Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for the 'Semantics' Category

Oxymorons are not Antonyms

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Stuart Gordon recently wrote:

“I dont think all your examples are oxymorons: Still moving is not. “Still” has two meanings but its meaning in this example is not “to be not moving”. Like wise hot chili. Chili is not the same as the homophone chilly. These are plays on homonyms.”

Thanks for your comment. In fact, all oxymorons are polysemous: one or both words have other meanings.

It affects the classic oxymoron, jumbo shrimp. Jumbo here means simply “large” and shrimp means here, well, “shrimp”, too, as well as “small person”. This applies across the board to almost every oxymoron in our list:

  • civil war
  • divorce court
  • irate patient
  • long shorts
  • holy hell

Civil means simply “in one country” in the first of these, not simply “civil”. Court means here “court” and not “engage in courtship”. “Patient in irate patient is, of course, the noun patient and not the adjective. Shorts are pants, not the adjective and holy hell is an exclamation. This may be the only one that was intentional. Exclamations are, after all, meaningless. They serve to express our attitude toward something.

We wouldn’t use oxymorons if they absolutely contradicted themselves; it would lead to too much confusion. There has to be a sensible interpretation of all of them.

We post these oxymorons because they are fun. We say them without thinking and it is fun to take stock in them. They are posted under our “Laughing Stock”, after all.

How did Turf Come to be ‘to Turf’?

Friday, February 24th, 2012

A old verb is currently being tossed about the networks, to turf. It seems to mean “throw or kick someone forcibly out of some organization or office”. In these days of artificial turf, how did this noun turn up as a verb meaning this?

The verb derived from the noun was first recorded in 1598. It meant “to place or lay under the turf; to cover with turf”. By the 18th century it had metaphorized to “bury”, which is a kind of cover-up with turf.

It was only in the late 19th century that to turf turned up with the meaning it has today. What happened between the 18th and 20th centuries?

In the late 19th century the phrase on the turf came to mean “on the street(s)” in the sense prostitutes are “on the street”. So this sense of turf influenced the meaning of the verb, which became “to put out on the street”.

Now, since we use the verbal particles out when we say kick out, it was natural to use turf out as a slang replacement.

Cast a Glamour

Monday, January 30th, 2012

John Brantley just sent me a note in connection with my treatment of glamour:

“I have also seen glamour used as type of magic spell, particularly one that affect the perception of appearance.  For example, “Marcie cast a glamour on herself to enhance her beauty.”  or “Marcie uses cosmetics as a glamour to enhance her beauty.”  Admittedly, this meaning is mostly limited to Fantasy literature, but it is reasonably widely used there.  It also clearly fits in with the word history that you describe.”

I’m not surprised that it would still be used in the world of magic. That is the world in which the two meanings parted company for most speakers of English. However, I was unaware that the usage persists even there and though you all might be interested.

Quarreling, Arguing, and Debating

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

We have lost sight of the difference between argue and quarrel so much that we often use them as synonyms of one another. Arguing is reasoning based on facts; quarreling is wrangling angrily over personal preferences using facts or not.

We quarrel from entrenched positions; the winner of a quarrel is whoever shouts loudest. We argue to persuade the person we are talking to, to change their view; the winner is the one who has more of the facts supporting their side. When we quarrel we don’t care for facts. If the person we are quarreling with presents a fact that totally disproves our position, we try to weasel our way around it by not replying to the point or replying with a never-ending series of irrelevant points.

Debate raises the bar another notch. A debate has a referee and names for the logical faults or fallacies debaters make. The most obvious one that we see daily in US politics is the ad hominem “at the person” fallacy. This fallacy occurs when we not only do not address the point, but attack the character of its proponent. When Republicans ague against a Democratic proposal by claiming that Democrats are socialists and communists, they are arguing ad hominen, not arguing with facts, but hoping to divert the debate through guilt by association.

Some of the other names of fallacies found in quarreling and not arguing or debating, are (1) “begging the question”, assuming the proposition being proven in the arument, (2) “circularity”, arguing false relations, e.g. that because y comes later than x, y is caused by x, and (3) “bandwagoning”, arguing that everybody knows x, therefore x must be true.

So long as our politicians argue from unproven and unprovable facts (or outright lie about the facts), and use logical fallacies to divert attention from the points they are trying to make, they are just quarreling. We should stop calling these meetings among candidates debates and call them quarrels. Everything is for show in the primaries, letting the US electorate see who is the best actor, which candidate can best pretend to be intelligent.

Verb Agreement in English

Monday, January 9th, 2012

“Dave” recently wrote:

I just read your article ‘Bad Grammar or Language Change’ and wanted to let you know that I found a grammatical error in your article.

In the sentence ‘the number of suffixes for marking grammatical functions like number, person, tense, are disappearing faster than frogs’, the subject of the sentence is number. This singular noun does not agree with the verb in the sentence are. What is most curious to me is that the subject of nouns and verbs not agreeing is discussed only a few paragraphs above this sentence”.

Thanks for the edit. I have to say, in my own defense, that this is not an uncommon error. It comes from the fact that English speakers are losing their grasp of subject and object due to the loss of case endings. At least that is my opinion.

Kay Bock of the University of Illinois (a former student of mine) disagrees. She is trying to find a grammatical pattern among these mistakes. We coauthored a paper on the subject, where I was asked only to provide data for Russian.

