Archive for the ‘Lexical semantics’ Category

Dotty Zippy

November 16, 2022

The Zippy strip of 9/10, in which our Pinhead, anticipating little balls of flash-frozen ice cream, embraces dot dot dot in two ways at once:


(#1) Ellipsis dots meet Dippin’ Dots at the carnival

Two very different uses of NOAD‘s noun dot-1 ‘a small round mark or spot’ (dot-2 is an archaic noun referring to a dowry):

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Google translates

October 29, 2022

I’ve been sleeping most of my days away, not happily, so not advancing on raunchy appetizer boards and the like. Thanks to Hana Filip, reporting on Google Translate, for today’s Mary, Queen of Scots Not Dead Yet posting.

Today on Facebook, from Hana:

Discussion (somewhat edited):
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Where to door knock and cold call

October 19, 2022

… and, eventually, how to abracadabra things out of sight. Yes, it’s Verbing Day on AZ Blog!

Politics and real estate: to door knock. It started on the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC on 10/11, with the cite presented here in its larger context:


(#1) to door knock / door-knock ‘knock on doors’ (in political canvassing): a N + V verb, whose origin lies in a back-formation from the synthetic compound door knocking / door-knocking

The semantics / pragmatics of the synthetic compound is specialized — not merely knocking on doors, but doing so in specific sociocultural settings (political canvassing and door-to-door solicitations by real estate agents, in particular) — and this specialization is shared by the 2pbfV (two-part back-formed V)

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Mortal power

September 9, 2022

The 8/11/22 Rhymes With Orange, exploiting an ambiguity in the noun killer as the modifier N1 in N1 + N2 compounds, in this case in killer abs (literal ‘abs that are killers, abs that kill’ vs. figurative ‘abs that are killer / remarkable’):


(#1) In the worlds of advertisements featuring beautiful people, the health and fitness literature, and soft porn, figurative killer abs are commonplace; abs that kill, however, have (so far as I know) never once appeared on a police blotter

Wider topic: the figurative modifiers of mortal power — premodifying killer (killer abs, a killer app), postmodifying of death (the cruise of death, referring to a penetrating sexual facial expression).

Male body parts and sexual connections between men plus a ton of linguistic expressions in their social contexts, what more could I ask for?

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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).

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Stilettoed on the balcony

August 3, 2022

The killing of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri by a targeted U.S. drone strike (taking him down as he stood on a balcony) over the weekend in Afghanistan was described by an MSNBC commentator yesterday morning as

a stiletto strike:  with the N1 + N2 compound N stiletto strike ‘sudden (military) attack resembling a stiletto (in being very narrowly focused lethal weaponry)’; the sense of the N2 strike here is NOAD‘s 2 [a] a sudden attack, typically a military one

Possibly it was stiletto airstrike; it went by very fast, I haven’t seen another broadcast of it, and it’s not yet available on-line, so I can’t check — but I am sure of the N stiletto and the N strike and the intent of the commentator to commend the pinpoint accuracy of the operation.

It seems that the metaphor has been used occasionally in military circles for some years, but very rarely outside these circles, so that it came with the vividness of a fresh, rather than conventional, metaphor — but while it worked well for me (evoking the slim, pointed, lethal daggers of assassins), it might not have been so effective with others, whose mental image of a stiletto is the heel of a fashionable women’s shoe (slim and pointed,  but alluring rather than lethal).

Yes, the two senses (plus a few others that I won’t discuss here) are historically related, with the dagger sense the older and, in a series of steps, the source of the shoe sense. But of course ordinary speakers don’t know that, nor should they be expected to (such information is the province of specialists, historical linguists and lexicographers); what they know is how stiletto is used in their social world, and that’s likely to involve trendy footwear rather than medieval weaponry.

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The pickle slicer joke The pickle slicer joke

July 31, 2022

On this blog, a Bob Richmond comment on my 7/29 posting “Many a pickle packs a pucker”, with an old dirty joke that turns on the line “I stuck my dick in the pickle slicer” — with Bob noting, “I’m sure Arnold can provide an appropriate grammatical analysis”. The hinge of the joke is a pun on pickle slicer, which is ambiguous between ‘a device for slicing pickles’ and ‘someone who slices pickles (esp. as a job)’. You don’t need a syntactician to tell you that, but what I can tell you is that this isn’t some isolated fact about the expression pickle slicer, but is part of a much larger pattern that a linguist like me can bring to explicit awareness for you, so that you can appreciate something of the system of English that you (in some sense) know, but only tacitly, implicitly.

