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Archive for the 'Language & Culture' Category

Mincemeat

Monday, January 13th, 2014

George Kovac shared this memory with me on the occasion of the publication of the Good Word mincemeat:

A childhood memory of  Thanksgiving is that my mother would always make a pumpkin pie and a mincemeat pie. The filling came from the store in a box labeled with the word “mincemeat.”  I asked my mischievous older brother “What is mince meat?”  He cruelly told me that a “mince” was a small monkey, and I was horrified.

That brand of filling is still sold in grocery stores, but several years ago they started calling it “mince” instead of “mincemeat.”  I guess the marketing folks decided small boys and ordinary consumers are unable to digest the etymology.

High Dudgeon but not Low Dudgeon

Saturday, November 30th, 2013

George Kovac asked about the idiomatic used of the Good Word dudgeon, to wit:

“Why is it always high dudgeon? Does no one (but me) ever say just dudgeon or low dudgeon or even medium dudgeon? Some words are always paired in usage, and I guess I should get over it. For example, have you ever heard of something being boggled other than a mind? And if someone is always in a state of high dudgeon, why can’t we describe them as uneven keeled?”

Well, George, the rules of language are strewn with linguistic rubble. Sometimes it results from the lack of a reference (what else besides a mind could be boggled)? Sometimes we simply don’t know. How to you explain the rubble left from grinding out rules that are always changing?

Did you read the wonderful article that appeared in a 1957 edition of The New Yorker called “How I Met my Wife“?

Can you Enjoy without a Direct Object?

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Joel Jacubowicz sent me the following message today:

I have several questions about the usage of the word ‘enjoy’ as a complete, standalone sentence.

1) Is the complete sentence “Enjoy!” (As in, “Here’s your meal. Enjoy!”) grammatically correct?
2) If not, despite being ungrammatical could it be considered to be acceptable usage? 
3) Is it an Americanism? And if so could it be argued to be acceptable to use it anyway in British English?

I ask this because a certain person I know has a pathological and irrational hatred of the phrase “Enjoy!”, e. g. without a direct object (“enjoy WHAT??!!”) but I argue that, even if it’s grammatically incorrect, it’s essentially a set phrase and communicates slightly different meaning to “enjoy this” or “enjoy your meal”, so it can be exempt from following the rules. Alternatively it could be just a command (Enjoy! / Eat! / Read! / Sit!) which is taken as a polite invitation rather than something that you absolutely must do. 

Here is my response.

Enjoy! as an intransitive verb was first used by Yiddish speakers according to Harry Golden in his 1958 book, For 2 Cents Plain. I first heard it from a retired Pennsylvania forest ranger who made commercials for the Pennsylvania Department of Parks about 40 years ago. It would seem to have arisen among speakers of German dialects in the US. I don’t think it is common outside the US; I’ve never heard it used in all the British or Australian movies and TV series that my wife and I have watched over the past 25 or so years.

Enjoy is an obligatorily transitive verb, i.e. a verb which must have a direct object. There are pseudotransitive verbs, verbs which may be transitive or intransitive, i.e. the verbs you mention (eat, read, sit), but enjoy, devour, fix aren’t among them.

An interesting article from the New York Times Magazine points out that the imperative is the only way we can use the intransitive enjoy. I enjoy, you enjoy, s/he enjoys, etc. without a direct object are never heard or spoken. How can this be? It follows that this usage is at best idiomatic.

If this usage spreads throughout  the US, it will be an acceptable usage in the US only, hence it is dialectal. Transitivity is rather flexible; if anyone can think of a situation where a transitive verb works intransitively or vice versa, and they (mis)use it in that situation, it is just a matter of “catching on”. Still, this expression will only be dialectal and idiomatic.

(This blog was partially based on research by Luciano Eduardo de Oliveira.)

