MONKEY’S ARMPIT: INTERVIEW WITH BEN ZIMMER.

Ben Zimmer, linguist, lexicographer, and executive producer of Visual Thesaurus, has posted his interview with me, which I think came out pretty well. On Thursday he’ll be posting my introduction to the U.S. edition, which was omitted from the first printing, so anyone who bought the book will be able to enjoy it then!
Oh, and while I’m on a self-promotion binge, here‘s a nice write-up by Diana Page Jordan. Everybody has their own favorite insult from the book; hers is “an affectionate term Icelandic moms have for their children — rassgat (RAHS-gat) — litla rassgati mitt. It means my little asshole.”

Comments

  1. Oh yeah… forgot to tell you when I wrote you last week, it’s rassgatið, not rassgati.

  2. I’ll add it to the list of corrections. (Note to anyone who notices an error: please let me know and I’ll let Penguin know.)

  3. Great interview & amazing book, I’m sure!
    You might be interested in this parodic/serius dictionary from Argentina I’ve sent to my friends of studiolum.com:
    http://www.emblematica.com/blog/2008/08/insultos-injurias-e-improperios.html
    (perdón si mi inglés tiene muchos errores!)

  4. You wrote, “Everybody has their own favorite insult from the book …”
    Just wondering: Do you consider this phrasing a grammatical mistake?

  5. I just made a post here under a faulty assumption that my e-mail address was requested for your records, not for publication. My stupidity, apparently. Is there any way for you to delete the address to help me avoid spam-bombing? Thanks.

  6. Your English is fine, and the book looks great—I hope I can find a copy! (Here‘s the direct link for Julia’s URL.)
    Is there any way for you to delete the address to help me avoid spam-bombing?
    Done!

  7. Thanks for help with the e-mail/spam problem.
    As for my comment about correct grammar, I am concerned about your “Everybody … their” versus “Everybody … his” construction in your Aug 11 blog entry. Forty years ago, it was predicted that we would soon have a gender-neutral singular pronoun for such situations, but not so far. Recognizing that both practice and rules change, I am wondering if some group of grammar poobahs has now declared that “everybody … their” is _technically_ OK, not merely part of common usage.

  8. Oh, sorry, meant to address that: I’m not sure what you mean by “grammar poobahs,” but as far as I know all linguists, and thus style guides that take the findings of linguistics seriously, acknowledge that singular they/their is perfectly good English and always has been. Like many supposed “rules,” the one banning it is an 18th-century invention based on false premises. Here‘s a good blog post on the subject; I’ll be glad to provide further references if you want them.

  9. Thank you. That link provided the information that I needed. I disagree with the excuse for using they _as if_ it were a singular pronoun (not _as_ a singular pronoun).
    I do find a certain irony in an argument invoking the use of “they” as a singular by Chaucer, et al. Lots of things have changed since then, and not just the advent of indoor plumbing. Chaucer’s usage should be no more than an interesting anecdote. After all, grammar is intended to help people understand each other. Yet, if someone today were to employ Chaucer’s grammar generally, he/she/they would likely have trouble being understood.
    At any time, there is a status quo, and the better question is not “What Would Chaucer Do?” but “Is there good reason to change?”
    By the way, if “they” may now be used properly _as_ a singular pronoun, is “they” now listed on the left side of the pronoun chart — “he, she, it, they”?
    As for my “grammar poobah” comment, I assume there are certain grammar “authorities”, such as publishers of widely used grammar textbooks. One of my middle-school grammar texts was Warriner’s English. In my copy, I believe that it instructed us to always use the singular verb form after “none”. Fifteen years ago I looked at a then-current copy of Warriner’s English at a library and that rule had been eviscerated.
    Based on what’s written at the gigamonkeys link (again, thanks), it should matter not if I write, “I believes to use well grammar.” Though that construction may strike the ear badly, my failure to follow the rules of good grammar does not hide my meaning: I used “believes” “as” a singular verb form; I used “well” “as” an adjective to modify “grammar”. On the other hand, in an announcement about a meeting of a group of students, if they are advised that “Everyone should bring what they need”, there is ambiguity (arguably, anyway) – i.e., is this a pot-luck-dinner situation or is each person responsible solely for his/herself?
    I do realize that I am on the short-end of the trend, but I have not resolved to go quietly.

