Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for July, 2006

Getting Things Uncattywampus

Monday, July 31st, 2006

One of my favorite words in English is catercornered “diagonally” if for no other reason than when I use it, most people aren’t sure of what I mean. The reason for this is that few people actually pronounce it correctly. Most people pronounce this word cattycornered.

The process of change surrounding this word is striking, though. The process is called “folk etymology” and occurs because people don’t like unfamiliar words tend to ‘normalize’ them in speech, to replace them with familiar ones even if their meaning is inconsistent. Cornered is a good English word but what is this cater?

Well, this part of the word started out as French quatre “four” which at least suggested the box with the appropriate number of corners. But once reduced to cater it takes on a sound so similar to cat that the temptation arises to replace it with cat.

The problem is, it has two syllables, so how about catty. Must be cattycornered. But once you bring cats into the picture, why not make the word even cuter by changing catty, an adjective that really doesn’t fit to kitty, making it kittycornered?

Even more striking, however, is a related word used widely down South: catty-wampus “askew, out of alignment”. This one is reverse folk etymology: the familiar word corner was replaced by a totally “un-English” word, wampus. No one has any idea where wampus comes from.

A Newer Trait of English Adjectives?

Thursday, July 27th, 2006


Peggy Nielsen has been puzzling over the use of the comparative degree to suggest “less than.” She has been searching for comparatives that compare (no joke meant in this sentence), but newer is the only example she can find in which the comparative actually connotes “less than” rather than “more than.” Here is her illustration: “The house has a newer roof,” means that the roof is actually older than a new roof. Peggy finds that rather odd.

Well, odd things abound in language, so this phenomenon comes as no surprise. Most can be explained, however. Let’s see if this one can.

In fact, few grammatical function markers (= morphemes) like the suffixes -er and -est have only one function. Take a look at -ing: in the sentence “I am walking” it marks a verb, in the sentence “Walking bores me,” it is on a noun; in the phrase “the walking man,” it forms an adjective, and in the sentence “Walking to work, he stubbed his toe,” it marks an adverb. However, a suffix that has contrary meanings is rather unusual.

Indeed, the comparative in these cases mean “rather ADJ”, where “ADJ” is the meaning of any comparable adjective. For instance, a newer roof means “rather new” and, by implication, not quite completely new. You must use it with a noun; in predicate position, e.g. “Our roof is newer,” it means only one thing. “He is a taller guy” without the than means that he is a “tallish” guy, rather tall, taller than some but not all.

Many languages have a separate suffix to indicate “rather”, just as English has the remnant of -ish. But English is undergoing a process of affix elimination, a process no one understands. Languages add affixes, turning “designated compounders” like -like (friend-like) into affixes (friend-ly). Then the same language turns around and rids itself of those suffixes and go back to using compounds. (Don’t worry your children: the process takes hundreds of years.)

Languages like Chinese and Vietnamese have no affixes, prefixes or suffixes in the sense of European languages. English is currently moving in their direction.

The interesting thing is that the functions (meanings) of these suffixes are not lost. This means that when a suffix is lost, its function must be taken on by another suffix (until that one disappears). Apparently, the function of -ish (meaning: “rather ADJ”) is being assumed by the suffix -er.

Not to carry the point to extremes, the suffix -er also works to mark agent nouns like baker, maker, lover. (What do cooler, warmer, dryer mean? Are they nouns or adjectives?) While -ish is being replaced by -er, the comparative -er itself is being replaced by analytic or phrasal expressions like more poor, more tall, more long—all heard more and more frequently in modern speech.

I’m sorry I wrote so much about this phenomenon. Blame it on Peggy for pulling on such an interesting loose end of our language.

On the Proper Use of ‘Y’all’

Wednesday, July 26th, 2006

Brett Master recently complained about the use of y’all in the Rebel-Yankee Test:

Yall do come!“It is the proper address a single individual . . .when . . . the specific comments are applicable to more than just the individual him-/her-self. e.g., Bill speaking to John alone about his up coming family trip: ‘Y’all need to get visit the Grand Canyon, too, if you vist Hoover Dam’.”

