Showing posts with label wordplay. Show all posts
Showing posts with label wordplay. Show all posts

2.02.2019

"use it in good health"

When I was growing up, my grandparents and other older relatives used an expression, "Use it in good health," or a variant, "Wear it in good health". 

This was said when you bought something that you were very excited about, or received a wonderful gift, or made a major purchase. If you brought home a new coat that you loved, and tried it on to show her, along with "It's beautiful," or "It looks great on you," my mother would say, "Wear it in good health." 

Another variant is, "You should wear it in good health." The you should part is a wish or a prayer, similar to the more formal (and religious-sounding) may you. It expresses a desire. In "wear it in good health," the you should or may you is understood. 

Tangent: there is also a sarcastic version of you should. "Maybe the Democrats will grow spines and vote against this war." "You should live so long." This is roughly equivalent to hell freezing over.

Another tangent: there is also the Jewish you shouldn't. "Bring a snack, you shouldn't faint from hunger," meaning, bring a snack so that you won't be hungry. This is often an exaggeration meant to be humorous.

So when I recently told my mother about our new car, she said, "Use it in good health."

I've always assumed this was a Jewish-culture thing, but I actually don't know. Perhaps it's even more specific, a Brooklyn-Jewish thing. Or perhaps it's not Jewish at all, perhaps it's generational. Do you know this expression? Did your family from [somewhere] use it?

I know most people will answer on Facebook and not here. But if you could leave a comment here so it's captured on this blog, I would appreciate it.

About the saying itself, it's one of those idioms I heard without ever thinking about. With my mother now the only person in my life who would use these old expressions, I sometimes hear them with fresh ears. I love this one. It acknowledges the importance to you of this material object, and at the same time, puts it in perspective. The coat is beautiful, but only if you have the good health to enjoy it.

6.10.2017

what i'm reading: words on the move by john mcwhorter

John McWhorter is changing my mind about language. And that is no easy thing to do.

I'm a grammarphile. Word nerd, language junkie, spelling nut, stickler -- whatever you want to call it. I appreciate proper spelling and good grammar, and I cringe at all the bad grammar all around us. Apostrophe abuse drives me insane. Same for unnecessary quotation marks. Misspelled words on websites, signs, flyers, and official documents... don't get me started.

Yet I also part ways with some of my fellow grammar-lovers. I believe grammar is important for writing, but not necessarily for speech -- and certainly not for casual speech. I hate seeing knowledge of grammar used to shame or exclude, or worse, as an excuse to not listen. Wmtc comment guidelines warn readers not to correct another commenter's grammar or spelling.

Even further, I believe it's perfectly all right to relax certain writing rules for casual writing. It's not necessary, in my view, to use awkward phrasing in order to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition in a casual email. It's all right to use sentence fragments, or to start a sentence with but. I don't think the English language is being killed off by texting; in fact, I know it's not. And most importantly, I don't think I'm better or smarter than anyone else because I use apostrophes correctly and they don't. But those unnecessary apostrophes still drive me insane!

So perhaps I was pre-disposed to enjoy John Whorter's enlightening and entertaining book, Words on the Move: Why English Won't -- and Can't -- Sit Still (Like Literally). But I do think that anyone who enjoys thinking about language would like this book.

McWhorter's most important message is in the title: language is never still. The meanings of words always change. Meanings have always changed, they are changing now, and they will continue to change in the future.
It isn't that a certain curiosity cabinet of a few dozen words happened to have different meanings hundreds of years ago. Just about all words in any language have different meanings now than they did in the past. Some words' meanings hold on longer than others. Some few even hold on to the same meaning for thousands of years. However, it is they...that are the oddities.
The book presents some illustrations of every day objects such as bread, fruit, meat, and fuel, and the words that have been used to convey those meanings over centuries. Then, the author writes,
Picture this process happening across tens of thousands of words all the time. That is the essence of what words are, and why the dictionary can qualify only as a snapshot of how the film was situated on the grid at one particular point in time.
McWhorter, a professor of English and comparative literature, says this throughout the book, in many different, entertaining ways. One of his strengths is creating lovely little analogies to illustrate his meaning. He's also very adept at shooting holes in the corrections most beloved by correcters, by showing us how inconsistent we all are.

