January 21, 2013

He said "gay"

Like many, I gasped at the use of the word "gay" in the President's Inaugural Speech.

It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. 

I can't say it better than Frank Bruni, so let me just quote from his column in the Times: 
 “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall," the president said, taking a rapt country on a riveting trip to key theaters in the struggle for liberty and justice for all.
Seneca Falls is a New York town where, in 1848, the women’s suffrage movement gathered momentum. Selma is an Alabama city where, in 1965, marchers amassed, blood was shed and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood his ground against the unconscionable oppression of black Americans. And Stonewall? This was the surprise inclusion, separating Obama’s oratory and presidency from his predecessors’ diction and deeds. It alludes to a gay bar in Manhattan that, in 1969, was raided by police, who subjected patrons to a bullying they knew too well. After the raid came riots, and after the riots came a more determined quest by L.G.B.T. Americans for the dignity they had long been denied.
He went on, seconds later, to explicitly mention “gay” Americans, saying a word never before uttered in inaugural remarks. What shocked me most about that was how un-shocking it was. Four years ago we lived in a country in which citizens of various states had consistently voted against the legalization of same-sex marriage. But on Nov. 6, the citizens of all three states that had the opportunity to legalize gay marriage at the ballot box did so, with clear majorities in Maryland, Maine and Washington endorsing it. Four years ago the inaugural invocation was given by a pastor with a record of antigay positions and remarks. This year, a similar assignment was withdrawn from a pastor with a comparable record, once it came to light. What’s more, an openly gay man was chosen to be the inaugural poet, and in news coverage of his biography, his parents’ exile from Cuba drew more attention than his sexual orientation. That’s how far we’ve come.

One reason the President has come this far is that, unexpectedly, Vice President Biden made him accelerate his stride. A year ago, the President's views on marriage equality were still officially "evolving", when Vice President Biden declared in an interview that he was "absolutely comfortable" with gay marriage. What could the President do but announce his support as well?

The word "gay" has come a long way itself. According to the OED, it was first used as a praise for women (14th century), it was then used more generally, always with positive connotations. Its second meaning, "bright or lively looking," developed in parallel and was often applied to someone's appearance. "Gay people" dedicated themselves to social pleasure. Poetry was referred to as "the gay science" in the 17th century. Its current meaning, "homosexual," developed in the 20th century in the US. As a first reference, the OED lists a text by Gertrude Stein. It took on the additional meaning "lame" or "foolish" in the 1980s. Will we see an excerpt from the Inauguration Speech added to the entry for "gay" in the OED soon?

January 20, 2013

If the President uses "impact" as a verb, may I?

In today's NY Times, Jodi Kantor assures the reader that "after 4 years, friends see shifts in the Obamas." They are "more confident but more scarred." Not only are they "less hesitant about directing staff members," they have learned that Mr. Obama's presidency will also be shaped by "locusts," unanticipated events that swarm without warning. And they use more political jargon. In particular, "one former aide was startled to hear Mr. Obama use 'impact' as a verb, a particular tendency in the capital." 

Perhaps the aide would be suprised to learn that the OED lists the verb (with the meaning "to press closely into or in something" as older than the noun. However, all of the early examples involve the past participle impacted, which, upon closer inspection, may really rather be adjectival (it is combined with copular verbs like "become").
1601   The seed of this hearbe remooveth the tough humours bedded in the stomacke, how hard impacted soever they be.1677   Ideas or notions impacted on the mind.
1712    These Pyramids, which receive the Hairs, are impacted in the Cutis.
1791   Impact fire into iron, by hammering it when red hot.
1897    A stone-like mass..which had become impacted in the lower ilium.
The newer use, "to have a (pronounced) effect on" emerged in the 20th century, in the language of science (not politics), as in "Experimental results for the efficiency of jets in impacting particles are correlated " (1945). The noun "impact" also has is origin in dynamics. The more figurative use emerged  a century later, especially in the phrase "make an impact (on)."
1781   The same rule, by which common velocity of hard or non-elastic bodies after their impact..is calculated.
1817   In any given perception there is a something which has been communicated to it [the mind] by an impact, or an impression ab extra.
The diagram below is a Google n-gram of impact as a verb (blue graph) and as a noun (red graph). The verb only accounts for a small portion of the occurrences, which is why it still has a ring of novelty about it. This particular chart is silent on whether or not the verb is typical of policital speech.

Interestingly, the OED records the verb (with the meaning "to press closely into or in something" as the older word . However, all of the early examples involve the past participle impacted, which, upon closer inspection, may really rather be adjectival (it is combined with copular verbs like "become").

