Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Syntactic blending’ Category

Wet Hornets

Posted by Neal on September 18, 2013

Recycle Bin

Last Saturday morning, I drove out to pick up Adam from a sleepover at his friend R.J.’s house. It’s just inside the Columbus city limits, at the end of a dead-end street. I parked on the street, and as I got out of the van, there it was. Among the honeysuckle and poison ivy, tipped on its side with a ripped-off tree branch thrown on top of it, a few feet away from a No Dumping sign, I saw a blue, 30-gallon, wheeled recycle bin.

As it happens, I’ve been wanting a new 30-gallon wheeled recycle bin for quite some time. We’ve been using ours for at least ten years, and it has huge cracks down the back, which we have mended several times with duct tape. Even now, the cracks have ripped right through the third or fourth layer of tape. We could call for a new 30-gallon bin, but we’d have to rent it, because our city doesn’t issue those bins to residents anymore. They’re back to using the dinky red 10-gallon bins. But apparently, in Columbus, they’re still using them, and someone hadn’t wanted this one. I thought about these things as I walked up the driveway to ring the doorbell.

Ten minutes later, as Adam was buckling into his seat, I tried to get a closer look at the bin. No cracks in the side; both wheels in place as far as I could see. I picked my way through the weeds, placing my feet in the patches of ground where the poison ivy wasn’t, until I was close enough to open the lid. No dead bodies inside. No maggots. Not even a few random pieces of paper that had gotten stuck to the bottom of the bin. Just one still-bagged copy of the suburban newspaper. And what luck! I had driven the van that morning, because my wife had taken the car to run some errands.

I lifted up the bin and backed out of the weeds with it. I opened up the back of the van, collapsed the seats, and tried to fit the bin in the cargo area. It was too tall, so I turned it sideways and laid it on top of the collapsed seat backs. A clump of mud fell off one of the wheels onto the seat back.

“What are you doing, Dad?” Adam was asking me.

“I’m rescuing a recycle bin,” I said. I told him we didn’t need to let his mother know about it if she called. She’d want to know the details, and she’d be worried about what was in it and where it had been, and who it belonged to. She’d probably be remembering my story about when my friend Jason and I shared an apartment, and had furnished it with a couch we carried in from the curb. We sat on it that night while we watched a rented video. I kept feeling a stinging on my thigh, until I finally got up, removed the couch cushion, and saw a few dozen black ants crawling around on the base of the couch. My wife has always been disgusted by this story, even though I’ve told her that once Jason and I sprayed the couch with bug killer, everything was fine for the rest of the time we lived in that apartment. No, it would be better for her just to see the recycle bin, bright and almost-new, all cleaned up, sitting in our garage when she got home.

“There’s a bug flying around in here,” Adam said.

“No problem, when we get home and take the recycle bin out, it’ll fly away.”

At home, I wheeled the bin around to the side of the house and set to hosing it down. As I removed the newspaper from inside the bin, I noticed that there were also a few wasps in there that I hadn’t seen earlier. Should I get them to fly away by kicking the bin? Or should I just take the nozzle and start spraying the leaves and dirt at the bottom of the bin? Would spraying them with water make them more likely to attack? Probably so, I thought. After all, people probably didn’t say “Mad as a wet hornet” for nothing.

He's mad, but not particularly so.Wait a minute! People don’t say that! They say “Mad as a hornet” or “Mad as a wet hen“! If there had been live chickens in that recycle bin, maybe I’d have had a problem, but since it was just wasps, who cared? I turned on the nozzle.

I figured I couldn’t be the only one who had combined those two expressions, and it turns out I wasn’t.

Anyway, garbage day is tomorrow! Once that old recycle bin gets emptied, it’s time is done! Now I just have to figure out how to recycle the recycle bin. Maybe I can go the re-use route instead, and push it onto one of our neighbors who are still stuck using those crummy red bins…

Posted in Syntactic blending | 14 Comments »

Circumflatulation

Posted by Neal on November 17, 2010

One morning I stood at the sign-in sheet for late arrivals at Doug or Adam’s (not saying which) school office. “Time in,” the first column read. I entered 9:15. “Child’s name.” I entered that. “Reason for tardiness.” I looked at the entries for other late students: “dr’s appt”, “orthodontist”, one “overslept”. That last one came close to what I had in mind, but it still didn’t quite fit. I’d woken up my son in plenty of time to get ready for school. I wrote in the slot, “Dawdling”.

That’s not what I call it at home. There, the term is farting around, a term I learned from Dad years ago when he would tell people (I don’t seem to recall exactly who) to stop doing it.

