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Archive for September, 2006

Adjectival Animals and Related Topics

Friday, September 29th, 2006


Another unexpected disparity in English is the difference between the names of animals and the adjectives referring to them, e.g.


Noun Adjective
cat feline
dog canine
cow bovine
sheep ovine
horse equine
crow corvine
bird avian
snake ophidian
thrush turdine


Other languages derive adjectives from the nouns. Here are a few from Russian, a language I happen to know well. Most of the phonological differences between the adjectives and nouns reflect regular derivational changes in Russian.


Noun Adjective Meaning
sobaka sobachij dog
koshka koshachij cat
loshad’ loshadinyj horse
korova korovij cow
ptica pticij bird


So what is going on here? Does English simply have no adjectives corresponding to the nouns in the first table above? Well, no, we do—for most of them at least—as the next table shows.


Noun Adjective
cat catty
dog doggy, doggish
cow cowish
sheep sheepish
horse horsy


In keeping with my last post, they seem to have gone on to serve pejorative or demi-pejorative functions. A catty woman is not a nice person and sheepish grins and horsy smiles are not complimentary. It is as though we had to adapt a new set of French adjectives in order to have a neutral way of referring to the qualities of animals. The result, however, was a set of words that sound too academic or scholarly to use in ordinary conversation.

Despite the fact that Larry Brady’s comment shows that he does not buy into the theory that we use familiar animals as lexical scapegoats for our own foibles, “direct similes” support it. What are “direct similes” other than a phrase I just made up? Let’s call similes without as or like “direct” and see what they show us. Here are a few based on familiar animals.

John is a dog
Mary is a cat
Tom is a (clothes) horse
Lucy is a cow
Phi is a sheep
Lorn is a chicken
Sam is a snake

Not a pretty sight, huh? These examples could also be called “semantic similes” because they compare the subject of the sentence not with the entire animal, but with only one perceived trait of that animal, a trait that is always negative. Even Fido, whose name accents our love for him because he is so faithful, comes out nasty in this test! How do you explain that?

It does leave room to think that “[f]amiliar animals come off as ‘scape goats, beings that can carry our sins away with them, making similes a vehicle of atonement, among its various other functions,” as I concluded in my last blog.


Do Crystallized Similes Give Animals a Bad Rap?

Wednesday, September 27th, 2006


Every language has a set of crystalized similes that help speakers emphasize common qualities. A simile is a metaphor that compares, e.g. clumsy as an ox, black as soot, and so forth. These are ‘crystalized’ because they have become clichés, used by everyone all the time. There are hundreds of them that we all memorize in the process of language acquisition:

All the languages I have ever studied prefer comparing human qualities with those perceived in animals. In fact, psychologists know that, when testing, they must control for words referring to animals since human reaction to these words is always emotinally stronger than to inanimate words.

However, it would seem that humans perceive animals as reflecting only the bad traits we exhibit. The most common animals get a consistently bad rap from English similes:

clumsy as an ox
crazy as a loon (but sane as you are)
dirty as a pig (but clean as a whistle)
fat as a pig (but skinny as a rail)
greedy as a pig to hog something
mean as a snake
slow as a snail
stubborn as a mule
stupid as a cow
yellow as a chicken

There are exceptions, however; similes that suggest positive attributes among our furry friends:

brave as a lion
faithful as a dog
fast as a rabbit fierce as a tiger
funny as a monkey
innocent as a lamb

Similies even identify human targets occasionally:

old as Methuselah
sane as you are (I love this one—who would argue with it?
soft as a baby’s bottom

There seems to be a case for a preference for animals in English similes and a culturally determined prejudice against those animals. The case is bolstered by a large number of positive similes that choose inanimate objects as their targets:

pretty as a picture
smart as a whip
sweet as sugar
sharp as a tack
white as snow
black as soot
pure as the driven snow
hot as hell/a firecracker/a pistol
warm as toast
cool as a cucumber
quick as a wink, flash
cold as ice
high as a kite
hard as a rock

Admittedly, there are a few negative inanimate similes:

slow as molasses on a cold winter morn
sour as a lemon
ugly as homemade sin
guilty as sin
dumb as a stump, post, sack of hammers

Still, I would submit, there is a distinct pattern we need an explanation for.

