Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Kicks for Kooks

Posted by Neal on December 30, 2016

Keck Observatory

One of the things I didn’t mention in my review of John McWhorter’s Words on the Move was his use of minimal pairs to explore the vowels of English. A minimal pair is a pair of words or phrases that are identical in every aspect but one, chosen so as to illustrate how this one aspect results in a difference in meaning or grammaticality. For example, most English speakers find the sentence What and where will I sleep? ungrammatical, but if we change just one word, by replacing the verb sleep with the verb teach, the sentence improves for many speakers: What and where will I teach? This fact can then be used as evidence for your analysis of the syntax of wh-questions, or the semantics of verbs, or maybe other theoretical questions. In phonology, minimal pairs target not words, but speech sounds. So for example, we know that the vowels /ʌ/ and /ʊ/ are two different vowels in English, as opposed to variant pronunciations of the same vowel, because words such as putt [pʌt] and put [pʊt] mean different things. (If this seems obvious to you, consider that /ʌ/ and /ʊ/ really were variants of a single vowel at one time, when blood rhymed with could.)

McWhorter tried to do this with all the English vowels at once, assembling what I guess you could call a minimal series of words, all of the form /bVt/, where V stands for any vowel. Here’s the series he used:

  1. /i/ beet
  2. /ɪ/ bit
  3. /e/ bait
  4. /ɛ/ bet
  5. /æ/ bat
  6. /u/ boot
  7. /ʊ/ book
  8. /o/ boat
  9. /ɔ/ bought
  10. /ɑ/ baht
  11. /ʌ/ but

His series isn’t perfect; notice that book breaks the pattern. As McWhorter explains, “There is, in general, no series of words that all begins with the same consonant and end with some same other one that includes every single one of the possible vowels in between.” This may also explain why for the last item in the list, McWhorter chose the marginally English word baht, the name of the Thai unit of currency. If he hadn’t, he would have had to choose the English bot, which refers to either an internet app for repetitive tasks or a botfly larva, and maybe he thought these concepts were more likely to require explanation than Thai money. Of course, if you’re among the many speakers who have the cot/caught merger, bought, bot, and baht all sound the same anyway.

So as you can see, trying to find these minimal series provides plenty of excitement, thrills, and surprises. One series that I’ve thought about now and again is the one consisting of monosyllables beginning and ending with /k/. I guess it started when I was a kid, and first heard the insult kook /kuk/. I found it fascinating that in writing, this word was distinguished from the word cook /kʊk/ not by changing the double-O in the middle, but by replacing the C with a K! In writing this post, I’ve also discovered that in addition to referring to a crazy person, kook is also a term for a clueless surfer wannabe.

As a teenager, I learned the verb cack (out) /kæk/ from this George Carlin bit on death (starting at 7:43)–

–but I’ve never actually heard anyone else use this expression, and I haven’t found it in dictionary searches. That’s OK though, because cack can also mean “a baby’s heelless shoe with a soft leather sole,” as well as “shit”.

Years later, as a homeowner, I noticed that the plumbers and handymen we’ve dealt with prefer to talk about sealing countertops and windows with caulking instead of just plain caulk. Knowing about the cot/caught merger mentioned above, I suspect that they’re trying to avoid the potentially embarrassing ambiguity of a cock/caulk merger, whether because they’ve merged those vowels or their customers may have. In any case, for speakers who maintain a distinction between /ɑ/ and /ɔ/, cock /kɑk/ and caulk /kɔk/ belong in the series.

Filling in the rest of the series, some easy ones are kick /kɪk/, cake /kek/, and coke /kok/, but after those, the going gets tougher. Even so, in the past few years I’ve been pleased to see the rest of the series emerging. I learned about the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. And it turns out that keek is a word used in Northern England and Scotland, meaning to “peep or look furtively”. Apparently, it’s also the name of a Vine-like social medium that I never heard about until I looked it up while writing this post.

Only one last, holdout vowel kept my “K” minimal series incomplete: the mid-central vowel /ʌ/. So close, but alas, cuck is not an English word. Or … is it?

