January 2008 Archives

Two arguments about intended meaning

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Over at Language Log last week, linguist Geoffrey Pullum posted an entry titled "Yale sluts and Princeton philosophers," about a threatened lawsuit over a Yale fraternity's writing a sign saying "WE LOVE YALE SLUTS."

Pullum's entry is primarily a fairly standard "damn those PC people who are trying to stop our precious freedom of speech!" post, thinly disguised as being of linguistic relevance through a couple of arguments about the use of language. And, y'know, I agree with him that our society has too many lawsuits. And he later retracted some of the political stuff that I found most annoying about his post, after he found out more about the situation; also, he linked to Jane Achson's subsequent guest entry that makes some compelling points about harassment. It's worth noting that there have always been legal limits on Americans' freedom of speech.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about; this is my language blog, not my political blog. So what I want to say here is that in that particular entry, Pullum (whom I normally have a fair bit of respect for) was so focused on making his political point that he fumbled a couple of language-related arguments. And the reason I want to talk about those arguments is that they're arguments that I see pretty often; so my point here is not primarily that Pullum shouldn't have made these arguments, but rather that nobody should be making them.

This got very long, so I'm continuing after the jump.

Two Americans

Entertaining mistake, from a statement by Barack Obama about Edwards dropping out of the race:

John and Elizabeth Edwards have always believed deeply ... that two Americans can become one.

--Blog entry "More on Edwards," retrieved 30 January 2008, 3:28 p.m. Pacific time

This was very widely quoted, and then very widely corrected--within a few hours after the quote appeared in dozens or hundreds of articles and blogs, it had virtually disappeared from the web.

Took me a while to track down the source of the error: the video of Obama's statement shows him saying, to a crowd at a Denver rally, "John and Elizabeth Edwards believe deeply that two Americans can become--that the two Americas can become one." (Starting around 0:50 in that video.)

A Salon blog entry explains that the Obama campaign sent out an email version of the statement that had it as "Americans." Clearly someone made a mistake somewhere. I wonder if Obama was reading from a teleprompter that contained a typo, and if the words on the prompter were from the same text source as the email that went out. Seems like the alternative would be that a staffer transcribed the statement from the speech but left the error intact, which seems unlikely.

The Obama website now gives it as "two Americas"; don't know whether that was originally posted as "Americans" and then corrected or not. Note also that the printed text has an extra phrase in the middle, a phrase Obama didn't say in the spoken version: "John and Elizabeth Edwards have always believed deeply that we can change this--that two Americas can become one." This leads me even more strongly to suspect that Obama was reading from a printed source (and modifying it on the fly), even though I had always thought he generally spoke without a prompter.

I don't mean to make a big fuss about this; people make mistakes, and typos, all the time. What made it worth an entry is that (a) it's funny, and (b) it was very widely reported for a brief time--and none of the articles that reported it seemed to notice the mistake. And (c) I'm intrigued by the ephemerality of the web--the fact that an error like this can be expunged so quickly that there remains very little evidence that it happened.


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On the radio the other day, someone said "Uranus" in such a way that it sounded like an adjective, "urinous." According to Wikipedia, that's actually the earliest of the current common English pronunciations; I had always thought it was a new pronunciation chosen to avoid sounding like "your anus," but Wikipedia says it was the other way around.

Wikipedia also mentions a third pronunciation that looks like it would sound more or less like "you ran us," which avoids both of the off-color homonyms. Fair enough.

But I would like to propose yet another pronunciation, to both avoid the homonyms and make clear how silly the whole thing is: oo-RAAAAHN-oos. (In ASCII IPA: /u 'rAA nus/.)

It's important to hold that second syllable, making the whole thing sound sort of like a war cry. In fact, ideally the word would be sort of half-sung while charging into battle.

palilalia, copropraxia

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Wikipedia says that "palilalia" is "the repetition or echoing of one's own spoken words."

It can sometimes be a symptom of Tourette Syndrome. I already knew that coprolalia (involuntary swearing) was another such symptom, but I hadn't previously heard the name for yet another symptom: "copropraxia," "involuntarily performing obscene or forbidden gestures."

I normally don't list words here whose meaning is obvious from the roots (when I know the roots); I could've guessed what copropraxia is. But I like the word, so I figured I'd include it.


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According to Urban Dictionary and other sources, one's "wheelhouse" is an "area of expertise." I gather it's used similarly to "forte" or "strong point" or "metier."


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"Griesel" is apparently another term for biodiesel, more specifically for vegetable oil used as diesel fuel.

I first encountered the term in a story submitted to SH; did a web search, and came up with a few instances of it online, such as a CNN transcript:

Ah, golden vegetable oil. It's not diesel, it's griesel.

Interestingly, apparently there's a guy whose birth name is Ernest Griesel who uses the stuff. Makes me wonder whether the term came from his name, or whether the pun was developed independently by someone else as well.

So I was sitting around with O. and D. and Kam the other night, and someone mentioned Chicago, and D. said his brother Kevin lived in Chicago.

