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Archive for the 'Semantics' Category

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.


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?

A Snip at Snapping

Monday, June 1st, 2009

I read in the news back on May 1 that a Dutchman “snapped” and drove his car over 5 people in an attempt to kill the Dutch royal family. He was an ordinary guy who was fired and the trauma from that event caused him to “snap” and begin killing people.

It has become commonplace for lawyers and media voices to attribute snapping to murderers and other criminals as an excuse for their crimes. (Berni Madoff snapped pretty much constantly for 25 years.) The legal term for it, of course, is “temporary insanity”. You would think that as many people who snap and go temporarily insane, we would have invested billions into research to come up with a cure for snapping. But nothing comes up from a search of the NIH website.

We need a discussion on snapping but I’m not the person to launch it, since I’m old fashioned enough to still think snapping is a euphemism for losing your temper.

Words that Describe and Designate

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

A “news” story that doesn’t seem to want to go away is the search for a new name for the US anti-terrorism activities. The Bush Administration called them “The Global War on Terrorism”, even though it is focused on only two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan. This fact makes the expression poorly descriptive; “Binational War on Terrorism” would more accurately describe what we are actually doing.

The problem is that “Global War on Terrorism” (or G-WOT, as it is called in the Pentagon) has become ingrained in the culture in ways that are difficult to undo. Members of the Obama administration prefer the phrase “Overseas Contingency Operations”. This phrase is broader and could include operations other than those against terrorism but for that reason it is vague and descriptive of something few people have a clear picture of.

The problem here is between two functions of words and phrases. Some words and phrases are descriptive, i.e. their meanings fit perfectly their references. Writer means “someone who writes” and is perfectly descriptive in that anyone who writes is a writer. Write means “write” and -er means “someone who”.

Other words, however, are simply designative, i.e. they designate (name) an object without describing it. London, for example, simply designates a city in England without describing it. Proper nouns are all designative: John, Mary, Algernon only designate certain people without describing them, as do words like genius, dolt, cut-up.

“The Global War on Terrorism” is both descriptive and designative. It is a poor description as mentioned above, so calls for a better term. However, as a designation of our two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it works fine and has worked fine for eight years. Having ensconced itself over that period as the designation of what we are doing in those two countries, it will be very difficult, if at all possible, to replace it.

Words Lost in Words

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

We at Lexiteria are in the process of developing a collection of folk etymologies. Along the way we have stumbled over an interesting facet of words that might be called “reverse folk etymology”. Folk etymology is the conversion of a foreign or unfamiliar word into one that is more familiar, such as the conversion of French dormeuse “sleepy (one)” to dormouse and kith and kin to kissing kin. The opposite would be to make a recognizable word unrecognizable.

The following list of words have “lost words” in them, words we no longer see or hear when we speak:

  • sweater (hidden word sweat)
  • business (hidden word busy)
  • atonement (hidden words at one)
  • disease (hidden word ease)
  • necklace (hidden word lace)


We no longer think of sweaters as clothing designed to make us sweat but to simply keep up warm. Business in no longer ‘busy-ness’ and has come to be pronounced [biznis] or even [bidnis]. Atonement is a form of repentence, making up for bad deeds, and not making anything at one with another. The pronunciation of this word makes it clear that it has been reanalyzed as [atonment].

Disease has come to be something much more painful than simple uneasiness or discomfort. But that is the meaning it began with. Finally, Lace worn around the neck is no longer called necklace; necklaces are countable things made of almost anything but lace. Concomitantly, their pronunciation has shfted to blur the word lace: [neklis].

These are examples of two discrete processes. First, semantic drift, the tendency of the meanings of words to drift way from their original meaning over time . The second is the tendency of words to be reanalyzed and pronounced differently over time. The examples above starkly reveal the two critical historical changes that words undergo if they remain in English for centures.

Some of None is Plural

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Lindsey Branch made the following observation about the grammar of Tuesday’s (May 19) Good Word, antidisestablishmentarianism: “In your text on these few ‘longest words’ the comment ‘none have been used…’ should read ‘none has been used ….’ The last I heard was that none is still a singular noun.”

In my opinion it has never been a singular (pro)noun; that is another conceit forced upon writers in the US by editors, the same ones who push “an historical” and “aren’t I“. Editors came to this conclusion when one of them discovered that none was originally not one, an irrelevant fact since it clearly is not that now.

Although all grammarians agree that plural is possible, they also all offer the wrong reason if they offer any at all (e.g. the American Heritage Dictionary). None is plural because it is the negative equivalent of some: “Some were arriving; none were leaving.” As always, I prefer consistency in usage where grammar itself is unclear.

NoneNow, you might argue that none is the negative equivalent of one. It isn’t a strong argument, since it leaves us open to the question, “Well, then, what are the negative equivalents of two, three, four, etc.? Numbers don’t have negative equivalents the way pronouns do. Still, if you feel confortable saying “None is,” that is fine; you have all the editors in the US behind you. Just keep in mind that those of us who say, “None are,” are also perfectly correct. (I generally use the plural because no one confuses the issue in my dialect group—the folks down South with whom I grew up.)

The Gravy-Sauce Confusion

Sunday, April 12th, 2009

There is hardly a pair of words that confuse English-speakers more than gravy and sauce. What are we supposed to call the liquid poured over or under the meat that we eat. The difference between the meanings of these two words is easy to remember.

  • If the liquid is poured over the meat (or certainly if over potatoes), it is gravy;
  • If it is under the meat, it is sauce.

Which reminds me of chopped liver and pâte. Chopped liver is served with meals costing $25 or less; if it comes with a meal that costs over $25, it is pâte (pah-tay). Simple, right? Now we can avoid embarrassing ourselves at high- and low-end restaurants.

S. African Procrastinators Society

Friday, February 20th, 2009

Chris Stewart of South Africa and I have been corresponding since way back at Today he outdid himself with his response to procrastinate, our Good Word for February 20, 2009. I thought I would just share it with everyone.

“I think you got it wrong – our motto is ‘never put off till tomorrow what you can put off to the next day’. I would ask the gurus at the Procrastinator’s Society for verification, but I have not yet got around to joining. I believe they are doing good work, having recently got around to predicting the outbreak of World War II (which I understand they managed with 100% accuracy). Now if we had been in power at the time, simply subscribing to our other watchword “better never than late” would have completely averted that tragedy.

“A surprising number of gots in that paragraph. Can’t say I like it. But much worse is that American favorite, gotten which—dountless due to television—is steadily gaining ground here in SA. Can’t imagine how such a word could’ve come into being, let alone gotten so prevalent (oops).

“By the way, there is much to be said for putting off buying Christmas presents, and in fact my own experience is totally at odds with the statement ‘seldom have a wide selection to choose from’. The thing to do is the buy from the after Christmas sales and stash them away for the next season. My wife does that, picking things up at sales throughout the year and stashing them in the ‘presents box’, which we then mine as necessary for various occasions at a later time.”