If there's an expression that drives you crazy because it's usually used "wrong," chances are, it meant your particular version of "correct" only for a period of time in between its other meanings and uses. Most likely, the meaning has changed and you need to update your personal lexicon. Whatever your favourite bugaboo -- decimate, irregardless, sink down, used to, literally -- McWhorter has a slew of examples to prove that your objections are inconsistent at best, and might even be ridiculous. Those of us who hate the overuse of literally to mean its opposite may be surprised at how many words now mean their opposite that we never bother to complain about -- because those words changed in a different time and bothered different people. And it's not just English. It's all languages, all the time. Change, change, change.

Some of McWhorter's ideas are controversial. He explains speech tics such as "like" and "you know," and why we shouldn't care about them. He maintains that slang, including shorthands we use online and in text messages, are as old as language itself, and don't hurt the language. He counsels us to embrace "the euphemism treadmill" -- from Colored to Negro to Black to African American -- and explains why cultures make these shifts.

Perhaps most controversially, McWhorter argues that Shakespeare should be cautiously and judiciously translated, to make the plays more accessible to contemporary audiences.

If you love Shakespeare as I do, let me elaborate before your blood pressure elevates. About 10 percent of the words Shakespeare used now mean something completely different than they did when he wrote them. If we read Shakespeare, we can use footnotes, but when we watch a play or film adaptation -- and the words were meant to be performed, after all -- we can often follow the action through context and prior knowledge, and we might get the gist of the language, but we miss a good deal of the meaning. We miss more than we think, something the author illustrates very well. McWhorter believes that Shakespearean scholars should tweak the language for greater understanding.
Yes, I have been one of those people, and have experienced resistance (and even dribbles of vitriol) in response. However, most of this resistance has been based on the idea that the difference between our language and Shakespeare's is only one of poetry, density, or elevation.

The reason Shakespeare's prose sounds so "poetic" is partly because it is. But it is also partly for the more mundane reasons that his language is not, to a larger extent than we might prefer to know, inaccessible to us without careful study on the page.

Many assume that the translation I refer to would have to be into slang. I suspect this is because it can be hard to perceive that the very meanings of even the most mundane of words have often changed so much -- if one thinks the difficulty of the language is merely a matter of "poetry," then it's easy to think that no translation in neutral current English could be at issue, and hence the notion of "Yo, whaddup, Calpurnia?" as a serious literary suggestion.
He gives a few elegant examples, which are "hardly a desecration" -- the language is still "challenging and even beautiful, especially since most of it is the original." I must agree. He explains that he's not suggesting the original plays be withdrawn and never read.
However a world where the usual experience of a Shakespeare play outside universities was in today's English would be one where, quite simply, more people were capable of truly understanding and enjoying the Bard's work rather than genuflecting to it. Seeing Shakespeare shouldn't be like eating your vegetables -- even tasty vegetables. Nor is it much more inspiring for us to treat Shakespeare as a kind of verbal wallpaper or scent that we sit back and allow to "wash over" us. . . . Shakespeare translated into today's English wouldn't be exactly Shakespeare, no. But given a choice between Shakespeare as an elite taste and Shakespeare engaged the way Russians engage Chekhov and Americans engage Scorsese films and "Arrested Development", some may judge Shakespeare that isn't always exactly what Shakespeare wrote as less than a tragedy.
Like the novel, theatre, and baseball, language is something people often claim is dying or already dead. But if no one ever writes or reads another novel, and the great game of baseball is never played again, we will still have language -- because we are human. And language will still be changing, because that's what it does.

12.11.2012

a great date


It's 12.12.12! To all my fellow obsessives, enjoy the day!

10.14.2012

we like lists: list # 19: more eponyms, subcategory edition

Eponyms everywhere! Who knew?

Our most recent list of eponyms was a smash success. It gave rise to at least three subcategories, as I wrote here:

- Inventor/creator/discoverer, not genericized. These are eponyms, but have not entered the vocabulary as a separate noun or descriptor. Example: Alzheimer's. Compare to pasteurized.

- Fictional characters
--- Mythological names
----- Biblical names

This list is more specific, and more difficult. Allan and I have done this one before, and even with help from a well-read listserv, came up with only a handful. (Idea for new reality show: Are you smarter than Wallace-L?)