The Names of Things

Friday, September 6th, 2013

Randy Bynder appealed to Dr. Goodword for help with a common problem facing parents: answering a child’s innocent question. Children are learning machines, sponges that absorb thousands of facts every day. Here is a questiona that stumped Randy:

“Lately my 8 year old daughter keeps asking where partcular words come from. For instance ‘Daddy why do they call it a couch? Why are we called people?’ etc.

“Question: can you help me to formulate an intelligent but easy to understand response to such questions? Thank you.”

The answer, according to Plato, is that there is no answer; the relation between sounds and meanings are purely arbitrary. We call a horse a “horse” while Russians call the same animal a loshad’, Germans call it a Pferd, Spaniards a caballo, and Serbs a kon. It is the same animal referred to by different sounds depending on which part of the world you are in, more specifically, the language you are speaking.

Historically speaking, is another question. The similarities between English sister, German Swester, Russian sestra are not coincidental. These languages belong to a known language family, called “Indo-European”. A language family is exactly what it sounds like, a group of related languages that descended (developed over time) from the same “proto” language. They have descended from one language that existed earlier.

So the best response is to take advantage of the question to make your daughter aware that people around the world speak 6,912 languages and dialects. People speaking a different language are not to be feared; they are just saying more or less the same things we say in a different way.

New G-rated Limerick

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

I recently published a raft of “G-rated” limericks created by visitors to the alphaDictionary site. I invited more contributions from our lot, and receive this one from Steve Parris:

The Alpha Agora might boast
Of limericks cleaner than most,
But when rhymers start cookin’
And nobody s lookin’
They write stuff they never could post
–Steve Parris

I plan to separate the original limericks from the unoriginal ones soon, so you will not see this one up until then.

Women are Hysterical; Men are Seminal

Monday, May 20th, 2013

I received today an entertaining and enlightening response to our Good Word hysteria from Rebecca Casper of Brigham Young University. I thought it might be of general interest.

“I just caught up on my DGW email. I just read about hysteria and it put me into musing mode. I have long known some of the etymology of that one–but not all. (Thank you).”

“Though I am not a raging feminist, one once pointed out to me the inherent historical unfairness exhibited by the fact that hysteria carries negative connotations, whereas the word seminal does not. Both have a somewhat similar origin in that each was based on a gender sterotype—at least on the surface.”

“Digging deeper we find that seminal and semen both have the common denominator of ‘seed’. Even so, one can still be frustrated that history gave men the noble role of ‘seed carrier’, while women somehow got stuck with a raging demon lost somewhere inside them. ([It's a]lmost enough to make me into a raging feminist! Ha-ha-ha.)”

“Have a good day.”

Snarlers that don’t Snarl

Sunday, April 14th, 2013

Andrew John (no I didn’t reverse his names) responded to our Good Word snarl with this thought:

“In NZ the word snarler does not usually mean something that snarls. In my experience when Kiwis use the word snarler they mean a sausage, particularly when it is on a BBQ. Which makes me wonder if its use is derived from hot-dog?”

My response:

A snarler usually refers to a dog (or human) that snarls. Could the transfer of this sense of “dog” to “hotdog” be justified? Or is it more likely that, because they tend to curl when heated, they seem to become entangled?

There is also another sense of snarl used in metal-working. A snarling-iron is used to “raise up the projecting part”. Whether this is used for curling or not, I don’t know. (I’m not metal worker.)

Does anyone out there know what a “snarling-iron” does?

Hut 1 – 2 – 3

Monday, March 18th, 2013

This just in from Dawn Shawley, the translation manager around here (i.e. at Lexiteria):

“Chris and I were talking about the hut-hut in football, and where it comes from. Sometimes I say, “Zak zak!” to the kids in German, which was always used as a “hurry up/let’s go” in my memory, and that reminded me of hup, which lead to hut in football.”

No. We know nothing about the origins. This is a Yankee mispronunciation of hup, which is a Redneck mispronunciation of hep ;-). Hep has been an interjection accompanying marching cadence for centuries. No one has any idea of why the marines or the quarterback says hup, two, three, four rather than one, two, three, four.

