Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘TV’ Category


Posted by Neal on April 10, 2010

Over on Language Log, there’s a new post about the usage of literally, inspired by an xkcd strip. So this seems as good a time as any to bring up a couple of interesting literally examples I’ve heard in the last couple of months. Before I do, though, let me say that I don’t care that very, really, and truly have gone through the same semantic weakening that literally has undergone; I don’t care that literally has been used non-literally for hundreds of years. I admit these facts, but darn it, I want there to be a word that signals you’re not speaking figuratively, and literally is the best word for the job.

First, there was the time my wife had a sinus infection. At the end of one day during the peak of the infection, she told me

I went through a whole box of Kleenex — literally.

I was just about to say, “Wow, how did you make yourself small enough to go through it?” when I realized that the literally part wasn’t about the going through idiom, but about the whole box part. She hadn’t just used half the box, not just three quarters of it, but literally the whole box. So I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t want to look like an idiot, did I?

Then there were the promos for a TV special for the Penguins of Madagascar–the team of commando penguins from the two Madagascar movies. The special featured their (newly introduced) nemesis, Dr. Blowhole, a bottlenosed dolphin with a Picard-as-Borg-like eyepiece fitted over his right eye socket. One of the promos was this one:

That’s right: Near the end, one of the penguins says

No matter where we go, he’s always got his eye on us! Literally — He’s only got the one eye.

When the penguin (I think it’s the one named Kowalski) said “Literally,” I got the same kind of mental image I did when Jim Croce sang, “She caught my eye, and I put it back.” But then Kowalski finished with “He’s only got the one eye,” and I realized that the literally applied not to the part about having an eye on someone, but more specifically about an eye.

So for all you speakers like me, who use literally to mean that you’re not speaking figuratively or exaggerating, what do you think? Are these examples legitimate? Does literally have to scope over the entire sentence that it’s part of, or are we cool as long as it’s highlighting some part of the sentence as the literal truth?

UPDATE, Apr. 12, 2010: In first paragraph, put in link to Word Routes column that I forgot.

Posted in Kids' entertainment, Semantics, TV, You're so literal! | 7 Comments »

TV Show Mythology

Posted by Neal on February 2, 2010

As we’ve approached tonight’s final-season premiere of Lost, I’ve been thinking about the use of the word mythology to refer to the body of knowledge that is revealed over the course of many episodes for a TV show that has long-running story arcs. (I mentioned wanting to look into it a couple of posts back.) Not only has mythology developed a specialized meaning for weird TV shows, but that meaning is now spinning off its own idioms. Fans talk about “mythology episodes” of Lost, Fringe, and Alias (and their opposite, the “stand-alone episodes”). In last week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, resident Lost analyst Jeff Jensen talks about showrunners Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof realizing that a main character needed to “download a huge piece of our mythological puzzle” as they wrote an episode, and in a sidebar, the collocation of mythology and download appears again.

But where and when did our language acquire the specialized meaning of mythology that gave rise to terms like downloading mythology and mythology episode?

I first became aware of this meaning for mythology in reading articles in sources like EW about The X-Files in the 1990s, and since that time, the term has continued to be used primarily in discussions of … well, let me quote from Glen here. I asked him his thoughts on the term, from the perspective of someone in the business, and he had some good stuff. He wrote:

I think it’s still restricted mainly to shows with a fantastical element (that is, science fiction or fantasy)* in the long-term story arc. Grey’s Anatomy and The Sopranos may have long-term story arcs, but I doubt they get many people referring to their “mythology.”

Glen also had, I think, a better, more precise definition of this kind of mythology than mine. In his estimation,

“mythology” is being used to mean what we usually call “canon” — that is, facts and history that are established in text on the show, hence constituting a constraint on future storytelling.

Put that way, the definition isn’t so removed from one of the extended uses noted in the OED

c. In extended use: the received wisdom concerning a particular subject; the collective or personal ideology or set of beliefs which underpins or informs a particular point of view.

