Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

February Links

Posted by Neal on February 14, 2010

If you follow me on Twitter, you may recognize some of these links. I’ve taken to tweeting some of the links instead of waiting to put them in the next month’s collection of links here. But I’m also putting them here for the rest of my readers.

First up: John McIntyre has launched another Grammar Noir serial, and the first installment had me laughing out loud with lines like this one, put in the mouth of Mignon Fogarty as a woman in distress: “I’ve been followed. I think my phone is tapped. My mail is being tampered with. My car is making a funny noise. I think it needs an oil change.” Be sure to follow the link to last year’s story, too. (HT to Editor Mark.)

Next, if someone asks you “Do you mind if…?” and you answer “Yes,” the literal meaning is that you mind; in other words, permission is denied. But even I have come to accept a “Yeah, sure!” as permission if it’s expressed with enthusiasm. From The Volokh Conspiracy, here’s commentary on a legal case where a cop asked, “Do you mind if I look [in the car]?” and the driver said yes.

Grant Barrett wrote today’s “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine, on a piece of linguistic folklore that I’d heard once or twice, but never realized how enduring it was. It’s on the claim that the semantically unexciting word cellar door is phonetically the most beautiful word in the English language.

Now for a couple of items from blogs on the blogroll. From Dennis Baron, a Web of Language post on how “It’s possible to get on a plane with explosives hidden in your underwear, or even with unconcealed English-language pamphlets advocating “Death to America” … But overt displays of Arabic are no more acceptable to the TSA than water bottles or nail clippers”.

I have two from Robert Beard of Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog. First is a funny story involving regional accents and breakfast in a Pennsylvania Dutch restaurant. In the other one, he offers an explanation for something I’ve wondered about on occasion: When and why did the idiom make love come to mean exclusively “have sex”? I thought it had entered the language that way until I read it in materials and heard it in songs from the first half of the 20th century and didn’t think they would be talking about sex so overtly.

Finally, sociolinguist Alexandra D’Arcy has begun a monthly column at the Oxford University Press blog. D’Arcy talks about her grandmother: “When my History of the English Language professor observed that the distinction between lay and lie was being lost among younger speakers (good luck asking a twenty-year-old to run the paradigms), I had the poor enough judgment to share this insight with Grandmother. … I might as well have told her that going out in public without a bra had become the vogue.” Read the rest of the story here.

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One Response to “February Links”

  1. Ran said

    I’m reading Jane Austen’s Emma, and tonight I came to this sentence:

    > To restrain him as much as might be, by her own manners, she was immediately preparing to speak with exquisite calmness and gravity of the weather and the night; but scarcely had she begun, scarcely had they passed the sweep-gate and joined the other carriage, than she found her subject cut up–her hand seized–her attention demanded, and Mr. Elton actually making violent love to her: availing himself of the precious opportunity, declaring sentiments which must be already well known, hoping–fearing–adoring–ready to die if she refused him; but flattering himself that his ardent attachment and unequalled love and unexampled passion could not fail of having some effect, and in short, very much resolved on being seriously accepted as soon as possible.

    There are a number of interesting usages here — that of “might be” where PDE would say “possible”, that of “scarcely … than” where PDE would require either “scarcely … when” or “no sooner … than” — but needless to say, I’m commenting because of the lovely phrase “actually making violent love”, which does not mean what PDE would have it mean. Not that that addresses your question of when and why it changed.

    (Incidentally, the book also regularly uses “her lover” to mean “(the) one who loves her”; I’m betting it’s not a coincidence that “lover” and “make love” have both become sexual.)

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