December 25, 2011

Happy holidays with the first dog

People Magazine has put together a holiday-themed slideshow featuring Bo Obama. Here's a rendition of the first dog made of marshmallows and licorice:

Happy holidays!

A note on the White House holiday card: 
It's an image of Bo the first dog lying in front of a fireplace decorated with garland and a few presents and a poinsettia sitting on a table. Inside, it reads, "From our family to yours, may your holidays shine with the light of the season." To our eyes, it's pretty innocuous stuff. To Fox News and other conservative pundits, it's another front in the alleged "war on Christmas." The news channel made a ruckus this week about the card not being Christmas-y enough. But [...] the card follows a template used by most of the president's predecessors in office. George W. Bush's 2005 card featured snowy White House exterior -- with both of the Bush family's dogs in the foreground -- and the message "With best wishes for a holiday season of hope and happiness." (All of Bush's cards, however, did feature an insert with a Bible verse.) Cards from the Reagan and Clinton eras featured similar artwork. We get that the week before Christmas is usually a little slow for news. But this feels like much ado about nothing.

December 21, 2011

WOTY: Oxford's choice

And one more: Of all the "buzzwords" of 2011, among them "occupy," "Arab Spring," and the infamous "bunga bunga," the Oxford English Dictionary chose "squeezed middle," as its word of the year -- even though this expression is a phrase rather than a word and not all that catchy.

For more fun, I think we will once again have to wait for the list of WOTY nominations published by the American Dialect Society, especially in the category "most unnecessary" (such as "refudiate") or "most euphemistic" (such as "corn sugar" or "enhanced patdown"). The ADS will hold its annual meeting in Portland Jan. 5-7.

December 17, 2011

WOTY: Merriam-Webster

As always, Merriam-Webster uses the label "word of the year" for the word that was looked up most often on its online dictionary site. This year, the word in question was "pragmatic." Unexpected, no? It doesn't seem to be related to any specific event in politics or culture that would prompt people to look it up, nor is it particularly difficult to spell.

 In any case, "pragmatic" wasn't a choice or "pick" made by M-W (as claimed, for example, by the Huffington Post), it was simply the word that had the most look-ups. A pragmatic approach, indeed, but not one that tells us a lot about dominant topics and themes in 2011.

Users can now provide feedback on why they looked up a particular word and in the case of "pragmatic," it seems that some users wanted to verify that the word has positive connotations. (The word is of Greek origin, related to the Greek word for "deed".)

It's that time of the year: WOTY

WOTY nominations are rolling in. Here's Ben Zimmer's take. He has selected five words or phrases in the categories "domestic affairs," "foreign affairs," pop culture," and "tech." Among them are the following:

  • occupy (described -- by Geoffrey Nunberg -- as "that rare linguistic phenomenon, a word that....helps to create the very thing it names.")
  • downgrade (related to the reevaluation of the U.S. debt ranking)
  • Arab Spring (not a dance piece)
  • bunga bunga (sex parties hosted by the Italian prime minister)
  • deather (people who do not believe in the official story of the killing of Osama Bin Laden)
  • tiger mom (related to the controversial book by Amy Chua)
  • humblebrag (faux humility, I suppose it can also be used as a verb)
  • FOMO ("fear of missing out" -- leading to people being glued to their Facebook screens)

There's more at the link.

(For those who care about these things: For a brief time, Ben Zimmer was the successor of William Safire as the author of "On Language," the weekly column published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine for over 30 years. As expected, Zimmer did a splendid job, acting less like a maven and more like a linguist, and yet the column was ousted from the magazine, as were other columns that made the Sunday Magazine an interesting read. Go figure. Anyway, Zimmer  has found a new home as a columnist (he also still occasionally writes for the Times, though not the Magazine) at the Boston Globe. His first column will run this weekend. Hallelujah.)

Edited to add: First column here.

October 08, 2011

Flying with a pug

The Times reports today that more and more Airlines put restrictions on transporting trachycephalic, or short-faced, breeds (from the Greek words for 'head'), such as pugs or  bulldogs. 
According to the federal Agriculture Department, 189 animals died on commercial flights from June 2005 to June 2011; of those animals, 98 — more than half — were brachycephalic breeds. The breeds, which also include Persian and Himalayan cats, have smaller openings to their noses and elongated soft palates on the roofs of their mouths, which make breathing more difficult for them, veterinarians said. Those breathing problems can be magnified in stressful situations like air travel, and further exacerbated in extreme heat.
Some veterinarians will not allow those dogs to fly at all, others may perform surgery to elongate the dog's nasal passages. What's a dog owner to do? Either you accept these restrictions and just don't fly with your dog (according to the Times article, the Bulldog Club of America recommends that its members travel by car) or you use an airline that allows dogs to travel in the cabin, such as Pet Airways or Pet Jet (a domestic one-way flight is around $850). Option #3: If your pet is really famous (like the Target mascot dog, Bullseye), you can get him or her classified as a “high-profile animal,” and then he or she can fly in the cabin -- first class only. You always knew that there's a price to fame.