By this point, though, we’ve shifted far enough semantically from the original (or at least, earlier) meaning of mythology that it could equally well describe any show with this kind of “facts and history”, and it looks like it may be starting to. I was able to find a few hits for “Seinfeld mythology” and “Simpsons mythology” (although The Simpsons so self-consciously ignores previous episodes that using mythology when talking about it is almost a joke). And in fact, Glen found a handful for “{Sopranos, Nip/Tuck, Law & Order} mythology”. However, he found zero hits for “Grey’s Anatomy” mythology”, and I found zero for “Days of Our Lives mythology”.

Soap operas have the longest-running TV story arcs of all, so why wouldn’t mythology have developed its specialized meaning for them? One probable reason is that mythology started out with such a strong connnection to stories of the supernatural and fantastic that more-or-less realistic shows like soap operas weren’t fertile ground for such a meaning to develop. Glen has another plausible reason:

I also have a sense that “mythology” is used most often for shows that also have stand-alone episodes. That’s because fans (and creators!) need a means of referring to the special subset of episodes that deal directly with the long-term arc. This hypothesis certainly fits The X-Files and Fringe (and yes, we do refer to “mythology episodes” around the Fringe writers’ office). Lost may be an exception to this rule, inasmuch as almost every episode relates to the mythology.

In searching the Google Groups database among the* newsgroups, it does seem to have begun when I started noticing it, with The X-Files, in 1997 or 1998. But suspect I may not be mining this database in a way that will produce all the relevant texts, so I’m interested in your antedatings, if you have them. Commenter Stan Carey said he seemed to recall talking about Twin Peaks in terms of mythology (or maybe even “mythos”) in the early 1990s. On the other hand, posts like this post from “Devious Weasel” on seems to point more toward a mid-90s origin:

Just dug out an old issue of Cinescape from the end of the third season [NW: this would be 1996] where [Chris Carter] is referring to the fact that [Gillian Anderson]’s pregnancy forced 1013 to develop the mythology a little faster in the second season than they would have liked. For some reason I don’t think this is the earliest reference I’ve seen to the term, but it is the earliest I have available to me.

What are some other (scripted) shows you’d describe as having a mythology? What shows would you say don’t have one?

*Glen adds: “Interesting fact: in the industry, people commonly use the word ‘genre’ as an adjective that refers specifically to sci-fi, fantasy, and other ‘weird’ genres. Lost and Fringe are genre; Law & Order is not genre, even though you might think that ‘cop show’ is a genre.”

Posted in Diachronic, Lexical semantics, TV, Variation | 14 Comments »


Posted by Neal on January 27, 2010

I’m looking forward to watching tomorrow’s episode of Fringe. I’m particularly enjoying the story arc about the alternate universe where onion rings refers to deep-fried narrow slices of potato, and French fries to breaded and fried circular slices of onion.

Oh, wait, I’m thinking about Frings.

So anyway, I’m eager to watch Fringe tomorrow because it’s the second episode that my brother Glen and his writing partner Robert Chiappetta wrote. Actually, I’ve learned from Glen that all the screenwriters contribute to a greater or lesser degree to each script, but individual writers (or writing teams, like Glen and Robert) will volunteer to draft particular episodes discussed in the planning sessions. Afterwards, the script is subject to revision by a number of people, including in particular someone known as the showrunner.

“I’ve never seen showrunner on the credits,” I said when he told me about the position.

“That’s right,” Glen said. It’s not a formal title. It’s usually an executive producer, but which person among the producers and executive producers and co-executive producers dons the mantle of showrunner varies from show to show.

Naturally, the first thing I wanted to do after learning about this new word was to see if the by-now-all-too-familiar reanalysis-plus-backformation process had created showrun as a new verb. Answer: Yes, it has! For example, a headline from Variety from July 6, 2009 says

Josh Bycel to help showrun ‘Scrubs’

The story’s lead backs up Glen’s explanation: “Scribe Josh Bycel will help perform surgery on ABC’s “Scrubs,” signing on as the show’s new executive producer.” Not only has showrun come into being as a verb via backformation, it has even progressed far enough to re-open the direct-object slot that show once filled, allowing it to be filled with the name of a particular show. Furthermore, we get a bonus with this backformation, occurring as it does with an irregular verb: We can also ask if we get the irregular past tense showran. Again, we do. This is from a forum thread discussing The Simpsons:

Other than the two episodes he showran, how much influence did David Mirkin have on the show in season 7?

