Archives for November 2006


The latest entry in the annals of Prescriptivist Follies: when the Guardian used the phrase “his bitterest enemies,” a reader wrote in to complain that “the correct English form is ‘most bitter,'” upon which editor Ian Mayes added the following gem of stupidity: “One of the weapons in my arsenal is the wonderful Oxford English Dictionary on line, but it is at a total loss to find any recorded use of ‘bitterest.'” As Ben Zimmer points out in the linked Language Log post: “With only a modicum of know-how in using the online OED’s full-text search feature, Mayes could have quickly found no fewer than 41 citations throughout the dictionary featuring the word bitterest… To these we could add many hundreds of attestations in English poetry, drama, and prose from Chadwyck-Healy’s Literature Online database.” The word averages “about 40 appearances a year” in the Guardian itself. And neither Ben nor I can even figure out how the outraged correspondent came up with this cockamamie ukase, which is supported by none of the usual mavens.


A great post by Céline of Naked Translations about the way her brain works while she’s doing simultaneous translation:

I was interpreting in a brewery a couple of weeks ago (yes, it was as fun as it sounds), and the person who was showing us around said: “The reason why this type of beer is produced in Kent is that, among other things, this region is excellent for growing barley.” So I started conveying this to the French visitors, and while one half of my brain was busy with the converting/talking process (Ce type de bière est produit dans le Kent car etc.), this is what was going on in the other half:
Thankfully, both parts of my brain came together exactly when needed, right at the end of the sentence… How is this possible? What actually goes on in an interpreter’s brain? Does anyone know if “The Idiot’s guide to the brain and language” has been written?

Personally, I’m much more interested in stories like this than in current theories about what might be happening in the brain, but if anyone knows of such a book, please let her know.


I have previously (I, II) lamented the absence of an Arabic etymological dictionary, and Andras Rajki very kindly wrote to inform me that he had put what he modestly describes as a “modest” one online. It may not be comprehensive, but it’s quite good enough for my needs, and I’m very glad indeed to have it available. (I am a complete amateur when it comes to Semitic etymology, but if anyone is an expert and finds gaps or errors, I’m sure Andras will be glad to hear about it.) The dictionary is a simple text file, with each headword followed by an English gloss, an etymology in square brackets, and a list of words borrowed from it into other languages, for example:
asad : lion [Sem ’-sh-d, Akk shedu (demon), Heb shed, Syr sheda, JNA shedha] Ind asad, Per asad borrowed from Ar
The list of sources and language abbreviations is at the end. Bravo, Andras, and thanks! (Oh, and for you Esperantists, he’s also got an Etymological Dictionary of the Esperanto Language.)


George Starbuck channels Ogden Nash (or should I say Aughdheghn Naiche?) in his paean to orthographic anarchy “The Spell Against Spelling,” which begins:

My favorite student lately is the one who wrote about feeling clumbsy.
I mean if he wanted to say how it feels to be all thumbs he
Certainly picked the write language to right in in the first place.
I mean better to clutter a word up like the old Hearst place
Than to just walk off the job and not give a dam.
Another student gave me a diagragm.
“The Diagragm of the Plot in Henry the VIIIth.”
Those, though, were instances of the sublime.
The wonder is in the wonders they can come up with every time…

If you want to read the rest, and I know you do, head over here; my thanks to Mark Liberman for quoting it on Language Log, and to Sarah Bagby for painstakingly typing it up and sending it to him.


1) Nic Dafis of Morfablog alerted me to the BBC radio drama based on David Jones’s In Parenthesis (which I discussed here, here, and here); it’s an hour and a half long, and you can listen to it by following the link on this page. It’s only online for a week from last Sunday, so I guess through this coming weekend; sorry about the delay, but at least it’s still there. It’s very well done, with lovely Welsh accents and restrained use of WWI sound effects; it was worth it for me just to learn that reveille is pronounced ruh-VALLEY Over There. (I followed along in my copy of the book, and noted some odd changes; “night woods” for “night weeds” is presumably just a misreading, but why did they change the song “Casey Jones” to “Tipperary” and “bull-shit” to “muck”??)
2) That great NYC institution Film Forum is currently showing my favorite movie of all time, Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, and tomorrow will begin a two-week run of perhaps my favorite Godard movie, Two or Three Things I Know About Her, about which I wrote here. (The title in French is 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle, which in idiomatic translation should be ‘one or two things I know about her,’ but the clunky literal version has become firmly embedded.) It’s a rare chance to see these great movies (especially the Godard, for which I thought there were no longer any screenable prints); don’t miss ’em if you can.


Jack Shafer has done a follow-up on the “bus plunge” piece I wrote about here; it turns out the headline for the “bisexual snail” story is probably unrecoverable:

Tina Orzoco of ProQuest valiantly searched the company’s vast databases in an attempt to locate the hed for Allan M. Siegal’s favorite K-hed of all time—”Most snails are both male and female, according to the Associated Press.” Orzoco failed, Siegal writes, because timeless filler such as the snail story ran in early editions only, “and was replaced thereafter by live news. And the microfilm edition of the Times—now the basis of ProQuest—was the final edition.”

But on the brighter side, Bernard Adelsberger guarantees that the old Philadelphia Bulletin once published this K-hed:

No Blood in Ants
Ants have no blood.


