Archive for the ‘Language change’ Category

English the borrower

May 16, 2012

Via Paul Armstrong, this wry observation on the way English takes things from other languages:

Where does this come from?, you ask. It’s a variant of a longer version that Mark Liberman discussed on Language Log in 2005 (and quoted again in 2007), a version that dates to 1990.



February 28, 2012

In today’s print NYT Science Times, a piece by Douglas Quenqua entitled “They’re, Like, Way Ahead of the Linguistic Currrrve”, about young women as trendsetters in linguistic change. Featuring a sizable cast of experts, starting with Stanford’s Penny Eckert.

The two main points:

Girls and women in their teens and 20s deserve credit for pioneering vocal trends and popular slang, [linguists] say, adding that young women use these embellishments in much more sophisticated ways than people tend to realize.

And, at the end, two points. One, that a bit of linguistic stuff — vocal fry, uptalk, and the discourse particle like are the three examples the article focuses on — is just a resource, which can be used in many different ways by different groups of speakers (that is, there’s no intrinsic meaning to a resource — as I’ve taken to saying, it’s “just stuff” — but only meanings as expressed by particular groups of speakers and meanings as interpreted by others). And two, that the meanings for speakers and hearers can be seriously at variance:

“language changes very fast,” said Dr. Eckert of Stanford, and most people — particularly adults — who try to divine the meaning of new forms used by young women are “almost sure to get it wrong.”

“What may sound excessively ‘girly’ to me may sound smart, authoritative and strong to my students,” she said.


gay gazebo

January 25, 2012

(The tiniest of postings, put up only because it tickles me.)

Over on ADS-L, Stephen Goranson has antedated the word gazebo from the OED’s 1752:

Unto the painful summit of this height
A gay Gazebo does our Steps invite.

From “An essay on the pleasures and advantages of female literature … and three Poetic Landscapes” by Wetenhall Wilkes (1741). (ADS-Lers are into antedating as a kind of sport.)

I was charmed by the alliterative gay gazebo (with, of course, an older, non-sexual, sense of gay, plus the great word gazebo). The poem continues, less excitingly:

From this, when favour’d with a Cloudless Day,
We fourteen Counties all around survey.
Th’ increasing prospect tires the wandring Eyes:
Hills peep o’er Hills, and mix with distant Skies.

Smart kid

November 7, 2011

Reported by Ellen Seebacher on Google+ today:

My thirteen-year-old, during a discussion of prescriptive vs. descriptive grammar and constructions on their way out in English:

“So ‘shall’ isn’t exactly packing its bags and walking out the door like ‘whom’, but it’s winding down the conversation and looking at the clock?”

He’s pretty much got it down. Shall and whom will probably be around for a long time, but only in very restricted contexts (“Shall we dance?”, “someone of whom I’ve heard a lot”). So they’ve packed their bags and are sitting in a little corner by the door.

(I was startled to re-read a paper of mine from 1968 a few days ago and was startled to see academese like “We shall show”, where I’d now write “I will show” or “I’ll show”.)

depends + WH-clause

August 13, 2011

From Michael Palmer on Facebook this morning:

Terry, it depends where you work.

(where I’d usually have depends on, or maybe upon). Historically, this is transitivizing P-drop; the transitive argument structure isn’t in OED2 (1959), and at the time MWDEU (p. 329) remarked:

Many commentators point out that in speech this construction can be followed by a clause with no on or upon intervening, as in “It all depends how many times you’ve seen it” or “It all depend whether it rains.” We have no evidence of these conversational patterns in ordinary prose.

That was then, this is now, and examples of depends + WH-clause are all over the place in “ordinary prose”, in fact in educated prose, like Palmer’s above (trust me on Palmer’s erudition and writing experience).


Jell-O is the gay dessert

March 21, 2011

From Chris Ambidge a few days ago, this reproduction of a Jell-O ad from roughly 50 years ago (now in a color version unearthed by Chris Hansen). Go gay with Jell-O today!


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.


Proof in the pudding

December 17, 2010

Found in an R. Crumb cartoon on a postcard I sent out yesterday:

The proof is in the pudding.

The original proverb is

The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

But, thanks to the fact that the sense of proof having to do with the trying or testing of something has largely disappeared except in this proverb, in its elliptical form the proof of the pudding, and in the idiom to put to (the) proof, the saying became opaque to many people and was reanalyzed and simplified, to yield the mysterious the proof is in the pudding.


+of EDM in the comics

December 2, 2010

Today’s Zippy:

The point of linguistic interest here is the exceptional degree modification (EDM) with of (+of) in the boldfaced portion of Zippy’s

I haven’t seen as good of an acting job since Gaga announced for mayor of Chicago.

These days, this particular configuration is not even slightly remarkable, though some usage critics, and many peevers-in-the-street, are driven wild by it. The rise of +of EDM as an alternative to the older -of EDM, followed by the replacement of the -of variant by the +of variant (taken to completion by many younger American speakers), is a syntactic change that’s happened in my lifetime.

Some brief notes on these developments follow.


Semantic change on the menu

April 3, 2010

The names of food preparations are incredibly variable: the same dish goes under different names; the “same dish” (under a single name) is prepared differently by different people; and sometimes these referential differences amount to a semantic split.

Two cases that I’ve been thinking about recently. (There are ridiculously many examples, and I don’t propose to survey them. These are just two cases that happen to have caught my attention.)

Case 1: What is bruschetta? (Let’s get the pronunciation issue out of the way. In the original Italian, the SCH (with CH before E) represents [sk], but many English speakers, both in the U.S. and the U.K., have [ʃ] instead.)

The dish apparently originated as a way of salvaging bread that was going stale (any number of preparations had such frugal beginnings). There are local variants, differing in how complex the dish is, as in this March 2003 draft entry from the OED:

An Italian appetizer or side dish consisting of toasted bread spread with olive oil, usually seasoned and rubbed with garlic, and sometimes (chiefly in non-Italian versions of the dish) topped with chopped tomatoes, etc. [for the Italian word, cf. bruscare ‘to roast’]

This definition doesn’t cover the bruschetta that I regularly have at a local restaurant: a chopped tomato salad with a basil vinaigrette, no toast. That is, in an act of metonymy, the name for the whole dish is used for the topping alone (moreover, a topping that wasn’t originally part of the dish). Semantic split. Now you have to find out what a restaurant means when it lists bruschetta on its menu.

Case 2: What is marinara (sauce)? The Italian original is (alla) marinara ‘sailor-fashion’. The OED draft entry of March 2009:

Designating any of various Italian dishes or sauces (esp. a spicy tomato sauce traditionally made in Naples) whose ingredients are suggestive either of food formerly served on board ships (by the absence of fresh produce such as cheese or cream, or by the liberal use of herbs, spices, etc.) or of the sea itself (by the use of seafood). Freq. as postmodifier. Also as n.

Here the OED entertains two possibilities as to what counts as sailor-fashion in tomato sauces: specifically involving seafood, or just shipboard fare. It’s not entirely clear which is the older usage in English, though the seafood usage seems to be the dominant one outside the U.S.; Australians, for instance, are frequently baffled by the absence of clams or other seafood in the marinara they are offered in the U.S., and Americans (for whom marinara sauce is just a simple tomato sauce with herbs) feel obliged to stipulate the presence of marine protein if there’s some in the sauce.

If the seafood usage is the older one (as many people seem to assume), then the American seafood-neutral usage is a semantic widening.