One of these days, I’m also going to look into the history of mythology with respect to shows like this. From the preliminary poking around I’ve done so far, I’d say the first show to have mythology used this way was The X-Files, but I’d be happy to hear antedatings from TV fans. Twin Peaks seems like the kind of show whose fans would talk about its mythology, but I don’t recall hearing anyone do it, although I certainly find plenty of relatively recently written material that does.

Posted in Backformation, TV | 2 Comments »

Screenwriters Latin Up

Posted by Neal on February 11, 2009

Last week on Lost, we learned that the mysterious characters known as the Others speak Latin — at least, when they don’t want to be understood in the presence of non-Others. A couple of Latin enthusiasts have blogged about this. This makes the third time that I know of that a TV show has made use of Latin this season.

First, Bob Kennedy at piloklok noted a truly pitiful translation into Latin that appeared in a November episode of the since-canceled Pushing Daisies. It was even worse than this:

Kennedy has a pretty good idea how the writers arrived at such a sorry excuse for a translation, and concludes that the writers for Pushing Daisies were just plain lazy. I’m inclined to agree, based on the diligence I know first-class staff writers are capable of when they need some dialogue translated into Latin. I happen to know one who found himself in that situation not too long ago; he took a crack at the translation, and then sent an email to his brother, who majored in classics in college, saying:

Hey, it looks like the Latin-speaking dudes are going to be recurring on the show, so I might be asking you to check my Latin from time to time. Here’s the latest: …

“We have another candidate.”
Femina candidata alia habemus.

(The “candidate” in question is a woman, and I couldn’t find a noun in Latin for candidate, so I used the adjective candidatus/a/um along with femina. The woman is a (non-consensual) candidate for an experimental procedure, not for a candidate for office, in case that makes a difference.)

“I won’t let you down” (disappoint you)
Te non frustrabo.


Jasika Nicole plays a linguist on TV.

Jasika Nicole plays a linguist on TV.

These Latin-speaking gentlemen Glen refers to first appeared on an episode where their overheard conversation was translated by the character of Astrid (not Astird) Farnsworth, a linguistics major. I’ve forgotten a lot of Latin vocabulary, and I’m afraid all my reading in it wasn’t enough to give me an intuitive feel for idiomatic word order, but at least I could check up on candidata and frustrabo. I wrote back:

Question: Are these Latin-speaking guys in an ancient-Rome flashback, and to be expected to speak good Latin? Or are they present-day guys who, for their own strange reasons, speak Latin (like maybe Catholic priests)? If the latter, it might be a bit easier to translate, since mistakes are to be expected in their attempts to speak Latin as a nonnative language.

‘habemus’ seems fine. The rest should be in the accusative case: ‘aliam’. Now as for ‘femina’, I don’t see why that’s needed, since the feminine ending of ‘candidatam’ would do the job. Also ‘femina’ is a noun, not an adjective, and I don’t think Latin compounding works like English compounding does. If you must have it, I’d say use the adjective ‘femineam’ (stress on second syllable, since the penultimate ‘e’ is short). Regarding ‘candidatam’, my dictionary has that strictly as a candidate for office (recall that we’re hundreds of years closer to the original meaning of ‘clothed in white’, which I guess is what political candidates did). I tried ‘prospect’ and got the word for hope ‘spes’, but that didn’t seem to be what you’re looking for. But if these are modern guys trying to speak Latin, they’d probably light upon ‘candidatam’ just like you did, so maybe it would work.

“I won’t let you down”:
Non tibi deero. (I won’t fail, fall short, disappoint)
Non te destitues. (I won’t abandon you, leave you in the lurch.)

I now open the floor for those with better Latin than mine to tell me what I should have said. Glen, BTW, smacked himself in the forehead for forgetting to put candidata into the accusative case. He made good grades in high school Latin, and definitely knew better. Anyway, what I did was essentially what professional writers tell you to do when using a thesaurus:

  1. Find your synonym in the thesaurus, or translation in the English-to-target-language section of the translation dictionary.
  2. Look the word up in a dictionary or the target-language-to-English section of the translation dictionary, to minimize your chances of using the word in the wrong context or in an unidiomatic collocation.

