Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘TV’ Category

Tense Travel

Posted by Neal on October 14, 2014

My wife called me in to her office last night to make me watch this segment of The Big Bang Theory, in which Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Howard are watching Back to the Future, Part ii. Harrison Tran has helpfully bootlegged it onto YouTube, complete with a transcript:

Howard: Wait, hold on. Pause.
[music stops]
Howard: Something doesn’t make sense. Look. In 2015 Biff steals the Sports Almanac and takes the time machine back to 1955 to give it to his younger self. But as soon as he does that he changes the future, so the 2015 he returns to would be a different 2015. Not the 2015 that Marty and Doc were in.
Leonard: This is Hot Tub Time Machine all over again. Look. If future Biff goes back to 2015 right after he gives young Biff the Almanac, he could get back to the 2015 with Marty and Doc in it. Because it wasn’t until his 21st birthday that 1955 Biff placed his first bet.
Sheldon: But whoa, whoa. Is placed right?
Leonard: What do you mean?
Sheldon: Is placed the right the right tense for something that would’ve happened in the future of a past that was affected by something from the future?
Leonard: [thinks] Had will have placed?
Sheldon: That’s my boy.
Leonard: Okay. So, it wasn’t until his 21st birthday that Biff had will have placed his first bet and made his millions. That’s when he alters the timeline.
Sheldon: But he had will haven’t placed it.
Howard: What?
Sheldon: Unlike Hot Tub Time Machine, this couldn’t be more simple. [laugh track] When Biff gets the Almanac in 1955, the alternate future he creates isn’t the one in which Marty and Doc Brown ever used the time machine to travel to 2015. Therefore, in the new timeline, Marty and Doc never brought the time machine.
Leonard: Wait, wait, wait. Is brought right?
Sheldon: [thinks] Marty and Doc never had have had brought?
Leonard: I don’t know, you did it to me.
Sheldon: I’m going with it. Marty and Doc never had have had brought the time machine to 2015. That means 2015 Biff could also not had have had brought the Almanac to 1955 Biff. Therefore, the timeline in which 1955 Biff gets the Almanac is also the timeline in which 1955 Biff never gets the Almanac and not just never gets: never have, never hasn’t, never had have hasn’t.
Raj: He’s right.

I love that Harrison included the laugh track in his transcript.

So of course all this is just a good excuse to combine two kinds of geekery: sci-fi and grammar. The main way Sheldon and Leonard twist the verb-tense syntax is to allow auxiliary have to take complements that it doesn’t take in monolinear-time Standard English. First, they put it with the modal will, when modal auxilaries are always the first in a series of auxiliary verbs, even in outlandish strings such as will have been being eaten. Second, they put it with itself, in had have had brought and had have hasn’t.

Another kind of auxiliary combination we don’t get in monolinear-time Standard English is the past tense (or past participle) auxiliary had after a modal, in could not had have had brought. In our English, modals always take a base form, not a past-tense form.

Finally, there’s the combination of the negative contraction haven’t with will in will haven’t placed. In our English, the contraction has to come in the first auxiliary verb: won’t have placed.

But never mind the seeming syntactic violations. In a world with time travel, the language will have to evolve. My question was whether Sheldon and Leonard’s new syntactic rules for these tenses were semantically consistent with each other. In short, they’re not.

The main situation Sheldon and Leonard are discussing is an event time (young Biff placing a bet) that occurs later than a reference time (when young Biff receives the Almanac), but before the time of utterance (2014, in Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment). Ordinarily, this kind of situation would call for the so-called “future in the past“: Biff would place his bet sometime later. The complication is that the event time and the utterance time are now in separate timelines. Even for this situation, though, ordinary English has an appropriate choice: the perfective version of this future in the past: would have placed. But there’s one more complication: We’re talking about an event that not only did not happen in our own timeline, but also did happen in an alternative timeline. So how do Sheldon and Leonard propose to designate such an event? They use the past-tense form had, followed by a normal future perfect tense (will have had), to get had will have had. Let’s call this the alternate future in the past tense. This tense also puts its negative contractions in a different place, as noted earlier: had will haven’t placed.

