Archive for May, 2010

No No No

May 17, 2010

Another exchange between Zits‘s Jeremy and his mother:

(The panels are sideways so that they’ll fit into the usual cartoon layout. Don’t blame me.) (As usual, click on the image to embiggen it.)

Jeremy’s question has been successively reduced by his mother’s denials to a single syllable (also a single morpheme and a single word). But then he understood that she wasn’t going to change her mind if he just persevered in asking for permission.


May 15, 2010

A cartoon for this weekend from New Scientist of May 1, with a stern warning about the word ass ‘donkey’ — from one donkey to a younger donkey:

X-word, for various letters X, is a common form of taboo and slur avoidance. It seems to have started with F-word (F ‘fuck’ but also ‘faggot/fag’) and S-word (S ‘shit’) and then spread to other tabooed words and to other words that are innocent outside of special contexts (discussion here of some other F-words: F for fascism/fascist, feminism/feminist, fossils, folk [music], food; there are more). Language Log has returned many many times to discussions of X-words, ranging over most letters of the alphabet and covering some ordinarily decorous words as well as a full company of taboo and slur vocabulary.

The New Scientist cartoon — note that the magazine is published in the U.K. — has A-word (here A ‘ass’, but elsewhere in British sources ‘arse’), which has certainly been used in the U.S. for avoidance of ass as a mild taboo word (‘buttocks, anus’). In both British and American English, ass has more decorous meanings (‘donkey’ and the slang sense ‘fool’), but of course there’s no compelling reason for British speakers (talking British donkeys included) to avoid ass ‘donkey’, since the relevant taboo word is arse, which is pronounced, as well as spelled, differently from ass.

Of course, British speakers are familiar with American usage, so perhaps the taboo has slopped over from arse to ass. And donkeys might be especially sensitive on the matter.

Short shot #47: underwear models

May 13, 2010

I don’t usually follow the Styles section of the NYT closely, but my attention was, umm, captured by a big photo on the front page of today’s section, showing underwear model Kellan Lutz in the middle of a photo shoot; the story is “Stretching A Six-Pack: Could the Calvin Klein underwear model Kellan Lutz vault from billboards into Mark Wahlberg territory?”, by Eric Wilson.

Wilson manages to play with the tale of a young man whose career turns on his abdominal muscles and the package in the underwear he models without going overboard, but he can’t resist a few plays with language:

… Kellan Lutz, the abdominally gifted young actor [underwear models aspire to success as actors, and some, notably Mark Wahlberg, have achieved it in spades, while others (Travis Fimmel, for example) have gotten some exposure on television and in the movies; Lutz is just at the beginning of this career arc]

… to note just how far an actor can go be adhering to the simple example set forth by Mr. Wahlberg — the School of Marky Mark, if you will. The single lesson is success by six-pack.

Meanwhile, Wilson judges Wahlberg in an even-handed but over-the-top way (though probably with tongue in cheek):

… he was a terrible rapper, an obnoxious loud-mouth and, quite possibly, the greatest underwear model the world has ever known.

What an extraordinary achievement!

And with Wahlberg, homoeroticism in advertising went mainstream. (Well, it was on the path for some time, going back at least to the Marlboro Man ads.

Phrasal overlap portmanteaus

May 13, 2010

Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orange plays with phrasal portmanteaus based on overlaps:

Fond memory foam bed is based on two two-word expressions, the A + N combination (a common collocation or cliché — depending on your opinion of the combination) fond memory and the N + N compound (a kind of commercial jargon) memory foam bed. (I call this a portmanteau rather than a blend, though the labels are often used interchangeably. In my usage, portmanteaus are originally deliberate creations, often devised with playful intent, while blends are inadvertent errors. You’re under no obligation to follow my usage, of course.)

Phrasal overlap portmanteaus (POPs for short) don’t have to be based on two-word expressions exclusively. “Pop goes the weasel words” would be entirely possible, and more elaborate POPs than this are attested — in particular, the wonderful “I’ll kick him in the Ball’s Pond Road”, from the Monty Python Word Association Football — note the POP — routine on the Matching Tie and Handkerchief album. This has overlapping kick him in the balls (from a partially open idiom family, or small construction, V SOMEONE in the BODY-PART) and the proper noun Ball’s Pond Road (the name of a London street).

[Entertaining digression: People trying to transcribe the Python routine who don’t catch the London street reference cope as best they can with what they hear: for instance, “kick him in the balls upon the road” (possibly just a phonological reinterpretation) and “kick him in the balls down the road” (a rationalization of the expression that treats it as a syntactic portmanteau, but of a more routine type: “kick him in the balls” + “kick him down the road”).]