I was glad I did this with “let down”, since when I looked up the translations deesse and destituere in the Latin-to-English section, I found they had different shades of meaning. Deesse seemed to mean more of an accidental failure, while destituere seemed to imply a deliberate abandonment. The same went for frustrare, which I found when I looked up “disappoint”.

Knowing all the connotations of English words that don’t make it into the regular dictionaries, let alone translation dictionaries, I can’t have confidence that anything I come up with would truly sound normal to an ancient Latin speaker, but it’s good enough that Glen shouldn’t have cause for embarrassment like the Pushing Daisies writers do. (At least, not on the grounds of his Latin translations!)

Now I know what all you Fringe fans are thinking: “I’ve watched every episode and I don’t remember any exchange like that!” Well, unfortunately, that dialogue, and in fact the Latin-speaking guys themselves, were subsequently cut from the show. But Glen’s still writing for Fringe, and last night’s episode even has him (and his writing partner and one David H. Goodman) credited as the writers! Optime, mi frater.

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Posted in TV | 4 Comments »

The Forensic Fringe

Posted by Neal on October 17, 2008

My wife and I have watched several episodes of Fringe now, mostly out of curiosity due to Glen’s being on the writing staff. Parts of each episode reveal more of the show’s overall “mythology” (hey, Ben, how long has mythology been used to refer to the slowly revealed backstory in a TV show that prominently features weirdness?), but each episode also has one particular mystery or problem to solve, and the solution always involves some kind of fringe science. In this respect, it’s like Numbers, where each week the solution comes from some kind of mathematics. Also as in Numbers, the progression from having the crazy idea that just might work, to actually implementing it, to solving the problem, is really fast. And the crazy idea always works.

This is a greater barrier to disbelief-suspension in Fringe than it is in Numbers, because in Numbers, the mathematical concepts are sound, but in Fringe, it’s all based on pseudoscience. What I’d like to see on this show is a situation where eccentric scientist Walter Bishop thinks they just might be able to enable agent Olivia Dunham to use, let’s say, telekinesis in order to avert some disaster. He and his team, in less time than it takes to buy, have delivered, and install a high-definition TV and connect it to your cable box, gather and set up equipment that it would take well-funded university labs weeks just to acquire. They hook up Dunham to the device, and … it just doesn’t work. Bishop’s son Peter is stunned.

“I can’t believe it didn’t work!” he says.

“Well, this is fringe science we’re talking here,” says Dunham’s assistant Astrid (a linguistics major, BTW). “Just because they call it fringe science doesn’t mean it’s not bullshit.”

But aside from Astrid’s major in college, what does any of this have to do with linguistics? During one of the episodes, I got to thinking, “This isn’t so much fringe science as forensic science.”

But on second thought: “Wait, no, this baloney is definitely fringe science.”

I thought about it some more: “No, no, they’re using it to solve crimes. It’s forensic science!”

Suddenly I realized: It didn’t have to be one or the other. It was both! It was … forensic fringe science! Fringe forensic science! Wow, this is like sweet mashed potatoes all over again. I got zero hits for both fringe forensic science and forensic fringe science, both in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and with Google. For some reason, there doesn’t seem to be much call for such a term. But if there ever were, what would determine which f-word came first?

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Posted in Adjective ordering, Compound words, TV | 9 Comments »

The Alias Phonology Essay Question

Posted by Neal on May 3, 2006

Now that Alias is winding down to its series finale, I’m remembering back to a time a few years ago, a time when Alias was still good, and my wife and I still watched it every week. When the series premiered, I wasn’t planning on watching it at all. I was in the middle of writing a dissertation, and I had even dropped my longstanding Sunday night date with The Simpsons, so I wasn’t about to start watching some new show, no matter how much the critics liked it. But that was before Glen told me that our friend Bob Orci was one of the writers. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Panphonic Phun, TV | Leave a Comment »

Rhyming Words Don’t Sound the Same

Posted by Neal on March 29, 2006

I was volunteering in Adam’s classroom today, and on the way in, I passed a teacher in the hall doing some language assessments with a student. The teacher would read one word to the student, and then present three other words, asking, “Which of these words sounds the same or rhymes?” Barney the dinosaur and the characters on Sesame Street do this, too: say that “rhyming words sound the same!”

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Kids' entertainment, Rhymes, TV, You're so literal! | 22 Comments »