Archives for February 2012


Frequent commenter Julia D’Onofrio linked to a delightful video on Facebook, and I’m linking it here because it’s the best illustration I’ve seen of the wonderful and maddening diversity of the Spanish language as spoken across its geographical spread. Everyone from Puerto Ricans to Argentines is mocked, not to mention the thetheando inhabitants of the mother country and the hapless Americans the singers, Juan Andrés and Nicolás Ospina, pretend to be at the outset. So without further ado, I present Qué Difícil Es Hablar El Español. I’m pleased to say I understood most of it even though it’s been forty years since I used my (Argentine) Spanish regularly, and I laughed a great deal.
Update. Studiolum has posted the lyrics, with translation, at río Wang.
For those of you who don’t speak Spanish, here‘s Pico Iyer on “The Writing Life: The point of the long and winding sentence”:

I’m using longer and longer sentences as a small protest against — and attempt to rescue any readers I might have from — the bombardment of the moment. …

[Read more…]


Back in 2007 I posted about “the dismissive exclamation meh”; now, in a new Boston Globe column, Ben Zimmer reports on an exciting new historical discovery:

Yiddish appears to be the ultimate source. I checked with Ben Sadock, a Yiddish expert in New York, and he turned up a tantalizing early example. In the 1928 edition of his Yiddish-English-Hebrew dictionary, Alexander Harkavy included the word meh (written in the corresponding Hebrew letters) and glossed it as an interjection meaning “be it as it may” and an adjective meaning “so-so.”

Ben discusses the historical development at greater length (and without the distracting use of Mitt Romney as a news tie-in) at this Log post, where you can see the actual Harkavy entry.


Allan Metcalf at Lingua Franca writes about a publication I may just have to shell out for:

This week something rare, old fashioned, scholarly, and entertaining arrived via the U.S. Postal Service. As usual, I’m postponing other tasks until I have read it cover to cover. It’s a journal you’ve probably never heard of: Comments on Etymology. Rare I call it, because the journal has very few subscribers. And old fashioned, because it’s only on paper. It’s not available on the Internet.
For more than four decades, Comments on Etymology has been one of the least known and most enjoyable scholarly journals in the field of linguistics. And it’s the No. 1 source for the study of American slang. […] What makes the journal so entertaining is, first of all, copious quotations from original sources, and second, lively discussions of the evidence, often leading to revised explanations. That’s because, in the words of Editor Gerald Cohen in a recent issue:
Comments on Etymology … is a series of working papers, a sort of etymological workshop where ideas can be tested and developed (with valuable feedback provided) before being presented formally to the scholarly community.” […]
It’s a rare publication indeed. You’re unlikely to find Comments on Etymology in your university library or on a colleague’s bookshelf. Cohen explains, “The number of subscribers is very low, primarily because I haven’t publicized the publication and have been content to mail the issues to whoever is interested.” But he adds, “If a few new subscribers come along, they will be very welcome.”

It’s $16 for eight issues a year; if you’re interested, send a check to Gerald Cohen at the address given at the link.

[Read more…]


The invaluable Dialect Blog had a post last year featuring a fifteen-minute film “created from outtakes of The End of the Raaj, a recent documentary about the Anglo-Indian community. This snippet discusses the Anglo-Indian dialect, and the various words and terms associated with this sub-culture.” It’s a lot of fun to see how much people enjoy talking about the words and phrases they associate with their in-group; I say “they associate” because many of the terms are actually not dialect-specific at all, like “His eyes are bigger than his stomach,” but of course others are, and it’s funny to see the filmmaker add his best guesses as to the spelling, often with a couple of question marks, as intertitles. My thanks to R Devraj for reposting it at his blog Dick & Garlick, since I missed it at Dialect Blog; if he sees this, let me implore him to add name/URL capability to his comment setup, since I am unable to leave a comment using the awful Google/Blogger system currently in place (and I’m sure I’m not the only one).


I just saw the movie The Artist, and a delightful experience it was. It even started with a movie-within-the-movie called A Russian Affair that shows some written Russian (labels on a piece of electrical equipment). But this is not a movie review; I’m here to quibble about a bit of language usage. In a montage of clippings raving about another movie-within-the-movie, one of them reads “so fun.” Now, I realize that (as the American Heritage Dictionary says) “there is some evidence to suggest that [the use of fun as an attributive adjective, as in a fun time, a fun place] has 19th-century antecedents,” but as they also say, the usage only “became popular in the 1950s and 1960s,” and this use of “so fun” (rather than the standard “so much fun” or “such fun”) would have been impossible in edited text in 1929, when the movie is supposed to have come out. All that effort expended on (gorgeous) period furnishings and automobiles, and nobody noticed so glaring a linguistic anachronism! Fie, I say! (Don’t worry, I’m not terribly serious about this; it’s the most minor of blemishes, and was doubtless noticed only by codgers like me—I grew up using fun only as a noun, and the newer usage still sounds wrong to me—but I do think it’s worth pointing out.)


