Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for January, 2007

Surging to War, Reporters Embedded

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

The Bush administration’s marketing department has been particulary weak at warspeak. It first came up with the term embed to express the military’s new control over the press (the first victim of war is truth). At normal conversational speed it is difficult to distinguish “reporter embedded with the 1st Division” from “reporter in bed with the 1st Division.” Intentional or not, the US media quickly absorbed the term and are now trying to understand  how Bush could have so misled us into believing Iraq possessed WMDs.

Now, troop buildup has been replaced by troop surge, no doubt because the political marketers think surge is more powerful and positive than buildup (or increase or expansion). The association is with a power surge that fries your electronic equipment if you use no surge protector. Tsunamis bring a surge of water that is even more destructive. Of course, any of us can experience a surge of energy that helps us get the job done. Maybe that is what the master marketeers have in mind.

What the marketeers have failed to do is come up with a terminology that demonizes the enemy. In World War II the Germans were the Jerries (we still use that term in the word jerrican) and the Japanese were the Japs. They were depicted as devils in all the war propaganda.

The clarity of that war did not carry over to the Vietnam war since the enemy and the “friendlies” looked alike (the enemy didn’t always wear uniforms). Some of our guys over there called them slopes but that slur didn’t take at home. 

Islamofascist is much too long and has no devilish image associated with it. We see Osama bin Laden but he is a Saudi and looks like too many other Middle Easterners. This makes it difficult to understand what we and our beds are surging toward and why.

Running a war without support let alone participation of the population at large has historically been a losing proposition in this country. But if we lose in Iraq, as we did in Vietnam, we may be able to chalk the loss up to marketing—or even reduce it to a matter of vocabulary.

PoTAYto, poTAHto…or is it poTAYtoe?

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

poTAYto, poTAHto, toMAYto, toMAHtoAnn Neithammer wrote yesterday that she had a teacher back in the 40s who told her class that the correct way to spell the official term for spud is potatoe (and, by extension, tomatoe). Finding it difficult to believe that her teacher would have made such a gaff, she asked whether potatoe had at any time been an acceptable spelling. Here is what I think.

Ooops, Ann! Your teacher must have gone to the same school as VP Dan Quayle, whose misspelling of this word in front of news cameras cost him a lot of respect if not the success of his presidential bid later on. Although the Quayle spelling has been used in the past, the last published example we have comes from 1880.

The spelling potatoe is currently on the Web 1,270,000 times (tomatoe only 497,000 times) but that is no excuse. This spelling is clearly a ‘back-derivation’ from the plural potatoes made by erroneously removing only the S. This is not a grievous error, however, since it is difficult to keep up with which words ending on O editors want us to add the suffix -s to in the plural and which, -es—pianos, dominos, pimentos and many others do not).

Back-derivation is a common enough process. That is how we got pea. Originally peas was the only form of this word. It was in a class with oats, greens, collards: it had no singular. The final S was simply coincidental but it looked suspiciously like the plural -s and, since peas was (!) made up of small, countable object, the S was removed and the remainder was used as a singular: one pea.

The process is going on very productively today in words that end (or ended) on the suffix -y which changes to -ie before the plural -s: cookies, brownies, biggies, lefties—even hobbies. This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The singular of all these words originally ended on -y but massive back-derivation has converted a large number of them to words like cookie and brownie which are only spelled with the -ie ending now. Hobbie is just beginning to rear its ugly head.

So, while there would seem to be nothing to do to curtail the respelling of words on -y as -ie, potato and tomato are thoroughly ensconced orthographies that should survive me, thank heaven. It does leave open, however, the whole [puh-tay-to] ~ [puh-tah-to] pronunciation debate but maybe we can isolate that to the song (“Let’s Call the Whole Thing off”).

Case Conflicts in English

Monday, January 29th, 2007

Last November a visitor to the Grammar Shop of the Alpha Agora asked about the construction, “I thought her not so pretty” and I only got around to replying today. Here are my thoughts. They point up an interesting difference between languages with case systems (nouns with endings which change with changes in sentence functions) and without them. English is in the final stage of losing its cases.

