Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for June, 2007

Tuckered Out of Tucker

Friday, June 29th, 2007

Glennis, Pat, Robert Patterson, and Rohn Rohnski are the first four subscribers to our daily Good Word to remind me that our word for today, tucker, is a slang term for “grub, food” in Australia and New Zealand (but it is only 7 AM at this point). Here are some of the examples they sent it:

  • We’ll go and have some tucker now.
  • The tucker the farm cook dished up was grouse, mate.
  • I’m hungry, time for some tucker.

(I like the adjective grouse, too.)

Tucker, in fact, has too many meanings: someone who tucks in sewing, a frilly neckpiece dandies of the past wore (later worn in concert with a bib), and an advanced US car that came out briefly in the 40s and was quashed by the big auto manufacturers (see the movie by the same name).

When we come across such words, given the limited space we have, we choose what we think is the most interesting (and it was a close call between the verb sense we chose and the noun sense mentioned by our friends from down under since speakers in North American and the UK are generally unaware of the NZ usage).

Since the noun in this sense is a different word, we may do it some day. I’ve put it on the list. We haven’t had a good Aussie word in a long time.

Quality and Quantity

Monday, June 25th, 2007

Where chimps and pigs meetNPR ran a story on the survival of small shops in France despite the invasion of malls and monster stores like Walmart, Lowe’s, and Home Depot. The success of these small shops, according to those interviewed for this story, derives from the fact that small shop owners provide greater quality for which the French are willing to pay higher prices.

It occurred to me that the difference between quality and quantity might deserve a few words in this blog. We haven’t taken a turn at talking about chimpanzees yet but that research is aimed at the distinction between quality and quantity (the language connection).

Those who believe that chimpanzees and other pongids may have the capacity to speak in a language are arguing for a purely quantitative difference between humans and these species. That is to say, both humans and pongids share the same quality, the ability to speak, they only differ in the quantity of words and sentences they can produce.

Those of us who are convinced that humans are the only species with the ability to speak a language, are convinced that the difference between humans and other species is qualitative. That is, humans and pongids are radically different in that one species possesses an ability (quality) that the other does not possess at all.

The NPR program brought up another use of these two concepts. Quality also means “superiority of characteristics or features” and this was the definition Eleanor Beardsley (love that name!) in the NPR piece had in mind. Our European counterparts are far more willing than US citizens to pay extra for quality. We are more interested in quantity and the cheaper the goods the larger the quantity of them we can acquire.

The result is that more and more of us give up our small towns to giants like Walmart who offer low quality goods at low prices. My wife and I avoid them, for we are willing to pay 10-20% more for better quality (such as the absence of poison in our food), chatting with the store owners, and a pleasant stroll down town rather than through a gloomy warehouse the size of downtown. We consider the extra money we pay an investment in the survival of Lewisburg.  Many small towns have not.

We long ago noticed that the business districts in German cities are also surviving the onslaught of malls and super stores because their locations are restricted to the perimeter of the cities. I am sure it is a Europe-wide prejudice that motivates Europeans to fight these corporations by simply preferring quality. I just thought it interesting that the difference boils down to a preference of quality over quantity in the European and US societies.

Root Canals

Thursday, June 21st, 2007

Ouch!The line between regular phrases, phrases that we put together word by word, and idiomatic phrases, those we memorize whole (fly off the handle, climb the walls, straignt and narrow) can be fuzzy. When my dentist suggested I might need a root canal, I began wondering where this usage came from. (Which remainds me, I should call him and ask if he said anything important after making that announcement).

A root canal is an operation, not a thing as canal implies. It is an operation on the root canal(s) of a tooth but is not a canal itself. How do we understand this kind of misusage?

Well, we have to memorize an enormous amount of phrases that on their face make no sense. A red cap is not a cap, a quick study is not a study, nor is an egghead (just) a head. A root canal is an operation ON a root canal while a quick study is someone who studies (and learns) quickly.

These phrases and words are all idiomatic. Unlike grammar and the word lexicon which are processed in the left hemisphere of the brain, idiomatic expressions are processed in the right hemisphere. This makes sense given the left hemisphere specializes in analytic processing and the right hemisphere, wholistic processing. Idioms are processed as wholes with a single meaning.

The distinction between analytic speech constructs like “the mosquitor flew off the handle” and wholistic (synthetic) constructs like “my aunt flew off the handle” makes it clear that speech is something of a science and an art: a process of putting together atomic constituents (words) and whole preprocessed chunks.

I find mulling over the mysteries and complexities of speech and language much more rewarding than contemplating root canals or even counterfeit toothpaste, which can cause them.

The Culinary Arts, Lesson One: European Cuisine

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007

The English national pastry the scone; the French, the croissant.  Where would you rather dine?

If you are on the seefood diet, by which when you see food you eat it, England passes muster. If your tastebuds have a more subtle relationship with your brain, you might prefer the continental cuisine. 

Counterfeit Toothpaste?

