Archive for February, 2011


February 25, 2011

From two weeks ago, this report from Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky on an exchange between her and her daughter, Opal:

Me: Now you can just scoot down the block!

Opal: Mom! You said ‘scoot’!

Me: Yes?

Opal: You didn’t say ‘scooter down the block’, you said ‘scoot down the block’!

Me: Isn’t that what you do on a scooter? Scoot?

Opal: No! You scooter on a scooter! You scoot on a scoot. (rides off, singing ‘Scooter on a scooter! Scoot on a scoo-ooot!”)

Elizabeth was treating the noun scooter as a derivative in –er from the verb scoot ‘move swiftly’, while Opal (not seeing the verb as connected to scooter — in the way she fails, not unreasonably, to connect sweat and sweater) creates a verb scooter ‘use a scooter’ by verbing the noun directly.

“You scoot on a scoot” looks like it has a nouning of the verb scoot, though I’m not sure what sort of object Opal thinks a scoot is; maybe it’s just the result of morphological reasoning-by-analogy.



February 25, 2011

Jeremy in Zits is literally surrounded by intensives:

Intensive literally is high on the list of language peeves, eliciting venom from all sides, on the grounds that it makes literally ambiguous — ambiguous in a way that results in confusion. Not that Jeremy was actually confused about what his friends were saying; he was just, in the manner of word ragers, pig-headedly refusing to accept the evidence (all around him) of how people are using the word (and flagrantly indulging in the Etymological Fallacy).


Origin myths

February 24, 2011

From my back files, in a story in the April 19, 2010 New Yorker (“The Memory Kitchen: A chef recovers the foods that Turkey forgot” by Elif Batuman, about Istanbul chef Musa Dağdevireyn):

“Our people are ashamed of themselves,” he remarks, alluding to Turkish chefs’ penchant for Western cuisine. “They have a complex. Go to Iran — you’ll find characteristic Iranian regional cooking. Here you open a book called ‘Modern Turkish Cooking,’ and the first recipe is for risotto.”

The other side of this shame, he continues, is false pride, which recently gave rise to an “Ottomania” fad, with restaurants claiming to serve the dishes of Sultan Suleyman’s court. There are, he says, no surviving recipes from Suleyman’s court: “People just want to think that they’re the descendants of kings.” Musa is particularly outraged by people who claim that their ancestors invented various foods. His latest historical work debunks the origin myth of döner kebab, the rotating roasted meat that forms the cornerstone of Turkish street food: a chef called Iskender is supposed to have invented it in Bursa, in the eighteen-sixties. Once, at a symbosium, Musa met a descendant of Iskender. “He was talking about how his ancestor, who was born in 1948, invented döner kebab,” Musa told me. “He had no sources. He was just going around saying this.” Combing libraries, used bookstores, and flea markets, Musa found döner represented in an 1850 engraving and an 1855 photograph. “I wanted to ask that guy, ‘So your grandpa invented döner when he was two years old?’ “

(The article is pretty much guaranteed to make you feel hungry.) Origin myths abound in the world of food, as they do in the world of word and phrase origins, and in fact amateur scholar Barry Popik has managed to do serious research in the intersection of these two worlds, for instance on the origin of the name hot dog.

It’s easy to tell (and pass on) plausible stories about origins, especially stories that are colorful, full of specific details, and favor people you admire or revere. [Note multiple-level coordination, which I didn’t notice until I was proofreading.] But it can take grinding work to check out these stories, and then many of them, especially the best ones, turn out to be false, as Musa discovered when he investigated the döner story.


February 24, 2011

David Pogue’s TechnoFiles column in the March 2011 Scientific American (“Gadget Politics: The truth behind what makes technology’s true believers tick”) notes the passionate partisanship shown by users of particular bits of technology:

We’re not talking about civil disagreements, either. We’re talking about name-calling, hair-pulling, toxic tantrums, featuring a whole new arsenal of modern-age putdowns (the suffix “-tard” is always popular). It’s gadget hate speech.

not to mention the tons of hate mail he gets along these lines. My main interest here is in the suffix — I’d say libfix-tard, but first a few words about gadget hate speech.


