December 24, 2010

Happy Holidays!

If you had 40,000 pipe cleaners, what would you do with them? Why, invite over some 80 friends and build a 4-foot holiday sculpture of First Dog Bo, of course.

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December 21, 2010

Hallelujah!

You've probably seen this video (recorded in a Canadian mall on Nov. 13, 2010). More than 26 million people have by now (assuming that each view corresponds to an individual viewer).



My first thought was that all the singers were members of a choir engaged in some sort of social experiment, but no, it was a so-called "flash-mob concert," "when groups of people - often strangers - conspire on social networking websites to turn up at the same place at the same time and start singing". That's an established activity? With a name? (I'm so behind!)

In any case, not all flash-mob concerts have joyful endings. This one didn't: 5000 people had turned up to sing, which caused the building to creak. Everybody had to be evacuated. The "mob" continued the performance outside.

December 16, 2010

WOTY: There's a word for that

What do these two pictures have in common? They illustrate two potential "Words of the Year."



Soon the American Dialect Society will pick its words of the year. I asked some of my students what their choices would be. Here are some of their answers from technology, pop culture, and technology:
Do you still remember? Last year's choice was "tweet" and the year before it was "bailout." If there is an established pattern to pick terms from technology in uneven years and terms from politics in even years, my money is on Tea Party. Appy Holidays! (No, not a holiday wish spoken with a charming French accent, rather an advertisement for apps that run on Android phones.)

December 14, 2010

"Gifts for she"


I can't really make sense of this. Is there something I'm missing, or is this just a blatantly ungrammatical slogan? Is this what the company means by "do something creative every day?"

What's on your Kindle?

When a friend recently asked me about the advantages of reading books on a Kindle, I jokingly said that you could read trashy novels in public (think 'subway') and nobody would know about it. Turns out that that is exactly what people are doing:
If the e-reader is the digital equivalent of the brown-paper wrapper, the romance reader is a little like the Asian carp: insatiable and unstoppable. Together, it turns out, they are a perfect couple. Romance is now the fastest-growing segment of the e-reading market, ahead of general fiction, mystery and science fiction, according to data from Bowker, a research organization for the publishing industry.
Some people, apparently, enjoy hiding their books from a rather specific audience:
“We’ve had lots of customers write to us and say, ‘Now I don’t always have to show my husband what I’m reading.’ ”
Bye-bye, Fabio.

December 05, 2010

Syntax beating Prosody

In a recent article on the use of corpus linguistic methods in literary studies, the Times reported on the exhilaration and also anxiety about the potential of "electronic tools" and the application of statistical analysis to literary texts. Being able to count things often may lead to a shift towards research questions that rely on quantifiable data. Linguists will mostly take a "been there, done that" position -- after all, corpus linguistics is not exactly a new field or methodology.

Yet large searches can also challenge some pet theories of close reading, he said: for example, that the Victorians were obsessed with the nature and origins of evil. As it turns out, books with the word “evil” in the title bumped along near the bottom of the graph, accounting for less than 0.1 percent — a thousandth — of those published during the Victorian era. As Mr. Cohen is quick to acknowledge, the meaning of those numbers is anything but clear. Perhaps authors didn’t like to use the word “evil” in the title; perhaps there were other, more common synonyms; perhaps the context points to another subject altogether.
Precisely. Sometimes the things one looks for are not encoded in particular words. And words can be misleading:
Ms. Martin at Princeton knows firsthand how electronic searches can unearth both obscure texts and dead ends. She has spent the last 10 years compiling a list of books, newspaper and journal articles about the technical aspects of poetry. She recalled finding a sudden explosion of the words “syntax” and “prosody” in 1832, suggesting a spirited debate about poetic structure. But it turned out that Dr. Syntax and Prosody were the names of two racehorses. “You find 200 titles with ‘Syntax,’ and you think there must be a big grammar debate that year,” Ms. Martin said, “but it was just that Syntax was winning.”
No grammar debate, perhaps, but you gotta love a period in history when racehorses were called Dr. Syntax and Prosody!

December 01, 2010

Michebrot



A local bakery and pastry shop offers "organic miche" -- no, this is not a recipe from Michigan, it's their spelling of the German root misch- (to mix). The bread in question, Mischbrot, is made with a "mix" of grains, most likely wheat and rye.


November 29, 2010

fashism: "ironic and playful"

How far would you go to draw attention to your little fashion website? Would you mind being associated with Hitler and the Holocaust? You think that's a crazy question? Apparently not:

“We didn’t want the site to be TellMeHowThisLooks.com,” she [Brooke Moreland, one of the co-founders of the site]  said. “We wanted something a little cooler and edgier.”
Moreland also professes to be surprised by the public's reaction.
 “I never thought anyone would be offended because we’re not doing anything offensive,” she said. “Frankly, it’s a very different word.”
Frankly, that's a very poor excuse. Yes, the neologism fashism derives from fashion (a word borrowed that ultimately goes back to the Latin verb 'facere,' to make), while Fascism derives from the Latin word 'fascis', bundle).  On the other hand, it is quite clear that the name of the website was picked precisely because of its homophonous cousin.

