What have you done with your life?

An innocent-sounding request a few days back, from a Daily Beast reporter on its lgbt beat: [I’m] “working on a series of interviews with unsung (or, at least undersung) LGBT heroes. … I’m wondering if you’d be interested in being interviewed about your contributions to linguistics?”

Two claims here: I’m a person of significance in a professional field, linguistics; I’m a person of significance in the lgbt world. I am now asked to defend these claims, to demonstrate that I have done important things in both these areas of my life.

Difficult fieldwork moments in the linguistics-lgbt interface

This is where I curl into a ball of misery, in two ways at once. What have I done with my life, that people should read about me? I’m very proud of what I’ve done, in the academic world and the lgbt world, but I’m not even remotely a magisterial figure, a Great Person, in either. Sigh.

Reflections on my academic work to come. There will be lists. Long lists. I can’t promise quality, but quantity I can deliver.

From the Daily Beast series:

Mary Ann Horton, Usenet pioneer and creator of the email attachment (link)

Brian Dodge, Indiana University professor and bisexuality researcher (link)

Abigail Brady, who helped develop the Nuke Compositing system (link)


On the site, from Wikipedia:

The Daily Beast is an American news and opinion website focused on politics and pop culture. In a 2015 interview, editor-in-chief John Avlon described The Beast’s editorial approach: “We seek out scoops, scandals, and stories about secret worlds; we love confronting bullies, bigots, and hypocrites”.

The Daily Beast began publishing on October 6, 2008. The Beast‘s founding editor was Tina Brown, a former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker as well as the short-lived Talk magazine. Brown stepped down as editor in September 2013. John Avlon, an American journalist and political commentator as well as a CNN contributor, is the site’s editor-in-chief and managing director.

…The name of the site was taken from a fictional newspaper in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop.

Themes in my academic work. At least four.

First, conceptual analysis, trying to bring clarity to the foundations of theoretical linguistics, and also to gender and sexuality studies; in linguistics, this means being wary of  formalisms as an end in themselves

Second, coverage and detail in descriptive work, trying to cover the full range of relevant facts and, within that range, to get the details right; in linguistics, this means not privileging certain striking data over others, discounting the others as “peripheral”

Third, in line with this, accepting variation / variability as a central fact about human behavior (speech included)

Fourth, an attitude shared with most descriptive linguists (and anthropologists and sociologists): paying close attention to the everyday behavior (including casual speech) of ordinary people, especially of the working class — this is personally important to me, since I’m only two generations away from the farm and the factory floor — and of marginalized groups (especially lgbts; this is also personally important to me)

The first two of these stances are sometimes derided: conceptual analysis on the grounds that that’s philosophy, not linguistics; coverage and detail on the grounds that that’s mere description, not theoretical linguistics.

(Anecdotes. Some years ago I showed a draft of one of my conceptual-analysis papers to a colleague for comments. He read it and liked it, but added “This is a paper that could only have been written by Arnold Zwicky; God knows where you could get it published.” Not to worry: the computer file evaporated in a crash, and I didn’t have the heart to try to reconstruct it.

Then, there were detailed-coverage papers on English and French syntax (by me in conjunction with co-authors), addressing theoretical proposals in the literature, that were rejected by reviewers for prominent journals in theoretical linguistics on the grounds that they were mere descriptions and belonged in an applied linguistics journal, if anywhere.

It is true that I’ve sweated a lot of hours trying to get things both appropriately complete and right, not always to my satisfaction. So, when asked (as I have been now, several times), “How have you affected the course of the field?”, my first reaction is to say: well, not much really, I’m a person of little consequence (though I’m amiable, committed, and hard-working).

There are others who feel like me. From conversations with Eric and Margo Hamp, when Eric (an Indo-Europeanist specializing in Celtic and Albanian) was president of the Linguistic Society of America years ago: good words from me about Eric’s work, and his saying, somewhat ruefully (I paraphrase), “Well, really, it’s all knitting, getting details right.”

I’ve done a lot of knitting, over about 60 years.)

Not just a lot of knitting, but knitting on a whole lot of different stuff. You could view this as a sign of wide-ranging intelligence, of intellectual versatility (such as the late Jim [James D.] McCawley demonstrated so amply throughout his life), or just a very short attention span, an irresistible attraction to shiny ideas. In any case, I’m wildly more vulpine than erinacine (Latin vulpes ‘fox’, erineus ‘European hedgehog’):

(#3) Multicognitive fox vs. unicognitive hedgehog

The allusion:

The Hedgehog and the Fox is an essay by philosopher Isaiah Berlin — one of his most popular essays with the general public — which was published as a book in 1953. However, Berlin said, “I never meant it very seriously. I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously. Every classification throws light on something”.

