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Of Peckerwoods and Woodpeckers

September 17th, 2013

I received an interesting inquiry from Jeanne Henry. Here is that inquiry and my response.

Peckerwood. That is what our Southern Baptist pastor called us kids when he got angry with us. I just attended a 40-year reunion of the youth church choir and we laughed about Dr. Jimmy Morgan getting mad at us in church and announcing from the pulpit, “You little peckerwoods better shut up!” Of course, that made us giggle and shake the church pews even more. Poor guy.”

“Anyway, what is the history of the word Peckerwood?”

It started out as simply a Southern variant of woodpecker. However, it is not always used that way and has naughty overtones due to a poem kids back in the 20s and 30s once recited:

Woodpecker pecking on the schoolhouse door.
He pecked and he pecked ‘til his pecker got sore.

When my mother heard me or my cousins reciting this rhyme—long before we knew the other meaning of pecker—she became clearly embarrassed and forbade its recitation. Of course, this only egged us on.

Since the word begins with pecker, it has become mildly profane as well as a mild insult. That word is covered up a bit in woodpecker.

The Names of Things

September 6th, 2013

Randy Bynder appealed to Dr. Goodword for help with a common problem facing parents: answering a child’s innocent question. Children are learning machines, sponges that absorb thousands of facts every day. Here is a questiona that stumped Randy:

“Lately my 8 year old daughter keeps asking where partcular words come from. For instance ‘Daddy why do they call it a couch? Why are we called people?’ etc.

“Question: can you help me to formulate an intelligent but easy to understand response to such questions? Thank you.”

The answer, according to Plato, is that there is no answer; the relation between sounds and meanings are purely arbitrary. We call a horse a “horse” while Russians call the same animal a loshad’, Germans call it a Pferd, Spaniards a caballo, and Serbs a kon. It is the same animal referred to by different sounds depending on which part of the world you are in, more specifically, the language you are speaking.

Historically speaking, is another question. The similarities between English sister, German Swester, Russian sestra are not coincidental. These languages belong to a known language family, called “Indo-European”. A language family is exactly what it sounds like, a group of related languages that descended (developed over time) from the same “proto” language. They have descended from one language that existed earlier.

So the best response is to take advantage of the question to make your daughter aware that people around the world speak 6,912 languages and dialects. People speaking a different language are not to be feared; they are just saying more or less the same things we say in a different way.

Laying the Lie-Lay Confusion to Rest

July 12th, 2013

Ted Whittier is at it again:

“Thanks, again, for your interesting and informative daily word pieces. I enjoy them immensely.”

“I do have a question however. Has the use of the words lay and lie changed since I went to school? In your word piece today for crepuscular, in the Notes section, fifth sentence, you state: ‘. . . so we mustn’t just let it lay there.’ I seem to recall that if we lay something down we then let it lie not lay. What say you, good Doctor?”

Ted, when you’re right, you’re right. I had written “lie there” and was called on it by one of my editors, but then forgot to correct it.

Lie differs from lay in that it is intransitive (can’t take a direct object) and lay is transitive can take a direct object, so “I lie down” but “I lay the paper down”.

The problem is, and has been for centuries, the past tense of lie is lay—lie, lay, lain. The parts of speech of lay are lay, laid, laid.

I’ve written on this problem somewhere else on the website and forgot in the heat of getting out the Good Word (usually late at night) my own advice.

Thank you for catching that.

New G-rated Limerick

July 10th, 2013

I recently published a raft of “G-rated” limericks created by visitors to the alphaDictionary site. I invited more contributions from our lot, and receive this one from Steve Parris:

The Alpha Agora might boast
Of limericks cleaner than most,
But when rhymers start cookin’
And nobody s lookin’
They write stuff they never could post
–Steve Parris

I plan to separate the original limericks from the unoriginal ones soon, so you will not see this one up until then.

On the Health of English Usage

July 9th, 2013

Jackie Strauss recently posed a question that elicited from me a longer response than I think she needed. Jackie wrote:

“Would you please clear up something for me that’s been plaguing my mind for years. People speak of ‘healthy foods’ all the time. My impression was that we who eat these foods will be the healthy ones for it. Shouldn’t those foods that are good for us be called healthful foods, meaning ‘health-giving’? And doesn’t healthy mean ‘health-having’, so to speak?”

“Please tell me the proper use of healthy and healthful. I’d really appreciate it!”

No one has worked out all the rules of semantics, but we (linguists) know that they are different from the rules of grammar. Three of the things we know are: (1) You do not need a grammatical connection for a semantic one. Semantic rules operated on what makes LOGICAL sense, not grammatical sense. Example: “An occasional sailor walked by.” What is an occasional sailor? The semantic rules automatically assign the modifier occasional to the verb, not the noun, so we semantically interpret this sentence as “A sailor occasionally walked by.”

(2) Another semantic rule is that cognition adjusts the meanings of what we say. “John ran over a dog coming home,” doesn’t make sense literally. We know John drives a car home, so we don’t have to say, “John ran his car over a dog coming home.”