Personally, I'd rather get my daily dose of fashion advice from a website with better taste. 

November 19, 2010

Please get your dog microchipped!

Have you heard of Target, an Afghan stray dog that prevented a bomb attach on American military barracks in Feburary? He was flown to the USA, adopted by a military family, taught to live in  a house and be well-fed, and even had an appearance on Oprah.

Last Friday, Target was killed. At a dog shelter in Arizona. Not really accustomed to the life of a city dog, Target had escaped through her doggie door. She reported to Animal Control, was picked up and sent to a local shelter. Because Target had no microchip, she could not be identified, so her picture was put on the shelter's website, and her owner immediately registered and paid the fee to pick her up. When he arrived at the shelter, Target had already been put to sleep. A mistake, sure enough, but it would not have happened, if the dog had been microchipped.

November 16, 2010

'refudiate' revisited

What a lame choice for Word of the Year, Oxford! Yes, it was an "unquestionable buzzword in 2010," but that doesn't make it a word, just like "misunderestimate" is not a word. "Refudiate" was a mistake, not a thought-through coinage (which is why it's so preposterous to point out that Shakespeare also coined new words.) Let's have a look at the other contenders:

  • bankster noun (informal) a member of the banking industry perceived as a predator that grows rich at the expense of those suffering in a crumbling economy: trillions of dollars are flowing to the banksters in the form of near-zero interest loans. 
  • crowdsourcing noun the practice whereby an organization enlists a variety of freelancers, paid or unpaid, to work on a specific task or problem: Kodak used social media crowdsourcing to engage its customers in their naming contest. 
  • double-dip adjective denoting or relating to a recession during which a period of economic decline is followed by a brief period of growth, followed by a further period of decline: higher food and energy prices could increase the risk of a double-dip recession.
  • gleek noun (informal) a fan of the television series Glee. 
  • nom nom (informal) exclamation an expression of delight when eating.
  • retweet verb (on the social networking service Twitter) repost or forward (a message posted by another user): people love to retweet job ads.
  • Tea Party a US political party that emerged from a movement of conservatives protesting the federal government in 2009. 
  • top kill noun a procedure designed to seal a leaking oil well, whereby large amounts of a material heavier than the oil—e.g., mud—are pumped into the affected well.
  • vuvuzela noun (also called vuvu) a long horn blown by fans at soccer matches.
  • webisode noun 1. an original episode derived from a television series, made for online viewing. 2. an online video that presents an original short film or promotes a product, movie, or television series.
Can there be any doubt that "Tea Party" will emerge as the 'true' WOTY? Let's wait for the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society in January.

November 11, 2010

“Naming your kid Hunter or Breaker is like saying f--k you to the world that invented feminism”

The 10 most popular names for boys in the US last year were Jacob, Ethan, Michael, Alexander, William, Joshua, Daniel, Jayden, Noah, and Anthony. No great surprises here. If one is interested in trends, it may be useful to look for the fastest-rising names instead. Last year, they were Cullen, King, Emmett, Colt, Braylen, Jett, Kason, Jasper, and Brooks -- many of them short names with a /k/-sound, evoking a new, macho form of masculinity, very different from names like 'John' and 'Mike,' which people associate "with a nice house in Westchester and two cars and a dad who goes to work and a mom who doesn't."

If the names seem a little un-namish to you (King? Colt?), there's this to consider: 
And yet, said Tom Recht, an engineer who lives in a Chicago suburb and is father to teenage sons Linus and Kilmer, “Around here, all the kids’ names are weird, but aside from the names, the kids themselves are very similar to the kids I went to school with. More parents than not are into the traditional male-female thing, they’re not a rebellious free-thinking crowd, except in their choice of names.”
Little Colt may have a "rebellious" name, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he won't end up in a nice house in Westchester. Who knows, perhaps he's going to be truly rebellious and major in Women's Studies?

November 04, 2010

Like a good neigh-bear


What exactly is 'neigh' in 'good neigh bear'? An adjective?
And what does it mean?

November 03, 2010

A memoir by the owner of the former First Dog

Former president Bush has written a memoir called "Decision Points," a "dogged work of reminiscence by an author not naturally given to introspection" (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times). As one would expect, much of the memoir deals with portraying Bush as a decisive leader, and there will be as much disagreement on his reflections on the decision-making process as on the decisions themselves. However, there is one point on which there never was any disagreement: George W. Bush loves his dog Barney, and that's a good thing. And so his memoir ends with a note on Barney and being an ordinary citizen again.
Mr. Bush says he left office satisfied that “I had always done what I believed was right.” Since then, he says, he’s comfortably settled back into ordinary life. Shortly after moving to Dallas, he writes, he took his dog Barney for an early morning walk: “Barney spotted our neighbor’s lawn, where he promptly took care of his business. There I was, the former president of the United States, with a plastic bag on my hand, picking up that which I had been dodging for the past eight years.”