September 27, 2011

On Language

Sadly, Ben Zimmer's column "On Language" has disappeared from the NYT Magazine, but this week,  something very much like it was published in the magazine, albeit under the label "essay." Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg reminiscences over the uproar caused by the decidely descriptive approach of Merriam-Webster's  Third New International Dictionary, which came out 50 years ago and which, according to Nunberg, "signaled a turning point in Ameri can attitudes about language." was widely denounced for what critics viewed as a lax admissions policy: it opened its columns to parvenus like “litterbug” and “wise up,” declined to condemn “ain’t,” and illustrated its definitions with quotations from down-market sources like Ethel Merman and Betty Grable. That was reason enough for The Times to charge that Merriam had “surrendered to the permissive school” and that the dictionary’s “say as you go” approach would surely accelerate the deterioration already apparent in the language. 
Today, there's enthusiasm rather than outrage when a dictionary goes "permissive" and, for example, includes acronyms like "OMG," thereby elevating them to the status of real words (whatever that may be) in the eye of the public. Merriam-Webster even included "staycation," which I still have to hear a real person use in a real conversation. Nunberg drily puts it this way "A lot of these items will expire before your hamster does." But while they live, a dictionary is their display case.

September 02, 2011

Grammar? There's an app for that!

For those who like to carry around a grammar book all the time:
The Survey of English Usage at UCL is very pleased to announce the publication of a new App for Apple hand-held devices such as the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. The interactive Grammar of English (iGE) is a complete course in English grammar written for first year undergraduates, students at high schools and teachers of the English language. For more information see: 

August 22, 2011

"You can whip our cream..."

If you live in the Dairy State, you can't escape advertisements for milk and cheese. Sometimes they're very....well, see for yourself.

("You can whip our cream, but you can't beat our milk")

Where would you expect this slogan -- which is not unique to Wisconsin --  to show up?

What about: In an anaconda terrarium?

Preposition stranding, yet again

Ending one's sentences on a preposition (also known as 'preposition stranding') is about as cool as paying one's utility bill on time. What's really, really uncool is commenting on how ending a sentence on a preposition demonstrates one's streak of irreverence. Yes, I'm talking to you, NYT writer Neil Genzlinger (and to you, unknown copy writer for Trader Joe's).
They give us time to get ready for the transaction ahead. Ms. Clueless shirked her preparatory responsibilities and instead made me late for work, bursting the pleasant Cookies and Kreme bubble I had surrounded myself with. Yes, that’s another sentence that ends in a preposition. So fine me.
Don't worry, buddy, nobody's going to fine you for using Standard English. Ending a sentence on a preposition is not worth commenting on.

July 05, 2011

World-wide database of dog poop

How far do property managers go to ensure that their tenants pick up after their dogs? The New York Times describes a new method:
Canine DNA is now being used to identify the culprits who fail to clean up after their pets, an offense that Deborah Violette, for one, is committed to eradicating at the apartment complex she manages. Everyone who owns a dog in her complex Timberwood Commons in Lebanon, N.H., must submit a sample of its DNA, taken by rubbing a cotton swab around inside the animal’s mouth. The swab is sent to BioPet Vet Lab, a Knoxville, Tenn., company that enters it into a worldwide database. If Ms. Violette finds an unscooped pile, she can take a sample, mail it to Knoxville and use a DNA match to identify the offending owner.
The swabbing kit costs about $40 and each test is about $50. Results are entered into a worldwide database of dog offenders.

Worth the effort?
Karen Harvey of Forest Property Management in McCall, Idaho, said her company was not prepared to collect canine samples along with the rent checks. “If you allow pets, that sort of comes with it,” Ms. Harvey said. “I guess I would never take the issue of dog poop that far.”

June 24, 2011

Meet Mrs. John Knightley

The New York Times reports: 
The nostalgia wave among girls’ names appears to be over. About two decades ago, an entire generation of girls’ names — those from the late 19th and early 20th centuries — started coming back into fashion: Grace and Emma, Julia and Anna, Ella and Hannah. Nothing like it had ever happened before. Individual names obviously came back into style. But an entire era’s never had. Now the nostalgia wave, which peaked in 2004, is ending. Emily fell 41 percent between 2004 and 2010, Sarah tumbled 49 percent and Hannah 54 percent. The lack of recent Jane Austen movies has probably played a role.
Well,  of the names listed above, only one (EMMA) belongs to a popular Jane Austen heroine (yes, there's a JULIA in Mansfield Park, but, seriously, who knows that?). There are no Graces and Annas and Ellas and Hannahs in Jane Austen's novels.

So what was the most popular name for girls in 2010? Did it represent the current trend towards short names, modern names, names beginning with an A? Not at all. The most popular name for girls in 2010 was ISABELLA -- which, as serious Jane Austen lovers know, is the give name of Mrs. John Knightley, otherwise known as EMMA Woodhouse's sister. #45: Charlotte, as in Mrs. William Collins, up from #289 just ten years ago.  #12: ELIZABETH, as in Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy. Jane Austen adaption or not, I'll predict that the name FITZWILLIAM is not going to make it on the top 100 list for boys any time soon.