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Stories from Sloganville

July 13, 2022

(What can I say? There will be dipsticks and dipshits, so eventually this posting will be at best borderline for kids and the sexually modest.)

News commentator explains that in citing the slogan

You can pay me now, or pay me later. (the pay-me slogan)

the day before, he’d attributed it to the wrong advertiser, adding that the right one was FRAM oil filters. The slogan conveying that you can pay some money now for a good oil filter — or you’ll pay more later when your car breaks down (though of course with wider applicability, conveying at least that you can pay for prevention, or you’ll have to pay more for the remedy).

And then added with a big grin that FRAM was also responsible for the slogan

The dipstick tells the story. (the dipstick slogan)

conveying that you should check the dipstick regularly (and change the oil when it looks dirty) and serving more generally as an exhortation to monitor the state of any important mechanism regularly — in particular, using the sexual slang dipstick ‘penis’, as urging men to check their dicksticks regularly to make sure they’re in working order.

The dipstick slogan came first, 80 years ago. By thirty years into its career, the slang uses of dipstick (for both ‘penis’ and ‘fool, stupid or incompetent person; obnoxious person’) were spreading, so FRAM switched to the pay-me slogan, which is much harder to raunch up (but not impossible, in a world in which high-end prostitutes, of both sexes, accept payment by credit card).

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respite space / area, area of respite

June 23, 2022

It’s Midsummer Eve, the day before St. John’s Day and Midsummer Night, on which we can dream about reveling with the fairies. High summer, fiercely hot — I’ve been poleaxed by the heat for several days and trying to write this before today’s shimmer fells me once again — and Stanford (the edge of which is, like, six blocks from the Palo Alto house I’m writing this in) is in day 3 of a PG&E power outage crisis (my electric power is supplied by Palo Alto Utilities, which has so far coped with the heat demands and the occasional small fire, though it all seems distressingly tenuous to me).

Stanford has shut down everything it could and told staff and faculty to stay away if at all possible. But there are all those students in university housing, which is without power for cooling, for lighting, for charging electronic equipment, for opening (keycard-controlled) doors. For them, the university has provided places — spaces or areas — that have emergency power sources and can provide temporary relief in the form of cooling, lighting, and charging. What to call such places?

Stanford’s solution was expressions using the noun respiterespite space, respite area, area of respite — which were new turns of phrase for me, though they probably have a history I’m ignorant of. They have the advantage of being general (cooling station, which has been used in other public heat-crisis emergencies, covers only one of the students’ needs), but not so general that it’s uninformative (as, say, emergency area would be), and not, at least yet, associated specifically with the excretion of bodily wastes (as expressions with the nouns rest, comfort, and relief have become). (Not that excretion is irrelevant in a power outage; the lighting supplied in respite areas lets people see what they’re doing in bathrooms / toilets there, and that’s a very good thing. Meanwhile, back at the dark stifling dorms: flashlights.)

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Extended cisgender

June 19, 2022

A physician writes to the NYT Magazine‘s ethicist about a patient who used a racist slur (the N-word) to his Black nursing staff and a homophobic slur (probably the queer F-word, but maybe the queer D-word) to his receptionist, and contemplated ways to support these staff members as an outsider, explaining in the letter that he’s “a Hispanic, cisgender male”.

The first identifier, Hispanic, is a racial / ethnic identifier, counterposed to Black, White, API, Indigenous, etc. The second identifier, cisgender, is clearly intended to be counterposed to homosexual / gay / queer, terms that refer to same-sex (rather than other-sex) sexual orientation; but that looks like some kind of category mistake, since the standard usage of cisgender (with the prefix cis– ‘on this side of’, opposed to trans– ‘on the other side of’) is for a sexual identity that aligns with birth sex (and so is opposed to transgender) — a matter that’s orthogonal to sexuality / sexual orientation. Indeed, most same-sex-oriented people are cisgender; I myself am a cisgender queer, one of millions, though we’re hugely outnumbered by the cisgender straights, who are all over the place. And while some transgender people are sexually oriented towards their own sex, some are oriented towards the other sex. (more…)