Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for May, 2008

More on Superdelegates

Saturday, May 31st, 2008

LanguageLog has been slow to publish my responses to Benjamin Zimmer’s research on the word ‘superdelegate’, so I will try to recall the my last one here. I think the issue is both imporant and a (socio)linguistic one, since language is the primary tool of politicians and news broadcasters, a tool used to shape public opinion.  Public opinion, of course, determines the kind of government and future we have.  But language is at the core of this issue.

The point I’ve been making doesn’t really rest on how long the word superdelegate has been in the language. I should have looked it up just for historical curiosity and spent the time Mr. Zimmer did to protect my argument against understandable comments like these and his. However, I remain convinced that my point is a solid one.

Mr. Zimmer now has published a time-line of the word superdelegate showing a quantum leap in usage this year—very close to my claim that it only appeared this year. However, he interprets this as simply a reflection of the tightness of the race this year. But that does not explain the choice of the word superdelegate over neutral terms like unpledged delegate. My point, remember, is that this choice of words is not coincidental.

This year the word has been used in the media in one connection only: the fear that superdelegates would override the ‘will of the people’ as expressed in the primaries and caucuses. (Google ‘superdelegates will of the people’ to see what I mean.)  This leaves the impression that superdelegates are somehow more powerful, that their votes count more than those of pledged delegates. Moreover, it is a threat to the ‘will of the people’, something we seem still to hold sacred despite the aftermath of the 2004 election.

My question is this: why does the current US media use this  extraordinarily misleading term superdelegate rather than the neutral and perfectly accurate term unpledged delegate?  Do they do this in total innocence of the analogies with superman and man, and superhuman and human?  Is it simply because the word is sexy and ‘cool sounding’, as some of my critics have claimed? ‘Sexy’ in what sense? Why does it sound so exceptionally cool in 2008 when it hasn’t since 1983?

This word is obviously pejorative and subtlely condemnatory in comparison to unpledged delegates, making it more important this year because it is weighted in precisely the same direction as that reflected in the CMPA media project: pro-Obama, the media’s choice, anti-Clinton, the threat to the will of the people. The people seem evenly divided on the issue of which of these two senators should be the Democratic presidential candidate.

The Most Important Period in History

Monday, May 26th, 2008

Much is written about important words and phrases that have shaped the course of human history. So far as I know, the issue of important punctuation marks has been largely ignored.

To me, the most important punctuation mark lies at the end of the Sixth Commandment in the Old Testament: “Thou shalt not kill.” This Commandment seems a very sweeping one: Thou shalt not kill—period. What was God (or Moses) thinking about? Any human will tell you that it should have read: “Thou shalt not kill except in case of war” or at least “Thou shalt not kill except in self defense.” Thou shalt not kill—period? Certainly, killing must be OK if you are or represent a state rather than an individual. Was God careless? Stupid? Or is this all a misunderstanding resulting from a bad translation?

Libraries have been written on the implication of this period and what appears before it, especially the various and potential senses of the Hebrew word for “kill”. Below are a few well-written articles available on the Web that provide researched starting points for anyone wishing to pursue the issue. My point—for those who may have doubts—is simply how profoundly important punctuation may be.


Siegel, Elizer “Thou Shalt not Murder”. Jewish Free Press October 19, 2000, p. 8. .

Ellor, James E. “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, Undated.

Deem, Richard “Thou Shalt Not Kill: Does God Violate His Own Commandment?” Last modified November 29, 2007.


Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

I not only enjoy words, I learn from them. Today I held the door for a young woman and, instead of the expected, ‘Thank you,’ received a quizzical glance. It reminded me of the word chivalry, now almost archaic if it isn’t already there. This word tells us a great deal about who we are today and where we came from historically.

The word comes to us, via French, from Latin caballus “horse” (also the origin of cavalry) and probably originally meant “horsemanship”. However, in the Middle Ages it became the term for the behavior expected of a knight: bravery, honor, strength, and gallantry toward women. I see the image of Sir Walter Raleigh spreading his cape over a puddle before Queen Elizabeth I.

After the age of knighthood, the word lingered on, its meaning narrowing to simply “gallantry toward women”. By the turn of the 20th century the word was dying out, though the concept was not.

I can recall a lovely orientation session at the beginning of my studentship at the University of North Carolina, under the spreading elms of the old quadrangle behind the Well. This session was for men only and was devoted to an excursion into the character of the “Carolina Gentleman” and the rules of chivalry expected of me and my male counterparts.  It focused on the development of a sense of gallantry toward women.

I suppose the necessity for an orientation session on the subject indicated that the concept itself was struggling even in the mid 50s. Then, when the feminist movement hit the 60s, it became politically incorrect: showing favoritism toward the ‘fair sex’ was taken as an expression of deep-seated anti-feminine sentiment. Chivalry does, of course, rub against the grain of equality.

So why did it ever arise? Well, I grew up in a rural Southern community before the feminist movement and my recollections all point to an understanding on the part of men that women were making great sacrifices by remaining at home, taking care of them, and raising the children. Men made sacrifices, too, for the entire economy of the family rested on their shoulders, and that was a burden they would not be able to sustain without a helpmeet.

But men were at least able to leave the house, to live in two environments; women were tied to one. In deference to that, men removed their hats and stood when women entered the room, never entered a door before a woman but always held it open for her, and offered several other similar symbolic gestures of appreciation for their role as birth-givers, child-raisers, and husband-tolerators.

