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Starting First

December 12th, 2013

I heard a TV talk show host say recently, “I want to talk to all of you but starting first with [John Smith]”. My question is, could we start second with someone? Starting sort of implies first, right?

Language is full of redundancies like this. We simply write this one off as one of the many idiomatic phrases that haunt English, or any language for that matter. How often have you heard (or said) “Let me start first with . . . ?” “ATM machine” is another that bugs me. What do we think the “M” stands for?

The Fate of English Plurals

December 10th, 2013

Jan Miele sent me the following note today:

I’ve just this MOMENT received an email with this subject line: “Hurry, there’s only a few hours left to pick your offer.” Shouldn’t this read instead as: “Hurry, there are only a few hours left to pick your offer.”

I’m seeing this sort of thing all the time now! What’s up with that?

My response was as follows:

If you are a linguist, read Lorimor, H., Bock, J. K., Zalkind, E., Sheyman, A., & Beard, R. 2008. “Agreement and attraction in Russian.” Language and Cognitive Processes 23, 769-799, and the works on English listed in the references by Kay Bock. She thinks there is some change in the grammar of English taking place, whereby agreement marks the last word in the subject noun phrase, for example “a group of girls have arrived” instead of “a group of girls has arrived”.

I disagree with my former student. I think that English is losing the category ‘plural agreement’ in verbs and there is no consistency or pattern in verbal agreement. The tendency for the verb to agree with the final noun in a noun phrase is just a logical speech error in the transition. Bock’s position doesn’t make sense grammatically; it would defeat the purpose of agreement, which is to show the head of a subject noun phrase.

Your example confirms my position, since there is no noun phrase involved here. Actually, I’ve heard the example you sent so often, I sometimes catch myself making the same mistake, if it is a mistake in a transitional stage of development.

High Dudgeon but not Low Dudgeon

November 30th, 2013

George Kovac asked about the idiomatic used of the Good Word dudgeon, to wit:

“Why is it always high dudgeon? Does no one (but me) ever say just dudgeon or low dudgeon or even medium dudgeon? Some words are always paired in usage, and I guess I should get over it. For example, have you ever heard of something being boggled other than a mind? And if someone is always in a state of high dudgeon, why can’t we describe them as uneven keeled?”

Well, George, the rules of language are strewn with linguistic rubble. Sometimes it results from the lack of a reference (what else besides a mind could be boggled)? Sometimes we simply don’t know. How to you explain the rubble left from grinding out rules that are always changing?

Did you read the wonderful article that appeared in a 1957 edition of The New Yorker called “How I Met my Wife“?

Where does PIE ‘Nest’ Nest?

November 14th, 2013

I received this very pleasant comment from Supriya Dey today:

“I absolutely enjoy the daily Dr Goodword feeds. Thank you.”

“For today’s word, I was wondering if nid in nidicolous is related to nir [neer]. which means “home” or “nest” in some Indian languages. The syllable col also means “lap” in Bengali, an Indian language. Any relations?”

I responded:

It depends on which Indian languages you are talking about. If they are Indo-European, like Bengali, Hindi, Marathi, and Oriya, the answer would be an unqualified “yes” for nir “nest”. They would not be included in the etymological sources that I use because little is known by Western European etymologists about Indo-Iranian languages. If you are talking about Dravidian languages, like Kanada, Telugu, Mayalayam, the answer would be “no”.

The word col “lap” presents more problems, however. Col- is the PIE root (if this is the root of Latin colere at all), which would have changed considerably in the past 5000 years. This root became carati, calati in Sanskrit and referred to movement. There are many questions surrounding this word even if it occurs in Bengali. As I say in the Good Word nidicolous: it takes some stretch of the imagination to take “rotate” to “inhabit”. The same would apply for “lap”. Taken together, the sound change problem and the semantic one, would probably exclude it from consideration.

I heard back from Supriya telling me that nir does, in fact, occur only in north Indian languages.

Marshaling the Skills to Spell ‘Martial’

October 28th, 2013

A long-standing friend of Dr. Goodword, David McWethy, dashed off this note to me about a week ago under the subject: “Gunsmoke, starring James Arness as Martial Matt Dillon”. He was clearly over-excited, but with good reason. Let me let him explain it to you.

“I was whiling away this past weekend, musing on thoughts of my tranquil hours while a DVD of my personal favorite genre was playing in the background, when the video below whizzed past before it fully registered in both hemispheres of my brain.”

Martial Law“‘I can’t believe I saw my eyes’, as my grandmother would say. So I spent several minutes rewinding/playing, rewinding/playing until the video below—right there in front of God and everybody else—was frozen for the benefit of posterity” (see picture).

“It takes some doing to render me speechless, but this one managed in a walk. Just to make sure that it was not I who was pathetically out of step, I checked my favorite dictionary, to be rewarded with ‘The word you’re searching for is not listed’. Even the authority of great unwashed Wikipedia hadn’t a hint of marshal except to mention en passant that:”

‘This article is about a title. For other meanings, see Marshal (disambiguation). For the rank of Field Marshal, see Field Marshal. This article has multiple issues….This article may require cleanup to meet Wikipedia’s quality standards.., [concluding with the dispositive] (not related to court martial).’