October 31, 2010

not your typical farm dog

We met this little guy when we went out to a farm to pick our pumpkins.




He joined us for our hayride to the pumpkin patch.



Where he then disappeared.


We picked our pumpkins and carved them today.



Happy Halloween!

October 28, 2010

"I want to see you wear that polka dot dress, Klum!"

Whoa, Garcia and Klum are on last-name basis in this season's finale of Project Runway. They talk about what's wearable and what's sellable and it all ends with the sentence nobody wanted to hear: "Sorry, Mondo, that means you're out." Guest judge Jessica Simpson liked Mondo's collection best, especially the infamous polka dot dress, but she kindly assures winner Gretchen Jones that her sister (Ashlee Simpson) will "rock [Jones's clothes] impeccably."

What to say? Tim Gunn, not known for being stumped for words (see my ABC of Tim Gunn-isms for details), said this: "Wow. Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow."

Rock on. Impeccably.

Edited to add: Heidi Klum was true to her word. She wore a modified (but still recognizable) version of Mondo's polka dot dress at a red-carpet event. Pictures here. Take that, NinaGarciaFormerFashionEditorForElleMagazine!

October 26, 2010

Who's this Miriam Webster?

I'm a fan of the HBO show "In Treatment." In today's episode, Jesse, a 17-year old with, let's say, identity issues (he wore a T-shirt with the slogan "Hurt me, I'm a virgin"), tries to impress his therapist with a new word he has learned (bifurcated). To no effect. Later, the therapist mentions Merriam-Webster, which Jesse, in a perfect eggcorn, constructs as "Miriam Webster." He asks the therapist who this Miriam woman is. Off the cuff, Weston gives a brief account of Noah Webster and the Merriam brothers, Charles and George (he even knows their given names).

George and Charles Merriam founded a publishing house in Massachusetts in 1831. In 1843 they bought the rights to the current edition of Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language as well as the right to publish future editions. They published the dictionary at a lower price and made it a financial success. The company was later renamed Merriam Webster Inc.

Perhaps this is common knowledge among psychotherapists?

October 24, 2010

Meet the MAMILS

It seems that the older I get the more people I know who compete in marathons and triathlons. And while that might just mean that I now associate more with athletes than in my twenties (which I doubt), there is also a general trend of forty-something men (and women) turning towards triathlons as their preferred sport. The New York Times reports today that
The sport has exploded by 51 percent since 2007, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, and men in their 40s are one of the fastest growing segments in the sport, accounting for one-third of the 1.2 million triathletes.
The phenomenon is so popular that there's even a word for these "generation of athletic, type-A men who are entering middle age and trying to hold on to their youth through triathlons": They're mamils ('middle-age men in Lycra').  According to Urban Dictionary, the term was created by Michael Oliver, a senior analyst for the British market research company Mintel, and it caught on right away. Mintel's report describes mamils as "the noughties version of the mid-life crisis." Well, I guess an expensive bike and high-end spandex gear are still a lot cheaper than a Porsche convertible. Just make sure that you won't get chicked at the next race (beaten by a woman), it might take away some of the type-A fun.

October 19, 2010

fun-funner-funnest

A student asked me today why the form funner is considered incorrect -- wouldn't one expect a one-syllable adjective to form its comparative and superlative on -er/-est rather than synthetically, with more and most?

Absolutely. At least that's Steve Jobs's point of view.





The thing about fun, however, is that for many people it is not really an adjective yet. And in predicative uses like The concert was fun, it's hard to say if fun is an adjective or a noun, since both can be used predicatively (John is foolish/a fool). The situation becomes clearer once one includes elements that uniquely specify either nouns or adjectives, such as quantifiers. In The concert was a lot of fun, fun can only be a noun. You can only quantify nouns, but not adjectives. In The concert was very fun, on the other hand, fun clearly is an adjective, since nouns cannot be specified by degree adverbs (You can be very foolish, but you can't be very fool). So, while there may be situations where it's hard to say if fun is used as an adjective or a noun, it is very clear that it can be used as an adjective. And as an adjective, it would form the comparative with -er. The OED doesn't give the adjective its own entry yet, but recognizes in the entry for the noun that it can be used attributively (as in a fun game) and is "passing into [an] adj[ective] with the sense 'amusing, entertaining, enjoyable'."

Want more? The Boston Globe also has a column on the subject (including data from the OED), and LanguageLog has a posting that discusses the use of double comparatives like funnerer ("Clever quasi-grammatical stake-raising or pathetic attempt at hipness? You decide.")

October 15, 2010

btdubs

You don't really expect an acronym to be longer (in terms of syllables) than the phrase it replaces. Unless your acronym includes the letter 'w,' or three of them, as in 'www,' the 9-syllable acronym that replaces "world-wide web." One way to get around this is to clip the pronunciation of 'w' (double-you) to 'dub,' which looks longer in writing than 'w,' but consists of only one syllable. Applying that method, you arrive at "btdubs" ('bee-tee-dubs') for BTW ('by the way') or at "j-dubs" for 'just wondering,' which I overheard someone say in the elevator today. Of course, if you regularly visit urbandictionary.com, you already know that. Jay ess.

