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Archive for May, 2010

Litotes in Kansas

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Dee Scrogin caught this line in an article about capping the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in the Wichita Eagle (May 27, 2010) and wondered if it were not an example of litotes, the Good Word for May 22, 2010:

“So far, ‘top kill” isn’t failing to plug oil leak”

Dee wrote, “I wonder if this is an example of litotes which you discussed recently? (5/22) I’d never heard the word but found it interesting about a double negative appealing to the positive. I enjoy your daily word; a friend, Ed Garvin, recommended you.”

Indeed, “isn’t failing” is a perfect example of litotes since “not” is built into the word “fail” = “not succeed”. You do not have to see the two negations as in “not uncommon” to make a litotes. So long as two words imply negation, they are litotic.The implication in this phrase is that top kill isn’t failing but isn’t succeeding, either. This is the expected effect of litotes.

Talking Monetization

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

A Facebook friend, Liza Kendall Christian, wrote Monday to express her curiosity about monetize:

“Bob, Do you knew the origin of the word monetize among all the other fun things you seem to dissect about language. Just a minor curiosity of when and in what venue/sphere it came into existence. Thank you, Bob!”

This word first began to appear in print in the second half of the 19th century in the sense of “to establish as the standard of currency”, a meaning which slowly evolved into “realize as or express in terms of money.”

In 1867 it was used several times in a book by J. A. Ferris called “The financial Economy of the United States”, e.g. “This would monetize gold again.” In 1903 it was being used widely throughout the English-speaking world. The British journal “The Speaker” was even using new words derived from it, e.g. “He demonetised silver in Germany and monetised gold.”

Money, money, money!The word was borrowed from French monétiser, which emerged some time before 1818. The French didn’t inherit it from Latin but created it from Latin moneta “money” plus the Greek suffix -iz-. The British still spell this suffix the French way -ise (monetise) while we long ago changed the spelling to -ize. The US spelling is, however, in the process of being adopted in the UK.

Ye Old Shoppe Shops

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

BK Teo wrote yesterday: “I have come across this word “shoppe” and I undersand it has the same meaning as shop. I would like to suggest that you use the word Shoppe for “What’s the Good Word?” series from alphaDictionary.”

Shoppe is an archaic variant of shop that is no longer in use. The spelling was probably influenced by French but who knows? Shoppe is used to for its sense of things dated, even old-fashioned, and quaint, as in “Ye Olde Antique Shoppe”. This phrase is simply a quaint variant of the modern “The Old Antique Shop”. These are curiosities but there isn’t much more than can be said about them that is interesting.

Why Gender?

Monday, May 10th, 2010

David Kelley of the Bucknell Electrical Engineering Department just dropped a note that I thought worth sharing with the world. Here is what he asked and how I answered.

I enjoyed reading Sam Alcorn’s ‘Ask the Experts‘ profile of you that has just recently appeared on Bucknell’s web site. There is an aspect of language that has puzzled me for 25 years. I have never found a satisfyingly complete answer to my question, so I thought I would ‘ask the expert’.

Does anyone know why (or have a good theory for why) gender developed in most of the world’s (or at least Europe’s) major languages? I know French and Spanish have masculine and feminine nouns, and I know German adds “neuter” to the list. Even more intriguing to me is why English, which is derived from German and has borrowed heavily from French and Latin, has lost the classification of nouns by gender.

David, thank you for your note. I’m happy that you enjoyed Sam’s interview with me; I was pleased with it myself.

We should keep in mind that we are not looking for logical reasons for gender, so the question “why?” begs the question. Gender exists for grammatical reasons alone and our mental grammar has its own rules. Grammar interacts with other mental processes but it should not be confused with them: it is an independent human mental faculty with rules of its own.

That said, gender is actually a category of the lexicon, out mental vocabulary, the dictionary of words we have in our heads. Grammar, the rules for organizing words in sentences, works together with lexicon to bridge our minds and the real world. Their job is to provide a speedy means of the expressing ideas about the real world to others out there. The first step in this process is to categorize everything.