The title is a reference to a fragment attributed to the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus: πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα (“a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog [knows] one important [often quoted as “one big”] thing”).

The big topic list. A huge pouring out of things I’ve worked on in my academic career — all over the map from broad and abstract topics to very specific ones, in no order at all (and it’s probably incomplete):

interfaces between components of a grammar, phonology-syntax relationships in particular

mathematical linguistics

usage and prescriptivism

grammar vs. the user’s manual

constructional syntax

realizational morphology

Auxiliary Reduction in English

slips of the tongue: advertent vs. inadvertent; classical malapropisms, eggcorns

shapes (vs. inflectional forms) in morphology

ambiguity / polysemy vs. vagueness

low vs. high attachment of modifiers

default/override vs. basic/derived analyses

metatheory, argumentation, and evidence in generative grammar

resolution of conflicts between conditions in grammar

agreement phenomena

parataxis and hypotaxis

cartoons and comics

collage making and captioning

phonological relationships in language use: half-rhymes, imperfect puns, relationships in errors of various kinds

analyses of poetic form (specific forms; rhyming schemes in folk and popular music)

profane-domain linguistics


(more generally) analysis of (mostly gay) pornography


argument structures in syntax

social and discourse-structural concomitants of variation in lexicon and grammar

the social organization of sexual life, esp. for gay men (including by participant-observation)

(more generally) the social world of gay men

gender and sexuality (esp. masculinity and homosexuality)

general principles of rule interaction in generative grammar

language play



teaching important concepts in linguistics

parody and burlesque

faithfulness vs. well-formedness

periphrasis vs. inflection

syntactic categories

grammatical categories

language, poetry, and music

truncation, abbreviation, clipping

surrealism, Dadaism, magic realism

categorization and labeling

language in advertising



formulaic language (including snowclones)

figurative language, esp. metaphor vs. metonymy

alphabetic abbreviations: initialisms vs. acronyms

language and food


race and ethnicity

conversion in morphology (nouning, verbing)

speech acts

styles and registers

So much for topics. Then there’s the characteristic terminology I’ve used in talking about these topics. First the names on the AZ terminology Page on this blog, then a further list of terms not yet linked to there.

(Note. I probably can’t take credit for any of the ideas referred to in these lists: they were already in the wind, sometimes even under the labels I used. The most I can say is that in some cases I crystallized ideas by giving them labels, and that in many cases I publicized the ideas under those labels. Those are teacherly activities, and I’m proud of what I’ve done there, especially when I’ve been able to reach audiences outside of linguistics classes (or other social science classes).

Over the years I’ve done a lot of informal teaching — about language, about gender and sexuality, even about music, poetry, food, plants, and animals — on the net, through the lgbt Usenet group soc.motss, the linguistics Usenet group sci.lang, the American Dialect Society mailing list, Language Log, and now this blog, where I have polished an eccentric genre of flânerie (see yesterday’s posting “The way I write now”). I get a lot of satisfaction from my occupation as analyst, teacher, and entertainer; I’m far short of being a public intellectual, but still I do worthwhile niche work.

Names on the AZ terminology Page. Another list, but shorter:


2pbfV (and synthetic compound)

SPARs (and dangling modifiers)

EDM (Exceptional / Extraordinary Degree Marking)

(Zwickian) illusions, esp. Recency and Frequency

Isis (“is is”, “double be”)


POP (phrasal overlap portmanteau)



zombie rule

scanting out

ISOC, ESOC in pronoun case selection

Zwicky’s Generalization in pronoun case selection

peniphilia ‘love of penises’ (and lucanicophilia ‘love of sausages’)

Still more names.

PPFS (Principle of Phonology-Free Syntax), PMFS (Principle of Morphology-Free Syntax)

QSV (quasi-serial verb) in English (run come see Jerusalem)

(in methodology, argumentation, and evidence in generative grammar) taking a false step, naturalness arguments, the free-ride principle, homing in, the analytic leap, plain vanilla syntax – summary here

Patterns First, Exceptions Later (in poetry)

beheading (in deriving lexical items from composites)

olfesc ‘ordinary-language fixed expression of some currency’

Labels Are Not Definitions

It’s Just Stuff



pitsntits (display of the body)

morning name

To the Max (in pornography)

the Hallean syllogism (in phonology)

the Magrittean disavowal (in art)



profane-domain linguistics; pornlinguistics – summary here

Maybe the Daily Beast could award me their Golden Fox for Indiscriminate Scholarship and Terminological Exuberance.

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