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Archive for October, 2008

Written Mondegreens?

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

I’m back from my annual visitation to North Carolina, where that beautiful accent is fading fast. I think I mentioned before that all my nieces and nephews, and now, grandneices and grandnephews, speak in the tongue of Midwesterners. Glad I captured the spirit of the old accent in my Glossary of Quaint Southernisms while I had the chance.

I found this note from Bill Pelz on my arrival:

What about a mondegreen that comes from reading rather than from hearing? A favorite in my family has long been:

“The lad had a feebly growing down on his chin.”

The ambiguity that allows ‘feebly’ to be perceived as a noun would be destroyed by the application of a hyphen so is it just a punctuation error rather than a true mondegreen? However, the noun “feebly” could also come from mis-hearing the spoken sentence’s stress pattern and the intervals between words. I imagine a feeblie (my preferred spelling) as a long, thin, pale, and floppy growth—a super-mole or super-wart.

So, is ‘feeblie’ a subspecies of mondegreen, a hybrid, or a separate species?

I think most rhetoricians would think of this as a simple ambiguity: a sentence that allows two parsings—the stuff of puns.

The 20th century’s most famous linguist, Noam Chomsky, argues that ambiguities like “Flying airplanes can be dangerous,” prove that syntax, even though invisible, has a branching structure. The ambiguity in this phrase depends on whether “flying” is the head to which “airplanes” is subordinated or a participle subordinated to “airplanes”. Since Chomsky, many more such examples have been discovered: “Eating lions can be risky,” “Attacking dogs can be scary,” etc.

Groucho Marx was a master at them: “Yesterday I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How an elephant got in my pajamas, I’ll never know.” We can make them up easily: “Gerald ate his salad without dressing,” “Chumley found Gwendolyn with a spyglass,” etc. Groucho’s examples differed from Chomsky’s by relying on a prepositional phrase that could modify either of two nouns, usually a subject and a predicate. The association with the subject made sense while the association with the predicate (direct object) made facetious nonsense.

I don’t know that such examples have a name; maybe we need one since misanalyzing statements can be so funny.

Searching for Obama in his Name

Monday, October 20th, 2008

President Barack ObamaThe Republican presidential campaign seems to be attempting to raise fears of an Obama presidency by references to his names. His middle name, Hussein, is an easy key to associate with Sadam Hussein, so long as no one remembers King Hussein of Jordan, long one of our strongest supporters.

Senator Obama’s first name, however, is far more interesting if wholly and totally unrelated to his character and presidential campaign. My friend Paul Ogden did a little basic research on this name. The results were so fascinating that I couldn’t resist doing a bit on my own and reporting the results here.

The basic Semitic (Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew) meaning of barak is “blessing”. It is a word that appears in the Old Testament more than 300 times. But did you know about the ancient Semitic tradition of sealing a successful business deal or other negotiation with an exchange of gifts, called al-baraka “the blessing” in Arabic.

The Spaniards adopted the practice during the Moorish Period of their history, referring to the gift with the Arabic word, which became albaroque in Spanish. This word then appeared in Ango-Norman (French spoken in England) as abrocour and brocour which, by folk etymology, eventually became broker, something we would hope any US president would be good at. Diamond brokers around the world today seal their deals with a handshake and proclaiming mazel and brocha “luck and a blessing”, brocha being a variant of barak(a).

One of the best brokers in US history was Bernard Baruch, who later became one of the most trusted advisors of President Franklin Roosevelt, the last president called upon to save the US from a financial crisis. Baruch means “blessed” and is the past passive participle of baraka “to bless”. (Baruch is famous for saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”)

The Semitic root of baraka is brk. (In the Semitic languages, the various forms of word are created by changing the vowels in the root.) We find the same the word in the last name of Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. Many linguists think that brk descended from krb. If so, Barak is also related to the source of the English word cherub, about as far away from a terrorist as we can get. 

A Cratered Metaphor

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

CraterOne of the US newsy networks has recently discovered the verb to crater and its use is virusing from one network to another.  I understand what it means, but it makes me feel a bit lexically crapulent even though I’m not offended (as you can see) by the tendency in the US to verb nouns relentlessly.

Interesting point: the American Heritage Dictionary and the Free Dictionary give us identical definitions (isn’t that naughty?). Here it is from AHD:

1. To form a crater or craters. 2. Slang a. To fall and crash violently from a great height. b. To fail utterly: “talked about how tough times were in Texas since the oil business cratered” (Stephen Coonts, Under Siege 1990, 1991 (pb)).”

Apparently Mr. Coonts introduced it and it has languished until recently. British dictionaries do not list this meaning, nor does Encarta, and Merriam-Webster lists the slang sense as “collapse, crash”, a sense I still feel is still too far from the image of a crater.

It is currently being used in referece to the precipitous fall of the stock market this month. The slang verb, therefore, is a metaphor for a fall from a great distance.

I think the reason it rubs me wrong is that it is based on the vision of a meteor falling to Earth or some other celestial body and causing a crater. But most craters are caused by explosions on Earth from geysers, bombs, or mines. 

The criticial visual crater gives us is the raised rim around a hole or other indentation. How that object is created is either not a part of the definition or too far removed to provide the connection with falling and crashing.

I don’t think this usage will survive but then I didn’t think google and bling-bling had much of a chance, either.

Mondegreens and Ambiguity

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

I’m back from my annual visitation to North Carolina, where that beautiful accent is fading fast. I think I mentioned before that all my nieces and nephews, and now, grandnieces and grandnephews, speak in the tongue of Midwesterners. Glad I captured the spirit of the old accent in my Glossary of Quaint Southernisms while I had the chance.

I found this note from Bill Pelz on my arrival:

What about a mondegreen that comes from reading rather than from hearing? A favorite in my family has long been:

“The lad had a feebly growing down on his chin.”

The ambiguity that allows ‘feebly’ to be perceived as a noun would be destroyed by the application of a hyphen so is it just a punctuation error rather than a true mondegreen? However, the noun “feebly” could also come from mis-hearing the spoken sentence’s stress pattern and the intervals between words. I imagine a feeblie (my preferred spelling) as a long, thin, pale, and floppy growth—a super-mole or super-wart.

So, is ‘feeblie’ a subspecies of mondegreen, a hybrid, or a separate species?

I think most rhetoricians would think of this as a simple ambiguity: a sentence that allows two parsings, the stuff of puns.  A mondegreen is what linguists call reanalysis, the accidental misanalysis of a word or phrase, as “Gladly, the Cross I’d bear” was supposedly misanalyzed by a child in Sunday School as “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear”. 

The 20th century’s most famous linguist, Noam Chomsky argues that ambiguities like “Flying airplanes can be dangerous,” prove that syntax, even though invisible, is a branching structure. The ambiguity in this phrase depends on whether “flying” is the head to which “airplanes” is subordinated or a participle subordinated to “airplanes”. Since him many more have been stumbled upon: “Eating lions can be risky,” “Attacking dogs can get tiresome,” etc.

Groucho Marx was a master at them: “Yesterday I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How an elephant got in my pajamas, I’ll never know.” We can make them up easily: “Gerald ate his salad without dressing,” “Chumley found Gwendolyn with a spyglass,” etc. Groucho’s examples differed from Chomsky’s by relying on a prepositional phrase that could modify either of two nouns, usually a subject and a predicate. The association with the subject made sense while the association with the predicate (direct object) made facetious nonsense.