(Other popular names in 2010 were Sophia, Olivia, Ava, Abigail, Madison, Chloe, and Mia)

June 19, 2011

“I think that it’s probably wrong, in almost all situations, to use a dictionary in the courtroom"

The New York Times recently reported that the use of dictionaries in Supreme Court decisions is "booming." Justices do not just cite definitions of law-related terms like "license," but also quite ordinary words like "now," "also," "delay," "if," and even "of" (which, most of the time, really only has the function to introduce a prepositional phrase after a noun, as in "the translation of the novel"). Lexicographers find this use of dictionaries in the courtroom strage:
“I think that it’s probably wrong, in almost all situations, to use a dictionary in the courtroom,” said Jesse Sheidlower, the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary. “Dictionary definitions are written with a lot of things in mind, but rigorously circumscribing the exact meanings and connotations of terms is not usually one of them.”
However, a study published in the Marquette Law Review, found that over the last decade almost 300 word or phrase definitions coming from more than 100 dictionaries were used. Alas, there is no official dictionary of the Supreme Court, judges seem to be happy to quote from any dictionary that supports their opinion. Sheidlower points out the obvious problem:
“It’s easy to stack the deck by finding a definition that does or does not highlight a nuance that you’re interested in,” said Mr. Sheidlower, the O.E.D. editor.
Well, if any decisions need to be written on gender reassignment or cyronauts in the near future, the judges are lucky: These words have just been included in the OED.

June 18, 2011

Down there

So men sweat. In the groin area, too. You know, down there, "south-of-border" (Patricia Finn from the cosmetics company Jack Black), resulting in "batwings" (helpfully defined on as "The excess of your ballbag when it sticks to your inner leg on a hot day.")

What's new?

What's new is, according the the NYT, that there's now a slew of products that promise to take care of that specific condition, albeit in a coy and eupemistic way, all that at a time when makers of hygiene products for women are considering using the word "vagina" in their commercials.

Those new products for men have names like "Balla Powder" ("guaranteed to leave both your 'boyz' and body dry," according to their website), "Dry Down Friction Free Powder," "Man Powder" ("what baby powder wants to be when it grows up"), "Dry Goods" ("for those hard to reach places" -- eh?), or "Powder My Equipment," which sounds more like something a gymnast would use on the bars or rings.

There seems to be a market for these products (as well as for articles about them), but a dermatologist interviewed by the Times considers them quite superflous:
A dusting of plain old baking soda also combats both wetness and odor, said Dr. Altchek, who recommended that men who experience regular discomfort switch to more breathable all-cotton boxer shorts, take frequent but short showers and dry off thoroughly afterward. He cautioned against the overuse of powders, which may cause excessive dryness and also lead to skin irritation.

Dry goods? Dry damaged goods, more likely.

June 13, 2011

With compliments from Starbucks

It's one of those things: You see a word misspelled in a public place and it makes you wonder about the etymology of the word. And you ask  yourself: Where does "caramel" come from? Has it got anything to do with "Carmel"?

The answer is 'no.'

Carmel-by-the-Sea is a lovely little town in California, founded as a mission. (It's also rather touristy, not least because it used to have a famous mayor, Clint Eastwood, in the 1980s.) Its name is related to the order of the Carmelites, who define "Carmel" as a way of life in which we try to be aware of the Presence of God in the most ordinary, every day things." They trace their name to Mount Carmel in Palestine. It has got nothing to do with three-syllable "caramel," the substance created by heating sugar, for which the OED has no definite origin. There is speculation that the word is related to the Latin word for sugar-cane, cannamella.

Alas, "carmelized" is only part of the problem here. Let's skip the grammatical mistake ("It has a sweet ...  notes") and let's get to the issue of "compliment" vs. "complement." The verb "to compliment" means "to pay a compliment to" or "to flatter with praise," while "to complement" means "to complete" or "to make perfect". The spelling distinction is quite arbitrary, the words are homophonous (i.e. they are pronounced identically) and there was a time when the spelling "complement" was used for both senses of the verb, which makes sense, since they are both related to the Latin verb "complere" ('to fill up'). Alas, nowadays, different spellings are associated with different meanings and different syntactic behavior and speakers are supposed to know the difference. "Compliment" is often used with a nominal and a prepositional object (one compliments someone on something), while "complement" basically is a monotransitive verb (one thing complements another).

Complementary colors are spelled with an "e," because they 'complete' or cancel out each other. When mixed in the right proportions, they produce a neutral color (like gray), not a third hue (like orange).

In linguistics, two items are said to be in "complementary distribution" if they never occur together in the same environment. For example, the indefinite determiner "a" and the definite determiner "the" are in complementary distribution. One can say "the house" or "a house," but not "the a house.".

On the other hand, guest soaps in a hotel are "complimentary," because they are offered with compliments from the host.

Now back to our coffee with its sweet and slightly smokey (or smoky) notes. Those notes complete or perfect the taste of chocolate and caramel, an accomplishment on which you may compliment the coffee roaster.

June 09, 2011

State Dog of New York: The Rescue Dog (?)

