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Archive for the 'Semantics' Category

Another ‘Lexical Gracenote’

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015
This morning, when the Good Word was nomophobia, I received a two-part e-mail from my stalwart e-friend, Chris Stewart, of South Africa. I’ve conjoined the two e-mails:
“Surely nomophobia would logically be a fear of numbers?  The reason why I leapt to the conclusion that nomo- should refer to numbers, is that a nomogram is a specific kind of graph whose sole purpose is to derive a numerical value in one unit of measure from two other kinds of numbers. The most commonly found example here is a little nomogram in vehicle logbooks to derive a fuel consumption value.”
“According to Merriam-Webster a nomogram is ‘a graphic representation that consists of several lines marked off to scale and arranged in such a way that by using a straightedge to connect known values on two lines an unknown value can be read at the point of intersection with another line’.”

“I see that nomo from the Greek means ‘law or custom’, which makes sense in the mathematical context too. However, there are other colloquial uses, e.g. the Urban Dictionary, which could alter the whole sense of nomophobia. Tricky! On the other hand, the Wikipedia article is interesting.”

My reply refers to a 2007 entry in this blog, Lady Finger, Lady Birds, and Woolly Bears
Yes, nomogram should mean “fear of numbers” or “fear of names”. However, when it comes to language, what should be is often quite distant from what is, e.g. earwig, lady finger, woolly bear. Actually, homophobia should mean “fear of people” and “fear of sameness”, so why shouldn’t nomophobia mean “fear of being without a cellphone”. People created language; people can determine what the words of their language mean. They have regular means at their disposal, but also irregular ones.
In my 2007 blog I call such phenomena “lexical grace notes”, things we don’t expect but that make language more interesting.

Intonation and Meaning

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

I took phonetics with the late Kenneth Pike at the University of Michigan. Prior to Chomsky, he was the leading linguist in the US because he had the only complete theory of linguistics, which he called “tagmemics”.

I recall in the first session on intonation, he attempted to convince us of the importance of intonation by proving that, when intonation and semantics conflict, we always go with intonation. His example was, “I love you,” which he said with normal intonation to a freshman woman on the front row. Having seen the correct impression on her red face, he then said, “I? Love you?” which we all interpreted with just the opposite meaning. I was convinced.

Attending to the Business of ‘Attendee’

Monday, October 6th, 2014

Aubrey Waddy recently wrote:

“Your use of the word attendee in today’s discussion of pied prompts me to ask whether you’ll do a piece on this somewhat ugly word, and discuss its tail.”

“Surely the way the suffix is employed in attendee is wrong, and strictly speaking: the form should be attender. The sad thing about this is that people [speakers of English] no longer know their -ers from their -ees, and these days -ee is appended incorrectly to all sorts of words.”

In fact, the rule that is ignored it this: -er is added to transitive verbs to mark the subject of the action; -ee is added to transitive verbs to indicate the object of the verb’s action (employer – employee). -Ee is added to intransitive verbs to indicate the subject of the intransitive verb. Whether this was a historical rule, which no longer holds, or a confusion of the syntactic and semantic levels, I don’t know. But there are traces of this rule in the derivation of “personal” nouns.

Escapee, standee, enlistee are some of the verbs that follow this rule: you can’t escape anything (though things can escape you); someone escapes from prison. The sense of enlistee is “someone who enlists in the army”, not enlists the army.

Attendee can be explained as one of these historically. Originally, it could be used intransitively with the preposition to: attend to, which was reduced to tend to. We still use this intransitive sense when we say, “attend to business”.

There was always confusion as to whether attend was a transitive or intransitive verb. Intransitivity won out in the grab for a personal noun ending; transitivity seems to be winning in the struggle to control the verb itself.

Revanchism or Irredentism?

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Mr. Simple recently dropped this line after reading revanche: “The Good Word for 9 September 2014 was revanche.  Considering its definition, would irredentism (a word of Italian etymology) be an apposite synonym or not?  If not, why?”

These two words are near synonyms. Revanchism refers to the desire to regain territory lost to a neighbor or that has gained independence regardless of ethnic or cultural consideration. Ukraine is culturally distinct from Russia today, and only historically ethnically related.

Irredentism (or irridentism) is the uniting of territories culturally or ethnically related to its/their “mother” culture or ethinc nation.  An irredentist attack could aggrandize one territory or several areas culturally or ethnically connected to the attacking nation.  It was originally an Italian political term (1879), referring to a party which advocated the recovery and union with Italy of all Italian-speaking districts subject to other countries.

So while the meanings of the two words overlap, but I wouldn’t say they were synonymous.

Arguably this Word is Misused

Wednesday, 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

Friday, 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?


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.

