November 30, 2007

let's get going. chop, chop!

Oh, what a boring episode. Chop, chop!

It's a good thing they don't normally do menswear on Project Runway, even if "pants are just 2 big sleeves sewn together" (Chris). How can you discuss design when there's not a single garment on the runway that actually fits ("The crotch looks insane")? When most looks are unfinished or poorly executed, including the winning design (which only had two pieces, but three were originally required)? Say it with Nina Garcia: "This is unacceptable!"
See the evidence here.

It worries me.

Also, we just had a celebrity client, and an excellent one at that. We don't need another one, and certainly we don't need a not-so-eloquent wife spoiling the make-it-work walkthrough with Tim Gunn, who was "worried" when he saw the number of unfinished outfits. Carmen was determined to get her models measurements "to a T" (an expression that dates back to the 17th century but whose exact origin is unknown, although it seems to be related to the earlier expression "to a tittle"), and she might have, but what she did with them was deplorable. There's draping by design and then there's draping by disaster. Not chic.

What also worries me is that Tim Gunn in this week's episode of Tim Gunn's Guide to Style admitted to having just learned a new word from his client, a curvaceous woman of color: booty. Tim, what planet are you from? The word has already made it into Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, and bootylicious is even in the Oxford English Dictionary.

On the wishlist for next week:
  • a challenge that gives the contestants the chance to show off their talent and creativity
  • no gratuitous shots of half-naked contestants informing us that they are HIV positive
  • no men in funny hats informing us that they are straight, straight, straight
  • no celebrity wives that mess with Tim Gunn's airtime in the work room
  • and more airtime for Elysian Elisa (you know, the 42 year old artist who has to avert her eyes when a male model takes off his pants -- she may hand-measure female models, but her boyfriend is the only male she chooses to touch)

November 26, 2007

language museums?

Loosely tied to the recent (August 2007) publication of a new edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (if you don't have it, get it, it's the best dictionary you can get for the price), the Times has an article on the whole OED enterprise, in which Edward Rothstein focuses on what is not exactly news in the world of lexicography: Dictionaries are not museums for words, and lexicographers are not language watchdogs in the stickler sense, they document language usage, they don't sneer at it. To quote from the preface to the 2nd edition of the OED:
The aim of this Dictionary is to present in alphabetical series the words that have formed the English vocabulary from the time of the earliest records down to the present day, with all the relevant facts concerning their form, sense-history, pronunciation, and etymology. It embraces not only the standard language of literature and conversation, whether current at the moment, or obsolete, or archaic, but also the main technical vocabulary, and a large measure of dialectal usage and slang. Its basis is a collection of several millions of excerpts from literature of every period amassed by an army of readers and the editorial staff. Such a collection of evidence - it is represented by a selection of about 2,400,000 quotations actually printed - could form the only possible foundation for the historical treatment of every word and idiom which is the raison d'être of the work. It is generally recognized that the consistent pursuit of this method has worked a revolution in the art of lexicography.
This has been the OED's mission since its inception. Therefore, it's somewhat surprising that Rothstein makes it look as if some radical changes have happened between now and then.

Much has changed since then, when Walter Scott — now a literary wraith — was the dictionary’s second most-quoted English writer after Shakespeare. And the new Shorter Oxford provides a telling example of those changes, reflecting, and partly anticipating, the transformations unfolding in the unabridged third edition of the O.E.D. (as the project is called). That new O.E.D. began in 2000 with the letter M, and, as of September 2007, reached the word purposive, each successive change made available for the dictionary’s online subscribers. (See

[...] included here are 2,500 new entries that treat language more as living menagerie than as natural history museum. Along with restless leg syndrome and flatline come more questionable entries, where use becomes the main criterion for inclusion. “Generic,” for example, has given birth to a verb that makes even appendicitis seem attractive: “genericize.”
I'm not quite sure what is so questionable about this. If not use, what else should be the main criterion for inclusion in a dictionary? Aesthetics? Whose aesthetics? The lexicographer's? As in the days of Samuel Johnson, who wrote things like "a ludicrous word" about words he didn't like? You may not like the verb genericize, and I may not like the metaphoer that an adjective "has given birth to a verb". Fortunately, it doesn't matter. Both exist, both are used, both are part of the language.

Or not?

But once description trumps prescription and currency eclipses timelessness, it becomes difficult to capture the slippery shifts in tone and fashion that accompany new words.

Let me stress again, that there is no such thing as a timeless word. You may think you know exactly what the word nice means. Fine. Look it up in the OED and you'll find that originally it meant something quite different, namely "foolish, silly, simple, ignorant". That's the beauty of the OED: It gives you the use of a word throughout history without implying that one is better than the other.