We’ve been on to POPs before, notably in a Language Log posting of mine, “Sweet Tooth Fairies”, reporting on Erin McKean’s longer, and delightful, discussion in a Boston Globe “The Word” column. And then I returned to the topic on this blog, on “dilating eye teeth”, here; this one’s a combo of the VP dilating [one’s] eye and the (opaque) N + N compound eye teeth.

I suppose that phrasal-overlap combos occasionally arise as inadvertent blends, but mostly they’re playful deliberate portmanteaus. People invent them as a game, playing (figuratively) for cleverness points.

X diet

May 12, 2010

Another small follow-up to my first posting on diets, this time about N+N compounds of the form X diet, denoting types of diet. These aren’t particularly unusual; they’re not “distant” compounds (of Type X, in the terminology here, on interpreting compounds), but just ordinary ones (of Type O). But as I noted in my “interpreting compounds” posting, even those of Type O can exhibit multiple interpretations.

In Type O N+N compounds, the relationship between the denotation of the head N (the second) and the denotation of the modifier N (the first) is one of a small number of canonical relationships (resemblance, composition, etc.) — while in Type X any sort of relationship is possible, and you need to have a good bit of background information to work out what relationship was intended (Language Log has collected lots of baffling Type X examples, like canoe wife).

But the small number of canonical relationships for Type O compounds is not the number 1. Look at some examples of X diet:

(1) rice diet ‘diet of rice’ [composition]
(2) anemia diet ‘diet for anemia’ [purpose: avoidance]
(3) weight-loss diet ‘diet for weight loss’ [purpose: achievement]

In (1), rice is the primary, or at least a major, component of the diet.

In (2), anemia is the purpose of the diet, in that the diet is supposed to treat anemia (reduce it or eliminate it).

In (3) weight loss is the purpose of the diet, in that the diet is supposed to achieve weight loss.

The difference between (1) and the others isn’t normally troublesome, because in (1), the first N denotes a food, while in the others it denotes a condition, and the two sorts of nouns scarcely overlap. It might seem that (2) versus (3) could be problematic, but in practice the conditions you want to avoid and the ones you want to achieve sorts themselves out in context.

Annals of hypallage

May 12, 2010

From a Talk of the Town piece — “End is Near Dept.: Fallout”, by Nick Paumgarten — in the May 10 New Yorker:

Last month in Washington, President Obama convened world leaders to discuss the dangers of nuclear proliferation and of inadquately secured nuclear material. For people of a certain furrowed cast of mind, the summit revived fears of a nuclear terrorist attack on an American city.

It’s the “furrowed cast of mind”. No one’s cast of mind is furrowed. However, in contemplating the possibility of nuclear attack your brow might be furrowed — furrowed brow is one of those expressions that might be classified as a common collocation, an idiom, or a cliché (or several of these at once), but it’s certainly some kind of fixed expression — so that the furrowing is transferred, in the telling, from the brow to the cast of mind it accompanies. This is a particularly nice example of the transferred epithet, or hypallage, a figure of speech I’ve talked about several times (most recently on this blog, here, with reference to the expression distracted driving, and with a link back to a Language Log discussion; earlier notable examples included free-range mayonnaise).

Hypallage is a type of non-predicating modification, in expressions of the form X N where X is syntactically a modifier of N but is not interpreted as being predicated of N. Some types of non-predicating modification are pretty easy to pick out: for instance, “pseudo-adjectives”, as in electrical engineering, where the A isn’t predicated of the N but instead evokes another N (electricity in this case) that figures in the interpretation of the combination.

(It can be hard to distinguish hypallage from other figures, in particular metaphor and metonymy, and I’m not sure it’s profitable to try to carve up the world of non-predicating modification into traditional categories like these.)

Here are two further reasonably clear instances of hypallage. From a postcard I got a while back, advertising an Erotic Arts and Crafts Fair (for Valentine’s Day) in Toronto (thanks to Chris Ambidge), the announcement of an erotic bake sale. Simplifying (for the moment) both the name of the event as a whole and the name of the featured event within it, we get: erotic fair, erotic sale. Now, the fair really isn’t erotic, and the sale certainly isn’t; instead, the fair celebrates things erotic (I’ll put aside the question of what makes things erotic), and what’s on sale is goods with an erotic theme, with reference to or depictions of things erotic.