There are several verbs that accept direct objects with ‘predicate’ adjectives, most have to do with mental processing. It is parallel to consider, as in “I consider that she is pretty” or, shortened, “I consider her pretty,” “I imagined her pretty;” “I imagined that she would be pretty” or “I imagined her pretty.”

It is a peculiar prerogative of English which allows predicates of nouns in the objective case. In languages like German and Russian, where the objectives (accusative) case is used only for direct objects and direct objects cannot be the subject of a phrase, such constructions are impossible. Notice that in the shortened sentences above her is the direct object of the main sentence and subject of the dependent clause “her (=she is) pretty”.

We do this elsewhere, too, usually using the infinitive construction. In the sentence “I asked her to do it,” her is the direct object of asked and the subject of do it at the same time. In languages with real case systems, this is impossible. It is possible in English because the case system has vanished except for the pronouns I, we, he, she and our comfort level with constructions like between you and I show that it is on the way out even for these pronouns.

Under Attack

Friday, January 26th, 2007

Overnight this blog received 532 pieces of spam, mostly from one online Viagra pedlar. A total of 756 pieces of spam has hit this blog in the past 24 hours. Fortunately, we filter comments before publishing them but it took over a minute just to open the file in order to delete them.

Last year a Korean spammer sent so many messages that it slowed and even stopped our server several times, making it necessary to move our email to another, larger server just to stay in business.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that ‘e-mail advertisers’ are just advertisers. They are all spammers and currently represent a far greater threat to the Internet than terrorists.

The English Tongue and the Media

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

It takes me about 7 or 8 minutes to drive from home to the Bucknell field house where I workout every morning. On the way I listen to Morning Edition, hoping to hear a story as interesting as the one about the alphaDictionary Rebel-Yankee Test that ran last June. What I am hearing is more an more misuse of English. This morning, two words tore into my consciousness during my short trip.

This morning, on the report of the Senate hearings on the appointment of General David H. Petraeus as the next commander of the multi-national forces in Iraq, the reporter noted that Senator Clinton had no questions but used her 8 minutes “railing” at the President’s decision to send more troups to Iraq. The report then cut to a clip of Senator Clinton in a perfectly calm and measured, even statesman-like voice, explicating her position. Are the younger generations reducing rail to a synonym of criticize?

The next report touched on the impatience of the electorate with the two recently convicted congressional bribe-takers, referring to them as miscreants. This one is probably a matter of preference since the meaning of this word has been eroding for decades. Miscreants were originally heretics (from French miscreant “disbelieving”) and later traitors. To me they are the vilest of the vile, totally without moral character and capable of the worst of crimes, a rubric I would not accord bribery.  Miscreants are pirates and murderers, maybe major bank robbers or robber barons, not weak public officials who surrender to temptation.

Maybe it is just me. Perhaps I try to hard to maintain these subtle distinctions between the meanings of words. It often occurs to me when I make them, that they probably fly past my intended audience or coconversationalist uninterpreted if not unnoticed.

The same broadcast did contain an very nice metaphor that bears converting into a cliché as quickly as possible: to walk between raindrops meaning to successfully maneuver between a barrage of dangers without sustaining damage.  The metaphor of dangers as raindrops stretches it a bit but the hyperbole of the difficulty of walking between raindrops without getting wet works well. Walking between the hailstones of single-interest groups works better for me as a metaphor for the fate of the modern-day US politician. 

Mismatched Pronouns Again

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007

It occurred to me this morning that the spread of mismatched pronouns, like the “I” in about Malcolm and I, has not included compound pronouns such as about he and I or about they and we. My claim has always been that this culture-imbuing speech error was the result of overcompensation (some call it hypercorrection) for an error equally gross: “Me and Jake were friends in grammar school.” This observation supports that claim.

I am old enough to recall kids around me using the objective case in the subject: “Me and you have to stick together.” I recall, I think, every teacher I ever studied with through high school that we should say, “You and I have to stick together.” None of them pointed out that two issues were at stake: (1) the grammatical imperative that we use of the subjective case of the pronouns when they are in subject position and (2) the pressure of etiquette that we place the name of the other person before “I”. All of my teachers pointed out the latter; I don’t recall any mentioning specifically the former.

The result is that many of us thought that you and IGalen and I, and so on were simply the only way you could express pronouns in compounds. However, if that is true, we should hear people saying things like, “about they and I”, “above they and we,” “about they and he,” “over they and I,” “except he and we,” and so on. But guess what? You can’t find expressions like these on the Web to any significant extent with one exception: between you and I.

Other pronouns are used with this preposition, but only when they stand for nouns, e.g. between ‘we’ and ‘they’, where we stands for “our people” and they stand for “their people”. You can find before you and I when before is used as a conjunction and this phrase is correct in the subject position of the subordinate clause: “Fremont arrived before you and I left.”

So I am taking this anecdotal evidence as support for the first part of my position: we had it drummed into our heads at school that you must use I after proper nouns in compound phrases. Between him and me is everywhere on the Web; between he and I barely shows up. No overcompensation or hypercorrection occurs at all, except to extend the case mismatch of I in object positions to he and she. It does not extend to we and they and not even to he and she if they are combined with other pronouns.

The issue is obviously more complex than anyone has previously noticed and this will not be the final word on it by any means. However, it could be the beginning of another step forward. I will keep an eye on it and report again in the future when I have a clearer picture.


Do-gooders and Good-doers

Friday, January 19th, 2007

I could never understand how a word like do-gooder could be pejorative. I would like to think of myself as someone who does good and find that attitude laudable rather than pejorative. Only WordNet, compiled by the Princeton psychologist, George Miller, allows a positive take on this word:

  • American Heritage: “A naive idealist who supports philanthropic or humanitarian causes or reforms.”
  • Encarta: “[S]omebody who sincerely tries to help others, but whose actions may be unwelcome.”
  • Merriam-Webster: “[A]n earnest often naive humanitarian or reformer.”
  • Oxford English: “A well-meaning, active, but unrealistic philanthropist or reformer; one who tries to do good.”
  • WordNet: “[S]omeone devoted to the promotion of human welfare and to social reforms.”

I’m sure I am missing something here but I have always been of the opinion that supporting philanthropic and humanitarian causes, and sincerely trying to help others are neither naive nor unrealistic. This leads me to suspect that the pejorative sense of do-gooder is that he or she is someone who is undertaking an altruistic or philanthropic venture that threatens the writer or those to whom the writer is beholden.

Otherwise, a do-gooder would be called by a regular English compound, good-doer, antonym of evildoer (since the head of a compound comes last in Modern English). But guess what? Although all dictionaries have room for evildoer, good-doer is not found in any of them.

I must suspect that the US media has had a hand in this, given their proclivity for bad event and all but complete disinterest in good and happy ones. But, alas, I have no proof, so I have to leave the issue an open question. We do know, however, that language reflects cultural attitudes (racism and sexism is easy to spot in English and other languages). Another slivver of evidence that the deck is culturally stacked against the Forces of Good in this country.

Do We Need the Web and the Wikipedia?

Tuesday, January 16th, 2007

Wikipedia raises more and more interesting questions as it expands in size and into more and more areas. It is now creating a dictionary and a host of word lists (glossaries). It has a news service, a photo archive, a free content library and is beginning a “Wikiversity” of online courses. The encyclopedia itself has 1,583,681 articles in English, a total of 6,197,339 counting all the articles in the 250 foreign languages now included.

Since anyone who walks in the door and claims to be an expert can write articles for Wikipedia, and Wikipedia is apparently trying to expand into every kind of offering on the Web, the question naturally arises: do we need Wikipedia and the Web or will the latter eventually atrophy away?

