October 29, 2007

reduplication is a girl's best friend

It seems that Oprah Winfrey is not just very successful at promoting books, she can also promote words into dictionaries.

"I think vajayjay is a nice word, don’t you?”*

THIS is the story of how a silly-sounding word reached the ear of a powerful television producer, and in only seconds of air time, expanded the vocabularies — for better or worse — of legions of women.

It began on Feb. 12, 2006, when viewers of the ABC series “Grey’s Anatomy” heard the character Miranda Bailey, a pregnant doctor who had gone into labor, admonish a male intern, “Stop looking at my vajayjay.”

The line sprang from an executive producer’s need to mollify standards and practices executives who wanted the script to include fewer mentions of the word vagina. The scene, however, had the unintended effect of catapulting vajayjay (also written va-jay-jay) into mainstream speech. Fans of “Grey’s Anatomy” expressed their approval of the word on message boards and blogs. The show’s most noted fan, Oprah Winfrey, began using it on her show, effectively legitimizing it for some 46 million American viewers each week. “I think vajayjay is a nice word, don’t you?” she asked her audience.

Vajayjay found its way into electronic dictionaries like Urban Dictionary, Word Spy and Merriam-Webster’s Open Dictionary. It was uttered on the television series “30 Rock.” It was used on the Web site of “The Tyra Banks Show.” Jimmy Kimmel said it in a monologue. It has appeared in the Web publications Salon and the Huffington Post and on the blog Wonkette. [...]

The swift adoption of vajayjay is not simply about pop culture’s ability to embrace new slang. Neologisms are always percolating. What this really demonstrates, say some linguists, is that there was a vacuum in popular discourse, a need for a word for female genitalia that is not clinical, crude, coy, misogynistic or descriptive of a vagina from a man’s point of view.

“There was a need for a pet name,” said Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, and the chairman of the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary, “a name that women can use in a familiar way among themselves.” [...]

Another view was offered by John H. McWhorter, a linguist and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who pointed out that the women associated with introducing the word — Ms. Winfrey, the Miranda Bailey character on “Grey’s Anatomy” — are middle-age African-Americans. “The reason that vajayjay has caught on, I think, is because there is a black — Southern especially — naming tradition, which is to have names like Ray Ray and Boo Boo and things like that,” Dr. McWhorter said. “It sounds warm and familiar and it almost makes the vagina feel like a little cartoon character with eyes that walks around.” [...]

As Joel McHale, the host of “The Soup,” put it: “It’s not derogatory. It’s not ‘You’re being such a vajayjay right now.’ It’s kind of a sweet thing." “Vajayjay,” he said, “is like your good buddy.”

* For the record, no, I don't think it's such a nice word, not for grown-ups anyway. Reduplication often has a decidedly childlike ring about it (boo boo, wee-wee), and I can't see how this would be charming or desirable in this case.

October 28, 2007


I just watched an old celebrity episode of Who wants to be a millionaire, featuring Jack Black. The following question was worth 1000 dollars: Which of the following words is used for a German type of shorts, often worn with suspenders?

  1. dirndl
  2. lederhosen
  3. zeitgeist
  4. blitzkrieg
Wow, I wouldn't have thought that all of these words have been thoroughly absorbed into English by now. For the record, the answer is lederhosen, Lederhose in German. And they're not exactly shorts:

October 25, 2007

shoot the panda

The Times recently had a piece on grammar sticklers on Facebook. It was entitled "Your Modifier is Dangling", but as far as I could see, there was no dangling modifier in the text. Also, there seems to be some confusion between grammar and spelling, judging from the following example.

Ms. Nichols is one of many young people throwing off her generation’s reputation for slovenly language, and taking up the gauntlet for good grammar. Last year, after seeing a sign on a restaurant window that said “Applications Excepted,” she started a grammar vigilante group on Facebook, the social networking site, and called it “I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar.” Its 200,000 members have gleefully and righteously sent in 5,000 photographs documenting grammatical errors.
When it comes to outspoken criticism of other people's grammar, there is often a gap between competence (knowledge about grammar) and performance (criticism of other people's grammar):

So, when is it O.K. to correct grammar? When you’re a teacher, of course, or when you’re coaching a nonnative speaker who has asked for help. But if you can’t control the impulse to help a friend by correcting a mistake, what’s the best way to do so? It seems there are two options. You can ask, “Oh, is that the way you pronounce that word?” Then go on to say that you always pronounced it differently, and demonstrate how you do so. A more subtle approach: Don’t point out the mistake. Instead, repeat what was just said, but with correct usage this time, and in your own sentence. Then keep talking. Ms. Agress, the business-writing expert, uses this technique. “So if someone tells me that everyone has their issues,” she said, “I reply, ‘Yes, everyone has his issues, but that doesn’t mean we have to worry about them.’”

