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”.