And someone asked what Kevin did there, and D. said he taught math.

And I thought: ... wait ... D's last name is Wald ... Kevin Wald ... Chicago ... math ...


And I said, "Your brother is KEVIN WALD?????"

And indeed he was.

The reason I knew the name Kevin Wald is that he's the author of one of my very favorite filks ever, a piece generally known as "Heroine Barbarian," a Xena filk to the tune of "I am the very model of a modern major-general."

I printed it in my column ten years ago (follow above link to see it), with Kevin's permission, but it somehow never occurred to me that Kevin might have written some other good stuff.

So D. told me that Kevin's web pages included a bunch of other filks, and I went and looked, and lo! it is true!

My favorite is the one that D. proceeded to sing us: "Lord of the Rings," to the tune of "My Favorite Things."

But there are bunches of other fun things on the site as well, such as:

And many more.

Highly recommended.

Hurling is Ireland's second-most-popular sport (after Gaelic football). It involves hitting a ball with a stick to score goals; I get the impression it's vaguely related to field hockey.

According to Wikipedia, "The earliest known recorded game of hurling is from times before Christ," and "[h]urling is older than the recorded history of Ireland."

There are apparently a bunch of similar and related games. For example, there's an Irish women's variant called "camogie." There's also a related Scottish game called shinty, and a related British (?) game called bandy; both shinty and bandy are ancestors of ice hockey. And there's another related game that was once very popular on the Isle of Man called cammag.

(Encountered "hurler"--a hurling player--in a story submitted to SH.)


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"Hypsography" is the measurement and mapping of topographical elevation.

(I wrote this note in late 2006, but neglected to post it. So the word is no longer exactly new to me, but it was a year ago.)


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To "schvitz" is to sweat; more commonly, a schvitz is a steam bath, as one might take in a sauna.


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It's possible I've heard this one before, but I like it too much to pass it up, and I don't think I ever knew what it meant before. A "cacoëthes" is a strong desire or urge. Derives from a Greek word meaning "wickedness." Apparently one of the most common modern uses is in the phrase "cacoëthes scribendi," usually referring to an insatiable and/or irresistible urge to write; often specifically in reference to an Oliver Wendell Holmes poem titled "Cacoëthes Scribendi."

has the hump

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Apparently, in British slang, to "have the hump" is to be "annoyed or upset with someone," according to The Free Dictionary. I wonder if the phrase derives ultimately from Kipling.

Encountered the phrase in late December in a transcript of a Veronica Mars episode, in which the (British) transcriber wrote: "The manager has the hump."

Oddly, as of late December, Urban Dictionary didn't mention this meaning of the word "hump." I suppose I could add it, but the general quality of the defs in Urban Dictionary doesn't really make me want to contribute to it.


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In a comment thread for a YouTube video, someone named "DarthMauricius" wrote (on December 19, 2007):

"This is the lolest video ever"

The meaning is obvious; I'm just pleased and amused by the act of adding a superlative ending to "LOL."


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In a comment on a journal entry a few years back, Sarah P introduced me to the term "mullygrubs," which turns out to be an alternate spelling for mulligrubs, which Quinion defines as "A state of depression or low spirits" and Dictionary of American Regional English defines as (among other things) "A condition of despondency or ill temper."

It can also refer to a stomach ache or a particular kind of ball in cricket. Apparently the word appeared (among other places) in Steinbeck's Travels with Charley.

Quinion also mentions the word "megrims"; a megrim was a migraine, but "megrims" could mean just general low spirits. I'd heard that before, but had forgotten it. Quinion and MW3 suggest that "mulligrubs" might even have originally been an alteration of "megrims."

Anyway, "mulligrubs" isn't quite a new-to-me word, but Sarah's mention of it was my only previous exposure to it, so it was new to me a few years ago; close enough for blogging.


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When I read this word in Perdido Street Station, I assumed it was a misprint; but I looked it up, and sure enough, "skewwhiff" is an adjective or adverb from British dialect, meaning "askew" or "awry."

Interestingly, almost all of first few pages of Google search results for this term are definitions of it; it's not until the third or fourth page of results that actual uses of the term in text start to appear, such as a press release that refers to "this skewwhiff logic, where one set of rules would exist for one set of companies, while others were excluded[...]."

Punny name headline

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A headline I saw in late October, apparently provided by Dow Jones Newswires, read:

CORRECT: Microsoft Executive Is Harry Patz, Not Putz

The corrected article is titled "Wireless Carriers Target Young Texters With Latest Phones" but I was really just amused by the headline of the correction.

But is it bad form to make fun of a misspelling of someone's name? Even if I'm not making fun of the person himself? I'm not sure.


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Everyone knows that "January" derives from the name of Janus, the Roman god of doors and beginnings and endings. But what I didn't know until a couple weeks ago is that the word janitor also derives from that name; a janitor was originally a doorkeeper.

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This page is an archive of entries from January 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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