However, Sheldon and Leonard don’t follow these rules the very next time they discuss an event that occurs later than a reference time but before the time of utterance, in an alternative timeline: Doc and Marty’s trip in the time machine. By the rules created so far, it would be never had will have brought (or if they wanted to use a negative contraction, had will haven’t brought), but instead, they go for the stacking of forms of have instead, leading to Sheldon’s culminating string never have, never hasn’t, never had have hasn’t. These are elliptical forms, which I surmise would all finish with gotten if they were fully spoken.

Still amusing, but it would have been funnier if these tenses had turned out to be consistent with each other, even after my poking at them.

Don't panic.

The grammar problem posed by time travel was also explored in 1980, in Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I was inspired to look up what he wrote, and was hoping to compare his tenses with Sheldon and Leonard’s. After reading the first paragraph below, I was excited to notice that Adams’ subscribed to the view of time travel in which you cannot alter timelines, unlike the Back to the Future scenario in which you can. Would this differing assumptions be reflected in the hypothetical grammars?

Sadly, no. Although Adams imagines more kinds of twisted temporal situations than Sheldon and Leonard discuss, he never bothers creating new verb tenses. Instead, he chooses to leave them to the readers’ imaginations, while using funny grammar jargon to name them. Here’s the relevant part, from the beginning of Chapter 15:

One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of accidentally becoming your own father or mother. There is no problem involved in becoming your own father or mother than a broad-minded and well-adjusted family can’t cope with. There is no problem about changing the course of history–the course of history does not change because it all fits together like a jigsaw. All the important changes have happened before the things they were supposed to change and it all sorts itself out in the end.

The major problem is quite simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner’s Time Traveler’s Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be described differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time further in the future, or a time in the further past and is further complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations while you are actually traveling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own mother or father.

Most readers get as far as the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up; and in fact in later editions of the book all the pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs.

These two examples are the only pieces of pop culture I know of that specifically deal with new verb tenses to handle time travel, although collisions between time travel and ordinary English verb tenses have their own page on TV Tropes and Idioms.

Posted in Books, TV, Verb tense | 5 Comments »

Sleep Like Death, Death Like Sleep

Posted by Neal on May 19, 2014

The boys, the wife and I watched the latest episode of the rebooted Cosmos last night. About 10 minutes in, Neil deGrasse Tyson began talking about the idea that life on Earth may have begun by arriving on meteorites. It’s known that rocks from Mars, for example, have ended up on Earth this way. It’s also known that some bacteria are able to survive in space, as proven by bacteria that survived a stint traveling on the outside of the International Space Station. Finally, it’s known that some bacteria can survive for a long time without a food source. On this point, Tyson talks about some recently revived bacteria found in Antarctic ice:

Even more amazing are these creatures, awakened from a death-like sleep of eight million years…

I was interested to hear Tyson put it that way, because I’ve also been hearing another person talking about death-like sleeps recently, but she phrases it differently:

Did you hear that? She said:

Before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she will fall into a sleep like death!

Both phrases are talking about a sleep, not about death. We know this from the context, and from the fact that the verbs fall and awaken collocate more strongly with sleep than with death. But they’re phrased in completely opposite orders from each other! Furthermore, it’s syntactically possible for each phrase to be referring to death, not to a sleep. No, I haven’t actually found any examples of this, but it could happen, OK?

Here are the structural differences all sorted out. The diagrams on the left refer first to a death that is like sleep, and then to a sleep that is like death. In these parses, the adjective like is looking for a noun-phrase complement on its right to form an adjective phrase. The diagrams on the right refer to a sleep that is death-like, then to a death that is sleep-like. Here, the adjective like forms a compound adjective with the noun phrase on its left.

Dead, or Just Resting?

The situation reminds me of Shel Silverstein’s “snake eating cake”.

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Compound words, Diagramming, Movies, TV | Leave a Comment »

What’s Happening with Because?

Posted by Neal on July 12, 2013

My brother Glen send me a link to this article on the best Disney Pixar movies as rated by children. He’d noticed something about the kids’language, and was wondering if I would notice it, too. I did. It had to do with their use of because. Here are all the children’s comments that used because:

  1. “Because there’s bad guys, and Mater, and Lightning McQueen, and SPIES!” (Max, 5)
  2. Elliot, 4, disagreed, saying, “I didn’t like it, because it has rats, and I don’t like rats.”
  3. Max, 5, said it was one of his favorites, “Because Evil Emperor Zurg!”
  4. [T]hey liked it “because there’s a turtle that’s so funny, it swims away” (Lily, 6)
  5. Some younger viewers took the opposite view, giving high ratings because “race cars are funny” (Wilson, 4), and “because they race” (Gideon, 4).
  6. Gideon, age 4, gave it his highest rating “because I like Mike Wazowski,” while Franny, age 8, did the same “because I like Sully.”
  7. Others, like Madison, 4, liked it for different reasons: “Because the day care. I like the day care parts.”
  8. Alex, 5, listed Up as his favorite, “Because Russell throws his GPS out the window and he’s so funny and he can make birds with his hands.”
  9. Reasons included “Because Sully can really roar” (Max, 5), “Because Mike has braces in his teeth” (Alex, 5), and “Because it was funny and a monster fell off a bed” (Harry, 4).
  10. Liam, 6, agreed about the roaring, listing Monsters U as his favorite “because the part where Sully has the big roar and scares all the policemen.”
  11. Franny, 6, gave it a high rating “because I like the dad.”
  12. Elliot, 4, said, “I didn’t like it, because Sid is mean and he smashes all the toys.”

Did you notice it? Items 3, 7, and 10 had because followed by a noun phrase, and nothing else; in other words, used in the same way that Glen, I, and most other English speakers would use because of. Although I can use because to introduce just a noun phrase, for me it’s a metalinguistic use. For example, if I were fumbling for words, I might say something like

…because, you know, the thing you were talking about.

It seems to me that somewhere a few years ago, when a long-awaited new release of the video game Skyrim had just come out, I saw an xkcd comic, or a tweet from Ed Cormany, saying something about not doing what they should have been doing, “because Skyrim.” I was unable to find the comic or tweet or whatever it was, but again, the impression I got was that the speaker didn’t have available the working memory needed in order to construct a full clause to explain, because they are so engrossed in thinking about or playing their new game, and they figure that’s all the explanation their audience really needs anyway.

Glen brought up some other metalinguistic examples in which because introduces a single-word or single-phrase exclamation. He quoted one from a reviewer’s synopsis of the TV show he used to write for:

The Fringies arrive at a giant hanger on a military base where they are waved in by some soldiers after a meandering exchange between Bishop and one of the soldiers regarding grape bubble gum because MAD SCIENTIST!

Simply saying “Mad scientist!” all by itself is an acceptable utterance. Although it’s not a complete sentence, it tells the listener, “Look, a mad scientist!” As a complement to because, it seems to say, “…Bishop is a mad scientist, as we regular viewers well know, and has a powerful sweet tooth, for milkshakes, red licorice, and other hip and quirky candy, and by now I shouldn’t even have to tell you this.” The because plus just the noun phrase, uttered with excitement, conveys sarcasm or disdain, too, it seems. Glen says that this particular reviewer uses this particular phrasing a lot. From the same review:

Bishop just goes ahead and snorts one of the serums without knowing which it is, because MAD SCIENTIST! … There is also some chimpanzee-related wackiness on Bishop’s part. Because MAD SCIENTIST!

Here are a couple of examples with NPs other than mad scientist; namely, cocaine and science, both from the same blog post, and both conveying sarcasm or disdain:

He makes her nervous. But then he offers her cocaine, and hey, cocaine! She sets aside all her misgivings, and gets in the car with a guy she doesn’t know, who makes her nervous and who is “disconnected”.

Because cocaine? [NW: notice the parallel with the earlier hey, cocaine! standing in for an entire clause.]

Women don’t lie about rape because SCIENCE!

Glen speculated that the children in the article heard metalinguistic usages of because, and learned the syntax without the sarcasm. I don’t have enough data to know, but I wouldn’t be surprised. It reminds me a lot of how duh started out as an imitation of stereotyped inarticulate phonation from a mentally handicapped person, and didn’t really sound like a word, but now is uttered with the same intonation as any old interjection: Duh! It also parallels other, well-known linguistic processes: Stronger and more specific meanings become weaker and more general over time; and words that express content get “grammaticalized” until they have only functional meanings. The metalinguistic-to-ordinary progression is something that I haven’t read about in textbooks or the literature–though relevant sources are welcome in the comments! So are your own encounters with because+NP.