  10. > I do find a certain irony in an argument invoking the use of “they” as a singular by Chaucer, et al. Lots of things have changed since then, and not just the advent of indoor plumbing. Chaucer’s usage should be no more than an interesting anecdote. After all, grammar is intended to help people understand each other. Yet, if someone today were to employ Chaucer’s grammar generally, he/she/they would likely have trouble being understood.
    > At any time, there is a status quo, and the better question is not “What Would Chaucer Do?” but “Is there good reason to change?”
    You are, of course, quite right. The Chaucer thing is basically a response to one common argument against singular “they”: many tightwads believe that it’s some sort of modern innovation motivated by political correctness. So the point with Chaucer isn’t, “this is O.K. because Chaucer did it”, but rather “this has always been correct common usage, even since the time of Chaucer — that old enough for you?”.
    > By the way, if “they” may now be used properly _as_ a singular pronoun, is “they” now listed on the left side of the pronoun chart — “he, she, it, they”?
    A good pronoun chart would indeed explain its singular use, and listing it in the singular column is one way to do that. (It probably depends on the target audience. If the pronoun chart is intended for people just starting to learn English, it should be very explicit. If it’s intended for advanced speakers, and is just a way of organizing verb conjugations, it can probably dispense with that. By comparison, entry-level Spanish textbooks normally speak of a “second-person informal” and a “second-person formal”, whereas more advanced books usually refer to the former as the “second-person”, taking for granted that their readers know that the third-person doubles as the second-person formal.)

  11. On the other hand, in an announcement about a meeting of a group of students, if they are advised that “Everyone should bring what they need”, there is ambiguity (arguably, anyway) – i.e., is this a pot-luck-dinner situation or is each person responsible solely for his/herself?
    Words derive their meanings from context. Once you look for potential ambiguity you’ll find it everywhere.

  12. Lots of things have changed since then
    But not the use of singular “they.” The point is not that Chaucer used it so it’s OK, the point is that Chaucer and everyone since then has used it, so it’s OK. Jane Austen used it frequently, for Pete’s sake, and if Jane Austen isn’t standard English, I don’t know what is.
    I assume there are certain grammar “authorities”, such as publishers of widely used grammar textbooks.
    They are self-proclaimed authorities; they do not actually know what they are talking about. The only grammar textbooks worth taking seriously are those by linguists, whose profession is to study the language itself and discover the grammar from it, not to try to impose preconceived notions about grammar onto it. The current standard grammar is The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Rodney D. Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum; Geoff Pullum writes at Language Log, and he has many times expressed himself on the foolishness of the opposition to singular “they.”

  13. That was a fun interview, Languagehat, and I was particularly happy to learn about Sturgeon’s Law!

  14. I haven’t checked the link, but in response to this:
    By the way, if “they” may now be used properly _as_ a singular pronoun, is “they” now listed on the left side of the pronoun chart — “he, she, it, they”?
    The reason that “they” is used as a singular pronoun is because the English language has a rather glaring gap — it lacks a sexless animate singular pronoun. “They” has been pressed into service to fill this gap, something which has been going on for a long time. Some people insist that “he or she” (“his or her”) is the correct expression to fill the gap, but this is clumsy, ugly, pointed, and hard to use consistently. The response of good prose stylists is to avoid the dilemma by rephrasing the sentence. Both approaches force people to tie themselves up in linguistic knots in order to avoid a usage with hundreds of years of history behind it. In formal written prose, or in legal documents where more precision is required, the situation might be different, but to require conversation or conversational prose to adhere to the stylistic standards of a legal document or written essay is ridiculous.
    The fact is that the use of “they/their” in spoken English is perfectly clear, unless a person deliberately feigns to misunderstand it, usually in order to make a point. If a group is told “I want everyone to bring their hat”, and one person gets badly sunburnt because she purposely didn’t bring a hat on the grounds that she didn’t have “their hat”, she has only herself to blame.

  15. > They are self-proclaimed authorities; they do not actually know what they are talking about. The only grammar textbooks worth taking seriously are those by linguists, whose profession is to study the language itself and discover the grammar from it, not to try to impose preconceived notions about grammar onto it.
    Actually, isn’t that anthropology? I believe that grammar entails a set of rules – as in, rules to be followed. Deriving “rules” from what one sees is merely recording customs. Do what you will, but at least leave for the few of us the actual meaning of “grammar”.
    As saddened as I am by what I’m reading here, it is fun and I do appreciate the conversation.

