Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for August, 2008

Dr. Goodword on Swiftboating

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

SwiftboatMy definition of the verb to swiftboat as “To powerfully blindside and undermine someone with false or misleading attacks on their character or background” resulted in an unusually heavy load of complaints. Some accused me of political bias, others simply pointed out that the basis of the swift boat ads against Senator Kerry in 2004 were either true or were not proven false. Since it is always interesting to watch new words find their way into our vocabulary, I thought I would share my response with everyone.

After reviewing my research, I couldn’t find anything gravely at fault in the definition (though I have ameneded it slightly). Many apparently thought I was defining the swift boat incident of the 2004 election itself. I wasn’t. I was defining the verb (not even the noun) to swiftboat and even chose to close the gap between the two words to make that clear. Nothing in my defintion bears on the truthfulness of the swift boat ads of the 2004 presidential campaign. I only wrote about the meaning of the verb to swiftboat today, 2008.

Since only the very unreliable Wiktionary and Urban Dictionary had even ventured a definition for this word, I did most of my research on the uses of the word on the Web. I searched the word swiftboated to make sure I had only verbs in my sample. I tried to determine what the writers of sentences like these had in mind using the verb:

  • How McCain will be Swiftboated.
  • They swiftboated the Gold Star mom on the news by questioning her credibility when she refused to back off with her antiwar protest….
  • Stéphane Dion gets swiftboated by an oily Peter Puck.
  • Fox suggests swiftboat author being swiftboated himself.
  • Science swiftboated in ‘Expelled’.

I could not find room to believe these and hundreds of other authors meant “had the truth told about them” in using this term.

In all the related articles the word was being used negatively—whether truthfully or not. The authors of all these web texts intended that something bad was done to whomever was swiftboated. Regardless of whether the statements are true or not, the intent of the writer is to denote that truth was subverted, not exposed. I don’t see any other interpretation.

The meanings of words begin changing as soon as they are used. Disease is no longer semantically related to ease, business no longer has any business with busy, atonement is unrelated today to one. I think the meaning of the verb to swiftboat may still be in a state of flux but I only did this word because it seems to be stabilizing and gaining great popularity. For sure its meaning now is independent of the meaning of its origin.

Will English Become Unreadable?

Monday, August 18th, 2008

Four months ago, Kate Gladstone wrote me an interesting letter that deserved a better fate than falling between the cracks of everything else we do around here—but it did. Fortunately, it resurfaced recently and here is the dialogue between Kate and me thus far:

As you know (and have ably demonstrated to the public), the pronunciation of the English language has dramatically changed over the centuries of the language’s documented existence, creating much of the present bad fit between English spelling and English pronunciation” (see The Chaos).

Since English spelling will foreseeably stay the same while English pronunciation will continue its long history of change, after several more centuries or millennia will there ever come a day when the sounds of English have changed far enough to destroy all useful remnants of a fit between spelling and sound?

In other words, could it ever happen that the English language would eventually get so far out of step with the writing system that hardly any words (or no words at all) had a phonemically transparent spelling, and reading had to rely 99+% (or even100%) on the memorization of words as wholes, even though the alphabet still existed and still putatively represented sounds?

After all, imagine what we would face if present-day English had standardized its spelling 1000+ years ago instead of only a few centuries ago: so that the word daily, pronounced /DEY-lee/, still required the ancient spelling “gedaeghwamlice”, and so on because nobody wanted to change the traditional spelling that showed how the word USED to sound a long, long time ago).

Yours for better letters, Kate Gladstone
Handwriting Repair and the World Handwriting Contest

Even though this letter fits neatly in the “as-if-we-didn’t-have-enough-to-worry-about” category, it raises an important issue that goes to the very heart of alphaDictionary’s existence, an isssue that was very close to the heart of Bernard Shaw and other literary notables. So, I have to respond.

When I taught writing at Bucknell, I assured all my students that the spelling errors in their writing was not their fault: it was the fault of the English spelling system (orthography) itself and the publishing houses that oppose reform. I still think that is generally a true representation of facts even though I realize opposition to reform lurks in other quarters, too.

I don’t think Kate’s scenario will play out, though, for several reasons. First, the relation  between orthography and pronunciation works both ways. Not only does the writing system (mal)adapt to speech, speech adapts itself to the spelling system (cf. the pronunciation of the T in “often”). Once a writing system is in place, phonological change slows down since language change is dependent on speakers never seeing images of words and having no concept of “correct spelling” (= ortho-graphy).