  1. /i/ keek
  2. /ɪ/ kick
  3. /e/ cake
  4. /ɛ/ Keck
  5. /æ/ cack
  6. /u/ kook
  7. /ʊ/ cook
  8. /o/ coke
  9. /ɔ/ caulk
  10. /ɑ/ cock
  11. /ʌ/ cuck

It is! Thanks to the recent surging popularity of speech attacking feminism and the politically correct people who believe in it, I’ve learned that cuck is indeed an English word, and has been since at least 2007. It’s a clipping of cuckold, an archaic-sounding but still-current term for a man whose wife has extramarital sex. Cuckold is etymologically related to cuckoo, the connection being that just as cuckoos force their unwitting victims to provide for the cuckoo’s offspring, so a “cuckoo’d” man might end up caring for another man’s child. In an interesting connection to another item in the series, kook might also derive from cuckoo by clipping. But shortening cuckold to cuck isn’t the end of the story. The new development for 2016 is summed up in this article from GQ:

The word gained political potency during the 2016 election in the portmanteau “cuckservative” (cuck + conservative) used to imply that the mainstream conservatives of the Jeb Bush variety are weak and effeminate. Donald Trump, on the other hand, is not a cuckservative. He says what he wants and doesn’t care if it’s offensive. In reference to Trump’s comments about Megyn Kelly having “blood coming out of her wherever,” radio host Rush Limbaugh snarked, “If Trump were your average, ordinary, cuckolded Republican, he would have apologized by now.”

But Donald Trump doesn’t apologize. He went on to win the Republican presidential nomination as Jeb Bush, the one-time favorite, was irrevocably set back by a simple insult from Trump delivered with an invisible wink: “low-energy.”

Since The Donald bested the field of cuckservatives with his manly virility and full head of hair, those who couldn’t see a good insult go to waste have continued to use it in its shortened form–cuck–which applies first to anyone supporting Hillary, but also anyone who would challenge Donald Trump on his spelling, his logic, or his facts.

Read the rest of the GQ article for some other interesting history and analysis. But just to recap the word’s morphological history, cuckold gave us cuck via clipping, which gave us cuckservative via blending, which has now given us cuck once again, via another clipping. Lovely! Inflammatory and hateful language has completed our /kVk/ minimal series.

Posted in Morphology, Politics, Portmanteau words, Vowels | 12 Comments »

All or Nothing On the Field

Posted by Neal on November 13, 2016

Last Wednesday, as I watched Hillary Clinton’s concession speech, she told her campaign workers:

You left it all on the field, every single one of you.

On the other hand, the week before, Cleveland Indians coach Terry Francona said this about their historic World Series run that ended in a loss with game seven:

To be associated with those players in that clubhouse, it is an honor and I just told them that it’s going to hurt. It hurts because we care. But they need to walk with their heads held high because they left nothing on the field. That’s all the things we ever ask them to do. They tried until there was nothing left.

So which is it? Do you leave everything on the field, or nothing on the field? The expression I’m used to is Leave everything on the field or Leave it all on the field. And in fact, this is the original phrasing. In a thread on the American Dialect Society email list, Ben Zimmer linked us to this post by etymologist Barry Popik, who wrote:

To “leave everything on the court/ice/field” is to give total effort, to the point of exhaustion. Nothing is held in reserve for a future contest.

“It was evident the Giants had left it all on the field” was cited in print in 1961.

“After the game, if you can say that you left everything on the field and if you had it to do over again tomorrow, you couldn’t have done it any better—then and only then is there no disgrace in losing,” a high school football coach said in 1966.

“Our kids gave everything they had. They didn’t leave a thing off the field, they left it all on the field,” a college football coach said in 1969. The now-common expression is not known to have any particular author.

The first example of leave nothing on the field that I’ve been able to find is from November 10, 2000:

South River left nothing on the field in final loss

Hits are kind of scarce after that, but pick up again from 2007 onwards. I wondered if it might have been spread by a book by Tim Irwin called Run with the Bulls without Getting Trampled, published in 2006, which had this passage:

…the head coach of the opposing team walked across the field directly toward us. He turned to me and said, “Sir, may I speak with your son?”

I moved away as he put his hands on my son’s shoulders and looked directly into his reddened eyes. Barely audible to me, I heard the coach pay this young player the supreme compliment. “Son, tonight you left nothing on the field. You gave it your all, and it was an honor to play against you.”

However, I think the increase in nothing-variants probably had more to do with a 2007 Nike TV commercial called “Leave Nothing”, brought to my attention by ADS-L contributor Wilson Gray:

So how did we get from leaving everything on the field to leaving nothing, without even a stop at 75%, or 33%? My suspicion is that it’s an idiom blend between leave everything on the field and hold nothing back, or maybe leave nothing in the locker room, which I’ve found as early as 2005. Alternatively, it could be some confusion with the business expression leave money on the table, which you don’t want to do. That seems to be this blogger’s understanding, except that he thinks leave money on the table is related to poker.