Legislation to create an official State Dog is being introduced at City Hall in New York today. If approved, the State Dog of New York will not be a specific breed, but "a rescue dog — dogs that are rescued, rather than do the rescuing— for the honor to symbolize the need for people to adopt pets from animal shelters and animal protection groups."

While this may not be the most pressing political issue in New York, it at least brings to the forefront dogs that are not generally despised, unlike Trouble, the Maltese that was the heir to part of the Helmsley fortune in 2008. Trouble died at the age of 12 and what is left of Ms. Helmsley bequest to him is reverted to the Helmsley charitable trust.

June 07, 2011

What is the best way to get a dog's attention?

According to animal behaviorist John Bradshaw, author of "Dog Sense," 
The best way to get a dog's attention is to give it three treats and then refuse to give it the fourth. And you can calm and get the attention of all sorts of unruly dogs by doing that very, very quickly, and then once you've got their attention, half the battle is won.
Bradshaw does not subscribe to the Cesar Millan approach to dog training, which is based on the concept of the alpha-wolf. Like all the dog trainers I ever worked with, he is firmly in support of using positive reinforcement (and the withdrawal thereof) as the most important training tool. 
In place of the rigid, often violent, alpha-led wolf societies we once believed produced the modern dog were actually cooperative, familial groups. And in place of the choke-chain school of negative reinforcement should be a training program based primarily on the positive....To say that you don't use punishment when you're using these positive reinforcement techniques is nonsense. You inevitably do. What you don't do is hurt the dog. There doesn't seem to me to be any need for it. Dogs can understand all sorts of things without having to be hurt to make them understand.
So, go ahead, let your dog run in front of you while you're going for a walk, let him squeeze himself through the door before you open it. Let him be playful and enthusiastic. But don't forget those treats, at least four of them -- because number four is the one that will make your dog learn.

June 03, 2011

sorites -- periscii -- cymotrichous

Those words sound familiar? Then you must have been following the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Ben Zimmer gives an account of the final words on his blog at

This year's champion is 14-year old an 3rd-time participant Sukanya Roy, who said she went through the dictionary twice "and I guess some of the words really stuck."  Compare this approach to 2001 champion George Thampy, who, in the documentary Spellbound, unforgettably recommended the following strategy: 1. Trust in Jesus, 2. Honor your parents, and 3. Work hard. (You can read more about Georgy in my post Spellbound -- Where are they now?)

June 01, 2011

What's wrong..

...with the police kicking of an apartment after they smell marijuana drifting from it, if they knock hard, announce whom they are and then hear what sounds like evidence being destroyed?
Apart from the legal consequences, quite simply the "M" is wrong. I'm not sure how this could have escaped the Times's copy editors, it almost looks like a case of hypercorrection ("after a verb the pronoun form should be 'whom', not 'who'"). The rule is that the pronoun can (but by no means must) be whom if the pronoun is in the position of an object.  In this case, whom is located in the position of the subject in the embedded object clause after announce, hence only the subject form, who, is correct.

It seems that someone figured this out after May 24. If you look up the editorial today, you will see that the error has been corrected.

May 31, 2011

Why bilingualism is good for you

One cannot say it often enough: Bilingualism is good for you. And that's not just because it's fun to be able to talk to the French in French. From a NYT-interview with psycholinguist Ellen Bialystok:
One of your most startling recent findings is that bilingualism helps forestall the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. How did you come to learn this?
Read the answer here.

But be aware that while Bialystok uses a wide definition of bilingualism (encompassing speakers who did not grow up bilingual), using a little high school French now and again doesn't give you the same benefits: "You have to use both languages all the time. You won’t get the bilingual benefit from occasional use."

Bialystok concludes:
There are two major reasons people should pass their heritage language onto children. First, it connects children to their ancestors. The second is my research: Bilingualism is good for you. It makes brains stronger. It is brain exercise. 

May 30, 2011

The most complex word in the English language

What is the word with the most meanings in the  English language? Surely it must be a verb, nouns tend to have not more than a handful of meanings, if you don't count metaphorical uses. Surely it must be a one-syllable verb, because these are the words that get used most often, taking on new meanings, combining easily with different noun and adjective phrases. Could it be a semantically bleached verb like get or put, verbs that need to be followed by something to take on a concrete sense of meaning?
Well, according to the O.E.D.’s chief editor, John Simpson, we now have a winner — and a winner that may well say something about the current state of English-speaking humankind. For while in the first edition of the O.E.D., in 1928, that richest-of-all-words was “set” (75 columns of type, some 200 senses), the victor in today’s rather more frantic and uncongenial world is, without a doubt, the three-letter word “run.”
It took Peter Gilliver, the O.E.D. lexicographer working on the letter R, more than nine months harnessed to the duties of what Samuel Johnson once called “a harmless drudge” (plus many more months of preparatory research) to work out what he believes are all the meanings of “run.” And though some of the senses and their derivations try him — Why does a dressmaker run up a frock? Why run through a varlet with a sword? How come you run a fence around a field? Why, indeed, run this essay? — Mr. Gilliver has finally calculated that there are for the verb-form alone of “run” no fewer than 645 meanings. A record. 
Does this run counter to your expectations?

