Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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Degemination Trouble

Posted by Neal on January 4, 2008

I’m used to the fact that in English spelling, doubled consonants aren’t always pronounced twice. Sometimes they are; for instance, to say top pick, you hold your [p] (oh, grow up!) for a longer time than you would to say topic. This extended pronunciation is referred to as gemination (“twinning”). But often, doubled consonants are pronounced just the same as a single consonant, and that’s what makes words like accommodate so difficult to spell if you don’t learn their Latin roots. The cc and mm were pronounced as geminates in Latin, but somewhere along the way to modern English, they got degeminated. I’m fine with all this.

But darn it, it doesn’t work in the other direction! You don’t go around pronouncing non-doubled consonants as geminates. Well, usually you don’t. The words thirteen, fourteen, and eighteen are exceptions that come to mind: Many speakers (including me) pronounce them as if they were thirt-teen, fort-teen, and eight-teen. Actually, though, eighteen is a good example of what I’m talking about. I don’t like it when people take a compound word written with a doubled consonant, remove one of them, and still expect me to pronounce the word with a geminated consonant. For example, there was that playpen we bought for Doug when he was a baby. I remember it… as if it were… about nine years ago…

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Posted in Phonetics and phonology, Potty on, dudes! | 13 Comments »

Don’t Mention It

Posted by Neal on January 26, 2007

A couple of weeks ago, when I read that a member of the cast of Grey’s Anatomy named Isaiah Washington told a reporter at the Golden Globe awards,

No, I did not call [co-star] T. R. [Knight] a faggot. Never happened.

I had two reactions. One: Someone must have said he called T. R. Knight a faggot. Two: That was kind of an awkward denial. Oh, well.

Over the next week, I became aware that not only his alleged name-calling, but also the denial was getting him into trouble. I was puzzled at first. People were talking about his gaffe at the Golden Globes and I didn’t know what they meant. It was only when I read in one story, “Mr. Washington moved to the microphone and denied that he had ever used the slur to describe Mr. Knight, at the same time repeating the word” that I realized they really were talking about the denial, not the actual insult. Arnold Zwicky has written a cogent linguistic perspective on the whole incident, starting off with the point that was the source of my confusion: Washington did not use the word faggot, he mentioned it. I particularly like this sentence from his conclusion:

Believing that some words are so intrinsically offensive that they should never be uttered, even to describe their offensiveness or to report on offensive uses, is believing in verbal magic.

But now that I’ve thought about the matter some more, I think I can understand at least a little bit the discomfort/offense/outrage at Washington’s mention of the word in his denial. First of all, I’m not so sure anymore that call [someone] a faggot is a mention of faggot rather than a use. Faggot has two syllables is a mention; I never said he was a faggot is a use; I never called him a faggot I’d say is a use, too. It’s not saying anything about the word faggot; it’s a sentence about whether the individual denoted by him is in the set denoted by faggot. But let me call it a mention, for the sake of argument. It reminded me of something that happened with Doug and Adam not too long ago… yes, I’m remembering it now… screen.. getting.. wavy.. harp music.. playing…

“What’s so funny?” my wife was asking Doug and Adam. They were laughing hysterically in the next room.

Adam told her. Apparently, Doug had been telling Adam something funny that had happened that day, something that involved somebody farting. As Adam relayed the story to his mom, he used Doug’s words, including the word fart.

My wife hates the word fart. For her, it’s not a funny word that you just have to laugh when you hear (like booger), but a disgusting word that’s just as bad as that other f-word (aside from finesse). Adam, of course, knows this, so he thoughtfully apologized before his mom could say anything:

I’m sorry I said “fart,” Mom. I only said “fart” because Doug said “fart” and I was telling you that he said “fart.”

I don’t remember whether Adam used or mentioned fart the first time, but the last four times were definitely mentions, not uses, and yet it was those mentions, not the original use, that irritated my wife the most. Clearly, Adam was hiding behind the use/mention distinction in order to launch a few penalty-free farts. It would have been easy enough to say that word instead of fart if his apology had been pure, but he chose to repeat fart four times, which transformed his mention into, I guess you’d call it a meta-use.

Now Isaiah Washington said faggot only once during his denial, so why the uproar? I think it probably would have been OK if he’d said something like, “Faggot is a demeaning and inappropriate label to put on anyone, and I never used it to refer to T. R. or anyone else.” I think his castmates’ unease, and other people’s outrage, arose from reasoning along the following lines:

  1. You have already been accused of using the word faggot with malicious intent.
  2. Therefore, one would expect you to exercise greater-than-normal caution in using or mentioning this word when discussing the incident, to avoid giving the impression that you habitually use this word.