Friday, June 15th, 2007

Are your teeth mushy?If you are like me, the phrase counterfeit toothpaste looks a little odd in the headlines today. Money is usually counterfeit but paintings are forged, not counterfeit. That is probably because of the secret admiration we have for art forgers—they do have artistic talent. So we have different words for fakery depending on the degree of our dislike of a particular type of fake.

As I thought about it, synonyms for counterfeit began to accumulate in my mind; fake, bogus, forged, false, phony, fraudulent, sham, simulated, ersatz are probably just the ones on top.

We even have different words for many counterfeit, forged, and fake objects. Counterfeit hair, for example, is called a wig or a toupee and no one blinks an eye at it. Counterfeit teeth are less common than before but we admit that they are false.

Counterfeit, you might complain, implies deception. True. That is probably why counterfeit crab meat is now spelled krab—to make sure everyone knows that it is not crab meat but fish cleverly shaped and colored for people whose minds ignore their taste buds. However, wigs and false teeth involve deception—harmless deception but deception.

Does anyone remember ersatz coffee? Looks and tastes like coffee, again, if your taste buds are not on speaking terms with your brain. Counterfeit smoke, which can be added to any dish in liquid form, relies on the same disconnect.

Still, counterfeit toothpaste sounds a little odd to me. Counterfeiting money requires more complexity, artistic skill, and inside information than producing bogus toothpaste. Fraudulent, mislabeled, phony strike me as more accurate epithets.

Second Honeymoon

Wednesday, June 13th, 2007

Forgive my long absence. Last week was spent building up a store of Good Words so that my wife and I could enjoy a second honeymoon in the same Canadian village in which we spent our first one 47 years ago: Gananoque.

The first linguistic note about this experience has to do with the pronunciation of this town. Either no one we talked to on our first visit mentioned the name of their town or we forgot it for we simply assigned it the Frenglish pronunciation of [gæ-nê-nahk]. We learned, however, the second time around, that it is pronounced [gæ-nê-nah-kwe] by the denizens. So it was a learning experience.

Driving the 330 miles up from Lewisburg, PA to Ganonoque, I thought a bit about the term “family restaurant” as we passed them along the way. The meaning of this phrase has changed over the past century. It originally referred to a restaurant run by a family. In the US today it refers to a restaurant that serves bland food, presumably that may be consumed by everyone in a family, including children (served by fully clothed waitresses). “Family restaurant”, then, today too often refers to a baby-food restaurant rather than a restaurant in which the owners take especial pride. (There should be a story there but I’m not getting it.)

Other than these two items, and the ubiquitous, “Eh!” uttered between every fifth and sixth word above the border, nothing in the speech of Canadians caught my attention. “Canadian raising”, the pronunciation of [ou] as [o], in words like house (hoe-ss) and [ai] as [êi] in words like bike (buh-ik) are old hat, a holdover from the Irish dialects spoken in centuries past. You even find traces of this along the East Coast of the US.

Anyway, I am back and have a few ideas for this week and next.

(We had a wonderful time, by the way. The weather was beautiful, our innkeepers were excellent and the food was delicious. We took some of our pictures from the first visit there in 1960 to help us remember and figure the changes that have taken place over the decades.)

The Connotations of ‘Truth’

Monday, June 4th, 2007

“Lie” (falsehood) is an interesting word because of the religious and philophical depth of its meaning. The 9th commandment (Exodus 20:16) is “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor”, and virtually all religious leaders interpret that commandment as a command from God never to lie and to always tell something called “the truth”.

Aside from the fact that truth itself is elusive, not always a bright white spot with clear edges against a black background, this interpretation of truth runs into many problems. The first, of course, is why did God not say, simply and straightforwardly, “Thou shalt not lie”? Why did he command us not to testify falsely and why restrict it to our neighbors?

To clarify the moral connotations of this word, let me propose a hypothetical situation critically involving truth. Let us consider someone who is a deeply devout Dutch Christian living in Amsterdam in 1942 in a house at 265 Prinsengracht Straat. That person has noticed suspicious activity at the house next door, #263, and on several evenings they have noticed people you know to be Jewish entering and leaving the house.

One day this person is presented with a subpoena to appear before a grand jury (assume such existed) investigating the crime of hiding Jews in the city (which was a crime at the time) and after swearing on the Bible, which they consider the most sacred object in their life, they are asked whether they have any knowledge of Jews living secretly in the city.

True answer: yes. Lie: No. True answer: the family of Anne Frank dies. Lie: they will likely survive. Which answer is more likely to send that person to eternal damnation?

Is truth an absolute good or simply a neutral test of the accuracy of statements we make, the morality of which depends on the outcome of telling the truth or manipulating it?

Should we teach our children to always tell the truth, knowing that they are not going to do it for good reason since sometimes the truth unnecessarily hurts people. Less critical situations arise every day in life: is it really better to tell your friend that her outfit is ugly and hurt her feelings than to lie? Should we tell people that they are stupid just because we know they are?

None of us tell the truth in every instance truth becomes an issue. Lying to falsely accuse anyone is bad because the consequences are bad. Lying to save their lives is good because the consequences are good. Telling the truth or not plays no role in morality. That is probably why the 9th Commandment is not, “Thou shalt not lie.”