May 28, 2011

What happened on 5/20?

Schnaufblog is a quiet little blog. I don't advertise this blog anywhere. I keep it quite anonymous. It doesn't have many (or any?) comments. I mainly get hits for my postings on "Spellbound -- Where are they now?" and "Where do peanuts come from?" But something happened last week that sent many people to this post ("That's Chevrolet to you"), illustrated with a picture of The Village People, mostly visitors from the UK.
433 visitors in one hour, to be precise.

Still can't figure it out.

May 25, 2011

Sophie, Solomon, Layla, Luke, Gracie, Sadie and Ivan, Sunny and Lauren

Let's give a shout out to a powerful dog lover, who, after 25 years of a history-making TV, will host her final talk show today.

Hardcore Oprah fans will recognize the names listed above as the names of the star's dogs (four of them cocker spaniels, three of them golden retrievers, and two springer spaniels, the most recent addition to the Winfrey household, adopted from a Chicago shelter).

Does anyone have any doubts that one of her dogs will make an appearance at her final show today?

May 21, 2011

How not to become President, 4 years later

4 years ago, I wrote about the story told by Mitt Romney's son, Tagg, about the day the family strapped their Irish setter, Seamus, to the roof of their station wagon when they went on vacation. I said that Americans like their presidents to have dogs and to treat their dogs well. And I predicted that this story would come to haunt Mitt Romney.

I was right. In particular, NYT op-ed columnist Gail Collins seems to have made it her mission to mention Seamus-the-dog-on-the-roof every time she writes about Mitt Romney. She wrote about it in 2007 ("every time I see him, all I can think about is Seamus the dog"), in 2008 ("I’m going to have to get through the rest of the year without ever again referring to the fact that Romney once drove to Canada with the family dog, Seamus, strapped to the roof of the car."), in April of 2011 ("there is not a single mention in [Romney's book] 'No Apology' of the fact that Romney once drove to Canada with the family Irish setter strapped to the roof of the car"), and in her most recent quiz she brings up that fact

Alas, she is not the only one who thinks that proudly announcing that one strapped the family dog to the roof of one's car on the way to Canada does not really demonstrate presidential qualities. There's even a blog called "Dogs against Romney." (Seamus himself is not one of them, he passed away.)

Edited to add: She has done it again! In her op-ed on 5/28/11, Gail Collins compares two potential GOP candidates, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, the Governor of Texas.
Who is this man called Rick? He is, in his own words, “the kind of guy who goes jogging in the morning packing a Ruger .380 with laser sights and loaded with hollow point bullets, and shoots a coyote that is threatening his daughter’s dog.” That really happened. In fact, it was possibly the high point of Perry’s political career. You can see the attraction. Try to imagine the Republican convention being asked to choose between Mitt Romney, who once drove to Canada with the family dog strapped to the roof of his car, and the guy who shot a puppy-eating coyote. With a Ruger .380 with laser sights!
In the end, however, she doesn't think too highly of the puppy-saving candidate either:
If Perry were elected president, perhaps he would do for the entire United States what he’s done for Texas, which ranks first in the nation in the percentage of the population without health insurance, and 45th in high school completion. We could return to grass-roots, state-driven environmental regulations, the kind that have made Texas the nation’s leader in clean-water permit violations, hazardous waste spills and toxic emissions from manufacturing facilities. But the coyotes would really have to watch out.

Dear Trader Joe's

Your newsletter is called "The Fearless Flyer," but when it comes to grammar judgments, you're everything but. 

Your promise that you know that "it is wrong to end a sentence with a preposition" is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which linguists will not put. (This -- purposefully ungrammatical -- phrase is famously attributed to Winston Churchill, but according to Ben Zimmer it may very well just be an anecdote.)  It is perfectly fine in English to prepose a noun phrase and end a sentence on a preposition (the construction is called "preposition stranding"). Think about it: Would you rather say "What are you looking at?" or "At what are you looking?" The second sentence sounds much more formal and also a bit clumsy, the first one is much more natural. 

(Read more about preposition stranding vs. pied piping on Language Log.)

It cannot be said often enough: There is no rule against ending a sentence on a preposition in English. That's where it's at. Just ask Sam Cooke.

April 29, 2011

Fascinating fascinators, not all from Milan

Today is the day of the big Royal Wedding. Some people will remember it for Kate Middleton's elegant dress (a comeback for sleeves?), some will remember it for little Grace van Cutsem, who wasn't too impressed with the royal kiss, and some will remember it for the crazy hats, many of them created by milliner Philip Treacy (the occupation -- first listed in the 16th century -- was named after the city of Milan -- a place where fashionable wares for women were sold).

More precisely, decorative objects atop of ladies' heads made with feathers or beads are referred to as "fascinators" (from the Latin verb for "to enchant") or "cocktail hats." According to the OED, a fascinator was originally (in the 18th century) "a head shawl worn by women," and if we look at the creation worn by Princess Beatrice today, the word has come a long way.