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s earliest attestation is from 1900, although instead of farting around, it’s farting about, from the English Dialect Dictionary:

Go bon tha! thoo’s allus farten aboot, thoo’s warse ner a hen wi’ egg.

Fart around has been around since at least 1952, when it appears in from Leon Uris’s novel Battle Cry:

If the Army wants to fart around for six weeks, it’s their business.

I got this citation from the Wordwizard Clubhouse forum on word origins and meanings, in a post from just last month by Ken Greenwald, who attributes it to the Historical Dictionary of [American] Slang. Ken’s post was actually even more useful, because it also talked about our back-yard neighbors’ variant of fart around, the longer and alliterative fiddle-fart around, attested from the early 1970s. I assumed it was an idiom blend of fiddle around and fart around, and that’s what Greenwald’s sources say, too. (He cites HDAS and three other sources, but it’s unclear which one(s) offered this etymology.)

I said that at home I used the phrasal verb fart around, but actually that’s not entirely true. I use fart around when my wife isn’t present. She hates the word fart; it’s another of her word aversions like the one she has to the word pee. So out of necessity, I came up with circumflatulate as an alternative. I’m not claiming to have invented the word. A Google check confirmed that the word’s been around for a few years before I independently created it. One attestation on Google Groups is from 1994.

Having the verb circumflatulate at my disposal, I can certainly say, “Stop circumflatulating!”, but what would be even more useful would be a way to a noun form so that I can tell the boys before they get dressed in the morning, or go to brush their teeth at night not to circumflatulate. Don’t circumflatulate would work, but I wanted something that would fit in the template No __________! There’s always the gerund, of course: No circumflatulating!. But for variety, I’ve sometimes said, “No circumflatulation!” Circumflatulation? Why not circumflatulence, to fill out the analogy of flatulate : flatulence :: circumflatulate : _______? I find hardly any hits for circumflatulence. I guess it’s because flatulence is a personal characteristic, and so I would think of circumflatulence as a tendency to circumflatulate. Circumflatulation is the act of circumflatulating.

Having these Latin roots to work with not only has allowed me to tell Doug and Adam to quit farting around without offending my wife’s sensibilities; it’s allowed me to talk about farting around with greater precision. Not just because where Anglo-Saxon-derived English has just farting around, Latin-derived English has circumflatulating, circumflatulation, and circumflatulence — also because fart around doesn’t easily allow for an adjectival form: *He’s a really {farting-around, around-farting} dude. With the Latinate verb, I can easily generate an adjectival form, and tell you that Doug and Adam are rather circumflatulent at times. And with that, maybe I’ve succeeded in creating a word after all!

UPDATE, Nov. 17, 2010: The same goes for agentive nouns. The best you can do with fart around is the graceless farter-arounder, but with circumflatulate, the easy and obvious choice is circumflatulator

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Posted in Lexical semantics, Morphology, Potty on, dudes!, Syntactic blending | 5 Comments »

Who May I Ask Is Calling?

Posted by Neal on January 27, 2009

Enough of our light switches were making crackly noises when we flipped them that I decided it was time to call an electrician last Friday. I got their answering system, pressed 1 to make an appointment. I was then asked to press 1 for “Brian” if I was a residential customer, or 2 for someone else if I was a business customer. For a moment thought I was going to get to talk to someone in person, someone named Brian, when I pressed 1. It rang twice, and then went to more voice mail: “The person you are trying to reach is unavailable.” Well, shoot. And then, instead of asking me to press a button if I wanted to leave a message, the recorded voice asked:

Who may I ask is calling?

I had to hang up fast, to avoid leaving a recorded hangup as a message. I hate when I get those.

Once that moment of panic was past, I thought about the recorded voice’s question: Who may I ask is calling? Something about it wasn’t right. It was like a cross between two versions of the same basic question:

  1. Who may I say is calling?
  2. May I ask who’s calling?

Was Who may I ask is calling? a blend of the two? Then another possibility occurred to me. Maybe what I’d heard was this:

Who, may I ask, is calling?

In other words, just plain old Who is calling? with a parenthetical may I ask inserted, the same way as it’s been inserted in What, may I ask, is the meaning of this? and When, may I ask, do you intend to do your homework? I hadn’t heard intonational breaks before and after the may I ask, but maybe it’s such a common phrase that the distinctive intonation has been leveled.

Maybe I should back up. Why am I trying to find an explanation for this question? What is there to explain, anyway? What is so unusual about Who may I ask is calling??

Question formation turns out to be one of the trickier aspects of syntax, especially in languages that place their question words (commonly known as wh-words in English) in places other than where they’d go if they weren’t question words. For English, you need to make sure the rules can generate not just sentences like What did you buy?, but also What does he think you bought?, What do we want him to think you bought?, etc.