January 18, 2013

Like a catfish dancin' on the end of my line*

It seems that I missed the 2010 documentary "Catfish," which dealt with a man's (Nev) online relationship with a woman (Megan) that begins on Facebook and with his attempts to find out whether or not this woman was real (she wasn't, an acquaintance of Nev's, Angela, had made her up). The title refers to a remark in the film about the behavior of catfish and cod in captivity: Cod tend not to move around a lot, which results in their flesh being less tasty. However, if catfish are added to their tanks, the cod move around a lot more. People like Angela are described as "catfish" -- they make other people move around.

At the time, there was some discussion of "Catfish" itself being a hoax (etymology: probably from "hocus"), but in general the film was well-received.

And it has received more attention now that another case of "catfishing" -- yes, it's now a verb -- is being discussed in the news. College football player Manti Te'o from Notre Dame was much admired for his resolve after living through the death of his grandmother and his girlfriend in 2012. Alas, the girlfriend never existed. It's still a bit unclear why Te'o would make up a girlfriend (and her death), but Te'o himself claims that he was the victim of a hoax and that it had had been an online relationship. Very strange! But so is a catfish.

*The title of this blog post is a line from "The Rising" by Bruce Springsteen.

January 06, 2013

"Hashtag" -- really?

How very disappointing. The American Dialect Society crowned "hashtag," another technoogy-related term, Word of the Year. It's not even a word that is used all that often (the process of hashtagging is, but not the word itself). What a boring pick, following in the footsteps of "app" (2010), "tweet" (2009), and "web" (word of the decade). Gone are the more playful days of "truthiness" (2005) and "to be plutoed" (2006). Other contesters don't really sound all that interesting either:
YOLO: acronym for “You Only Live Once,” often used sarcastically or self-deprecatingly fiscal cliff: threat of spending cuts and tax increases looming over end-of-year budget negotiations 
Gangnam style: the trendy style of Seoul’s Gangnam district, as used in the Korean pop song of the same namemarriage equality: legal recognition of same-sex marriage47 percent: portion of the population that [supposedly] does not pay federal income tax
My favorite category is usually that of the "most creative" new word. But I can't say I find the nominated words very inspiring either:
mansplaining: a man’s condescending explanation to a female audience  alpacalypse: the Mayan apocalypse predicted for Dec. 21, 2012 gate lice: airline passengers who crowd around a gate waiting to boarddancelexia: inability to pull off dance moves (such as misspelling “YMCA”) 
I fully agree with the "most outrageous" label for the expression "legitimate rape", used by Missouri Senate candiate Todd Akin. (He was not elected.) Mitt Romney's expression "binders full of women" might also have been nominated in this category. (He was not elected either.)
In the category "most likely to succeed", we find "fiscal cliff" (which is ubiquitous already), "superstorm" (which I would't even have recognized as a new word), "marriage equality," and "big data" ("large collections of digital information used for revealing behavioral insights." 

It seems that having big linguistic data at our disposal doesn't exactly make the whole Word of the Year thing more interesting. The most interesting thing about it is that, according to Ben Zimmer, the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, "hashtag" wasn't even on the original list of nominated words. More about the nomination and voting process can be read here.

January 03, 2013

Lunking still not allowed

One of the most popular posts on this blog is the one I wrote about "lunking," "Lunking is bad for your gym membership" -- 6 years ago. At the time, I didn't really thinka word describing someone as "runting, dropping weights loudly and being judgmental" in a gym would have much staying power, but, alas, "Planet Fitness," the gym chain described in the article cited, seems to be quite popular, according to this article in today's Times.

Planet Fitness describes itself as "the little girl's gym," which, apparently, involves pizza on Mondays and bagels on Tuesdays. And no lunking. In fact, lunkers are subject to public shaming: Managers can sound actual loud "lunk alarms" in the facility. Which seems to be a teensy-weensy bit contradictory to their slogan "no gymtimidation."

WOTY: Merriam-Webster

Remember, Merriam-Webster's "word of the year" is the most-looked up word in their online dictionary. This year, an interesting pair emerged: Socialism and capitalism!
Traffic for the unlikely pair on the company's website about doubled this year from the year before as the health care debate heated up and discussion intensified over "American capitalism" versus "European socialism," said the editor at large, Peter Sokolowski.
Other words in the top ten included democracy, globalization, marriage and bigot. Interesting how one can weave a story with just those four words! (And in case you're wondering, the definition for "marriage" given by M-W is 
the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law (2) the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage.)

Happy new year!

Here's to keeping warm, alert, and stylish, like this little guy from Chicago!