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 urbandictionary.com 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 visualthesaurus.com.

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.