When Joseph Heller died, I marveled at how his creation has entered our vocabulary as such a widely recognized generic expression. The often-misused phrase "catch-22" was long ago separated from its origins. I'm sure many people use it who have never heard of Heller's book. I wondered if there were any other examples.

Using a very strict criteria, we came up with very few:
Catch-22
Lolita
Big Brother
Scrooge

Here are the rules. Fiction only. Can be a title or a character. The author must be a known person whose identity is not in dispute. That means no myths, including bible stories, but of course Shakespeare can be used. The word must be recognizable as a generic term, enough that you'd see it used in a mainstream newspaper story.

Thanks to last night's thread, I'll add one that the Wallace list missed:
Romeo

Got any others? You can use our last list, but other than that, no cheating, please.

10.13.2012

we like lists: list # 18: words that were once people

I really enjoy learning about the origins of words and expressions. (I included this in our last list.) Several words now part of ordinary vocabulary started out as proper names.

In 1880, a group of Irish tenant farmers organized a labour ostracism against the agent of an abusive absentee landlord. The agent's name was Charles Boycott.


Charles Ponzi was a con artist who promised investors they would double their money in 90 days.


In the film "La Dolce Vita," directed by Federico Fellini, an intrusive photographer is named Paparazzo.
Thomas Bowdler was a crusading editor who published a book called "The Family Shakespeare": the Bard without the naughty bits. Bowdler believed his work made Shakespeare suitable for the delicate sensibilities of ladies (i.e., upper-class women) and children.

So there we have four words - boycott, Ponzi scheme, paparazzi, and bowdlerized - that are derived from people's names.

Can you think of any others?

Adjectives like "Orwellian" or "Dickensian" don't count. Those refer to conditions described by an author. "Freudian" doesn't qualify, but if, say, dream interpretation was called sigmundosis, that would count.

11.11.2011

best date i'll ever see in my whole entire life

It's 11.11.11 !!! And I'm posting this at 11:11, of course.

10.10.10 was cool, and 12.12.12 will be cool, too. And I love palindromes, so 12.22.21, if I'm around for it, will be totally kickass. But 11.11.11 is the best.

What can I say? This is the kind of thing you either like or you don't. I like!

4.17.2011

if this knish could talk: some language-related thoughts

When I first moved to Canada, I could really hear my neighbours' "accent" - their Canadian-sounding speech. Now I no longer notice it. People still sometimes ask me if I'm from the US, and occasionally someone recognizes my speech as New York- sounding. Recently, though, I've noticed the sound of my own language changing. My "sorry" now sounds more like "sirry" than "sahry". The other day, I said "zed" without thinking. It's interesting to me how this just happens, some kind of linguistic osmosis.

As far as I know, I never sounded like this video, but some of it is irrefutable. "They're not usually quiet people."


I recently read this review of You Are What You Speak - Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity by Robert Lane Greene.
Greene makes it his business to dispel popular misconceptions, large and small. (Politicians and pundits, please note: the Chinese word for “crisis” is not composed of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity.”) To that end, he visits with the University of Pennsylvania’s Mark Liberman, a multifaceted scholar who serves as a one-man truth squad at the Language Log blog, of which he is a co-founder.

In her 2006 book “The Female Brain,” for example, Louann Brizendine reported that women average 20,000 words a day against just 7,000 for men. That came as no surprise to many in the media; as one TV reporter put it: “Here’s a news flash. Women talk more than men. Duh.” But Liberman tracked Brizendine’s figures to an unsourced claim in a self-help book and noted that the empirical research shows both sexes using about the same number of words in a day. Duh! yourself.

And when columnists including George Will and Stanley Fish asserted that President Obama’s frequent use of “I” and “me” betrayed his arrogance and self-absorption, Liberman did the counts and showed that Obama actually used those pronouns far less often in speeches and press conferences than did any of his recent predecessors.

. . .

In his view, the efforts of the French to purge their tongue of English words arise in part from a “dented self-image,” even though French is hardly a threatened language. And while Americans may bristle at the comparison, he sees the same unwarranted insecurity behind the English-only movement. As Greene notes, English doesn’t need protecting; modern immigrants are acquiring the language far more rapidly than immigrants did a century ago and, sadly, are rapidly losing their original languages in the bargain. But that’s unlikely to deter the sponsors of English-only measures, which presuppose that recent immigrants have resisted assimilation.