The rule is not as simple as saying the wh-word has to go at the beginning of the sentence. For instance, if there is more than one wh-word, it has to be determined which one goes to the front and which one stays in place. And when we say the wh-word is placed at the beginning of “the sentence,” what sentence do we mean? There’s no confusion when there’s only one subject and predicate we’re dealing with, in a sentence like What are you doing?. But in the sentence Tom wondered what I was doing, the what isn’t at the front of the sentence; it’s in the middle. The wh-word has to be at the front of the clause whose main verb is the one being asked about. In our last example, the speaker is not asking what Tom wondered. The speaker is telling what Tom wondered, and what follows wondered is the question. If we were to move the wh-word all the way to the front of this sentence, it would be nonsense: *What did Tom wonder I was doing.

If *What did Tom wonder I was doing is nonsense because the wh-word has been put in a clause where it doesn’t belong, then why isn’t Who may I ask is calling? nonsense, too? The who belongs to the clause headed by is calling, since that’s what is being asked about. Actually, maybe Who may I ask is calling? is nonsense to you. It’s nonsense to me if I try to parse it like an ordinary question. It makes sense only if I forget my usual rules of question syntax and jump straight to the pragmatics of the situation: The gatekeeper wants me to identify myself.

However, maybe this really is a new kind of question syntax in English for some speakers. It would be unlike any question syntax I know of from any other language, but it might be possible. To test out the possibility, I searched for syntactically similar constructions with other modals than may, and other pronouns than I, to get away from the may I ask idiom chunk. Searching for Who did he ask was calling and a few similar strings, I got absolutely zero hits with Google, and zero hits in the CoCA. So as I thought, this is most likely not some radical new English syntax. That leaves my original two hypotheses of syntactic blending, and intonational leveling of Who, may I ask, is calling? So what kind of evidence would favor one of these hypotheses over the other?

I’ll take a crack another crack at it in my next post, but in the meantime, here is a comparison of hits for Who may I say is calling?, May I ask who is calling?, and Who may I ask is calling? that I got when I searched Google Books. May I ask who is calling? also includes May I ask who’s calling?, and is by far the most popular, if what turns up in Google Books is representative of how people talk. Who may I say is calling? appeared in the 1940s, followed in the next decade by a single token of Who may I ask is calling?, and both phrasings have continued to grow, but run a distant second and third to May I ask who is calling? It’s suggestive that the possibly blended form Who may I ask is calling? only appeared after the putative source phrasings were in existence.whos-calling

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Posted in Diachronic, Syntactic blending, Variation | 11 Comments »

White Elephants in the Room

Posted by Neal on October 27, 2008

When I moved to central Ohio, a three-story downtown mall called City Center was the place to go. Across the street from it was an old-school five-story department store, a locally famous business named Lazarus. Connecting the two was an enclosed overhead walkway. I heard so many people say they’d done something or other or gotten such-and-such from City Center that I went to see the place myself. It was pleasant enough, although I didn’t appreciate having to pay to park there. Sixteen years later, City Center is an empty hulk, though it’s still open for people to walk through on their way to the Capital Theatre or the Hyatt on Capital Square after parking in the now-free garage. The Lazarus store across the street is closed, too. (Another Lazarus store has survived, at one of the suburban retail centers that helped kill City Center, but after a merger with Macy’s, it underwent a Cougar-to-Mellencamp-style name change, from Lazarus to Lazarus Macy’s to just Macy’s.) And as for the walkway between the old Lazarus and City Center, I have learned that it has long been considered an eyesore and a scary, gloomy barrier separating the Capital district from the southern part of downtown. I learned that from a newspaper story last week, which said that the walkway is scheduled to be demolished. In announcing the demolition of the walkway, Columbus mayor Michael Coleman also offered some comments about what should become of City Center, which the newspaper reported:

Acknowledging the mall as “the big white elephant in the room,” the mayor said its rebirth is a “marathon and not a sprint.” (Robert Vitale, “Walkway over High Street to bite dust,” The Columbus Dispatch, Oct. 23, 2008, p. B3)

“Big white elephant in the room”? Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ohioana, Semantics, Syntactic blending, Variation | 8 Comments »

More Idiom Blending

Posted by Neal on November 28, 2006

If you liked It’s not rocket surgery!, That’s the way the cookie bounces, under the eight ball and page-burners, then head on over to Noncompositional and check out this post from Russell Lee-Goldman, and this paper by Liz Coppock that he links to.

