January 16, 2012

"No strollers!"

What is your first reaction to this sign?

Your answer may depend on your family status -- and also on the dialect that you speak. From the Metropolitan Diary section in the NY Times:

Sometimes New York City signs are less than helpful. At a bus stop on Second Avenue, I saw two ladies perusing a sign. They looked confused, and they were speaking a language that sounded like Swedish. Wanting to help foreign visitors, I explained: “I know it’s a crazy sign — it really is O.K. to stand here! ‘No standing’ really means ‘No parking.' The following week, at the same bus stop, I passed the time by relating the anecdote to a woman waiting beside me. In her British accent, she told me her own sign story: “When I saw a sign that said ‘No strollers,’ I thought it meant ‘Walk in a brisk manner.’
(In British English, a stroller is referred to as a 'push chair' or a 'buggy'.)

January 15, 2012

"He’s a Quarterback, He’s a Winner, He’s a TV Draw, He's a Verb"

 One of the words in the running for "word of the year," was the verb "to tebow" (posing praying on one knee, after Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow.) It did collect a number of votes in one of the WOTY categories of the American Dialect Society vote, but, alas, it was the category "least likely to succeed." Should the linguists have gotten it wrong? 
Around the world, people are “tebowing” — kneeling in prayer, with head resting on one hand, oblivious to surroundings, just as Tebow does after victories. Still, when a wedding party tebows in Las Vegas, or a couple tebows on Abbey Road in London, or two scuba divers tebow underwater in Belize, it can be hard to tell whether they are celebrating or mocking him for his virtuous ways. What, exactly, is it about Tim Tebow that so fascinates and provokes us? Why do some people project onto him the best of this country (humility, tenacity, plain old decency) — and the worst (sanctimoniousness, overexposure, political intolerance)?
Being profiled on ESPN and spoofed in SNL is one thing, but, as I said before: You've really made it when you've become a verb. (It certainly does not do any harm if your name sounds like a prefixed verb to begin with.)

January 10, 2012

"Reading body language, dogs are like infants"

The NYT reports:
They presented dogs with two videos. In the first, a woman says, “Hi, dog,” while looking straight at the camera. The woman then turns her head toward a container. The dog follows her gaze.However, when the woman is looking down, rather than at the camera, as she says, “Hi, dog,” the dog does not follow her subsequent gaze.
Really, how can anyone be surprised by that? Dogs don't speak English, they don't care about the language that we use with them. They care about tone and stance and body language. Gary Larson captured this beautifully in his Ginger cartoon:

January 08, 2012

WOTY 2011: Occupy, followed by FOMO

No big surprises. The American Dialect Society's choice for Word of the Year (WOTY) is "occupy." (It received 82 out of 174 votes.) More interesting, in my opinion, is the runner-up, the acronym "FOMO" (fear of missing out), "describing anxiety over being inundated by information on social media," and another word among the runner-ups, "humblebrag," the "expression of false humility, especially by celebrities on Twitter," which also won in the category "most useful" new word (it can be used as a noun or a verb). Looking at the processes used to create these words, there's a nice mix of semantic extension ('occupy'), an acronym ('FOMO'), and compounding ('humblebrag').

Winner in the category "most creative" was "Mellencamp," "a woman who has aged out of being a 'cougar,'" after the singer John Cougar Mellencamp. Let's just say the word won't win any political correctness prizes any time soon. An honorable mention goes to "bunga bunga," the word for sex parties that allegedly involved Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. This adds an eponym and reduplication to our mix of processes involved to create new words.

Access all previous winners here.

January 03, 2012

Thou shalt not condemn passives (especially if you don't even know what they are)

Exercising more? Eating less? Those are popular, but very boring New Year's resolutions. Here's a better one, at least for linguists or really for anyone who cares about the structure of language: Join George Pullum in his campaign to get journalists (and, may I add, style manual writers) to stop using them grammatical term "passive" when they have no idea what it means.
Many have begged me to give up on my campaign to get journalists to stop using the term "passive" in its grammatical sense when they have no idea what it means. Some warn me that the quest is hopeless and no one will ever listen; some say I have failed to see that some sort of metaphorical passivity is being alluded to and I should get with the lexicographical program; and some just find the experience of me pointing these cases out is like being repeatedly hit over the head with The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. But I will not give up. I will never surrender. [...] Today we have a good example of Matt Taibbi making the usual blunder:
Obama is simply not telling the truth about the supposedly insufficient penalties available to regulators. Employing the famous "mistakes were made" use of the passive tense, Obama copped out in his December 6 speech by saying that "penalties are too weak."
Penalties are too weakis an active simple intransitive clause, with the copular verb>Why should this be thought important? Because there are technical terms in this world, and serious journalism should be using them in roughly the standard way. In economics, inflation has a technical sense that it doesn't have in ballooning. Inflation of a balloon means pumping gas into it, but inflation of a currency means a general rise in the average cost of goods and services (hence a concomitant decrease in the purchasing power of the currency). You don't have to use economic technical terms if you don't want to, but you really shouldn't write newspaper columns on politics and business using the word inflation to mean something else, like "growth of the economy", or "hot air pumped into the political climate by spin doctors".The difference is that any newspaper editor would know enough economics to stop you if you used the word inflation in such a totally ignorant way, whereas, it seems, no newspaper editor knows enough elementary grammar to stop you using the word passive in a totally ignorant way.
You want to use the term "passive" correctly? Read this.