What happens when speakers lose control of the subject – object distinction but not verb agreement? Well, one thing is that they rely on the noun nearest the verb to reflect agreement. That is how I compensated, along with the vast majority of US speakers.

Another way is to resort to semantics: if the subject noun refers to a group, then agreement is plural. If it refers to a single item, singular. That is the British solution. They say things like “the parliament are”, “the team are” but the “player is”, “the lamp is”.

Both these approaches are temporary. We are all waiting for the -s which distinguishes 3rd singular verbs from 3rd plural to fall by the wayside. That will solve everything.

Who is Stealing ‘Kumbaya’?

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

kum-bah-yah • Hear it!

Meaning: 1. “Come by here” in the Negro spiritual “Kum Ba Yah, my Lord”. 2. Human spiritual unity, often used sarcastically.

Notes: We have finally solved the mystery of where this word comes from (click here). We are still struggling as to how to use it. It is associated with singing around a campfire while holding hands as a symbol of spiritual (or pious) unity. But now that meaning is widely used sarcastically by cynics who think human unity a pipe dream while the answer to our problems lies in meanness and anger.

In Play: Although kumbaya has been contaminated by the Washington press, we do not have to yield the meaning of this word to the cynics just yet: “We were lucky that all our good intentions led to a kumbaya spirit that helped us quickly settle the church’s business.” By the same token, we cannot ignore the current (mis)usage: “If the town council thinks there is some kumbaya solution of the downtown parking problem that will please everyone, they are naive, indeed.”

Word History: “Kumbaya, my Lord” was first recored in 1927. The song was sung in Gullah on the islands of South Carolina between Charleston and Beaufort. Gullah is the creole language featured in the Uncle Remus series of Joel Chandler Harris and the Walt Disney production of “Song of the South.” American missionaries took the song to Angola after its publication in the 1930s, where its origins were forgotten. In the early 1960s the song was rediscovered and made popular by Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. It was quickly associated with the Civil Rights Movement and other liberal causes, which invited sarcastic use by conservatives.

Osculating Fans

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

Sally Colby just shared a funny experience she had with the verb osculate that I thought should be shared with you all:

“I’ll never forget going to a department store to purchase a fan about 30 years ago. The (very young) sales girl showed us the features of various fans, including one she really liked.

‘This one is great,’ she said. ‘It works standing still, or it can osculate.’

It was hard not to laugh, but I sure chuckled in the car on the way home.”

Of course, you must mind your nose.

Don’t Miss the Giant Egress

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

Did you hear about the zoo manager who had trouble getting visitors to leave at closing time. Just before closing, he would put up a large a sign saying “This way to the giant egress.” Curious hordes went that way and, of course, found themselves back out on the street. Nothing misleading about that.

Dilemma, Trilemma, . . . ?

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

My recent treatment of trilemma in the Good Word series prompted a response from the very creative mind of an old friend of alphaDictionary, Chris Stewart, way down in South Africa. I was so amused by it that I thought readers of this blog might enjoy it, too. Here is what Chris wrote. Notice he gives another common example of a trilemma, one that I didn’t think of when writing up the word.

“Indeed, [trilemma] is like the classic options of ‘lead, follow or get out of the way’. How do you respond to such an injunction when half way across a gorge on a tightrope?

If one is on the horns of a trilemma, is a triceratops involved?

How does one extend it further? Poly-, multi-, omni-, mega-, sub-, super-, peri- … ? Sometimes I feel I am experiencing all of the above.

Chris also reminds us of how the phrase “on the horns of a dilemma” came about. Dilemma originally meant a tough decision between only two choices, both of which are unpleasant. Since horns also come in pairs and can be painful, voila, the analogy.

Today we have all but lost sight of the meaning of dilemma. Its semantics has fallen into such a disarray that many are using it now as a simply synonym for “problem”. We hear such utterances today as, “Traffic downtown has become such a dilemma.”

No, actually, it hasn’t unless we are faced with only two corrective measures, neither of which is appealing. I was tempted to say much more about dilemma in my essaylet on trilemma but resisted. I guess I should take it up some day.

Umlauts and Diereses

Monday, February 14th, 2011

Jeremy Wheeler and Rabbi Zev-Hayyim Feyer have so far caught what they consider an oversight in our recent Good Word sprachgefuhl. In that writeup I claim that this word is sometimes spelled with an umlaut over the U, which is to say, Sprachgefühl, and explained umlaut as a synonym of dieresis. Although the two are generally used interchangeably, there is reason to maintain a distinction based not on the two dots themselves, but how they are used.

Dieresis comes from the Greek word for “split” and, before English began borrowing words from Modern German, it was used only to refer to an umlaut placed over the second of two successive vowels to indicate that both are pronounced, as in the case of naïve Chloë, Noël, Aïda.

Of course, this alternate spelling is now rare in English and other diacritics serve the same or a very similar purpose. In fiancé, attaché, cliché, communiqué it is the acute that tells us the vowel is pronounced. So the plot, as plots are wont to do, thickens.

I assume the people who named the diacritics did the best they could with what they had to work with. Since we have no word for German Umlaut in English, I still think it reasonable if not preferable to use dieresis for the two dots, regardless of their function.

We do not distinguish between other diacritics on the basis of their use, so far as I recall. Why make an exception here? My use of dieresis followed modern trend of referring only to the two dots placed over some vowels for whatever reason.