Second, the Web will eventually break the publishers’ control over what we read. In fact, we are probably undergoing spelling change now. If you watch the Web, you will see adaptations galore. Thru already appears over 100 million times on the current web (through 2 billion). Lite is a respectable spelling of light in some contexts. We can only pray that Imglish does not replace the current spelling system (LOL) and that we are not guided by pure frivolity in making changes.

If worse comes to worst, we really don’t need a close correlation between sound and meaning. In Chinese the relation is far looser than in English. Chinese uses pictures that represent meanings more often than sounds and Chinese society is burgeoning. So we can work around even a total disconnect betweeen sound and letter.

I would be much more frenetic in my activities at if I thought my grandchildren would face greater challenges in spelling than I face. Until this problem at least reaches the level of global warming or the war addiction of our federal government, our efforts would best be directed to trying to bring our children’s spelling abilities up to the level of ours, maybe push them a bit beyond. To help in that task is the reason I founded

A Press Obsessed with ‘Addiction’

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

Google alerted me this morning to a blog article entitled “Addiction: The Most Overused Word in our Language” by a Fox News commentator named Greg Gutfeld. Since word usage is one of my interests I looked it up to discover, well, not much. Gutfeld concludes that addictions are simply diseases easily cured by disposing of the focus of he addiction: throwing the offending computer out the window, throwing all the booze out the window, throwing all the drugs out the window, and so on.

The point should have been that the media has long used addiction as a pejorative metaphor for obsession. This leads to the more interesting question of why the US news media has developed its current passion emphasize the negative in all it reports, most of which are about as well thought through as Gutman’s blog.

An addiction is a physical dependency on some chemical: narcotics, alcohol, nicotine—all sinful within the Puritan code of ethic. The pejorativity of this term comes from this ethic, which has inevitably worked its way into the laws of the land. Alcohol and smoking is controlled, narcotics are mostly illegal. This is because addictions do measurable physical and psychological damage to the addict.

An obsession, on the other hand, is an emotional dependency at worst, a passionate focus on one particular thing at best. We may become obsessed with the Web, a person, a job, items in a collection. You must be obsessed with your work to become a star: actors who devote themselves body and soul to acting, baseball players who can do nothing but play baseball, singers who obsessively sing night after night. Their obsessions clear their focus and make them better at their obsession than others who divide their time over a variety of interests.

Now, I’m obsessed with the Internet myself. I spend most of each day working on my website, arranging translations via the Internet, and creating glossaries and word lists from materials gathered on the Web. Like professional baseball players, singers, actors, I do it because I love it, because I am totally in awe of it—not because I am physically dependent on it. It does no physical or psychological harm to me that I am aware of and I have learned immensely from the community of logophiles around the world it connects me with.

Of course, I am also the last person on Earth who would disparage the use of metaphors (figurative usage). However, the reason we have a separate scientific vocabulary for lawyers, doctors, and researchers, a vocabulary of superprecise terms that are never used metaphorically, is that metaphor undermines objectivity like nothing else. Calling pig a pig is as objective as we can get but  calling a friend a pig metaphorically is about as subjective as we can get. Metaphor is everywhere in general speech, where it often leads to misunderstanding.

Using addiction as a pejorative metaphor for obsession, then, is simply one of the more subtler methods the US Press (among others) uses to skew public opinion toward fear and hatred. It is easily overlooked among the sledge-hammer methods we are more familiar with.

The Fate of ‘-ly’ in English

Monday, August 11th, 2008

David Ross wrote the past Thursday:

Alas! The demise of the adverbial form is at hand:

‘NEW! False Friend Riddles. Riddles made up of English sentences that contain a foreign word spelled identical to an English word.’

Methinks “ly” will eventually disappear from English dictionaries, as its dearth is already ubiquitous in the vernacular.

David may be right; denizens of the southern US tier of states often omit this suffix: “Harley, he talks real good” is common enough down there though still considered substandard. In that region, at least, English might be moving the way of German which does not add endings to mark adverbs. Since endings are added to adjectives in that language, omitting an ending is the mark of an adverb.

However, I think something else is at work in the example David cites and I don’t think it is disappearing though, I must admit, it is poorly understood. At the time I was examining it, back in the 80s, no one had even noticed it, let alone researched it. If any work on this aspect of adverbs has been done since, I am unaware of it.