We have many ways to interpret this pattern. I won’t plough through all of them. The important points are that humans identify more closely with animals than with anything in the inanimate world and we project our frailties on them. We see our imperfections in the animals around us and our ideals in a world that is a bit colder and more distant. Familiar animals come off as ‘scape goats, beings that can carry our sins away with them, making similes a vehicle of atonement, among its various other functions.


Is Chicken Chicken?

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

Bob Sinclair recently noted in an e-mail message to me:

chicken“In your discussions of animal adjectives in English, you note a quirk in the usage of German based nouns, which in their adjective form carry negative characteristics, while neutral equivalent adjectives are derived from French. I believe that the reason there are so many negative connotations associated with the Germanic words is that the French words gained prominence after 1066, when William the Conqueror brought in French nobles to England as an over-class. The Germanic Anglo-Saxon aristocracy became second (or lower) class, as did their vocabulary.”

Bob, of course, is absolutely right. The French proclivity toward haut cuisine was no doubt the motivating force behind this inclination. The peasants raised pigs but the elite ate porque; sheep were raised but mouton was consumed; cows were raised and milked but boeuf was eaten. The results were the parallels we have today in English:

pig pork
sheep mutton
cow beef

This dualistic pattern must have also been affected at least in part by the trouble some peasants had thinking about eating animals that they had raised. There is a famous example in semantics, recounted in one of her books by Jean Aitchison of a child who loved chicken above all other meats. One Easter she was given one of those dyed chicks so popular in the 50s and 60s in return for her promise to take care of it. The chick grows up and becomes a family pet. One day at the table, as the child sits before her favorite, a chicken dinner, she surveys the pieces on the platter and suddent exclaims: “Oh, no! Chicken is chicken!” And never eats chicken again.

One can easily imagine other dinner tables when the reaction was, “Oh, no! Sheep is sheep!” or “Oh, no! Cow is cow!” But, of course, this is less likely to happen now since the English language has made this discovery more difficult for children. Parents can always deny, “Oh, no, mutton is mutton and sheep are something entirely different.”

Isn’t is wonderful how our language looks out for us?  More on this tomorrow.

Testmony on the Origin of “Testimony”

Friday, September 22nd, 2006


The Right Honorable William Hupy raised another interesting question in an e-mail to me today. In his words, “Testament, testate, testator and the feminine equivalent testatrix, testimony and testis! [Emphasis mine.] What do all of the former words have to do with the latter if anything? According to my dictionary, testis is the root word and even there, the Latin origin is shown with the meaning of ‘witness’.”

We know the answers to some of the questions surrounding these words but not all. Testimony comes from Latin testimonium,”made up of testis “witness” and, possibly, a noun from monere “to remind.” Testis in the sense of “witness”, comes from the same root as Latin tri “three,” also the origin of English three. Testis was originally a compound noun rather like *tri-sta-i- meaning, roughly, “third person standing by,” with the *sta- root found in English stand and stead.

How the meaning of the Latin word testis wandered off to its other meaning, the one English borrowed, is one of the great unsolved mysteries of etymology. The funniest theory is that the Romans placed their right hands on their testicles and swore by them before giving testimony in court. Cute but no evidence. Another speculation is that we are dealing here with two words coincidentally spelled identically, testis in the sense we use it, coming from testa “pot, shell”, also the source of French tête “head”. More convincing but still pure speculation with no analogies of the sound changes required.

So, history bears no witness to the connections between the family jewels and witnesses—which is always more fun since we are allowed to concoct whatever relatively reasonable etymologies as please us.

Carring to the Whee with my Granddaughter

Wednesday, September 20th, 2006


The recent visit of my 20-month-old granddaughter, Abigail (or Abby-G as she calls herself), drew me a little afield of my core expertise—into acquisitional semantics. What follows amounts to a set of informed observations rather than a reliable argument.

Language acquisition begins at the age of 2, plus or minus 3-4 months. Before that age, chimpanzees can do pretty much whatever a human can do. When language acquisition sets in, however, humans rocket far, far beyond the  communication skills of any other species. (Click here for the arguments.)

This puts Abby-G at an interesting stage of development: just at the onset of language acquisition but not quite there. At this point in her life her communication is primitive: she uses only single words, occasionally a two-word phrase that she has memorized but she cannot yet construct even simple phrases on the fly.