But the biggest difficulties are in the “ historical principles,” which seem to have become historical themselves — held over from the past, only to be jettisoned when inconvenient. This is clearest in the use of quotations. Of course the first O.E.D. was skewed in its choices, reflecting few writers of the 18th century, and offering a selection not fully representative of the language’s powers. But now the O.E.D. does not even pretend to offer “all the great English writers of all ages.”

And why should it? That's not the mission of a dictionary based on linguistic scholarship. Yes, Johnson's dictionary was a major cultural accomplishment, but it was also a reflection of its editor's tastes and whims -- unlike the OED.

Diversity becomes a greater priority. The Shorter dictionary has 1,300 new quotations from writers like Susan Faludi, Spike Lee, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Zadie Smith, and the editors emphasize their broad demographic intentions. This can be illuminating. I like, for example, the Shorter’s definition for “mook” (“a stupid or incompetent person”) with an illustration from Mr. Lee, “Who are you gonna listen to, me or that mook?” But in that case, there is also too little information: Only cross-references lead the reader to guess that the word evolved out of a racial slur.

Did it? According to the OED, the origin of the word is uncertain, and early uses don't confirm this claim.
The Internet is now the O.E.D.’s perfect home — as revisable and seemingly beyond codification as language itself. But the new O.E.D. also seems tempted by the unbounded possibility of that infinite revision, as if the very idea of a “treasure-house of the language” were somewhat quaint. And to that one can only respond with an exclamation that has just made it into the O.E.D.’s third edition: “Puh-leeze!”

Oh, puh-leeze, if you think the mission of a dictionary should be to provide a finite list of a language's "treasures", you absolutely missed the point. It can't be said often enough:

"The vocabulary of a widely diffused and highly cultivated living language is not a fixed quantity circumscribed by definite limits." (OED, 2nd edition)

November 24, 2007

midwestern food

But in case you're thinking we're not health-conscious here in the Midwest, you're wrong:

November 22, 2007

my socks are still on

So last night, not wholly unexpectedly, "pop culture and fashion icon"* Sarah Jessica Parker was a guest judge (and client) on Project Runway. She was all one would hope her to be, perfectly charming, articulate, precise and constructive in her criticism. Unfortunately, the perfectly uncharming task was to design a 2-piece look for her uninspiring line Bitten. In other words, it had to be cheap and it had to please the Steve & Barry crowd. No glamorous red carpet gown for SJP, no over-the-top outfit for Carrie Bradshaw. Ah, to think of all the fun we could have had!

As expected, the resulting garments were completely unexciting. Victorya won with this rather shapeless sack dress, which SJP thought could be worn by women of many different body types (as long as they have the legs of a Thomson's gazelle, she forgot to add).

The sack theme went on. The losing garment was a saggy, scratchy-looking dress that virtually looked as if it had been made out of a potato sack. Marion, don't you know that Heidi Klum likes her plants shiny and her garments expensive-looking? When you hear Michael Kors reference Pocahontas, you know your game is up. Bye-bye, Marion, you just didn't measure up.

Unfortunately, there aren't any interesting words to report. I'm getting very tired of worn-out phrases like "wow the judges" and "knock their socks off" (the latter, rather uncharacteristically, used for the second time by Tim Gunn). For multisyllabic words of Latinate or Greek origin we had once more to count on Elisa, who was going for a "jux'position of aesthetics" (oops, she swallowed a syllable here), creating something "polymorphic" (a word her teammate Sweet Pea didn't understand, but even if you do - "poly"= many, "morph" = form - it doesn't make a lot of sense here) and who once more envisioned "a simple little cascade", all accomplished without a sewing machine, which apparently she cannot use. Tim Gunn was so stunned that he couldn't think of a nice Latinate term. His comment? "Cuckoo!"**

Talking about stunning, the real stunner was when Elisa casually owned up to using "spitmarks" to "imbibe"*** her fabric "with energy and essence". First grass, now spit, it just makes you wonder: "What planet are you from?" (M. Kors). Do they have grass stains on Mars? In any case, Elisa, wise, gentle woman that she is, assured everybody "I'm coming to your planet with gifts". And I must say, her garments look a lot less cuckoo than her philosophy sounds. No beehive hats à la Vincent here!

So, thank you, Elisa, for giving us another reason to scratch our heads in disbelief. But the socks? They are still on.

* Icon is truly an overused word on PR. The origin is Greek and the earliest documented (now obsolete) meaning in English was "likeness, portrait". The more recent meaning, "aperson or thing regarded as a representative symbol, esp. of a culture or movement", was first documented in 1952.

