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Archive for the 'Semantics' Category

Porn in the Slow Lane

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

My favorite newspaper, the Sunbury Daily Item, carried an article with this lead sentence last Friday: “A 57-year-old Lewistown man has been charged with stealing $500 raised by middle school students to purchase porn videos from an Internet site.”

This sentence immediately catches the eye because you wonder why middle school students were raising money to purchase porn in the first place. Moreover, didn’t the 57-year-old do us all a favor by stealing the money and keeping porn out of the hands of those children?

Well, reading further we discover that the money was actually being raised for middle school band and chorus activities and that it was the thief who purchased the porn, keeping good and evil in proper alignment. Of course, that is not what the lead sentence says.

The infinitive phrase “to purchase porn videos . . .” in the first sentence is closer to “middle school students” than to “57-year-old Lewiston man” and for that reason goes with the former and not the latter.

Restructuring the sentence to correct it in journalese is a bit difficult and the author probably should have just worked on a different story. It seems to me that this is one of those situations where a passive sentence might work despite the bad reputation this construction has among journalists. “$500 raised by middle school students was stolen by a 57-year-old Lewistown man to purchase porn videos from an Internet site,” is perfectly good English that states the case more clearly.

The active variant would be: “A 57-year-old Lewistown man stole $500 to purchase porn videos on an Internet site from middle school students in Beaver Creek.” This variant lets you pack more information about the middle school kids into the sentence but is a tad clunky.

Anyway, the sentence that went to press wrongly stated the facts by misassociating the infinitive phrase, thereby frightening readers with the suggestion that we had somehow swerved into the fast lane in the not-too-distant past.

Back to Back-to-Back

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

Actually, I’m not coming back to this funny little idiom, I just thought the title was catchy and, if you are reading this, it would seem to have worked.

Of course, idioms like “back to back” cannot be analyzed but must be taken at face value (so to speak). However, I did try to imagine how eight episodes of “Murder She Wrote” could be shown “back to back” as was announced sometimes in the not too awfully distant past on some television channel I occasionally peruse.

As I visualized these episodes, the first would have to be played forward, the second backward for them to be shown back-to-back. This means that episode two and three would be shown face to face–if anyone was still watching after number two was shown backward. Episodes three and four could then be shown back to back again.

Of course, I should be writing this idiom with hyphens, “back-to-back”, as do the dictionaries. “Back to back” without hyphens would mean literally “back to back”, as to stand back to back before stepping off ten paces in a duel.

We could avoid all this confusion with another phrase, face to back, but no one seems to be using this expression. We need it. That is the way bands march and people sit in auditoriums. Why isn’t it around? Let’s start using it. That’ll teach them.

Pitching Black Jets

Sunday, March 7th, 2010

Luke-a-lele left the following comment in the Alpha Agora, “…I never really understood the jet in jet black myself. I’ve never seen jet any other way in regards to color. Are there different shades/hues of black? To me black is black, though there are other words used, e.g., ebony.”

At about the same time, Bucknell librarian Bud Hiller dropped me the following note:

Pitch jet black“I was wondering about the phrase ‘pitch black’. In this case, is pitch specific to black as in “black as pitch”, or is it a modifier, as in ‘very black’?” [The question] came up when I was talking to someone in the library about how quiet it was at 7 AM and I described it as “pitch quiet”. Of course, pitch can also be used for sounds, and then we talked about it for half an hour.”

Well, jet is an extremely hard type of coal that can be carved and polished. It was once used for statuettes, buttons, and children’s toys. Pitch is another word tar, a word I heard a lot in my youth referring to substances for filling chinks in roofs or even covering roofs on commercial buildings, a word that I don’t think I’ve ever heard since moving north.

The first interesting question these expressions raise is why do these epithets remain after their critical constituent loses its original meaning? Words in compounds and crystalized phrases like these two generally disappear shortly after either constituent slips out of use. For instance, to and fro has become back and forth since we stopped using fro.

I can’t imagine anyone saying “pitch quiet”, knowing myself what pitch means unless, since the meaning of pitch has been lost in most US dialects, the assumption is that pitch means “very”. Well, it does, sort-of.

The possibility of pitch becoming an adverb meaning “very” arises from the second interesting question expressions like these raise: if jet and pitch are themselves black, why do we need to repeat the concept of blackness? It is like saying “as black as something black”. Prescriptive grammarians have tried for centuries to rid the language of redundancy for logical reasons, but redundancy is the very stuff and grammar that distinguishes it from logic and other mental processes.

Repetition (redundancy) is interpreted by all human languages as emphasis. That is why we say things like “very, very good” and “a red, red rose”, or even “a drinkable wine”, when the only purpose for wine is drinking. “Drinkable” is built into the definition of wine. Jet black and pitch black are another face of emphatic redundancy commonly found in languages.

Languages also love to specify variable qualities like colors, moods, sounds by comparing them with familiar objects in our lives: dirty as a pig, eat like a horse, fly like the wind. The problem with these two expressions is that the objects of comparison are no longer familiar.