October 07, 2010

"I like it on..."

My friend Gen likes it on the barstool. My friend Jasmine likes it in the car.
Have you seen status updates like these on facebook today? Have they made you scratch your head? All those women who normally just post about their children's sandbox activities are now talking about - OMG!- sex? For an explanation, go to this link.
Titillating the Facebook newsfeeds today, women are posting where they like to keep their purses when they come home, but they conveniently leave out the word "purse." [...] The trend follows the January Internet meme in which women posted the color of their bra as their Facebook status. Both are to raise awareness of breast cancer. 
O.k., I'm now even more baffled than before. Juvenile jokes about liking it  on the barstool help raise the awareness of breast cancer exactly how? Let me be an old bore and just link to the National Breast Cancer Awareness Month website.

September 29, 2010

Dog Jog 2010



The annual DogJog in the city where I live always marks the day of the first entry in this blog for me. That was 5 years ago. We're still here, just a little busier than five years ago, due to a non-canine addition to our family. My dog is now an experienced dog jogger now, politely greeting other dogs at the event.


The motto this year? Fly like a beagle!



It was a bit of a rainy day, but a good time was had by all.





September 22, 2010

bacha posh

In a society that values boys much higher than girls, families with no male offspring may decide to raise a girl as a boy, a "bacha posh" (dressed up as a boy), at least until puberty. It gives the family recognition and makes it possible for the little girl to play outside, run errands, etc.

For most such girls, boyhood has an inevitable end. After being raised as a boy, with whatever privileges or burdens it may entail, they switch back once they become teenagers. When their bodies begin to change and they approach marrying age, parents consider it too risky for them to be around boys anymore.

eggcorn

Eggcorn made it to the OED -- and LanguageLog justly celebrates the occasion. And here's the posting on LanguageLog that put eggcorns on the linguistic map.


It's not a folk etymology, because this is the usage of one person rather than an entire speech community.
It's not a malapropism, because "egg corn" and "acorn" are really homonyms (at least in casual pronunciation), while pairs like "allegory" for "alligator," "oracular" for "vernacular" and "fortuitous" for "fortunate" are merely similar in sound (and may also share some aspects of spelling and morphemic content).
It's not a mondegreen because the mis-construal is not part of a song or poem or similar performance.
Note, by the way, that the author of this mis-hearing may be a speaker of the dialect in which "beg" has the same vowel as the first syllable of "bagel". For these folks, "egg corn" and "acorn" are really homonyms, if the first is not spoken so as to artificially separate the words.
[update (9/30/2003): Geoff Pullum suggests that if no suitable term already exists for cases like this, we should call them "egg corns", in the metonymic tradition of "mondegreen", since the eponymous solution of "malapropism" and "spoonerism" is not appropriate.]

August 24, 2010

“We feel so strongly that our daughter hear another language.”

The NY Times reports that "a noticeable number of New York City parents are looking for baby sitters and nannies to help their children learn a second language, one they may not speak themselves."

And indeed, bilingualism comes with a lot of benefits, social (being able to communicate with more people) and cognitive (for example, an advantage at tasks that involve disentangling the shape or look of a word and its meaning):
[B]ilingual children do better at complex tasks like isolating information presented in confusing ways. In one test researchers frequently use, words like “red” and “green” flash across a screen, but the words actually appear in purple and yellow. Bilingual children are faster at identifying what color the word is written in, a fact researchers attribute to a more developed prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for executive decision-making, like which language to use with certain people).
But it also comes with a price: Bilingual children have to learn more words and they have to keep two linguistic systems apart. Hence, access to the right words is a bit slower (we're talking about milliseconds here). Parents who hope that knowledge of a second language will give their kids a leg up in the admission to prestigious preschools will therefore be disappointed. At the age of 2 or 3, kids that are growing up bilingual may actually seem linguistically less adept than their monolingual peers. And how to keep up the second language once the child goes to school? According to the article, some parents decide to keep the nanny, even though this has "financial implications." Interesting that it doesn't occur to them to find Spanish-speaking friends for their kids. What's the point of knowing a language if you don't associate and communicate with the people that speak it?

Learn more about cognitive aspects of bilingualism here (scroll down to Podcast #9 on "Growing up Bilingual").

July 20, 2010

That's Chevrolet to you!

So let's say you run an American company that makes cars. Your company name has three syllables and is actually French. However, millions of customers love your products and have come up with a short version of your brand name, which is even immortalized in an iconic 1970s song. Would you think it a good idea to get rid of that short name and to advise employees to use the long name?

I thought so.

However, General Motors thinks otherwise, as recently reported in the Times:
On Tuesday, G.M. sent a memo to Chevrolet employees at its Detroit headquarters, promoting the importance of ''consistency'' for the brand, which was the nation's best-selling line of cars and trucks for more than half a century after World War II. And one way to present a consistent brand message, the memo suggested, is to stop saying ''Chevy,'' though the word is one of the world's best-known, longest-lived product nicknames. ''We'd ask that whether you're talking to a dealer, reviewing dealer advertising, or speaking with friends and family, that you communicate our brand as Chevrolet moving forward,'' said the memo, which was signed by Alan Batey, vice president for Chevrolet sales and service, and Jim Campbell, the G.M. division's vice president for marketing.