How can this expression and its complete opposite both express the same idea? As far as my family members are concerned, they could care less.

Posted in Politics, Sports, Syntactic blending | 5 Comments »

The Flesh-Presser

Posted by Neal on August 16, 2015

“So you’re going to be at the Tomato Festival?” Doug asked me. That would be the Reynoldsburg Tomato Festival, our own addition to the list of small-town festivals celebrating odd things. In nearby towns we have the Circleville Pumpkin Show and the Millersburg Sweet Corn Festival, but here in Reynoldsburg we honor the tomato.

In any case, yes, I was going to the Tomato Festival, not so much because I’m a big fan of tomatoes (they’re OK in a salad or sandwich, or chili or spaghetti sauce), but because like many such festivals, it’s an opportunity for political candidates to get out and meet a lot of people, and during the teacher strike in our school district last year, I decided to run for a seat on the Board of Education.


In elementary school it was Neal the Banana Peel

“Yep,” I said. “I reckon I’ve got to get out there and press the flesh, as they say.”

“What?!” Doug said. “What do you mean?”

“You know, going out and shaking lots of people’s hands,” I answered.

“Ugh, don’t say that. It sounds obscene!”

“Really?” I asked. I searched for the term on my phone, and the first hit that came up was an Urban Dictionary definition. If there really was an X-rated meaning for press the flesh, this would be the place to find it. But the most popular definition read:

To meet people in person, particularly at an event where you can network with other people. The actual pressing of flesh here refers to shaking hands with people.

All the other definitions said essentially the same thing. Later, at the Tomato Festival, while Doug was off with his girlfriend and some of their friends, I saw her mother and father and told them the story. Her mother laughed. “Just because his mind’s in the gutter…!”

The girlfriend’s father, whom I”ll call Mr. J, just chuckled and wished me well as I went to continue my flesh-pressing.

Or at least, that’s all he did in my presence. When he caught up with Doug and his daughter later that night, he made sure to say to Doug, “So your dad’s off pressing the flesh, huh?” I learned this when we were all back home, and Doug asked, “Dad, did you tell Mr. J. to use the expression pressing the flesh with me?

Nice going, Mr. J.! Now I’ll just have to push it a little further by morphing the idiom into a gerund (flesh-pressing), or an agentive noun (flesh-presser), or maybe really mess with Doug by turning it in to a backformed compound verb, and saying things like, “I flesh-pressed a lot of potential voters out there last week!”

Posted in Backformation, Doug, Ohioana, Politics, Taboo | 2 Comments »

How to Talk to Drug-Free Kids

Posted by Neal on January 18, 2014

I was listening to Terry Gross interview Gabriel Sherman, the author of a book on the history of Fox News founder Roger Ailes. Sherman was talking about TVN, a precursor to Fox News that ran for a time in the 1970s. Its producers wanted to provide a counterweight to the liberal media, and consulted extensively with conservative groups as they tried to hammer out how they would run the program. Summing up, Sherman said,

They were basically saying, “How do we package the news that is going to appeal to a conservative audience?” (13:34)

If it’s news that already appeals to a conservative audience, I thought. why is how to package it such a big question? In the context of the story, of course, the actual meaning was “How do we package (any) news in such a way that it will appeal to a conservative audience?”

I remembered the title of an article I’d seen advertised on the cover of a Reader’s Digest one time:

How to raise drug-free kids

Step one, I had thought at the time: Acquire some kids who are drug-free. Step two: Raise them. Like the sentence from Gabriel Sherman, this sentence was ambiguous between two readings:

    How to VERB NOUN with PROPERTY X

  1. (Intended meaning) Let y be a NOUN; how to VERB y such that y comes to have PROPERTY X
  2. (Stupid meaning) Let y be a NOUN with PROPERTY X; how to VERB y

But standing in the checkout line, looking at a Reader’s Digest cover, I had been in an ornery mood, looking for an obtuse reading of the title. The intended meaning was one that the grammar licensed, even though I was overlooking it for my own amusement. Listening to the interview with Gabriel Sherman, I was just interested in hearing about this Roger Ailes guy, but the goofy reading was still the one that jumped out at me. In fact, now that I think about it, I don’t think the quotation was ambiguous after all. The only available reading is the unintended one, and the intended, resultative meaning is delivered only by sheer force of context, in the same way that I’d know that We had a talk about our son with drugs actually meant “We had a talk with our son about drugs.” So my question is: Why are both readings available with the Reader’s Digest title, but not with the Gabriel Sherman quotation?

