October 05, 2014

Is Pluto is getting unplutoed?

8 years ago, Pluto was demoted to "dwarf planet." The American Dialect Society even voted the participle "plutoed" as the 2006 word of the year.

Unfortunately, the expression didn't really catch on. And now its basis is being challenged. Members of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics presented three different viewpoints to the public and the audience could vote on which viewpoint they liked best. The result? Pluto should be called a planet, since "a planet is a culturally defined word."
Eight years later, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics decided to revisit the question of "what is a planet?" On September 18th, we hosted a debate among three leading experts in planetary science, each of whom presented their case as to what a planet is or isn't. The goal: to find a definition that the eager public audience could agree on! Science historian Dr. Owen Gingerich, who chaired the IAU planet definition committee, presented the historical viewpoint. Dr. Gareth Williams, associate director of the Minor Planet Center, presented the IAU's viewpoint. And Dr. Dimitar Sasselov, director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, presented the exoplanet scientist's viewpoint. Gingerich argued that "a planet is a culturally defined word that changes over time," and that Pluto is a planet. Williams defended the IAU definition, which declares that Pluto is not a planet. And Sasselov defined a planet as "the smallest spherical lump of matter that formed around stars or stellar remnants," which means Pluto is a planet. After these experts made their best case, the audience got to vote on what a planet is or isn't and whether Pluto is in or out. The results are in, with no hanging chads in sight. According to the audience, Sasselov's definition won the day, and Pluto IS a planet.
Alas, I have my doubts that a public vote will move the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to reconsider its decision that Pluto not be considered a planet. Their introducing the term "dwarf planet" (which is to be considered distinct from, not a subclass of "planet") doesn't exactly indicate that cultural awareness of linguistic terms is something they care about a lot.

October 03, 2014

Everything sells better with a dog...

...although companies who use this strategy are not always as forward as J. Crew in this ad:

April 20, 2014

"First Position" -- Where are they now?

This post has got nothing to do with language or dogs. But since the post I wrote about the Spellbound kids ("Where are they now?") is the most popular post on this blog, I thought I might do the same for the kids from the 2011 ballet documentary "First Position," which shares many of the characteristics of Spellbound.

Of the six dancers portrayed in the documentary, 3 (Michaela DePrince, Joan Sebastian Zamora, Rebecca Houseknecht) were old enough to be awarded a scholarship with a prestigious ballet school, the dream prize of every dancer in the competition. 2 of them are still professional dancers.

Michaela DePrince, the dancer from Sierra Leone with the poignant life story, is probably the most established of the dancers. In the 2010 YAGP competition, she won a scholarship with American Ballet Theatre and afterwards received offers from both ABT and the Dance Theatre of Harlem for the 2012-13 season. She picked the latter and had her professional debut in 2012. She became known to a wide audience through a guest appearance in the TV show Dancing with the Stars. According to Wikipedia, she joined the Junior Company Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam in 2013. She also has her own website. And did you know that she used to be a competitive swimmer? Read an interview (and see beautiful pictures) with her here.
Edited to add (Oct. 2014): Her biography, Taking Flight, is coming out this month.

Joan  Sebastian Zamora, from Colombia, whose picture is on the cover of the First Position DVD, won a scholarship with the School of the Royal Ballet in London and joined the English National Ballet, Britain's foremost touring dance company, in 2013.

Rebecca Houseknecht, the all-American princess, did not win a prize at the YAGP, but she was offered a position with Washington Ballet's Studio Company shortly after the competition (the invitation came from one of the judges), which she happily accepted. However, she found that she "didn't like having to dance for my job, as weird as it sounds." After a year, she left the company. According to this article in the Washington Post, she is now studying speech pathology at Towson University, where she also joined the dance squad.

The three younger dancers went on to compete at the YAGP again -- and won awards again. As of 2013, they are still too young to be members of a professional company, but for at least two of them, dancing still pretty much seems to be their career destination.

Miko Fogarty, the determined sister of a less determined brother (and daughter of a very determined mother), has quite a media presence, see her tweets here and her YouTube videos here . (There's quite a bit of fan art about her. ) In 2012, ABC Nightline reported on her third YAGP and in 2013 she won an award in the prestigious Prix de Lausanne and was awarded full scholarships from ballet schools in the US and overseas. In 2013, she was training with the Indiana Ballet Conservatory and with Kaoru Jinushi in Japan.