In other news: The organization previously known as the Y.M.C.A. is henceforth to be called “the Y.” Another strategy, more in tune with what people are actually saying, but with the same result: another iconic 1970s song becoming untethered.



July 08, 2010

0 is for Octopus

...or for zero goals scored in a soccer game.

German octopus Paul correctly picks the winner of German soccer matches at the World Cup in South Africa. Yesterday, he correctly picked out Spain. And so Spain won and moves on to the final, while Germany will play Uruguay for place 3.

Now German fans are clamoring for a "revenge grilling of oracle octopus." Turns out we're not a superstitious nation after all.

"singular they is just not that big of a deal"

Like Eric Baković, a linguist who writes for LanguageLog, I'm a fan of David Pogue's tech reviews in the Times. And like him, I'm thinking that it's perhaps a good thing that Pogue is not writing the "On Language" column. Here's a quote from his recent review of a book on the Facebook phenomenon.
Kirkpatrick’s writing is low-key but also workmanlike, and punctuated by jarring grammatical constructions (“Everybody carried their stuff themselves”; “every Thefacebook user had their own public bulletin board”). Ouch.
Who in this day and age gets thrown off by singular they? Or at any time, really? But, to adapt a quote from the novel Vanity Fair (1848), linked on Wikipedia, a person can't help their tastes. (Or can they?)

July 01, 2010

spellbound -- where are they now?


If you are a fan of the movie Spellbound, you have probably asked yourself what has become of its protagonists. The Oscar-nominated documentary, loved by critics and audience alike, followed 8 children competing in the National Spelling Bee finals in 1999. Spellbound kids, where are you now?


Spelling Bee winner Nupur Lala graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in Brain, Behavior, and Cognitive Science and is now a grad student at MIT, where she does research on memory formation and language processing. Go, Nupur!

Angela Arenivar
, whose parents immigrated from Mexico, is now a Spanish teacher. She graduated from Texas A&M University with a B.A. in Spanish and received an M.A. in Spanish from the University of New Mexico.

She keeps a blog called "Okay, so it's heleoplankton. Bee happy." In her most recent entry, she writes:

I am not ashamed that I come from a low-income background. Because of my dedication and intelligence, I was able to literally GO places. I was able to go to our nation's capital and capitol. I stayed in the Grand Hyatt, not in the Motel 8s my family and I did on our way to and from Mexico in the summers. I realized I was not forever destined to be poor. Why did I spend so much time studying words? Spelling made me happy, and spelling allowed me many adventures. Following my passion was my ticket out of poverty.

Neil Kadakia, whose father stressed that nothing that matters in life can be gotten without hardship , graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2007. He still lives in Orange County and is working in real estate.

April DeGideo, the serious girl from Pennsylvania who owned up to being a pessimist and who only very rarely allowed herself to imagine she'd be the winner of the National Spelling Bee, graduated from NYU in 2007 with a degree in journalism. She's now working in journalism/public relations.

Emily Stagg, who attended the spelling bee without her au pair, is currently a grad student at Yale (psychiatry/mental health). In 2006, she wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, in which she argued that it is more important to know the meaning of a word than its spelling:

If education is really what we are after, can we change the bee to make it more useful for teaching real-world skills to some of the nation's brightest students? For example, the question has been raised, why don't we make the National Spelling Bee a "definitions bee," where competitors need to know primarily what words mean rather than simply how to spell them? After all, memorization of $5 words can't be the most useful skill for these driven and capable students to develop.

Ashley White, the "angel" child (her teacher's words) from Washington, D.C., has a very poignant story, as told by the Washington Post:
Among the roughly 2,000 students who will graduate from Howard University on Saturday, one -- Ashley White -- has come a long, long way. From homelessness and teenage motherhood, she will graduate magna cum laude with a degree in television production and plans for graduate school. [...] A District spelling bee champ, she had been featured in a documentary, "Spellbound," about the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee. In the movie, the ambitious middle-schooler with a photographic memory had dreams of being an obstetrician. But, as the Post story recounted, White fell far and hard by the time the movie was released, in 2002. At age 18, she became a mother. And after bouncing among temporary homes, she landed in a homeless shelter. Despite the hardships, the young woman's dreams were unsquelched. Determined to get a college education, she was helped through Howard University by Washington Post readers, who offered her jobs, furniture and mentoring and contributed thousands of dollars to her education.

Funny man Harry Altman graduated from the University of Chicago and is now a graduate student in math at the University of Michigan.

According to various sources on the Internet, the saddest of the Spellbound stories is that of Ted Brigham, a Missouri native. He died in 2007. He was pursuing medical school at the time. The cause of his death was not released to the public.

