Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for September, 2006

E-maelstroms of Sniglets

Wednesday, September 6th, 2006

William Safire recently did an article in the Herald Tribune on two new words floating around English and brought up a third in doing so.  Earlier this year, Safire wrote: “The prevailing put-down of right-wing bloggers is wingnuts; this has recently been countered by the vilification of left-wing partisans who use the Web as moonbats, the origin of which I currently seek.”

I am not sure why the “origin” of these words are important. In fact, English is a compounding language, which means you can put pretty much any two words together to form a third, new one. Wingnut, of course, is not new; only the usage in referring to right-wing extremists is new.

Assuming the use of this word to refer to extremist is legitimate, it can refer to extremists of either end of the political spectrum.  If wingnut is a clipping of rightwing nut, it can just as smoothly refer to a leftwing nut.  The question is, do we need this usage?

Moonbat is apparently an odd sort of blending of the phrases “baying at the moon” and “bats in the belfry” though, as Safire points out, the word was originally used to refer to an airplane.  To me a moonbat is a bat that has something to do with the moon (how about you?) Anyone can make it up on the spot with this legitimate (grammatical) meaning. In fact, it could be a baseball bat designed to hit well in the moonlight.

A batmoon, then, is a moon recognized by bats or a moon some bat gives you when you annoy him. (He would have to pull some skin down, I guess, but imagination here is allowed.)  The point is, any two words can be shoved together and the result will be a new word with an imaginable meaning.

If this is true, it is not obvious that wingnut and moonbat in the senses currently in use are sustainable by which I mean that they won’t be around for very long.

The third word, however, is cleverer than either of these two: e-maelstrom. If you have been receiving e-mail for a year or more, you know exactly what it means: an inundation of wanted and unwanted e-mail.  This word is what is a righteous blend: e-mail and maelstrom have been not only shoved but jammed together forcing mail out of the picture. Bottom line, though, is that it is a sniglet, a word that isn’t in the dictionary but should be. However, its usefulness just might sustain it much longer than either moonbat or wingnut in their new senses.


Granddaughters and Two-pas

Tuesday, September 5th, 2006

granddaughters and two-pahsMy youngest granddaughter just left us for her home in Denver after an all too brief visit. “Abba G”, as she pronounces “Abigail,” is 20 months old, which means she has a large one-word vocabulary and is just beginning to pick up two-word phrases (see “Mama Teached Me Talk” on our Reference Shelf).

An interesting aspect of the child-grandparent relationship that has developed fairly recently is the phenomena of children getting to pick their grandparents’ names. I know three Mimis now, a Booby, a few Pa-pahs (both syllables accented) and a Pappy. Of course, this is the origin of more widely used Granny, Grams, and Gramps, too.

Well, my younger son’s daughter seems to have confirmed the name chosen for me by my older son’s daughter, Laurel, who is now three. When her age was somewhere under two, I spent a couple of afternoons helping her learn how to count: “No, not 7-3-2-8-5,” I would prompt, “1-2-3,” thinking, “Let’s get that far first.” I would repeat this number sequence several times in a row until she would get them in order, only to forget an hour later.

At that point she would occasionally call me “Grandpa” but not with any confidence. I live in Pennsylvania and manage to fly out to her home in Boulder, Colorado about twice a year; they come to Pennsylvania once. At a year and a half old, we had not had much contact of which she was conscious.

A day went by in which she did not call me anything. The next day her dad noticed that she was avoiding any form of address and asked, “Laurel, who is that man?” pointing at me. She looked for several seconds and finally said, “Two-pa”, walking away confidently. (She could have made it “three-pa” but I guess two-pa is better than one-pa.)

Now Abigail has picked up the habit from her cousins and parents, who think the name is cute, so I guess I will have to live with it. She is also calling her Grandma “G-ma”, since all words or parts thereof beginning on G are reduced to the name of the letter itself in her toddling vocabulary. Her grandmother is still uncomfortable with this appellation, which reminds her of “G-string” (of a guitar, I presume).

Anyway, the desire by children to have their children refer to their parents (the children’s grandparents) with a unique name I take to be the flattering reflection of the first generation’s sense of their parents’ uniqueness. This is better than the alternative explanation—that it is payback for the names we gave them.


Friday, September 1st, 2006


From me tall tails can growThe Language Log, a blog maintained at the University of Pennsylvania by three linguists, some time ago [2004] introduced what seems to be a new word, eggcorn. It has been spreading across the web like oil on water ever since. I have no alternative but to comment on it or get out of the water.

Eggcorn is reportedly someone’s pronunciation of acorn, what is otherwise called in journalese a mondegreen or, in linguistic terminology, a reanalysis.

Other examples in the Eggcorn Database include malapropisms like a mute point for “a moot point”, reanalyses (mondegreens) like another words for “in other words”, and folk etymologies like catnap for “catchnap”. So what’s the big deal?

Well, Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania Linguistics Department refutes claims that eggcorns are any of the common types of speech errors they seem to be like. He says that an eggcorn is not any of these for the following reasons.

1. It’s not a folk etymology (e.g. craw[l]fish for “crayfish”), because this is the usage of one person rather than an entire speech community.

Who said folk etymologies had to be accepted by the entire speech community? Do malapropisms and misanalyses (mondegreens) have to be used by the entire speech community, too, in order to be what they are? So, then, why should folk etymologies? Eggcorn is a perfect folk etymology.

2. It’s not a malapropism (e.g. alligator for “allegation”), because egg corn and acorn are really homonyms (at least in casual pronunciation), while pairs like allegory for alligator, oracular for vernacular and fortuitous for fortunate are merely similar in sound (and may also share some aspects of spelling and morphemic content).

Maybe on Pluto now that it is not a planet but among the Earth-bound English-speaking world neither eggcorn and acorn nor most of the other “eggcorn” pairs in the Database are pronounced identically. If they are pronounced identically, how do we known that they are discrete?  Are eggcorns restricted to the written language, the written correlates of the three types of speech errors listed here?

3. It’s not a mondegreen because the misconstrual is not part of a song or poem or similar performance.

What journalists call a “mondegreen” is what real linguists call a reanalysis, discussed thoroughly in the Linguist List back in 1992 (issues 001546, 001556, 001571, 001579, 001590, 001595, 001596, 001607, 001613, 001614, 001615).  Reanlysis is not limited to songs or poems; this is a flagrant misconception made and prolonged by journalists.

OK, let’s play around with it and have some fun. Any linguist worth their salt knows that you don’t have to have clear definitions of words to use and enjoy them. Before I add this word to my vocabulary, though, I want to see that eggcorns is not another third word ending on -gry, an attempt at something new and cute that doesn’t make it. In the meantime, I hope this blog and the website behind it will do a better job at putting linguistic knowledge to use in clarifying the thrills and mysteries of language to the world at large.