**The word cuckoo (coucou in French, Kuckuck in German) imitates the sound of the bird. It has been around since the 13th century. In the 16th century, the meaning widened, and the word was used to refer to people (not necessarily marking them as silly). The adjective was first documented in 1918.

***Imbibe is of Latinate origin ("bibere"= drink).

November 17, 2007

everything sells better with a dog

Once again innocent puppies are exploited in order to get people to buy stuff ...

And dog owners everywhere are made believe that their buddy should dress like them...

...or that he needs a coat when clearly his face tells you that he feels his dignity is compromised.

Seriously, what would the holiday season be without dogs?

November 14, 2007

it's sew time

Project Runway is back. No new Tim Gunnisms yet -- most of the linguistic highlights of the first episode were produced by contestant Elisa.

A dress of sculptural quality (only visible to its designer) is imbued* with a natural element (read: grass stains on white fabric). Mythical gowns with cascades evoke sylphs** and haikus*** (again, in the designer's mind) -- while in the judges' corner, the very same dress provokes metaphors of trainwrecks**** (guest judge Monica Lhuillier) that are pooing fabric (Heidi Klum, down-to-earth mother of three).

Elisa, please stay with us a little longer, your sartorial***** and linguistic fabrications are too entertaining to say goodbye quite yet.
*a Tim-Gunn-like word about which Johnson wrote in 1755 that it "seems wanted in our language, has been proposed by several writers, but not yet adopted by the rest". Little did he know about 21st century interdisciplinary artists ...
**spirits that inhabit the air, the word was probably coined by Paracelsus
*** Japanese verse, consisting of 17 syllables (perhaps each rag in the train of this dress is supposed to represent a syllable?)
****nice pun, considering that the train was the wreckiest part of this dress
*****from the Latin word sartor (=tailor)

November 12, 2007

a dream job for linguists -- or not

One of my dream jobs has always been to be chef namer at IKEA. There must be people who get paid to invent names for articles you can buy at IKEA. The closest I ever got to meet one of them - surely the are all trained linguists? -- was to meet the person who translated the IKEA catalog from Swedish into Hungarian. Can you imagine it? Klippan meets Csárdás.

Well, it seems that there's a lot less creativity involved than I had thought. Somebody pointed me to this Wikipedia entry today, which is based on an article in the German magazine Der Stern. According to the article, the naming is done by only two employees (it doesn't say that they are linguists). They don't invent the names at all, they use existing words from Scandinavian languages, following clear guidelines:
Most of the names are either Swedish, Danish, Finnish or Norwegian in origin. Although there are some notable exceptions, most product names are based on a special naming system developed by IKEA.
  • Upholstered furniture, coffee tables, rattan furniture, bookshelves, media storage, doorknobs: Swedish placenames (for example: Klippan)
  • Beds, wardrobes, hall furniture: Norwegian place names
  • Dining tables and chairs: Finnish place names
  • Bookcase ranges: Occupations
  • Bathroom articles: Scandinavian lakes, rivers and bays
  • Kitchens: grammatical terms, sometimes also other names
  • Chairs, desks: men's names
  • Materials, curtains: women's names
  • Garden furniture: Swedish islands
  • Carpets: Danish place names

A notable exception is the IVAR shelving system, which dates back to the early 1970s. This item is named after the item's designer.

Not such a dream job after all. It's like naming your kitchen "subjunctive" and your bed "Dakota".

By the way, the name IKEA itself is an acronym: Founder Ingvar Kamprad grew up on a farm called Elmtaryd in a village called Agunnaryd.

November 10, 2007


Frank Bruni complains about the patronizing (and formulaic) language often used by waiters:

DINING out nightly has taught me many things, including this: Nothing kills enjoyment like too many mentions of it. A triptych of canapés arrives, and I’m told that proceeding from left to right is the best way “to enjoy them,” a statement that blurs the line between helpful instruction and boastful prediction.... Would I “enjoy coffee with dessert?” I don’t know; it depends how good the coffee is. I’ll have some, yes, then we’ll see.

Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. Egads. It’s a semantic pox, either getting worse by the moment or simply less bearable upon the thousandth exposure to it. And it’s a fine example of restaurantspeak, an oddly stilted language that has somehow survived the shift toward casual dining and that sounds even odder and more stilted in light of the new informality. [...]

Restaurantspeak is patronizing. “Excellent choice,” says the waiter in one restaurant, casting my companion’s order of braised short ribs as a bold inspiration. “Perfect,” says the waitress in another restaurant, and she says it after each person’s selection of an appetizer and entree, as if we’ve managed to home in on the only out-and-out winners in a tough crowd. [...]