Finally, George Thampy ("Trust in Jesus, honor your parents, work hard") went on to win the Spelling Bee in 2000. He graduated from Harvard University (with a degree in Chemistry, Health Studies, and Russian), where he also served as the director of a homeless shelter, and is now working in Investment Banking.

June 29, 2010

between you and I and Larry King

“I talked to the guys here at CNN and I told them I would like to end ‘Larry King Live,’ the nightly show, this fall and CNN has graciously accepted, giving me more time for my wife and I to get to the kids’ little league games,” Mr. King wrote in the blog post.
What's stunning about this statement is not so much that Larry King will not renew his contract for his daily talk show on CNN, nor that he and his wife are bent on spending time together after filing for divorce earlier this year, rather, it is the fact that after several decades as a journalist (Wikipedia talks about more than 40,000 interviews) he still falls into the coordination trap.

Mr. King, between you and I: Prepositions are not followed by nominative case, period. It's "more time for my wife and me," not "my wife and I." Rule of thumb: For the second coordinate, use the same case as for the first. You wouldn't say "more time for I," and "for my wife and I" is not any different.


June 27, 2010

repeat with me: the ghoti-joke is a myth

There is no evidence that the playwright George Bernard Shaw ever said that English spelling was so little systematic, the word "fish" might as well be spelled as "ghoti" ("gh" as in "laugh", "o" as in "women," and "ti" as in "nation," in case you were wondering). And yet, the lame ghoti-joke is attributed to GBS over and over again. One cannot set the record straight often enough. Here's a recent attempt by Ben Zimmer:

English spelling does not actually work by stitching together parts of words in Frankensteinian fashion. Ghoti falls down for the same reason, if you stop to think about it. Do we ever represent the “f” sound as gh at the beginning of a word or the “sh” sound as ti at the end of a word? And for that matter, is the vowel of fish ever spelled with an “o” in any word other than women? English spelling might be messy, but it does follow some rules.

[...] Victorians often amused themselves with genteel language games, so why not one involving the rejiggering of common words? Into the 20th century, other jokey respellings made the rounds, such as ghoughphtheightteeau for potato (that’s gh as in hiccough, ough as in though, phth as in phthisis, eigh as in neigh,tte as in gazette and eau as in beau).

Ghoti was elevated above these other spelling gags when it became attached to the illustrious name of Shaw — who, like Churchill and Twain, seems to attract free-floating anecdotes. If Shaw never said it, who was responsible for the attribution? I blame the philologist Mario Pei, who spread the tale in The Los Angeles Times in 1946 and then again in his widely read 1949 book, “The Story of Language.” Pei could have been confusing Shaw with another prominent British spelling reformer, the phonetician Daniel Jones (said to be one of the models for Shaw’s Henry Higgins in “Pygmalion” ), since Jones really did make use of the ghoti joke in a 1943 speech.

With Shaw’s supposed imprimatur, ghoti lingers with us. Jack Bovill, chairman of the Spelling Society, told me that despite its jocularity, ghoti is nonetheless “useful as an example of how illogical English spelling can be.” I beg to differ: if presented with ghoti, most people would simply pronounce it as goaty. You don’t have to be a spelling-bee champ to know that written English isn’t entirely a free-for-all.

June 25, 2010

travels to germany

Some impressions from recent travels to Germany.

















aloha from harlem

Harlem is about to get its first new hotel in decades, and 75 or so applicants hoping to land a job there mingled on a soundstage at the Apollo Theater wearing brightly colored leis, sang along to Michael Jackson videos and introduced themselves with nicknames like Amazing Ashton and Phenomenal Patti. [...] The hotel — part of a fast-growing, youth-oriented chain run by the people behind the W hotels — has a sassy attitude, said Aleks Truglio, the hotel’s sales and marketing director. It also has its own lingo, referring to its employees as “talent." [...] We’re looking for people who are sassy, savvy, outgoing — the people who love working with other people and who embrace human contact,” Ms. Truglio said, adding that the hotel’s check-in desk, where guests will be greeted with “aloha” rather than “hello,” was round, so as to feel welcoming from all angles.

Ridiculous, but easily trumped by the lingo used at the Amalfi hotel in Chicago, where memebers of the housekeeping staff are referred to as "comfort stylists."

May 09, 2010

comfort at leash's end

WASHINGTON — Just weeks after Chris Goehner, 25, an Iraq war veteran, got a dog, he was able to cut in half the dose of anxiety and sleep medications he took for post-traumatic stress disorder. The night terrors and suicidal thoughts that kept him awake for days on end ceased.

Aaron Ellis, 29, another Iraq veteran with the stress disorder, scrapped his medications entirely soon after getting a dog — and set foot in a grocery store for the first time in three years.

The dogs to whom they credit their improved health are not just pets. Rather, they are psychiatric service dogs specially trained to help traumatized veterans leave the battlefield behind as they reintegrate into society.

And the best thing? Some of these dogs are trained through the "Puppies behind Bars" program, which lets prisoners raise and train service dogs. Everybody wins.

