October 2009 Archives

The Telegraph recently featured a list of top 10 Internet "laws", starting of course with Godwin's Law.

Sure enough, there at #4 is Skitt's Law, a.k.a. Muphry's Law (sic), a.k.a. McKean's Law, a.k.a. Hartman's Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation.

Yay! I'm very slightly partially Internet famous for having independently coined a saying not too many years after the first recorded time that someone else said the same thing!

(And, most likely, for having come up with a catchy name for it. I suspect if I had just called it Hartman's Law, the Internet-famous linguists who've referred to it would've gone with McKean's Law, since she's much better-known than I am. Then again, it appears to have been Vardibidian who told the linguists about my version in 2005, so maybe if I had hired a publicist back in '99, I would've won the naming war.)

(As for the Telegraph article, my other favorite law in their list is Pommer's Law: "A person's mind can be changed by reading information on the internet. The nature of this change will be: From having no opinion to having a wrong opinion.")

axis mundi

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The other day, I read a submission that included the phrase "Axis Mundi." There were a lot of other unfamiliar phrases in the story, so I figured it was just something the author had made up.

Tonight, I encountered the phrase again, in a different story by a different author.

I Googled it, and found the relevant Wikipedia entry, so now I know what it refers to. (Though that entry appears to contain a great deal of original research and a certain amount of wacky speculation and overinterpretation. Skyscrapers are designed to evoke the axis mundi? Really?)

But I'm nonetheless a little surprised, and intrigued.

Because the term didn't appear at all in any submission we received until early 2005, after four and a half years of submissions. It popped up again in late 2005, then in mid-2006, then in late 2007. Four instances in three years. Didn't appear at all in any submissions in 2008.

But so far in 2009, we've received five stories that use the phrase, by four different authors.

In other words: in the past nine months, this phrase has turned up in more stories than in the entire previous eight and a half years—the lifetime of the magazine.

So now I'm wondering about the term. Has it recently entered the mass public consciousness, perhaps via the design firm or the band that use the name? Or is this just a coincidence?


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"Esculent" is apparently a synonym for "edible." It's been appearing in print since 1626, but I only just encountered it for the first time in Wikipedia.

Indian English

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I continue to be intrigued by the differences between British/American English and Indian English.

I also wonder regularly if some of the grammatical problems I see in submissions written by South Asian writers are merely examples of Indian English. Some day, I should sit down and read more published South Asian writing to try and get a better feel for Indian English.

(I've read a few novels by South Asian authors, but not enough for a representative sample yet.)

See also: the online Dictionary of Indian English; 108 varieties of Indian English; a 2004 paper from Language in India on linguistic majority-minority relations in India; and a page of audio pronunciations of English words in New Delhi.

That last, btw, is from the extremely useful-looking Accents of English from around the world website. I hope to spend some time poking around there and listening to pronunciations in the future.

Spanish profanity


Recently happened across the Wikipedia article on Spanish profanity. The little I've read of it so far seems to be useful and interesting.

See also the articles on Portuguese profanity, Quebec French profanity, and Latin profanity among others.


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To "snib" a door is to fasten or bar it. Just came across it in a submission; turns out to have been used by J. M. Barrie and Arthur Conan Doyle, among others. Chiefly British, says the Free Dictionary; Scottish, says MW3 Unabridged; the story was set in Australia.

organ of benevolence


I've never previously read A Christmas Carol. Happened across it in an iPhone edition recently, discovered that it's quite short (about 30,000 words—I had always assumed it was hundreds of pages), and started reading it. And I'm struck, as I was years ago when I finally read Oliver Twist, by the moments of charming humor.

I was also struck by a particular phrase when I came across it last night:

Old Fezziwig [...] rubbed his hands; adjusted his capacious waistcoat; laughed all over himself, from his shoes to his organ of benevolence; and called out in a comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice[....]

"Organ of benevolence" sounded like some kind of a euphemism, so I went and looked it up. Turns out it was one of the organs recognized by phrenology: it was "at the top of the forehead, near where the hair commences" (according to the Graham journal of health and longevity), and the size of one's organ of benevolence determined how benevolent one was (unless overridden by other factors, such as phrenology being meaningless).

My Google search also turned up a use of the phrase in Frederick Marryat's 1836 novel Mr. Midshipman Easy:

"Surely, sir, you would not interfere with the organ of benevolence."

"But indeed I must, Jack. I, myself, am suffering from my organ of benevolence being too large: I must reduce it, and then I shall be capable of greater things, shall not be so terrified by difficulties, shall overlook trifles, and only carry on great schemes for universal equality and the supreme rights of man. I have put myself into that machine every morning for two hours, for these last three months, and I feel now that I am daily losing a great portion."

Turns out Mr. Easy's invention pushes on or sucks on various parts of the skull in order to reshape the phrenological organs therein. I would call that science fiction, of a sort, but it was clearly presented as satire.

Ship gender

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It's traditional in English to refer to ships using female pronouns.

I've known that all my life, but I think this is the first time I've consciously noticed a case of a ship bearing a male name being referred to as female: I listed carefully to the lyrics of the song "The Leaving of Liverpool" this evening, and noticed this line:

Davy Crockett is her name

This phenomenon is common enough that Wikipedia even mentions it. But I was nonetheless amused.

Gorilla gorilla


I'm pretty sure that I already knew that the Western Gorilla has the taxonomic name Gorilla gorilla (genus + species).

But I don't think I knew until now that the Western Lowland Gorilla has the taxonomic name Gorilla gorilla gorilla (genus + species + subspecies). (Also known as G. g. gorilla.)

I'm sure that to scientists, this is a perfectly ordinary name. But I'm tickled by it.

And it makes me think that Buffalo buffalo buffalo ought to be the taxonomic name for the Midwestern Lowland Buffalo.

(See also Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo in Wikipedia.)

And perhaps Badger badger badger ought to be some kind of taxonomic name as well.

Note that in Badger, MN, they allow badgers to create and provide badges, so those are Badger badger badgers; I hear that Badger badger badgers Badger badger badgers badger badger Badger badger badgers.

Now I want to start putting together sentences like "Buffalo buffalo Gorilla gorilla gorilla buffalo buffalo Gorilla gorilla gorilla."

Or maybe "Gorilla gorilla gorilla Buffalo buffalo buffalo badger Badger badger badgers."

(I'm assuming that Gorilla gorilla gorilla can be used as a plural, which may be grammatically dubious but makes for funnier sentences.)

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This page is an archive of entries from October 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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