Posted in Diachronic, Kids' entertainment, Movies, Syntax, TV, Variation | 6 Comments »

New Development for Backformed Kudo

Posted by Neal on January 2, 2013

Singular KudoA couple of years ago, in a post about the backformation of the Boy Scouting-related singular noun Webelo from Webelos, I mentioned the similar backformation of kudo from the Greek borrowing kudos. Here are a couple of examples from COCA (the source of all the other examples in this post, except as noted):

  • And there was a little kudo called the Award of Merit
  • One even resulted in the ultimate scientific kudo.

The OED has kudo from as far back as 1941, though I’m not so sure about that citation. But their 1950 citation is a clear example:

A man sitting on a toilet bowl swung open the men’s room door and added his kudo to the acclaim.

This backformation is the most obvious sign that someone thinks of kudos as a plural, but other clues can be detected even in the absence of the giveaway form kudo:

  1. Pronunciation of the s in kudos as [z], as if it were the plural marker
  2. Lengthening of the /o/ before this [z] — the same difference you hear in the pronunciation of gross [groʊs] and grows [groʊːz]
  3. Plural verb agreement when kudos is the subject of a clause:
    • Kudos go to San Diegobased Qualcomm Corporate Foundation.
    • Critical kudos acknowledge the success of her approach.
  4. Use of count-noun determiners with kudos:
    • Many kudos for the essay by guest host Sharon Paul
    • A few kudos to get you started

Three months ago, I saw another step in the development of backformed kudo: its use as the modifying part of a compound noun. Compound nouns usually, but not always, have a singular as their first element — the noun that modifies the head noun. For example, we have gumball machines, not gumballs machines. So even someone who might never have occasion to reveal a backformation by talking about “one rabie” might well talk about attaching rabie tags to their pets’ collars. Similarly, in the October 5, 2012 issue of Entertainment Weekly, there was this sentence about TV’s Emmy awards:

The last time nipple covers, shrimp truckers, and demented garden gnomes were mentioned during an Emmy telecast was the year 19 hundred and … never. But that’s what made the 64th annual kudofest on Sept. 23 so engrossing–if a tad bewildering. (“Best and Worst of the Awards,” Lynette Rice, p. 21)

COCA provides two more such examples, also from EW, and also about award shows:

  • He predicts a shiny night for four-Buckle nominee Brad Paisley, forecasts Sugarland to win Video of the Year for ” All I Want to Do, ” and believes that this kudocast will appeal to those beyond the country-fried set. (2009)
  • If you loved seeing Jack Black … rock the children silly on the big screen, you might contract a case of the giggles watching him host this kiddie kudocast (say that 10 times fast). (2006)

However, I’ve discovered that kudo isn’t always a backformation. If you’re talking about mixed martial arts, it’s a portmanteau of karate and judo!

Posted in Backformation, Compound words, Portmanteau words, TV | 6 Comments »

Linguistically Lost Again

Posted by Neal on March 12, 2012

For the past couple of months, the Netflix traffic in our house has ground to a halt, with The Bourne Supremacy and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog languishing on our mantel. During that time, our family movie nights have been spent pushing our way through seasons 1 and 2 of Lost on DVD, now that Doug and Adam are old enough to follow it. I wonder if we’re engaging in binge-viewing, a term I just heard in the past couple of weeks, but which seems to have been around since at least 2001. Maybe not; maybe you have to watch all the episodes without stopping to do other things like work or go to school before you can claim to have binge-viewed a set of episodes. (Did you catch my backformed compound verb there?)

I blogged about Lost a couple of times back in 2006. Now, during a second viewing, I’m catching not only foreshadowing and character connections that I missed the first time; I’m picking up linguistically interesting utterances that I missed, too.

First is essentially the same phrase, spoken by two characters in two episodes:

The button we have to push every 108 minutes or the island’s gonna explode [Charlie]

The button you gotta push every 108 minutes or the world ends. [Dave]

This is one of those coordinated relative clauses in which one of the clauses contains a gap and the other doesn’t. The one with the gap is we gotta push __ every 108 minutes; the one without the gap is the island’s gonna explode. Together, they sound fine, but try to make the one without a gap stand alone, and it’s no good:

[*]The button the island’s gonna explode. (only grammatical if the island will cause the button to explode)

[*]The button the world ends. (only grammatical if the world will end the button)

More specifically, it’s one of these asymmetric coordinations in which the conjunction is or instead of and. Those are a bit rarer, and tend to be overlooked in the literature on the subject (at least, in the papers I’ve read). I’ve blogged about them most recently in this post, about “the pot we have to shit or get off of”.