  16. Another totally illogical usage is the Royal “we”. According to the dictates of logic, the King or Queen is only one person, therefore “we” is incorrect. But perhaps because royalty has a lot more power and prestige than the hoi polloi, this particular usage doesn’t seem to rouse the ire or scorn of grammar nitpickers.

  17. Good point, Bathrobe! But language nitpickers generally use the language of the upper class to _define_ correctness. They don’t call it the Queen’s English for nothing. And that’s why the royal we is officially recognized and permitted by all good poohbahs.

  18. I believe that grammar entails a set of rules – as in, rules to be followed.
    Language has been spoken for tens of thousands of years, before the first book of “grammar rules” ever saw the light. People are able to speak a language because they know the grammar rules implicitly. Even uneducated English speakers know that the third person singular verb form takes an -s (except for modal auxiliaries like “must”, “shall”, “can”, etc., which do not take -s) without having to consult any written grammars.
    The grammar that you are speaking of is not “grammar” at all. It is a system of “etiquette”, much like the etiquette of table manners or the rules on which buttons should be done up on your suit jacket. Much of the time people lose sight of the origin of the rules (often the opinions of some gentleman from the 18th century as to what should or shouldn’t be and nothing to do with how language was actually used) and accord them some kind of divine authority, as though they were brought down from Mt Sinai. Ultimately, the rules transcend the needs of clarity and authority and are used for one purpose: to separate those who follow them and those who don’t.

  19. “Puto el que lee” is available at the usual on line book stores… Me alegro de que te haya interesado, es realmente muy divertido (and very accurate)

  20. > Another totally illogical usage is the Royal “we”. According to the dictates of logic, the King or Queen is only one person, therefore “we” is incorrect. But perhaps because royalty has a lot more power and prestige than the hoi polloi, this particular usage doesn’t seem to rouse the ire or scorn of grammar nitpickers.
    As to royalty, “We” works because IIRC the queen/king/emperor is the embodiment of all that is the nation and the nation is “we”. If the king is displeased, then the nation is displeased. A possible irony here is that, in this usage, “we” could be seen as a third-person pronoun.

  21. As to royalty, “We” works…
    “They” also works because it obliterates the awkward distinction between male and female that English pronouns so inconveniently require.
    Of course you can come up with any “logic” you like to justify a rule you think is “correct”, and dismiss another that you consider “incorrect”. But it’s pretty clear that the so-called rules are sacrosanct and logic is only brought into play selectively.
    The question remains: Who made up these rules? It was fine for Chaucer and Jane Austen, it seems, but someone has come in at some stage and made up the rule that it’s wrong. By what authority did this person or persons start imposing his rules on everyone else? If you worship the rules, of course such an attitude is akin to blasphemy. The rules are to obeyed and (if necessary) justified “logically”, but they must never be questioned.

  22. It was fine for Chaucer and Jane Austen, it seems, but someone has come in at some stage and made up the rule that it’s wrong
    Sorry, unclear sentence. I was referring, of course, to the rule against using “they”.

  23. Aren’t we engaging with the wrong argument with talk of Chaucer and Austen? Surely Gelernter’s argument (as far as I can deduce it from the gigamonkey blog) is that the change has been forced on him by feminists; his anger being directed towards the imposition of change by the politically motivated. Given that common practice had all but erased the plural-for-single pronoun he may be right and the ‘unnatural’ return of a singular ‘they’ is part of a political or social re-engineering of language. However, the real argument lies in deciding whether that matters. Personally I don’t think it does. What is wrong with changing a language to suit changed sensibilities or realities, (provided that the change is not used to obscure the truth). If a group feels that a language casually marginalises them because of a fault (or ‘feature’) in its structure then why not change that structure?
    So, although my ear tells me something is wrong with ‘they’ used in the singular, my head tells me it is a convenient way of removing an unnecessarily gender specific word. In time, I am sure, my ear will catch up.

  24. Of course you can come up with any “logic” you like to justify a rule you think is “correct”, and dismiss another that you consider “incorrect”.
    Exactly, and all one can do is point out that logic has nothing to do with language and hope it sinks in.
    So, although my ear tells me something is wrong with ‘they’ used in the singular, my head tells me it is a convenient way of removing an unnecessarily gender specific word. In time, I am sure, my ear will catch up.
    That’s the spirit!