May 07, 2010

revisiting selective aphasia on LOST

Recently, I discussed Sun Kwon's selective aphasia on LOST. It was caused by an encounter with Fake Locke, and it disappeared when she was reunited with her husband Jin. So far, so good. I remarked, though, that it seemed rather awkward that everybody's favorite Korean couple should be talking to each other in English at such an emotional point. One week later, let me put my doubts into perspective: If you talk to each other in your second language, while you're dying, it's not completely unreasoable that you talk to each other in your second language while you're experiencing a great moment of joy. (Which is to say, both scenes didn't make sense, just as the whole selective aphasia theme didn't make sense.)



R.I.P., Mr. and Ms. Kwon. And you too, Mr. Not-a-zombie-after-all, Sayid Jarrah.

May 06, 2010

chinglish: everybody likes a little language mish-mash

You may have seen this already.
For the last two years, the Shanghai Commission for the Management of Language Use has been trying to clean up English-language signs and menus to rid them of their malapropisms, like these examples. Fortified by an army of 600 volunteers and a politburo of adroit English speakers, the commission has fixed more than 10,000 public signs ... rewritten English-language historical placards and helped hundreds of restaurants recast offerings.
Commission for the Management of Language Use?

May 01, 2010

a day at the race


It was a beautiful day for a race around the lake today. Dogs were not allowed on the course, but they patiently waited for their owners to return and stood in line with them for snacks and goodies. Enjoy!



Or begged for treats.




This little guy was a main attraction for children.


April 25, 2010

"the future of the French language is now in Africa"

French is now spoken mostly by people who aren’t French. More than 50 percent of them are African. French speakers are more likely to be Haitians and Canadians, Algerians and Senegalese, immigrants from Africa and Southeast Asia and the Caribbean who have settled in France, bringing their native cultures with them.
How to interpret these facts? Some think that the rescue of French is called for (think: eliminating words borrowed from English, like "weekend"), others point out that the language is thriving like never before, reflecting the reality of diversity and globalization.

This is how Nancy Huston, a Canadian-born novelist here, puts it:
The world has changed....The French literary establishment, which still thinks of itself as more important than it is, complains about the decline of its prestige but treats francophone literature as second class, [while] ... laying claim to the likes of Kundera, Beckett and Ionesco, who were all born outside France. That is because, like Makine, they made the necessary declaration of love for France. But if the French bothered actually to read what came out of Martinique or North Africa, they would see that their language is in fact not suffering.

April 21, 2010

Compounded, clipped, and blended: The Smoke Monster in LOST

FIRST, THERE WAS A CLOUD OF BLACK SMOKE RAGING THROUGH THE RAIN FOREST.


We used to know him as "Smoke Monster," or "Smokey." When Smokey gets furious, he/it turns into a force of destruction, killing everything in its way (such as the crew of the Black Rock). Unless it's hidden behind a sonar fence or inside a tree. Or unless one is John Locke, who survived an encounter with Smokey in Season 1.



THEN, THERE WAS A MAN IN BLACK CLOTHING SITTING OPPOSITE A GUY IN WHITE.

Then Smokey became "Man in Black" or "MIB" (because he's always dressed in black) or even "Esau" (because he's playing opposite of "Jacob," who may or may not be his brother), or rather, it became obvious that Man in Black was a shape-shifter and could turn himself into the Smoke Monster. We learned that Man in Black wants to get off the Island, but this won't happen as long as Jacob is around. MIB cannot kill Jacob himself, so he must find someone else to do it. (That someone else turned out to be good old Benjamin Linus.)

FINALLY, THERE WAS JOHN LOCKE. OR WAS HE?

For some reason, Man in Black took on the persona of John Locke (he previously also took on the persona of dead people, for example Christian Shepherd, but this time, he is "locked" into it. Ah, the irony!), to whom he refers as "a sucker" and "loser." Thist added a level of complexity to the question of how people should refer to the new John Locke on the show. He looked just like the old John Lock, but he was someone entirely different. Mostly, fan websites chose blended forms to indicate the double identity: Some call him "Smockey" or "Smocke" (Smokey + Locke), others refer to him as Faucke (faux/fake Locke), others use "Un-Locke."



There's bound to be an episode that gives us the back story on Jacob and Man in Black. Let's see which effect it will have on our naming the latter. Will we ever know his name?

April 02, 2010

“They call it light bladder leakage, but I call it the spritz"