I was doored

February 23, 2011

The wonders of verbing: the very useful, but extremely context-specific, verb door, usually seen in the passive, as in this account from a serious bicyclist:

I was doored on April Fools Day

… I left the house around 10:30 in the morning with the plan to ride the loop and then out and back Canada.

As I manuvered through the neighborhoods to get to my route the next thing I knew I hit a car door and was flat on the ground. HOLY MOLY, is this a joke? I got up and yelled “UNBELIEVABLE, this is my first ride in 8 months!” The woman was shaken up and was very nice, but it still totally sucked.

Many, many examples. And some in the active. Here’s one with both:

I got doored last week on Lexington in Midtown. I wasn’t hurt badly, but I was really pissed, so I called the cops. They were there in less than 5 minutes. They issued 2 tickets to the driver of the limo that doored me.

The verb door packages a description of a whole complex event: someone opens a vehicle door right in the path of a bicyclist, who then runs unavoidably into the door, often to considerable damage to the rider and the bike; or the door hits a passing bicycle as it opens. Unfortunately common events on city streets. (Apparently, some people can also use the verb to describe opening a car door in front of another car.)

Door is a transitive verb, with its subject denoting the person who opens the door or the vehicle whose door is opened and with its direct object denoting the unfortunate cyclist or their bicycle. (And some people can use the verb with the opposite assignment of participant roles to syntactic relations: for them, cyclists can door cars.)

That’s a lot to pack into a one-syllable verb, but if the event is common enough, and significant enough to the people involved, it’s good to have a compact expression for it.


Eclect(r)ic Oil

February 23, 2011

A 19th-century trade card that came by me today:

Yes, Eclectric Oil, apparently with a portmanteau of eclectic and electric, both fashionable terms in the 19th century.


misnomer ‘misconception’

February 23, 2011

Back in 2004, George Thompson reported on ADS-L that he’d heard misnomer ‘misconception’ about ten years earlier from a former colleague, and Jon Lighter replied that he heard it “constantly” on news and talk shows, claiming that misconception seemed “no longer to be used on these programs” and that misnomer had come to be the norm rather than the exception. That’s almost surely an exaggeration, but this use of misnomer is widespread. This morning Lighter reported another sighting:

Yesterday an Ohio State Senator said emphatically that “any connection” between collective bargaining and the state’s budget shortfall is “a complete misnomer.”  She used “misnomer” in this way at least twice.



February 23, 2011

From Facebook friends Dennis Lewis and Jess Anderson, this poignant editorial cartoon by Mike Luckovich:

This not long after Jeff Shaumeyer provided a link to an appalling scapegoat story in the Central Telegraph (of Australia):


Multiple-level coordination

February 22, 2011

A few days ago I started writing up a note about Chinese stereotypes of Westerners, especially Western men, from my experiences teaching at Beijing Language Institute (as it was then) in 1985. The story I told began with this Chinese characterization of Western men:

(1) They are hairy, smelly, and have big noses.

(I once had a wonderful cartoon illustrating the stereotype, but I can’t at the moment locate it) — at which point I realized that (1), which was entirely natural for me, exhibited what many people take to be a failure of parallelism that results in ungrammaticality: the three apparent conjuncts (hairy, smelly, and have big noses) are flagrantly not of the same category. (Not that this is always a disastrous thing; see my posting here.)

Neal Whitman is the great student of this type of coordination, which he calls multiple-level coordination (MLC), because the conjuncts are structurally at different levels: in (1) the first two conjuncts, hairy and smelly, are structurally lower (they are complements of are) than the third conjunct, have big noses, which is structurally at the same level as are.


Marginalia and scholarly libraries

February 21, 2011

In the National section of today’s NYT, a piece by Dirk Johnson on marginalia (“Bibliophiles Fear a Dim Future For Scribbling in the Margins” in my print edition, “Book Lovers Fear Dim Future for Notes in the Margins” on line), the hook being that the shift to digital reading makes it harder for valuable marginalia to be preserved.

As a life-long marginalist, I’m concerned myself. And I wonder what will happen to my scribbled-on library.