  25. David Marjanović says:

    After all, grammar is intended to help people understand each other.

    Grammar is not intended. It has evolved.

    The reason that “they” is used as a singular pronoun is because the English language has a rather glaring gap — it lacks a sexless animate singular pronoun.

    That alone can’t be it. German and French have the exact same gap, but have never tried to fill it.

  26. Hat Man,
    Great interview. Very erudite. I keep asking, when are you gonna write your own tome? You’re an excellent writer.
    Good luck with the book; it should be a big seller. You’ll be cursing like a any-cock’ll-do-horny sailor who’s been at sea for a year straight when you get your first royalty check.
    I worked with you for what seems like a lifetime. I must say in all that time, I never heard you hurl any curses at anyone, though I know you were imagining all kinds of curses during some of the stupid incidents that seemed to happen everyday with us in those days of many corrections. You kept your cursing under your hat. On the other hand, I know you’ve heard me cursing like a disgruntled gentleman of the streets on many of those occasions–even casting spells on people, which is cursing, too, isn’t it? I did at one time have a very vile tongue.
    I grew up under the threat of “We’ll wash your mouth out with a bar of great-grandma’s lye soap if we ever catch you using ‘curse’ or ‘cuss’ words, especially those involving Jesus’s or the Christian God’s name in vain”–and I feared chastisement from these pioneer-type, spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child-type Americans should I one day let slip one of my schoolyard-type curses all boys used in my day–like “You little queer bastard” or “You pussy!”
    My mother never cursed, never! Her mother said “shipital!” all the time, but I never connected that with “shit” so I didn’t consider grandma cussing when she said that. But my mother, no, I had never heard her curse. But then when I was in high school, a true prick of a kid by then, one day my mother teed me off. She was washing dishes at the kitchen sink. She had just come from the hairdressers with a new do because she was heading out to a gala function that night. I don’t remember what she did that teed me off, but whatever it was it turned me into a riled animal against her and I grabbed up the dishpan full of dirty dishwater and dumped it over my her newly quaffed head. Dripping wet with dishwater, she turned on me and, yep, she said, “Why you little asshole. You little shit!” I was dumbstruck. The cursing continued on for about 15 minutes. I’m sure unless she asked holy forgiveness for her sin it was enough to send her straight to hell when she kicked the bucket–and all because I was truly a little asshole. A little chicken-fart.
    Cheers instead of curses on thee, Brother Stephen.
    thegrowlingwolf

  27. You’ll be cursing like a any-cock’ll-do-horny sailor who’s been at sea for a year straight when you get your first royalty check.
    No royalties from this one, alas: work for hire. All the more incentive for me to write my own book. Thanks for the encouragement!

  28. “German and French have the exact same gap”
    Well, in French, it’s not quite the same gap, certainly not as far as possession is concerned. You always say “son chapeau”, regardless of whether the wearer is male or female.

  29. Congratulations–I just read the interview with the Visual Thesaurus guy–very interesting and great that you could apply your brain and passion for language in a book.

  30. clodhopper says:

    “entails a set of rules – as in, rules to be followed”
    Rules are guide lines to be understood then broken as required, otherwise the language will fail to evolve and grow.

  31. That alone can’t be it. German and French have the exact same gap, but have never tried to fill it.
    I’m interested to find out how German and French do deal with this kind of problem? It might throw a lot of light on the English usage.

  32. Stephen Mulraney says:

    1. Congratulations!
    2. I can’t resist making a comment on a closed thread I just stumbled across: A gunnel and a hat (May 8 of this year). AJP Crown commented that Isn’t there supposed to be an Irish toast, ‘To the little gentleman in black velvet’, who is a mole, the mole over whose hill King Billy (Wm III)’s horse tripped, thereby killing the King? I know that’s the story, I’m not sure how true it is; for one thing, moles are brown.
    The wrongly coloured mole gives this the ring of truth: there are no moles in Ireland.
    (nor are there weasels, common shrews, or snakes generally. Slow worms, grassnakes, magpies, mink, rabbits, rats, and mice exist but as far as I know are not indigenous, and there are fewer species of bat than in Britain.)