I whole-heartedly agree with Brett. One of the problems Northerners have is understanding how y’all fits in Southern culture. You may, of course, use y’all when talking to one person, but you are always referring to that person and his/her family. The issue is not how many people you are addressing but what the y’all refers to.

Only one thing makes me madder than to hear a Yankee on TV or in the movies faking a Southern accent and saying, “Y’all come” to one person and referring only to that person. The one thing that makes me madder than that is to hear a Northerner say that Southerners misuse the term, implying we don’t know the difference between singular and plural.

In my 20 years living in the South and all those years since visiting it several times a year, I have never heard a Southerner misuse this new pronoun which is now spreading rapidly across the US. It is, in fact, a perfect example of the intersect between language and culture.

For a natural born Southerner, it is simply impolite to invite one person to your home and not their entire family. So when a Southerner says, “Y’all come,” to one person, he or she is in fact REFERRING to that person’s entire family, hence only the plural is acceptable or grammatical.

The language and culture are braided together so tightly it is very difficult to study language outside the culture in which it is spoken. In fact, it is often very difficult to draw a line between the two.

The Disappearance of American Accents

Tuesday, July 25th, 2006

Bruce Neben wrote yesterday:

“I live in Oregon (adult life), grew up in Calif (teens, 20’s and thirties), and (Cleveland) Ohio as a child. I hear none of these accents around the west, generally.”

“But the accents I do hear from people from around the country seem to be disappearing. People from New Orleans interviewed on TV or Radio seem to sound like me, as do many of those I hear from New York and elsewhere. I used to hear distinctive accents from people from Minnesota for example and those also seem to be going. It also seems to be a function of education. The more highly educated, the less the accent. Would you agree with these observations?”

Bruce is absolutely right. Regional accents are dying out, which is why we want to keep a record of them on the alphaDictionary site. In fact, we have been contacted by southern cultural heritage organizations who want to use our material in their activities. We are happy to do so.

However, little can be done to stem the tide of dialect (accent) mergence because there is no way to remove the factors causing that mergence. They include:

  1. Job mobility–people moving in both directions, south-north, north-south, following jobs;
  2. As Bruce points out, the educational system, whose job it is to teach pupils and students to speak the dominant dialect for social and economic reasons;
  3. Radio and television, which brings the dominant dialect to everyone and generally makes fun of the non-dominant ones.

As I mentioned in the NPR interview, the original dialects in this country were the results of the accents of the various immigrants who came to this country looking for a better life. They all landed on the east coast, which is why all the accents are currently in the east.

However, as they migrated to the west, all these accents merged into one, so there are no distinctive regional dialects west or north of southern Ohio (maybe southern Illinois and a bit in northern Minnesota). Accents extended as far west as West Texas in the south but not much beyond that. While there are peculiar pronunciations and slang vocabularies (Valley talk) out West, there are no distinctive dialects, like the Brooklyn accent, Texas accent or southern accent.

Now the regional speech differences are fading in the east, as well. Most of the differences in our Glossary of Quaint Southernisms are terms and pronunciations that I remember from my childhood, many of which already no longer exist.

Escapees and Escapers

Monday, July 24th, 2006

One of our readers asked some time ago, “Why is someone who escapes called an “escapee”? Shouldn’t they be called an “escaper”? The prison, being the thing that is escaped from, should be the “escapee” I would’ve thought. Otherwise it implies that the prison has escaped from around the prisoner, rather than the prisoner from inside the prison. Does that make sense?”

In fact, it does from a linguistic point of view. To understand the relationship, you have to understand transitive and intransitive verbs. A transitive verb is one that has a direct object. In the sentence, “The man bit the dog, man is the subject and dog is the object. So, bite is a transitive verb.

