Archive for May, 2010

More diets

May 11, 2010

My recent posting on diets started with a distinction (not original with me, but generally recognized in dictionaries) between two principal senses of the count noun diet in English. Restricting the definitions to people:

diet-1: the kinds of food that someone habitually eats [usually sg]

diet-2: a special course of food someone restricts themselves to, either to lose weight or for medical reasons [sg or pl]

Commenting on that posting, irrationalpoint noted a cultural specialization of diet-2, to

“a restricted set of foods, supposedly to lose weight, but with a dodgy scientific/medical basis, usually promoted by a celebrity or women’s magazine”. As in “I’m on a cheese diet” — which means “I’m eating only cheese”. This sense of “diet” got sufficiently popular when I was in my last two years of school that if anyone said they were “on a diet”, they would immediately [be] asked “what kind?” and if the answer was “generally healthy eating, you know, to lose weight. I’m not eating so much junk food”, then the reply was “oh, I though you meant a celebrity diet”.

There’s also a distinction that some people make between two subtypes of diets-1, between those, on the one hand,  that are imposed by cultural authorities (as in religious prescriptions of and proscriptions against certain foods, in general or on certain occasions), are otherwise culturally normative (“what we eat and don’t eat around here”), or are necessitated by some people’s physiology (as allergies in the technical sense, inabilities to digest certain foods, or other inabilities to tolerate certain foods); and those, on the other hand, that are avoided or sought out as a matter of individual taste (perhaps a taste shared with others, or one arrived at on a principled basis, or simply a personal food attraction or food aversion). Call the two subtypes O and I (suggesting “obligation” and “individual”, though those glosses are just hints, not definitions).

Four situations:

A: Someone avoids shellfish because shellfish are proscribed by Jewish law or by the (vegetarian) Hinduism they practice;

B: Someone avoids shellfish because of an allergy to shellfish;

C: Someone avoids shellfish because they are committed to vegetarianism (outside of a framework of religious practice)

D: Someone avoids shellfish because they find shellfish disgusting in taste or texture

In the first two situations, we have O-type dietary choices, in the other two, I-type dietary choices.

Note that all are choices; you could choose to do otherwise. And all are choices that go against majority cultural practices.

But for O-type choices, there are consequences, sometimes quite severe ones. You can choose to disregard these consequences (many American Jews will happily eat dishes with shellfish or pork in them — definitely treyf — but only when these dishes are Chinese, in a restaurant or as take-out), and even in the case of physically-based food intolerances, people sometimes indulge in the forbidden foods, because they get pleasure from them, and then live with the short-term consequences — not really an option for people with life-threatening allergies, of course (as here).

Why make a distinction between O-type and I-type dietary choices? Because the two kinds of choices tend to be treated quite differently in our culture: I-type choices are likely to be dismissed as eccentric or frivolous and only grudgingly tolerated, or even derided. If I inquire, at a meal with acquaintances, whether the broth in some soup is a meat broth (chicken or beef), I might well be asked why I want to know (soup is soup, after all), and if I say that I’m a vegetarian, I might be further asked if I’m a Hindu or something like that; individually-chosen vegetarianism is likely to be treated as picky and frivolous and, frankly, annoying, while religion-based or culture-based vegetarianism calls for tolerance (perhaps grudging tolerance), at least in some places in our culture.

The urge to enforce general cultural norms is strong.

I come back now to diets-2. Diet-2 is a specialized development from diet-1, and diets-2 seem to be fact I-type diets: going on a diet is an individual choice. However, the distinction irrationalpoint saw at the beginning of this posting mirrors the O-type vs. I-type split: some diets-2 are undertaken simply for good reasons of health, while other choices of diet-2 strike many people as frivolous, faddish, undertaken for reasons of fashion, etc., and therefore open to ridicule.

People are quick to assign motives to other people’s behavior, even in the absence of evidence for these motives.


May 9, 2010

This posting is mostly about my personal life, but there is a (small) linguistic point. If you don’t want to read about my personal life, bow out after the preliminaries are over.

It starts with a Zits cartoon from last month:

Jeremy’s parents are on diets — low-fat and high-fiber and probably more — and I sympathize. I’ll explain, but first a few comments on the word diet.

In modern English this has two principal meanings (there are others), an older one and a more recent one that’s a specialization of the older sense. NOAD2 glosses them:

[older] the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats

[specialized] a special course of food to which one restricts oneself, either to lose weight or for medical reasons

Compare “Kim’s diet is low in fat” [sense 1] with “Kim’s diet allows only a few grams of fat a day” [sense 2]. In sense 2, a diet serves a purpose other than providing simple nutrition or sensual pleasure; it’s treatment rather than just food — a fact that has led many critics (Michael Pollan, for instance) to criticize diets-2, sometimes passionately.

