Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Kids' entertainment’ Category

Away to the Window I Flew, Tore, and Threw

Posted by Neal on December 23, 2009

I’ve written about “The Night Before Christmas” (the poem formerly known as “A Visit from St. Nicholas”) a couple of times before. Once it was to untangle the dense syntax of As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, when they meet with an obstacle mount to the sky, so up to the housetop his coursers they flew, with a sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas, too. The other time, it was on the nonparallel coordination (a multiple-level coordination, in fact, like the ones in my last post) He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, and away they all flew like the down of a thistle. Now I’ve noticed another nonparallel coordination in this poem, in a line that’s usually more noted for the ambiguity of throw up:

Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Christmas songs, Inversion, Kids' entertainment, Other weird coordinations | 4 Comments »

Round On

Posted by Neal on December 20, 2009

My sister Ellen stayed with us last week, in between stops on her Midwest residency interview tour.

“Wait,” you’re saying. “You mean the same Ellen who graduated from UT Austin in 2004 has now completed medical school?”

You better believe it! Glen has been delighted to have a family member studying medicine. She’s gotten used to him calling her during the last couple of years in his capacity as a Fringe writer, asking her what the gruesome details would look like if such-and-such happened to someone. Usually her answer has been, “That couldn’t happen.” Glen’s next question is then, “OK, but if it could happen…?”

I’ve been learning some medical jargon from her, like scrub in, scrub out, and morbidity. I’ve also learned a phrase for the activity of visiting one’s hospital patients early in the morning: rounding on them.

“I thought they called that making the rounds,” I said.

“They call it that, too,” Ellen agreed, “but we also say ’rounding on.'”

The only meaning for round on I’d been aware of was to suddenly turn toward someone and say something confrontational. J. K. Rowling uses it a lot. For example:

“Don’t you want to know how Ginny got hold of that diary, Mr. Malfoy?” said Harry.
Lucius Malfoy rounded on him.
“How should I know how the stupid little girl got hold of it?” he said. (p. 336)

That meaning was just as strange to Ellen as hers was to me, so I wondered if it was a piece of British English. I couldn’t remember if I’d seen it in American-written stuff, or heard Americans say it. A quick check of the Corpus of Contemporary American English reveals that it’s definitely not just British:

  • Thor was feeling well pleased with himself when Lindsey rounded on him. “Don’t you ever do that again!”
  • SECOND SWAT OFFICER… What happened to right to life…? (he laughs) Starling rounds on him, hits him several times, and throws him to the ground. # STARLING # What happened to right to life? What happened to right to my life…?
  • He looked like a lump, and sometimes Molly told him that, rounding on him suddenly from the big stove and laying into him without mercy.

There are also medical uses in CoCA, though (understandably) not as many. I didn’t find an example with rounded on, but I found:

  • The ENIT responder, twice per day, rounds on the general care units.
  • Rounding on patients at five thirty in the morning usually turns up at least a handful of people who tell you they’d feel fine if only you assholes would stop waking them up every four hours to ask them how they’re feeling.

After Ellen learned the non-medical meaning for round on, she allowed as how attending physicians did a fair amount of that kind of rounding-on, too.

Posted in Kids' entertainment, Lexical semantics, Variation | 6 Comments »

Even More Wide-Scoping Operators

Posted by Neal on May 12, 2009

One of my regular readers is Deborah Lipp, who blogs at Property of a Lady, and has written several books on Wicca and paganism in addition to The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book (“One of these things is not like the others,” as she admits in Sesame Streetwise fashion). She also, as it turns out, is a big fan of AMC’s series Mad Men. I learned this when she wrote to me asking a language-related question about the show and mentioning her and her sister’s MM fan blog, A Basket of Kisses. That reminded me that I’ve had a Mad Men-related post sitting in my pile of drafts, so it seemed like a good time to pull it out and consolidate it with a number of other draft posts on the same topic.

The topic is “Wide-scoping operators”, and here’s the example, from the October 18, 2008 episode of Mad Men:

Jane Siegel (Peyton List)

Jane Siegel (Peyton List)

How do I know I’m not just going to eat another mushroom and this room will disappear and I’ll be back on the train to Trenton?

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Kids' entertainment, Semantics, The darndest things, Wide-scoping operators | 4 Comments »


Posted by Neal on April 13, 2009

I like to rollercoast!One book that we recently finished reading aloud was Nim’s Island, by Wendy Orr (now a minor motion picture from Walden Media). Doug and Adam had to stand by for a minute while I made a note of this passage near the end of the book:

…thought Alex as she roller-coasted from one [wave] to the next.