My favorite example of this filling in to make sense is something that happened in my home for decades. My wife would say, “It’s Thursday,” and I would take the garbage out (like a trained puppy). She wouldn’t have to repeat over and over every week, “It’s Thursday and Friday is garbage pick up day; please take the garbage out.”

Healthy food falls in this category. We know food can’t literally be healthy so our brain looks for another connection between healthy and some other word in the sentence and—Bingo!—it quickly finds it: healthy for humans.

(3) Semantic rules operate on semantic features, not grammatical ones. “Harry’s a pig!” doesn’t imply that Harry has a snout and curly tail, only that he is either “dirty” or “greedy”. These are semantic features that we have (unfairly) attached to the meaning of the word pig. That pigs have snouts and curly tails are lexical features of pigs and, if Harry really is a pig, and both speakers know it, the listener will interpret the sentence with the full definition. However, if we know that Harry is not a real pig, that doesn’t stop semantics from looking for other features in the definition of pig that do fit.

By the way, language often treats animals unfairly. I’ve treated the subject before. But to summarize, “Sheila’s a cow, dog, cat, (clothes) horse,” doesn’t put these animals in any more of a good light than it does on Sheila.

Do you have to ask interesting questions? I’m sure this is more than you wanted to know. I’ll have to make a language blog entry out of this.


June 29th, 2013

A former student of mine now living in and working in Russia, Troy McGrath, recently wrote to me and passed on this anecdote:

A linguistics professor was lecturing to his class one day and said, “In English, a double negative forms a positive. But in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However,” he pointed out, “in no language in the world can a double positive form a negative.” But then a voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”

I responded that intonation was a crucial factor in his example and gave him a second example I actually heard.

Another linguistics professor, the late Kenneth Pike, once proved the importance of intonation in speech by demonstrating that intonation may contradict the content of a sentence.

If we simply say, “I love you”, the sentence has a positive meaning. But if we add question intonation, “I? Love you?”, the meaning of the sentence is exactly the opposite of the content of the sentence.

Maneuvering Manure

June 27th, 2013

Gail Rallen just sent in a funny anecdote related to our recent Good Word maneuver:

“When my brother was very young he had a stock of really quite funny malapropisms, with today’s GW among them. He was concerned about people who allowed pets to run loose in their yards, because the dogs maneuver in their grass.”

Considering the fact that French manœvre was the origin of both maneuver and manure, he wasn’t far from being correct.

Women are Hysterical; Men are Seminal

May 20th, 2013

I received today an entertaining and enlightening response to our Good Word hysteria from Rebecca Casper of Brigham Young University. I thought it might be of general interest.

“I just caught up on my DGW email. I just read about hysteria and it put me into musing mode. I have long known some of the etymology of that one–but not all. (Thank you).”

“Though I am not a raging feminist, one once pointed out to me the inherent historical unfairness exhibited by the fact that hysteria carries negative connotations, whereas the word seminal does not. Both have a somewhat similar origin in that each was based on a gender sterotype—at least on the surface.”

“Digging deeper we find that seminal and semen both have the common denominator of ‘seed’. Even so, one can still be frustrated that history gave men the noble role of ‘seed carrier’, while women somehow got stuck with a raging demon lost somewhere inside them. ([It’s a]lmost enough to make me into a raging feminist! Ha-ha-ha.)”

“Have a good day.”

Snarlers that don’t Snarl

April 14th, 2013

Andrew John (no I didn’t reverse his names) responded to our Good Word snarl with this thought:

“In NZ the word snarler does not usually mean something that snarls. In my experience when Kiwis use the word snarler they mean a sausage, particularly when it is on a BBQ. Which makes me wonder if its use is derived from hot-dog?”

My response:

A snarler usually refers to a dog (or human) that snarls. Could the transfer of this sense of “dog” to “hotdog” be justified? Or is it more likely that, because they tend to curl when heated, they seem to become entangled?

There is also another sense of snarl used in metal-working. A snarling-iron is used to “raise up the projecting part”. Whether this is used for curling or not, I don’t know. (I’m not metal worker.)

Does anyone out there know what a “snarling-iron” does?


March 27th, 2013

Randy Crawford sent this question in today:

“Chimps can talk like humans only with difficulty, owing to their lack of human vocal cords. Has anybody tried letting them use an electrolarynx or voice synthesizer such as humans are lent after throat surgery? If such equipment is good enough for Homo sapiens, chimpanzees could only be more worthy. Random examples off the internet: classic type.”

The problem isn’t muscular control, but the absence of mental acquisition device in the brain. Chimps can perform as well as children up to the age of two—some even better. But that is when the “explosion” of language acquisition occurs in children. It doesn’t occur in any subspecies of chimpanzees, not even Bonobos.

We can only conclude that Noam Chomsky is right and that humans are qualitatively (not just quantitatively) different from chimpanzees, and that humans are qualitatively different from all other species. That 1.8% difference in DNA may seem quantitatively small, but it makes a big qualitative difference.