The other phrase I noted during these second viewings was one from Hurley, who was asked if he knew were Ana Lucia had gone, and answered sardonically:

That would assume that anyone actually tells me anything.

Anyone and anything are negative polarity items (click on the category label for all the relevant posts, or here for a short one that will give you the idea). They are most at home in negated sentences (I don’t want anything), questions (Do you want anything?), or sentences that express some kind of limitation (Only a few people know anything about this). But none of those is the case in Hurley’s sentence. The only negation there is an implied one, the unspoken proposition, “No one tells me anything.” I asked negation expert Larry Horn what he thought about NPIs in this sentence, and he observed that NPIs like the ones in Hurley’s sentence sound bad again when you specifically say that the assumption could actually be correct. He offered this comparison:

on the unlikely assumption that anyone would ever touch a drop of that punch (here’s some guacamole that would go nicely on the side)

#on the plausible assumption that anyone would ever touch a drop of that punch,…

So tell me, how does this sound?

That would assume, correctly, that anyone tells me anything.

Posted in Negative polarity items, Non-ATB coordinations, TV | 8 Comments »

Between Me and the Pawn Shop, Not My Daughter and I

Posted by Neal on October 5, 2011

Doug has gotten into watching the reality TV show Pawn Stars in the past year. Yes, he and Adam are well aware of the word play in the title, which reminds me of a tweet from Bill Walsh that I retweeted a few months ago, to the effect that porn is more egalitarian than the rest of the movie industry, because every actor is a star. Anyway, I’ve gotten so I know by hear the opening monologue: “I’m Rick Harrison, and this is my pawn shop. I work here with my old man, and my son, Big Hoss. Everything in here has a story … and a price. One thing I’ve learned in twenty years: You never know what is gonna come through that door.”

Why did Snoop Dogg carry an umbrella?

Doug was watching an episode a few nights ago, and in one segment a man wanted to sell a doll-likeness of Snoop Dogg, still in the box, which his daughter had given to him. He and Chumlee settled on a price of $100. Out in the parking lot afterwards, the seller told the camera crew about what his daughter might think of selling her gift to him. He said:

That’s gonna be between me and the pawn shop, not my daughter and I.

This is an interesting new piece in the developing between you and me/I picture. There’s of course the standard rule, such that as part of the object of the preposition between, the first person singular pronoun should be in its accusative me form. Then there’s the politeness-based rule, which is by now just about standard for a big chunk of English speakers: It’s politer to use the nominative form I when it’s in a coordination. (And myself when it’s not.)

Then there’s whatever rule this guy is using. In the first coordination, he has me and the pawn shop; in the second, my daughter and I. Is his rule that in a coordination, the first person singular pronoun is me when it comes first, and I when it comes last? Me when it’s emphasized, I when it’s not? Me when it’s first and emphasized, I otherwise? Me when it’s about business, I when it’s about family? Or is it possible that he just uses me and I in free variation?

Posted in Prescriptive grammar, Pronouns, TV | 8 Comments »

Not As Much As You!

Posted by Neal on August 30, 2011

On April 30, I tweeted about an episode of The Big Bang Theory I’d watched the night before. I said

This is the kind of situation where grammar sticklers point out that there can be a big difference between more than I and more than me. In a nice summary of both sides of the argument, Grammar Girl writes:

[People who maintain that than is a conjunction rather than a preposition] would argue that the sentences Aardvark likes Squiggly more than I and Aardvark likes Squiggly more than me are both correct but have entirely different meanings. Both use than as a conjunction, but when you use the subject pronoun I, you’re saying Aardvark likes Squiggly more than I [like Squiggly], and when you use the object pronoun me, you’re saying Aardvark likes Squiggly more than [Aardvark likes] me. If than is a preposition, however, you would always use the objective pronoun me and then the same sentence would mean both things–you don’t care for Squiggly as much as Aardvark does AND Aardvark prefers Squiggly to you. It would be unclear which of the two meanings [was] intended. Avoiding ambiguity awards a point to the conjunctionists.

Of course, this distinction only works when there actually is a difference between nominative and accusative forms, which limits us to pronouns, and not even all of those. In particular, you can be either nominative or accusative, so Leonard could be saying either “Not as much as [I hate] you!” or “Not as much as you [hate Greek food]!”