Something sounded funny about rollercoasted. I would have said rollercoastered, converting the noun rollercoaster into a verb (“verbing a noun”, as it’s sometimes known). Why didn’t Wendy Orr take that option?

Then I realized: It was another backformation. The steps in the history:

  1. Long before rollercoasters existed, the nouns roller and coaster were formed by suffixing the agentive suffix -er to the verbs roll and coast.
  2. When the devices now known as rollercoasters were invented, the noun rollercoaster was created via compounding: roller + coaster, meaning something that coasted on rollers. The OED’s earliest known attestation is from 1888.
  3. Next, the reanalysis, illustrated with the original structure on the left, and the reanalyzed structure on the right:
    Original structure

    Original structure

    The reanalyzed structure

    The reanalyzed structure

  4. This is where the actual backformation occurs, but you can’t tell, because [roller][coaster] sounds just like [rollercoast] [er].

  5. The backformation comes to light when a speaker retrieves the verb form that logically must exist, given the noun consisting of Verb+-er. In this case, it’s rollercoast. The OED’s earliest attestation is from 1973, and others from the past few years can be found in reference to markets, emotions, hypermiling, and moving time slots for troubled TV shows.

So if rollercoast is such a typical backformation, like a lot of the ones I’ve written about before, why did it stop me in mid-page and send me looking for a napkin to write it down on? My guess is that it’s because the noun rollercoaster is not an animate agent. A bartender is a person who bartends; a babysitter is a person who babysits; a rollercoaster is an object. To falsify this hypothesis, I now open the floor for other Noun+Verber compounds that denote objects, and that have yielded Noun+Verb backformations, and which sound as normal as peoplewatch or speed-read to me.

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Posted in Backformation, Kids' entertainment | 8 Comments »

Warriors: Ambiguity

Posted by Neal on January 22, 2009

I’m noticing that Doug and his mom share a perverse characteristic. Once they come across a book series that they like, they will not rest until they have read every last book that author has written. They won’t space them out, intersperse them with other books to make them last. They’ll read them one after another after another until none are left. I can’t even get my wife the latest book by a favorite author for a gift, because she’ll have read it within a month of its publication already.

warriorsDoug, for his part, has finished all the books in the Redwall series he was reading a couple of months ago, and is now busily devouring the feline fantasy meta-series Warriors by Erin Hunter (who is actually three authors writing under one pseudonym). I’ve seen this series take up more and more bookstore shelves in the years before Doug discovered it. They come out so frequently that (Doug has noticed) the editing has sometimes been a bit lax. There are the occasional typos, but sometimes they will refer to a character by the wrong name. And then there was this line in one of the latest ones Doug read:

“Are you coming in?” he meowed. “We have to make sure everyone’s eaten.”
Warriors: The New Prophecy: Dawn, 2006, p. 323

When Doug read that, he stopped short, thinking “Wha–? Everyone’s eaten?” The cats in these books are very territorial, and often fight, but cannibalism was a line they hadn’t crossed yet. Shoot, these cats don’t even mark their territory with urine (at least not in the pages of the books), so this line was quite a surprise. Doug had to read it a couple more times before it made sense: “Oh! Everyone has eaten!” Once he identified the ambiguity of Everyone’s between “Everyone is” and the intended “Everyone has”, he did the right thing: He brought it to me. Good catch, Doug!

The line could have been even harder to parse if it had been something like this:

We have to make sure everyone’s eaten and ready to go.

Ridiculous, you say? I’ve seen it happen:

But depending on the day, they’ve already been outside, or it’s pouring and they can’t go out, or it’s midwinter and been dark since five.
Paula Spencer, “Why I Love TV,” Parenting, June/July 2000, p. 212

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Posted in Ambiguity, Kids' entertainment | 4 Comments »

More on Coordination, Quotative Inversion, and Beverly Cleary

Posted by Neal on January 14, 2009

“So how was school today?” I asked Doug as we walked from the bus stop.

“Good,” he said. Then he remembered something: “I checked out Strider at the library today!”

“For me?” I asked. “Wow, that was really thoughtful of you, Doug! They let you check out two books?”

“No, but I had this one book, and while we were standing in line to check out, I noticed Strider on the shelf, and I rushed out of the line to ask if I could switch books –“

“You sacrificed your own library book so I could get my hands on Strider!” I said. “That was really nice of you, Doug.”

