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Arguably this Word is Misused

July 9th, 2014

A long-time subscriber to our Good Word series and e-friend, Jackie Strauss of Philadelphia, recently wrote the following:

“I’m curious about the word arguably. People seem to use it to mean that what they’re saying is unarguable, that the fact they’re espousing is iron-clad and exactly correct in their opinion, e.g. “She is arguably the best tennis player the world has ever known.” Are they daring you to argue with that statement or saying it cannot be argued with?”

I think you heard people simply misusing the word. Arguably is what is known as a “sentence adverb”, an adverb that modifies the whole sentence. Sentence adverbs usually may be paraphrased as “It is arguable that (sentence)”. Further examples: Apparently (it is apparent that), he missed the boat. Surprisingly (it is surprising that), he arrived early.

Hopefully is little off key because it doesn’t paraphrase this way; the paraphrase of this word is something like “It is (to be) hoped”. But all languages are strewn with exceptions to every rule of grammar. The same problem faces thankfully. However, this rule applies nicely to all the other sentence adverbs, like basically, certainly, clearly, conceivably, curiously, etc.

Hopefully, this has helped.

Redundancy in the Way we Speak

July 4th, 2014

Rhonda Taylor sent a couple of redundant phrases some time back. I publish them here without comment:

  • hot water heater: In fact, it heats cold water. Call the plumber our hot water heater has a leak.
  • hose pipe: In fact, a hose is nothing but a flexible pipe. You kids quit squirting each other with the hose pipe.
  • ATM machine: In fact, ATM stands for “automatic teller machine”; you don’t need to add an extra “machine”. I have to stop at the ATM machine on the way.

What’s your favorite peeve of this type?

Binky

June 28th, 2014

• binky •

Pronunciation: bing-kee • Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: Love my binky1. Security blanked or a favorite stuffed animal that soothes and offers comfort to a baby. Something babies must cling to in order to get to sleep. 2. A pacifier (US &: Canada), dummy (UK), soother (elsewhere). 3. A bunny pronk, a high hop of joy for a rabbit.

Notes: Today’s Good Word may be two words: one referring to a pacifier, the other referring to a security toy or blanket. You’ll have to read the Word History to find out why. Remember to change the Y to an I in the plural: binkies.

In Play: Because the word is used as a commercial name for a popular pacifier, many people know only this meaning: “What happened to the baby’s binky? He didn’t swallow it, did he?” We needn’t stretch the sense of this word far to apply it more broadly: “Martin must have his coffee in his favorite cup, his ‘binky’. I would be surprised if he didn’t sleep with it.”

Word History: Two sources have been proposed for Binky: (1) the commercial name for a pacifier manufactured by Playtex® and (2) a baby’s pronunciation of blanket. According to Paul Ogden’s research, binky first appeared in print in 1944 and Playtex came into existence only in 1947, so we can’t give Playtex® the credit. We simply don’t know how binky came to be associated with pacifiers. Blanket is from Old French blanchet “white flannel cloth”, a diminutive of blanc “white”. Old French apparently borrowed this word from a Germanic language. Proto-Germanic had a word blangkaz “shine, dazzle”, which came to be German blank “shining, clean”. This same word turned out in English as bleachblanch and blank. (We now offer a blanket ‘thank you’ to Eric Berntson, who proposed today’s Good Word in the Alpha Agora.)

Nouns Modifying Nouns

June 10th, 2014

Today Alleen-Marie Coke asked two interesting questions which I thought deserved a broader audience.

Today’s word, yes, is tricky. In your example, “yes vote”, wouldn’t yes be an adjective?”

“When I taught ESL, I taught the response, “Yes, I do”, “Yes I can”, etc. I have noted, however, that these days many people respond with a simple, “I do”, or, “I can”, abandoning the use of the yes altogether. What do you make of this?”

My response was this:

In the phrase the “yes vote”, yes is not an adjective. English is a language that allows nouns to appear in attributive position without an adjective suffix. In Russian you would have to add an adjective ending if you want a noun to modify another noun. While English allows machine language, Russian requires a “relational” adjective suffix: mashin-nyi yazyk. Whenever doubt arises whether an attribute is a noun or adjective, noun is always chosen if the attribute may be used—without a suffix—as a noun.