The experts tell us that as children begin to learn language, they look for one-one associations between linguistic sound (phonology) and meaning (semantics). They don’t expect couch and sofa to mean the same thing. I have serious doubts about this assumption but lets accept it as a working hypothesis. So what kind of associations do children make before they acquire language, the rules of grammar, that tell them how things are related?

In other words, how does Abby-G seem to be attaching meaning to sounds? She seems to be making the very simple one-one associations experts predict and chimpanzees do. However, the sounds associated with meanings are not always (grammatically) appropriate. For example, a playground is a “whe-e-e-e-e!”, to go somewhere” is car, and a train is a choo-choo. Abby-G associates sounds with activities involved with the objects as easily as she associates sounds with things as easily as she associates sounds with objects involved in activities. At this stage: no pattern, no guidance from grammar.

It is always fascinating to observe children struggling to sort out the semantic world. Before the language acquisition stage emerges in them, they use any kind of association they can imagine from whee for the playground to car for “let’s go”. I can hardly wait to see her acquire language: discovering grammatical categories and using them to assemble sentences. At that point grammatical categories like noun, verb, adjective, comparative, past tense appear out of nowhere in an explosion of knowledge that only one species has the privilege of enjoying and that be explained only in terms of innate knowledge. In other words, it is simply there when human children hit a certain stage of development.


Geophagy and Pica

Tuesday, September 19th, 2006


Two people contacted us today in connection with today’s Good Word, geophagy, the eating of dirt. Dr. Lyn Laboriel is a pediatrician and long-time subscriber to our daily words. Today she pointed out that geophagy is very similar to pica, the compusive eating of nonfood substances. Some dictionaries offer them as synonyms. I thought that a mistake and responded to Dr. Laboriel with this:

“Although some dictionaries treat pica and geophagy the same, geophagy is restricted to eating dirt and usually refers to eating clay for mineral supplement (calcium especially) and to relieve abdominal distress. Pica is most often—I believe—associated with mental disorders. They probably have been confused but I think it is useful to keep them separate aimply because doing things to maintain health and doing them because of mental imbalance are so completely different.”

After a bit more research (which I should have done), Lyn responded with this:

“Although PICA can reflect a form of an eating disorder—at least according to the good folks at the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) committee who officially catalog such things—it really does seem to be related in some children to an intuitively perceived nutritional deficiency. What intrigued me about it was that in the case of children it was intuitive rather than culturally taught as it would be in geophagy (or chthonophagy).”

The entry from Dorland’s Medical Dictionary places geophagy clearly as a subclass of pica. DSM-IV has named just about every type of nonfood ingestion:

Dorland’s Medical Dictionary on PICA
pica (pi·ca)
[L. "magpie" (because this bird eats or carries away odd objects)] compulsive eating of nonnutritive substances, such as ice (pagophagia), dirt (geophagia), gravel, flaking paint or plaster, clay, hair (trichophagia), or laundry starch (amylophagia). When seen during pregnancy it is called citta or cittosis. It also occurs in some patients with iron or zinc deficiencies. In children this syndrome, classified with the eating disorders in DSM-IV, is a rare mental disorder with onset typically in the second year of life; it usually remits in childhood but may persist into adolescence.

Both Lyn and I find it fascinating that these practices are common enough to have been named. We only name things we need names for and we only need names for things that recur in our experiences. The discovery of such a large vocabulary for this mixture of practices and disorders comes as a great surprise to this nonspecialist.


Is it I or me?

Monday, September 18th, 2006

John Buckley wrote yesterday, taking exception to the clause, “[t]he person behind Dr. Goodword is me . . . ” using me instead of I. He finds it difficult himself to say, “It is me,” too, preferring, “It is I.” I pointed out that the majority of English speakers use the latter and that phrases like, “It is I,” are generally learned in school rather than in the normal process of language acquisition. He was unimpressed.

I wrote on a related subject for the alphaDictionary Reference Shelf in my article “Are You and I You and Me?” That article dealt with the misuse of the subjective (nominative) form of I in conjunctive phrases like waiting for you and I, places where we would never say *waiting for I. The problem in both cases is that English has lost its cases, its case system, except for a few fragments in the pronominal system:

I me
he him
she her
we us
they them

This outdated subjective-objective case distinction has already been lost by you and it, which have been omitted in the table above.

