Archive for the ‘Technical and ordinary language’ Category

Taking things literally

August 3, 2016

(It starts in a candy store and eventually works back to my grade school years.)

A recent One Big Happy has Ruthie trying to buy some candy:


Well, it’s called penny candy, but that’s just its name, not a description. You can’t take the name literally.


Naming names: the cocktail beat

July 29, 2016

In the New York Times Magazine on Sunday the 24th, an entertaining “Drinks” column by Rosie Schaap, about cocktail names, with special attention to the cocktails created and named by Jill Dobias, of the East Village restaurant Joe and Misses Doe. Two of her works, Eye of the Komodo and Clam in a Can:



Morning toe jam

October 23, 2015

This morning’s name was toe jam (aka toe-jam and toejam), a slang term for something that has no medical label that I can find. Some definitions:

‘material that collects between the toes’ (Wikipedia)

‘dirt which accumulates between the toes’ (OED2, with a first cite in only 1934)

‘the ‘gunk’ that accumulates between the toes’ (Huffington post article by a podiatrist)

My mind then took me immediately to the line

He wear no shoeshine, he got toe jam football

from the Beatles’ “Come Together” on their Abbey Lane album (1969).


tri-state (and quad-state)

October 9, 2015

Came across a news item on Facebook with a reference to the “tri-state area”, in this case around New York City. A common media usage, serving as “semi-technical” terminology: not subject to a technical definition for some sort of official purpose (like the designations of various metropolitan areas by federal agencies in the U.S.), but still not freely used by ordinary people in everyday speech. Instead, it’s special to some group of users and contexts; it’s a media term. (Though ordinary people might still use it, in effect quoting the usage of newspapers, tv news reporters, and the like.)


Food names, and plant names too

August 10, 2015

Some background for a posting on Italian names for pizza. It’s about the names for food, with some parallels to common names for plants.


Coleus Jade

July 23, 2015

The label on a plant that a friend gave me yesterday. Note the head-first word order, standard in botanical naming, in this case with the (supposed) genus name Coleus before the variety name ‘Jade’; the species name, not given on the label, is scutellariodes (that is, the plant is named Coleus scutelliodes ‘Jade’), or possibly the plant is a hybrid of several species, in which case it makes sense to leave out a species name.

Coleus plants are old friends of mine — wonderfully colorful ornamentals (for garden or house) illustrated in photos in this posting on the compound annual labiate, of which the coleus is one.

Notice that I just lowercased coleus, treating it as a common name rather than a term of botanical taxonomy. In my earlier posting, I reported, in fact, that my Sunset New Western Garden Book gives Solenostemon as the genus name for coleuses. Most seed and plant companies agree with that usage. But the relevant Wikipedia entry gives the genus name Plectranthus instead. We are in deep terminological waters here.


Homing lizards

July 8, 2015

From yesterday’s animal news in the NYT Science Times, a tantalizing story, “Mystery of the Lizards That Know the Way Home”, by James Gorman, about anoles.


Briefly: a technical term

June 18, 2015

From a piece by Gina Kolata in the NYT yesterday, “Antibiotics Are Effective in Appendicitis, Study Says”:

The results only apply to uncomplicated appendicitis, stressed Dr. Paulina Salminen, a surgeon at Turku University Hospital in Finland and lead author of the new study. She and her colleagues excluded from their trial the 20 percent of patients with complicated cases — people with perforated appendices or abdominal abscesses, and those with a little, rocklike blockage of the appendix called an appendicolith.

Yes, appendicolith, (with the stem of appendix plus the lith– ‘rock, stone’ stem), not a word you’re likely to have come across before. But an obviously useful technical term in this medical context, replacing the wordy explanation ‘little, rocklike blockage of the appendix’ or the somewhat more specific and compact ‘a calcified deposit within the appendix’ on the site. Let’s face it, we have no ordinary-language term for this referent.

(Phonological note: the word seems to have the same accent pattern as appendectomy, with alternating accent: primary accent on the third syllable, secondary on the first, tertiary on the fifth, with unaccented second and fourth syllables.)


June 2, 2015

In a posting on some cartoons yesterday, I mentioned what I described as an “aversion” to cilantro that affects many people, an aversion that turns out to be genetically determined: people with Yuck Cilantro genetics (hat tip to Benita Bendon Campbell on the term) find the taste of cilantro disgusting and don’t appreciate the pleasures that others experience. For some people, the effect goes well beyond distaste or aversion; they suffer extreme symptoms that cause them to characterize their condition as an “allergy”, treating the symptomology as a definition of allergy.

But the medical literature insists on a technical definition of allergy that requires an immune response involving the antibody immunoglobulin E (IgE); without this antibody, we are looking at a food intolerance (or non-allergic food hypersensitivity), even if its manifestations are extreme: vomiting, even anaphylaxis. According to this literature, there is much less food allergy in the world than people think — because ordinary people use the term allergy loosely and incorrectly.

Now, from the point of view of ordinary people, it’s the symptomology that’s important, not the cause of the symptoms, and whatever the cause, the major part of treatment will involve avoiding the foods that trigger the symptoms. In the circumstances, it would be useful to have a technical term like true allergy or allergy proper (to distinguish those cases where antibody-suppressing drugs might be effective parts of treatment) versus a term allergy of wider application, or else a specially invented wider term, like allergoid condition.


Cavemen at the dawn of writing

May 23, 2015

Today’s Bizarro:

Self-reflective cavemen, with a keen sense of lexical semantics in English. Most people use the word prehistoric in a sense NOAD2 labels “informal”:

very old, primitive, or out of date: my dad’s electric typewriter was a prehistoric machine

But the cavemen understand it in its technical (and etymological) sense:

of, relating to, or denoting the period before written records: prehistoric man

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