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Archive for the 'Semantics' Category

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?

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.

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”.

Oxymorons are not Antonyms

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Stuart Gordon recently wrote:

“I dont think all your examples are oxymorons: Still moving is not. “Still” has two meanings but its meaning in this example is not “to be not moving”. Like wise hot chili. Chili is not the same as the homophone chilly. These are plays on homonyms.”

Thanks for your comment. In fact, all oxymorons are polysemous: one or both words have other meanings.

It affects the classic oxymoron, jumbo shrimp. Jumbo here means simply “large” and shrimp means here, well, “shrimp”, too, as well as “small person”. This applies across the board to almost every oxymoron in our list:

  • civil war
  • divorce court
  • irate patient
  • long shorts
  • holy hell

Civil means simply “in one country” in the first of these, not simply “civil”. Court means here “court” and not “engage in courtship”. “Patient in irate patient is, of course, the noun patient and not the adjective. Shorts are pants, not the adjective and holy hell is an exclamation. This may be the only one that was intentional. Exclamations are, after all, meaningless. They serve to express our attitude toward something.

We wouldn’t use oxymorons if they absolutely contradicted themselves; it would lead to too much confusion. There has to be a sensible interpretation of all of them.

We post these oxymorons because they are fun. We say them without thinking and it is fun to take stock in them. They are posted under our “Laughing Stock”, after all.

How did Turf Come to be ‘to Turf’?

Friday, February 24th, 2012

A old verb is currently being tossed about the networks, to turf. It seems to mean “throw or kick someone forcibly out of some organization or office”. In these days of artificial turf, how did this noun turn up as a verb meaning this?

The verb derived from the noun was first recorded in 1598. It meant “to place or lay under the turf; to cover with turf”. By the 18th century it had metaphorized to “bury”, which is a kind of cover-up with turf.

It was only in the late 19th century that to turf turned up with the meaning it has today. What happened between the 18th and 20th centuries?

In the late 19th century the phrase on the turf came to mean “on the street(s)” in the sense prostitutes are “on the street”. So this sense of turf influenced the meaning of the verb, which became “to put out on the street”.

Now, since we use the verbal particles out when we say kick out, it was natural to use turf out as a slang replacement.

Cast a Glamour

Monday, January 30th, 2012

John Brantley just sent me a note in connection with my treatment of glamour:

“I have also seen glamour used as type of magic spell, particularly one that affect the perception of appearance.  For example, “Marcie cast a glamour on herself to enhance her beauty.”  or “Marcie uses cosmetics as a glamour to enhance her beauty.”  Admittedly, this meaning is mostly limited to Fantasy literature, but it is reasonably widely used there.  It also clearly fits in with the word history that you describe.”

I’m not surprised that it would still be used in the world of magic. That is the world in which the two meanings parted company for most speakers of English. However, I was unaware that the usage persists even there and though you all might be interested.