The Public Domain Review has the terrifying potential to eat up indefinite amounts of one’s free and not-so-free time. From their About page:

The Public Domain Review aspires to become a bounteous gateway into this whopping plenitude that is the public domain, helping our readers to explore this rich terrain by surfacing unusual and obscure works, and offering fresh reflections and unfamiliar angles on material which is more well known.
With our curated collection of exotic scraps and marvellous rarities and comprehensively linking to freely distributable copies of works in online archives and from far flung corners of the web, we hope to encourage readers to further utilise and explore public domain works by themselves. To this end we have also put together a “Guide to Finding Interesting Public Domain Works Online”.
We also hope to act as a platform to writers and scholars to write about more unusual and obscure works which they might not get a chance to do elsewhere. […]
We are working behind the scenes with institutions (universities, libraries, museums, etc.) to work to get them to fully open up their online public domain material, so that works in the public domain remain in the public domain when they go online. […] We believe the public domain is an invaluable and indispensable good, which – like our natural environment and our physical heritage – deserves to be explicitly recognised, protected and appreciated.

A noble goal and a beautifully designed site. (Via stbalbach’s MetaFilter post.)


Adam Kotsko at An und für sich (which I should really visit more often), annoyed by apostrophes, writes:

For instance, take the use of the apostrophe to designate either possessives or contractions. It seems to me that these apostrophes do not actually add any information that is not already supplied naturally by the context — if you left out all apostrophes, you could still tell which words were contractions (as opposed to homographs like “wont” and “cant,” which are rare to begin with) and, even more radically, I contend that you could tell whether it was a plural, a possessive, or a plural possessive.
To demonstrate this bold claim, I challenge our readers to come up with a sentence that is (a) somewhat plausible and (b) could be genuinely ambiguous if plurals/possessives were not distinguished using apostrophes.

As could have been predicted, his challenge was easily met, and he conceded defeat graciously; Charlie Collier added a comment that begins “ANCIENTGREEKMANUSCRIPTSHADONLYCAPITALLETTERSNOSPACESBETWEENWORDS…” to point out that just because you can do without something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to, something that should be more generally remembered. But what I really came here to post about was Adam’s excellent opening paragraph:

I am teaching a writing-intensive course this semester, and one challenge is how to deal with students who “aren’t good at grammar.” On the one hand, one does want to help them write in the way generally recognized as “proper.” On the other hand, there is a level at which one must admit that there is something unjust about the way arbitrary conventions are used to judge intelligence — someone who writes in a non-standard way is not regarded simply as non-conformist, but is often judged as being somehow dumb.

How I wish more people understood and internalized that point. A large part of my motive for starting this blog was to get people to do so.


The Economist has a nice post in its Graphic Detail series (“Charts, maps and infographics”) showing language diversity around the world: “The chart below measures language diversity in two very different ways: the number of languages spoken in the country and Greenberg’s diversity index, which scores countries on the probability that two citizens will share a mother tongue.” At the top are Papua New Guinea (with 830 indigenous languages) and Congo; at the bottom are Cuba (with two languages) and North Korea (with one). (Thanks, Kobi!)


I have not actually seen MTV’s show The Jersey Shore, but being a sentient American in the year 2012, I am of course aware of it, and I was amused by Dialect Blog’s post about it, pointing out that “Three out of eight of the original cast members are in fact from Staten Island, a working-class borough of New York City. Hence, their accents are more traditional New York than contemporary Jersey, exemplified by JS cast member Vinny Guadagnino” (whose non-rhotic accent you can enjoy in a clip provided in the post). I got there via Dave Wilton’s post, where Dave says he “can attest that this post is dead-on. The locals could spot the bennies easily, based largely on accent,” and adds an excursus on the word benny:

Benny is a mildly derogatory, Monmouth and Ocean County, New Jersey term for a tourist from upstate or New York. It’s fading from use now, but you’ll hear it occasionally. It even made an appearance on The Jersey Shore. … The origin of benny is uncertain. It could by from a New York term meaning “Jew,” but if so, it has lost all anti-Semitic connotation in the move south. Other explanations I’ve heard, but have no evidence for and which I suspect are etymythologies, are that the word is from people who come to the shore for the “benny-ficial rays of the sun” and from the fact that way back when, many people came to the beach bearing lunches packed in a shoe boxes from a Benny’s shoe store, which was somewhere up north.

I was reminded of grockles.


Anne Trubek has a piece in The Atlantic about the manuscript and a rare book collection of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, hardly an untapped topic—I’ve seen many discussions of it over the years, and if I recall correctly its eager pursuit of living authors has figured in a satirical novel or two. But this one ends with this intriguing passage:

But it’s a risky game, this betting on contemporary authors. What if Denis Johnson’s hardcovers get remaindered? What if Norman Mailer does not stand the test of time? With an eye toward protecting investments, Staley does his part to promote his authors. Alice Adams, the novelist and short-story writer, was a major acquisition in 2000 and now seems to be the subject of a subtle awareness campaign. Staley admits as much, saying he works at “keeping writers like Alice Adams before the public.” His employees follow his lead. En route to the Wallace archive, one staffer pointed out to me the 27 boxes comprising the Adams collection. Later, another employee, while showing me DeLillo’s letters, offhandedly mentioned her love for Adams’s stories. “She really should be better-known,” the woman said, looking up at me hopefully.

I find the idea of archivists trying to promote their authors pretty hilarious; I suppose they can’t be blamed for trying, God love them, but they should really leave publicity to the experts and canon formation to the public at large. (Thanks, Paul!)