There is one interesting parallel, though, in Russian: Russians also avoid the equivalent of one in counting anything: raz, dva, tri, chetyri rather than odin, dva, tri, chetyri—in cadences or otherwise. I would imagine these interjections emphasize the cadence to attract attention to them. Hup does have a slight suggestion of the sense Zak zak in your mind: “hurry up/let’s go”.

Nazis vs. the Socialists

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

I received considerable flak in reaction to my recent treatment of the word socialism, specifically my claim that the Nazis were enemies of the socialists. Several people pointed out that the word Nazi was short for National Socialists and that the Nazis were socialists. (I have since added a corrective note.)

In the 1930s socialism was very popular. Everyone in the industrialized world was joining socialist parties, socialist unions especially. Several nonsocialist parties added “socialist” to the name of their party in order to build membership. We should focus on the next word in the Nazi Party’s name: Nationalist, for the Nazi party grew out of the “far-right racist völkisch German nationalist movement and the violent anti-communist Freikorps paramilitary culture”, according to Wikipedia.

The fact of the matter is that the socialists and communists were even more popular after World War II, because the Nazis were just as focused on eliminating socialists and communists as they were on eliminating the Jewish population. But the socialists and communists fought back. They entered the underground and were known as “the resistance” and the “underground” in censored US war films.

But the Europeans knew who constituted the “resistance” and “underground”, so following the war, even more people joined the Social Democrats (Marx’s party), the Christian Socialists, and even the Communist Party, soon to be known as the Eurocommunists. Just before I retired in 2000, 60 French cities had communist mayors.

So, we shouldn’t judge a party by its name any more than we should judge a book by its cover.

Language and Cowboy Movies

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

I recently had an interesting (to me) e-mail conversation with Lew Jury, a frequent contributor to the Good Word series. I’ll categorized it as “language and culture”; that seems to be a large enough category.

TO: Dr. Beard
FROM: Lew Jury
Subject: A smile created

Dear Dr. Beard,

Today’s is dedicated to one of my childhood heroes, actor George ‘Gabby’ Hayes [1885-1969]. who often found himself “plumb tuckered out” from supporting the leading man in the 190 mostly western movies he played in.

I smiled broadly when I read the last line in today’s Good Word for I, too, spent many hours watching Gabby in the little Budd movie theater in Lykens, PA.


TO: Lew Jury
FROM: Dr. Beard
Subject: Re: A smile created

Lew,

He always played a fetching character—at least in the later movies that I watched. I watched him at the Broadway theater in Fayetteville, NC. You are not alone. This is the second email I’ve received so far today from Gabby Hayes fans and I’m just beginning to open my e-mail.

—RB


TO: Dr. Beard
FROM: Lew Jury
Subject: Re: A smile created

My early cultural education occurred in movie theaters where for 10 cents I could be in Africa with Tarzan or Arizona with Randolph Scott or sail the Pacific in the Bounty. I’d go to the movies whenever I had an extra dime.

My history with Gabby goes back to the late 40′s and I do believe I saw every movie he ever made. I remember him mostly with Roy Rogers. I also remember when Hopalong Cassidy movies hit TV in the early 50′s and Gabby was his sidekick.

Another great old guy from the past was Walter Brennan, although he always played character parts, unlike Gabby who essentially only played Gabby.


TO: Lew Jury
FROM: Dr. Beard
Subject: Re: A smile created

Lew,

It only cost 9 cents in Fayetteville. Only one western was shown at the Broadway, but they also showed a comedy, a cartoon, and an adventure serial (to keep you coming back).

My daddy would give me 25 cents every Friday and, if I made 100 in spelling, I didn’t have to bring home any change. If I didn’t bring home a spelling paper with 100 on it, I had to bring him 15 cents in change. That’s what spurred my interest in words: cowboy movies.

I only had to bring him change once: I misspelled “Fayetteville”, pronounced at that time down there, Fedville.

—RB