Posted in Syntactic blending | 2 Comments »

On the Cutting of Breaks

Posted by Neal on August 14, 2005

Today I read about a group of high-school kids in Pennsylvania who are facing felony charges for repeatedly circumventing various safeguards and barriers in order to use their school-issued laptop computers inappropriately. They’ve now put up a website where they present their side of the story, a main point of which seems to be that their bad behaviour is the school’s fault, since the administrators did not make it sufficiently difficult to hack the system. The linguistically interesting part is the name of the students’ website: CutUsABreak.org.

Cut them a break? I didn’t know you could do that. I thought you could give someone a break, but that if any cutting was to be done, it would be a cutting of slack. It looks like I was wrong, though; a Google search for “cut * a break” yields plenty of hits. Now you can mix or match, as you please:

Choose 1:Choose 1:
givea break
cutsome slack

I have now filed cut me a break along with

  • it’s not rocket surgery
  • the way the cookie bounces
  • back to day go
  • under the eight ball
  • my significant half
  • looking for fresh blood

in my list of idiom blends.

(BTW, if you want to read the school’s side of the “Cut Us a Break” story, you can find it here.)

Posted in Syntactic blending | 6 Comments »

Idiom Blending

Posted by Neal on December 19, 2004

Geoff Nunberg at Language Log has noticed what he judges to be a malapropism: the word page-burner , used to refer to an exciting new novel by Michael Crichton. The word the writer probably was searching for is page-turner; the word that sounded just similar enough and shared enough of the excitement-related semantics to cause the interference is barn-burner. I’m not sure I’d call this a malapropism, though. A malapropism is the inappropriate substitution of one actually existing word for a phonetically similar one–for example, testicle analysis instead of statistical analysis. As far as I know, page-burner was not an actually existing word that got used instead of page-turner. There are ~8400 hits for page-burner on Google, many of which refer to a particular kind of software, and some of which refer to what Nunberg and I would call a page-turner. But I found none that had some more legitimate earlier meaning of page-burner, unlike the situation with testicle and statistical. The only way I could call it a malapropism was if I just looked at the burner for turner substitution.

Of course, you could define the term malapropism to cover both kinds of situations, but I think the situation here happens often enough, and is different enough from the other kind of malapropism, to merit its own name. Justin Busch at Semantic Compositions ran across it back in January and was wondering if there was a name for it, having decided it was neither eggcorn nor snowclone. His example: It’s not rocket science + It’s not brain surgery = It’s not rocket surgery.

I commented at the time that I’d heard my high school English teacher use the phrase from day go, which I assumed was an error, blending from the word go (or from the get-go) and from day one. Now that I check on Google, I see that he wasn’t the only one to say from day go, though I’m not sure if I’m seeing a robust enough presence to call it a part of some people’s language, or continue to consider it a production error:

  • from day one: 1,030K
  • from the word go: 101K
  • from the get-go: 396K
  • from day go: ~32

To refer to this kind of mixing of words from two phonetically and semantically similar multi-word expressions, I will use the term idiom blending. And here’s the most recent example of idiom blending that I came across. Only a couple of weeks before Nunberg’s page-burner catch, a friend of mine sent me a message telling me to wish my significant half a happy birthday, and to be sure to bake her a cake. (I’m off the hook for that, since her mom made her one when we visited for Thanksgiving!) I think significant half still falls on the error side of the ledger: As opposed to the 633K hits for significant other, and the 266K for better half, there were only 5K hits for significant half, and most of them really were talking about math. The only other attestation of significant half that I found was this meaning was this one, but it came from a Singaporean web site:

The single biggest fear of every spouse after being stood up at the altar is: your new significant half taking leave the next day and not coming back.

I’m betting that any time you have two syntactically and semantically similar idioms, there will be some idiom blending out there somewhere. So far, the only example that’s attested enough that we could reasonably call it part of the language instead of dismissing it as an error or a joke is Busch’s rocket surgery, which got 4820 Google hits. (It’s not brain science got about 260.) But I’ll be looking for others. In fact, I’ll look for one right now, one that I’ve never heard before. Let’s check Google to see if behind the eight ball and under the gun get us under the eight ball….

  • behind the eight ball: 37.1K
  • under the gun: 180K
  • under the eight ball: ~43

(Behind the gun has too prominent a literal meaning for me to do a meaningful check for it.) Hmm, not too impressive.

Well, no more time to look for more of these now. But if you notice some, or think of some to check out yourselves, let me know!

UPDATE: Mark Liberman at Language Log writes that there is already a name for this kind of mixing, coined in a paper by Cutting and Bock. The name is… idiom blend. Oh, well, great minds, you know. Read Liberman’s post for a link to the paper and a summary.

Posted in Syntactic blending | 8 Comments »

 
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