The English adverbial rule seems to be a bit more complicated than “add the suffix -ly to and qualitative adjective”. We know that adverbs are restricted to qualitative adjectives that refer to qualities (can be compared) and not to others. We can not make adverbs out of words like rural, urban, English which can not be compared. But the rule seems to be more complicated than this.

The rule in English seems to be something like this: “Add -ly to any qualitative adjective that does not have a predicate modifier”, i.e. a modifier that must come AFTER the adjective. Here are some examples.

The door shut quickly.
The door shut quick as a flash
NOT: The door shut quickly as a flash.

Bill left subsequently.
Bill left subsequent to Jill’s arrival.
NOT: Bill left subsequently to Jill’s arrival.

The jar opened easily.
The jar opened easy as pie.
NOT: The jar opened easily as pie.

Now, in choosing these examples, I have been careful not to confuse them with simple predicate adjectives like the one in this example:

Bill returned shortly (adverb)
Bill returned short of breath (predicate adjective)

The second sentence here contains an adjective modifying Bill and not the verb returned. It is in a category of predicate adjectives like Bill returned wet, sick, wounded. However, the evidence indicates that in English, if a true adverb has a predicate modifier, a modifier that must come after it, the suffix -ly is regularly, which is to day, grammatically, properly omitted.

Returning now to the example David cited from the alphaDictionary website, I must admit that the same example with the suffix -ly doesn’t sound as bad as the examples I cited above: “…a foreign word spelled identically to an English word.” However, to my ear, the version on the website still offends my grammar organ less. What do you think?

Cashabung and Such

Friday, August 8th, 2008

George Paul dropped a line today with a request for information on a word that has stumped us completely. Maybe someone reading this has encountered it. I rather doubt that since I think my response is probably correct. Here is what George asked:

For decades, my Italian-American family has used the word ‘cashabung’ to describe something that is worthless, good-for-nothing, no-account, no-good, manky, rubbishy, trashy, etc. I can’t find any reference to that word. Can you help?”

Here is the response:

George, you have stumped us. We’ve never encountered it and it doesn’t even occur on the Web, according to Google. The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have anything bearing even the slightest resemblance to it.

My best guess would be this. In addition to dialects, language is also marked by idiolects. An idiolect is the dialect of a family or even an individual. You have probably heard one person and only one person use a word or a word that is used only in one family. I suspect cashabung is from an idiolect, probably a blend of two words from an Italian dialect or simply an Italian word slightly mispronounced (you don’t find the combination NG at the end of many Italian words).

The only word that comes to my mind is cowabunga, an exclamation of surprise introduced in the ‘Howdy Doody Show’ back in the 1950s.  I notice that it still survives in the Internet community with a variety of meanings. None of them, however, approaches the sense of cashabung that you mention.

Drunk Driving Central PA Style

Wednesday, August 6th, 2008

More Life in the Slow Lane
Not much crime has happened in Central Pennsylvania since my last report on the one-man riot. Last Thursday, however, the local police arrested a man for driving under the influence of alcohol—a man driving a horse and buggy.

Yes, we still have horses and buggies in Central Pennsylvania. We still have hitching posts on Market Street in downtown Lewisburg. The Amish do all their vehicular travel in buggies; in fact, the next town over, Mifflinburg, PA, was once the buggy capital of the US and today has the museum to prove it. When Henry Ford began manufacturing cars in Detroit, he purchased his first bodies from a Milton buggy shop but soon changed to buggy shops nearer to his factory.

Up to the time our Amish and Mennonite neighbors swept into Lewisburg in 1971 to help dig us out of the remains of the 50-year flood brought upon us by hurricane Agnes, there was no record of any Amish or Mennonite arrested in Union County. However, the incident in question did not occur in Lewisburg (our Amish are quite sober people), but in neighboring Milton, PA.

The arresting officer, of course, was astonished to see a horse and buggy being driven recklessly along a Milton road without even the required lighting. When he asked the arrestee if he were Amish, here is what the driver replied according to the Sunbury Daily Item: “Well, sort of. I left and sort of came back. I’m a bad Amish.” I’ll say. His blood alcohol was 0.165, a bit above the legal limit of .08.

The Amish lad had attended a nearby fair and, on the way home, stopped at a local tavern where he inhaled about 12 drafts. When asked why he decided to drive home in such a state, he frankly responded that he thought the police would leave him alone because he was Amish. “They always get away with things,” the arrestee opined. Hmmm. That may tarnish the record I mentioned above.

Anyway, I thought you might be interested to know that crime does occur in the slow lane.