Archive for the ‘Words and things’ Category

Four at midweek

May 14, 2014

Four recent cartoons, on varied subjects: two One Big Happy strips; a Bizarro with a portmanteau; and an ecard-like strip.



June 14, 2013

The June 9th NYT Magazine was an “Innovations Issue”, with pieces on the histories of devices (the Brannock Device, for measuring shoe size, the Cuisinart, the digital camera, keys, the salad spinner), products (the Band-Aid, diet soda, Liquid Paper), and sociocultural practices (brunch, the dog park, gay marriage, the nose job, prom, timeouts for children, 12-step programs) — plus a few linguistic items, notably the metaphorical idiom glass ceiling and the tv formula previously on …

In most cases of innovations (of devices, products, or sociocultural practices), there’s a substantive innovation, plus a linguistic innovation, the choice of a name or label for it: the device for washing and drying salad greens plus the synthetic compound label salad spinner; the product that covers up typing errors plus the metaphorical brand name Liquid Paper; the practice of offering and eating a late-morning meal that combines characteristics of breakfast and lunch plus the portmanteau name brunch.

On occasion, however, the referent has been around for some time but then achieves prominence when someone provides a label for it, as was apparently the case for glass ceiling.

And in still other cases, the innovation is itself linguistic, as for formulaic expressions like previously on … ‘in earlier episodes of …’

Brief mention: words and things

October 8, 2012

Daniel Mendelsohn in the New Yorker of April 16th, in “Unsinkable” (p. 66):

The aura of significance that attends the Titanic’s fate was the subject of another, belated headline, which appeared in a special publication of the satirical newspaper the Onion, in 1999, stomping across the page in dire block letters:

A figure in which metaphor stands for the ship. Iceberg sinks metaphor!

Mendelsohn continues:

The Onion’s spoof gets to the heart of the matter: unlike other disasters, the Titanic [note metonymy: participant in the disaster for the disaster] seems to be about something. But what?

A parable about the scope, and limits, of technology? A morality tale about class? A foreshadowing of the First World War? Or what?

language ‘content’

March 30, 2012

From the NYT yesterday, a story by Michael S. Schmidt and Charlie Savage, headlined:

Language Deemed Offensive Is Removed From F.B.I. Training Materials

No, not swearing or racial/ethnic slurs. Not any kind of rewording. Not actually language, in fact, but content; language comes into the matter only because content is conveyed via language. (more…)

On the avoidance watch

March 4, 2012

Two recent objects of slur avoidance: illegitimate and retarded.


Dinosaur snowclone

December 22, 2011

Today’s Dinosaur Comics, in which Ryan North riffs on snowclones and Language Log (the all-caps speaker from above is God, or some equivalent authority, by the way):


F**k You, Penguin

September 14, 2011

A gift from my friend Ellen Evans: Matthew Gasteier’s 2009 book F**k You, Penguin: Telling Cute Animals What’s What — combining my first totem animal (the penguin), taboo vocabulary, and taboo avoidance, all in one package.


Product names

June 11, 2011

Letter to the New Yorker, June 13 & 20, from Casey Lambert of Princeton NJ:

[In “Test-Tube Burgers”, May 23, Michael] Specter writes, of lab-grown meat, that “the first word most people blurted out to describe their feelings was ‘Yuck.’ ” But the “yuck factor” derives from the words used to describe the product: “in-vitro meat,” “cloned beef,” and “test-tube burgers.” Clearly what is needed is a new word for cultured protein. If we are able to consume millions of hot dogs (what? dogs?), burgers (misspelled German citizens?), bowls of Grape Nuts (really?), and cans of Spam (don’t even ask); if we can make a multi-million-dollar industry out of Yoplait and Activia; if we can come to love wasabi, sushi, and tandoori, then, surely, we can embrace a novel meat product with a name like Newtein, Newtrient, or Protean.

Well, it’s complex.



April 28, 2011

When I collected the remarkable “Royal wedding porn sale” offer on Michael Lucas’s blog, I came across a poll there, asking “What is your favorite euphemism for penis?” (poll announcement here, actual poll here; note that both sites are X-rated).

From the actual poll, it seems that some people take euphemism for to mean ‘word for’ (well, ‘expression for’), taking in a number of things that aren’t euphemisms as I understand them (and treating euphemism for as a relationship between an expression and a thing — “euphemism for (the) penis” — rather than, as I see it, a relationship between expressions — “euphemism for penis“).


More synonymy

January 2, 2011

It occurred to me (during fevered sleep) that it might be worth checking out {“is synonymous with quality”} and similar expressions linking a product or company name with a desirable characteristic. It’s a gold mine.