Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

August Links

Posted by Neal on August 11, 2009

Last month, I wrote about fail and other words becoming mass nouns, as in bucket of fail or made of awesome. If you found that interesting, be sure to read a couple of items from Ben Zimmer. First is his fuller discussion of fail in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine, as he subs for William Safire. The other is his latest Word Routes column, where he gives some details that didn’t make it into the NYTM article. Also, he makes a simple yet insightful observation that ties together the various verbs, adjectives, or interjections that are doing duty as mass nouns: They all were interjections before making the shift to mass noun. And finally, Zimmer clears up something I’d been wondering about: In my post on the topic (which he kindly links to), I mentioned a line from the movie Juno: “That’s a big, fat bag of no!” I tried to find the line in the script to make sure I had it right, but “bag of no” didn’t get me any hits. Zimmer was smart enough to try the phrase “sack of no”, and found that the actual line was indeed “That’s a big, fat sack of no!”

Next, Dr. Goodword asks, “Why is a person who is half white and half black, black? Why is Halle Berry the first ‘African American’ female actor to receive an Academy Award? Why is President Obama a black president? Where is the logic here?” I’ve wondered about this, too.

My brother Glen, who is busy writing for the second season of Fringe, went to a seminar held by the FBI for the benefit of screenwriters. He now reports a semantic shift in the verb forfeit in FBI jargon. Specifically, the subject of forfeit gains something rather than lose it. Don’t believe me? Read his post at Agoraphilia and find out how it happened.

You’ve probably wondered on occasion why the inverted-question contraction of am not is aren’t, as in Aren’t I? If so, read David Crystal’s sketch of the development of aren’t I.

And for a limited time only, you can listen to Stephen Fry‘s BBC Radio miniseries “English Delight”. This week’s episode, the first of three, is “So Wrong It’s Right”. (Hat tip to Damien Hall on the American Dialect Society email list.)


5 Responses to “August Links”

  1. The Ridger said

    The logic is that a drop of dirt makes the water impure, so a drop of black makes the white person, well, black.

    Contrast this with Australia’s erstwhile plan to “breed the black out in four generations”… Both are kind of creepy, but they come at it from different angles.

  2. Deborah said

    I saw that Ben Zimmer article and thought of you.

    Jim Crow laws were specifically designed to make sure that anyone with black blood was treated as black. Halle Berry or Barack Obama would not be seated at the white lunch counter in the 1950s.

  3. Ran said

    I think the half-black+half-white=black thing makes some sense from a white perspective. For example, I’ve read — and well believe — that when a pidgin forms, speakers of either parent language tend to view it as being derived mostly from the other one. We tend to notice differences from ourselves more than similarities.

    Seeing as white people are a large majority in the U.S., with cultural, economic, and frequently legal dominance, it makes sense that the white perspective would be imposed on everyone else: since half-black, half-white people were (and are) subject to all the same racism as people of solely black ancestry, they end up “black” in a social/cultural sense.

  4. Viola said

    Neal, is a great website to check out free scripts. I didn’t catch the “sack of no” phrase from that particular blog…
    I think trying to categorize a half-black, half-white person makes about the same sense as trying to separate an intersexual into whatever sex you think they should be, even though the intersexual is clearly both sexes. The majority of humans find great comfort in labeling, because “different” is uncomfortable. Ultimately this attitude divides us as a society.

  5. Ellen K. said

    Seems to me that a person of mixed black/white parentage or ancestry is both black and white. So, the question isn’t why are they black. It’s why are they not also white.

    And, it’s late, so I’ll have to remember to come back and check out the links in the morning.

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