(As of tonight, the Facebook group "In loving memory of the deer that gave its life for Princess Beatrice's hat" has more than 4500 fans.)

April 15, 2011

Fewer phonemes -- newer language

It is not often that linguistic news that involve counting phonemes make the front page of The New York Times:
Dr. Atkinson, an expert at applying mathematical methods to linguistics, has found a simple but striking pattern in some 500 languages spoken throughout the world: A language area uses fewer phonemes the farther that early humans had to travel from Africa to reach it. Some of the click-using languages of Africa have more than 100 phonemes, whereas Hawaiian, toward the far end of the human migration route out of Africa, has only 13. English has about 45 phonemes. This pattern of decreasing diversity with distance, similar to the well-established decrease in genetic diversity with distance from Africa, implies that the origin of modern human language is in the region of southwestern Africa, Dr. Atkinson says in an article published on Thursday in the journal Science.
You can listen to click sounds here (at about 0:58 in).

April 09, 2011

An unlikely hero

Animal abuse is everywhere. Sometimes, it helps to put a face on it -- and on the many people who care for its victims. Read about "Braveheart" and his journey from a dumpster in Kentucky to the critical care unit at the University of Wisconsin-Madison veterinary hospital here.

April 04, 2011

i [heart] oed

The Oxford English Dictionary has posted a list of the newest words added to its electronic version. Among them are initialisms like "OMG" (classified as interjection and adjective) and "LOL" (classified as interjection and noun), both "strongly associated with the language of electronic communications" (note the plural). The really interesting entry, however, is a symbol ♥, as in "I ♥ NY." I was delighted to see that the earliest quote that is given involves a dog!

The new sense added to heart v. in this update may be the first English usage to develop via the medium of T-shirts and bumper-stickers. It originated as a humorous reference to logos featuring a picture of a heart as a symbol for the verb love, like that of the famous ‘I ♥ NY’ tourism campaign. Our earliest quote for this use, from 1984, uses the verb in ‘I heart my dog’s head’, a jokey play on bumper stickers featuring a heart and a picture of the face of a particular breed of dog (expressing a person’s enthusiasm for, say, shih-tzus) which itself became a popular bumper sticker.  From these beginnings, heart v. has gone on to live an existence in more traditional genres of literature as a colloquial synonym for ‘to love’.

March 29, 2011

"Publish or Perish: The Budget Bill is not Law"

In Wisconsin, a law can only take effect once it has been published. State law requires the secretary of state to designate a date to publish laws within 10 business days of the governor signing it. Makes sense? What, then, can be done if a judge has barred the secretary of state from publishing the law in the state's official newspaper (so that the law cannot take effect just yet)? Is it enough if the law is published by a state agentcy on a website, in this case that of the "Legislative Reference Bureau?" Is this to be counted as "publishing" in the relevant sense? The Walker administration says 'yes,' but Edward Fallone, a constitutional law professor at Marquette University, says 'no.' 
At the moment, the law provides for one method of satisfying the constitutional requirement of publication: designation of a date by the Secretary of State and public dissemination via publication in the newspaper of record.  So long as this is the only method provided under the statutes, this is how publication must occur.  Any attempt to give legislation the force of “law” without following the statutory provisions already in place is an attempt to bypass the publication requirement of the Wisconsin Constitution.
Today, judge Maryann Sumi, made it clear, make that "crystal clear," that she sides with Fallone. The purpose of her earlier restraining order was to prevent any steps that would result in implementing the law.
"Apparently that language was either misunderstood or ignored, but what I said was the further implementation of Act 10 was enjoined. That is what I now want to make crystal clear." (WSJ)
Assistant Attorney General Steven Means does not agree with the judge and said the legislation was "absolutely" still in effect. It's legislation by loophole in Wisconsin.

Update 3/31: Judge Sumi ordered today that the law "has not been published within the meaning" of state statutes and is "therefore not in effect"  (WSJ)." State Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch still thinks the law was "legally published and is indeed law," but he has now agreed to stop implementing it "to abide by the court orders."

March 25, 2011

Sailing under a "false flag" may get you sunk

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism reports that Carlos Lam, a deputy prosecutor in Johnson County (IN), resigned after he could not deny any longer that he had sent an e-mail to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker suggesting that Walker "employ an associate who pretends to be sympathetic to the unions' cause to physically attack you (or even use a firearm against you)" so that the pro-union movement in Wisconsin could be discredited (this was after he professed to be "flabbergasted" that such an e-mail could have been sent from his account). Lam's e-mail to Gov. Walker became known after an open-records settlement between the Walker administration and the local media.
Employing a false flag operation would assist in undercutting any support that the media may be creating in favor of the unions. God bless, Carlos. F. Lam.
The expression is derived from the naval concept of flying a flag of a friendly country (rather than one's own) to deceive the enemy.  Wikipedia reports that according to a 1977 addendum to the Geneva Conventions "it is prohibited to make use in an armed conflict of the flags.... of neutral or other States not Parties to the conflict."

Lam wasn't very good about sailing under his own flag. Before he resigned, he denied that he had sent the incriminating e-mail and professed to be "flabbergasted"(a word of unknown origin and first used in the late 18th century)  that such an e-mail could have been sent from his account. On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.

