Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for September, 2008

Change or Reform?

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

McCain-ObamaAn interesting development has arisen in the two political campaigns in the United States. Senator Barack Obama has been running a campaign on the platform of bringing change to the US government. Senator McCain has recently shifted the focus of his campaign to reform. The difference in meaning of these two words, change and reform, could be critical to the decision reached in the November presidential election.

Change means to shift to something different but reform means to improve on what is already in place. Senator McCain has been a consistent supporter of deregulation, privatization, and the war in Iraq, policies Senator Obama promises to end outright. The term reform suggests that McCain wishes to continue with these policies but with, as Governor Palin recently put it, some “shakin and fixin”.

I find the distinction reflected in the careful choices of these words interesting.


Contractions and Affixes

Thursday, September 18th, 2008

Glenn Giro sent this note in reponse to the blog on “Apostrophic Memorials“: 

I guess this would fall under “Grammar and Style” but, I’m curious as to whether there are any other instances about which anyone knows. I saw a double-contraction used in a cartoon in the local paper that, upon contemplating, I realized was exactly the way it is pronounced in actual usage. The word as used is “you’d’ve” and, although either you would’ve or you’d have is obviously correct, when read aloud (as in “If you’d’ve seen it, you’d’ve been as surprised as I was.” is actually the way it is pronounced. Just wondering. In Baton Rouge after Gustav.
—Glenn Giro

I hope you escaped Ike unscathed. I find it hard to believe that Ike was only a category 2 hurricain after seeing on television the havoc it wreaked from Texas to Ohio.

For some reason publishers don’t like double contractions but they are common in spoken English. Contractions always involve grammatical morphemes—function words. Function words express meanings that are often expressed by suffixes and prefixes and so they are in a constant state of transition: from word to clitic to affix. A clitic is a suffix on a phrase rather than a word. The possessive -‘s in English is a clitic. In the phrase the king of England’s hat. the hat does not belong to England even though the ‘suffix’ is applied to that noun. The -‘s here is, in fact, a clitic that makes the entire phrase the king of England a possessive: “belonging to the king of England” since it is the king’s hat.

Contractions are function words that have been reduced to clitics on their way to becoming suffixes in English. You’d’ve represents a clitic added to a clitic just as suffixes are added to suffixes in words like theatr-ic-al-ly. The only other I can think of now is you’ll’ve. Can, could, may can’t be contracted because they begin on a full consonant. W is a semiconsonant (a glide) and H is a reduced consonant in the process of disappearing in English, especially in unaccented syllables as is the case with have when used as an auxiliary verb.

Of Rubes and Reubens

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

Carol Hood wrote just the other day with a cry for lexical help:

Duhhhh“I have recently been quietly informed that I used a racial slur in casual conversation. Needless to say I was appalled! PLEASE explain to me how the word rube when used to denote a rustic or unsophisticated person is a slur! We were with some Jewish friends and my helpful friend said I had used an ethnic slur…something about the origin of this word and the usually Jewish name, Reuben. She then alluded to the gradeschool song ‘Reuben, Reuben, I’ve been thinking’ as a racially charged song in the same vein as rube. HELP!!”

There is no doubt that rube comes from Reuben for the word Reuben itself was used at the beginning of the 19th century to refer to yokels. Reuben is a Jewish name. However, Jews were never farmers in American and this term clearly originated as a derogatory reference to sod-busters (there’s a sure slur for you) in the US and Canada. No semantic connection.

It did not come from the circus term rube used in the circus May-day cry, “Hey, Rube!” referring to local yokels,  either. Reuben was used in this sense at least 80 years before the circus term appeared. The circus seems to have gotten its term from the same source.

I thought it might have originally been applied to the Pennsylvania Dutch farmers since Reuben is also sort of a German name However, it is not a common name among the PA Germans.

If all words implying that a person is ignorant, true or false, are slurs, this word is a slur. But if no one—including Jewish etymologists—can show that this word is related to a Hebrew name for sure, and some people deserving of the epithet do in fact exist, how can it be taken as an anti-Semitic slur?

The Earmarks on Pork Barrels

Monday, September 15th, 2008

So what are earmarks, anyway? We hear more and more about them as the presidential election in the US rolls on. No, they are not how to tell if a politician is fooling around with another man or woman. Earmarks are projects funded by the state or federal government in a specific district, usually at the bequest of the congressman representing that district. An earmarked project may be a good or bad one; presumably most are good.

The word today is being used as a synonym for a pork-barrel project, a wasteful if not useless federally or state funded project. Male and female congressmen sometimes use their committee appointments to add “fat” to the federal budget via projects that benefit few people and cost much tax-payer money. These projects are referred to by the mass noun pork, known for its high fat content, or pork barrel.

Some national candidates are running on a ticket of reducing or ending earmarks. The latter means ending all state or federally funded projects for specific districts. Since the function of a member of the House of Representatives is to represent his or her district, ending or even unreasonably reducing legitimate earmarks to a district would be poor representation. Not a good idea. We need to remind ourselves of the distinction between earmarks and pork barrel projects.

Relational & Qualitative Adjectives

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

In an article entitled “Sarah Palin: A Big Gamble for Religious Conservatives” that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on September 2, 2008, 11:00 pm, Steven Waldman, the former national editor of U.S. News & World Report wrote: “After a year’s worth of stories about whether the religious right was ‘dead,’ they now seem to be flexing great muscle, helping to bring about the most antiabortion ticket running on the most antiabortion platform – ever.”

The most antiabortion platform is a grating phrase because a relational adjective is used here as a qualitative adjective. Relational? Qualitative? “You mean there are different kinds of adjectives?” I hear someone asking. In fact, there are about a half dozen different kinds of adjectives which most of us have little difficulty distinguishing and using properly.

A qualitative adjecive is sometimes called a “real” adjective because it has all the possible qualities of an adjective: it can be used in both predicate (the platform is simple) and attributive position (the simple platform), we can derive a noun and an adverb from it (simplicity, simply), and we can compare it (simpler, simplest or more simple, most simple).

A relational adjective is at the other end of the spectrum: it can only be used as an attribute (a naval maneuver). We can’t use relational adjectives in predicate position felicitously (the maneuver is naval), compare them (more, most naval maneuver). This type of adjective is most often derived from nouns without suffixes in English (a city regulation), which makes them relatively easy to spot.

English does have lots of filters for the misuse of vocabulary which make errors like the one mentioned above comprehensible. We understand that more antiabortion doesn’t make sense, so our minds supply the missing semantic pieces, giving us “the strongest antiabortion platform”. So, what’s the big deal? If we can figure out the meaning of the phrases, what is wrong with them?

Well, assuming that we should write as clearly as possible, if we mean the strongest antiabortion platform or the most antiabortionist platform, why not use one of these phrases rather than making the reader do the work for the writer? That way, no rules of grammar are broken, either.

We have to commend Waldman for avoiding the marketing term, pro-life (itself a relational adjective), but we also need to encourage the avoidance of all relational adjectives in the comparative or superlative degree.