Annals of lexical confusions and innovations. Two word problems from Ruthie in the cartoon One Big Happy (two recent strips), a word confusion and two innovations from the tv show Psych.
Archive for the ‘Innovations’ Category
From the tv series Psych (S1 E11), psychic investigator Shawn Spencer (played by James Roday) to Head Det. Carlton Lassiter of the Santa Barbara Police Dept. (played by Timothy Osmundson), on attracting women:
Chicks dig the sternum bush.
Translation from the very playful ShawnSpeak: ‘Women like chest hair’. That is, unbutton your shirt and show some chest hair. Standard sternum ‘chest, breastbone’ plus bush ‘luxuriant growth of hair’, especially in vulgar slang bush ‘a woman’s public hair’.
(The character Shawn is a high-energy, high-id showoff, but engaging: a big goofy kid.)
A comment from Victor Steinbok on my “Flagging Marcomentum” posting of yesterday, in which I noted a recent use of Marcomentum by Republican primary candidate Marco Rubio:
It’s a bit late to the party. X-mentum has been floating around for at least 6 years, much of it sarcastic (mitt-mentum four years ago).
To which I replied:
Well, I never said it was new; I said it was new to me. But then I’m very much not a fan of inside discussions of political campaigns.
That is, the -mentum libfix (which has not been reported in this blog) comes from a world I don’t know a lot about, but it turned up in more general reporting, so it was notable to me.
I was ignorant of the libfix. The question is whether I should have known about it; if so, then I should at least have apologized for my ignorance, and possibly I should now go back and delete the posting as of no significance to anyone but me.
Back on December 27th, Doug Harris sent me this example (crucial bit boldfaced), from that day’s Daily Beast, in the article “U.S. Health Care Is Failing My Patients: From chronic conditions to mental health, our system is failing patients and doctors alike” by Farah Khan:
(1) Substance abuse, easily one of the most widespread mental health problems in this country, has yet to be adequately addressed by the current health care system. Rehab services are far and few between for patients who are addicted to drugs and alcohol.
Formally, this looks like what’s known in the speech errors business as a word reversal (Vicky Fromkin’s preferred term), word exchange (my preferred term), word metathesis, or (more colorfully) word-level spoonerism: the conventional form of the boldfaced expression is few and far between. There’s no question that such reversals or exchanges do occur as inadvertent speech errors, but there are reasons for thinking that (1) is not in fact an inadvertent error, but is more like a classical malapropism, in which the speaker or hearer produces exactly what they intended, but their production doesn’t accord with the practices of the larger community. And there’s a third possibility: that the practices of the larger community have changed to such an extent that it can no longer be claimed that (1) is clearly not in accord with them.
From Facebook friends, this cute cartoon by Wayno:
The composites electric eel and electric guitar, both with the pseudo-adjective electric, but in two different senses. Then there’s electric guitar vs. the retronym acoustic guitar (for what, until the introduction of electric guitars, was known simply as a guitar). Then
electric guitar : acoustic guitar :: electric eel : X
and X is acoustic eel.
From July 18th, Jon Lighter in ADS-L:
 A television journalist with an English accent reports from Jordan that after the Tennessee gunman “came back [to the U.S.], he drunk drove.” This reveals the deadly seductiveness of the New Syntax: “drive drunk” takes no longer to say and is arguably more euphonious.
Lighter has a long history of scornfully criticizing innovative back-formed verbs like this one (to drunk drive / drunk-drive). His plaint is that in general there’s no justification for innovating new verbs when we already have a way to express the meaning, though the innovation might be defended if it provided a briefer alternative to the existing expression, which is not the case here; moreover, he assumes that the reason people innovate such verbs is merely to sound fashionable, a motive he deprecates.
There’s a lot to be said in response. I’ll start with some background about syntax and morphology and then move to the functions of innovative morphology and some sage observations by Larry Horn.
Two things came together. One, in response to a query from a reader, I’ve been struggling to compile some sort of list of my terminological innovations, only to discover that a fair number of these seem to have been invented independently by others. Two, a friend wrote (to me, as a card-carrying linguist) to ask for credit for her invention of thirstrated, a portmanteau of thirsty and frustrated (parallel to hangry, a portmanteau of hungry and angry) — only to be disappointed when I told her that Urban Dictionary already had an entry for thirstrated in this sense, though I reassured her that independent innovations happen all the time.
Briefly noted. On the NYT op-ed page today, Daniel Engber counseling “Quit Whining About Your Sick Colleague”, with this along the way:
Those who whine about their ailing colleagues sometimes cite another field of research, that of business economics. It’s said that sick people in the workplace — so-called presentees, not to be confused with sick absentees, who don’t come in to the office — cost the economy at least $60 billion every year.
Presentee in this sense (‘(sick) people who come to work’) was (I think) new to me. But in discussions of staffing it’s obviously useful.
In the NYT on 9/11, an editorial “An Amendment to Cut Political Cash”, with the now-familiar retronym natural person:
There are 48 Democratic senators sponsoring a constitutional amendment to restore congressional control to campaign spending that is expected to come up for a vote later this week. They are not under the illusion that it will become the 28th Amendment soon, if ever. But their willingness to undertake a long and difficult effort shows the importance they attach to restoring fairness to American politics by reducing the influence of big money.
… Addressing the Citizens United decision, [the amendment] says that governments can “distinguish between natural persons and corporations” in setting those regulations, thus allowing restrictions on corporate or union spending that would not necessarily apply to individuals.
Ordinary people would simply make a distinction between persons and corporations, but once corporations are treated as persons for certain legal purposes, the ‘human being’ sense of person needs to be distinguished from these legal entities — and so we get the retronym natural person ‘human being’.
From the 8/30/14 New Scientist, three stories: one with a piece of technical terminology I hadn’t heard before, and two perfectly straightforward stories (on the mapping of Antarctic Ocean life and on the mating customs of the giraffe weevil) with some language play that’s characteristic of much science writing.