Aran Bell, the gravity-defying 11-year old from Italy, was the winner of the Hope Award in the 2010 YAGP competition (the award for children who are too young to compete for the Grand Prix). A year later, he won the Junior Grand Prix.  He has attended prestigious summer programs and festivals. In 2013, at the age of 15, he performed as part of the dance troupe Intermezzo in New York.According to one source, he has standing offers from four world-class ballet schools: Paris Opera, Royal Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, and ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. When will he accept one of them?
Edited to add (Sep. 2014): Aran Bell is now dancing with ABT's studio company, which trains young dancers that are likely to become part of ABT.

Gaya Bommer Yemini, the spirited comtemporary dancer from Israel (who bonded with Aran Bell), went on to win the first prize in the contemporary category at the 2011 YAGP. In 2012-13 she was a scholarship student at the Princess Grace Academy in Monaco. Here's a picture of her from the Academy's Facebook page (dated Oct. 2013 and, sweetly, with a comment by Aran Bell):

April 13, 2014

"for moral behaviors, nouns work better than verbs"

What do nouns and verbs have got to do with "Raising a Moral Child" (the title of an op-ed piece in the Times today)? This: Sometimes, it's the right thing to praise behavior in a child, i.e. an action ("I loved it that you shared your toy"), sometimes it's more effective to praise the child, i.e. a character trait ("I love it that you are a generous person").
Many parents believe it’s important to compliment the behavior, not the child — that way, the child learns to repeat the behavior. Indeed, I know one couple who are careful to say, “That was such a helpful thing to do,” instead of, “You’re a helpful person.” But is that the right approach? In a clever experiment, the researchers Joan E. Grusec and Erica Redler set out to investigate what happens when we commend generous behavior versus generous character. After 7- and 8-year-olds won marbles and donated some to poor children, the experimenter remarked, “Gee, you shared quite a bit.” The researchers randomly assigned the children to receive different types of praise. For some of the children, they praised the action: “It was good that you gave some of your marbles to those poor children. Yes, that was a nice and helpful thing to do.” For others, they praised the character behind the action: “I guess you’re the kind of person who likes to help others whenever you can. Yes, you are a very nice and helpful person.” A couple of weeks later, when faced with more opportunities to give and share, the children were much more generous after their character had been praised than after their actions had been. Praising their character helped them internalize it as part of their identities. The children learned who they were from observing their own actions: I am a helpful person. This dovetails with new research led by the psychologist Christopher J. Bryan, who finds that for moral behaviors, nouns work better than verbsTo get 3- to 6-year-olds to help with a task, rather than inviting them “to help,” it was 22 to 29 percent more effective to encourage them to “be a helper.” Cheating was cut in half when instead of, “Please don’t cheat,” participants were told, “Please don’t be a cheater.” When our actions become a reflection of our character, we lean more heavily toward the moral and generous choices. Over time it can become part of us.
Modelling good behavior also helps. No verbs or nouns needed.
Children learn generosity not by listening to what their role models say, but by observing what they do.

April 08, 2014

The benefits of dog ownership -- let me count the ways

NY Times science columnist Jane Brody got herself a dog -- and finds that she is a happier, more connected person:
"there is no question that I am thrilled by his antics, endearing personality, unconditional love (even when I yell no), and the many connections he’s fostered with both acquaintances and strangers."
Not exactly news for dog owners, but perhaps helpful for those on the fence.

March 14, 2014

Calling all Scrabblers

In my classes, I discuss the question "What is a word?" from a theoretical perspective. We have lively discussions, but they are never really passionate. If you want heated discussions about whether or not a squence of sounds or letters is a word, you have to talk to Scrabblers (I don't play Scrabble).

For the first time since 2005, Merriam Webster is updating its official Scrabble players dictionary. What a game changer that will be! There will potentially be thousands of additions to the dictionary and one of these words will be selected by Scrabble players. Fans can nominate a word hereon the Hasbro Facebook page..