Here end the preliminaries.


Zippy noises

May 9, 2010

The Zippy series on “speechlessness” (in some very extended sense) — #4 in the series was here — continues with spoken or written representations of non-language events:

The first four panels all have pinheads (or Pinheads — I’ve never been sure whether the word should be treated as a common noun, naming a type of person, or as a proper noun, naming an ethnicity or other unique social identity) producing noises, which can be referred to by lexical items in English (there are conventional names, homophonous nouns and verbs in each case, available in both the spoken and written language).

The last panel is somewhat different: the speech balloon for the card-playing pinhead there has calculus formulas in it (the first defining the integral, the second with an equivalence relating the integral and the differential). Do these formulas actually represent what the pinhead is saying, or merely what he is thinking? If the former, just what is he uttering? If the latter, is he visualizing the formulas, or “reading them out” in his head, or thinking imagelessly and speechlessly about them?

Analogies I: Zippy and Lewis Carroll

May 9, 2010

It’s the weekend: cartoon time! Yesterday brought us Zippy and Zerbina, on a bicycle, on their marriage:

Six simple analogies, “X is like Y”, in a row, none of them making much sense in this context — or in any context you can easily imagine.

The prototype of the inscrutable analogy is the Mad Hatter’s celebrated riddle “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” in Alice in Wonderland. This is one step beyond simple analogies, in that it asks for an explanation, a reason (preferably, a clever one) for the analogy; it expects an answer of the form “X is like Y because R”.



May 8, 2010

Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album came by me as a random selection on iTunes Friday morning. It immediately launches into things with the perky little song “Sit On My Face”, which clearly describes a sexual act (reciprocal oral sex), throws in a couple double entendres on blow (in be blown away), and once uses sixty nine itself (in a verbed version: “Life can be fine if we both sixty nine”).

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission found the song “actionably indecent”, and in 1992 took legal action against KGB-FM in San Diego for playing it and eventually fined the station $9,200. Somewhere along the line it became an incredibly popular — often-requested but for legal reasons never played on the open air — song on the Dr. Demento radio show of novelty songs, comedy, and other oddities.

I’ll take a look at the notion of indecency at issue here (it seems not to be primarily about the use of specific words) and muse some about the status of the expression sixty-nine.


Short shots #45: maple-apple scrapple

May 8, 2010

Yesterday Ned Deily reported on his Facebook page on a visit to the Farmer’s Market in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he found

maple-apple scrapple

for sale. A wonderful rhyming and /p/-ful compound, suitable for chanting or cheering.

For those of you not in the Pennsylvania Dutch area or close by, scrapple is, according to NOAD2:

scraps of pork or other meat stewed with cornmeal and shaped into loaves for slicing and frying, esp. characteristic of eastern Pennsylvania

The Wikipedia entry goes into a lot more detail (specifying “hog offal, such as the head, heart, liver, and other scraps” and fleshing out, as it were, the cooking procedure), which might well put you off the dish (as many people are put off by the somewhat similar  Scottish dish haggis, also inspired by the thrifty instinct to use whatever you can of the edible materials available to you).

Fried scrapple, part of a complete breakfast in the part of the world I grew up in, though scarcely part of a heart-healthy diet.

Color coding

May 6, 2010

From Bizarro, a new color-coded threat level for U.S. Homeland Security:

The lavender-lilac, or pinky-purple, color mauve (named for the flowers of the mallows, of the genus Malva) — Whistler, contemptuously, “Mauve is just pink trying to be purple” — became culturally, socially, and economically significant following on William Henry Perkin’s 1856 discovery of the synthetic dye mauveine (the first of the many aniline dyes). (See Simon Garfield’s Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World.) It eventually became associated with femininity (due to its use in women’s clothing, most notably by Queen Victoria and Empress Eugénie), homosexuality (one gay man to another, contemplating a sunset, in Angels in America: “Purple? What kind of homosexual are you, anyway? That’s not purple, Mary, that color out there is mauve.”), and decadence (as in Thomas Beer’s book about the 1890s The Mauve Decade: American Life at the End of the Nineteenth Century — compare Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, and all that).

The feminine/gay associations continue to be strong, as in the stereotype that (only) women and gay men know and use color terms like mauve and taupe; see Mark Liberman’s discussion, here, of xkcd’s recent explorations into color vocabulary as used by women and men.