In the sentence, “The man slept quietly,” Man is the subject but there is no object. In fact, the verb sleep allows no object: you can’t sleep something.

The suffix -ee is usually used to indicate the object of the underlying verb in noun derivations, so that an employee is someone who is employed, an inductee is someone who is inducted, a draftee is someone who is drafted. The suffix -er is usually used to mark the subject relationship. An employer is someone one who employs someone else, an inductor is someone who inducts other people, etc.

However, there is a strong tendency for English to use -ee to denote the subject of intransitive verbs (those that do not take direct objects), so that someone who stands is a standee “one who stands”, someone who retires is a retiree “one who retires”, someone who waits is a waitee. So it is not surprising that someone who escapes from confinement is an escapee, since you can’t escape something else but only FROM something.

If someone stands something else (in the corner, say), that person would not be a standee but a stander. A retiree must be someone who retires FROM something, not a person who retires things. To the extent a person can wait tables, that person must be a waiter. Notice that if you wait ON someone, you must be a waitee, since in this sense the verb requires a prepositional phrase with ON and does not allow a direct object.

The language isn’t entirely consistent in this (e.g. an attendee is someone who attends something) but the reason subjects of intransitive verbs are treated like objects of transitive ones, is that the subject of intransitive verbs functions semantically very much like the object of transitive verbs. For example, if you walk the dog (=object), the dog (=subject) walks. In the sentence, “I walk the dog,” with the transitive form of walk, dog is the object (the walkee). In the sentence, “The dog walks,” with the intransitive form of walk, dog is the subject even though he is doing the same thing in both instances.

So, while linguists are not sure quite why, the objects of transitive verbs are similar to the subjects of intransitive verbs and that is (sort of) reflected in the use of -er and -ee.

Better Watch your Ts and Ds, too

Friday, July 21st, 2006

One of the reasons I started this blog was to share the discussions I have been enjoying with Good Word readers who write in questions and comments. Not long ago Jane Quein wrote, “Another often misspelled word or mispronounced word is congratulations. Many people spell it congradulations. I’ve seen it spelled this way on many outdoor signs. Misspelled words drive me crazy!”

Me, too, though I am encouraged by the growing interest in spelling that I mentioned in my first blog, Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee (2006). The misspelling, of course, is wrong. However, since we congratulate graduates when they graduate, it is easy to confuse the spelling of the two—especially in the spring!

T is, in fact, pronounced like a D in a wide range of English words, like writer, plotting, and metal. These two consonants are identical except for the fact when we pronounce D, we vibrate our vocal cords but not when we pronounce T. (Actually, we also toss out a puff of air with the T but that is a moot issue here.)

Now all vowels in English are voiced. You cannot pronounce a vowel without vibrating your vocal cords. This means that when a voiceless T occurs between vowels, we have to rev up our vocal cords, quickly shut them down for the split second it takes to pronounce T, then rev them up for the next vowel. That is a lot of double-clutching in the throat. Most English speakers do not bother, which means the vowels and the T are all voiced but voicing the T makes it a D.

That brings us to congrATUlate. It is one of those words with T between two vowels. So it is perfectly normal to pronounce this word with a D sound replacing the T. This same phenomenon is audible in words like writer and rider, plotting and plodding, medal and metal (and mettle), budding and butting. Say, “She is a plodding writer” to someone then ask them what “she” does–write or ride? How does “she” do it–easily or trudgingly?

All languages have regular sound shifts like this one and it should cause problems with spelling. After all, we have learned to live with a big disjoint between sound and spelling. It does help, though, to know that T becomes D between vowels in English, so when you hear a D between vowels, we need to make a check of visual memory make sure of the spelling.

Registering a Complaint about Registers

Wednesday, July 19th, 2006

The biggest language story these days is the use of the S-word by President Bush before a microphone he did not know was live. This has happened so many times to presidents over the past decade or so, you have to wonder whether he did not make the statement intentionally to demonstrate his toughness to the hawks in his party.