I want to recommend Geoff Pullum’s thorough analysis in Language Log of the following cryptic statement from Simon Jenkins in the Guardian: “They are no longer the subject of that mighty verb, only its painful object.” It cost him a great deal of effort even to figure out what the verb was, but it seems that Jenkins was trying to say that the personages under discussion were forced to react to events rather than initiating actions. Grammatical and terminological confusion doesn’t make for clear statements.
And while I’m at it, let me heartily second Mark Liberman’s recommendation that everyone acquire and consult a copy of Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage (or its big brother Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage); Mark says “Geoff [Pullum] used blurb-worthy phrases like ‘the best usage book I know of’ and ‘this book … is utterly wonderful’, and I agree with him”—and I agree with them both. (Read Mark’s post for a convincing refutation of the myth that it’s grammatically wrong to say “5 items or less.”)


The excellent Conrad has alerted me to the blogovial existence of Raminagrobis, a comparably learned and literate personage who began with a promise “to vent my rampaging egomania, register my disgust and rage at all those things that don’t really matter to anyone, exercise my critical faculties, and fulfil a long-standing ambition to be a boorish old fool with too much time on his hands,” but in fact writes about all manner of interesting things, most recently the Fagles Aeneid, jumping off from a dislike of the way Fagles rendered the famous line sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt and comparing many other versions before settling on that of my own favorite Robert Fitzgerald as the most satisfactory. The name, incidentally, is from Rabelais; the motto/URL “When her name you write, you blot” is from the Urquhart translation, but as far as I can tell nothing in the original corresponds to that particular line. Odd.


When I was growing up, the newspapers always carried tiny stories on the inside pages about world events that didn’t really affect anyone in the U.S. and that garnered at most a bemused “Huh!” from the reader before he or she passed on to the wars and rumors of wars; you can see a 1959 NY Times page with such stories circled in red here. There were cabinet changes in far-off countries and ambassadorial appointments to far-off countries and extreme weather events in far-off countries, and one special subcategory of these one-paragraph items (which it turns out are known in the trade as K-heds) was the bus plunge, always so called: “Brazil Bus Plunge Kills 26,” “10 Die in Colombia Bus Plunge,” etc. Jack Shafer has done a wonderfully nostalgic piece about these filler items in Slate; it turns out that they were an artifact of bygone methods of newspaper production:

No matter what their editorial policies, newspapers of the era had a physical need for short articles. Typesetting was still a time-consuming industrial art, with craftsmen pouring molten metal into molds—”hot type”—to form a newspaper’s words, sentences, and paragraphs. Because the length of a news story couldn’t be calculated precisely until type was set, makeup editors would have to physically cut overlong pieces from the bottom to make them fit. If a story ran short, they would plug the hole with brief filler stories typeset earlier in the day.

Once such holes no longer existed, thanks to computer typesetting, the need for filler stories vanished, and we no longer read about bus plunges in Peru and Nepal (“It was better when buses plunged in countries with short names”) on a regular basis.

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I recently stumbled on the archive of what began as Dhumbadji! but ended its career as the more sedate History of Language, a publication of the (Melbourne) Association for the History of Language whose history is briefly reviewed here. It was exciting enough to have all these abstracts (in most cases) about topics like (from the second issue) An Introduction to Oceanic Linguistic Prehistory and (from the last one) Developing The Comparative Study Of The Histories Of Chinese Linguistics And European Linguistics and The Position of Etruscan in the Western Mediterranean Ancient Linguistic Landscape, but what really thrilled me was finding the best discussion of the “Chomskyan revolution” I’ve seen, Konrad Koerner’s The Anatomy of a Revolution in the Social Sciences: Chomsky in 1962. He emphasizes an aspect to which I hadn’t given enough thought, the financial; here’s a very enlightening quote from James McCawley, one of the beneficiaries of the “revolution” and its lavish government funding:

I maintain that government subsidisation of research and education, regardless of how benevolently and fairly it is administered, increases the likelihood of scientific revolutions for the worse, since it makes it possible for a subcommunity to increase its membership drastically without demonstrating that its intellectual credit so warrants. The kind of development that I have in mind is illustrated by the rapid growth of American universities during the late 1950s and 1960s, stimulated by massive spending by the federal government. This spending made is possible for many universities to start linguistics programs that otherwise would not have been started or would not have been started so early, or to expand existing programs much further than they would otherwise have been expanded. Given the situation of the early 1960s, it was inevitable that a large proportion of the new teaching jobs in linguistics would go to transformational grammarians. In the case of new programs, since at that time transformational grammar was the kind of linguistics in which it was most obvious that new and interesting things were going on, many administrators would prefer to get a transformational grammarian to organise the new program; in the case of expansion of existing programs, even when those who had charge of the new funds would not speculate their personal intellectual capital on the new theory, it was to their advantage to speculate their newfound monetary capital on it, since if the new theory was going to become influential, a department would have to offer instruction in it if the department was to attract students in numbers that were in keeping with its newfound riches. And with the first couple of bunches of students turned out by the holders of these new jobs, the membership of the transformational subcommunity swelled greatly.

And here’s Chomsky himself, responding to a 1971 question about why Syntactic Structures and many other works of his contained acknowledgments of support from agencies of the U.S. Department of Defense:

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