October 29, 2008

race in the race

Do you think race is any factor in this race? (Larry King to Joe McCain*)
It may sound unlikely, but race and race are actually not related. The word expressing an "act of running" is of Scandinavian origin (compare Old Icelandic rás, Norwegian rås) and was also spelled "ras", "rase", and "raiss" in Middle English (according to the OED). The word referring to a "group of people ... descended from a common ancestor", on the other hand, is borrowed from Romance (French and Italian) and was spelled "race" right from the beginning (the OED lists 1547 as the year of its earliest documented use). In a sum, we're dealing with a case of homophony.

*Did McCain just pronounce infomercial as "infomertchal"?

October 15, 2008

meet joe-the-plumber

Watching the debate? Senator McCain has a new friend: Joe-the-plumber. I guess we'll see more of him on Saturday Night Live.

Update: Turns out that Joe-the-plumber is not really a plumber. Nor is his name Joe. But he has a cute dog, so there.

barack the block

What do Barack Obama and YouTube have in common? They're both verbs.

October 13, 2008

colossale goofballo

The word "syntax" occurs in the news, tree diagrams are suddenly "in" -- what's next? Newspaper columns in Latin? Oh, wait...

October 08, 2008

green behind the ears

Now, Sen. McCain suggests that somehow, you know, I'm green behind the ears and, you know, I'm just spouting off, and he's somber and responsible.
A slip of the tongue by Barack Obama in yesterday's debate. You're either "green" or "wet behind the ears", but here the two metaphors are mixed. My friends, slips of the tongue are important linguistic data, they tell us about how speech is planned and how words are stored in the mind. In this case, the two expressions that are mixed are semantically similar, they both mean "inexperienced". (Urbandictionary.com, however, lists "green behind the ears" as a set expression.)

(If you do a Google image search on "green ears", or if you are a vintage Barbie collector, you will come across an completely unrelated green ear phenomenon, illustrated in the picture below: "a condition caused by the original metal earrings being left in the doll's ears for too long.")

October 05, 2008

yay for tree diagrams

Say what you will about Sarah Palin, but I can't think of anyone who has done as much for putting syntax (and phonology) into the limelight of political commentary. Here's Maureen Dowd on the subject of tree diagrams:
When she [= Sarah Palin] was asked by Couric if she’d ever negotiated with the Russians, the governor replied that when Putin “rears his head” he is headed for Alaska. Then she uttered yet another sentence that defies diagramming: “It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there.... She dangles gerunds, mangles prepositions, randomly exiles nouns and verbs and also“also” is her favorite vamping word — uses verbs better left as nouns, as in, “If Americans so bless us and privilege us with the opportunity of serving them,” or how she tried to “progress the agenda.”
Update: Mark Liberman at Language Log points out that the sentence that Maureen Dowd chose to illustrate her point does not, in fact, defy diagramming:

October 01, 2008

smashing the vase

From an article in the Times on Sarah Palin's debate performance when she ran for office in Alaska:
But just as she does now, Ms. Palin often spoke in generalities and showed scant aptitude for developing arguments beyond a talking point or two. Her sentences were distinguished by their repetition of words, by the use of the phrase “here in Alaska” and for gaps. On paper, her sentences would have been difficult to diagram.
I'm sure the author of the article didn't have Chomskyan diagrams in mind. But any syntax instructor will agree that ungrammatical sentences are harder to diagram than grammatical ones (like the one below). In theory, they should also be harder to produce...

Update: For an attempt to diagram Palin's sentences in traditional Reed/Kellogg style, see this article on Slate.com