  33. When these arguments arise, would it not be more intellectually honest to point out that ‘grammar’ has two different meanings:
    1) stylistic conventions some feel should be observed in ‘good’ writing;
    2) the rules unconsciously observed by speakers of a language in forming sentences.
    (No doubt the definitions could be tightened up, but you get my drift.)
    Then if someone objects to the use of singular ‘they’ or any other of these conventions, point out that you are using the word ‘grammar’ in a different sense rather than try to bludgeon them into only using the word in sense 2 by pointing out the arbitrary nature of the conventions in sense 1. Isn’t insisting on only sense 2 being usable a wee bit, you know, prescriptivist?

  34. That is probably fair.
    Looking through Google definitions of “grammar”, we find that Sense 2 is the primary meaning and the correct meaning in a technical sense. For instance:
    the branch of linguistics that deals with syntax and morphology (and sometimes also deals with semantics) (Princeton wordnetweb)
    In linguistics, grammar refers to the logical and structural rules that govern the composition of sentences, phrases, and words in any given natural language. (Wikipedia)
    However, definitions in accordance with sense 1 can also be found, more in a literary than a linguistic context:
    The study of the structure and features of a language. Grammar usually consists of rules and standards that are to be followed to produce acceptable writing and speaking. (Literary terms glossary)
    While sense 1 may seem like a debased notion of grammar, there is also this very interesting “definition”:
    The study of grammar in medieval education included not only the study of the main elements of language but also a study of modes of expression. A student of grammar in the Middle Ages would expect to study prose and poetry, critical theory and literary criticism. (Applied History)

  35. German and French both use the generic masculine. In both cultures there are politically motivated movements to work around that usage, but since both of their grammars are thoroughly gender-infested, this requires very extensive language changes that have failed to gain popularity outside of Officialese/Academese.

  36. John Atkinson says:

    What annoys me most about discussions of singular “they” is that so many people, like Bathrobe, have somehow picked up the idea that the reason it’s used is to avoid specifying a gender, and that it should be used only when the speaker feels a need to do this. Greville Corbett (“Gender”, CUP) apparently thinks this is the case, because he discusses it under “evasive forms”. But it’s not so. Authors from Jane Austin back standardly use it when referring to an indeterminate member of an all-male or all-female group, just as often as in cases where the gender of the referent is unknown or irrelevant. And this is still the case with those of us (like me, and the vast majority of English speakers worldwide) who have managed to avoid being indoctrinated by prescriptionists of either stripe.
    Languages differ, and this has nothing to do with the sexism or otherwise of their speakers. English (most people’s spoken English) has generic “they”. Polish has generic “it” (i.e., it can use the 3rd singular neuter pronoun in such cases). Maa uses “she” as a generic pronoun — and the Maasai aren’t usually thought of as a matriarchal society. Zande uses a special generic pronoun “ni”, different from all other 3rd person pronouns and used for no other purpose; in this it’s rare, perhaps unique, among the world’s languages.

  37. So your point is that “they” is used when English speakers want to be vague about who they are referring to?
    I would probably agree with that. It widens the use from (1) “avoiding specification of sex” to (2) “avoiding specification of any feature of the person at all” (if I may be forgiven for putting it so clumsily). That is, “they” is simply a way of being extremely vague about who you’re talking about. I’m just wondering which is the prior use. Did it come about precisely because “they” was a way of avoiding saying “he” or “she”? Or did “they” have an even vaguer function from the very outset?

