Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

November Links

Posted by Neal on November 11, 2008

A few years ago, I began to notice the idiom phoning it in in Entertainment Weekly, used to describe an actor delivering a lackluster performance. I wondered how long that usage had been around, and now Ben Zimmer has traced the history of phoning it in in this Word Routes column.

The word bachelor is often used in introductions to lexical semantics to open a discussion of exactly how much of what we know about a word should be considered part of its definition. The Virtual Linguist gives a short and entertaining presentation on this topic when she asks, “Is the Pope a bachelor?”

Let’s say it’s Wednesday and I want to talk about what I did on Monday. Would I refer to the day as last Monday or this past Monday? Neither! I’d just say Monday, and let the past tense do the rest. But what if I want to talk about something I did on the Monday before that one as well as what I did on the most recent Monday? Would it be last Monday and this past Monday, or the Monday before last and last Monday? I’m pretty sure it couldn’t be last Monday and this Monday: for me, this X-day has to refer to a day that is both in the current calendar week and in the future. So this Monday could only be used one day out of every week (Sunday) if you’re using the calendar with Sunday as the first day of the week. But wait — by that logic, this Sunday could never be said felicitously, and I’m sure I’ve said this Sunday on occasion. A similar problem comes up with this as opposed to next. Ryan Denzer-King briefly explores this issue on his blog, even going so far as to look up next in the OED.

What’s the difference between in spite of and despite. When I taught ESL, I told students they were interchangeable. But Gabe Doyle at Motivated Grammar made me nervous when he wrote, “I didn’t know of any difference between the two, but there’ve been a lot of words that I didn’t know meant different things until I’d already spent years confusing them.” So he went and found out whether in spite of and despite actually synonyms.

One day in preschool, I was sitting alone on a swing, looking at the striped shirt I was wearing. I wondered: Why did Mom call it a “stripid” shirt, with two syllables? I had no problem saying stupid with two syllables, because it was monomorphemic. OK, I didn’t know the word monomorphemic, but I knew that stupid was a “one-piece” word. Striped, though, was clearly made up of the word stripe and the ending. Following Mom’s example, I’d been pronouncing it her way — [straIpɘd] — but I’d been getting more and more uneasy every time I said the word that way instead of the way that matched the patterns I’d learned with other words in the language: [straIpt]. Sitting there on the swing, I decided that from then on, I would no longer pronounce striped with two syllables. Henceforth, it would be [straIpt]. And by golly, I stuck to that resolution! But I never made a similar correction to crooked, naked, wicked or other words. Shoot, I never even corrected legged from [lɛgɘd] to [lɛgd] in my language, and that one clearly had the word leg in it, just like striped had stripe. I guess I’m not so principled after all. I’ve wondered why some words retain this -ed instead of reducing it to [d] or [t], and now Mark Liberman explains it. You can find the same basic explanation presented a bit differently in section 6.3.1 (pp. 155-158) in Heidi Harley’s English Words: A Linguistic Introduction.

But you know what? Neither Liberman nor Harley explains why the adjective striped would retain two syllables. For more on that matter, follow this thread on the American Dialect Society email list.

In the links collection from a couple of months ago, I included a post from Arnold Zwicky on the backformed verb gay marry. He’s written some more about this kind of backformation, this time with the verbs (to) early vote and (to) absentee vote. If you like those, you can search the archives here for serial kill, underage drink, fence-sit, arm-flap, problem-solve and others under the Backformation tab.

2 Responses to “November Links”

  1. Glen said

    For some reason, I have always associated the phrase “phoning it in” with O.J. Simpson, who famously did his court-ordered anger management therapy by cell phone while playing golf.

    Oddly, many of my students seem completely unfamiliar with this phrase. On a couple of occasions I’ve observed that a lot of students had “phoned it in” on the term papers, and gotten only quizzical looks from the class. So I’ve followed up with, “Do you know what I mean by that?” and again gotten only shrugs and blank stares. But maybe they really understood and were just phoning it in that day.

  2. smakam said

    I think, when you say “this x-day” it means the first occurrence of that x-day in the future.. and not necessarily belonging to the ‘week-which-begins-with-Sunday’..

    So, on Friday, if you say, “This Tuesday”, it means the day 3 days after Friday..

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