online.) The trouble with Ayres’s declaration is that it spit in the face of at least 330 years of usage; the OED’s first citation for healthy, in 1552, defines the two words identically, and both meanings for healthy are attested all the way up to Ayres’s book’s publication.

… Both meanings have been attested for 450 years, and the claim against the latter was an unjustified assertion from 1881 by a prescriptivist otherwise lost to the sands of history.

I objected to “a prescriptivist otherwise lost to the sands of history”. As I said a few years ago in a note on complaints about blame it on, Ayres was,

with Richard Grant White, one of the great American grammar/usage ranters of the 19th century.

Language Log had two postings on blame it on someone (versus blame someone for it), both mentioning Ayres: this one and an earlier one here. Plus a posting on objections to people ‘persons’, with Ayres as a prominent objector. As you can tell, he had something of a talent for picking the losing side in these usage disputes.

Zippy’s lust for the literary life

February 13, 2010

Continuing the Charles Bukowski theme:

Parse this!

February 12, 2010

Ned Deily reports the following sign on the San Francisco Muni. It’s all on one line, no punctuation, with single spacing between words:


It’s only too easy to parse this with ON SUDDEN STOPS as a constituent, in which case you can’t incorporate NECESSARY: it’s an annoying garden-path example. Then you re-analyze, with PLEASE HOLD ON and SUDDEN STOPS NECESSARY as constituents.

Or you could parse ON SUDDEN STOPS NECESSARY as a constituent, with NECESSARY understood as a postmodifier of SUDDEN STOPS: ‘please hold [something] on sudden stops that a necessary’: this is grammatical but bafflin — a crash blossom. Again, you have to reanalyze.

All this hassle is just so unnecessary. What’s needed is something, anything, that would visually separate PLEASE HOLD ON and SUDDEN STOPS NECESSARY. A colon or dash would be especially good for this purpose, but a period or a semi-colon, or even a comma, would do. Simply dividing the sign into two lines


would improve comprehensibility. Or a big space between the two constituents would probably do the trick. In contexts other than instruction-giving signage, like advertising signage, type sizes, fonts, and colors can be used strategically.

But somehow instruction-giving signage seems almost always composed to be as spare and uniform as possible (which often makes comprehension difficult). I have this image of someone who complains about the paucity of features on such signs that might give clues to interpretation being told that that’s just not the way signs are designed.

Acronym fun

February 12, 2010

Since it deals with all sorts of military programs, organizations, and devices,”The Soft-Kill Solution: New frontiers in pain compliance” by Ando Arike, in the latest (March 2010) Harper’s Magazine, has plenty of acronyms, most of them new to me.

One of the names, however, was perfectly familiar to me, though I hadn’t appreciated it was an acronym: Taser (its registered name), often lower-cased to taser. The T and S come from Tom Swift, the hero of a popular American series of adventure novels for boys; Taser inventor John Cover was a great fan of the Tom Swift books. The E and R stand for Electric Rifle, Cover’s designation for a fictitious weapon along the lines of Cover’s actual invention. A middle initial A (not, apparently, in the Tom Swift books) then fills out a name parallel to the acronym laser.

This somewhat labored invention is then sometimes said to stand for “Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle”. But the OED says “Tom Swift’s electric rifle”, probably because the inventor-hero was referred to in the books as Tom Swift, not Thomas A. Swift.

Once we had the noun taser (first OED cite 1972), then along came the verbing taser (first cite 1976) and a verb tase (first cite 1991), which is either a shortening of the verb taser or a back-formation from the noun taser.

Love of books in Dingburg

February 12, 2010

… and distrust of Kindle: