Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for May, 2007

Visual Malapropisms

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

As I was writing up malapropism this week I came across this sentence on the website of a casino news service:

“Like with any other industry, you will always find a few rotten appeals, but that does not mean a thing about the entire industry that this people took advantage of.” (Online Casino Archives).

It made me think that there may be a distinction we should draw between auditory and visual malapropisms. Appeals hardly sounds at all like apples but when you see it written, your reaction is pretty much the same as when you hear pineapple instead of pinnacle.

Then Lew Jury wrote, complimenting me on my treatment of malaproprism because, “You made my mourning!” That made me think that there is a fine line between a malapropism and a pun, since Lew’s example is obviously intentional. But then I said, this one doesn’t qualify for a malapropism since the two words do not sound similar—they sound identical! But visually they are just similar.

So look out for visual malapropisms paralleling the usual audible ones. Keep in mind, too, that the difference between a malapropism and a pun is that the pun is a form of malapropism in which the spoken word and the intended word both (sort of) fit the context but with wildly varying semantic consequences.

Necessary and Sufficient

Tuesday, May 29th, 2007

The Circus of Blabbermouths that currently blend talk shows with political news on US radio and television is succeeding on appeal to the basest human instincts: fear, hatred, and anger.  Since none of these emotions are good, why are secular televangelists like Bill O’Reilly, Russ Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Don Imus, Lou Dobbs successful in promoting these emotions of the weak-minded?

Secular televangelists are blabbermouths with religiously held political convictions, convictions held on faith rather than reason, who portray themselves as reporters.  They succeed in the wake of a widely failing education system and contribute to that failure by teaching belief on faith rather than reason.

Secular televangelism runs on the fuel of necessary arguments. What does that mean, I heard someone think. What is a ‘necessary argument’?

Necessary in the sense I have in mind is a philosophical term for one half of a valid argument. If I show evidence or even proof that [all dope users drank milk as children], I have taken the first of two required steps in proving a causal connection between drinking milk and dope use.  But I haven’t proved that point yet; I’ve merely shown evidence for it. I have made a necessary but not sufficient argument.

In order to produce a complete, or as philosophers call it, a ‘sufficient’ argument, I have to show that [no non-drug user ever drank milk]. That no one can do because it is not a true claim. A necessary and sufficient argument must be based on proof that all and only X is Y.

The anger and mean-spiritedness that serves as the religion of the secular televangelists compose an issue aside from the argument structure they use.  Here I merely want to comment on two important words in philosophy.  An argument is not won by the loudest debater but the one who (1) has factual evidence and (2) necessary AND sufficient arguments.  The US airwaves today are filled with haranguers who base their necessary-only arguments on anecdotal evidence and settle debates by  trying to yell the loudest.

Using these slipshod methods it is easy to prove that white is simply a lighter shade of black. 

Web Spell

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

Dr. Goodword is going to make a prediction: over the next ten years the spelling of everyone using the Web will improve.

With any luck at all, I’ll still be around ten years from now to find out if I’m right. Given all the misspelling we see on the Web (Google today returns 1.27 million pages containing “equiptment”), how could any reasonable person come to this conclusion.

Google LogoWell, it is the nature of searching itself. You have to spell out a URL perfectly or you don’t get to the page you are looking for. If you misspell the key words you use in a search, you don’t get the search you want. If you come close, say “equiptment”, the search engine will correct your spelling for you: “Do you mean ‘equipment’?”—a free spelling lesson. (We have more.)

Did you ever think of Google as a remedial spelling teacher? When you combine these basic facts with the fact that websites like alphaDictionary are spreading like wild fire, you must concede that all fingers are pointing to improved spelling.

This should warm the hearts of all the teachers out there and make up for my claim that ain’t isn’t a four-letter word.

Robots with Stiffies?

Friday, May 18th, 2007

A stiffyI recently was informed by a translator in South Africa that he could deliver a translation to me “by e-mail or on a stiffy”. The latter seemed an unappealing means of delivery involving considerable inconvenience to the translator—if I understood him right. Suspecting that I didn’t, I immediately contacted my friend in South Africa, Chris Stewart, asking that he help me work out a clearer understanding of the translator’s intent.

The first computer disks were portable (removable) 5.5″ disks that were flexible. Rather than the obvious name, flexible disk, geekdom produced the term “floppy disk”. This same term is used in the US today to refer to the 3.5″ inflexible disks in hard plastic casing first introduced by Apple and that still have a place in some computers today (see picture above).

The South Africans, however, wisely concluded that if the flexible disk was a “floppy”, then the inflexible one must be a “stiffy”, ignoring any variation in the meaning of that term around the English-speaking world. The “stiffy”, therefore became the name of the small removable disks with the hard plastic shell that we use today.

Chris was the one who pointed out to me, after I distributed robot as one of our Good Words, that in South Africa a robot was a traffic light. He claims to enjoy watching the expression on the faces of Americans and Brits when he gives them directions to his house: “Take a left at the second robot on Suchansuch Road.

Has South African English been unduly influence by Scottish?

Dr. Goodword’s Comment on Paris Hilton

Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

paris hiltonMaureen’s twin, Colleen Walsh dropped a line today with this comment:
In today’s news about Paris Hilton being sentenced to jail there was a new word that I have never heard before. Is it a word or a newsman made-up word. He used the word frenemy to describe one of her friends that really is her enemy.”

“Could you explain the origin of hoosegow, which is another name for jail. It looks like Paris will have plenty of time on her hands. I suggest you send her a dictionary so she can improve her language skills while she is incarcerated.”

Well, Maureen, frenemy was originally not a real word but a ‘nonce’ word, a word someone made up on the spot for one-time use only. Because it was useful it stuck around and probably is a real English word. If you are someone’s enemy by definition you cannot be their friend so what the utterer of this word meant was too complicated to get into a single word (fake friend, fair weather friend, etc.) All these phrases are still around, too, but enough people know frenemy now that it has earned a place in the English vocabulary.

The creator of this word simply smushed together the two words that have the two (of the several) meanings he or she wished to express. Smushed words are called ‘blends’ and they only appear in English and only since around the 50s (motel, smog, etc.) Blends are a sort of halfway abbreviation, an abbreviation with too few letters removed. At best it is a rather border-line means of creating new words but many of these do stick so we have to put up with them.

As for hoosegow, just read our Good Word for March 6, 2006 by clicking ‘Good Word’.

At War

Friday, May 11th, 2007

I keep hearing news readers say that the United States is “at war”. I am not sure what they mean by the use of that prepositional phrase. Its meaning must have changed dramatically over the past 50 years.

I can recall being at war in the 40s. The first thing I remember is that Congress declared war on Germany and Japan. The president asked Congress for those declarations without fabricating any evidence of the need for them, and received both from a Congress united behind the effort.

I was in what was called ‘grammar school’ at that time. Being at war meant that I collected dimes from my neighbors, aunts and uncles, pushed them into tiny pockets on a cardboard card until I filled it. My school collected these cards and used them to buy  war bonds (World War II was a ‘pay-as-you-go’ war). On weekends I collected scrap metal to be used in producing bombs and bullets. My father kept a Victory Garden—a garden city folk cultivated to free commercial food for the war effort, to feed our boys who were fighting overseas.

We didn’t have chrome on our cars and ration books limited the number of tires and gallons of gas we could buy. In fact, anything needed for the war effort was rationed: sugar, meat, candy, and shoes are a few I recall. Every family received a book with a page of tear-off stamps for each rationed essential.

Headlights were painted black except for a narrow quarter-inch line across their middle so that they projected beams too small to be spotted from the sky. In fact, I remember the air raid warnings and drills at night, when we had to close the curtains on all windows and cut off all lights except a minimum that allowed us to function.

A large portion of the movies produced in Hollywood were about the war and supported the war effort. In fact, Hollywood produced many movies solely for the war effort: to promote war bonds, conservation on the home front, vigilance for spies. Many of the new songs of the time were about the war and the servicemen fighting it: Over There, Wild Blue Yonder, You’re in the Army Now. Real music with patriotic words.

Women over here took over the jobs left vacant by our boys over there. I can recall the first woman I ever saw wearing “britches”, as my mother called slacks disapprovingly. The woman wearing those britches was holding down a man’s job. High school and college girls were active in the USO Clubs that provided whole-hearted wholesome entertainment for our boys on leave. Our president, FDR, the Congress, and the country were solidly behind every aspect of the war effort.

Does this sound like where we are today? Or has the phrase ‘at war’ changed dramatically?

Weighing your Chances

Thursday, May 10th, 2007

If you have little chance of doing something your chances are slim. Makes sense: slim things are smaller than fat ones. It follows, then, that if your chances are great, you have a fat chance, right?

It doesn’t seem to work that way. Slim chance and fat chance seem to be oxymora, for if I say “I have a slim chance of winning” my chances are probably greater than if I say, “Fat chance I have of winning!” This is tantamount to saying I have no chance at all!

There is a syntactic difference which may account for the semantic difference between these two sentences. But even if I make their syntactic structures identical, “I have a fat chance of winning,” I don’t get the impression that my chances are great.

Fat chance is used more often ironically, usually with sarcastic intonation for emphasis. Irony, of course, turns meanings upside-down. “I love you” is pretty straightforward but by simply changing the intonation to, “I, love you?” you turn the meaning around. The same irony converges fat chances with slim chances.

Don’t you wish we had an irony pill that worked the same way on our bodies?

Hotdogs and Hotdogging

Tuesday, May 8th, 2007

You should see me ski!Bud Hiller, who works in the Bucknell’s Bertrand Library, wrote today to ask: “What is the derivation of the word hotdog for the meaning as in this sentence:

‘Brian Gockley is a crazy skier. You should have seen him hot-dogging down the slopes, doing jumps, skiing backwards, skiing on one ski. Too bad he ran into a tree.’

One of our international students at the tech desk asked me and I couldn’t think of any reason for why hotdog means what it does.”

Althought the dates in my version have some tight tolerances, I am convinced the story goes something like this. Sometime well before the academic year 1894-95, students at Yale began to refer to the wagons that came to campus selling what were widely known then as “dachshund sausages” in buns, as “dog wagons”. What they sold were soon called “dogs”.

An article in the October 19, 1895 issue of the Yale Record, the campus newspaper, ended with, “They contentedly munched hot dogs during the whole service”. This is the first known recorded instance of hot dog in this sense and both words were probably accented at this time. (Hotdog today has only one accent which means it is one word.) In fact, by 1900 it was one word also used metaphorically (because of the implication of hot) to refer to someone who performed well or something that was really excellent, e.g. “He has made some hot-dog drawings for….”

The verbal sense comes from the exclamation “Hot dog!” and was first used in sports to refer to players who liked to show off. Someone who hotdogs is trying to get those watching him to exclaim their delight. This usage comes from the sense of someone who is excellent at something but this exclamation also serves as a euphemism of “Hot damn!” itself a euphemism for an even stronger interjection (G-D!)

Why Raps are Bad

Monday, May 7th, 2007

Obtaining a burlary rap.Margaret Collier read the blog “Do Crystallized Similes Give Animals a Bad Rap?” and came up with an interesting question about the title itself. Margaret writes, “I can understand what “bad rap” means—I think—but where did the phrase come from?”

A rap on the hand with a ruler or on the pants with a rod was a common punishment in schools and at home back in the 18th century when the word rap took on the meanings of “rebuke, reprimand”.

That sense of the word stuck and by the turn of the 20th century, rap had taken on the sense of a criminal charge or punishment. Taking the rap for burglary meant doing the time. By the 1940s criminal records were called rap sheets. This is how “a bad rap” or “bum rap” came to mean unfair criticism or punishment.

Why animals get such a bad rap in our metaphors remains a mystery.

Living in Spoiled Areas

Friday, May 4th, 2007

At lunch I heard a news reader on TV answer the question, “What is your favorite place that you would like to return to on vacation” with “Machu Pichu, because the whole area is so unspoiled.”

Although I’ve heard the phrase “unspoiled area” many times before, this time it caught my attention for some reason. We all love to spend vacations in unspoiled areas. Why? Well, obviously to get away from spoiled areas, such as the places where we work and live.

This strikes me as an odd way to think of our homes and hometowns—spoiled. Spolied by what or whom? Well, since an unspoiled area is usually one with little or no population or pollution, the spoilers must be us. How could we even imply that this magnificant, technologically advanced society in which we live is spoiled?

What is lurking there in the backs of our minds? Does it tell us anything about ourselves?