November 2009 Archives

Recombinant idioms

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There was a good Frank Rich opinion piece in the New York Times a week ago on Sarah Palin.

But the reason I'm mentioning it here is not the topic or the quality but the clever reworkings of well-known phrases.

Which I'm now going to pick apart and over-explain, thereby killing their humor value, just 'cause I think they're particularly clever.


  • The column's title, repeated in the body of the column: "The Pit Bull in the China Shop." Palin having referred to herself (essentially) as a pit bull, plus the idiom "bull in a china shop."
  • "she will not stay in Wasilla now that she's seen 30 Rock": updating the old song lyric "How you gonna keep them down on the farm now that they've seen Paree?" with Palin's hometown and with the GE Building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza—which in turn is both (a) synecdoche for New York, the entertainment industry, and the national spotlight, and (b) a sly reference to Tina Fey, who played Palin on SNL and stars in the TV show 30 Rock.
  • The third recombinant idiom that caught my attention isn't by Rich; it's a quote from a Matthew Continetti article about Palin: "You shall not crucify mankind upon the cross of Goldman Sachs," mixing the classic William Jennings Bryan "Cross of Gold speech" with today's financial travails.

Names for the (Biblical) nameless


Recently came across an interesting item in Wikipedia: List of names for the Biblical nameless, which "compiles names given in Jewish or Christian mythology for characters who are unnamed in the Bible itself."

For example, the apocryphal book of Jubilees gives Noah's wife's name as Emzara.

Placeholders appear in newspaper

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Some years back, I saw an employment ad for a major computer company in which all the text said "Lorem ipsum." Clearly someone was supposed to fill in actual copy, but had neglected to do so.

Something similar, though less extreme, happened in the San Diego Union-Tribune the other day, when their new automated pagination system made some mistakes:

A front-page story sends the reader to A10 to continue the story but you won't find the story title. Instead, you'll find the word "Slug"[...]. Below that, you'll find the phrase "Three lines of jumphed right in here, yuppers."

(And btw, I hadn't previously encountered the word "jumphed," but I like it. In case it's not clear, it refers to a "jump headline." See also the question of whether to use jump heds or jump words.)



My name is Shmuel, and I'll be your guest blogger. I'd like to thank Jed for inviting me to come and play. I'm flattered, and excited, and terribly uncertain of what I'll be writing about. But let's start with "salutations."

It occurred to me, as I was casting around for ideas, that the use of "salutations" as a salutation is a bit strange. "Hello" is a salutation. "Dear Sir or Madam" is a salutation. "Salutations" itself seems more like a placeholder, as if one were saying "[insert salutation here]." The same would seem to go for "greetings," for that matter.

(You may be thinking of E.B. White right now. In my experience, "Salutations!" is practically code for "I loved Charlotte's Web as a kid and I still love both language and whimsy." That's likely a skewed sample, however; the kind of people I hang out with tend to be those who love Charlotte's Web, language, and whimsy, no matter what greetings they choose.)

My first thought was that "salutations" might be functioning as a clipped form of a longer phrase, perhaps "I offer you salutations!" An initial check in the unabridged dictionaries I had onhand (notably Merriam-Webster's 2nd and 3rd ed., American Heritage 4th ed., Random House 2nd ed.) found no trace of "salutations" itself being used as a salutation. Furthermore, Random House was the only one to include "greetings" in anything like the sense at hand: "3. greetings, an expression of friendly or respectful regard: send my greetings to your family." This strikes me as not quite the same sense as "Greetings!" but it's in the right ballpark.

Ultimately, I pulled out the big guns: the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED confirmed my original thought, and showed that this construction goes back a long way. Definition 2 for "salutation" is "Elliptically for 'I offer salutation'," though this is flagged as being archaic. The earliest citation is from 1535: "Vnto Eszdras..peace and salutacion." The year 1600 brings a familiar form, almost: "Salutation and greeting to you all." In the singular form, found in these examples, the usage is indeed archaic. The plural form is not, but the OED doesn't mention that at all.

Two things strike me as interesting in all of this. The first is the elliptical form of "salutations" itself, which strikes me as unusual. After all, one doesn't say "Valedictions!" when leaving. Can you think of other examples of such a usage?

The second is that a usage as common as "Greetings!" or "Salutations!" can apparently be taken for granted to the extent that major dictionaries don't bother to note it at all. For that matter, even though the usage has changed from singular to plural—nobody these days would say "Greeting!" or "Salutation!"—only Random House includes the specifically plural form, and that only for "greetings." It's rare that I find a blind spot like this. And kind of cool.

I'm not sure all of this adds up to anything, but there you have it. Salutations!

Introducing guest blogger Shmuel

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It occurred to me a while back that it might be interesting to have other folks who are interested in words and wordplay join me in blogging here, either temporarily or permanently.

As the first experiment in that direction, Shmuel has agreed to be a guest blogger here for the next month or so.

For those who don't know him:

Shmuel is probably best-known online for his abovelinked Soapbox blog, but he hasn't posted there for a while; lately he's been Twittering instead.

My first significant interactions with him, iIrc, were when he and I were both proofreaders at the online erotica magazine Clean Sheets. He had a sharp eye for prose problems of all sorts, from the punctuational to the grammatical, and his comments were often entertaining, interesting, and informative.

(And by the way, he's currently available for freelance copyediting, proofreading, and research. Or maybe I mean researching? Parallelism!)

We've kept in intermittent touch over the years, and he's been a regular reader and commenter here. When I started thinking about bringing guest bloggers aboard, he seemed like the obvious choice for guinea pig first guest blogger.

Welcome to the blog, Shmuel!

"Polyamory is wrong!" T-shirt

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Entertaining T-shirt from says:

Polyamory is wrong!

It is either Multiamory or Polyphilia

but mixing Greek and Latin roots? Wrong!

Cursebird: swearing on Twitter

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Cursebird provides "a real-time feed of people swearing on Twitter."

It even shows a seven-day overview bar graph of the relative frequency of various common swear words.

"A Common Nomenclature for Lego Families"

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The title of this article and the blurb at the top of the article seem to suggest that everyone uses the same names for Lego pieces, but in fact part of the point of the article is that "Every family, it seems, has its own set of words for describing particular Lego pieces." In the table at the end of the article, four different kids provide their names for specific pieces.


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Best spam subject line of the week:


I thought perhaps a HUDLOOM was a weaving device containing a Heads-Up Display. Or perhaps some kind of magical thingy from a Harry Potter book.

Sadly, it appears to be simply a misspelling of "hoodlum." Still, I was entertained, and thought you might be too.

Also of note is this line from the body of the message, which caught my eye during the two seconds in which I briefly glanced at the email looking for more hudloom info:

The above listed names are been traced/investigated by our team and some of them have elope the country[....]

A nicely poetic way of describing someone fleeing the law, I guess.

I know it's not good form to mock non-fluent English speakers. But I sometimes can't resist.

Bucket of Does


I saw a billboard advertising the new Droid cell phone yesterday. It had a hard-edged and manly sort of high-tech industrial look to it, and it said:


Now, the Droid ad campaign has centered around the idea that there's lots of stuff that the iPhone doesn't do, but that "Droid Does."

So the advertisers can perhaps be forgiven for assuming that everyone would see the word "DOES" as a verb and pronounce it like "duzz."

But for just a moment, as I glanced at the billboard, I saw the word "DOES" as a plural noun, and pronounced it like "doze."

And I wondered: a bare-knuckled bucket full of female deer? Huh?

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