June 28, 2013


What is a "selfie"? Any old self portrait taken with a camera or specifically a picture taken with a cell phone at arm's length with the purpose of posting it on social media? And what about newer cell phones, the ones with forward facing cameras?

This BBC News Magazine article recently addressed "the rise of the 'selfie'."

Selfie-ism is everywhere. The word "selfie" has been bandied about so much in the past six months it's currently being monitored for inclusion in the Oxford Dictionary Online.
Actually, the OED listed "selfie" as one of the "words on the radar" a year ago:
This colloquial term for a photographic self-portrait has thus far appeared primarily in social media contexts. In fact, we see more evidence for it on the Oxford Twitter Corpus than in the much larger Oxford English Corpus attracted mainstream notice when it appeared in US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's riposte to a humorous Tumblr dedicated to an image of her texting [=Texts from Hillary Clinton]. Many commentators doubted that she had penned the riposte ["Sup Adam. Nice Selfie Stace"], saying such a Facebook-generation word was unlikely to be in her vocabulary. 
Original image by Kevin Lamarque for Reuters.
Although "selfie" still sounds pretty juvenile to me, the word has still fared a lot better than other words put on the radar by the OED the same month. Or do you know the meaning of squoob (prominent cleavage that protudes from a tight bodice), geried (geriatric emergency department in a hospital), or Phablet (a touchscreen device that is larger than a cell phone and smaller than a tablet)?  

Oh, and Hillary Clinton? She just posted the first selfie of herself and daugther Chelsea on Twitter, carefully not positioning herself as running the world.

June 14, 2013

Poop alert via GPS

Did you ever hire a dog walker and wonder if he or she actually walked your dog? From the Times' City Room Blog

File it under Things It Never Occurred to You to Worry About if you like. But in 2003 New York magazine article about misbehaving dog walkers, a stockbroker named Joanne told how, made suspicious by her cocker spaniel’s desperate need for relief when Joanne arrived home from work, she draped the dog’s leash just so on the banister before leaving for work to see if it got moved. It didn’t. (Her neighbors who used the same walker, she said, set up a nanny cam and caught him entering the apartment, grabbing his money, and walking out without touching their dog.)

Well, with Swifto, a new, GPS-equipped dog-walking company in New York, you can "see the exact route, miles, and duration of the walk," including poop alerts, "a little white-on-brown icon of a squatting dog with, yes, a small pile beneath its tail, superimposed on a map of the walk fed by GPS data from the walker’s phone and updated every few seconds".

Comme ├ža.

What a relief.

June 12, 2013


Gwyneth Paltrow said it on Glee and now Usher and Adam Levine used the word to describe a performance by Danielle Bradberry on "The Voice." According to Urban Dictionary, the term has been made popular by blogger Perez Hilton, but in this article on Slate.com links it to fashion blogger Elizabeth Spiridakis, who, in an interview, said that she and her friends went through a phase where they put -balls on almost any adjective (tiballs for 'tired,' exhaustballs for 'exhausted,' you get the idea) and then Spiridakis put that on her blog. To say the least, it's not exactly perceived as a cool word. Perhaps its use by Usher and Levine will change the perception of the word as a "verbal irritant" and one of the worst words of the year in 2012:

You think it’s irritating that people overuse the word amazing, particularly when they pronounce it ah-mah-zing. But amazeballs makes you want to commit violence against your own eardrums. For realballs.

June 06, 2013

Ceci est un bagel.

Human language has a lot of built-in redundancy. For example, in English, we often mark that we are talking about an event that lies in the past by using past tense ("went" instead of "go") and temporal adverbs, such as "yesterday." We say "I went to the market yesterday," instead of just "I go to the market yesterday," which would be anchored in the past just through the adverb. It's not an option in standard English. So, we're used to a certain amount of redundancy and in many cases we hardly notice. In some cases we do. For example, when you're looking at a tray with a selection of donuts, what is the point of the sign that, yes, indeed, we are looking at "Assorted Donuts?" 

We try to construct the verbal message as relevant, but that means that it has to contribute something beyond what we already know. Does it?

It might. This is not just fruit salad, it's "fresh fruit salad." Let's grab some.

Fear of flying? Pet a dog!

At my university, therapy dogs often stop by in the College Library during exam week. Students sit down with them, pet them -- and get up with a big smile on their faces. Now LAX airport is taking this idea to stressed out travelers: PUPS (Pets unstressing passengers) is a new program that brings dogs to airport terminals:

Trained dogs and handlers will roam through the departures levels in the gate areas of each terminal, visiting passengers awaiting flights and providing comfort, as well as airport information.  The program also willeducate and inform passengers about the LAneXt Capital Improvement projects, and construction related traffic impacts.   
The dogs and handlers, in red vests with the PUP logo, will be an excellent addition to the customer service team.  Passengers will love seeing warm, wet noses and wagging tails that will create a friendly, positive experience at LAX!   

It would certainly work for me! I hope Chicago O'Hare will adopt the program soon. (They have the Beagle Brigade there, to sniff out hidden plants or meat, but that's not quite the same.)

June 05, 2013

What's in a name? What's in a letter?

I found it rather delightful that the winning word in the national Spelling Bee this year was a word from Yiddish that refers to an everyday item (rather than, say, hydrophyte, elucubrate, staphylococci or luccedaneum -- all winning words in previous years). Arvind V. Mahankali, 13 years old, from Queens, NY, grinned when he heard the word: This time, he was not going to be sent home after misspelling a word of Germanic origin. He spelled the Yiddish word for dumpling "k-n-a-i-d-e-l" and took home the trophy and $30000 in cash.

Alas, there is disagreement on whether or not the spelling listed in the bee's reference dictionary is actually "correct." Webster spells the Yiddish word for dumpling "knaidel," but the YIVO Institute for Jewish Resarch spells it "kneydl". Who is right? (As far as the rules of the competition are concerned, there is no dispute: It is the spelling in the reference dictionary that counts.)

From The Times:
While most languages were formalized by national governments and their sanctioned language academies, Yiddish had no country and so relied on organizations like YIVO, which is the Yiddish acronym for Yiddish Scientific Institute and was based before World War II in what is now Vilnius, Lithuania. Experts like YIVO’s Max Weinreich and his son, Uriel, who compiled a Yiddish-English dictionary, set clear guidelines about how the language should be transliterated into English — though in that famously disputatious Jewish world those instructions were not always appreciated or obeyed.
For instance, rather than the “ch” in words like chutzpah and challah, the YIVO wordsmiths preferred “kh” because the “ch” could lead someone to a softer pronunciation, as in choice or chicken. YIVO uses the “kh” in words like khutspe (chutzpah), but most Yiddish speakers prefer the more popular variants.
“The argument is whether we make things comprehensible to the public or insist on the purity of the language,” said Anita Norich, a professor of English and Judaic studies at the University of Michigan [...]
For the purpose of the spelling bee, however, there is really no conflict: What counts is the spelling in Merriam-Webster. Peter Sokolowski, Editor-at-Large for Merriam Webster used Google's n-gram viewer to show that Webster's spelling is in line with how the word is spelled in published English prose. (Alas, the graph doesn't tell us how many tokens of the word they actually collected and it may not exactly be the kind of word one would expect to occur most frequently in published genres.)

So, congratulations, Arvind! I hope you enjoyed your first matzo ball soup after your big win.