“No, not really,” he said. “I didn’t really want the other book anyway.”

Eventually, Doug will learn the finer points of situations like this, and get the hang of saying, “Aw, that’s OK,” and “I didn’t mind,” to maximize the favored party’s indebtedness. Too late this time, though!

So why did I want to find a copy of this book Strider, anyway? It started about a week earlier, during our read-aloud time. I’m remembering it now …

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Posted in Coordination and quotation fronting, Inversion, Kids' entertainment, Prescriptive grammar | 5 Comments »


Posted by Neal on August 16, 2008

Doug’s friend introduced him to an online game called Runescape. Doug informed me that the name is a compound of rune and scape when we were talking about the game a few days ago…

Me: You’re calling it Rune Scape, but maybe it’s really called Run, Escape!
Doug: Daaad, don’t be ridiculous!
Me: Well, I don’t know. I think run and escape make much more sense together than rune and scape.

Which is true. Scape is a noun, created as a backformation from landscape, that the OED defines as “a view of scenery of any kind, whether consisting of land, water, cloud, or anything else”. Anything else … such as runes? What would a runescape look like? I tried to find out.

Me: So does this game actually have runes in it?
Doug: Yeah!
Me: Really? What do they spell?

I figured he might know this, because we looked up the futhark alphabet when we wanted to decipher the inscriptions on the cover of The Hobbit. However, Doug admitted that the runes in this game weren’t really spelling out words; they were just magical symbols that you’d find here and there.

Doug also said that he would sometimes “find talisman”, which I mentally corrected to “find a talisman”. But when he kept saying talisman without a determiner like a or the before it, I knew something in his grammar was different from mine. All of a sudden I realized: Doug wasn’t saying talisMAN, he was saying talisMEN! He had seen talisman, interpreted it as a compound word, like mailman or salesman, and was now pluralizing it with the same irregular plural that all man-headed compounds get. (Aside: Why is the man in mailman pronounced /mæn/, while the man in salesman is pronounced /mən/? I don’t know, but since I’ve already written about that, I won’t dwell on it here.) Of course, I’m sure it didn’t make sense to Doug that a magical object should be referred to as some kind of man, or that there could be a kind of man known as a talis-man, but that’s folk etymology for you (or eggcornization, if you wish). It’s easier to have a word that you can make a tiny bit of sense out of, like talis-man, than one like talisman that’s completely opaque semantically.

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Posted in Backformation, Compound words, Folk etymology, Kids' entertainment, Morphology | 4 Comments »

Maybe Rhyming Words Can Sound the Same

Posted by Neal on April 12, 2008

One of my favorite poems is Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat”. I know at least one first-grade teacher who dares not read it aloud to her students these days, but I used to read it aloud a lot to Doug and Adam — both the Little Golden Books version that’s on loan from Mom and Dad (who used to read it to my sister Ellen), and a newer version that Jan Brett illustrated. I like that you can sing it to the tune of “Beep-Beep” and have it match right down to the repetitions at the end of each verse; that when Doug was a toddler he’d say “you elegant fowl” as “you elephant fowl”; and that piggy-wig is an exception to Steven Pinker’s rule on rhyming nonsense pairs.

However, I cannot abide Edward Lear’s limericks. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Kids' entertainment, Pragmatics, Rhymes | 7 Comments »

Scooby-Doo Counterfactual

Posted by Neal on March 9, 2008

“And I would have gotten away with it, if it hadn’t been for these meddling kids!”


You can hear this line, or variants of it (“…and their dumb dog!”) during the denouement of many episodes of Scooby-Doo. Here’s one that you never hear:

Oh, yeah? Well, it was for us meddling kids, so you didn’t!”

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Posted in Conditionals, Kids' entertainment, Semantics | 13 Comments »

There They Go Again —

Posted by Neal on November 5, 2007

— people saying that Amelia Bedelia always takes things literally! Didn’t we cover this already? Given an utterance with more than one meaning, Amelia Bedelia always chooses the interpretation of maximum funniness, one which disregards contextual or social clues, and which may or may not be a literal interpretation. Just because an interpretation is funny doesn’t mean it’s literal. And as my wife and sons can attest, just because it’s literal doesn’t mean it’s funny.

This business of literal meanings reminds me of something I heard on an episode of NPR’s Science Friday from September. I wasn’t going to say anything, I was just going to let it go, but since I’m on the subject…

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Posted in Kids' entertainment, You're so literal! | 8 Comments »