Greene’s abhorrence of linguistic meddling extends to the “grouches,” “scolds” and “vigilantes” who complain that English is going to hell in a Hupmobile and insist on imposing specious rules and crotchets on a language that is doing quite nicely on its own, thank you. In fact, he argues that the quality of this “declinism” has itself gone downhill over the last century. We’ve passed from the thoughtful homilies of Fowler to the pithy dictums of Strunk and White to the operatic curmudgeonry of modern sticklers like Lynne Truss, whose gasps of horror at the sight of a misplaced apostrophe are a campy cover for self-congratulation.

. . . Most of the usage questions that engage us daily have nothing to do with politics, race or class, and they almost never figure among the score or so of timeworn bugbears that people report as their pet peeves, like “irregardless,” “literally” and “I could care less.” (Doesn’t anybody know what “pet” means anymore?)

Not long ago I did a double take when I encountered the phrase “refreshingly simplistic” in a music review. When I looked it up on Google, I got hundreds of hits. It seemed to have sprung out of nowhere ­— these things always do — but it turns out people have been using “simplistic” for at least 40 years to mean something like “plain” or “unadorned.”

Well, language changes, and speakers in a generation or two will probably find my animadversions over “refreshingly simplistic” as tiresome and fusty as I find those by people who still grouse about using “nauseous” to mean sick. (As Greene succinctly puts it, “Yesterday’s abomination is today’s rule.”) Yet the prospect of future acceptance doesn’t allay my feeling that the phrase is a pratfall. It’s as if I’d tried to tell my parents when I was growing up that I shouldn’t have had to wear a jacket to a restaurant, since people a half-century later would be showing up in jeans and flip-flops.
I liked this bit because I have my own decidedly mixed feelings on this abomination-vs-rule debate. The avalanche of apostrophe abuse drives me insane. The quantity of quotation marks, same. I'm fond of saying "It's not ironic, it's a coincidence!" This surely makes me, in Lane's eyes, a grammar grouch.

But... there's a but. People who correct other people's grammar and usage bother me almost as much as bad grammar. My comment policy, for example, asks that we not correct each other in comments. We all have different backgrounds, different levels of formal education; what's important is that we communicate, not that we communicate according to a specific set of rules.

I sometimes email with a friend in Peru. My Spanish is abominable. But he encourages me to write him, and he always says my Spanish is fine - undoubtedly because he is too nice to say otherwise, and because he wants me to write. I always encourage people to express themselves, in whatever way they can.

Yet when one of my professors - a woman with a PhD, for crissakes - wrote it's for its, I was embarrassed for her. I wonder if I'm the only person in the class who noticed.

Somehow I subscribe to these two contradictory modes of thoughts at the same time.

1.11.2011

another cool date

I had this post scheduled to go up at 11:11 a.m.... but it did not. Thanks, Blogger.

Yay, it's 1.11.11!



Isn't this fun?



No? Not really?

1.01.2011

great date

It's 1.1.11!

Or 01.01.11.

Either way, I like it.

Posting this at 11:11, of course

12.21.2010

what i'm reading: apex hides the hurt

I'll probably write a combined "what i'm reading" post for everything I read on my winter break. But right now I'm reading a novel I love so much, that I just couldn't wait to tell you about it: Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead.

I don't want to give too much plot away, because I love the way the novel unfolds, but here's enough to go on. A "nomenclature consultant" is hired to help a town re-name itself. This is a man who dreams up the names that brand our world - the popular pharmaceuticals, the cell phones, the toothpaste, household cleaners and video game systems. Now he's going to judge which name best suits an old town with a new look - new money and new computer-related jobs.

But the town already has a name. Gentrification and job growth are important, but what about tradition? Which leads to the question... whose tradition? Turns out, the town's current and historic name was itself a re-naming, not unlike "America" or the "West Indies". History is written by the conquerors - and the definition of "traditional" depends on where we start.

History, race, class, advertising, language, and consumer culture converge. Yet somehow this all happens in a slim, wryly funny, wonderfully readable, little miracle of a book. I am fascinated by - and so envious of - how certain writers can do so much in so little, layers of meaning packed into so few words.

Apex Hides the Hurt skewers marketing, advertising, and contemporary consumer culture. It's a commentary on the pervasiveness of marketing in our lives, and how marketing reduces everything to its demographic parts. It's about language, and how language is exploited to sell - products, ideas, people, history, anything.