Very, very few men mistreated their wives in the community I grew up in and those surrounding. I only heard of occasional cases. And the chivalry of opening doors and removing hats was probably rote behavior in most cases. However, it was there, it bespoke a gentler age (no drive-by shootings), and now it is gone.

Which Wins: Mama? Dada? Papa?

Monday, May 19th, 2008

Virginia Becar responded to our recent treatment of mother in which we claimed that ma was one of the first sounds made by a baby with this comment:

“My linguistics professor (from Harvard, no less) taught us that the first intelligable talk from babies is “da” not because they love daddy more, but because the tongue naturally goes to the top of the mouth in infants where they munch their food (the ripples are for pre-teeth stage of eating). The “ma” is a much harder sound to make since it involves nasal sound and comes later for that reason.”

Virginia’s professor was probably right, though the first sound a baby makes varies from baby to baby. Making an M sound is not that difficult for a child who hasn’t learned to control his or her velum (soft palate), which directs the flow of air through the pharynx to the nose. Making a nasal sound is a matter of simply leaving the pharynx open while closing the air passage through the mouth. One could just as well argue that da is more difficult because the baby has to close the opening to the pharynx in order to make the D sound.

Although I don’t recall any studies on the subject, my impression is that some babies do da-da-da, others ta-ta-ta, still others, ma-ma-ma first. I am sure that among the first sounds babies make is the ma-ma that gives us ma and that went into the making of mother.

By the way, if a baby just closes its lips and doesn’t open its pharynx or vibrate its vocal cords, the result is pa. This sound underlies the word for “father” in most Indo-European languages. It was pa-ter in Latin with the same kinship -ter that we find in mother, brother, and sister. In the Germanic languages, however, Proto-Indo-European P > F and T > TH regularly, which gave us father in English, exactly as expected.

One Student Charged with Rioting

Saturday, May 3rd, 2008

One of my first blogs was “Life in the Slow Lane“, a short essay on my life in Lewisburg. Perhaps I shouldn’t have spoken so soon since this past weekend we had a riot downtown. It was reported in the Sunbury Daily Item this morning (no hurry: news doesn’t go away) under the headline above.

My wife and I were downtown watching the parking meter flags pop up at the time of the riot but somehow missed it. Apparently he didn’t spill over onto Market Street.

My first reading of this headline led me to suspect that maybe a riot had charged up an otherwise lethargic student into really digging into his studies. But, no, he actually was the riot under the Lewisburg criminal code if not under the laws of English grammar.

Ho-hum. Another week slips by; another word gains new meaning.

How do Syntax and Semantics Get Along?

Friday, May 2nd, 2008

Jere Mitchum dropped us this note Monday:

“I’ve been concerned about the awkward placement of only in present day writing. This example is from your April 27th discussion of denouement:

‘It has only been in the language since the latter half of the 18th century, so it has changed little.’

It seems to me that only should be next to since because the sentence means it has been in the language only since the latter half of the 18th century.”

“Another recent example may be clearer: ‘We were only able to book six travelers.’

Only here modifies six, not able. Why not place it next to the word it modifies?”

My response to Jere was so long that I haven’t heard from him since. The reason I was swept away in my answer to this question is that it touches on one of the most fascinating aspects of language: how it is processed by the human brain.

In fact, language comprises several layers of mental rules that operate independently but simultaneously. The semantic regions in our brains feed on syntactic and morphological (word form) regions but maintain their own set of rules and acceptable relationships.

This means that the semantic operations of our minds put the semantic components of a sentence together in a way vastly different from the way syntatic rules put words together. The classic example is, “An occasional sailor walked by.” I think most English speakers would accept this sentence even though “an occasional sailor” here does not refer to someone who occasionally sails.

Even though the adjective occasional is perfectly at home before the noun sailor syntactically, its meaning does not combine sensibly with sailor in this sentence. So, the semantic component in our brains simply looks and finds another word in the sentence whose meaning the adjective makes sense with, and we understand the sentence as quickly as we would have had syntax placed occasionally before walked.

I have published quite a bit of scholarship about noun phrases like criminal lawyer and old friend. A lawyer doesn’t have to be crimnal to practice criminal law (though some wag might suggest it would help). Again here, the semantic rules dig into the syntactic stuff of this phrase and decide that the suffix -(y)er has more likely been added to the phrase criminal law than simply to law. Piece of cake.

While an old friend may be old, the semantic operator in our brains is happy if only the friendship is old. The definition of friend is “member of a friendship” so, at the semantic level, old may modify either main semantic concept: “old member” or “old friendship”. Semantics operates on semantic objects, not syntactic or morphological ones. Makes sense.

The syntactic component of our mind ‘reads’ morphological rules, and follows hints laid down by suffixes and the like: occasional goes well with sailor but three does not, since adjectives may modify nouns syntactically but numbers above one require a plural noun. This information helps semantics but doesn’t do its job for it.

The semantic component in our minds operates on logic: which words make sense together? Semantics looks for the most likely combinations whether the syntactic construction helps or not. Semantics considers syntactic rules suggestions, not laws.

I find it fascinating that we can collect examples like these prove that our brain contains a language processor that comprises distinct parts (levels, subcomponents) that talk to each other but have their own rule-governed characters. Linguists today are exploring the interactions between these parts and the discoveries they are making are truly remarkable.