Archive for the ‘Language change’ Category

From the genital junkyard

September 4, 2023

Yesterday in my posting “Manscaping your junk”:

A tv spot ad (only 15 seconds long) for the Gillette Intimate Manscape Kit (Gillette Intimate Pubic Hair Trimmer, Gillette Intimate Pubic Hair Razor, Gillette Intimate Pubic Shave Cream + Cleanser), released at least twice, under different titles:

— ‘It’s Not Junk, so Treat It Right’  [apparently it’s your “pubic region” instead], published 10/31/22

— “Respect Your Junk!”, published 3/11/23

Two matters of linguistic interest here: the noun manscaping and verb manscape; and the noun junk ‘male genitals’. The material I’ve collected on these is extensive enough that I’m not going to try to cram it all into one posting, but will split things in two, in follow-up postings on the noun junk and on the noun manscaping / the verb manscape.

The spot ads play with the claim that referring to your genitals as junk is an insult to them, as if the (mildly) negative content of disposable junk unavoidably carries over to genital junk, contaminating it — an idea I disputed in yesterday’s posting. Beyond that, calling genital junk an insult seriously overestimates the power of its negative affect: far from being an insult, like, say, garbage and shit, it’s just a minimizer, treating the genitals as of little worth, what I referred to as a devaluation in my 9/1 posting “A bulletin from Pejora, the land of derogation and insult”:

The [insulting] slur jerk  [what we might call “assholish jerk“] developed from jerk referring to a fool or incompetent [“foolish jerk“] — what I’ll call a (mere) devaluation, meaning a term that refers to [someone or something] regarded as of little worth.

Now on the lexicography of the noun(s) junk.


A bulletin from Pejora, the land of derogation and insult

September 1, 2023

🐇 🐇 🐇 rabbit rabbit rabbit to inaugurate September, Labor Day weekend in my country, autumn in my hemisphere, and the 84th year of my life (I’m about to be — this coming Wednesday — 83, a nice prime number)

Meanwhile, a comment by Stewart Kramer on my 8/22 posting “The Jerk Fest” leads me to some reflections on where slurs — like jerk approximating asshole — come from. A slur like this use of jerk, or asshole itself,

— levels a culturally serious charge against its target (in the case of asshole, involving, among other things, arrogance, pretension, and rudeness)

— attributes this offense to a character flaw in the target (in Geoffrey Nunberg’s analysis of asshole, the flaw of culpable obtuseness — about their own importance, about the needs of others and the way they’re perceived by them)

— and insults the target.

The slur jerk developed from jerk referring to a fool or incompetent — what I’ll call a (mere) devaluation, meaning a term that refers to an identity regarded as of little worth. The examples that turn up in discussions of pejoration that I’ll cite involve terms referring to the devalued identities of fools and the inept (old-style jerk, dope, dummy); rustics and farm folk (hick, hillbilly, hayseed); and women (chick, dame, girl), but an extended discussion would take in (at least) terms referring to oddballs and nonconformists; foreigners; members of certain racioethnic groups; the aged; the disabled; and members of sexual minorities. (Bear in mind how astoundingly culture-specific all this material is.)

The route from devaluation to slur involves elevating cultural associations with the devalued identities to connotations of the devaluation and then to its semantic content: nasty metonymy, if you will. Fools and incompetents are seen as prone to egotistical interactions with others, so that foolish jerk begins to pick up the connotations of arrogance and rudeness, which can then become conventional aspects of meaning, leading to assholish jerk. The various stages in this progression can co-occur with one another for some time, as is certainly the case with jerk as described in the pieces quoted in my “Jerk Fest” posting.


The Jerk Fest

August 22, 2023

On jerk, jerky, and jerking (off), quoting (in full) two excellent surveys of this domain: from the Grammarphobia site in 2016; from The Ringer site last month — the second of these using research by lexicographer Ben Zimmer reported on his Wall Street Journal column (which is behind a paywall).


An American ship reaches port

June 30, 2023

(Rather than posting about my medical woes, which are considerable and interacting, but nevertheless allow me to continue recovering at home, I’ll continue to work through postings in preparation on June 16th, when the first cascade of crises put me in SUMC.)

From Joe Scarborough on authoritarian rulers (on MSNBC’s Morning Joe show on 6/16):

They substitute competence for blind loyalty

This is “reversed SUBSTITUTE”, conveying what would be traditionally expressed by

They substitute blind loyalty for competence (OR They replace competence with / by blind loyalty)

What’s notable about the example is that JS is American and 60 years old and that the topic is neither sporting events nor food preparation, but much more abstract in nature.

Hang on. I will explain why all of this is notable.


