Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Irregular verbs’ Category

I Fruck Out

Posted by Neal on August 13, 2010

If you’ve clicked over here after reading my guest script for Grammar Girl on swearing, thanks for visiting! You might enjoy browsing the categories Taboo and Potty On, Dudes!

It’s funny that that episode should have gone out today, in light of a turn the conversation took at lunch today. Doug was telling Adam about making his way past some guards in a videogame, and mentioned how he “snuck” past them. That reminded me of various discussions I’ve read about the word snuck, like this one at Language Log, and this one from Sentence First (which I linked to a few months ago). The interesting thing about it, I told Doug and Adam, is that it’s a verb that started out with a regular past tense, sneaked, and recently developed an irregular one, instead of the more usual opposite direction.

“The subject came up on Twitter,” I said, “and one guy said something like…”

Turns out ‘snuck’ is a relatively recent Americanism. When I learned that, I totally fruck out.
(From dbarefoot)

“That sounds too much like the F-word,” Adam said.

“You’re right. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t caught on,” I said. In writing the Grammar Girl episode, I wanted to say something about this phenomenon of taboo words contaminating phonetically similar but semantically and etymologically unrelated words, such as feck, niggardly, or Uranus, but had to cut the material for length considerations. It’s interesting that taboo can have such an effect, but it doesn’t always take, as attested by the continued use of words such as ship, sheet, puck, fact, fax, flack, flak, and fleck. (Although the phonetic resemblances have certainly served as the basis for taboo-related puns, like “Let’s make like a hockey player, and get the puck out of here!”) As far as I know, no one has a good explanation for the occasional absence of this taboo effect.

In the same vein, if a word’s multiple meanings include a taboo meaning, that meaning can come to drive out the non-taboo meanings. This can happen whether the word in its taboo sense is actually considered vulgar (for example beaver), or socially acceptable (for example, arouse). Linguistics textbooks will sometimes point out the case of cock and ass, whose jobs had to be taken over by rooster and donkey. But on the other hand, hello, dam, damage and damp haven’t suffered.

The ironic thing is that even people who have no problem with using actual cuss words will often avoid taboo-contaminated words. Are there words you won’t use because they sound too close to an obscenity, a profanity, or even an acceptable word for a taboo topic?

Posted in Adam, Doug, Irregular verbs, Taboo | 10 Comments »

Sinking Your iPod

Posted by Neal on March 6, 2009

Sync, sank, sunk
Doug wanted me to sync his iPod yesterday so he could get some of the Monty Python sketches on there that I’ve been ripping from old records and downloading from iTunes. (At least, the Monty Python sketches that his mother is OK with him listening to.)

“OK, all synced,” I said as I handed it to him. It occurred to me that Doug and probably thousands of other kids had no idea that sync was a clipped form of synchronize, generalized from its meaning of coordinating actions to occur simultaneously to a meaning of making sure two items carry the same information. As far as he knew, the verb might just be sink, with past tense sank and past participle sunk. He’s only recently gotten much use out of the iPod he got a year or so ago, so I haven’t had the opportunity to hear how he forms the past forms, but I was curious enough that I did some Googling when I got back to the computer, and sure enough…

Some speakers out there aren’t sure what the past tense should be:

  • Against my will (my friend didn’t like MY music..grr) my friend sunk (?) my iPod with her iTunes.
  • So whenever I synced (sunk?) my iPod I’d have all my random musical shittings to listen to without really having to think about it much.

Others know that an irregular past tense for sync is a bit iffy, and explain it or highlight it as unusual:

  • But the program wouldn’t transfer every song, so I was waiting until I could figure out how to get the rest of my songs on my new computer before I sunc (past tense of sync) the ipod.
  • Another entry in the Buck Family Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language: sanc (verb, past tense), “to sync”, as in, “You sanc my iPod!”

Still others, as I suspected, use the irregular forms apparently with no idea that anything is amiss:

  • last night when i sank my ipod i got the message to update the ipod software
  • I did correct the album artist fields and deleted those comments and re-sunk my iPod and still those double albums appear.
  • I made my own account and transferred all of my songs on it, it worked great but when i sunk my ipod it deleted all of my songs that i previously bought.
  • Mel is gonna get Rose cuz she sunk my IPOD!
  • i haven’t sunk my ipod for a long time for this very reason.

This innovation seems to be pretty new, since I only get a handful of pages, and most of the hits are from 2008 and 2009. However, it probably predates the iPod, since the iPod is not the first device to require syncing. The earliest hit I got was from June 2007, when I did a search for “past tense of sync” without including the word iPod, and found this mini-rant on a thread in a grammar forum:

Incredibly, people in my office use “sunk” as the past-tense of “synch” or “sync”. All day long, they tell each other (and our software users) that they “sunk” the data. “The data is sunk!”
Can they not hear how ridiculous that sounds? Because these of course are all computer scientists, engineers and database analysts, the question of how to offer an alternative or delicately point out that it’s bad P.R. to go around saying the system is “sunk” is a good one.