I wonder, and I wonder if a waiter who served me recently at an haute Chinese restaurant is paid by the joyful syllable. There was no end to what he wanted me and my companions to enjoy: the fried lobster, the braised pork belly, hot air. In regard to the last, he admonished us for recoiling from a bamboo steamer that was cooking baby vegetables in front of us.

“While the steam is rising,” he said, “you can enjoy the aroma.” Or I can wait until tomorrow for my facial, and get it in an honest-to-goodness spa. That I might enjoy.

November 04, 2007

rudy giuliani: a simple transitive guy

It's not often that a politician attacks an opponent using linguistic terms. Joe Biden did in his description of Rudy Giuliani, whom he considers unqualified to run for President:

"There's only three things he makes in a sentence: a noun, a verb, and 9/11. There's nothing else!"
It seems that Biden's quib has caught on. For example, it was taken up by Frank Rich in his NYT column today. However, Rich reminds us that the formula noun + verb + 9/11 was not exactly invented by Rudy Giuliani. It was also "Mr. Bush’s strategy in 2004, lest we forget".

ETA: In addition, I think it's fair to say that RG has a second transitive pattern. It involves the verb "to run", the adverb "never", and some sort of noun, as in "S/He has never run a city", which, if you're the guy who's best known for having run a city, must be some sort of relevant qualification for becoming President of the United States, more relevant, anyway, than a clear stance against torture.

November 01, 2007

dog town usa 2007

How could this have escaped me? San Diego is Dog Town USA 2007. And not just because of the beaches:

The community stands behind its four-legged friends. Annually, nearly $25 million is donated to the six local animal shelters in the area. “To me, that says, ‘Wow! This city is a great place to be a dog,’"

To me, if you're a dog, a shelter is not where you want to be. And it seems that in San Diego, you don't have to stay long:

San Diego’s combined animal shelter rates are enviable, with more than 80 percent of all impounded dogs adopted, rescued, or reunited with owners. At the humane society, adoption rates are a staggering 90.5 percent.
Another great thing:
San Diego is also the home of the AniMeals program which provides free pet food for homebound elderly and disabled owners. Started in 1984 by the Helen Woodward Animal Center, there are now more than 35 groups in the United States operating programs patterned after San Diego’s AniMeals.

But let's also mention one particular runner-up:

Madison, Wis.
Dogs: 10,250
People: 221,551
Highlights: The University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, the popular Dog Fest event, the Bark & Wine benefit aiding homeless animals, many dog-friendly parks, including four off-leash ones, and a focus on holistic and alternative veterinary care.

“The Madison area has something for every dog. From our numerous dog parks to our lakes to the world-class veterinary care at the University of Wisconsin, Madison is a great place to be a dog — or a dog owner.”
— Dave Cieslewicz, Mayor

good-bye, washoe

Three weeks ago, Alex, the world's most famous parrot died. He had a vocabulary of about 100 words and his owner and trainer, psychologist Dr. Irene Patterberg, felt that he could truly communicate with her. Yesterday, another animal known for its astonishing linguistic abilities died: Goodbye, Washoe.

Born in 1966, Washoe was taught American Sign Language (or some sort of signing system) by cognitive scientists R. Allen and Beatrix Gardner. She learned a number of signs (although speakers of ASL didn't all agree that these signs were actually ASL signs) and used them creatively. A big question was whether she had some sort of grammar, which would allow her to combine signs for words to express more complex concepts. At the time, Noam Chomsky's idea that human beings are born with an innate sense of grammar (Universal Grammar) had just become popular. This set in motion a whole range of experiments with great apes. Was there any evidence that they also had language?

the excitement died down in the late 1970s, when Herbert Terrace, a cognitive researcher at Columbia, published a report on a chimpanzee he had been trying to teach language, named Nim Chimpsky. Nim could learn signs, but did so primarily by imitating teachers, Dr. Terrace found by reviewing videos of interactions.

“There was no spontaneity, no real use of grammar,” Dr. Terrace said. He analyzed a video of Washoe, who learned about 130 signs, and said he found evidence that she, too, was reacting to prompts, not engaging in anything like human conversation.

Researchers altered their approach and began teaching with word symbols, called lexigrams, in which symbols stand for words. They also created environments in which animals learned as infants do, first by imitation and later by observation — by watching others communicate, then trying it themselves. Dr. Rumbaugh said a number of chimps and pygmy chimpanzees learned this way and “the evidence screams out that apes have a capacity for a very basic dimension of language.”

While Washoe was explicitly told to use signs, a younger chimpanzee, Loulis, who was raised by her, picked up some signs directly from her. There is no doubt that apes can use signs (arbirary combinations of form and meaning) to convey information, but the question of whether or not they have an understanding of combining signs (i.e. of grammar) to create novel expressions is still very much under debate among linguists.