The actual examples are somewhat complicated by the fact that the head N in each case is not a single word, but a complex expression (arts and crafts fair, bake goods). Arts and crafts fair is a relatively unproblematic N + N compound (with a coordinate first element), with one of the canonical interpretations for compounds, ‘HeadN for/of ModifierN’. Bake goods is a tougher nut, since it seems to be partway on the path from A + N, with bake ‘produced by baking’ as an anomalous-form  A (it doesn’t look like an A) historically reduced from the PSP-V A baked (a reduction that’s come up often on Language Log), to N + N, with bake as an anomalous-meaning N (it isn’t the N bake of clam bake, etc.).


May 11, 2010

A few days ago I send a note to a friend in which I commented on postcards she’d recently sent me: received  in one day, a California touristic card sandwiched in dates between two cards with hot guys on them. Then I thought about the verb sandwich — pretty clearly a verbing of  the noun — and admired its compact usefulness in conveying a pretty complex idea.

The story starts with the noun sandwich, for meat between two pieces of bread, serving as a snack (‘a light repast’, as some dictionaries have it). OED2 cautiously reports the etymology with “said to be named after John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792)”, who is reputed to have ordered up some beef between bread as refreshment after a night of gambling. At first, sandwich was capitalized (“a Sandwich”), recognizing its origin as an eponym (OED2 cites from 1762 and 1771), but it was quickly lower-cased (Jane Austen 1800-01 and thereafter), with its eponymous beginnings eventually vanished from the minds of its users.

[Note: what we now call open-face(d) sandwiches apparently go back a very long way. A piece of bread (the trencher) served as a plate for meat and was then put to other uses.]

Almost immediately, there were sandwich fillings other than chunks or slices of meat, and figurative uses of sandwich quickly followed, from 1790 on; Dickens 1836-9 has a reference to a sandwich-man (but without the actual compound), and Thackeray has an 1848 quote with “a pale young man … having a lady … on each arm” — a fellow en sandwich, as Thackeray puts it. Further semantic extensions occur in the 20th century, in various specialized (mostly technical) contexts: referents not only XYX in three layers, but also with any number of alternating layers, more than two kinds of layers, for instance in laminations, and so on.

I see no evidence that anyone railed at the original innovation, the metaphorical extensions away from the world of food, or the further semantic extensions. Apparently they were all too useful for anyone to grumble about. (Think of the alternatives.)

[I’m hoping that there’s a good scholarly history of the sandwich as a food (radiating from England into other lands and cultures, taking many forms in different contexts and places, including England — think of the cucumber sandwiches in The Importance of Being Earnest), along with some account of the roles sandwiches have played in different cultures. But I haven’t found any references to one. Many sites have bewilderingly long (and, alas, mouth-watering — remember that I’m on a strict diet) catalogs describing named sandwiches from around the world, but that’s not cultural history or anthropology.]

On to the verb. It took about a hundred years for sandwich to be verbed. OED2 gives the first gloss for the transitive verb sandwich as ‘put in or as a sandwich’, but then observes that the verb is chiefly used figuratively: ‘to insert (something) between two other things of a widely different character; to place (different elements) alternately’, with an 1862 cite with “a slice of good beef sandwiched between his free-trade bread”, which at least has a whiff of food about it. But the cites from 1864 on are foodless.

Again, I see no outrage at the innovation; the verb is just so damn useful.

Another digression, on the noun snack. An early English verb snack was nouned, and the noun was extended in several directions and in several steps over the centuries: ‘snap, bite, esp. that of a dog’ (now dialectal), from 1402; ‘sharp or snappish remark or jibe’, from 1555; ‘short time; a snatch’ (now obsolete); ‘share, portion, part’, from 1683; ‘mere taste, a small quantity, of liquor’, from 1685; and, finally, the only sense-family of any real currency and generality these days, ‘mere bite or morsel of food, as contrasted with a regular meal; a light or incidental repast’, from 1757, just in time for the word to be applied to sandwiches!

Of course, sandwiches long ago ceased to be only snacks, and now can serve as whole meals, even quite substantial ones. Their portability is a big plus. What did people do before the Earl (or whoever) had his inspiration?

A final digression, a little musing about the larger family of foodstuffs composed of a cooked starchy container (some wrapping may be required) for a vegetable, fruit, cheese, and/or meat filler: burritos, enchiladas, crêpes, Chinese dumplings, moo shu X in pancakes, blintzes, samosas, pakoras, schwarmas, gyros, and so on, endlessly. Many of these are, like sandwiches, finger foods, and some make good street foods because they are easily portable and can be eaten with one hand. (Omigod, this is making me hungry!) All of them have histories separate from the sandwich, and most of them are quite a lot older than the sandwich.

