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.