Just as we have semantic (conceptual) categories like animal, vegetable, bodies of water, countries, we have lexical categories that group words so that they may be quickly grasped and understood in speech: gender, number, person. These categories are usually reflected in the dress of words, the suffixes, prefixes, endings, that they bear. Gender is one of those categories, a category with two or three members, usually masculine and feminine, but also neuter in some languages.

Now, remember that the lexical categories have to do with words, not semantic categories. The names “masculine” and “feminine” are therefore misleading for they also refer to the semantic categories of males and females. Masculine and feminine nouns are not limited to males and females. The word for table in Russian, stol, is masculine while la table in French is feminine. As I hope is obvious to all, tables have no semantic gender at all. Moreover, in Russian, the words for “uncle”, “judge”, “daddy”, and all male nicknames are feminine and the word for “girl” in German, Mädchen, is neuter.

Lexical gender, then, is an arbitrary set of classes and all nouns must belong to one of them. There is a tendency to associate semantic categories with lexical categories because of the confusion between the two that led to the names “masculine” and “feminine” for the lexical categories. Still, speakers have to memorize which class a noun belongs to just as they memorize each word’s meaning.

Languages that have gender also have agreement. This means that when a noun is used with an adjective or verb in those languages, that adjective and verb must bear an indicator (suffix or prefix) associated with the class of the noun. This helps the mind of the listener keep up with which adjective and which verb goes with which noun in complex sentences that have multiple adjectives and verbs. This is generally the purpose of lexical categories and, as you can see, it is purely grammatical, not semantic or logical.

The relation is not logical because languages like Chinese and Vietnamese have no prefixes or suffixes, no gender, no agreement yet speakers and listeners have no trouble processing these languages. English historically has been moving away from gender-agreement to the Chinese and Vietnamese model. We use only a handful of affixes now and there is evidence that they are losing their grip.

Why? No one knows. Clearly gender and agreement are not required of a functioning language; they just come and go for the arbitrary “reasons” of language alone, reasons linguists have not yet been able to establish.

Shmon: Eight and Body Search

Saturday, May 8th, 2010

An old acquaintance, Daniel Razumov, sent me an interesting Russian word with an unexpected story. Here is the story he tells:

“I have very nice example of Russian word “shmon” (шмон)  ’body search’ which is very similar to the Hebrew word “shmone” ( שמונה )  ’eight’.  My friends and I thought the similarity odd but coincidental.”

“Then we discovered that in the Soviet GuLags there was a body search at eight ‘clock each morning, and since many Jewish people were serving time in those prisons due to their ‘wrong’ political perspective in those days, the Hebrew word ‘eight’ was transferred from Yiddish or Hebrew to Russian slang as a body search.”

The semantic drift of words can be absolutely fascinating but also tell us so much about our history, where we are coming from and where we are going.

Getting off the Snide

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

Pat Williams Jeffery, Bucknell ’72, just dropped me this note today:

Listening to a sportscast the other day, I heard the announcer talk about someone getting ‘off the snide’. I thought that might be a good word for the day as it has more than one meaning—a snide remark, for example. I am really curious as to the origin of the ‘off the snide’ phrase and thought other readers might like to know, too.”

“Off the snide” is a nonce expression which may have been created by whomever you heard use it. I’m not familiar with it but there are hundreds of such creative configurations floating around out there like the names of such pseudo-diseases, as the hungries, the greasies, the gigglies, the twitchies, and others like do the dirty. Rarely do any stick but some do: on the ball, off the sauce, off his game. This one doesn’t have as much going for it as does, say, off his rocker or off her game, so I don’t give it much chance of survival.

Snide would be a good Good Word but both my two central sources say “Origin unknown” so we won’t find any history of it. It started out as thieves argot in Jolly Old, which pretty much assures that its history is lost forever.

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.