Archive for October, 2011

Word surprise

October 27, 2011

Every so often, I come across someone reacting with surprise and puzzlement at some word or idiom — because it’s unfamiliar to them (they don’t recall having heard it before), because it strikes them as rare, because they find it opaque, because it sounds peculiar, whatever. Often the object of surprise is a reasonably common and long-standing usage, so that the complaint is itself puzzling.

In this vein, Michael Thomas cried out on Facebook on Sunday:

what the hell kind of word is “RECENCY”?

Melinda Shore weighed in with the first response (“It’s an excellent word!”); Ken Callicott playfully ventured the answer “A noun?”; and Garabato Abrelatas  Inalámbrico Arvejas thought to check a good dictionary:

Huh. OED dates it to 1620. I guess it’s pretty cromulent.

The other responses were all over the map. I’ll get to them eventually, but first a straightforward answer to Mike Thomas’s question.


John McCarthy

October 26, 2011

In local papers yesterday, now in the NYT, an obit by John Markoff, which begins:

John McCarthy, 84, Dies; Computer Design Pioneer

John McCarthy, a computer scientist who helped design the foundation of today’s Internet-based computing and who is widely credited with coining the term for a frontier of research he helped pioneer, Artificial Intelligence, or A.I., died on Monday at his home in Stanford, Calif.


one-syllabus answers

October 25, 2011

On ADS-L on the 23rd, Victor Steinbok reported this find, in a comment on a TPM posting of an interview with Rick Perry about birtherism:

Was that a verbatim transcript? What’s up with his one syllabus (or close) answers? Is that how he interviews — like pulling teeth?

At first this looks like some kind of malapropism — presumably a Fay/Cutler malapropism (an inadvertent phonologically based error in word retrieval). But something more interesting might be going on.


sg or sg = pl

October 24, 2011

From “Beating a retreat” in The Economist, 9/24/11, p. 99 (on-line here):

… soot particles absorb sunlight, and so warm up the atmosphere. Then, when snow or rain wash them onto an ice floe, they darken its surface and thus cause it to melt faster.

This is 3sg or 3sg (snow or rain) functioning as 3pl for the purposes of subject-verb agreement (wash rather than washes), though a general principle —

(1) When all parts of a subject joined by or or nor are singular, the verb is singular; when all parts are plural, the verb is plural (Little, Brown Handbook, quoted in “Agreement with disjunctive subjects”, here)

would predict 3sg agreement (and I would have used 3sg in this case).

Intuitively, this is a kind of “notional agreement”, snow or rain being understood as ‘snow and rain, whichever happen(s) to occur’. This is an unusually simple example; in the other sg or sg = pl cases I’ve collected, other things are going on.


Found poetry

October 23, 2011

From Wayne Curtis, “From Tiki to Tacky – and Back”, Atlantic of Nov. 2011, p. 28, about tiki drinks:

[about the Hukilau, an annual tiki gathering in Fort Lauderdale FL:] This year, the event attracted some 600 people who donned muumuus, fezzes, and Hawaiian shirts to listen to music from the Tikiyaki Orchestra and enjoy an aquatic performance by Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid.


Adverb play

October 23, 2011

Another Bizarro, this time punning on the adverb religiously:

Both senses are variants of ‘in a religious manner’. Without the context supplied by the cartoon, religiously would be taken in the subsense ‘faithfully, conscientiously; strictly, scrupulously; fervently’ (from OED3, December 2009, which has citations from 1534 on). But the cartoon conveys a variant of the subsense ‘with religious feeling or conduct; in accordance with the principles of religion; piously, reverently, devoutly’ (the earliest subsense, with cites from c1384 on) — in particular, ‘in religious dress’, complete with mitre.

I x NY

October 23, 2011

Today’s Bizarro, another cartoon idea from Cliff Harris:

All variants on

I ♥ NY

(for this New York logo and others, see here).


The Twelve Terrors of Christmas

October 23, 2011

That Holiday approaches, with only Halloween and (U.S.) Thanksgiving standing in its way, and I’m already getting Christmas cards. Well, not serious Christmas cards, but antique cards from one correspondent and super-cutesy cards from another. And then I came across John Updike’s playful The Twelve Terrors of Christmas, with drawings by Edward Gorey (most recent posting on Updike on this blog here; on Gorey, here).

Updike’s text was first published as a “Shouts and Murmurs” column in the New Yorker of December 21st, 1992. Paired with the Gorey drawings, it was published as a book in December 1993, in its first trade edition in December 1994 — both editions from Gotham Book Mart in New York (now, alas, defunct). A revised edition appeared in 2006 from Pomegranate Books in San Francisco, and that’s the one I’m reproducing here.

(There’s also a German translation, Die Zwölf Schrecken der Weihnacht.)



October 23, 2011

There’s been a small burst of recent postings on which vs. that as relativizers — a topic that seems to never die. Here’s an inventory of postings on the topic and on the distinction between restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses, on Language Log and this blog, plus a small selection of other postings.


Annals of taboo avoidance

October 22, 2011

From the Riff column in the NYT Magazine of October 16th, “‘Golden Boys With the Potential To Burn the World Down'” by Alex Pappademas:

There’s a popular Tumblr blog — I can’t say the name here, but it’s something like Heck Yeah! Ryan Gosling, only more emphatic — that features nothing but pictures of Ryan Gosling being good-looking, with goofy Gosling-voice captions. (“Hey, girl, I can’t wait to get home and give you a foot massage.”)

Googling on {“Ryan Gosling” Tumblr} will get you not only to Fuck Yeah! Ryan Gosling (with its invented “Hey, girl” quotes) but also to Ryan Fucking Gosling, Eff Yeah Ryan Gosling, Feminist Ryan Gosling (with feminist “Hey, girl” quotes: “Hey girl. We *could* keep talking about Spivak’s views of post-structuralism and their engagement with the narrative, but I thought it would be fun to go home, get in bed and watch some Buffy”), sites with video of Gosling self-mockingly reading “Hey, girl” quotes from Fuck Yeah! Ryan Gosling on MTV (here, for instance), and more.

It’s ridiculously easy to find the FYRG site from the other information given in the Pappademas column; the ostentatious taboo avoidance in it (with its euphemistic replacement of fuck by heck) is entirely unnecessary. But, as on other occasions, the Times has opted for conveying taboo language clearly while refusing to dirty its pages with the original.