Here are the syntactic and semantic differences between the two quotations that I notice:

  1. finite (do we package) vs. infinitive (to raise)
  2. relative clause (that is…) vs. adjective phrase (drug-free)
  3. creation nature of verb: package (no) vs. raise (yes)
  4. definite noun (the news) vs. generic (kids)

Flipping these conditions one by one in the Sherman quotation, I judge that the resultative reading becomes available when package is swapped for a verb whose meaning involves creating something. Red font indicates that the resultative meaning is unavailable; green font that it is available:

  1. (original) How do we package the news that is going to appeal to a conservative audience?
  2. (finite > infinitive) How to package the news that is going to appeal to a conservative audience
  3. (relative clause > adjective phrase) How do we package the conservative-appealing news?
  4. (ordinary verb > verb of creation) How do we create the news that is going to appeal to a conservative audience?
  5. (definite noun > indefinite noun) How do we package news that is going to appeal to a conservative audience?

How about when we do the same thing to the Reader’s Digest title? When does the resultative reading here become unavailable? As expected, it looks like replacing the creation-verb raise with a non-creation verb (talk to) bars the resultative meaning. Furthermore, changing the indefinite drug-free kids to the definite the drug-free kids also makes the goofy reading the only one available.

  1. (original) How to raise drug-free kids
  2. (infinitive > finite) How do we raise drug-free kids?
  3. (adjective phrase > relative clause) How to raise kids who will stay off drugs
  4. (verb of creation > ordinary verb) How to talk to drug-free kids
  5. (indefinite > definite) How to raise the drug-free kids

To sum up, you need a verb of creation and an indefinite direct object in order to be sure of having a resultative reading in sentences like these. Sometimes you can get the resultative reading even with a definite object (as in How do we create the news that…), but it doesn’t always work (as in how to raise the drug-free kids). I still don’t know why the definiteness of the direct object makes a difference, at least in these two examples, but that’s as far as I’m pushing the issue tonight.


Ten years ago today, I published my first blog post, on my brother Glen’s blog, where I continued to post for several months. In June of 2004, I had the opportunity to be a guest on The Volokh Conspiracy, and used the platform to announce my own blog, on the Blogger platform. A year or so later, I moved the blog to WordPress, where it has been ever since. (And the old Blogger web address has been taken over by a spam blog, which remains there to this day, with a final, spammy post from November 21, 2007 up top.) Thanks to all the readers over the years, and especially to those that have been reading the whole time, or close to it: The Ridger, Ellen K, Ran Ari-Gur, Ingeborg Norden, Ben Zimmer, Gordon Hemsley, and Glen are those that come most immediately to mind, as I post my 806th post today.

Posted in Ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Politics | 1 Comment »

Illegal Immigrants

Posted by Neal on October 15, 2012

With the recently re-ignited debate over the term illegal immigrant, I have heard all the arguments against using the term, including:

  1. It is politically divisive or inflammatory.
  2. It presumes guilt before due process has been done.
  3. It is inaccurate in characterizing people who entered legally but overstayed their visa, or did not come here of their own accord.
  4. It is nonsensical, because illegal refers to acts, not to people.

I will grant (1), and add that the same applies to the euphemistic undocumented immigrant (and the dysphemistic illegal alien). I will also grant (2), but add that this is fixable with the well-accepted use of alleged in cases where there is doubt. I will also grant (3). But as for (4), this argument is just plain silly, and grasping at straws.

I will grant that when illegal modifies a noun, that noun usually refers to an action. I will further grant that when it does modify a noun that refers to a thing, it usually means that the thing is illegal to possess, as in illegal drugs and illegal weapons. Using those collocations as analogies, we would expect illegal immigrant to mean an immigrant that it is illegal for someone to possess–in other words, a victim of human trafficking. That, of course, is not the meaning that it has.