Yes in English is first and foremost a “sentence adverb”, which means it may replace an entire sentence. An appropriate response to the question, “Will you do that” is simply, “Yes,” which replaces “I will do that.”

Another way of shortening the answer, is to repeat the subject and the auxiliary, “I will”. You may combine the two answers to affirm that you will do it as “Yes, I will,” though there is no penalty if you don’t.

In Britain, by the way, this response requires the default verb do. This is also the proper response in Britain to any yes-no question, “Did you bake the cake?” : “(No, but) I will do.” This is why do is called the default verb (or pro-verb); it can replace any verb.

Longest two-word sentence?

May 28th, 2014

Here is a sentence in Dutch composed of 10 instances of the word bergen which someone identified only as Adriaan contributed to our Dutch Tongue-twister page.

Als bergen bergen bergen bergen bergen, bergen bergen bergen bergen bergen.
When lots of mountains deposit lots of mountains, lots of mountains deposit lots of mountains.

I don’t speak Dutch, but it seems at least to be grammatical to my German ear if bergen can mean “lots of” and “deposit”.

Can any of yall confirm my inclination? Is it grammatical?

Maps of All the World’s Languages

May 23rd, 2014

Here are maps of where all the world’s languages are spoken: http://www.muturzikin.com/

Pope Hilarius

May 2nd, 2014

George Kovac wrote today in response to our Good Word hilarious, “Bob, and of course, there was Pope Hilarius, who reigned from 461 to 468. You cannot make up material this good.”

“I was disappointed the current Pope chose ‘Francis’ instead of reaching back to revive this name, so that when someone says, ‘This new pope is kind’, I could respond, ‘Yes, he’s Hilarius 2.’”

French Pronunciation

May 1st, 2014

Jan Collins raised a question today about French which all French learners (and some speakers) might be interested in:

“Can you please tell me when people stopped pronouncing final consonants in French? When I see the historical words I never know how they would have been spoken.”

In the Early Modern French Period, which began about 1700, French passed through an “open syllable” stage, when all syllables had to end on a vowel and could not end on a consonant. That is why those ending on consonant sounds, always are spelled with a “silent e”, e.g. l’homme, pronounced [lOm], because the [e] at one time was pronounced, and still is in some songs.

However, few words—only new ones—end on consonants that are pronounced; otherwise they are silent unless they appear before a word beginning with a vowel:

  • muet [mye] “mute”
  • nez [ne] “nose”
  • mot [mo] “word”

French opened all the syllables ending on nasal consonants, [n, m], by nasalizing the vowel. That is why French has nasal vowels, e.g. temps [tã] “time”, grand [gRã] “large”.

Tables of Differences

April 23rd, 2014

Prof. ir. Max Peeters recently brought up the following question:

I noticed that the word for butterfly is very different in almost all languages, but for table very similar (see table below), even Gaelic, Turkish, etc. Can you explain this?

 English  butterfly  table
 French  papillon  table
 German  Schmetterling  Tafel
 Dutch  vlinder  tafel
 Spanish  mariposa  tabla
 Italian  farfalla  tavolo
 Czech  motýl  tabulka
 Turkish  kelebek  tablo
 Polish  motyl  tabela
 Hungarian  pillangó  táblázat
 Irish  féileacán  tábla
 Latin  papilio  tabula

It is a matter of (1)  borrowing and (2) the two senses of table: one that you eat and work on and a presentation of data in a publication. Usually languages borrow table in the latter sense, since by the time people got around to data, they already had a word for table in the first sense. This is why the words for table in the second sense are so similar: they are all borrowed from Latin, the language of science in so many European languages.

So, the word in German for the first sense of table is Tisch, in Czech it is stůl, and in Spanish it is mesa—just as different as the words for “butterfly”.

Hope this helps.

Books that Should be Written

April 2nd, 2014

New! Books that Should be Written (and by whom) in our linguistic fun section. Just click the link and you’ll be there.