  3. You chose not to do so.
  4. Therefore, it seems you think the accusation is not to be taken seriously.
  5. Therefore, it seems you are the kind of person who thinks it’s OK to call people faggot.

That, plus the re-assertion by fellow castmembers that he really did call T. R. Knight a faggot, was enough to require the now-standard celebrity public-contrition routine.

Posted in Potty on, dudes!, Pragmatics, Taboo, The darndest things | Leave a Comment »

LSA 2007: Book Report

Posted by Neal on January 12, 2007

When I wandered through the book exhibit last week, I saw Heidi Harley‘s book English Words; on display. She’d plugged it on her blog, but this was the first chance I had to look inside it. I flipped to the section on “accidental words,” since that’s where she talked about backformations. The first thing I found there, though, was some stuff on folk etymology, including this:

For a long time when I was a teenager, I thought the word facetious was related to the word feces — during that time, for me, facetious was a fancy way of saying “full of shit.” I had created a folk etymology. (p. 92-93)

Hah! Love that scatological humor. This one’s almost as good as the widely and falsely held belief in the execrable/excrement connection. BTW, has anyone seen a movie where a teacher hands back some student essays or tests, and says to the class, “Your {papers, tests, whatever} were execrable!” and one surfer-dude-type guy says, “Excellent!” and the teacher tells him, “I was comparing them to excrement!” That was my tipoff that there was some folk etymology going on with that word, but a search for quotation keywords in the IMDB fails to identify the movie. Oh, and before we move on, let’s not forget fallacious and fellatious.

I bought the book but haven’t read anything else in it yet. I’m hoping she’ll clarify the difference between folk etymology and eggcorns. As near as I can tell, when linguists refer to eggcorns, they are talking about folk etymologies that haven’t caught on enough to have gained legitimacy in most speakers’ minds. Hey, wait, what am I sitting here writing this for, when I can find out what she says right now? Let’s see … OK, if I understand her right, her take is that folk etymology is a cover term for eggcorns and mondegreens. Do any of you eggcorn enthusiasts have an opinion on this definition?

I also bought David Wilton’s Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends. Like many books of this type, it’s good, entertaining bathroom/airplane/waiting-for-kids-at-the-bus-stop reading, but unlike many others, the author makes a concerted effort not to spread bullshit, giving numerous OED and other citations in the index, including many from the online archives of the American Dialect Society. After reading some of this book, I was mad at Erik Larson. He wrote The Devil in the White City, and repeated the story that Chicago’s nickname Windy City was a reference to its uppitiness in campaigning for the 1896 Columbian Exposition to take place in Chicago. I believed him, but referring back to the book now, I see that he indeed did not give any citations for this claim, just like David Wilton said people tended not to.

I bought W. Cowan and J. Rakušan’s Source Book for Linguistics, which is an entire book full of linguistic exercises. As a reviewer on the back cover said, “If you’ve been teaching upper-level undergraduate introductions to linguistics with Cowan and Rakušan, then you’ve been scrambling about in search of examples and exercises in phonetics, phonology, morphology and syntax long enough.” Also historical reconstruction problems, with data all nicely selected and cleaned up for you. If you’re not teaching linguistics classes, it’s a nice book of logic puzzles to take on an airplane with you, if you’re tired of (or never liked) crosswords, word searches, logic puzzles, or (these days) sudoku.

The only other title I bought was Robert D. Van Valin’s An Introduction to Syntax, mainly for the chapter at the end with thumbnail sketches of several flavors of syntactic theory, all compared in one place. Haven’t read it yet, but it looked useful enough for me to buy it for that reason alone.

Posted in Folk etymology, LSA, Potty on, dudes!, Reviews | 2 Comments »

Like a Racehorse

Posted by Neal on April 25, 2006

DGM of Sunny Side Up has written about her encounters with an evil nurse at the ER. At one point in the story, she tells us,

I had to pee like a racehorse.