In fact, that is a good argument (in addition to arguments about dehumanization) for abandoning the term illegal alien. However, that still doesn’t mean that illegal immigrant is nonsense. When the noun is the agentive form of a verb, and the adjective is the morphological analog of a manner adverb, there is a common, productive rule of semantic composition that gets you to the accepted meaning. Let me illustrate with an example unburdened by controversy. If I were to say, “Sandy is a deep thinker,” it would be willfully obtuse to say, “Hey, wait a minute! People can’t be deep!” If I were to tell you, “Lee is a beautiful dancer,” I could be telling the truth even if Lee’s face, when covered by a paper bag, could still make clocks lose two minutes per hour. In short,

dances beautifully : beautiful dancer :: thinks deeply : deep thinker :: immigrates illegally : illegal immigrant

Object to the term illegal immigrant on ethical, political, or legal grounds if you want to. But don’t resort to claiming the term embodies sloppy semantics, when it’s the most natural way to refer to someone who immigrated illegally. That just makes it look like you’ll accept any old argument that favors your side, and weakens the more valid ones.

Update, Oct. 16, 2012: Changed list item #2 from “were born here” (which I’ve known since elementary school automatically confers citizenship) to what I meant to say: “entered legally but overstayed their visa”.

Posted in Lexical semantics, Morphology, Politics | 17 Comments »

The People Will Uprise!

Posted by Neal on December 5, 2010

Governor-elect John Kasich has been quite blunt about some of the things he’s going to do after taking office — quite a change from the consistently, persistently, insistently vague answers he gave during the campaign about issues like how he would balance the state’s budget without raising taxes. This week he talked about a couple of his predecessor’s executive orders that he plans to rescind; specifically, orders that allowed home-care providers and child-care providers to join unions. I’m not sure what the big deal is about allowing these workers to join unions, but Kasich feels strongly about it. He’s said the orders will most likely be “toast”. His less than diplomatic statement has angered these people, and the leader of one of the home healthcare unions had this to say:

“Act as a reckless and irresponsible governor, and plan to be a one-term governor, because you are just going to cause workers in the state to uprise,” she said. (link)

Nice backformation, I thought. From the phrasal verb rise up, we get the gerund-headed compound noun uprising, and from there via the usual process of stripping off the -ing, we get a brand-new backformed verb: uprise. The Corpus of Contemporary American English has an attestation from 1991, but don’t trust it:

Even some of them, they ask the Iraqi people to uprise, to go up and get rid of Saddam Hussein, but when Iraqi people go and have uprising in all parts of Iraq, they walked away and they said this is an internal affair, we don’t interfere.

Notice how the even is used to comment on the entire sentence, meaning more or less, “It’s was even true that some of them asked the Iraqi people…”? Semantically, it’s sensible, but syntactically, it just doesn’t work. In English, we have to put the even after the subject: Some of them even…. This is clearly a passage from a non-native speaker. When I checked it, I found that it was uttered by a (one assumes) Iraqi named Mahmoud-Osman-Kur. However, this 1993 example from Rolling Stone is more believable:

Oh, this is going to upset people, ignite people. They’re going to riot, they’re going to uprise.

When I checked the OED, I was surprised to find uprise as a verb going back to the 1300s. However, it had a more literal meaning of physically rising up with attestations talking about the sun rising, people rising out of bed, and people rising from the dead. There was also a figurative meaning of attaining a higher social position or position of greater power. The current meaning of “rebel” isn’t listed.

I’d be interested in hearing the word pronounced. Does it have stress on both up and rise, the way that its source uprising does? Or is the up unstressed? If it is, then I’d expect the p to reassociate itself from the end of the first syllable to the beginning of the second one, in accordance with Maximal Onset, making the word homonymous with apprise. If this word is in your active vocabulary, let us know how you say it.

Posted in Backformation, Gerunds and participles, Ohioana, Phonetics and phonology, Politics | 7 Comments »

Like a Dog Ellipsis

Posted by Neal on September 18, 2010

I’ve been thinking about President Obama’s much-criticized “They talk about me like a dog” remark. You can read what Language Log had to say about it here. It’s a bit out of the news cycle by now, but Ben Zimmer’s current “On Language” column got me thinking about it again.

So what was it about They talk about me like a dog that struck people as odd about it in the first place?

For a while, I was looking for syntactic reasons. Like a dog is a case of ellipsis, a clause with some stuff left unpronounced that we are to recover from the context. One way to interpret it would be to treat a dog as the subject, and supply the V(erb) P(hrase) talk about me from the first clause:

They talk about me like a dog (talks about me).

This would be no big deal syntactically; it’s the same way you’d interpret You throw like a girl (throws), or Walk like a man (walks). Semantically, of course, it doesn’t work. Dogs don’t talk, and if they did, they wouldn’t talk about Obama.

Another way to interpret it this kind of ellipsis, although it won’t work for this particular example, would be to take a dog to be a direct object. To do that, you’d have to find a transitive verb in the context to fill in the blank. For example, it could work in a sentence like this:

They treat me like (they treat) a dog.