March 24, 2011

Maggie the Cat was a dog lover

One of her most famous roles was "Maggie the Cat," but she was known as an ardent dog lover. One of her early film roles was in the first "Lassie" movie, but later in life, she preferred white lap dogs.

She was often photographed with a white ball of fur on her lap or in her arms -- a Pekingese dog, Lhasa Apso, or Maltese. Her dogs had names like Sugar (whom she brought to an interview on Larry King Live), Honey, and Daisy. She took her dogs everywhere and is said to almost not have accepted the title "Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire" because she couldn't take her dog due to the strict quarantine laws in the UK. After she had had brain surgery in the late nineties, she did not hesitate to have her picture taken in the hospital, head shaved and all, right after the operation. She held a dog in her arm.

R.I.P., Elizabeth Taylor.

March 22, 2011

Dogs with a call number

Yale Law School is one of the most prestigious law schools in the country. And now they're getting even better: Students can check out Monty, a therapy dog, for a 30-min stress-relieving cuddle session.
Law School, renowned for competitiveness and its Supreme Court justices, is embarking on a pilot program next week in which students can check out a “therapy dog” named Monty along with the library’s collection of more than one million books. While the law school is saying little so far about its dog-lending program, it has distributed a memo to students with the basics: that Monty will be available at the circulation desk to stressed-out students for 30 minutes at a time beginning Monday, for a three-day trial run. “It is well documented that visits from therapy dogs have resulted in increased happiness, calmness and overall emotional well-being,” Blair Kauffman, the law librarian, wrote in an e-mail to students.
I think it's safe to bet that this is going to be a successful program, even if some faculty  members are skeptical:
“I’m surprised to hear of it,” said John Witt, a professor who was awarded a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship last year for a project on the laws of war through American history. “I’ve always found library books to be therapeutic. But maybe that’s just me.”
Perhaps he should talk to students in Wisconsin, who had visits from therapy dogs during exam week two years ago

March 11, 2011

"Dogs for Wisconsin"

Wisconsin is seeing red.

Ever since Gov. Scott Walker (R) introduced his "Budget Repair Bill," which takes away most collective bargaining rights from public employees, people in Wisconsin have been rallying around the State Capitol in Madison. Many bring their children, some bring their dogs and make them wear protest signs.

This one reads: "The only good walker is a dog walker."

People  around the country (and their dogs) show solidarity.  
They organize rallies and send pizza donations

After almost a month of peaceful, yet forceful demonstrations,  the bill was passed yesterday.

ETA (after big tractorcade rally on 3/13):

March 06, 2011

Keep "On Language" in the New York Times

Randy Cohen's Ethicist column gone, Frank Rich's column gone (almost), Ben Zimmer's weekly column On Language gone (after only one year).

On Language is finally coming to a close, at least in its current incarnation. For more than 30 of those years, it was the domain of the Language Maven (as Safire jauntily called himself), until his passing in September 2009. I’ve had the privilege of carrying on that legacy for the past year, but now it is time to bid adieu, after some 1,500 dispatches from the frontiers of language.
The first two decisions are head-scratchers, the third is just short-sighted and wrong. What's up with the New York Times? Do we really need more recipes for soup and less discussion of etymology, linguistic bias, language change?

If you'd like to see On Language kept in the NYT, you might want to join this group on Facebook and write the NYT editors in charge:
  • NYT Magazine letters to the editor:
  • NYT Magazine editor Hugo Lindgren:
  • NYT public editor Arthur Brisbane:

February 17, 2011

Let's hear it for the Scots

Shaggy gal Hickory, a Scottish deerhound, wins the coveted "Best in Show" title at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Afterwards, she feasts on filet mignon (medium rare).

Take that, all of you overcoiffed lap dogs. Pictures of all of the champions can be found here. Too bad there's no slideshow of the handlers and their clothes (after all, it's fashion week in NY). They're always so.... extraordinary.

January 19, 2011

Dogs have 100 words for 'ball'...

First, there was Rico. Now, there is Chaser. The NY Times reports that Chaser knows the name of more than 1000 toys ("800 cloth animals, 116 balls, 26 Frisbees and a medley of plastic items").
The 1,022 words in Chaser’s vocabulary are all proper nouns. Dr. Pilley also found that Chaser could be trained to recognize categories, in other words common nouns. She correctly follows the command “Fetch a Frisbee” or “Fetch a ball.” She can also learn by exclusion, as children do. If she is asked to fetch a new toy with a word she does not know, she will pick it out from ones that are familiar.
However, there's a difference between Chaser's vocabulary and a child's vocabulary right there: Chaser's words are all proper nouns. She knows the name of 1000 individual objects, but does she know what a 'toy' is? And does being able to understand the meaning of a verb-noun combination like 'fetch a ball' mean that a dog knows syntax? Would the dog care at all if you switched the words around?

Nova episode on animal intelligence, in which Chaser stars, will be broadcast on Feb. 9.