Many languages, like German, Greek, and Russian, distinguish the subjects and objects of verbs by different endings placed on the nouns with those functions. In Russian, which I taught for 37 years, Ivan videl Borisa means ”Ivan saw Boris” while “Boris saw Ivan” is Boris videl Ivana. Notice that whichever noun serves as the direct object has a distinct ending -a. The nominative (subjective) case for these nouns is zero, nothing, no ending.

The interesting advantage of a case system is that word order doesn’t matter. The following sentences all mean the same:

  • Ivan videl Borisa
  • Borisa videl Ivan
  • Ivan Borisa videl
  • Videl Borisa Ivan

There is a big difference between Ivan saw Boris and Boris saw Ivan in English. That is because the subject is identified and distinguished from the object in English by its appearance before the verb: the subject is the noun before the verb, the object is the first noun after the verb (basically; there are variations).

Objects also occur after parts of speech other than verbs. The article I mentioned above dealt with pronouns after prepositions. Prepositions also “govern” objects, so the noun or noun phrase after a preposition must be in the objective case. However, the English case system is on its last leg: no nouns distinguish subjects from objects, it and you do not distinguish it, and we are losing our grasp of it in the last remaining pronouns. That is why we don’t wince when we say things like for John and I and between you and I.

So why do we say, It is me rather than It is I? Well, it is something else we borrowed from the French, who also say c’est moi “it is me” and not c’est je. French has lost the case system, too, but, like English, has retained a few pronouns with the distinction between the nominative (subject) and accusative (object) cases. So what to do with them?

Since word order is as important in French as it is in English, French decided that it was the position after the verb that is important, not the object function. To be an object, a noun or pronoun must represent the object the that action of the verb is carried out on, done to. In the sentence, The man bit the dog, dog is the object of bit because it is the object of the biting, not the biter, which is the subject, in this case, the man.

French and English no longer have case systems to the concept of case forms paralleling the functions of subject and object are out the window. In these languages now it is the position after the verb—any verb—that is critical. Even though be does not take a direct object (it simply indicates the time at which something occurs, past, present, or future), the “objective” form of the pronoun is used.

English does not have an Academy of Sciences to arbitrarily decide what is grammatical or not, so I look for consistency. I don’t like an historical because we don’t say an hypothetical, an hippopotamus, or an harangue. (A is supposed to become an if the first syllable of a word beginning on H is unaccented.)

I wouldn’t say that an historical is an ungrammatical phrase but it is inconsistent and grammar is, above all, a set of (relatively) consistent rules that guides our speech. That consistency is crucial to understanding since, if I used one set of rules and you, another, we would not be able to communicate. Even if the rules are slightly different, as are the rules of rural Southern grammar and urban Northern grammar in the US, the results are disturbing, leading us to ridicule each other over the difference.

Using me after ALL verbs is consistent. It is not consistent with a case system because English no longer has a case system but within English itself, it does show a consistent pattern and hence is preferable to It is I.

Zeroing in on Ground Zero

Thursday, September 14th, 2006


As I joined the nation in paying respects to all the people who died and were injured in New York, Washington, and Shanksville, PA 5 years ago, it occurred to me (again) that of all the impact this series of events had on the English language, one of the most notable was returning the appropriate meaning to the phrase ground zero.

Until that fateful day five years ago, the hair on the back of my neck would stand up when I would hear someone say, “We have to get back to ground zero and start all over again.” The phrase was fast becoming a synonym for “the beginning”.

This term, of course, originated at the Trinity Test site in Alamagordo, New Mexico in 1945 when the first nuclear device was detonated. According to the Atomic Archive, the Trinity Monument now “…includes base camp, where the scientists and support group lived; ground zero, where the bomb was placed for the explosion; and the McDonald ranch house, where the plutonium core to the bomb was assembled.”

“Ground zero” was originally the point at which an explosion occurs, hardly a place you would want to start anything at. Apparently, someone confused ground zero with zero-base budgeting.

Zero-base budgeting is an approach that does not simply include increases and decreases to last year’s budget, but requires justification for all expenditures, past and current. In other words, it begins with the assumption that next year’s budget is zero and every expenditure in a company, home, or department must be built on that.