  38. Stephen Mulraney says:

    English has generic “they”. Polish has generic “it” (i.e., it can use the 3rd singular neuter pronoun in such cases).
    I suppose you’re referring to the Polish to, and not to the actual 3rd singular neuter pronoun “ono”, which can only be used to refer to grammatically neuter nouns (which are very rarely human—dziecko “child” being a notable exception).
    Although you can use to to say to (jest) osoba, która … “this is the person who…” in a way that doesn’t specify the gender, in general Polish (like German or French, as lukas pointed out) is so thoroughly riddled with gender that you normally won’t get very far in a gender-neutral fashion. Consider the normal to jest kierowniczka “this is the (female) manager”, compared to the bizarre-sounding to jest kierownik, która … “this is the (male) manager who (female)…”
    As for plural reference, I just wish there was an elegant way in Polish to refer to the gender of groups. Off the top of my head, I can think of five pronouns or pronoun-like nouns which can have third-person plural reference—oni, one, panowie, panie, państwo. These distinguish gender of a sort different from that distinguished in the singular (segregating “virile males” from all others, non-virile, female, and neuter) and familiar/formal reference (which is not obligatory since the referred to people are 3rd person, and aren’t being directly addresses; but respectful address is still common). I presume that some titles which serve as modes of address (such as siostr for a nun) could be included in this list. I use the excuse of being a foreigner to avoid getting dragged into the Polish titułomania. I also tend to stay away from flock of nuns.
    As for English “they” (if I must stay on the official off-topic), describing it as “evasive” indeed doesn’t seem right. I think it is gender neutral. It hardly has “evasive” reference in, for example “if anyone calls, tell them I’m not here” (although I guess the action itself is evasive).

  39. I can’t resist making a comment on a closed thread I just stumbled across
    Great! I encourage everyone, if they find a closed thread they want to respond to, either to write me and have me reopen the thread (which I’m always glad to do) or just to leave a comment elsewhere. As you know, LH is the home of the off-topic comment.
    would it not be more intellectually honest to point out that ‘grammar’ has two different meanings
    It would be more intellectually honest to admit that one use is popular and misleading whereas the other is scientific and accurate. “Insisting on only sense 2 being usable” is being, you know, scientific. Or do you also favor giving equal time to “creation science”? Needless to say, I’m not in favor of yelling at people who use the popular sense and implying they’re stupid, but I do explain to them that they will not begin to understand language until they give up their attachment to the nonsense they absorbed at an early age.
    As for English “they” (if I must stay on the official off-topic), describing it as “evasive” indeed doesn’t seem right. I think it is gender neutral.
    Exactly; “gender neutral” is the perfect description.

  40. Isn’t insisting on only sense 2 being usable a wee bit, you know, prescriptivist?
    Underlying the cute hesitation is a mistaken assumption that descriptivists are opposed to all linguistic prescription. We are not. We just ask that there be more thought behind prescriptions than “rules are good” and the usual twaddle about distinctions. In this case, the popular definition of “grammmar” misleadingly gives the sense the that rules promulgated by Lowth, Murray, et al. (and then repeated mindlessly for the past two centuries) have some scientific credibility. And that’s a bad thing. Sure, it would be silly to call that definition “wrong” in all circumstances (“wrong” is just an unhelpful word), but I don’t think I’m risking my descriptivist creds saying we’d all be better off if more people started using “grammar” in its technical sense. (I also don’t object to people decrying political euphemisms.)

  41. I keep hearing that the “children, here are some rules that you must not break” school of English grammar dates from the 18th century. What was it like in school before that, I wonder?

  42. I keep hearing that the “children, here are some rules that you must not break” school of English grammar dates from the 18th century
    I think that attitude goes back a lot further (I remember reading something about a dialogue written by Ælfric in which boys said they would rather be beaten than make a grammatical error); the point is that most of the “rules” we’re still plagued by today can be traced back to grammars by Bishop Lowth and Lindley Murray.

  43. German and French have the exact same gap, but have never tried to fill it.
    Perhaps because they have “man”/”on” at their disposal?

  44. Doesn’t “on” basically mean ‘we’ in contemporary French?

  45. >>It would be more intellectually honest to admit that one use is popular and misleading whereas the other is scientific and accurate. “Insisting on only sense 2 being usable” is being, you know, scientific. Or do you also favor giving equal time to “creation science”? Needless to say, I’m not in favor of yelling at people who use the popular sense and implying they’re stupid, but I do explain to them that they will not begin to understand language until they give up their attachment to the nonsense they absorbed at an early age.

  46. you may not be in favour of ‘screaming at people’ and calling them stupid, but that is the impression some of your more excitable colleagues give.
    I wasn’t excited, if you were referring to me. And, if we’re going to start taking offense, I would argue that it’s more insulting to say of people that they could be more intellectually honest than that they’re working under mistaken assumptions. But let’s not. I don’t think you’re stupid, and I have no desire to scream. Maybe we can start over.
    just as ‘parameter’ has a different meaning in casual conversation than it does in a mathematical treatise, and what we refer to as ‘weight’ in ordinary life, physicists call ‘mass’, I see no harm in having two separate meanings for ‘grammar’.
    I think we all understand the principle, but the cases are different. People don’t use the popular definition of “parameter” with the authority of the technical. They do with grammar. And that not only grants credence to obnoxious prescriptivist attitudes but also does muddies the linguistic debate itself. Maybe that’s not a great deal of harm, but it’s enough to bitch about here and there.