What I worry about is if people like Ms. Agress will even consider looking up the facts in a real grammar of English (you know, those fat books that don't have pandas in their titles and that don't end up on bestseller lists):

The use of they with a singular antecedent goes back to Middle English, and in spite of criticism since the earliest prescriptive grammars it has continued to be very common in informal style. In recent years it has gained greater acceptance in other styles as the use of purpotedly sex-neutral he has declined; indeed its use in examples like No onei felt that theyi had been misled is so widespread that it can probably be regarded as stylistically neutral. [The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, p. 493]

October 23, 2007

wrong, wrong, oh, so wrong

Let's say you want to check out the holiday collections by Mac, Estee Lauder, and the like. So you go to saks.com and click on "Beauty" and "What's new?"

What do you see? This:

Juicy Crittoure? You must be joking!
Dog Grooming? On a beauty website of a major department store?

This is wrong on so many levels. The name! The placement! The products ("Softening Paw Balm Pawtection", "Coif Fur Conditioner", "Juicy Couture Pawfum", "Paw Polish Remover Pads")! The prices! May I suggest that if you love your dog, you spend time with him, play with him, feed him healthy food, keep him healthy -- and make a donation to an animal shelter or some other good cause.

October 12, 2007

i don't understand cat lovers

So this is how cat lovers advertise their champions? I don't get it. Doesn't the poor little thing look hungry and abused?

October 11, 2007

suitable sentences

“I swear I’m going upstairs to find some suitable sentences which I will be using from now on.”

(Doris Lessing, upon being surprised with the news that she just won the Nobel Prize in Literature.)

Normally people strive to find suitable words -- I'm glad to see some recognition for syntax.

hyphen, shmyphen

So the shorter OED eliminated 16,000 hyphens in its newest edition.

What’s getting the heave are most hyphens linking the halves of a compound noun. Some, like “ice cream,” “fig leaf,” “hobby horse” and “water bed,” have been fractured into two words, while many others, like “ bumblebee,” “crybaby” and “pigeonhole,” have been squeezed into one.

I beg to disagree. Morphologically, fig leaf is still one word, no matter if it is recognized as such by Microsoft Word. The plural is fig leaves (not figs leaves), there's only one stressed syllable, and it can take only one determiner (the fig leaf, not the fig the leaf). So, what's the point of hyphens in the first place?
They’re records of how the language changes, and in the old days, before the Shorter Oxford got into the sundering business, they indicated a sort of halfway point, a way station in the progress of a new usage. Two terms get linked together — “tiddly-wink,” let’s say, or “cell-phone” — and then over time that little hitch is eroded, worn away by familiarity. In a few years, for example, people will be amused to discover that email used to be e-mail.

Yes, there may be instances where a hyphen can help avoid ambiguities ha-ha!), but bear in min("A slippery-eel salesman, for example, sells slippery eels, while a slippery eel salesman takes your money and slinks away." d that ambiguity is part of every human language. If you buy blue socks and towels with stripes, no hyphen in the world will help you figure out if the socks have stripes and the towels are blue. That's why we have syntax!

October 09, 2007

beware the jabberwock!

When, oh when, will shop owners realize that not every blending (or portmanteau word) has the charm of slithy?*

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves
And the mome raths outgrabe.
"That's enough to begin with", Humpty Dumpty interrupted: "there are plenty of hard words there. 'Brillig' means four o'clock in the afternoon--the time when you begin broiling things for dinner."

"That'll do very well", said Alice: "and 'slithy'?"

"Well, 'slithy' means 'lithe and slimy'. 'Lithe' is the same as 'active'. You see it's like a portmanteau--there are two meanings packed up into one word."

[Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass]

October 08, 2007

posh ingredients, bad grammar

How likely is it that this store has exactly one truffle to sell?

October 07, 2007

Ohne Grammatik, mit kompliziert

I'll never get the appeal of deliberately bad grammar.

October 06, 2007

Where do peanuts come from?

As I was admiring a bunch of peanuts at the farmers' market today, roots and all, I wondered where the name comes from. Why pea? It turns out that it is the nut part that is more questionable. Strictly speaking, the peanut is a legume (derived from Latin legere, "to gather") or a seed in a legume, not a nut.

Pea itself is a back-formation based on pease, which was construed as a plural form. Like peas, peanuts grow in pods.

more shopping dogs

As I was saying....

And here's a very well-behaved dog inside a store. It's no big deal to take a well-behaved dog into a store in Germany (as long as it's not a grocery store).

October 01, 2007

caseless wine

no shopping dogs

You will find a variation of this sign on many shops in Germany ("We have to stay outside").

They may lose some potential customers.