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Archive for December, 2006

Will Shortz and ‘Wordplay’

Wednesday, December 20th, 2006

Forgive me for not getting back to the blog any sooner. It isn’t for lack of interest; just conflict with the holiday rituals.

I promised a review of Will Shortz’ documentary film Wordplay upon my return and I am prepared to do that now. I think I can sidestep my jealousy at this point. Yes, Dr. Goodword is jealous of two people: Richard Lederer and Will Shortz. Both succeeded in making a living playing with words while I was laboring away in a Chomskyan framework trying just to understand them.

I really enjoyed meeting the people who write and work crossword puzzles. Crossword puzzles are an enjoyable intellectual challenge, which is why we carry several types of them on our website. (Our New Year’s resolution will be to update them more frequently.) However, this film is less about crossword puzzles than about the people who write them and the famous people who work them (Jon Stewart, President Clinton, Ken Burns, and the Indigo Girls among others).

The central figure in the film is Will himself, reading his mail, reading a puzzle to a participant on his PBS radio program, and emceeing the 28th Annual Crossword Competition in Stamford, Connecticut—nothing to produce a thrill a minute. As much as I love words and people who love words, I had to fast-forward several times to be able to say watching the film was time well spent. The problem is that the film is about the people who write and work crosswords with little said about the fascinating world of words itself.

The bulk of the film focuses on a competition for the fastest crossword puzzle solvers in the country. I’m not sure how anyone can enjoy words when their goal is to spit them out as fast as possible. I write Good Words to be savored; maybe that it my problem with the film. In the past 20 years of this competition, only 7 of the 400-500 people who compete each year have won. Are these people with rich vocabularies? Interesting lives? A better understanding of the world around them? As best I could judge, they just solve crossword puzzles faster than anyone else, a kind of lexical athlete.

Interesting documentaries about words can be made. American Tongues and the PBS series The Story of English are fascinating but, of course, they are not about puzzles. The spelling bee movies, Bee Season and Spellbound are fascinating. Granted they are not documentaries but they show how films based on words can capture your attention. Perhaps a history of crosswords from the Romans (Greeks?) onward would work. But the people who write them, talking about themselves and each other, is not the sort of excitement that even logophiles expect of the American film industry today.

My favorite crossword puzzle film is an unrated (so help me) four-part BBC series starring Alan Bates and Sinéad Cusack called Oliver’s Travels. The wordplay is the witty banter between the two main characters as they search for the legendary British crossword creator “Aristotle” from London to the Orkneys. Of course, the problem here is the fact that crosswords are in the background—but maybe that is where they should be. In order to make this film exciting, thriller plot was added in which an evil empire chases the heros, taking (real) potshots at them along the way.

OK. I’m not sure how to make an exciting crossword or word puzzle thriller and I am glad to have made a one-sided acquaintance with the foremost word puzzler and the fastest crossword puzzle workers in the country and I’ve already admitted that I am jealous of the star of this film. But whatever my motivation, I still think a golden opportunity was lost.

A Tip about Tips

Friday, December 15th, 2006

Michael Minor wrote this morning with a question we hear quite often:

I heard or read somewhere that in [Merry] Old England, the local pubs and/or inns would have a small box next to the entrance and it was for patrons to leave their comments or maybe later, a few coins, regarding the service they received during their visit. The box was labeled “To Insure Promptness”. Then some hundred years later it went to leaving a “tip” on the table when leaving to pay for the meal or the tab.

Using acronyms as words is a very, very recent trend and it is much more widespread in the US than in other English-speaking nations. Words like “tip” and “posh” (port outbound starboard homeward) are too old to have been created this way. I think sonar might have been the first converted acronym and it seems clear that the phrase it was supposed to come from was created at the same time as the word if not subsequent to it.

No one knows how tip originated but a far more logical origin is the verb, to tip, meaning “to hit lightly”, as a tipped ball or foul tip in baseball. This verb may have originally applied to lightly tapping someone’s hand with a small coin. This verb is also the origin of the expression, tip for tap, which for some mysterious reason has turned into the meaningless tit for tat in Modern US English.

For further reading, click here.

Next week I will review Will Shortz’s feature-length movie, Wordplay. Stay tuned.

Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year: ‘Truthiness’

Monday, December 11th, 2006

Merriam-Webster’s marketing team just posted the M-W word of the year, Steven Colbert’s comic invention, truthiness. Even though the word appears 1.6 million times on the Web and, according to M-W spokespeople it was the 5-1 choice of those who chose to vote, I find the choice puzzling.

First of all I find the choice puzzling since, according to Merriam-Webster, truthiness is not a word. That is to say, it is not to be found in any Merriam-Webster dictionary. Now I have commented before (I don’t recall where) on M-W’s tendency to sweep the streets for words, often committing them to the permanency of their lexical databases before we know if they are going to stick. M-W is good for hyping the words they put into their dictionaries but you never hear about the ones they take out because they are no longer used.

Truthiness is what linguists call a ‘nonce’ word; a word created for a specific situation that is not expected to survive as the situation changes. The OED recently accepted politicide and politricks which strike me as better choices, epecially politicide which should mean “death of a city” but works as a blend of political and suicide, as well.

Anyway, the Web has unleashed a tsunami of creativity that has washed thousands of creative comical words onto our monitors. Most of them are jokes, not based on the few rules of word formation left in English. However, since those rules are few and far between, and do not generate anything so amusing as words like truthiness, politicide, and my favorite, boomerangst, we have to wonder whether word formation rules rule any longer.

Is ‘than’ More a Conjunction than a Preposition?