“I’ve come to two conclusions: The lesser of the two being that since martial has apparently not been used as a Good Word, the timing of the tie-in to the egregious use above could hardly be better. My second epiphany is the conclusion that history may judge sites such as alphaDictionary, to a great or lesser extent, as civilization’s front-line defense to the—like, ya know, OMG!—onslaught of the illiterate hordes, who could not create a written or spoken sentence in the English language. (Just in case you ever have moments of doubt whether your efforts are really worth it).”

I [Dr. G] would just note two things. The unread sod who created this poster used only one L, which indicates to me he understood the difference between the name Marshall and the title of the law enforcement officer, marshal. Since martial law is a state in which the military tries to maintain law and order, and since marshals would otherwise maintain law and order, we can see how his mistake is possible. About 2 million occurrences of this mistake are on the Web today.

When is ‘different’ treated differently?

October 19th, 2013

Joan Gambill noticed a rather odd use of an adjective in my characterization of pruinose the other day. Here is how she put it:

“In yesterday’s word email about pruinose, under Notes at the end of the paragraph, it seems as though it should be differently, not different. I do enjoy your words.”

In most dialects of English both different and differently are allowed after verbs depending on what you mean. The suffix -ly on differently associates the adjective different with the verb, so that to tell you differently would mean “to tell you in a way different from the normal way of telling”, e.g. whispering, or in a letter. To tell you different implies “to tell you that the thing we are talking about is different”.

It is difficult to find situations in which both the adjective and adverb are applicable but they do pop up from time to time: She worked furiously (to finish on time) vs. She worked furious (at the way the boss treated her). In the former sentence, furiously modifies the verb; in the latter sentence, furious refers to she. As you see here, when the adjective is used, we usually supply a subordinate clause to clarify.

Without the subordinate clause, the result is often humorous: “Mary ate her salad undressed.” Here the joke arises from the ambiguity of which thing is undressed: the salad or Mary?

New Games at alphaDictionary

October 17th, 2013

I have added two new games about idioms and adages to the growing supply of word games on alphaDictionary. The first consists in matching idioms and adages with an prose description comprising arcane vocabulary, e.g. neophyte serendipity = beginner’s luck: http://www.alphadictionary.com/fun/idiom_match.html

The other new game–my favorite–is matching idioms and adages with a picture of their literal meaning. For example, a picture of people climbing walls = climbing the walls. It may be found at http://www.alphadictionary.com/fun/idioms_adages.html.

Have fun.

A Small Menu

October 15th, 2013

I received this interesting note from Jean Perry this morning:

“I recently read in Barbara Ehrenrich’s book Dancing in the Streets, about public festivals, that menu peuple meant ‘simple people’. I couldn’t find the connection between menu as in ‘list’ and menu as in ‘simple’. Can you help me with this?”

This is a Middle French usage that came over when English borrowed the word. French menu then meant “unimportant” or “small”, because menu came to Old French from classical Latin minutus “minúte”. The earliest written evidence in Middle French was les menus = le menu peuple “the small, unimportant people”, plural of la gent menude “the small, unimportant person”. The usage of menu in this sense is now considered archaic.

Forvo

October 7th, 2013

Forvo is a website which encourages its visitors to pronounce words. It has pronunciations of words in a large number of languages.

Can you Enjoy without a Direct Object?

September 23rd, 2013

Joel Jacubowicz sent me the following message today:

I have several questions about the usage of the word ‘enjoy’ as a complete, standalone sentence.

1) Is the complete sentence “Enjoy!” (As in, “Here’s your meal. Enjoy!”) grammatically correct?
2) If not, despite being ungrammatical could it be considered to be acceptable usage? 
3) Is it an Americanism? And if so could it be argued to be acceptable to use it anyway in British English?

I ask this because a certain person I know has a pathological and irrational hatred of the phrase “Enjoy!”, e. g. without a direct object (“enjoy WHAT??!!”) but I argue that, even if it’s grammatically incorrect, it’s essentially a set phrase and communicates slightly different meaning to “enjoy this” or “enjoy your meal”, so it can be exempt from following the rules. Alternatively it could be just a command (Enjoy! / Eat! / Read! / Sit!) which is taken as a polite invitation rather than something that you absolutely must do. 

Here is my response.

Enjoy! as an intransitive verb was first used by Yiddish speakers according to Harry Golden in his 1958 book, For 2 Cents Plain. I first heard it from a retired Pennsylvania forest ranger who made commercials for the Pennsylvania Department of Parks about 40 years ago. It would seem to have arisen among speakers of German dialects in the US. I don’t think it is common outside the US; I’ve never heard it used in all the British or Australian movies and TV series that my wife and I have watched over the past 25 or so years.

Enjoy is an obligatorily transitive verb, i.e. a verb which must have a direct object. There are pseudotransitive verbs, verbs which may be transitive or intransitive, i.e. the verbs you mention (eat, read, sit), but enjoy, devour, fix aren’t among them.

An interesting article from the New York Times Magazine points out that the imperative is the only way we can use the intransitive enjoy. I enjoy, you enjoy, s/he enjoys, etc. without a direct object are never heard or spoken. How can this be? It follows that this usage is at best idiomatic.

If this usage spreads throughout  the US, it will be an acceptable usage in the US only, hence it is dialectal. Transitivity is rather flexible; if anyone can think of a situation where a transitive verb works intransitively or vice versa, and they (mis)use it in that situation, it is just a matter of “catching on”. Still, this expression will only be dialectal and idiomatic.

(This blog was partially based on research by Luciano Eduardo de Oliveira.)