Among the suggestions: embiggen, cromulent, emotypo (mistyped emoticon), onesie, Zen ("10 points from Z's never hurt"), ew, Qwirkle (the game), texting, bling, lifehack, bromance, injera (the bread), yolo (the acronym), Jedi, unstaged, emo, photobomb, amazeballs, nowish, craycray...

March 03, 2014

The wickedly talented Adele Dazeem

I don't believe in Freudian slips. Usually, speech errors are either retrieval problems (one aims at "knife" and out comes "fork," a word that often collocates with the target word) or indicators of the speech planning process (one aims at saying "silence is golden" and out comes "gilence is solden"), but what on Earth was going on when John Travolta introduced performer Idina Menzel as "Adele
Dazeem" at the Oscars?

You can travoltify your own name with the Adele Dazeem name generator provided by Slate Magazine.

And you can listen to Idina Menzel's performance here:

January 23, 2014

My WOTY (Word of the Year) vote: doxx

So, I have been thinking about what would have been my WOTY (word of the year) choice. I felt rather meh about the ADS choice, "because," because it is neither a word nor particularly zeitgeisty.
Selfie" (which I wrote about here) seems a better choice, but it is also a tad trivial. But when I read the cover story in the New York Times Magazine this weekend ("The Online Avengers: Are antibullying activists the saviors of the Internet — or just a different kind of curse?"), there it was: my WOTY, the verb "to doxx." You've never heard of doxxing? Here's what it means:
Expose someone's true identity, usually a name or address. It's one of the scummiest things someone can do on the internet. (Urban Dictionary)
The article is about "OpAntiBully," a group of activists who consider themselves a resource for victims of bullying. Their activism reaches from offering informal counseling to victims to exposing the identity of the supposed perpetrators on the Internet. From the article:
This kind of outing, known as doxxing, involves scouring the Internet for personal data (or documents, the source of the word “doxx”) — like a person’s name, address, occupation, Twitter or Facebook profile — and then publicly linking that information to the perpetrator’s transgression. The process can be as simple as following a trail the target has left behind or it can involve tricking someone into revealing the password to a personal account or hacking into a website to obtain private information.
Not every case of doxxing involves public shaming (for example, there was nothing particularly shameful about Michelle Obama's credit card statements, which got posted online), but the ones they do seem rather zeitgeisty to me.

Edited to add: Can I change my mind to binge-watch?

January 14, 2014

"You're supes gorge."

Looking for cool valentines? Old school letterpress meets new school (clipped) adjectives: The result is totally adorbs. (Not sure I would actually use double clipping, as pictured.)

Get them from farewellpaperie.

January 05, 2014

Because: Linguists

The American Dialect Society chose "because" or rather the elliptic construction "because + N/A" (as in "He failed the test, because: grammar") as its Word of the Year 2013.

“This past year, the very old word because exploded with new grammatical possibilities in informal online use,” Zimmer [=linguist Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS New Words Committee] said. “No longer does because have to be followed by of or a full clause. Now one often sees tersely worded rationales like ‘because science’ or ‘because reasons.’ You might not go to a party ‘because tired.’ As one supporter put it, because should be Word of the Year ‘because useful!’”
I'm feeling rather "meh" about this choice. On the one hand, I understand that linguists are excited about new constructions, especially those that seem to challenge linguistic norms, on the other hand, I think this choice is stretching the meaning of the word "word" (as in Word of the Year) quite far. I think I would rather have voted for "slash," as in "come and visit slash stay," because I think it's a great example of a linguistic innovation that started in written language and then found its way into spoken language (even if there isn't anything particularly 2013 about it). Also, new conjunctions don't exactly emerge every day (nor do new prepositions, granted, but "because" is not a new preposition, see below).

The new because construction has received quite a lot of attention in the media this year, see, for example, this recent article in the Atlantic, which claims that "because" has become a preposition. Alas, this doesn't seem to be true. On the one hand, "because" has been a preposition for some time, albeit one that has to be followed by a prepositional phrase ("because of the weather"), rather than a simple noun phrase (*"because the weather"). [I just saw that Geoffrey Pullum makes the same argument on Language Log.]

