November 17, 2015

New trend: Word of the year is not a word

It's WOTY season again. Oxford Dictionaries enters with a splash: Their Word of the Year is.... not a word at all. It's a pictograph, the "Face with Tears of Joy" emoij.

I find this rather disappointing. Where to begin? For a start, it's not a word, at least not in the traditional sense of the, eh, word. (Just as the hashtag #blacklivesmatter -- voted "Word of the Year" by the American Dialect Society last year -- is not a word. Just as the new "because" construction -- voted "Word of the Year" by the American Dialect Society in 2013 -- is not a word.) Call me old schook, but what's wrong with trying to find an actual word that "best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015"?

Second, I'm having a really hard time to accept that the "ethos, mood, and preoccupation of 2015" is best characterized by an overflowing expression of joy. Perhaps it's a matter of timing: The Oxford announcement came three days after the Paris/Beirut attacks. I've seen a lot of emojis on my screen, but they were not of the "Face with Tears of Joy" kind.

July 09, 2015

More pictures of Bo

The White House now allows tourists to take inside pictures. It was clear how this would play out:

The first family’s dog Bo greeted visitors to the White House on Wednesday as a four-decade-old ban on taking photographs during tours was rescinded. CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

July 02, 2015

Ghosts of relationships past

When celebrities split up, they enrich the vocabulary of English. Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin gave us the much-derided expression "conscious uncoupling" in 2014 ("We have always conducted our relationship privately, and we hope that as we consciously uncouple and coparent, we will be able to continue in the same manner"), which Urban Dictionary defines as "A bullshit term used by people who take a relationship/marriage and any children involved lightly to excuse their behavior to people that they consider themselves above."

Charlize Theron and Sean Penn thankfully (yes, that's 'thankfully' as a sentence adverb) did not issue a pompous statement when they, but they helped popularize the term "ghosting," which is defined by the NY Times as "ending a romantic relationship by cutting off all contact and ignoring the former partner’s attempts to reach out."

I'm not sure which strategy is best from a psychological viewpoint, but "ghosting" is definitely the better word. 

June 26, 2015


What is marriage? Who gets to marry -- in the very practical enjoying-the-benefits-of-marital-status sense, especially with regard to "taxation; inheritance and property rights; rules of intestate succession; spousal privilege in the law of evidence; hospital access; medical decisionmaking authority; adoption rights; the rights and benefits of survivors; birth and death certificates; professional ethics rules; campaign finance restrictions; workers’ compensation benefits; health insurance; and child custody, support, and visitation rules?"

The Supreme Court wrote history today by coming to the conclusion that "the right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty. The Court now holds that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry" and that there is "no lawful basis for a State to refuse to recognize a lawful same-sex marriage performed in another State on the ground of its same-sex character."

Let's see if Merriam-Webster will change its definition of "marriage" by striking the passage referring to "the opposite sex" or by expanding it to refer to "the opposite or same sex."

(1) :  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 marriage

[In case you are wondering how the rainbow became a symbol of the gay pride movement, check out this article on Wikipedia.]

Oh, just cope already!

The NY Times reported yesterday that 12,000 out of 350,000 students in France who took the national high school exam in English had signed a petition that argued that the exam had been too difficult. On reason that was given was that the exam included the verb "cope," for which, so the argument, there is no equivalent in French. (The question was about Ian McEwan's "Atonement," and it was phrased rather straightforwardly: "How is Turner coping with the situation?")


Even if it were true that there is no direct translation for "cope" in French, how does that make the exam question, which is based on rather common words in English and which itself is a rather common question to ask about a character in a novel, difficult?

Is "sibling" a difficult word for French learners of English because French has no direct equivalent (one has to use the expression "frères et sœurs," 'brothers and sisters')?

If you spin this argument further, would it mean that oral proficiency exams should not include dental fricatives (the /th/ sounds, as in "the" or "mouth") because they don't exist in French? (Good luck with finding a text that doesn't include definite articles or demonstratives.)

Does it mean that sentences that include grammatical constructions that do not exist in Standard French, such as preposition stranding ("Is this the man you told me about?"), may not occur in exams?

Puleeze! (Oops, another sibling word.)

June 02, 2015

Spellbound: Where are they now, part 2

“Having watched Spellbound, I realized that several of my competitors weren’t any worse than me ability-wise, but they didn’t have the same advantages—economic privilege, educational background, family dynamics,” she says. “I know that played a big, big role in my success. As a 14-year-old, I really thought I was one of the best spellers out there. In hindsight, I think, yeah, I was a very good speller, but I also had some of the best preparation and resources out there. I had a mom who had a graduate degree in linguistics. Parents who have literally hundreds of books in the house, and who were very motivated to help me succeed.” (Nupur Lapa, Spellbound)
The most popular entry on this blog is a "Where are they now?" post I wrote 5 years ago about the Spellbound kids. The Smithsonian Magazine has a recent update. (Surprise fact: Nupur's mother is a linguist!)

April 18, 2015

Tibetan Mastiff: from prized possession to discarded status symbol

It's terrible when an ancient dog breed becomes a commodity, but it's even worse when that fad is over. It's still worse when this happens in China, where the dog in question may end up in a slaughterhouse rather than a shelter.

The NYT reports that Tibetan Mastiffs, which until recently fetched thousands of dollars as a status symbol characterized as "intelligent" but also "brutal" (and clearly not dogs not suited to living with an average dog owner), now end up in slaughterhouses, where they might be "rendered into hot pot ingredients, imitation leather and the lining for winter gloves."
In some ways, the cooling passion for Tibetan mastiffs reflects the fickleness of a consuming class that adopts and discards new products with abandon. Famed for their ferocity and traditionally associated with free-spirited Tibetan nomads, mastiffs offered their ethnic Han Chinese owners a dose of Himalayan street cred, according to Liz Flora, editor in chief of Jing Daily, a marketing research company in Beijing. “Fads are a huge driving force in China’s luxury market,” she said, adding that “Han Chinese consumers have been willing to pay a premium for anything associated with the romanticism of Tibet.”