I’d venture to say that in most cases, the ambiguity is only what Arnold Zwicky calls a potential ambiguity; not a realistic one that will confuse people. What’s fun about this example is that neither of the possible readings jumps out as the intended one. Sheldon is such an insufferable character, with so many showstoppers when it comes to food preferences, that you could imagine his roommate Leonard getting so fed up with Sheldon that he decides to punish him with that night’s purchase of take-out food for their group of friends. There are two ways doing this could punish Sheldon. On the one hand, Leonard could reason that although he (Leonard) hates Greek food, he’ll eat it because he knows Sheldon hates it even more. On the other hand, Leonard might reason that he (Leonard) hates Greek food, but he hates Sheldon more, so he’s willing to eat Greek in order to make Sheldon eat it too. I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers of the show even intended this ambiguity.

Karen Davis (aka The Ridger) sent me another example of an ambiguous VP ellipsis that hinges on the pronoun you. It’s exactly parallel to the Big Bang one, except that here, instead of finite clauses like I hate Greek food, we have a nonfinite “small clause”: your ex living with us. In her email, Karen wrote:

Today’s Tiny Seppuku answers a question from someone whose parents like her ex enough to let him live with them. … In one panel, the parents say to the woman: “Let us tell you how much we enjoy having your ex living with us instead of you.”

One reading has …your ex living with us instead of [your ex living with] you; the other has …your ex living with us instead of you [living with us] Both were plausible, because the strip is about someone whose parents like her ex so much that they’re letting him live in their home, in their daughter’s old room. At least in print, you’re left wondering which meaning is intended. However, if you actually heard it spoken, the ambiguity would probably disappear. They would say either “your EX living with us instead of YOU [living with us]” or “your ex living with US instead of [living with] YOU”, and the focal stress would make things clear.

You get this kind of ambiguity with ordinary noun phrases, too. In my dad’s logic textbook from his college days, there’s an example of spurious reasoning that takes advantage of it. A passage goes something like this:

A psychological survey has revealed that whereas the value Mr. Jones places on money is slightly more than the societal average, the value Mrs. Jones places on it is slightly less. We can predict, therefore, that Mr. and Mrs. Jones’s marriage is unlikely to last. How could it, when Mr. Jones loves money more than his wife?

Again, the stress could disambiguate the spoken sentence: “Mr. JONES loves money more than his WIFE” vs. “Mr. Jones loves MONEY more than his WIFE.” But you can also pronounce it with a carefully evened-out stress that leaves the ambiguity open, which is nice because it lets you make the joke and confound your unwary listeners.

Go ahead and distinguish between than I and than me if you want to. There may be times that there are two plausible meanings to distinguish, but if you’re dealing with anything other than I/me, he/him, she/her, we/us, they/them, you’ll have to disambiguate some other way.

Posted in Comics, Ellipsis, Prescriptive grammar, TV | 4 Comments »

Live TV

Posted by Neal on March 31, 2011

My brother Glen tweeted last Friday:

Hey #Fringe fans — let’s prove FOX right by watching live tonight, okay?

Fringe wasn’t doing a gimmick like ER did back in 1997, of airing an episode that had not been prerecorded. It was a regular episode like all the others. Glen meant to watch it as it was broadcast, not hours or days later on the DVR. I was interested to see him use live in this way, because I had been noticing one of the menu options on our newly installed cable TV system: “Watch Live TV”. That option doesn’t take you to a menu of live news and sports channels; it just gets you out of your programmable recordings and puts on the screen whatever TV show is on your current channel.

I was reminded of going to the gas stations in the late 1980s, when the term regular was shifting from meaning “with lead” to meaning “unleaded”, and unleaded was fading away. But unlike leaded gasoline, what I’ve thought of as live TV isn’t going away. There will still be breaking news and sports events broadcast as they occur, so I wonder how the speakers will accommodate with the term live TV.

The adjective live meaning “alive” has been around since the 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It serves a useful purpose because alive itself, like other adjectives beginning with a-, can’t go before the noun it modifies. Somewhere recently, I read a short paper arguing that such adjectives are distributionally the same as prepositional phrases, which in fact is how they arose in the first place: alive was originally on life. If you know what I’m talking about, leave a comment. And it wasn’t this paper in the current issue of Language, interesting though that is.