  47. michael farris says:

    The “generic” masculine doesn’t bother me in languages in which gender functions primarily as a largerly aribtrary noun class system (Polish, German, Spanish) the pronoun refers to the noun-class instead of a concrete person At least that’s my logic, native speakers might disagree.
    It does bother me in languages in which the gender of nouns and pronouns is taken to refer to biological gender alone (English, Esperanto).
    In Egnlish I automatically use ‘they’ as a generic. But it’s still a ticklish subject in Esperanto with no generally accepted workaround, even among speakers who find it bothersome).

  48. The wrongly coloured mole gives this the ring of truth: there are no moles in Ireland.
    As far as I can make out from a few internet sources,
    (1) moles are commonly dark grey, dark enough that a toast to the “gentleman in black velvet” makes some kind of sense
    (2) the fatal molehill accident is supposed to have happened in England, not in Ireland, and
    (3) it is called a Jacobite toast, not an Irish toast.

  49. what we refer to as ‘weight’ in ordinary life, physicists call ‘mass’
    I was thinking about this sort of analogy, too, but came to the same conclusion as Jamessal, that it’s not so relevant.
    So, nothing to do with the topic, but:
    The word force offers an even more striking example than weight. Some people don’t seem to get it that the word has a perfectly respectable and useful life of its own going back to before Newton’s new concept was given that name. I believe that some have even gone so far as to take it as evidence of the public’s ignorance of physics when the word is used “wrong”.
    Again, vector has separate technical meanings in mathematics and biology, and I have heard more than one mathematician snicker at the latter under the mistaken impression that it represents a misuse of the math term.

  50. Stephen Mulraney says:

    Me: The wrongly coloured mole gives this the ring of truth: there are no moles in Ireland.
    ø: the fatal molehill accident is supposed to have happened in England, not in Ireland, and
    My point was rather than an anecdote in which a mole is attributed a wrong colour is more likely to flourish (without correction) in a country without moles (one could compare a traditional Irish term for a black person: fear gorm, that is, a blue man).
    But as you say, moles are quite dark-coloured so it’s not necessarily a mistake (I have never actually seen a mole except in photographs, nor have I ever heard a Jacobite toast – and incidently, Jacobite is (was) a political persuasion, while Irish is a nationality; it’s possible that the toast was popular amoung Irish Jacobites).

  51. Now I see what you meant. Silly me. Mountains, molehills, tunnels, gunnels, …

  52. Stephen Mulraney: nor are there weasels, common shrews, or snakes generally. Slow worms, grassnakes, magpies, mink, rabbits, rats, and mice exist but as far as I know are not indigenous, and there are fewer species of bat than in Britain.
    I knew about the snakes of course, but that’s interesting.
    The moles I’ve seen have been brownish-black not grey, but I’m prepared to admit that the little gentleman in brownish-black velvet would be unhelpfully pedantic.
    I am currently reading CV Wedgwood’s book on Charles I, The King’s Peace 1637-41. It has tons of absolutely fascinating information about life in Ireland and Britain at that time. I recommend it to all of you, especially Language, I know you would love it. (Despite the clarity of her thinking and her wide vocabulary, I do find Dame Veronica’s writing style slightly off-putting.)
    Empty, I don’t know if you noticed Stephen Mulraney’s URL. It seems you guys have much in common.

  53. Newton’s new concept was given that name
    I could be convinced, but, off hand, I think a reasonable case can be made against this attribution. (1) The word force (and its translations) was in fairly technical use by the generation preceding him. (2) The narrow sense of force is his vis impressa. But the Principia also has vis insita and vis centripeta. The straightforward assumption is that vis = force (in this and non-physics senses) for Newton and his contemporaries. So the narrowing (or shortening) came later.
    The case for mass is much better. Quantitas materiæ (previous page to above) really is a new concept (mass as distinct from weight, recent experimentation having shown that weight varies). And he says, “Hanc autem quantitatem sub nomine corporis vel masssæ in sequentibus passim intelligo.”