On the other hand, "because" in this new construction doesn't seem to behave like a preposition at all. First, it is typically NOT followed by a noun phrase (the hallmark behavior of a preposition) -- "He couldn't come because the weather" sounds quite awful, which is why, as early as July 2012, the construction was labeled "because NOUN" on Language Log. However, that label may be too restrictive as well. There are examples in which "because" is followed by an adjective ("because..tired") or by an interjection ("I hate shaving because...ouch"), examples taken from Language Log. Second, it seems that the construction is not limited to "because." When I discussed it in class with my students, quite a few contributed examples that included "but" instead of "because." 

So, instead of a new preposition we may have a new construction on our hands, which is just as exciting (if not more exciting), but does it give us a Word of the Year? I don't know.

In any case, it would help to get a more solid data base of acceptable uses of because NOUN. You can contribute by taking this survey created by linguist Laura Bailey.

*On Language Log, one user points out that in German, the equivalent of "because," "weil," can easily be used in this way ("Ich hasse rasieren, weil schmerzhaft" -- I hate shaving, because painful), while bare nouns seem to be awkward.

December 19, 2013

Sometimes it seems right...

...to donate to a cause that really only one person -- and in some cases one dog -- will profit from.

11-year old guide dog Orlando saved the life of his owner, who had fallen on the subway tracks in NYC. Orlando will soon be too old to work, but his owner's insurance plan would not cover the expenses to keep him as a non-working dog, so he would have to be re-homed. Enter the Internet. Through crowdfunding, over $50000 were raised to enable Orlando's owner to keep his dog. (He will also get a new guide dog once Orlando retires.)

Read the whole story here.

Happy holidays!

December 02, 2013


The Dictionary of American Regional English went online today!

Go and visit! Or don't you want to know where people can have the mulligrubs?

A condition of despondency or ill temper; a vague or imaginary unwellness.scattered, but esp SouthSee Map

November 25, 2013

Webster's Dictionary, clutch edition

Look at what Kate Perry carried to the AMA awards: It's a Webster's Dictionary clutch, for sale here (alas, it will set you back $2050).

Tom & Lorenzo's verdict:

Personally, we think the nails, the ring, and the clutch are all a bit wrong for the dress, but they’re the pieces that take this from being a standard (albeit typically gorgeous) Oscar de la Renta look and turning it into a “Katy Perry in Oscar de la Renta” look. In other words, they wouldn’t have been our choices, but we can’t deny that they work for her.

November 24, 2013

Selfie, revisited

So, Oxford Dictionaries opened the 2013 WOTY (Word of the Year) season. Their choice is "selfie," not exactly a new word, but a word that gained prominence in 2013 (which is why I wrote about it here, admittedly rather late in the game). They include this diagram:

The productivity of the word can also be seein in the innovations it undergoes. There's "helfie" (a picture of one's hair), not a word I was aware of, "welfie" (a picture of oneself working out), ditto, and "legsie," a picture of one's legs, really more of a cousin of "selfie." Other languages may borrow the concept, but not necessarily the word:

Other WOTY candidates were twerp (what about "twelfie?"), binge watch, and bitcoin. 

November 19, 2013


Cuteness overflow: These pictures of puppy Theo and toddler Beau napping together are making the rounds on Twitter and Facebook. Justly so.

November 10, 2013

For people who know ...bakery

If that headline (the noun "bakery" used without an article) strikes you as odd, you probably don't live in Wisconsin.

In Wisconsin, "bakery" does not necessarily refer to the place where you buy bread and pastries, it can refer to the baked goods themselves. It seems that this regional meaning of the word -- well documented in the Dictionary of American Regional English (which, hooray, hooray, will soon be available online) --  is still alive and kicking... so much that you can find it in advertisements of a Midwest-based supermarket chain (Hy-Vee). Yay for regionalisms!

November 09, 2013

Gnome Chomsky

Meta-costume for linguists:

I first saw it posted on a linguistic website (as a Halloween costume for linguists), but when I did a Google search I found that there's a whole universe of "Gnome Chomskys" out there (a word play on "Noam Chomsky," who -- besides being a "polictical commentator and activist" happens to be one of the most famous linguists ever -- yes, THE Noam Chomsky). There are even pictures of Noam Chomksky holding a Gnome Chomsky.