CalWord: the Calvin Theory of Word Use

September 1, 2022

🐇 🐇 🐇 (the commencement of September) The Calvin and Hobbes comic strip from 9/1/92, reprised in my comics feed on 8/30:

(#1) We can achieve intergenerational incommunicability! Yes we can!

Calvin articulates a view of word use, call it CalWord, which comes in two parts:

Endless lability. Any word can be used to convey any meaning. In the CalWord view, a word is merely substance — pronunciation or spelling — that can be put to any use.  So words are the stem cells of the linguistic world. From NOAD:

compound noun stem cellBiology an undifferentiated cell of a multicellular organism which is capable of giving rise to indefinitely more cells of the same type, and from which certain other kinds of cell arise by differentiation.

Social fencing. Socially distributed variants can serve as social fences, separating the Ins from the Outs and impeding the Outs’ ability to comprehend and communicate with the Ins — impeding, for example, one generation’s ability to comprehend or communicate with the generations after it. The fencing effect is very noticeable for lexical variants — different bits of substance for the same use (soda vs. pop, say); or, especially relevant here, different uses for the same substance (gay ‘lighthearted, carefree’ vs. ‘homosexual’ vs. ‘foolish, stupid, unimpressive’, say).


Higashi Day cartoon 5: hoods and newts

March 15, 2020

(Little kids, but I pursue them into the weeds of sexual anatomy, though without the photos or raunchy talk. Take appropriate cautions.)

The One Big Happy cartoon from 2/9:

(#1) Once again, about the kids finding a word (un)familiar in a particular sense: the apparel noun hood

And the OBH from 2/17:

(#2) And minute ‘extremely small, tiny’


A regular festival of ambiguity

November 20, 2019

(Later in this posting there are a couple of raunchy men’s underwear ads, and some cautiously worded references to men’s bodies and mansex, so some readers might want to exercise caution.)

Ruthie and Joe in the One Big Happy from 10/9:


Three senses of (ir)regular in just four panels. All traceable ultimately to the Latin noun regula ‘rule’, with rule understood as in NOAD:

noun rule: 1 [a] one of a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct within a particular activity or sphere: the rules of the game were understood. [b] a principle that operates within a particular sphere of knowledge, describing or prescribing what is possible or allowable: the rules of grammar. …

The range of senses of regular is impressively large, and illustrates a whole variety of mechanisms of semantic change; the three senses above are a microcosm of this greater world.


NomConjObj in the New Yorker

April 30, 2019

The steamroller of language change chugs on, even through the famously factchecked and copyedited precincts of the New Yorker. From the keyboard of the magazine’s ideas editor, Joshua Rothman, in the 1/21/19 issue, in the article “The art of decision-making: Your life choices aren’t just about what you want to do; they’re about who you want to be”, in a section where Rothman and his wife face decisions about becoming parents (p. 31 in the print edition; relevant passage boldfaced, crucial phrase underlined):

Before we had our son, I began exploring the “near face” of being a parent. I noticed how cute babies and children could be and pictured our spare room as a nursery; I envisaged my wife and I taking our child to the beach near our house (my version of “entering the warm light of a concert hall on a snowy evening”). I knew that these imaginings weren’t the real facts about having children — clearly, there was more to having kids than cuteness. All the same, I had no way of grasping the “distant face” of fatherhood. It was something I aspired to know.

This is the first NomConjObj — nominative personal pronoun form in a conjoined object — that I’ve noticed in plain (not quoted) text in the New Yorker; there are in fact no New Yorker examples in my database of NomConjObj examples. Meanwhile, I believe the editors of the magazine have deprecated the construction as a vulgar error, so it’s notable. It’s not at all surprising to me that Rothman wrote that sentence, but it’s telling that it wasn’t changed in editing. I will explain.


The self-published book

April 25, 2019

In the recently published The Ultimate Cartoon Book of Book Cartoons —


edited by New Yorker cartoonist Bob Eckstein (a regular visitor on this blog), this Ed Koren (who’s also on this blog):



The grandeur of Versailles commodes

March 23, 2018

In the print edition of yesterday’s NYT, an ad on p. A5 offers this astonishing piece of furniture:

Grandeur of Versailles

On the site of M.S. Rau Antiques – Fine Art – Jewelry, 630 Royal St., New Orleans LA, this description:

This monumental Boulle marquetry commode was crafted by Robert Blake (ca. 1820). Modeled after those made by Boulle for King Louis XIV. The entire ebony commode is covered in Boulle marquetry and doré bronze. A similar pair of commodes also marked [= signed] by Blake are part of the famed Frick Collection. Item No. 30-6334 : $398,500

My first interest here is lexicographic, having to do with the item commode (and its semantic development). Then on to marquetry, Boulle, and Blake.