Alive and the adjective live are clearly related, of course. According to the OED, live arose from alive by a process called aphesis: “The gradual and unintentional loss of a short unaccented vowel at the beginning of a word”.

The phrase live TV had to have appeared only after the invention of TV, and for that matter, the adjective live meaning “not recorded” must have developed only after the invention of recorded sound. The OED gives this definition, dating it to 1934:

Of a performance, event, etc.: heard or watched at the time of its occurrence; esp. (of a radio or television broadcast, etc.) not pre-recorded.
1934 B.B.C. Year-bk. 248 Listeners have … complained of the fact that recorded material was too liberally used … but … transmitting hours to the Canadian and Australasian zones are inconvenient for broadcasting ‘live’ material.

Video cassette recorders have been available since the 1970s, but even in the heyday of video rental stores, I never noticed this shift in the meaning of live. According to the current Wikipedia article, digital video recording has been around since 1999,
but even so, the earliest use of live TV that I’ve found with the meaning of “TV programs watched at the time of broadcast” is from the San Francisco Chronicle in 2003:

Phone giant Sprint Corp. and a small Berkeley company today are introducing cell phone TV, a new service that brings wireless phone users live television broadcasts from networks like MSNBC, the California Music Channel and the Discovery Channel. (link)

Live TV could still have its older meaning in this example if they had mentioned just MSNBC, but I suspect that most of the programming on the California Music Channel and the Discovery Channel was pre-recorded.

As of 2010, the latest date in the Google News Archive, most examples of live TV in the first page of results has the older meaning. When I do the search on the main Google News site, about half the hits on the first page seem to have the older meaning. The success of smartphones and computers with the ability to stream and rewind video feeds seems to have pushed along the new meaning of live TV more than the existence of mere recording capability.

My prediction for the future of live with regard to TV is that we’ll have a retronym, possibly by way of contrastive reduplication: “Is this live live TV, live TV, or a recording?”

My wife and I DVR’d the Fringe episode, by the way. But at least we still watched it on Friday night!

Posted in Diachronic, Lexical semantics, TV | 14 Comments »

Semi-Literally

Posted by Neal on April 10, 2010

Over on Language Log, there’s a new post about the usage of literally, inspired by an xkcd strip. So this seems as good a time as any to bring up a couple of interesting literally examples I’ve heard in the last couple of months. Before I do, though, let me say that I don’t care that very, really, and truly have gone through the same semantic weakening that literally has undergone; I don’t care that literally has been used non-literally for hundreds of years. I admit these facts, but darn it, I want there to be a word that signals you’re not speaking figuratively, and literally is the best word for the job.

First, there was the time my wife had a sinus infection. At the end of one day during the peak of the infection, she told me

I went through a whole box of Kleenex — literally.

I was just about to say, “Wow, how did you make yourself small enough to go through it?” when I realized that the literally part wasn’t about the going through idiom, but about the whole box part. She hadn’t just used half the box, not just three quarters of it, but literally the whole box. So I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t want to look like an idiot, did I?

Then there were the promos for a TV special for the Penguins of Madagascar–the team of commando penguins from the two Madagascar movies. The special featured their (newly introduced) nemesis, Dr. Blowhole, a bottlenosed dolphin with a Picard-as-Borg-like eyepiece fitted over his right eye socket. One of the promos was this one:

That’s right: Near the end, one of the penguins says

No matter where we go, he’s always got his eye on us! Literally — He’s only got the one eye.

When the penguin (I think it’s the one named Kowalski) said “Literally,” I got the same kind of mental image I did when Jim Croce sang, “She caught my eye, and I put it back.” But then Kowalski finished with “He’s only got the one eye,” and I realized that the literally applied not to the part about having an eye on someone, but more specifically about an eye.

So for all you speakers like me, who use literally to mean that you’re not speaking figuratively or exaggerating, what do you think? Are these examples legitimate? Does literally have to scope over the entire sentence that it’s part of, or are we cool as long as it’s highlighting some part of the sentence as the literal truth?

UPDATE, Apr. 12, 2010: In first paragraph, put in link to Word Routes column that I forgot.