President Bush told Prime Minister Blair at the G8 Summit in St. Petersburg, “What they need to do is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this s–t and it’s over.” The Prime Minister has been chided for referring to international commerce as “this trade thingy”.

In an article that appeared today in the London Times, “The new language of diplomacy“, Magnus Linklater, tongue in cheek, suggested that this simplicity might be refreshing. It would, of course, require a rewriting of the language of diplomacy. He suggests that Western diplomats might want to say, “We’re cool with that,” rather than express “warmest approval”. Rather than taking exception to a hostile act, we might inform other nations that, “We is close to squeezing the trigger.”

The issue here is a question of registers. We do not speak the same in all situations. We use language differently in the local bar (or pub) than we do on a job interview. In the bar we might say, “I’ve got to blow this joint. It’s getting’ late.” On a job interview, we are more likely to say, “I have to leave now, it is rather late and I have another interview.”

Diplomatic language is another level, another registry. Everyone involved in diplomacy understands that language. They know the difference between “The US is uncomfortable with . . . and “The US is gravely disturbed by . . . .” The language is civil and in these belligerent times, civility is as important as clarity.

Of course, presidents and prime ministers are not diplomats per se; however, they frequently play diplomatic roles. This is certainly true when they are before a microphone or camera. It therefore behooves presidents and prime ministers to be familiar with the language of diplomacy, let alone that of the normal body politic (terms such as terrorist attacks (rather than “that s–t”) and international commerce (rather than “trade thingy”). Apparently this fact does not register with all the current leaders of the English-speaking world.

Google Becomes a Common Verb

Tuesday, July 18th, 2006

Google logoIn a highly publicized moved, Merriam-Webster (M-W) added a new verb, to google to its entries two weeks ago. This means that the company becomes the eponym of a legitimized English word, in a class with Charles C. Boycott, the Irish land agent whose name became the standard word for organized avoidance, Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian traitor, and Jean Nicot, French diplomat whose name now underlies nicotine, to mention only a few.

M-W added this new word only 3 years after it first appeared. 3 years in the life of a language is like 3 seconds in a human life–hardly enough time for the word to prove itself a staple member of the English vocabulary. The online Oxford English Dictionary added the verb (capitalized: to Google) in June, so the move is nothing new but M-W managed to create a much larger wave of hype for it.

For Google, this is a bitter-sweet honor. It is sweet to know that your trademark familiar to tens of millions of English-speakers and tens of millions more will be uttering it in the future. Kudos to Google marketing. However, since the word now has a new, general meaning, it will not promote Google branding very much. (M-W claims that it means “to use the Google search engine to obtain information about (as a person) on the World Wide Web.” We all know, however, that it is quickly coming to mean “to look someone or something up.”

The other problem facing Google is the fact that words in the dictionary cannot be trademarked, so Google now faces the possibility that other companies can use its trademark to refer to searches on their website. “Googling is best on Yahoo,” may now be safe, whereas Google would have had a trademark infringement case before the M-W move.

Other companies have struggled against the same fate of their trademarks: Xerox, Cellophane, aspirin, Kleenex, and escalator all started out as brand names. Johnson and Johnson began using Band-aid brand in their commercials when band aid was commonized (made into a common noun). That phrase is now often written as one word (bandaid) and appears in idioms like, “A band aid isn’t going to fix this problem.”

This solution will not work for Google, of course. We will have to wait to see what its marketers and lawyers will work out. However, it is not an event that it can afford to ignore.

Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee (2006)

Monday, July 17th, 2006

For some reason, with the rise of the Web, interest in spelling has soared. Two recent movies have been released about the Scripps-Howard Annual Spelling Bee, Spellbound and the more tragic Bee Season while ABC and ESPN(!) covered the Bee. In fact, ABC bumped sports coverage in order to offer the final round in prime time (8-10 PM).

