Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

June Links

Posted by Neal on June 26, 2009

Michael Erard writes about linguists’ efforts to document previously unknown (to linguists) Chinese languages. For years, all the Chinese languages have been conveniently but inaccurately referred to as one language. Although they’re mutually unintelligible when spoken, they use the same written characters and are mutually intelligible in written form. Linguists knew this, but what apparently was not fully appreciated until now was many different languages there really are, hiding underneath this confusing naming tradition.

The first time I heard the expression fish or cut bait, I judged from the context that it was more or less equivalent to shit or get off the pot, and from there forced cut bait to be the functional equivalent of get off the pot. To do that, I supposed that in fishing jargon, cut bait meant to snip a piece of fishing line that was hopelessly caught on something underwater, thereby giving up hope of catching a fish with it. Wrong! Jan Freeman shows the history of this phrase, including the fact that earlier versions were in three parts: fish, cut bait, or go home, with cut bait apparently having a literal meaning of cutting bait in preparation for use in fishing. The original figurative meaning, then, was not so much “Do your business or quit” as “Do your business, help me do my business or quit.”

You may have read about this on Languagehat or Language Log, but it’s worth a mention here in case you haven’t. Erin McKean’s new online dictionary project, called Wordnik, and its purpose is to try to give not only a definition for every word, but also how they’re used in collocations and contexts. In an ordinary dictionary, you can read definitions of cake and pie, but not know why many English speakers would consider it an error to tell someone, “If I’d known you were coming, I’d have baked a pie.” With Wordnik, you’d know that cake, not pie, was the actual usage in this idiom. I burned up about ten minutes on there trying to find a word that no one had looked up before, finally succeeding with echinoderm. Erin informs me that this is called “scoring a wordnik”.

8 Responses to “June Links”

  1. For “fish, cut bait, or go home”, compare to the more direct “lead, follow, or get out of the way”.

  2. Ran said

    When Wordnik says, “This word has been looked up once”, does that include my looking it up, or would it actually say “zero times” if it had never previously been looked up? If the former, then I scored with “disfranchisement”. It’s surprisingly difficult; they give the impression that only about 1% of their words have been looked up, but I guess that 1% includes almost all the words I know!

  3. OK, so I’m looking at Wordnik’s pages on bake, cake and pie, but I don’t see that idiom mentioned anywhere. What am I missing?

    • Neal said

      OK, you caught me. I only thought of that example after I’d done my poking around on the site, and upon reflection on how Wordnik was trying to improve on other dictionaries. It seemed to me that this was the kind of thing that they were trying to be able to do, but I didn’t actually look up cake and pie. I apologize for misleading you.

  4. syz said

    Thanks for the Michael Erard link — fascinating stuff. One minor point about the writing of Chinese languages: Rather than saying they “are mutually intelligible in written form” it’s more accurate to say simply that most of the languages of Chinese are not written, period. While there are some — e.g. Cantonese is perhaps the most often written — it’s also true than when Cantonese is written as Cantonese (rather than simply translated into Mandarin), mutual intelligibility is minimal. For a few very short written examples in the Shanghainese dialect of Wu (one of the language groups of Chinese), see this post on Kellen Parker’s Wu blog.

  5. Honestly, I’m not very impressed with Wordnik as yet, but there’s time for it to improve. The statistics, which in theory would be a very interesting feature, tend to be completely implausible (to give one example among thousands, hands up everyone who encounters the word “solitaire” only once a year). And even if they were accurate, they’re not very useful without any comments on regional variation, etc.

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