Archive for the ‘Usage’ Category

Slutty T-Rex

November 30, 2023

🐅 🐅 tiger tiger for ultimate November, also St. Andrew’s Day (Scotland’s national day); meanwhile, I bring you two dinosaurs trading ideas about popularity and sluttiness

A pair of Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics strips, coming in succession on 11/10 and 11/13, in which T-Rex rambles on to his buddy Utahraptor about a fairly well-known paradoxical-sounding phenomenon in social networks, the friendship paradox. Actually, it applies more generally, and I’ll talk you through the (apparent) paradox in the general case. Yes, I’ll get to the comics, and to the way T-Rex uses the adjective slutty, but first let’s talk about your lunch partners.

The symmetric-relation paradox. Brace yourself for some mathematician-talk, but don’t despair: I’ll work up a concrete example (about you and your lunch partners) along the way.

Consider a a set N (for example, the set of people in a social network) and a symmetric relation R between members of N; R might be being friends with, say, or having gone to grade school with or — my concrete example — having had lunch with. Then for any member m of N (like you, for definiteness), define m’s R:N-cohort to be the set of members of N that m bears R to (like, the set of all your lunch partners), and m’s R:N-index to be the size of m’s R:N-cohort (like, how many lunch partners you’d had). Then it can be shown that, on average, the R:N-indices of members of m’s R:N-cohort are greater than m’s R:N-index — like, on average, the number of lunch partners your lunch partners have had is greater than the number of lunch partners you have had. Yes, it sounds paradoxical. But it’s provably so.

Now, listen up: what the symmetric-relation paradox does not say is that (all) your lunch partners have more lunch partners than you do. That would be genuinely paradoxical. All it says is that the (arithmetic) mean of their lunch-partner figures is higher than yours, which is a great deal less thrilling (though it still has a whiff of the perverse about it). So let’s look at the special case, the friendship paradox, where N is a social network and R is the being friends with relation (which is where T-Rex starts in his Dinosaur Comics ramble, before he goes on to the having had sex with relation (parallel to the having had lunch with relation) and to sluttiness, having had many sexual (rather than lunch) partners.

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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.

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Affinal equivalents

August 16, 2023

In a comment on my 8/15 “niblings” posting, Aric Olnes reports having 20 niblings (sib’s kids), “27 including spouses”. Now, sib’s kid is a consanguineal relationship — of kinship “by blood” — in both of its parts, sib and kid. Including spouses introduces an affinal relationship — of kinship by marriage — into the mix.

A nibling’s spouse would be, technically, a nibling-in-law, but we don’t customarily treat such a person as an in-law; either they’re no kin at all (instead, in some Americans’ terminology, they’re a connection), or they’re treated as equivalent to a nibling (the way Aric treats them); sib’s-kid’s spouse counts as equivalent to sib’s kid.

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The voice of authority

June 3, 2020

Yesterday on FB a query from my friend P (exchanges edited to remove personal chitchat):

A company is creating an outgoing voice message and they have come to blows over sentence structure. My suggestion to them is to fight bigger battles — but, alas, here we are.

They are going to the mat on “how can I” vs “how I can.”

Given your expertise, which is better?

“Thanks for calling COMPANY. Please tell me, in detail, how CAN I help you?
OR
“Thanks for calling COMPANY. Please tell me, in detail, how I CAN help you.”

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Happy Memorial Day

May 27, 2020

From two friends on Facebook (lightly edited) on Tuesday (US Memorial Day having been on Monday):

1: What is up with “Happy Memorial Day?” It’s a day to remember the dead … I feel like people have no idea what Memorial Day is!

2: I’ve seen a lot of “happy” Memorial Day comments too. Unfathomable.

For them, such well-wishings are akin to “Happy Yom Kippur” (the Day of Atonement in Judaism) or “Merry Good Friday” (Crucifixion Day in Christianity) as expressions of goodwill — deeply at odds with the solemnity of the occasions.

Their reactions have been shared by many others. There’s a simple response, which I gave on Facebook and repeat below. Then there’s a more complex, messy response. (The topic will eventually lead, given my inclinations, to discussions of homowear and gay porn for the holiday — definitely racy, but not, I think, quite over the line into Not Safe For Minors territory.)

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Title bout

May 17, 2020

“Title bout”: Wayno’s title for yesterday’s Wayno/Piraro Bizarro:


(#1) Irresolvable stylistic choices? You could just punt, and avoid having to make any choice (if you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 4 in this strip — see this Page.)

Actually, it’s worse that this; between panels 2 and 3, there should be 2.5:

Based off true events

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Comedic NomConjObj

November 12, 2019

Tell it to Kim. Tell it to me. Tell it to Kim and I.

The new paradigm for case-marking of pronouns, including the nominative conjoined object (NomConjObj) in to Kim and I — now judged to be the correct form by a large population of young, educated American speakers, as against the judgments of older speakers, who use instead accusative conjoined objects (AccConjObj), as in to Kim and me.

Entertainingly, the new paradigm is evidenced in tv comedies in which grammatically fastidious characters freely use NomConjObj and even admonish those who use AccConjObj.

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homeworks

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).

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NomConjObj in the New Yorker

April 30, 2019

The steamroller of language change chugs on, even through the famously factchecked and copyedited precincts of the New Yorker. From the keyboard of the magazine’s ideas editor, Joshua Rothman, in the 1/21/19 issue, in the article “The art of decision-making: Your life choices aren’t just about what you want to do; they’re about who you want to be”, in a section where Rothman and his wife face decisions about becoming parents (p. 31 in the print edition; relevant passage boldfaced, crucial phrase underlined):

Before we had our son, I began exploring the “near face” of being a parent. I noticed how cute babies and children could be and pictured our spare room as a nursery; I envisaged my wife and I taking our child to the beach near our house (my version of “entering the warm light of a concert hall on a snowy evening”). I knew that these imaginings weren’t the real facts about having children — clearly, there was more to having kids than cuteness. All the same, I had no way of grasping the “distant face” of fatherhood. It was something I aspired to know.

This is the first NomConjObj — nominative personal pronoun form in a conjoined object — that I’ve noticed in plain (not quoted) text in the New Yorker; there are in fact no New Yorker examples in my database of NomConjObj examples. Meanwhile, I believe the editors of the magazine have deprecated the construction as a vulgar error, so it’s notable. It’s not at all surprising to me that Rothman wrote that sentence, but it’s telling that it wasn’t changed in editing. I will explain.

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individuals, people, persons

February 13, 2019

From a mail pointer to a 1/30/19 article in the journal Psychological Science, “Similarity Grouping as Feature-Based Selection” by Dian Yu, Xiao Xiao, Douglas K. Bemis, & Steven L. Franconeri:

Individuals perceive objects with similar features (i.e., color, orientation, shape) as a group even when those objects are not grouped in space.

Point at issue: individuals rather than people, a mark of a consciously formal, “scientific” way of writing, appropriate (some believe) for reporting on research in psychology.

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