On the Health of English Usage

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

Jackie Strauss recently posed a question that elicited from me a longer response than I think she needed. Jackie wrote:

“Would you please clear up something for me that’s been plaguing my mind for years. People speak of ‘healthy foods’ all the time. My impression was that we who eat these foods will be the healthy ones for it. Shouldn’t those foods that are good for us be called healthful foods, meaning ‘health-giving’? And doesn’t healthy mean ‘health-having’, so to speak?”

“Please tell me the proper use of healthy and healthful. I’d really appreciate it!”

No one has worked out all the rules of semantics, but we (linguists) know that they are different from the rules of grammar. Three of the things we know are: (1) You do not need a grammatical connection for a semantic one. Semantic rules operated on what makes LOGICAL sense, not grammatical sense. Example: “An occasional sailor walked by.” What is an occasional sailor? The semantic rules automatically assign the modifier occasional to the verb, not the noun, so we semantically interpret this sentence as “A sailor occasionally walked by.”

(2) Another semantic rule is that cognition adjusts the meanings of what we say. “John ran over a dog coming home,” doesn’t make sense literally. We know John drives a car home, so we don’t have to say, “John ran his car over a dog coming home.”

My favorite example of this filling in to make sense is something that happened in my home for decades. My wife would say, “It’s Thursday,” and I would take the garbage out (like a trained puppy). She wouldn’t have to repeat over and over every week, “It’s Thursday and Friday is garbage pick up day; please take the garbage out.”

Healthy food falls in this category. We know food can’t literally be healthy so our brain looks for another connection between healthy and some other word in the sentence and—Bingo!—it quickly finds it: healthy for humans.

(3) Semantic rules operate on semantic features, not grammatical ones. “Harry’s a pig!” doesn’t imply that Harry has a snout and curly tail, only that he is either “dirty” or “greedy”. These are semantic features that we have (unfairly) attached to the meaning of the word pig. That pigs have snouts and curly tails are lexical features of pigs and, if Harry really is a pig, and both speakers know it, the listener will interpret the sentence with the full definition. However, if we know that Harry is not a real pig, that doesn’t stop semantics from looking for other features in the definition of pig that do fit.

By the way, language often treats animals unfairly. I’ve treated the subject before. But to summarize, “Sheila’s a cow, dog, cat, (clothes) horse,” doesn’t put these animals in any more of a good light than it does on Sheila.

Do you have to ask interesting questions? I’m sure this is more than you wanted to know. I’ll have to make a language blog entry out of this.

Terms and Conditions

Sunday, January 13th, 2013

Mike Lim sent in a question that might be of interest to a wider audience. Mike wrote:

“Why do licences and contracts use the phrase ‘terms and conditions’? The two words terms and conditions seem to be almost identical in meaning.”

The meaning of term has probably taken on the meaning of condition because of its association with condition in this phrase. The original meaning of term was “limit in time or space, or limits on conditions”. Contracts by definition set limits on applicability of its conditions in terms of time and jurisdiction (space).

The term term (I had to do it) is confusing because is also refers to any specialized definition(s) of a word, e.g. “scientific terms”, “legal terms”, etc. This definition is also applicable in the phrase “terms and conditions”, and this sort of ambiguity often causes speakers to lose control of the meaning of a word in a given context. This allows the word to pick up the meaning of another word commonly associated with it. The fact that legal terminology is so alien to most speakers only exacerbates the tendency.

So these two terms have discrete meanings which have merged by association with one another—guilt by association?

The Lame Ducks of Washington

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

We now have quite a few lame ducks walking about Washington. I thought that a peculiar phrase, worth tracking down. So here is what I found.

First, referring to Congress as a whole as a “lame duck congress” was a misuse of the word, since those congressmen who were reelected are not lame ducks. So, this expression has taken on a slightly different meaning: a congress controlled by a party that loses control at the end of the year. This year neither house is a lame duck in this sense.

Recently this word’s meaning has expanded even more to the congress after elections but before the new congress is sworn in, whether its ducks are lame or not.

The term probably originates out on the high seas where it originally referred to a disabled ship or a ship damaged on the sea. The term duck makes more sense in this context.

If this is correct, then the term migrated from naval slang to financial slang, referring to a bankrupt investor or an investor in default of his debt at the exchange. At the stock exchange there are bulls, bears, and lame ducks, people who can not raise the liquidity to invest in any market. The carry-over sense is a financially wounded person who can’t keep up with the people who have their ducks in a row.

From the stock market the word then migrated to politics, where it is mostly used today. It is available outside politics, though, in reference to any thing or person who is disabled in any way. The American Heritage Dictionary says that it may refer to “an ineffective person; a weakling”.