  54. I’m prepared to admit that the little gentleman in brownish-black velvet would be unhelpfully pedantic.
    Oh no! My Babbage Alert has gone off, and I must quote Babbage’s letter to Tennyson!
    In your otherwise beautiful poem, one verse reads, “Every minute dies a man, Every minute one is born.”
    I need hardly point out to you that this calculation would tend to keep the sum total of the world’s population in a state of perpetual equipoise, whereas it is a well-known fact that the said sum total is constantly on the increase. I would therefore take the liberty of suggesting that in the next edition of your excellent poem the erroneous calculation to which I refer should be corrected as follows:
    “Every moment dies a man, And one and a sixteenth is born.”
    I may add that the exact figures are 1.067, but something must, of course, be conceded to the laws of metre.

  55. I recommend it to all of you, especially Language, I know you would love it.
    Excellent, I’ll add it to my list!

  56. AJP: the little gentleman in brownish-black velvet would be unhelpfully pedantic
    Hat: the little gentleman in brownish-black velvet would be unhelpfully pedantic

  57. “1.067″ sounds suspiciously inexact to me.

  58. Flapping Bathrobe says:

    I wasn’t excited, if you were referring to me.
    Actually, jamessal, I think he was referring to me.

  59. Flapping Bathrobe says:

    I wasn’t excited, if you were referring to me.
    Actually, jamessal, I think he was referring to me.

  60. I wasn’t thinking of either of you in particular, more of an impression accumulated from seeing many such conversations over the years.

  61. David Marjanović says:

    German and French both use the generic masculine. In both cultures there are politically motivated movements to work around that usage, but since both of their grammars are thoroughly gender-infested, this requires very extensive language changes that have failed to gain popularity outside of Officialese/Academese.

    This refers to shortened ways of writing the male and the female form in one word (étudiantEs, StudentInnen <– that’s a capital i in there, not a lowercase L). This is written only; there’s no known way to pronounce it.
    As far as I’m aware, no epicene pronoun has ever been invented in these languages.

    grammatically neuter nouns (which are very rarely human—dziecko “child” being a notable exception)

    Also in German. I’ve often seen sentences in English that start with the child or the kid and then use he — in German that’s plain wrong, if you want to use “he” later, you must use “the boy” from the start.
    Looks like it is explicitly inanimate in English.

    German and French have the exact same gap, but have never tried to fill it.

    Perhaps because they have “man”/”on” at their disposal?

    That helps far less often than one might think. In German, the possessive pronoun that goes with man is the masculine one. (Actually… hm. The masculine and the neuter one are the same, but I’ve never got the idea that man could be neuter.) As explained above, this doesn’t apply to French, but French adapts adjectives and participles to the gender of the subject, and on counts as masculine for that purpose (on est content, never contente). (In turn, this doesn’t apply to German…)
    Even “who” is masculine in German. (I wonder if this goes back all the way to Proto-Indo-European, when the animate gender became masculine and the inanimate became neuter, with the sole exceptions of “who” and “what”.) And while “his or her” is sort of tolerated with “some-/anyone” ((irgend)jemand) in the standard language (“her” alone isn’t!), it’s not in my dialect, where the feminine form of “one” has to be used if females are meant.

    Doesn’t “on” basically mean ‘we’ in contemporary French?

    Yes, but:
    1) Even then, an all-female group will invariably treat on as masculine singular: on est content “we are content”. I don’t know what happens to “we are all content”, however; it almost certainly contains toutes, but I’m not sure about the rest.
    2) Presumably to avoid confusion, it often happens colloquially that the 2nd person singular is used as an impersonal pronoun. I don’t know if adjectives/participles agree with the sex of the actual addressee then or are left at the masculine default.

  62. David Marjanović says:

    Oops. I quote bulbul quoting me, and then forgot to close one tag behind that paragraph…

  63. That helps far less often than one might think.
    Monique Wittig still felt that by mostly just fooling around with the pronouns (on in L’Opoponax), she could accomplish her goal.

  64. “an all-female group will invariably treat on as masculine singular: on est content”
    Well, that may be the theoretical rule, but in practice, it’s really not like that, I hear “on est contentes” all the time, and Google gives 1,670 results for it.

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