Posted in Kids' entertainment, Semantics, TV, You're so literal! | 7 Comments »

TV Show Mythology

Posted by Neal on February 2, 2010

As we’ve approached tonight’s final-season premiere of Lost, I’ve been thinking about the use of the word mythology to refer to the body of knowledge that is revealed over the course of many episodes for a TV show that has long-running story arcs. (I mentioned wanting to look into it a couple of posts back.) Not only has mythology developed a specialized meaning for weird TV shows, but that meaning is now spinning off its own idioms. Fans talk about “mythology episodes” of Lost, Fringe, and Alias (and their opposite, the “stand-alone episodes”). In last week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, resident Lost analyst Jeff Jensen talks about showrunners Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof realizing that a main character needed to “download a huge piece of our mythological puzzle” as they wrote an episode, and in a sidebar, the collocation of mythology and download appears again.

But where and when did our language acquire the specialized meaning of mythology that gave rise to terms like downloading mythology and mythology episode?

I first became aware of this meaning for mythology in reading articles in sources like EW about The X-Files in the 1990s, and since that time, the term has continued to be used primarily in discussions of … well, let me quote from Glen here. I asked him his thoughts on the term, from the perspective of someone in the business, and he had some good stuff. He wrote:

I think it’s still restricted mainly to shows with a fantastical element (that is, science fiction or fantasy)* in the long-term story arc. Grey’s Anatomy and The Sopranos may have long-term story arcs, but I doubt they get many people referring to their “mythology.”

Glen also had, I think, a better, more precise definition of this kind of mythology than mine. In his estimation,

“mythology” is being used to mean what we usually call “canon” — that is, facts and history that are established in text on the show, hence constituting a constraint on future storytelling.

Put that way, the definition isn’t so removed from one of the extended uses noted in the OED

c. In extended use: the received wisdom concerning a particular subject; the collective or personal ideology or set of beliefs which underpins or informs a particular point of view.

By this point, though, we’ve shifted far enough semantically from the original (or at least, earlier) meaning of mythology that it could equally well describe any show with this kind of “facts and history”, and it looks like it may be starting to. I was able to find a few hits for “Seinfeld mythology” and “Simpsons mythology” (although The Simpsons so self-consciously ignores previous episodes that using mythology when talking about it is almost a joke). And in fact, Glen found a handful for “{Sopranos, Nip/Tuck, Law & Order} mythology”. However, he found zero hits for “Grey’s Anatomy” mythology”, and I found zero for “Days of Our Lives mythology”.

Soap operas have the longest-running TV story arcs of all, so why wouldn’t mythology have developed its specialized meaning for them? One probable reason is that mythology started out with such a strong connnection to stories of the supernatural and fantastic that more-or-less realistic shows like soap operas weren’t fertile ground for such a meaning to develop. Glen has another plausible reason:

I also have a sense that “mythology” is used most often for shows that also have stand-alone episodes. That’s because fans (and creators!) need a means of referring to the special subset of episodes that deal directly with the long-term arc. This hypothesis certainly fits The X-Files and Fringe (and yes, we do refer to “mythology episodes” around the Fringe writers’ office). Lost may be an exception to this rule, inasmuch as almost every episode relates to the mythology.

In searching the Google Groups database among the alt.tv.* newsgroups, it does seem to have begun when I started noticing it, with The X-Files, in 1997 or 1998. But suspect I may not be mining this database in a way that will produce all the relevant texts, so I’m interested in your antedatings, if you have them. Commenter Stan Carey said he seemed to recall talking about Twin Peaks in terms of mythology (or maybe even “mythos”) in the early 1990s. On the other hand, posts like this post from “Devious Weasel” on alt.tv.x-files.analysis seems to point more toward a mid-90s origin:

Just dug out an old issue of Cinescape from the end of the third season [NW: this would be 1996] where [Chris Carter] is referring to the fact that [Gillian Anderson]‘s pregnancy forced 1013 to develop the mythology a little faster in the second season than they would have liked. For some reason I don’t think this is the earliest reference I’ve seen to the term, but it is the earliest I have available to me.

What are some other (scripted) shows you’d describe as having a mythology? What shows would you say don’t have one?

*Glen adds: “Interesting fact: in the industry, people commonly use the word ‘genre’ as an adjective that refers specifically to sci-fi, fantasy, and other ‘weird’ genres. Lost and Fringe are genre; Law & Order is not genre, even though you might think that ‘cop show’ is a genre.”

Posted in Diachronic, Lexical semantics, TV, Variation | 13 Comments »

 
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