A Blizzard-like Storm

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

The local newspaper carried this headline today: “Blizzard-like Storm Coming!” I’ve been trying to figure out what to expect all morning. How much like a blizzard must a snow storm be in order to be an actual blizzard?

A blizzard, of course, is a heavy snow storm with high winds. Will we be having heavy snow with little or no wind? Or a heavy wind with little or no snow? Would that, too, be a “blizzard-like” storm.

The two parts of the word blizzard are not equal: a blizzard is a kind of snow storm, so snow, unfortunately, will be at the bottom of whatever we receive tomorrow.

The accompanying article confirms this, unfortunately. Wind clearly will be playing little or no role in the heavy snow the blizzard-like storm will drop on top of the aftermath of the last blizzard-like storm.

I can’t complain, though: we have had a relatively mild winter up to this point.

The Subtleties of English Words

Friday, January 15th, 2010

David Stevens commented on the Good Word cataclysm by noting that calamity is in with those [words = catastrophe, cataclysm] also, but probably connotes less than a catastrophe.”

He is right. My response is that I am always amazed at the subtle differences in words of the same semantic category available to careful speakers. In this case we can find a long continuum of words that indicate increasing intensity of problems: problem < trouble < calamity < catastrophe < disaster < cataclysm.

There may be other words that we could insert in this continuum but we find such continua in words expressing almost every category of variable concepts.

Perambulating Perambulators

Monday, December 14th, 2009

I’ve been terribly negligent of the Language Blog. My apologies, though I’m afraid the Christmas holidays will not make things any easier. Faye and I are traveling to Colorado where we will be taking the grandchildren out to high tea and their first performance of “The Nutcracker” by the Colorado Ballet.

However, yesterday’s Good Word perambulate brought out such a good story from Eileen Opiolka that I must drop everything and report it. Eileen wrote:

“Today’s good word [perambulate] reminded me of my husband’s first visit to Cambridge’s colleges over 30 years ago. In those days his Latin was stronger than his English, so when he saw the notice “No perambulators”, he docilely decided not to go in. Pity!”

I consider this evidence that a vocabulary too large is as liable to mishap as one too small. Anyway, I presume this incident did not preclude Eileen and her husband to eventually meet and, no double, perambulate many times together.

Language and Age

Sunday, August 30th, 2009

Sorry I haven’t been updating this blog. I’m in the final throes of editing The 100 Most Beautiful Words in English on top of a very busy work schedule. Generally Lexiteria’s business drops in July and August but this year it actually increased over May and June, just as the book requires my full attention.

It goes to press Monday, so I will have more time to think about language more generally and return to trying to keep up with the US media’s assault on the language. In the meantime, I received a chain e-mail with a routine by George Carlin that all those interested in language and ageing should enjoy. Carlin’s eye for the humorous in language was uncanny. Here is what he noticed about the way we speak of getting older.

George Carlin on Aging

Do you realize that the only time in our lives when we like to get old is when we’re kids? If you’re less than 10 years old, you’re so excited about aging that you think in fractions.

‘How old are you?’
‘I’m fourand a half!’

You’re never thirty-six and a half. You’re four and a half, going on five! That’s the key.

You get into your teens, now they can’t hold you back. You jump to the next number, or even a few ahead.

‘How old are you?’
‘I’m gonna be 16!’

You could be 13, but hey, you’re GONNA BE 16! And then the greatest day of your life!

You BECOME 21. Even the words sound like a ceremony. You BECOME 21. YESSSS!!!

But then you turn 30. Oooohh, what happened there? Makes you sound like bad milk! He TURNED; we had to throw him out. There’s no fun now, you’re just a sour-dumpling.. What’s wrong? What’s changed?

You BECOME 21, you TURN 30, then you’re PUSHING 40. Whoa! Put on the brakes, it’s all slipping away. Before you know it, you REACH
50 and your dreams are gone…

But wait!!! You MAKE it to 60. Whew! As if you didn’t think you would!

So you BECOME 21, you TURN 30, you PUSH 40, REACH 50 and MAKE IT to 60.

You’ve built up so much speed that you HIT 70! After that it’s a day-by-day thing; you HIT Monday, you HIT Tuesday, you HIT Wednesday!

You GET INTO your 80′s and every day is a complete cycle; you HIT lunch; you TURN 4:30; you REACH bedtime. And it doesn’t end there. Into the 90s, you start going backwards; ‘I WAS JUST  92.’

Then a strange thing happens. If you make it over 100, you become a little kid again.

‘I’m 100 and a half!’

May you all make it to a healthy 100 and a half.

Gout?!

Friday, July 31st, 2009

This past weekend I developed a condition in my left big toe (why don’t we have a special word for it, as we do for thumbs?). This condition involved swelling, a rise in temperature, and a pain as great as I have ever experienced.

The GoutThe odd thing about this odd joint pain is that it was as great when I and my toe were motionless as it when I walked with all my weight on it. It emerged early Sunday night when I was asleep and prevented any further sleep that night. Monday morning I went to the local clinic. The medical assistant who came in to check my temperature and blood pressure before the doctor arrived, looked at my toe and said, “It looks like gout.”
 