About interspecies oxytocin-mediated positive loops

A recent article in Science reported that "gazing behavior from dogs, but not wolves, increased urinary oxytocin concentration in owners, which consequently facilitated owners' affiliation and increased oxytocin concentration in dogs."

In other words, the way dogs look at humans make humans bond more with their dogs (via raising levels of the hormone oxytocin (the 'love hormone,' which is also released in labor), which in turn makes dogs happy (via raising their levels of oxytocin). Surprising news? You decide.

It's interesting to see how this research was written about for a general audience. Who said it best?

And here is the abstract of the original article by Nagasawa et al.:

Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds
Human-like modes of communication, including mutual gaze, in dogs may have been acquired during domestication with humans. We show that gazing behavior from dogs, but not wolves, increased urinary oxytocin concentrations in owners, which consequently facilitated owners’ affiliation and increased oxytocin concentration in dogs. Further, nasally administered oxytocin increased gazing behavior in dogs, which in turn increased urinary oxytocin concentrations in owners. These findings support the existence of an interspecies oxytocin-mediated positive loop facilitated and modulated by gazing, which may have supported the coevolution of human-dog bonding by engaging common modes of communicating social attachment.

March 31, 2015

Scott Walker allergic to dogs?

We all remember the saga of Seamus, Mitt Romney's dog. Seamus survived being strapped to the roof of the car during a family vacation, but Romney's campaign did not survive the story.

It's very simple: A candidate who doesn't love dogs (or who is perceived as not loving dogs) cannot become President of the United States. Nobody doubted that George Bush adored his dog Barney, everybody remembers the time when labrador Buddy seemed to be the only member of the Clinton family that did not mind being seen with Bill Clinton in public. The current president doesn't quite pull off the role of dog lover, but he loves his daughters and they love their dogs, so he is perceived as sort-of-a-dog-person by extension.

Enter Scott Walker. The NYT reports today (March 31) that Walker is allergic to dogs.
Mr. Walker, who gives a gloomy stump speech filled with "worry," perhaps could use a four-legged image softener of his own. But he is allergic to dog dander, an aide confirmed. And in that, he is running against the long sweep of United States political history.
We will see how this plays out. Walker has already been reported to try to get rid of his Wisconsin accent, perhaps he will now seek a coach that teaches him how to hide/downplay/confront his allergy. If all else fails, he could always carry around a goldfish in a bowl.

March 05, 2015

25 Maps/Trees/Charts about the English Language

Illustrations of the global spread of English, the great vowel shift, the origin of English words, the dialects of American English -- it's nice to see them all assembled in one place.

The most beautiful one is, of course, Minna Sundberg's family tree of Indoeuropean languages that are still spoken or that are mentioned in the context of her comic Stand Still. Stay Silent.

You can order an 11x17" print here ($15) or poster version here (23x28"). A perfect gift for the linguist(s) in your life!

March 01, 2015

"People make fun of dog fashion because it’s bad.”

Half the fun of watching the Westminster Kennel Dog Show is scrutinizing the handlers. Nobody ever seems to be dressed like a person ready to spend time with a dog (think business suits, sequins, and ballet flats). Is it good to know that actually a lot of thought goes into these outfits?

January 23, 2015

January 10, 2015

#blacklivesmatter Word of the Year

What a letdown! The American Dialect Society voted #blacklivesmatter as Word of the Year. Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee, offers the following argument:

“While #blacklivesmatter may not fit the traditional definition of a word, it demonstrates how powerfully a hashtag can convey a succinct social message... Language scholars are paying attention to the innovative linguistic force of hashtags, and #blacklivesmatter was certainly a forceful example of this in 2014.”
Yes, yes, yes,  crowning a hashtag WOTY certainly draws attention to the innovative linguistic force of hashtags (as does creating the category "hashtag of the year") and  #blacklivesmatter was certainly one of the most relevant hashtags of the year, and yes, there are many linguists who won't make a conceptual distinction between words, phrases, and sentences (they are all "constructions"), but call me old school -- I like the idea of a word as a combination of form (sound, gesture, writing) and meaning (lexical or grammatical) that can combine with other words according to the rules of grammar to form a clause. Hashtags don't have that function, the word "hashtag," on the other hand (WOTY 2013) does.

Alas, a glance at the list of nominations shows that the pool of candidates this year was rather ...shallow.  "Ebola" as a most useful word? "Plastiglomorate" as one of the words most likely to succeed? After last year's vote (for the construction "because NP/AP," which is certainly a cool innovative construction, but not A WORD), I really would have liked to see a better record of linguistic innovation that doesn't require us to really streeeeeetch the meaning of "word."

Edited to add: WOTY goes Style Section of the NY Times ("At the Super Bowl of Linguistics).

January 09, 2015

Selfies and belfies

Selfie was recognized by Oxford Dictionaries as "Word of the Year" 2014. This year, "selfie stick" has bee nominated in the category "most likely to succeed" by the American Dialect Society (the vote takes place tonight).

It would be rather boring, however, to pick a derivative of last year's word. What about a derivative of the derivative? Meet the "Belfie stick," "angled perfectly to give you the ability to snap a great shot of  your dierriere", resulting in a "butt selfie." (Is this a thing?)

The Belfie should come with a sticker "Excuse our French." (The French word for buttocks is spelled "derrière", not "dierriere.")