Wikipedia currently has a version of just about everything alphaDictionary has on its site and this may be said for thousands of now partially redundant sites around the web. The quality is much lower but then, the hope is that with time, the quality of the Wikipedia will improve. (It compares pretty well with the overall quality of the Web in general now.)

But the main point is this: if Wikipedia succeeds in collecting a definitive article on every topic conceivable, opens a university, provides us with the news, all the dictionaries and pictures we need–and anyone can get involved in creating this stuff, the reason for the Web’s existence is reduced to advertising and sales. At this point it merges with Google and eBay and–voila! There is no more reason for the Web’s existence. It will be replaced by the Wikigoobay.

Did I miss anything in my logic here?

Yet Again on ‘How Many Words?’

Monday, January 15th, 2007

Last week I discussed the impossibility of even estimating the number of words in a language. Today I discovered an old (1998) CBC News article on the longest dictionary every written (click here) Consisisting of 40 volumes, it took 147 years to compile, edit, proof-read, and publish. It documents Dutch and Flemish (a dialect of Dutch) words dating back to 1500. By the time it was finished, it was already 29 years out of date.

This is an excellent example of the failure of dictionaries to account for all the words in a language. A dictionary is only someone’s sample of the words in a language. No matter how many people you put on the committee to compile a dictionary, you will only get those words the members of the committee have heard or read.

So why not do a Wiktionary, like the Wikipedia, allow everyone speaking the language to put in whatever they think is a good word, their opinion of its forms, part of speech, definitions, usage, etc? Forget editing and proofreading.

The result it then that of the Urban Dictionary with dozens of definitions for each word and the compilers arguing among themselves as to which is the correct one. Can you vote on which is correct? If the majority say that “ain’t” is a good word, is it then?

The best approach is to enjoy languages and the words in them, appreciate the creativity that brings more new words to the surface each day than any one person can master, and forget statistics. Language and statistics get along like oil and water.

Oh, no! Not ‘Factiness’, too!

Thursday, January 11th, 2007

One of my favorite e-friends, Susan Lister, reported today that Steven Colbert has “invented” another word: factiness. Wow, if truthiness made him so popular among the semi-literate, why not push the same cart down another isle?

As I say in previous blogs, Steven is not inventing anything. You can add -y to almost any monosyllabic noun in English to get an adjective that means “like N” or “having N” (grassy, hilly, muddy, dirty, dusty, filmy, . . .) then add -ness to that adjective to create a noun. Facty means “having facts” or “like a fact”, roofy means “having roofs” or “like a roof” (a roofy view, a roofy surface), goaty (a goaty smell or goaty hillside), belty (belty outfit—with several belts or belty smell), etc., etc. etc.

These are words created freely by the rules of English word formation. All these adjectives AUTOMATICALLY have nouns on -ness (roofiness, goatiness, beltiness) by the normal rules of English word formation. They are generated by the creativity of the English language itself.

Of course, having a new term in that enormous category of words referring to guile, bluffing, cozening, deluding, duping, fooling, hoodwinking, humbug, misleading, taking in, trickery, bamboozling, four-flushing, and on and on is always welcome. The size of this category of slang and standard words tells us how important it is to English speakers. Still, unless we find any word we hear for the first time funny, there is nothing funny in adding to this salmagundi of near synonyms.

The lists of words that float around the e-mail channels and that Susan sends me are FAR more creative and funny than anything Colbert has come up with. If you don’t believe me, just check our Laughing Stock, much of which Susan sent in. We have 21 CATEGORIES of funny words. The word I promised never to mention again and factiness pale in comparison to any word on any of those lists.

I still can’t understand the Colbert’s popularity. Neither his show nor Jon Stewart’s is as clever as “That Was The Week That Was” (or the spinoffs) of the 60s or “Not Necessarily the News” of the 70s. The latter is where “sniglets” originated and sniglets are far more interesting than regular word formations.  (Sorry if that was when you were born; you missed the best of political humor despite the fact that we have the funniest politicians today.)