“Gout!??!” Surely you jest! Nobody gets gout any more. That was an almost jocular disease that attacked fat, lazy, rich people who overindulged in rich foods back in the 18th and 19th centuries (see illustration—that’s not me, by the way). You read about it in the novels of that period. Surely middle-class US-ers in the 21st (!) century don’t come down with the gout!

The attending physician came in, looked at the toe and said, “It looks like gout.” “How could I have gout?” I responded. “What causes it?”

“Animal organs, shellfish, and wine,” he replied.

That was the menu for my dinner Saturday night! At last I’ve reached the point where I can enjoy liver patê, lobster, and a glass or two of excellent wine. I have a meal like that once, maybe twice, rarely thrice a month. Now you tell me I have to pay and even greater price for the education of my palate than what the restaurant charged!?

“Gout is not that uncommon,” the doctor told me. “You are not the only person in the world able to afford good food.”

So, what is gout? He explained that uric acid as is normally found in urine, makes its way to the toe joint where it forms crystals in the joint of the big toe. (Are we sure there is not word for it like thumb?)

Wha-a-a-a-t!? What is the connection between urine and—of all the joints in the body—the big toe? Well, rarely other joints are affected. No, no, no! That is not my point. What is the uric acid-big toe connection? Well, researchers are working on that question. All they know is that hyperuricemia, too much uric acid in the bloodstream, leads to gout and gout naturally gravitates to the big toe. That is all we need to know since several drugs cure or control it: colchicine and corticosteroids like prednisone.

After two of the pills prescribed by the attending physician (my doctor was away on vacation), the symptoms vanished—even more quickly than they occurred. Now, I need to reduce my weight by a few pounds, continue my exercise routines, drink plenty of water every day, and avoid overindulging in shellfish, dried beans, anchovies, animal organs (foie gras, patê, haggis!), and drinking too much wine, at least, all at the same time.

Black and White and Gray (Grey)

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

As the racism begins to boil to the surface of US politics again, I am reminded of a conversation I had with my brother-in-law on my last visit to North Carolina. I am, of course, the black sheep of the family, voting for the Obama in the last election. My brother-in-law, living in a sea of Republicans in rural NC, rather than avoid discussing politics with me, brought up the point, “Well, Obama’s as much white as he is black, isn’t he?”

My brother-in-law’s perspective may be spreading; witness the fact that North Carolina voted for Obama in the 2008 elections. On the surface, the remark makes clear that racism remains a real if fading political factor in the US. What interests me, though, is a deeper, more subtle semantic question at issue here: Why is a person who is half white and half black, black? Why is Halle Berry the first “African American” female actor to receive an Academy Award? Why is President Obama a black president? Where is the logic here?

So it is in the US: if you are any part African American, you are African American. If you have just a few drops of African blood in you and you call yourself white, you are “passing” for white, the word passing implying deception. Why is a person who is 1/16 African and 15/16 European deceiving people that he or she is  white? You can only get 1/16 whiter. Why isn’t a person who is 1/16 white and 15/16 black, “passing” for black? In other words, why doesn’t the majority win in determining race as it does in determining elections?

I always taught my students that the language we speak does not determine our attitudes; however, our attitudes are reflected in how we speak. The definitions of black and white in US politics tell a sad tale of how we still think of the races in the US. So what is president Obama? Simple. He is a man.

The Mighty and the Righty

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009

Maureen Koplow responded today to my comments on the word benight with a two part question, one philosophical, the other linguistic. Here is part one:

“Could you please shed some light on why so many people think that might makes right?”

In other words, why do so many people find it difficult to understand the difference between having the power to do something and having the right to do it?  The fact that we have so many ways of asking the same question indicates that the question is not new but is important.

Now, the fact that these two words rhyme does not mean that they are related. Since they are not related, this is not a linguistic question, so I will put on my raggety moral philosopher’s cap to answer part one of Maureen’s question.

The question keeps popping up to the surface of the sea of life even though we pretty much know the answer. If you are a careful observer, you will observe that the people who think that might makes right are those with might. The decision-makers (or, as our previous president put it, “the deciders”) at Enron, Worldcom, Silverado Savings, Tyco, AIG, Merrill Lynch—to just get the ball rolling—tend to be money addicts unaware of the difference between right and wrong or the fact that right is preferable.

We must include in this group those at the pinnacle of power in governments from the national to the local level, not to mention the individual level, as we see in the murderer of Dr. George Tiller in the House of God on Sunday during services. (“Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”)

This lot tends to be power addicts (guns are power, too), an angry a lot, bereft of the knowledge that when we lose our temper, our IQ drops 30 points on average. They also suffer a bit from the same congenital defect as the money addicts: the inability to distinguish right from wrong (two antonyms that are related).

Fortunately, Maureen also asked two more questions on a topic about which I know something: “I wonder where the ight ending comes from, and the various meanings of might, as in “I might go” or the “Mighty King Kong” and and various meanings of right as in “that’s right” vs “you don’t have the right to do that.” I will address these questions subsequently, an address that will mark my return to subjects of which I am certifiedly knowledgeable.

I will leave you with a question of my own: Why do we have recovery programs for every kind of addict except money and power addicts?