Archives for May 2005


The University of Pennsylvania Press is having a book sale; unfortunately, the prices are not slashed so dramatically that they fall into the can’t-resist category (at least in my current state of incomelessness), but they have such a rich catalog that I linger wistfully over any number of the titles—Listening for the Text: On the Uses of the Past, by Brian Stock, for instance (“The essays in this volume are about a segment of the past that runs roughly from the end of antiquity to the thirteenth century. More generally, they are about recollecting the past by putting words into writings. They are equally about the past that is written about and the writing that brings it to life. In other words, they deal with the creation of the past as text.”), or much of the Anthropology, Folklore, Linguistics section, for example Jewish Russians: Upheavals in a Moscow Synagogue, by Sascha L. Goluboff (“Sascha Goluboff focuses on a Moscow synagogue, now comprising individuals from radically different cultures and backgrounds, as a nexus from which to explore issues of identity creation and negotiation. Following the rapid rise of this transnational congregation–headed by a Western rabbi and consisting of Jews from Georgia and the mountains of Azerbaijan and Dagestan, along with Bukharan Jews from Central Asia–she evaluates the process that created this diverse gathering and offers an intimate sense of individual interactions in the context of the synagogue’s congregation”) and Marshall G. S. Hodgson’s classic The Secret Order of Assassins: The Struggle of the Early Nizari Ismailis Against the Islamic World (Hodgson, who died at 46 in 1968, produced what is still one of the best places to start learning about the history of the Islamic world in his three-volume magnum opus The Venture of Islam).

I learned about the sale via the new anthropology group blog Savage Minds, which bids fair to be the Language Log of anthropology, entertaining and informative. Drop by and check it out.


In today’s NY Times there is a travel piece on Le Marche by Christopher Solomon that opens with the sentence “‘I bring you a taste of my verdicchio,’ says our host as my friend Laurie and I sit down to dinner beside a murmuring fire.” The rest of the sentence (like the rest of the article: “He also loves the people, saying ,’They’re kind and they’re gentle and they’re modest and they’re slow'”) is standard travel-section cliché, but the word murmuring stands out: have you ever heard a fire murmur? Is this a shiny piece of freshly observed reality, or a simple misuse? We report, you decide. (And my thanks once again to Bonnie for the heads-up.)


John August is a young screenwriter (NY Times article) who has such an enlightened attitude toward language I strongly suspect he was exposed to a good linguistics course at some point, and he occasionally lets fly at shibboleths in his blog. This is a good thing, because his blog is dedicated to providing useful information to would-be screenwriters, and since everybody wants to be a screenwriter these days, I presume he has a substantial readership who will benefit from his strictures. See, for example, English is not Latin:

In an email a few weeks ago, my former assistant (and alarmingly successful writer/director) Rawson Thurber apologized for ending a sentence with a preposition. I insisted that he was well within his rights to dangle a preposition, split an infinitive, or break pretty much any rule he’d been taught about English – especially the seemingly-arbitrary ones.
Grammarians come in two flavors. A descriptivist studies the way people use a language, while a prescriptivist tries to lay down the rules of a language.
Prescriptivists are assholes. Ignore them.

Now, that’s a bit more forceful than I usually am, but the guy writes movie dialogue, so being forceful comes natural to him, and people who might be bored by a nuanced explanation of the pluses and minuses of each point of view will snap to attention and perhaps be shocked into listening and even thinking.
Another good rant announces that ‘Data’ is singular with a ferocity that frightens even me! Go get ’em, JA. (And thanks, Bonnie!)


I discovered E-Julie’s blog The Language Legend (“Keeping you posted on cool stuff happening in the world of words”), via Naked Translations, which highlights (as will I) a post on Geordie (the dialect of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and its surrounding area), which in its turn links to two good sites: Newcastle English (“Geordie”), by Geoff Smith, and the BBC’s Geordie Dialect page (“modern times mean that some Geordie words are dying out and North Easterners are changing how they speak”). Now you too can talk like Andy Capp!


Plep links to a useful Wikipedia page on family names around the world. It’s a little sketchy, and some of the sections could use a lot of filling in (Russian springs to mind), but that’s the great thing about Wikipedia: you can fix it yourself!


John Emerson of Idiocentrism has posted on Buying Books on the Internet, a subject of interest to many of us. He has some useful recommendations and solicits others:

Over the years I’ve developed my own lore, which I’m sharing here, but I’m also trying to find out a few things from my vast readership. I’m especially interested in finding better sources for books in Spanish and in Chinese, and in finding out why shipping from Europe seems to be both slower and more expensive than shipping from other equally-distant parts of the world, such as India and Australia. (Or is it just my imagination?)…
Please feel free to add comments on any information you have about good book-buying resources of all kinds, including sources for books in exotic languages which almost no one reads.

One of his commenters has mentioned FetchBook, which looks very useful and has been added to my bookmarks.


Kyle E. Chambers, whose “research focuses on the mechanisms, structure, and representations that underlie lexical-phonological development and adaptation across the lifespan,” has begun a new blog, tarising, that reflects his interests. As someone closely following the development of a very bright one-year-old, I will look forward to any posts that help me understand what comes out of his mouth!