Friday, December 8th, 2006

Mary Jane Stoneburg, one of our Good Word editors (along with Paul Ogden) complained about the use of the objective case with than in our rendition of aborigine for Thursday’s (December 7, 2006) Good Word. The offending passaage reads, “…Europeans generally colonize areas inhabited by nations less advanced than them.”  Now Carolyn Whitaker has written in agreement with Mary Jane, so I feel that I must place my neck publicly on the grammar-rule chopping block.  Here goes.

If you check the US and British dictionaries (including the OED) you will find that “than” is accepted as both a preposition and conjunction and, as a preposition, it requires the objective case. The OED says that it is only a conjunction but is used with the objective case of pronouns, an odd conclusion at odds with English grammar.

The earliest citation of this usage appears to be 1560 in the Geneva Bible, Proverbs xxvii:3: “A fooles wrath is heauier then them bothe”. A few years later it appeared in Agrippa Of the vanitie and uncertaintie of artes and sciences , translated by James Sandford 1569:165 “We cannot resiste them that be stronger then vs.” So this usage has been around a long time.

This is not an uncommon practice, in fact. Prepositions come from a wide variety of sources: verbs (save, except), adjectives (near, nearest, like), adverbs (aboard, outside, out), participles (following, concerning), conjunctions (before, as), even prepositional phrases (instead, alongside).

The British try to keep than as a pure conjunction but the examples in the OED, drawn from various sources over the centuries, show, not even they can resist this fairly recent change. I see nothing wrong with using than as a preposition, given the motley origins and histories of prepositions in English.

Ghil’ad Zuckermann on ‘Israeli’ vs ‘Modern Hebrew’

Saturday, December 2nd, 2006

Paul Ogden contacted Dr. Ghil’ad Zuckermann and brought our comments on the Hebrew-Israeli issue to his attention. The remainder of this blog is Dr. Zuckermann’s response.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other word would smell as sweet…?”

Some people argue that the name is not important. In fact, folk taxonomy is widespread. On the one hand, tomatos for me are vegetables (rather than fruit); on the other, I often think of potatos as starch like rice (rather than as vegetables). There are many people who believe that a koala is a bear. Who knows, perhaps even the first zoologists who saw it might have thought so too?! However, we now know that it is a marsupial. Should we continue to call it a bear?

Well, we could, why should we care? But let us say that you are a zoologist. Would you continue to employ this folk taxonomy and define a koala as a bear? You could, but if you insist that it is a bear zoologically, you might not be taken too seriously by your colleagues or by *future* generations. Similarly, I use the term Israeli for the following reasons:

(1) The term is much more accurate than Hebrew. Why not put the facts straight? If we chop off bear from koala-bear, we end up with koala. If we chop off Hebrew from hybrid Israeli Hebrew, we end up with Israeli, a lovely, elegant name.

(2) It could help to get my message across more clearly (otherwise, laymen might not realize that what I am trying to say is that Israeli is not like Modern English or Modern Greek)

(3) It is convenient to use it when discussing differences between Israeli and Hebrew, for example ‘The Israeli meaning of this Hebrew word is.’

Advantages (2) and (3) demonstrate that the term serves as a tool. However, I am also aware of the fact that the term itself might draw redundant fire from people, who might not make an effort to understand my model. I urge people not to overlook my arguments just because they want to continue to call this lovely language Hebrew. It is of great importance to keep in mind that my research is not just about terminology. It has ‘meat’ too, adding substance to our knowledge of history, sociology and language. If you are convinced by my theory but dislike the name Israeli, I would still regard my Beit Leyvik series as successful.

Terror attacks notwithstanding, I went to a Tel Aviv café the other day for a meal. Seeing Greek salad on the menu, I decided to play a small trick on the waitress. ‘Excuse me, but why is it called Greek salad?’ (slikhá, lama korím lezè salát yevaní?), I enquired. Clearly in a hurry, and impatient with such obvious questions, she answered nonchalantly, and a little arrogantly: ‘Can’t you see that it has Bulgarian cheese in it?!’ (ma z’toméret, atà lo roé sheyésh bezè gviná bulgarít?!).

It took her four seconds to realise the beautiful paradox in her explanation. Words can often bear a paradoxical relationship to their meaning. Yet, despite these obvious sense-reference, de re – de dicto contradictions, people rarely think twice about how appropriate the signifier they are using really is.

You might want to adopt the Selbstgefühl view, according to which native speakers have the right to think whatever they want about their own language. I would be the first to agree with you. However, as a linguist, I need to SEEK the truth about language. I do not by any means think that my research delivers the ultimate truth. I might well be wrong, but I am certain that my model brings us closer to the complex reality of the emergence of Israeli.

Paul Ogden on Language Names and Age

Friday, December 1st, 2006

Paul Ogden responded to my comments about old and new languages in yesterday’s language blog. He is much better versed in Middle Eastern languages and knows as much if not more about the European ones.  Here is his take on the old versus new language issue.

“Any speaker of Modern Hebrew (Israeli) with only a little difficulty can read and understand the Hebrew bible, whereas today’s Athenian cannot read or understand Classical Greek literature. More so for today’s Teheranian reading and understanding the Persian of Cyrus because of the difference in alphabets.”

“But in the[se] . . . cases, there has been continuing development of the languages because each has continuously been a mother-tongue language. Hebrew development slowed to a crawl about 1,500 years ago at the end of the Talmudic period (it had ceased to be a mother-tongue language some 500 years earlier) and then just sputtered along until about 150 years ago. I say 150 years because it was about that time that the production of paper was mechanized, rapidly permitting low cost newspaper publication. Enhanced communication via newspapers gave moribund Hebrew a kick-start into the twentieth century, aided and abetted by its late nineteenth century revivers.”

“I think a good case can probably be made for Italian being Modern Latin. Grant Hutchinson and I had a lively exchange on this subject on the old Agora.”