But since that won’t work for Obama’s sentence, we have to dig a little deeper for something to put together with a dog to make a clause. The solution is to supply the entire chunk They talk about, and use a dog as the object of the preposition about:

They talk about me like (they talk about) a dog.

Well, that works pretty well! All we have to do now is accommodate (i.e. accept as true for the sake of the conversation) the proposition that people don’t talk about dogs in a complimentary manner. So what’s so strange about that? Is it so unusual to have this kind of ellipsis? No; it’s the same kind of ellipsis as you get in lie in it like a bed, sleep in it like a hammock, or step on him like a bug.

I thought that maybe this kind of ellipsis was harder when the preposition is used in an abstract way, as about is, instead of in a more physical-location way like in or on in the above examples. But I can also find examples of depend on it like a crutch. So I don’t think that’s it, either.

When I taught ESL composition, sometimes I would mark a phrase on a student’s paper with the word “unidiomatic”. The phrasing didn’t break any syntactic rules, but it just wasn’t how a native English speaker would put something. It’s like saying, “If I’d known you were coming, I’d have baked a pie” instead of “If I’d known you were coming I’d have baked a cake”, or “I’m going to punch you a new asshole” instead of “I’m going to tear you a new asshole.” Zimmer’s latest column is about how much of the language we learn is set phrases, idioms, collocations, “chunks” of words. These chunks conform to the rules, more or less, and some of them even allow variation in the choice of words they contain; for example give me a break and cut me a break. But their existence makes a language inhospitable to similar chunks with similar meanings but with words that are not in the accepted set of components.

The perceived problem with They treat me like a dog, I think, is not that it breaks any grammar rules, but it’s a little too much like the idiom treat [someone] like a dog in form and meaning, with the unexpected phrasal verb talk about where treat should be. Maybe if he’d used some other noun than dog, like in these examples here, it would have been different enough to escape notice.

Posted in Ambiguity, Ellipsis, Politics | 6 Comments »

You Lie!

Posted by Neal on September 11, 2009

While watching President Obama’s address to Congress two nights ago, I heard someone off screen interrupt when Obama said the healthcare plan he envisioned would not provide health insurance to illegal aliens immigrants. I couldn’t hear everything the unseen speaker said; all I heard was, “Lie!” For all I knew, that might have been the entire utterance, in which case it could mean several things. One possibility was that the speaker was commanding the president to knowingly state falsehoods. Not very likely. Or he could have been telling Obama to pronate or supinate himself on the House floor, but that’s even less likely, since the more idiomatic way of saying that would be “Lie down.” So going back to the realm of false statements, “Lie!” could also have been just a noun, thrown out as a tag for the hearers to tie to Obama’s claim. That, I decided, was the most likely interpretation if all the speaker had said was “Lie!”, and it had probably been the end of a longer statement like “That’s a lie!”

The next day, of course, I learned that the speaker was a representative from South Carolina, who offered an actual apology (not a non-apology) for this breach of respect, only to say later that he’d done it because his party leadership made him, and is now winning big political points from his constituency and others.

I also learned that the full utterance was not “Lie!”, or even “That’s a lie!”, but in fact, “You lie!” So lie was a verb after all. In between wondering why exactly people think the statement that Obama’s hoped-for healthcare system won’t cover illegal aliens is a lie, I’ve wondered why this representative chose this particular wording.

You lie is in the simple present tense, which in modern English is used to represent habitual action. (At least, it does for verbs that denote actions, such as hurl, disrupt, and lie. For verbs that denote states, like know or seem, the simple present tense is the normal choice.) For action that’s happening at the time of the utterance, what you want is the present progressive tense. So instead of “You lie!”, why didn’t this representative yell out “You’re lying!” to the president?

It’s true that You lie is shorter than You’re lying by one syllable, but I’d hesitate to conclude that’s a strong enough reason. It also seems to me that You lie somehow carries more vehemence, maybe because it sounds like archaic language, from a time when the progressive tenses weren’t as developed, language that’s only pulled out now for special and serious occasions. Not too archaic — Thou liest! would just sound like a joke — but just archaic enough. Or maybe You lie is stronger because even though it’s not saying that you’re lying right now, it carries that implication — in addition to the actual assertion that you habitually lie. “You lie a lot,” the utterer claims, leaving it to the hearer to fill in the rest: “And you’re lying right now!”

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Posted in Politics, Semantics | 12 Comments »