A split antecedent, wrapped around its anaphor

May 11, 2010

From Linda Greenhouse’s op-ed piece in today’s NYT, “Just Answer the Question”, about U.S. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan:

I thought it was preposterous, and so did the court [SCOTUS, in 2009], to claim that the man who had successfully brought the case had lost his right to dispute. [as did the court would be a possible alternative to and so did the court]

The anaphor is the so did in the inverted VP so did the court ‘the court did too’. Its antecedent is the VP thought it was preposterous to claim that …, half of which (thought it was preposterous) precedes so did the court, half of which (to claim that …) follows it, making the anaphor sort-of (strictly) anaphoric and sort-of cataphoric. The unsplit version would be

I thought it was preposterous to claim that …, and so did the court.

though reordering the court’s opinion and Greenhouse’s opinion would also be possible:

The court thought it was preposterous to claim that …, and I did too / and I thought so too / and so did I / as did I.

These last versions are truth-functionally equivalent to the first two, but because of the ordering differences they aren’t discourse-functionally equivalent. I’m not sure why Greenhouse chose the version she did, from among the choices starting with her opinion and then alluding to the court’s opinion. Maybe she wanted to bring her reference to the court’s opinion up as close as possible to her expression of her opinion. (Or, of course, maybe an editor re-framed what she originally wrote.)

In any case, I have no examples of this sort of split antedent in my files, though I didn’t object to the version as printed.

Short shot #46a: graduatize

May 11, 2010

More educational jargon, from Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words #689, 5/8/10:

LEARNING TERMS  An unfamiliar word, GRADUATISED (GRADUATIZED if you’re American or very formal) appeared in an British article. It refers to a profession or occupation, the entry to which has been restricted to university graduates. The article addressed the problems of school leavers, who are increasingly finding it hard to get jobs for this reason. Educationalists have used GRADUATISED, its verb GRADUATISE, and its linked noun GRADUATISATION, at least since the early 1970s, though it’s still a term of art in the profession and is rarely found outside specialist or scholarly publications. A rare sighting of the noun was a comment by the (then) British PM Gordon Brown in the Evening Standard of London on 30 April 2008: “This is one of the wider problems with today, the graduatisation of the political and media worlds. So many people are now excluded because they left school at 16 or 18.”

Educational jargon tends to get very bad press (though both educational rubric and graduatize can be defended on the grounds that they are not only compact but also useful in their context), and innovations in -ize (verbings by derivational suffix) have been reviled for a long time, so graduatize gets a double dose of scorn. And, in fact, if you’re not familiar with it (as I was not, until Michael put this entry in WWW), its meaning can be very hard to guess even in context. But you can see its utility.

Short shot #46: rubrics

May 11, 2010

From the April 10 issue of The Teaching Professor:

Two Reasons Why I Still Use Rubrics
By Kevin Brown, Lee University, TN

I began using grading rubrics for essays several years ago, and I was initially rather unhappy with how they worked. I found I was giving grades that I wouldn’t have given when I graded without the rubric. Often the grades were higher, but not always. I gave enough lower grades to cause me to notice those as well. (link)

The piece goes on to use just plain rubric — the short version of grading rubric — throughout (without explanation or examples; the readers are supposed to know the word already). I could work out roughly what rubric meant in this context, given OED2’s chain of senses for the word:the color red; a heading printed in red, or a passage so marked; a heading in general [note to etymological purists: no printing headings in black, or any color other than red!]; an injunction; a general rule. So a rubric in the teaching context is presumably some sort of rule for assigning grades. But it sounds like something more specific is intended. And so it is.

The word is teacher jargon (using jargon neutrally, for expressions used by a particular profession or group and not easily understood by others, usually serving to provide short reference to some concept important to the group). A rubric — the Teacher Planet site here has dozens of them, for history, math, social studies, and so on, even for the design of scavenger hunts! — provides a set of factors (each factor representing an expectation for specific knowledge, ability, or performance) and for each factor, descriptions for assigning a student to one of a certain number of levels. For the Scavenger Hunt Rubric:

Factors: Contribution to Group, Sites, Questions, Cooperation, Final Hunt Results

Grading for Sites: 5 Sites found are all relevant to project and good source for questions. 4 Sites found are mostly relevant to project and good source for questions. 3 A few of the sites found are relevant and provide a fair source for questions. 2 Few sites are relevant. Sites are not a good source for questions. 1 No relevant sites are included. Sites are not good sources for questions.

The descriptions require some judgment on the part of the teacher, of course.

So rubrics break down expressing expectations, setting goals, and assessing performance into a number of explicit factors for the purposes of grading. It would be interesting to see something about the history of the technique and its possible relationship to similar assessment tools in industrial, business, etc. settings.