Commercials for feminine hygiene products are known for their abundant use of euphemisms, such as "feminine hygiene" (and of blue liquids). Brands like Poise and are now trying to change this, but how far can you go? Poise itself avoids the term "incontinence" and has coined the term “light bladder leakage" instead (what about "bladder dysfunction"?).
“Women want clarity in their communication and for us to be open and honest,” Ms. Jones said. “But they also want to identify with a term that doesn’t make them feel like they’re incontinent, a term that is attached to their fear of aging. That’s why we felt it was important to position this category out of incontinence and relabel it light bladder leakage.”
While Poise is only poised to go as far as "light bladder leakage," it picked a spokesperson who is not known for discreet language: Whoopi Goldberg.
The first day of shooting, we said the brand talks about light bladder leakage, and she said, ‘It’s not a leak, it’s a spritz. I talked to my mom the other night and she said it’s a spritz. We both think it’s a spritz.’ The spritz language is all Whoopi.
Meanwhile, Tena, a competitor, refers vaguely to "bladder protection" and has created a silly advertisement, in which Tena pads are likened to fashion accessories:
In a current commercial for Tena, by Zig, Toronto, part of MDC Partners, an actress in Victorian garb steps out a bedroom as she pulls off her powdered wig and dress, revealing her own hair in a bun and slightly more modern ball gown. As she walks through the house, she keeps pulling off outfits to reveal more modern ones, from a flapper style dress to a poodle skirt until she finally is wearing a contemporary satin dress. As the camera zooms to her abdomen, which shows no outline of any product, screen text declares, “Fashion has evolved. Shouldn’t bladder protection?” A voiceover says Tena represents “the evolution of bladder protection.”
The same problem -- overuse of euphemisms -- also occurs in commercials for menstrual products, which usually involve pictures of serene women dressed in white clothes on white horses or beaches.
“Fem-care advertising is so sterilized and so removed from what a period is,” said Elissa Stein, co-author (with Susan Kim) of the book “Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation.” “You never see a bathroom, you never see a woman using a product. They never show someone having cramps or her face breaking out or tearful — it’s always happy, playful, sporty women.”
The brand Kotex is now trying to change this and to introduce more direct language in its "U by Kotex" commercials (a line that caters to young women). However, it turned out that the networks weren't quite ready to go there. According to an article in the NYT, the word "vagina" was not considered acceptable, nor was the euphemism "down there." Perhaps they should turn to Ms. Goldberg for inspiration.

April 01, 2010

March 30, 2010

"She hits her head and she can only speak Korean? Are we supposed to buy this?"

That's one of the questions raised by tonight's episode of LOST (it was raised by Miles). What's the context? Sun is chased by fake Locke and hits her head against a tree. When she recovers from her fall, she can't speak English anymore, but she can still understand it and she can also still write in English. Jack explains that this is a case of aphasia, and he is right: Aphasia is a broad term that covers the loss or impairment of language comprehension or production. The impairment can be quite specific. In bilinguals, this can mean that only one of the two languages they speak is impaired. You can read about a specific case and its implications here:

The study, by Raphiq Ibrahim, a neurologist at the University of Haifa, describes a bilingual Arabic-Hebrew speaker who incurred brain damage following a viral infection. Consequently, the patient experienced severe deficits in one language but not the other. The findings support the view that specific components of a first and second language are represented by different substrates in the brain.[...] The results support a neurolinguistic model in which the brain of bilinguals contains a semantic system (which represents word meanings) which is common to both languages and which is connected to independent lexical systems (which encode the vocabulary of each language). The findings further suggest that the second language (in this case, Hebrew) is represented by an independent subsystem which does not represent the first language (Arabic) and is more susceptible to brain damage.
So, yes, we might be inclined to "buy" Sun's selective aphasia. But how is this relevant for the overall plot? Only 6 episodes left before the finale.

Edited to add:

3 weeks later, Sun and Jin reunite on LOST. And, lo and behold, her selective aphasia disappears. Which is rather awkward considering that there is no reason Jin and Sun should be talking to each other in English at such an emotional point.

pun & punishment

Makes you wonder who would ever refer to a beer as a "Weiss" in Munich.

March 16, 2010

some nouns make better verbs than others

The investment company Vanguard is trying to make itself into a verb -- because, you know, the benchmark for a successful brand name is how long it takes for the name to become a verb.
Any bets on how successful this particular effort is going to be? For starters, where's the demand for such a verb?
COMPUTER users searching online for information say they are “Googling.” Commercials running in states like Michigan and Ohio suggest that shoppers go “Krogering.” But what will investors make of a campaign that proposes they start “Vanguarding”? The campaign, scheduled to begin this week, turns the Vanguard brand name into a verb, the better to help potential customers remember the company’s mutual funds and other investment products.

“Reacting to the stock market is just investing,” a print advertisement asserts. “Taking stock in the long term is Vanguarding.”

Banner ads on Web sites will declare, “Vanguarding is getting the financial picture you want with less distraction.” To dramatize that, some ads will be virtually blank; the white space is meant to symbolize how Vanguard can reduce the “distractions” that confront investors.

In short, the campaign seeks “to verb up” the Vanguard name, to borrow a phrase from Steve Ballmer, chief executive of Microsoft. He used those words in an interview with The New York Times in discussing the new Microsoft search engine, Bing. Someday, he said, he hoped people would “Bing” a restaurant to find its address.

I'm sure the name Bing was picked because it makes a good English verb (better than "to yahoo" or "to altavista," for sure). However, there's already "to google" and I don't see any linguistic competetion from Bing any time soon. A campaign can't just make a noun a verb. Only people can.

March 13, 2010

dog fountain

Seen in Atlanta, GA:



I'm not sure how exactly it works, but it seems like a good idea.