Obviously, the two have nothing to do with each other.  Ground zero is the center of devastation, a meaning only slightly expanded from the original.

It is good to have ground zero back, though I wish the return could have been less costly.

Gerrymandering the Word Itself

Monday, September 11th, 2006


Today’s Good Word was gerrymander and several readers mentioned that Elbridge Gerry, the eponym of this word—or at least part of it—pronounced his name with a hard G, like Gary.

Only about 2260 of the approximately 6800 known languages and dialects on planet Earth have writing systems.  Those that have had them for some time have felt the influence of the writing system on pronunciation. 

Generally, a writing system is supposed to capture the sounds of the language it represents (Chinese being the notable exception).  However, sometimes the influence moves in the opposite direction.  The pronunciation of the T in the word often is a prime current example. 

T doesn’t like to stand between F and a vowel—soften is another case in point. So the T should not be pronounced.  However, seeing it there as we read makes it difficult to ignore, so some people pronounce it.

The same thing happened to gerrymanderGerry today is used most often as a nickname for Gerald or Geraldine where the G is soft.  Since it looks like it should be soft, it has become soft, even though the OED still offers the hard version as the basic one. 


Is it Up to Me to Clear Up ‘Up’?

Thursday, September 7th, 2006


Nell Bludworth (G. N. Bludworth of the Alpha Agora) periodically sends me leads for interesting words or stories about language. Today she sent several items that she has collected, including an old complaint about the meaning of the adverb-preposition-verbal particle UP Here is part of that plaint (you have probably read the rest in your past e-mail).

“There is a two-letter word that perhaps has more meanings than any other two-letter word, and that is UP.”

“It’s easy to understand UP, meaning toward the sky or at the top of the list, but when we awaken in the morning, why do we wake UP? At a meeting, why does a topic come UP? Why do we speak UP and why are the officers UP for election and why is it UP to the secretary to write UP a report?” And so on.

To get a better grasp on language, you must understand that small (grammatical) function words like UP often have more than one function. Dr. Goodword is commonly criticized for using they in the singular, e.g. “A person can say whatever they can get away with.”

The response is that this pronoun has two functions: (1) to indicate 3rd person plural and (2) to indicate 3rd person indefinite. A good example of (2) is our colloquial use of it in sentences like, “They told me at the police station that I can say that,” even when you only talked to one person at the police station. The critical issue is that the person you talked to is indefinite, that is, his or her identity is unknown or immaterial when you talk about them.

Well, guess what? UP also has about three distinct functions.

1. Up functions as a preposition: “This nonsense about UP is driving me up the wall.” That use is clear if metaphorical: “toward the sky”.

2. Up can function as an adverb: “Why did you bring that up at the meeting?” The adverbial sense of UP is something like “to the surface, to the fore”. It is closely related to the prepositional meaning and can be identical in tandem with verbs like throw (up), to grow (up), to bring (up). Notice whether throw up means to vomit or put up a tent, the meaning is the same: direction toward the sky.

3. Up also functions as a verb particle, a little extender that allows verbs a bit of flexibility (corresponding to verbal prefixes in other language like German and Russian). Notice that “I looked Hortense up in Poughkeepsie,” look . . . up has quite a different meaning from look. The same is true of look (something) over, look out (for), and others. Most verb particles are mobile: they can hook up to the beginning or end of the predicate: “I looked up Hortense in Poughkeepsie,” works just as well as, “I looked Hortense up in Poughkeepsie.”

In its function as a verb particle, UP usually indicates what linguists call the Perfective Aspect, a form of verbs in some languages that indicates completed action. So, in English, is usually translates as “completely”.

If you mop a stain on the floor, you may still be able to see it. But if you mop it up, it is gone completely. If you call someone on the telephone, you might not get through, but if you called them up, you got them. We DON’T say, “I called Jim up yesterday but he didn’t answer.” This sentence sound much better without the up.

Try it yourself: if the drain is clogged or stopped up, can some water get through? If we cleaned up the kitchen, is there still work to be done? If someone stirred up trouble yesterday, is it possible that the trouble went unnoticed? If you are dressed, you could have on skanky clothes but what if you are dressed up? About as complete as you can dress?

What if I shut up now? Could I say a few more words? Well, I guess I did but then I didn’t shut up, did I? Now I will.