So, I'm a little behind in Gnomology. Just how far behind is something I realized yesterday when I was reading the business section of the NY Times. Katia Beauchamp, founder of the beauty subscription service Birchbox, revealed that
Every month, an employee wins the gnome that we named Chomsky, and employees submit a “gnomination” for who they think deserves it most. The winner gets to have Chomsky on their desk for a month and they get $1,000. We read to the entire team why they deserve the award, which is tied into our four leadership principles.
If people who sell lip gloss are more into this Chomsky gnome thing than linguists, well, that just makes you feel very out of it. 

September 20, 2013

Metaphorical grammar makes me twitch.

When I came across the headline "When Tech Turns Nouns Into Verbs," I got mildly excited -- would there be examples beyond "to google" and "to text message?"

Turns out the article is talking about verbs in a metaphorical sense:
Think about the phone you carry. You talk with people on it, but you can also open apps and transform it into a camera or chess board. [...] Whatever this object is, it isn’t a phone in any conventional sense. And that may be a clue to a whole new way of thinking about the world around us. The phone is a little connected computer — a device whose uses and meaning we continually explore and modify. It is by no means a phone in the historical sense. It is still a physical object, of course, but it is really a vehicle for one or another software-enabled experience. In an important sense, it is made to be contingent, changing with every download and update. That focus on the needs-driven experience means it behaves less like a static noun and more like an active verb.

Two points:

  1. a. verb is an object of grammar with well-defined characteristics, none of which are shared by an object that you hold to your ear or on your lap
  2. Grammar 101: nouns needn't be static (think "celebration") and verbs needn't be "active" (think "be" or "seem"),  so this simple dichotomy is below School House Rock level

So, next time you want to write about some vague, imprecise notion of a verb being a metaphor for twitching around, please choose a headline that reflects your more ....creative approach to grammar. Metaphorical grammar makes me twitch.

September 10, 2013

Dogs of summer

So the Cambridges released new pictures of Prince George (a.k.a. "the little rascal," a noun related to the French word for 'common people,' "racaille") -- but the real star of the picture is Lupo, their dog.

There was a bit of a kerfuffle (from the verb "fuffle," 'to disorder') about the pictures being taken by the Prince's grandfather, Michael Middleton, who clearly is not a professional photographer. Eddie Mulholland, vice chairman of the British Press Photographers Association found that
they are lovely snaps for a grandfather to have taken, but in terms of the quality, they are not really what you want for such a historic picture. [...] The photograph with the dogs is the worst. One of the dogs in the corner looks like a furry rug, and part of the Duke’s head is wiped out by a patch of light coming through the trees. To get over that you would just have had to move the subjects until they were completely in the shade.
You mean like this?

Meanwhile, some miles further west, the Obamas introduce Sunny, their new family dog. And the press corps is smitten (participle of the verb "smite," 'to throw'). Justly so!

June 28, 2013


What is a "selfie"? Any old self portrait taken with a camera or specifically a picture taken with a cell phone at arm's length with the purpose of posting it on social media? And what about newer cell phones, the ones with forward facing cameras?

This BBC News Magazine article recently addressed "the rise of the 'selfie'."

Selfie-ism is everywhere. The word "selfie" has been bandied about so much in the past six months it's currently being monitored for inclusion in the Oxford Dictionary Online.
Actually, the OED listed "selfie" as one of the "words on the radar" a year ago:
This colloquial term for a photographic self-portrait has thus far appeared primarily in social media contexts. In fact, we see more evidence for it on the Oxford Twitter Corpus than in the much larger Oxford English Corpus attracted mainstream notice when it appeared in US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's riposte to a humorous Tumblr dedicated to an image of her texting [=Texts from Hillary Clinton]. Many commentators doubted that she had penned the riposte ["Sup Adam. Nice Selfie Stace"], saying such a Facebook-generation word was unlikely to be in her vocabulary. 
Original image by Kevin Lamarque for Reuters.
Although "selfie" still sounds pretty juvenile to me, the word has still fared a lot better than other words put on the radar by the OED the same month. Or do you know the meaning of squoob (prominent cleavage that protudes from a tight bodice), geried (geriatric emergency department in a hospital), or Phablet (a touchscreen device that is larger than a cell phone and smaller than a tablet)?  

Oh, and Hillary Clinton? She just posted the first selfie of herself and daugther Chelsea on Twitter, carefully not positioning herself as running the world.