So. has the Web played a role in the increase of interest in spelling? I think so. As the creator and manager of two popular language resource sites, I have the impression from all the mail we receive that interest in orthography (correct spelling) is at an all-time high. The fact that one of the most searched-for words on the search engines is dictionary supports my impression.

Why has the Web brought this surge of interest? I think the interest was always there; the Web simply made it possible for people to get at the information they need. There are hundreds if not thousands of websites like this one with dictionaries and other information on spelling (like our own Miss Spelling’s Spelling Center). The Web has leveled the playing field so that now anyone with a $200 computer and a Web connection has a direct connection with thousands of people who know about spelling.

So what about losing the national English spelling bee by misspelling weltschmerz and winning it by correctly spelling ursprache? (My spellchecker has redlined both.)

My impression is that a case could be made that weltschmerz is an English word: it has been around for a long time, it is common in college lit and philosophy courses, and there is no English equivalent. However, there is a perfectly good and more widely used synonym for ursprache, English’s very own protolanguage, made up of proto (= ur-) + language (= Sprache). Ursprache enjoyed a brief popularity among philologists of the 19th century but protolanguage clearly dominated the 20th. Ursprache was a temporary crutch a few specialists used until an English word could be coined. It isn’t an English word.

So the problem is the semi-professionalism of the spellers in the Spelling Bee: they can spell all the words in the English language! So what do you do to knock all out of the competition but one? Bombard them with foreign words from languages they don’t know.

Only in the US do we have to have a single winner. There can only be one winner in the US; everyone else is a loser. A reporter asked Nancy Kerrigan, just after she had won the silver medal in the 1994 Winter Olympics, how it felt to lose. Lose? How could the second best figure skater on Earth be a loser?

Apparently, some sympathy for the idea that we need no single winner breathes among the staff of the Spelling Bee administration itself. The spelling bee’s official website lists only the 13 “top finishers” with the winner, Katharine Close, listed in the middle of them. I like that. The managers of the Bee successfully reduced the competitors to that number with only real English words. We should be happy to know that at least 13 teenagers can spell every word in the English language and see to making this fact an inspiration for all English-speaking teenagers.

Welcome to Dr. Goodword’s Blog!

Thursday, July 13th, 2006

Dr. Goodword contemplates a Good WordWelcome to the blog of Dr. Goodword, as I call myself on this website. The person behind Dr. Goodword is me, Robert Beard, the guy over there on the left. Yes, I am a real doctor and my specialty is language (PhD Linguistics). For 35 years I taught language and linguistics at Bucknell University, where I conducted research in the behavior of words, developing a theory of their behavior called Lexeme-Morpheme-Base Morphology (LMBM). You can google “robert beard language” and find out more about what I’ve spent my life doing. 

Now I run The Lexiteria and its popular website,, writing about a much broader range of linguistic phenomena from my perspective as a morphologist. I started with a website called A Web of Online Dictionaries at Bucknell in 1995 which grew up to become alphaDictionary. Since 1995 I have answered around 25,000 email inquiries and comments about words and language, many of them the same. I am hoping here to expand my forum so that the daily questions I deal with need only be answered once. I will also include unelicited mutterings about language issues that cross my mind from time to time.

Others from the alphaDictionary staff as well as invited guests will also contribute to this blog. Please feel free to comment on anything you read here that tweaks your interest. The focus will vary little, however; our intent is to bring the insights of linguistics (the scientific study of language) to bear on questions of language that arise in our lives every day and do so in such a way that those without linguistic training can understand. 

I think this is enough for today. Over the course of next week I want to back up and touch on some language issues that have occurred recently, before we could get this blog going, such as the use of a German word to stump a finalist in an English spelling bee and the conversion of Google to a common verb, to google, by a process known in linguistics as commonization). Until then, pass the word along that a new commentary on language has arrived in the blogosphere.