Archive for the ‘Style and register’ Category

jack or jerk?

August 22, 2023

(It’s about vernacular masturbatory verbs, so it’s deemed not suitable for kids, and of course it’s not to the taste of the sexually modest.)

Why would anyone care whether a guy favors jack off or jerk off — or something else, like jag off or toss off or wank — as his masturbatory verb?

Street talk about sexual practices and unsavory bodily substances varies over time and place and context, differs from one speech community to another, just like all kinds of talk: wank and toss off are distinctly BrE, jag off distinctly AmE, and jack off and jerk off both seem to be originally AmE, though they’ve spread more widely; guys will have different preferences for vocabulary in this domain, mostly according to their personal experience with the verbs, and they’ll know that some guys use different verbs. Why doesn’t it stop at that?

Well, this is linguistic variation, and it pretty much never stops at that. There’s a general human inclination to believe that your own practices are the best ones, the right ones; and also a general human inclination to accept the practices of your community, which are likely to be supported by explicit teaching and advice, and even enforced with sanctions, as the best ones, the right ones.

So we find people deploring other people’s linguistic practices, often in extravagant terms (disgusting, ignorant, …), sometimes ascribing dubious or discreditable motives to other people’s choices (hypercorrection and varieties of avoidance are often cited, as are faddism, reflexive following of fashion, and misguided attempts to sound clever). Even for masturbatory verbs, where there’s no explicit teaching and no advice literature.

Now, one such example, in a recent Facebook exchange between Jeff Shaumeyer (a jerk-off user) and me (a jack-off user), which turns out to be surprisingly complex, because it involves a second-order effect, with responses to (first-order) critiques of the usage jerk off, that it’s too crude, too vivid (the imagery is of the jerking motion in masturbation, and in the jerking of the body in orgasm — jerk was used for ‘copulate with’ before it was extended to masturbation, and is still so used by some speakers). This critique has led to the idea that guys who use jack off do so (only) because they’re (fastidiously) avoiding the gutsy, authentically masculine jack off — a gratuitous attribution of motives that I stringently objected to.


Sausages, no preservatives

May 29, 2023

An extremely busy photo that my Peruvian colleague Ernesto Cuba took on 5/24 inside the St. Lawrence Market in downtown Toronto. The shop in the photo is offering sausages, no preservatives — innocent enough, but EC immediately translated the sign into Spanish, got salchichas, no preservativos, and protested against the content of the slangy and figurative salchicha sin preservativo ‘penis without a condom’ (vs. the literal salchicha sin preservativo ‘sausage without a preservative’)

It was as if the sign had said, in English sausages, no prophylactics, which would instantly have allowed the English slang sausage ‘penis’ to surface. As it happens, the Spanish word for ‘preservative’ has been pressed into service as a rather technical-sounding euphemism referring to a life-preserving condom; that makes sense, but the parallel development just hasn’t happened in English, where the corresponding technical-sounding euphemism is prophylactic ‘preventive’, referring to a disease-preventing condom.


Who am I kidding?

May 24, 2023

(Note: in this posting I’m going to be unrelentingly careful about the way I frame descriptions of linguistic phenomena (not falling back on the descriptive language of school grammar, which would be familiar to readers but which I believe to be fucked up beyond repair). So there will be a lot of technical talk here; please try to play along, but I don’t think there’s any way to do this right without re-thinking everything from the ground up.)

This is about a perfectly common expression — Who am I kidding? — that went past me in a flash on Facebook this morning but caused me (as a student of GUS — grammar, usage, and style / register) to reflect on the pronoun case in it. On the interrogative human pronoun, appearing here in what I’ll call its Form 1, who, rather than its Form 2, whom.

The pronoun in this expression is the direct object of the verb in the expression, KID, appearing in sentence-initial position (appearing “fronted”) in the WH-question construction of English. There’s nothing at all remarkable about this: in general, both forms of this pronoun are available as syntactic objects (of verbs or prepositions) in the language, differing only in their style / register (very roughly, formal whom vs informal who), with the special case of an object pronoun actually in combination with its governing preposition, which is  obligatorily in Form 2:

Who / Whom did you speak to? BUT *To who / ✓to whom did you speak?

So there’s nothing remarkable about Who am I kidding? It’s just informal.

What’s remarkable is the unacceptability of Whom am I kidding? The stylistic discord between the formality of object whom and the informality of the idiom WH-Pro am I kidding? is unresolvable. To put it another way, the choice of the Form 1 pronoun here is part of the idiom. Just like the choice of the PRP form of the verb KID, conveying progressive aspect: Who do I kid? lacks the idiomatic meaning.


Kentucky country ham

April 9, 2023

An exercise in nostalgia (much transformed) for Easter lunch today: sandwiches of slices of Kentucky country ham — KCH for short — and melted cheddar cheese. The nostalgia is in the ham:

(#1) Thinly sliced ham from Broadbent B & B Foods in the little country town of Kuttawa KY (in Lyon County in far (south)western Kentucky)

To come: on country ham the compound noun and country ham the foodstuff; on my personal history with KCH (associated in my household with Christmas rather than Easter); and on the Broadbent company.