Language Log has been investigating a very interesting situation. It seems people very often say and write “unpacked” when logically they should be using “packed”; the example Geoff Nunberg brought up in the first post is from the New Yorker: “They had only just moved in; their boxes lay on the kitchen floor, still unpacked.” As Geoff says, “it can be hard to spot, even when you’ve been tipped off in advance to look for it.” (Dan Menaker noticed it after three other editors at the magazine had missed it.) Mark Liberman then discovered that it was an extremely common error, and Jesse Sheidlower of the OED pointed out (in Geoff’s latest post) that it may not be an error at all; in his words, “unpacked doesn’t mean what you think it means.” Geoff suggested that the “decisive question… would be whether the writers of these passages would defend the usage if the apparently anomalous use of unpacked were pointed out to them.” To which Jesse responded:

I did try to contact the authors of the quotes I provided. The only one I managed to reach was John Derbyshire, who wrote the line I quoted from National Review, so he’s conservative, and spoke with a very plummy RP British accent. When I first asked him he didn’t see a problem, but when I pointed out unpacked he paused for a very long time, then said, “It’s a mistake,” and, in a manner typical of linguistic conservatives, he said, “I wouldn’t have noticed it, but it’s wrong, I won’t do it again, I’ve learned something, it’s my editor’s fault,” etc.
I’ve asked several more people with my constructed sentence, who continued the trend of not having a problem with it. One was a fact-checker at The New Yorker, who thought it was fine, still thought it was fine when I asked about unpacked, and only when I said, “the issue is that unpacked is here being used to mean ‘packed'” did he say, “Oh, yes, that doesn’t make any sense at all.”

Geoff’s response is that this shows the usage is a performance error; he doesn’t want to call it a part of English unless its users acknowledge it as such. I disagree; to me, it’s reminiscent of the alleged “which/that” distinction, of which Arnold Zwicky says “authors who recommend it routinely violate it and… the facts of usage are squarely against it.” People who think language should be a certain way even though it’s not, even in their own usage, are perfectly willing to condemn their own usage and say “it’s wrong, I won’t do it again…” You can’t depend on users’ judgments in these matters, you have to look at the facts of usage, and based on what I’ve seen at the Log, one meaning of unpacked is ‘(still) packed.’ The fact that it contradicts the older meaning is irrelevant; context will disambiguate, just as it does with other self-contradictory words like sanction.
But I’d like to know what others think, and since there’s no comment function at the Log, feel free to express yourself below.
Addendum. On the which/that distinction, see Arnold Zwicky’s long and interesting followup.
Update. Jan Freeman writes about the controversy and links to a page where you can vote on a sample sentence; Geoff Pullum admits “that we have a lexical phenomenon here, not a sporadic error heard occasionally here and there.” Progress!


I had always assumed that press in the sense ‘force someone to become a sailor’ (as in the phrase press gang) was simply a transferred use of the ordinary verb, but a lively book I’ve just stumbled on, The Press-Gang Afloat and Ashore by J. R. Hutchinson (1914), provided a surprising explanation which I (having verified it with more scholarly sources of lexicographical information) hereby pass on to you:

The origin of the term “pressing,” with its cognates “to press” and “pressed,” is not less remarkable than the genesis of the violence it so aptly describes. Originally the man who was required for the king’s service at sea, like his twin brother the soldier, was not “pressed” in the sense in which we now use the term. He was merely subjected to a process called “presting.” To “prest” a man meant to enlist him by means of what was technically known as “prest” money—“prest” being the English equivalent of the obsolete French prest, now prêt, meaning “ready.” In the recruiter’s vocabulary, therefore, “prest” money stood for what is nowadays, in both services, commonly termed the “king’s shilling,” and the man who, either voluntarily or under duress, accepted or received that shilling at the recruiter’s hands, was said to be “prested” or “prest.” In other words, having taken the king’s ready money, he was thenceforth, during the king’s pleasure, “ready” for the king’s service.

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While looking for something else entirely (the phrase “suit yourself,” which (as it turns out) is first recorded in Kipling) my eye caught on the OED entry Suiogothic, which is not (as I had supposed) an adjective for some obscure relative of the Ostrogoths and Visigoths but an archaic word for ‘Swedish’:

[ad. mod.L. Suio-, Sueogothicus, serving as adj. to Suiones (Sueones) Gothique, which was used to denote the Sviar, Svear Swedes, and Götar (Göthar), older Gautar, the inhabitants of Götland (the southern portion of Sweden).]
Swedish; the (Old and Middle) Swedish language.
1759 B. STILLINGFL. tr. Linnæus’ Orat. Trav. in Misc. Tracts (1762) 16 Its name, still used among the Suegothic vulgar. 1797 Encycl. Brit. (ed. 3) VIII. 23/1 Of this Woden many wonderful things are related in the Sueo-gothic chronicles. 1814 JAMIESON Hermes Scythicus I. 12 Alemannic ostar, Suio-Gothic öster, Islandic austr, oriens. Ibid. II. 4 To the Islandic, the Suio-Gothic, including the ancient language of Sweden, is very nearly allied.

I’m writing about it not only because it’s an interesting, if dusty, word but because if you google it you find that the poor thing turns up only in jumbled word sequences that I believe are spam-catching sites, and I wanted to give it a good home.

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