Short shots #44: Money talks

May 5, 2010

Two things from Patricia Marx’s “Shouts & Murmurs” column “The Money Whisperer” in the May 3 New Yorker, p. 33.

First, an idiom understood literally, followed by a slinging of phonetic terminology:

I’d heard rumors. They said that he could move decimal points telekinetically, that he owned the global rights to the number three quintillion seventeen, that he could make a penny feel like a million bucks. Everyone knows that money talks, but only he, it was said, knew how to talk back. It had to do with fricatives and glottal stops.

Then later, an ambiguity in how a sentence is used in context: request or offer?:

At my wit’s end, I suggested that we see a financial counsellor, but my money curtly told me that if I came near it Mrs. Sherbet would move it into escrow. I took to roaming the streets. “Spare change?” a man on the corner said. I was about to accept the offer when I spotted my money and Mrs. Sherbet, clinking champagne glasses at an outdoor hummus café.


May 4, 2010

Reported yesterday on ADS-L by Steve Kleinedler (of the American Heritage Dictionary), the portmanteau aquapocalypse, referring to the disastrous water main break in the Boston area (just repaired) that had millions of people boiling their drinking water. Steve remarks that it’s lots of fun to say.

Echoes of snowpocalypse (among the portmansnow words I reported on here and here; discussion by Jan Freeman here; and by many others).

I asked Steve if he had other -pocalypse words, but he had only these two in his files so far, though he suggested that Grant Barrett might have more. And indeed, Grant has so far picked up two for his Double-Tongued Dictionary site: carpocalypse (based on car, not carp), here; and shopocalypse, here.

And he notes that a Google search with word-initial wildcarding — here — pulls up a whole lot more playful -pocalypse words, among them: E-Pocalypse (EP by Welsh pop punk band Kids in Glass Houses), text-pocalypse (that awful txtng), yo-pocalypse (frozen yoghurt), Taco-pocalypse (from Taco Bell), O-pocalypse (reaction brought on by Obama’s policies), pork-pocalypse (swine flu), eco-pocalypse, e-pocalypse (environment). Some of these maintain some reference to, or at least connotation of, actual or predicted distaster, but in others, what’s conveyed by -pocalypse is some kind of extravangance.

These coinings are beginning to straddle the line between portmanteaus (playful, to be sure, but portmanteaus nevertheless) involving the second part of apocalypse and words with a suffix-like element (a libfix) –pocalypse, like the -gate of coinings for the names of scandals, which is no longer (necessarily) connected to the original Watergate.


May 4, 2010

As I said in this posting, on the headline “Mau Mauing the Flesh Eaters”, cultural references are the very devil. Even more so when the reference comes from some time ago.

So here’s Robert Hass, interviewed by Terry Gross on the NPR program Fresh Air, about the language of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself — on the occasion of the publication of

Song of Myself: And Other Poems by Walt Whitman. Selected and introduced by Robert Hass. With a lexicon of the poem by Robert Hass and Paul Ebencamp. Counterpoint, 2010.

From a transcript of the program (available here, with audio linked from this address):

Gross: … afflatus [or] flatus actually means the miraculous communication of super natural knowledge, which kind of changes the whole feel of what he’s saying …

Hass: Yeah, it’s a word from 19th century theology. It was fun to look and say, blab of the pave. Does anybody else use the word pave as a noun? No, is the answer. We looked in every possible source. Another place he says, the kelson of creation is love. I looked up kelson. Whitman grew up on Long Island and then in Brooklyn, where there’s a shipyard, so he loved watching guys build boats. And the kelson is the piece of wood that connects the rudder to the frame of the boat.

So it was enormous fun doing the lexicon because it got us a chance to look at exactly the way he used these words. And over and over again, they turned out to be terrifically precise. When the young Henry James reviewed the first – an early version of Song of Myself, Whitman would throw in foreign words and James, with a little bit of fastidious snobbery said, one must regret Mr. Whitman too extensive acquaintance with the foreign languages.

Hass: … [Whitman] talks about the rushing by in the street the flaps of the ambulanza. But when we looked it up it turned out that the first army to develop a service to get wounded soldiers very quickly from the battle to hospital tents was the Italian army or the Piedmontese Army during the Crimean War. And the term for these very fast moving wagons taking people to the hospital was ambulanza and it was the newest, most cool word.

It’s time has, however, passed.

I was hoping that Hass would report on a clipped version lanza (as in Mario Lanza), but he and Ebencamp seem not to have found that one.