Now DGM is a bit sensitive about me putting stuff she writes under the linguistic magnifying glass, so let me say that I wasn’t planning on commenting on this sentence, any more than I’d comment on most other idioms I come across. But that was before one commenter asked:

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Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Potty on, dudes!, Syntax | 22 Comments »

2 Funny

Posted by Neal on February 17, 2005

Today was parent-teacher conference day. When we met with Adam’s preschool teacher, she told us that Adam will sometimes make funny observations or suggestions in class, and that he seems to enjoy wordplay. Like his dad, she added. I wondered what she was remembering that prompted her to make that last comment. Could it be that she reads this very blog, and has been impressed by the refined linguistic humor regularly found herein? Or have my literal-minded sensibilities come through in my conversations with her? Or maybe it was something that happened on one of the days when I was in the classroom, observing Adam? You know, come to think of it, I seem to recall an incident now… I remember it like it was a couple of months ago…

A couple of months ago, I was sitting at a table near the handwashing station, cutting capital and lowercase C’s out of construction paper for their coming letter-of-the-week art project. As I sat there, I watched Adam and his classmates do their various free-choice and mandatory-assignment activities. At the writing station, their task was to trace a number 2.

Just before snacktime, Adam’s teacher was sitting at a table about five feet away, recording what each kid had done that day. One by one, she’d call them over, and ask, “Did you cut out the kite picture? Did you play with the snow? Did you make a number two?”

I sat there cutting out C’s, silently grinning every time I heard her ask, “Did you make a number two?” Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I shared my amusement with the teacher’s aide, who was passing by. Adam’s teacher saw us laughing, so the aide let her in on the joke.

After that, I continued cutting out the C’s and listening to Adam’s teacher conduct her interviews: “Did you cut out the kite picture? Did you play with the snow? Did you write a number two?”

Posted in Lexical semantics, Potty on, dudes!, Taboo | 7 Comments »

Silent Pee

Posted by Neal on December 15, 2004

I could tell something was on Adam’s mind last night as I got ready to brush his teeth. He was staring into space as I put the toothpaste on the brush, and said, almost to himself, “Silent P.”

“Silent P? Where?” I asked. I looked all around the bathroom, but didn’t see any obvious text anywhere that he might be noticing, much less one with a silent P in it. I mean, he’s familiar with the concept of silent letters (and likes to listen to this song in the car), but I didn’t think he’d ever seen any words with a silent P. Psychologist, pneumonia, he’s never seen those written. Pteranodon, maybe, but he’s really not into dinosaurs* as much as Doug was, so we hardly ever read him books with that word in them. So what word was he seeing that had a silent P in it?

As I was thinking about all this, Adam said, “Tinkle.”

Ohhh, now I got it. He was thinking about the library book we’d read the night before. The book was I Have to Go, in which the phrase, “I have to go pee!” appeared in several places, in large print. Out of consideration for Doug and Adam’s mom, when I read the book I’d systematically replaced pee with tinkle, using the terminology that Doug and Adam learned from her and their grandma and their aunt. Little did I know that for 24 hours, Adam had been silently struggling, trying to reconcile the phonetic string tinkle with the orthographic string P-E-E that he saw on the page. And now he’d finally arrived at his conclusion: It must be a silent P. I had to admire his reasoning–I do believe he’s gonna turn out to be a real whiz kid!

BTW, I personally don’t care for the word tinkle, and much prefer pee. But standardly using tinkle from the time Doug and Adam were in diapers has honed my appreciation for the strange semantic journey it’s undergone. First there’s its onomatopoetic meaning, which I assume is the basis for its use as a euphemism for “urinate.” From there, the verb tinkle can be used to refer to the bodily waste itself, reproducing the verb-noun polysemy seen in pee, piss, poop, and shit. Tinkle the noun can be turned into the adjective tinkly, as in, He has a tinkly diaper. And at this point the irony kicks in when you try to get back to the original meaning of the word. It’d seem that tinkly ought to refer to things like windchimes or ice cubes in a glass, but instead, we find it describing something that goes squish when you poke it and plop when you drop it on the floor.

*Yes, I know, Pteranodon is not a dinosaur.

Posted in Kids' entertainment, Polysemy, Potty on, dudes!, Taboo, The darndest things | 6 Comments »

Fecal Meter

Posted by Neal on May 3, 2004

Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch reporter Barbara Carmen had a story in the Metro section yesterday about a notorious apartment complex just south of the airport. I’m always interested in stories about these apartments, since I lived in one of them for about a week back in 1993. It looks like the latest attempts at renovation aren’t going so well; Carmen had this to say about one tenant’s unit:

Feces float on her living room floor when it rains.


Posted in Ohioana, Potty on, dudes! | Leave a Comment »