From parts unknown

March 21, 2023

In yesterday’s (3/20) Wayno / Piraro Bizarro, a cowboy — call him FM —  bellies up to the bar in a saloon in the fabled Old West:

(#1) Though he’s wearing jeans and  a handsome Western dress shirt, FM’s greenish pallor, eccentric hair, and neck bolt mark him as an outsider, not from these parts, not from around here; meanwhile, FM is a composite being, cobbled together from random parts — bodyparts — by Victor Frankenstein (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 4 in this strip — see this Page)

So there’s parts and there’s parts. And FM’s from parts unknown  is a parts ‘bodyparts’ pun on the model of parts ‘places’ in what is now a rather formal and poetical expression from parts unknown ‘coming from an unknown place’. The Frankenstein world superimposed, absurdly, on the Gunslinger world.


Ruthie meets the challenge of the unfamiliar

February 24, 2023

It’s an old theme on this blog: 6-year-old Ruthie in the comic strip One Big Happy as a constantly entertaining source of efforts to cope with unfamiliar words and larger expressions by assimilating them, in one way or another, to things that are familiar to her. Some examples surveyed in my 2/3/19 posting “Ruthian lexical items in real life”; and then, yesterday, in the posting “Ruthie goes for the donuts”, she understands windchill as Winchell’s (donuts): the unfamiliar element is the technical meteorological term windchill. and Ruthie copes with it by replacing it with a phonologically similar item that’s familiar to her (she’s fond of Winchell’s donuts):

(#1) unfamiliar windchill / familiar Winchell’s

Over the past three years or so, I’ve been accumulating One Big Happy strips in this vein and am now disgorging six of them: a similarity case, in which Ruthie copes with unfamiliar material by treating it as phonologically similar familiar material (as with windchill / Winchell’s); two ambiguity cases, in which unfamiliar material is homophonous with familiar material, so she has to cope with her mistaken interpretation of what she hears; and three more complex cases (one involving portmanteaus, one involving orthographic abbreviations, and one involving Ruthie’s own analogical creation — Ruthie is indeed ingenious).


More from the Cavewoman Culture Club

February 22, 2023

The CCC — last seen in action in my 2/18 posting “A Neanderthal breakthrough”, in which an inventor cavewoman carves the first definite article out of stone — strikes again in the Piccolo / Price Rhymes With Orange cartoon of 5/21/21, in which a cavewoman devises a precursor of the candlelit dinner:

(#1) An announcement in Caveman Talk of the first romantic dinner for two; since these beginnings, it has evolved into a elaborated cultural practice

Cultural innovations often come with bold experiments in form at the outset (consider the history of photography and film) — in this case, apparently, in the adventure of scented fire.


A Neanderthal breakthrough

February 18, 2023

A great moment in fictive human history, captured in a 5/2/21 Rhymes With Orange cartoon:

(#1) Caveman quiz great inventor cavewoman, she make definite article

Well, yes, Hilary Price has her doing it in English, a specific language, which has to stand in for Human Language, because we have no way of representing text in Human Language.  And Price has her doing it in English orthography (rather than speech), because this is a cartoon (not an address) and the presentation has to be visual. And, stunningly, Price has her doing it as a sculpture, a piece of 3-dimensional artwork, rather than by making marks on some surface — possibly because women are the creators of beautiful useful things, aesthetically satisfying everyday objects. (Beyond that, Price has her cavewoman  explicitly viewing her work as potentially world-changing — an ambition usually associated, these days anyway, with males.)


Don’t call me a “creative”

February 5, 2023

Today’s (2/5/23) Doonesbury strip  shows us artist J.J. Caucus and her husband Zeke Brenner in her studio, with J.J. fuming about being labeled a creative:

(#1) “I’m a noun, not an adjective!” But then Zeke shifts the ground from be a creative to be creative, noting (in effect) that be creative denotes a characteristic, not an identity, so “less pressure”

J.J.’s complaint is about the nouning of the adj. creative, yielding a C[ount] noun creative that apparently just means ‘creative person’, but she’s more than a creative person, she’s a professional creator, an artist. As it turns out, the C noun creative is a great deal more specific that ‘creative person’ — and in its established usage it refers to a type of professional in the advertising industry, so in fact doesn’t apply to J.J. at all. Gripe on, J.J.!



December 6, 2022

Today’s Mary, Queen of Scots Not Dead Yet posting, some diversion from the difficulties of daily life. I take my cue from Ann Burlingham, posting on Facebook on 12/4:

Last night I was watching Nick Cave being interviewed on the BBC when he used the word highfalutin. I looked it up to confirm my sense that that is a word Americans came up with, and it is, and it’s wonderful.

Now, you need to know, first of all, who this Nick Cave is and why it might be notable that he used the slang adjective highfalutin ‘pompous, pretentious’. Then on to the word and who uses it, with two wonderful bonuses, one supplied by OED3, the other by a winery in the Finger Lakes region of New York State.