Archive for the ‘Mistakes’ Category

He meant to say “supine”

February 11, 2018

Wilson Gray on ADS-L on the 6th:

“She was lying on her back, when she was stabbed, in the prone position.”

He meant to say, “in the supine position,” of course.

There’s no “of course” here. No, that is almost surely not what the speaker meant to say; I’d wager he intended to say exactly what he did say. It’s just not what Wilson thinks the speaker should have said. (Or he’s mocking people who talk this way, though I failed to detect any raised eyebrows in what he wrote so briefly and dismissively.)

We have here a widespread vulgar confusion, a failure to distinguish

between inadvertent errors, things that are “wrong” for the person who produces them, and advertent errors, things that are ok so far as the producer is concerned but “wrong” from the point of view of at least some other people. (Faced with [the first], you call in the psycholinguist; faced with [the second], you call in the sociolinguist.) (Language Log link)

On top of that, Wilson has the sociolinguistic facts wrong, through a confusion between ordinary language and technical language: supine is a technical term for a bodily postion (lying flat on one’s back), used in certain specific domains (anatomy, sport, and shooting, in particular); in those domains, its counterpart (referring to lying flat on one’s belly) is prone, but in ordinary language, outside these specific domains, prone can refer to lying flat in general, and supine isn’t used at all.

The mistake here lies in assuming that technical, domain-specific (medical, botanical, technologcal, etc.) vocabulary is the true, correct, uniquely valid scheme for naming. From my 7/27/15 posting “Misleadingly named animals”, on zoological names:

The terminology “true fly” and “true bug” (etc.) here arises from the attitude that the naming practices of biologists are the only valid (true) naming schemes — what I’ll call technicalism. In the case of fly and bug, technicalism is remarkable from the historical point of view, since the specialized use of these nouns represents a decision to use perfectly ordinary vocabulary as technical terminology by drastically restricting its reference.


I’m silently labeling you an asshole

October 5, 2017

Accidentally encountered on the net yesterday: this t-shirt triumph of supercilious peeving:


It’s also available on signs, mugs, plaques, and goodness knows what else. Dare I hope for underwear?



October 3, 2015

Back on 9/23, I got e-mail from a representative of a California public radio station, sent at 9 a.m. (though I didn’t get to it until later), asking me to do an interview by phone for them at 11:45 that morning, on Yogi Berra and his language. Now, I was offended at the extremely short notice (though journalists do this to me a lot), and I had other reasons for not wanting to do it. After some thought, I decided to meet rudeness with rudeness and just delete the message.


Briefly: sources?

September 11, 2015

In looking up material for my recent goldenrod posting, I came across the site for the Herbal Extract Company, which claims to provide a goldenrod supplement for medicinal purposes. The site is a mess, with pages that look like templates, with no real content — like the goldenrod-sources page, which asks the question:

What foods are good sources of goldenrod?

but, so far as I can tell, provides no answers. My problem actually goes deeper than that, since I don’t understand the question. My guess was that it’s asking about sources of goldenrod ‘goldenrod extract’, in which case the sources are either goldenrod plants or companies like their own, but not foods. (In a slightly different context, it could be asking about sources of goldenrod ‘goldenrod honey’, in which case the answer is either the plants, or bees, or companies that sell foodstuffs like honey.)

My impression is that the wording of the question involves some sort of semantic reversal involving the noun sources, but I don’t see how to reformulate the question so that it asks something reasonable and could have a useful answer.


December 14, 2014

Running the rounds recently, the story of a university lecturer who ranted herself out of her job. From RawStory: “Florida St. communications lecturer resigns after bemoaning ‘Northern fagoot elitism’ on Facebook” by Scott Kaufman on the 10th:

A senior lecturer in the College of Business at Florida State University resigned over the weekend after she posted a torrent of racist, homophobic comments on a Facebook photograph of outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder, the Tallahassee Democrat reports.

The spelling FAGOOT was widely taken to be an illiteracy, but (though the woman seems to be thoroughly repellent) I very much doubt that that’s what was going on.