This irregularization of sync is a good example of folk etymology, or (because it hasn’t become fully established yet) an eggcorn: People misunderstand the verb sync, but you don’t realize it until they use it in the past tense. Of those who use sank and sunk as past tenses, probably at least some have created some abstract meaning for sink that makes sense, like thinking of the songs as being sunk into, embedded, in their iPods. I don’t see it in the Eggcorn Database yet; the closest is lip-sing for lip-sync(h). Remind me to submit it later today.

Of course, when I said that kids probably had sank as the past tense of sync and sunk as the past participle, I was being hopelessly unrealistic. What they probably have (and the examples above bear witness to this) is sank for both forms , or sunk for both forms , or sank and sunk in free variation. What I’d love to hear is a parent correcting their child: “You ‘sunk’ your iPod? I think you mean you sank your iPod. Today I sync it, yesterday I sank it, I have just now sunk it.” Actually, it would drive me nuts to hear that, but it’s fun to imagine it.

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Posted in Folk etymology, Irregular verbs | 6 Comments »

Retrofit and Reverse Engineer: Shameful Synonymy

Posted by Neal on June 24, 2008

A year after I finished reading volume 1, volume 2, and volume 3 of the Harry Potter books to Doug and Adam, I decided we were ready to take on volume 4. I didn’t read this one aloud, though. It was too long and had too many characters in need of distinct voices for me to want to tackle it. Instead, we let a professional do it, and during our car rides for a month or so, listened to Jim Dale reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on CD. In one passage, Harry and his friends are on their way to Hogwarts, and overhear their enemy Draco Malfoy in one of the compartments in the Hogwarts Express:

“…Durmstrang takes a far more sensible line than Hogwarts about the Dark Arts. Durmstrang students actually learn them, not just the defense rubbish we do….” (p. 165)

It’s been a few months since we finished listening to Goblet of Fire, but I found myself remembering that line while I read a section of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, by Philip Zimbardo (2007). Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Backformation, Diachronic, Irregular verbs, Lexical semantics | 6 Comments »

He Grit His Teeth

Posted by Neal on March 24, 2007

A while back, I wrote about the regular past tense of pet becoming irregular for many people, so that instead of saying petted, they just say pet. In this way, pet extends the pattern exhibited by other monosyllabic verbs ending in -et: let, set, bet. Commenters added that they had heard past tenses of net and sweat formed the same way, with the past-tense form identical to the base form. Broadening out, I pointed out some monosyllabic verbs ending in -t, with vowels other than /&epsilon/ (aka “short E”) in the middle, and identical base and past-tense forms. One of these vowels was /I/ (aka “short I”), and the examples I mentioned were slit and hit; I should also add quit and split. Others have both regular and irregular past-tense forms, including fit, knit, spit, and shit. Well, now it looks like these verbs, like the -/εt/ family, have formed enough of a pattern to attract regular verbs into their orbit. I realized this when I was listening to another episode of “This American Life”, entitled “The Allure of the Mean Friend,” and heard Jonathan Goldstein say:

Jackie turned back around and I grit my teeth, vowing not to let a single cough escape my mouth. (8.52-8.57)

I paid 95 cents for this episode because it was one from the archives, but when I looked for a link to it, I saw that they’re airing it again this week, which means all you lucky readers can download it for free for a few days. (Darn it, I want my 95 cents back!) Anyway, it looks like for Goldstein, the past tense of grit is grit. It hasn’t made it into the Merriam-Webster online dictionary yet, but this speaker isn’t alone: the phrase he grit his teeth gets a small number of Google hits (518); she grit her teeth 5820 Google hits. By comparison, he gritted his teeth gets 37,200 hits; she gritted her teeth, 21,700.

Posted in Diachronic, Irregular verbs | 1 Comment »

The Irregularization of Pet

Posted by Neal on August 25, 2006

Last week I read this book to Doug and Adam, about a woman with sixty cats. About halfway through, it said:

When nighttime came, old Mrs. Brown
Put sixty bowls of cat food down
Then pet each cat upon the head
And marched herself straight up to bed

I remembered back when Adam was in speech therapy, and I heard his therapist do the same thing: use pet instead of petted as the past tense/past participial form of pet, when she asked him, “Have you ever pet a cat?” A couple of years later, I heard someone else use pet instead of petted, and now here it was again, in writing, in a (presumably) carefully edited book for kids. I pointed it out to my wife, and she told me (without shame) that she did it, too. (How did I manage to miss that for all these years?)

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cats, Diachronic, Irregular verbs | 17 Comments »