The novel also plays with the contemporary penchant (or obsession) for naming every phenomena of the world around us, the kind that Urban Dictionary collects, but perhaps with a biblical reference, as a man continues to name the animals.
What do you call that terrible length of time between when you see that your food is ready and when your waitress drags her ass over to your table with it? He saw Regina emerge from the back of the restaurant. His eyes zipped to the plate sitting on the kitchen ledge. Tantalasia. Rather broad applications, Tantalasia, apart form the food thing. An emotional state, that muted area between desire and consummation. A literal territory, some patch of unnamed broken gravel between places on a map.

Apex Hides the Hurt even contains a wry send-up of libraries and librarians. A town librarian has written the official history of the town.
Winning over the town librarian for sympathetic press wasn't too much of a task, he figured. A set of leatherbound Shakespeare would do it.

Later, the narrator tries to visit the town library, only to find it has been displaced by a big-box clothing chain, a fictional version of Old Navy.
On the rare occasions that he entered libraries, he always felt assured of his virtue. If they figured out how to distill essence of library into a convenient delivery system - a piece of gum or a gelcap, for example - he would consume it eagerly, relieved to be finished with more taxing methods of virtue gratification. Helping little old ladies across the street. Giving tourists directions. Libraries. Alas there would be no warm feelings of satisfaction today. The place was a husk. The books were gone. Where he would usually be intimidated by an army of daunting spines, there were only dust-ball rinds and Dewey decimal grave markers.

Whitehead writes the hipster librarian with a perfect eye for detail. As she chats with the nomenclature consultant, he thinks, "Slimpies: Ready-to-Wear Shrugs for When You Just Don't Have It in You."

* * * *

Before the digital era and the explosion of activist creativity, before YouTube and viral marketing - and before the shelf life of taglines had been reduced to nanoseconds - there were some standard activist slogans you'd always see. The same dozen sayings would emblazon the t-shirts, bumper stickers and postcards sold at demos and folk music festivals. "I long for the day schools have a surplus and the Pentagon has to hold a bake sale" and "Why doesn't Crayola's flesh-coloured crayon come in 52 shades?". In those days, there was something called a "flesh-coloured" crayon, a pinkish-beige hue.

Now we live in an era where flesh-coloured crayons come in many shades. Our TV screens are populated by people of all colours. But is that multiculturalism promoting equality, empathy and understanding among all people? Or is the appearance of diversity merely a tool used to induce more people to buy more products? This is a central question of Apex Hides the Hurt. It's about, among other things, what I wrote about here: "you can't find inner peace in a bottle (of iced tea)".

With this brilliant little book, Colson Whitehead becomes one of My Favourite Writers.

* * * *

I've also read Whitehead's wonderful, unusual debut novel The Intuitionist, in which ideas about race and how we perceive the world converge and double-back on themselves in a world of skyscrapers and elevator inspectors. Whitehead is also the author of some of the greatest words ever written about New York City, a collection called The Colossus of New York, the cultural grandchild of E. B. White's classic Here Is New York.

I blogged about Colson Whitehead after a terrific essay of his ran in the New York Times: "I write in Brooklyn. Get over it." And I included him in a trio of Great Writers on the Great City: please go here and especially here. (New York City fans: click on that last link.)

I have not read his novels John Henry Days (2001, shortlisted for Pulitzer Prize) or Sag Harbor (2009), but I will.

10.10.2010

excellent date


It's 10/10/10! I will schedule this post for 10:10 a.m.

I see I did this last year in September. This date is even better. Something about those ohs and ones.

9.04.2010

changing the world, armed with white-out and a black sharpie

Last time I declared someone "my new hero," she turned out to be an actor doing a hoax. I don't care. I still loved the video of the fake assistant pretend-quitting her imaginary job.

These guys are my hero of the moment, and they really did this, and wrote a book about it. And they had a sense of humour about it, too. Maybe on that cross-country trip I dream of making, we'll arm ourselves with white-out and Sharpies and help stamp out the scourge of apostrophe abuse.
Incensed by a "no tresspassing" sign, Jeff Deck launched a cross-country trip to right grammatical wrongs.

