Geoff Nunberg has an interesting take on why, despite the proliferation of books explaining to the public at large how language works (I was happy to see that he name-checks my man Robert A. Hall), people persist in believing all manner of nonsense, “from their conviction that African American Vernacular English is slovenly and without rules to their certainty that Elizabethan English persists in Appalachian hollows.” He uses Amazon.com’s “customers who bought this book also bought” feature to suggest that people who buy books by real linguists buy other books by real linguists, while those who buy books on “proper usage” and “better English” stick to that sort of book and thus are not exposed to more enlightening material. Sad if true, and I have to admit it sounds plausible.

While I’m on the Language Log Geoff beat, I should mention that Geoff Pullum has called a halt to his quest for “attested cases of coordinate structures… with large numbers of coordinates,” having been sent a reference to a coordinative listing of 433 different kinds of cod (“ball-bag” in the Penguin translation) in Book 3, Chapter 28 of Gargantua and Pantagruel. His conclusion:

The class of all English sentences may be regarded as indefinitely huge though ultimately finite (like the set of all pine needles) or actually infinite (like the set of all integers), but either way, one thing is clear: no grammar that names a specific number as the maximim number of coordinates permitted in a coordinate structure is a correct grammar.

I regret to say that an examination of both the original French text of the chapter and the Urquhart translation does not show a coordinate structure with a conjunction, or even a sentence at all, but merely a list of names, each treated as a separate entity, so unless the Penguin translation (which I do not have) renders it as a long sentence with “and,” the example should be disqualified. The conclusion, however, is irrefutable.
Update. I lied: it turns out I do have the Penguin translation, and it too has a list in columns with no coordinating conjunction. I rest my case.


  1. Trollin’, trollin’, trollin’. Hah! Go hide! Er … what do linguists actually do?

  2. National Geographic did a spotlight on linguists in the wild. They had some stunning photographs of linguists chasing archaic verb forms across the Serengeti (at speeds up to 30mph!).

  3. Chainik? I know it means teapot in Russian. But whenever I hear it I think of my Yiddish-speaking relatives talking about hocking a chainik. I must consult The Joys of Yiddish, as I’ve forgotten what it meant, only the sounds of the words.

  4. It also has a strong secondary meaning of “idiot” or “dunce” in Russian. I feel a certain affinity for it.
    I’d be curious to know what it means in Yiddish.

  5. Chainik itself means ‘teapot,’ but hakn a chainik (literally ‘to chop a teapot’) means ‘to talk nonsense.’

  6. Spaciba vam balshoy, hat. There’s another Yiddish expression parallel to the hocking a chainik. “Taka, taka” also meant (means)talking nonsense.

  7. I know hakn can mean “chop”, but the Yiddish speakers I know translate “hok nit oyf a chainik” as “don’t bang on a teapot”. I think the implication is that banging on a teapot is meaningless noise, rather than chopping a teapot up being nonsensical. If you think of chopping-mincing with a cleaver, as in hakfleish, that makes sense too. To bang the teapot is irritating too, it’s annoying nonsense, not amusing nonsense.
    Incidentally, while googling, I noticed someone writing under the name “Hakim M Chainik”. Heh.

  8. Well, if you add the “oyf” in there, it would make more sense to translate it that way. If Bob Cohen drops by for a visit, I hope he’ll give his sense of the expression.
    Love the Hakim!

  9. I was intrigued to learn that Yiddish tapes are available for sale at military post clothing and sales shops, such as the one in Fort Stewart. There’s hope for the survival of Yiddish yet, maybe.

  10. Anyway, back to your earlier point, from “He uses Amazon.com’s “customers who bought this book also bought” feature to suggest that people who buy books by real linguists buy other books by real linguists, while those who buy books on “proper usage” and “better English” stick to that sort of book and thus are not exposed to more enlightening material.”
    I would very much like to hear what Doug Stephan talk-show host in the broadcasts which you can find at radioamerica and his listeners have to say about the above observation. Does anyone listen to his program?

  11. Weinreich gives hakn ‘to chop, hew, mince, slash’ (hakn in ‘to beat violently at’). Harkavy also glosses it ‘to talk (fig.)’. hakn is thought to be the origin of Hacker’s Jargon ‘to hack’.

  12. Thought by whom? Standard English hack (in the sense ‘whack away at’) provides a good point of origin, and I don’t think of the early hacking community as a particularly Yiddish-oriented group.

  13. Well, ‘idiot’ is much stronger word than ‘chajnik’. ‘Chajnik’ has this slight hint of some condescension. I’d use it, f.ex., when describing somebody who let him/her/self to fall victim of con game, like answering “You are the $1000,000,000 Winner!” letter. I’d call this person an idiot if he/she continues doing it after numerous disappointments…

  14. LH. The editors of the Hacker’s Jargon Files (later a print dictionary). I remember reading that much of the early hacker jargon came out of the MIT AI lab and was influenced by Yiddishisms. I could’ve remembered incorrectly, though.

  15. The Jargon FIle still exists, and the current entry for “hack” has no etymology.
    MIT, for sure:

    Regardless of the width or narrowness of the definition, most modern hackers trace the word back to MIT, where the term bubbled up as popular item of student jargon in the early 1950s. In 1990 the MIT Museum put together a journal documenting the hacking phenomenon. According to the journal, students who attended the institute during the fifties used the word “hack” the way a modern student might use the word “goof.”

    (That’s Richard M Stallman, AKA RMS.)

  16. I probably just misremembered the source or the etymology. oh, well.

  17. Ummm….there _must_ be others here whose bookshelves contain Pinker, Chomsky, Safire, Bernstein, and Lederer….right?
    Or am I just too indiscriminate to fall into either camp, and have I disgraced myself permanently among the True Linguists?

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