Archive for the ‘Semantics’ Category

Semantics of compounds

May 28, 2019

The semantics of English modifier + head nominal composites — but especially of N + N compounds — is a recurrent topic on this blog; the array of semantic relationships exemplified in the data here is enormous, and might give the impression that things are just chaotic, though I’ve tried to pull out frequent patterns that dominate the data. One way to approach the matter in more nuanced fashion is to search for preferences for certain kinds of interpretations according to the semantics of the component elements.

And now, just appeared, we have “Systematicity in the semantics of noun compounds: The role of artifacts vs. natural kinds” by Beth Levin, Lelia Montague Glass, and Dan Jurafsky, in the De Gruyter journal Linguistics. Published online 5/16/19; I’ve found no volume, issue, and page numbers for the print version, but this is the DOI, and Lelia now reports that a pdf is freely available here. The abstract:


High 5 from a bison

May 25, 2019

(After the cartoons and the lexicography, John Rechy will take this posting into the world of mansex, in some detail and in very plain talk; that section is not for kids or the sexually modest, but I’ll warn you when it’s looming on the horizon.)

Two bison greet each other in a John Baynham cartoon with a wonderful pun:


That’s numbers (roughly ‘amount’, but as a PL C noun) — and indeed large numbers of buffalo did once roam the plains of North America — vs. numbers referring to physical models, or simulacra, of symbols for certain abstract mathematical entities — in this case, the natural numbers. Such physical models are also familiar: think of the letters in the HOLLYWOOD sign, or the numbers on the building at 666 Fifth Ave. in NYC (with its own kind of fame as a Jared Kushner property). But people don’t walk around with, much less inside, giant versions of such models. That’s deliciously absurd.

Looking at the lexical items involved will take us deep into the lexicographic weeds and then to the secret places of mansex, starting with the dim recesses of Griffith Park in Los Angeles.



May 21, 2019

A facebook exchange back on the 6th, between Andrew Carnie (professor of linguistics and dean of the Graduate College at the Univ. of Arizona) and Karen Chung (associate professor at National Taiwan University, teaching courses on linguistics and English).

Andrew: [Student], who only came to class less than 50% of the time, and turned in a bunch of assignments (really) late: These homeworks are way. too. hard. It’s unfair.

Karen: “Homework” as a countable noun? Is he/she a native speaker of English?

Academics will recognize Andrew’s note as the plangent lament of a professor facing the grading tasks at the end of a term, confronted with a self-entitled student who believes they are really smart, so preparation outside of class shouldn’t take much work (and they should be able to ace the final without much studying).

But what Karen picks up on is the use the noun homework as a C(ount) noun, clearly so because it occurs in the plural form homeworks here; for the M(ass) noun homework, the usage would be: This homework is way. too. hard. Or else: These homework assignments are way. too. hard.

Much as I sympathize deeply with Andrew’s lament — having had nearly 50 years of similar experiences (fortunately far outweighed by students who were a delight to teach) — what this posting is about is the C/M thing. There’s a fair amount to get clear about first, and then I’ll have some analysis, some data, and some reflections on larger matters (language use in particular communities of practice, the tension between brevity and clarity as factors in language use).


Ostentatiously playful allusions

May 18, 2019

(OPAs, for short.) The contrast is to inconspicuously playful allusions, what I’ve called Easter egg quotations on this blog. With three OPAs from the 4/20/19 Economist, illustrating three levels of closeness between the content of the OPA and the topic of the article: no substantive relationship between the two (the Nock, Nock case), tangential relationship (the Sunset brouhaha case), and tight relationship (the defecate in the woods case).

The three cases also illustrate three degrees of paronomasia: the Nock, Nock case involves a (phonologically) perfect pun; the Sunset brouhaha case an imperfect pun; and the defecate in the woods case no pun at all, but whole-word substitutions.

I’ll start in the middle, with Sunset brouhaha. But first, some background. Which will incorporate flaming saganaki; be prepared.


Is Timmy in trouble?

May 16, 2019

The Wayno/Piraro Bizarro from the 14th shows us Lassie trying to deliver a message about Timmy:

(#1) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 2 in this strip — see this Page.)

Ah, a variant of the Lassie-Timmy cartoon meme. With a play on the senses of be in trouble. From various dictionaries:

(i) ‘in a problematic situation or state of hardship’
(ii) ‘in peril, danger’
(iii) ‘subject to or due for punishment’
(iv) (euph.) ‘pregnant and unmarried’

In the usual cartoon meme, Timmy is in trouble in sense (i) or (ii) — classically, he has fallen down a well — but in #1, it’s sense (iii). I haven’t found an instance of the meme that bends gender to take advantage of sense (iv), but it’s certainly imaginable. (And for a possibility torn from the headlines, if you’re in trouble in sense (iv) and get an abortion, in Alabama you’re now in trouble in sense (iii).)


Parade of Fangs, Eye of the Pumpkin

May 12, 2019

I’ll get to the fangs and the pumpkin eventually, but first a taxonomic puzzle in botany and two botanical puzzles in (Mexican) Spanish, triggered by this Pinterest photo from a while back:

(#1) [as captioned by its (Mexican) poster] Lirio plantasonya


Not 2-1S, but 1-3P

May 10, 2019

Today’s notable NomConjObj, from MSNBC reporter Garrett Haake in Clyde OH (a Whirlpool appliance company town), talking about the effect of tariff increases on appliance dealers, with reference to:

… the price disparity between they and their competitors

Oh my, a nominative conjoined object about as far from the central examples of the construction as you can get (so not in my selective NomConjObj files): 1-3P between they and their competitors (pronoun in 1st position, 3rd person pronoun, singular pronoun) rather than the very common 2-1S (as in between my competitors and I). One for the files!


All ˈlaundry ˈis a ˈblur of ˈstatic ˈcling

April 28, 2019

(This message is brought to you by Frolic, Romp, Frisk, Gambol, Cavort, Caper, & Prance, Ltd.,  purveyors of iambs and orgies.)

Today’s playful Zippy:

(#1) Drying clothes engaged in an orgy of cavorting and gamboling, playfully, sensually sliding against one another: inhale the freshness!

With one satisfying line of enigmatic iambic pentameter:

All ˈlaundry ˈis a ˈblur of ˈstatic ˈcling

Words to live by. If you can only divine their deeper lesson.


A Ceci disavowal

April 24, 2019

From Jeff Bowles on Facebook on the 12th, this Magritte-based composition:


Apparently a Magrittean disavowal (there’s a Page on such disavowals here), playing on Magritte’s wry late 1920s painting La Trahison des images (The Betrayal / Treachery of Images which shows a pipe, with the painting labeling itself Ceci n’est pas une pipe ‘This is not a pipe’. Here we get Louis Flint Ceci, on the left, objecting in astonishment that what’s on the right is not (a) Ceci; instead, it’s (a) Davisson.


Will the real Zippy please stand up?

April 20, 2019

Yesterday’s Zippy takes us to Littleton (NH, not the more famous CO — or, for that matter, IL, IA, KY, ME, MA, NC, or WV), where our Pinhead falls into an identity crisis:


Everybody, including the counterman, is Zippy, or at least a Zippy. And the strip begins with a stretch that is both two panels, each with a Zippy in it, and one full-diner-view panel, with two Zippys in it. We’re in the nightmare world of clones — who am I?

Then there’s the observation in the last panel: No one brings small problems into a diner. Certainly, an interpretation of what happened in the strip before this, though as that it’s crucially ambiguous. But maybe also a moral that we should take away from those events, a piece of advice about what we should or should not do.