January 11, 2011


Nom was the runner-up in this year's WOTY contest. I was skeptical at first, but it seems to be quite well integrated already. For example, it readily forms the deverbal adjective nommable:
The pudding was unbelievably light, silky and creamy with a wobbly texture. The creme brulee was super milky, fragrant of cocoa, with very nommable crunchy sugar crystals. [Eating in Madison A to Z]
I'm less sure about nommer, though.

January 07, 2011

WOTY 2010

And the winner is .... app*. (Yawn). The runner-up? Nom (onomatopoetic form connoting eating, as in "nom-nom." Can also be used as a noun. Really? That's a word of the year? Hm.

*Congrats to my student C., who picked "app" as her choice in a homework assignment.

January 05, 2011

Second chance

Come and meet Sadie.

There are many dogs in shelters that are considered non-adoptable -- perhaps they are too shy or not house-trained or they bark to much. And there are many prison inmates with a lot of time on their hands -- and no companion at their side. Put the two together and you have the Second Chances program, a cooperation between the Dane County Humane Society and the Thompson Correctional Center (a low-security facility) in Wisconsin.

Selected inmates are given a dog to train over a period of 12 weeks. Each week, a trainer from the Humane Society visits them and teaches them training techniques. The dogs stay with the inmates 24/7 and live in their cells.

Everybody wins. The dogs learn new social behaviors and may find a new permanent home, the inmates can take responsibility for a pet and can take pride in contributing to giving a dog a new home.

And it doesn't cost the tax payer a dollar. The program is sponsored by donation and a grant from Petco.

More at this link and here.

January 03, 2011


The word "twiblings" has been around for a while. It used to signify siblings close enough in age to seem twins. The cover story in this week's New York Times Sunday Magazine, however, is bound to popularize a sense of the word that ties it to modern reproductive terminology:

We scrapped the idea of trying to have twins and decided we would have a baby with an egg donor and a gestational carrier and then try to have another the following year, with as small an interval as possible between the two births. “If we really want our children to be the same age, we can try to find two carriers now and do the pregnancies in parallel,” Michael said.
And so the twiblings, Violet and Kieran, were born, and a "futuristic insta family" (NYT) was created.
There is also no word to describe our children’s relationship with each other. Our children were born five days apart — a fact that cannot be easily explained. When people press me about their status (“But are they really twins?”), the answer gets long. The word “twins” usually refers to siblings who shared a womb. But to call them just “siblings” instead of “twins” also raises questions because full genetic siblings are ordinarily at least nine months apart. And our children could be considered the same age because they were conceived at the same time (in the lab) and the embryos were transferred at the same time. If the person continues to quibble about whether they really qualify as twins (as, surprisingly, people often do), instead of asking why it matters, I announce airily that they are “twiblings.
The picture shows the children with their parents and the two gestational carriers (the term "birth mother,"appropriate in the context of adoption,  does not apply here because the carriers are not genetically related to the children). The person missing from the picture is the egg donor.

January 01, 2011

Happy New Year!

We have now moved into serious Word of the Year territory. The American Dialect Society has presented some of its WOTY candidates (the vote will take place on Jan. 7). A Word of The Year should be
  • new or newly popular in 2010
  • widely or prominently used in 2010
  • indicative or reflective of the popular discourse
Usually, the most entertaining words or expressions are nominated in the subcategories "most unnecessary," "most outrageous" (think 'death panel'), "most euphemistic" word of the year.

So what are some of the words that linguists have nominated?

Update Jan. 7, 2011: You can now see a list of the words nominated in the "minor categories"here.

Ben Zimmer, producer of The Visual Thesaurus and columnist for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, lists the following words (among others): mama grizzly, to man up, shellacking, gleek, vuvuzela, static kill, hacktivism, belieber (fanatic fan of Justin Bieber, in case you're wondering), thumbo (a typo caused by thumbs-only text messaging), enhanced pat down, junk (euphemism for a man's private parts, think 'don't touch my junk'), and opt out.

Edited to add: Zimmer's final choice is "junk."

Grant Barrett, board member of the ADS and cohost of the radio show "A Way With Words," published these words in the New York Times: belieber, coffice (a coffee shop used as an office -- though I must say, I get more of a "coffin decorated with office paraphernalia" vibe), the Justin Bieber (an unflattering haircut),  halfalogue (the part of a conversation one can't help overhearing when someone makes a cell phone call in public), mamma grizzly, refudiate (the -- by now -- well-known Palinism), shellacking, poutrage (pretense outrage).

It seems that my students were doing really well! They also picked Gleek, vuvuzela, static kill and other words relating to the oil spill disaster, words relating to the pop-phenomenon Justin Bieber and to communication via cell phones. Looking at these lists, can I change my mind? I am still pretty sure that a word from politics will win in the overall category (while a word like "halfalogue" might win in the category "most creative word") , but my money is now on the more dynamic to man up or, alternatively, on getting shellacked. Both capture the machismo turn in politics that characterized this year very well, both are more versatile than, say, Tea Party, which is really just a proper name, and, last but not least, both are verbs (or rather verb forms) -- not stiff nouns or sissy adjectives.