He enlisted a friend, Benjamin D. Herson, and together they got to work erasing errant quotation marks, rectifying misspellings and cutting unnecessary possessive apostrophes.

The Great Typo Hunt is the story of their crusade.

In 2 1/2 months, Herson and Deck traveled the perimeter of the country, exploring towns and cities in search of typos. They found 437 typos and were able to correct more than half of them.

I'm very surprised they found only 437 typos. I saw half that number on a menu in Santa Fe last summer.

Check out the website: The Great Typo Hunt.

1.11.2010

i'd rather be blogging

I love today's Daily Dose of Imagery. Some of those "kids today" who don't read anymore. Publishers and booksellers know it's not true. Youth librarians all over the country know, too.

This future youth librarian has to prepare a presentation on two chapters of this book, due tomorrow morning. Allan has a post in the works, so I'll turn wmtc over to him* later today.

Another important note about today: it's a palindrome. 011110.





* Never!

9.09.2009

great date

Hey, I just realized today is 09/09/09. Think of me tonight at 9:09. See you later.

8.19.2009

heroes and vandals, hero's and vandal's work

From the Daily Mail (UK): Punctuation hero' branded a vandal for painting apostrophes on street signs.

This man's efforts, while noteworthy, leave the more pressing work untouched: wiping out the unnecessary apostrophes littering our visual landscape.

Get out there and do your part. Erase an apostrophe today.

Stamp out apostrophe abuse in our lifetime.

Thanks to Fred for thinking of me.

2.01.2009

say it aint so!

The whole world is adding apostrophes where they aren't needed. Tire's for sale, hundred's of item's available, the Liberal Party announces it's decision. (Wrong, wrong, wrong.)

But the city of Birmingham, England, is going in the other direction.
Its a catastrophe for the apostrophe in Britain

On the streets of Birmingham, the queen's English is now the queens English.

England's second-largest city has decided to drop apostrophes from all its street signs, saying they're confusing and old-fashioned.

But some purists are downright possessive about the punctuation mark.

It seems that Birmingham officials have been taking a hammer to grammar for years, quietly dropping apostrophes from street signs since the 1950s. Through the decades, residents have frequently launched spirited campaigns to restore the missing punctuation to signs denoting such places as "St. Pauls Square" or "Acocks Green."

This week, the council made it official, saying it was banning the punctuation mark from signs in a bid to end the dispute once and for all.

Councilor Martin Mullaney, who heads the city's transport scrutiny committee, said he decided to act after yet another interminable debate into whether "Kings Heath," a Birmingham suburb, should be rewritten with an apostrophe.

"I had to make a final decision on this," he said Friday. "We keep debating apostrophes in meetings and we have other things to do."

Mullaney hopes to stop public campaigns to restore the apostrophe that would tell passers-by that "Kings Heath" was once owned by the monarchy.

"Apostrophes denote possessions that are no longer accurate, and are not needed," he said. "More importantly, they confuse people. If I want to go to a restaurant, I don't want to have an A-level (high school diploma) in English to find it."

But grammarians say apostrophes enrich the English language.

"They are such sweet-looking things that play a crucial role in the English language," said Marie Clair of the Plain English Society, which campaigns for the use of simple English. "It's always worth taking the effort to understand them, instead of ignoring them."

Mullaney claimed apostrophes confuse GPS units, including those used by emergency services. But Jenny Hodge, a spokeswoman for satellite navigation equipment manufacturer TomTom, said most users of their systems navigate through Britain's sometime confusing streets by entering a postal code rather than a street address.

She said that if someone preferred to use a street name — with or without an apostrophe — punctuation wouldn't be an issue. By the time the first few letters of the street were entered, a list of matching choices would pop up and the user would choose the destination.

A test by The Associated Press backed this up. In a search for London street St. Mary's Road, the name popped up before the apostrophe had to be entered.

There is no national body responsible for regulating place names in Britain. Its main mapping agency, Ordnance Survey, which provides data for emergency services, takes its information from local governments and each one is free to decide how it uses punctuation.

"If councils decide to add or drop an apostrophe to a place name, we just update our data," said Ordnance Survey spokesman Paul Beauchamp. "We've never heard of any confusion arising from their existence."

To sticklers, a missing or misplaced apostrophe can be a major offense.

British grammarians have railed for decades against storekeepers' signs advertising the sale of "apple's and pear's," or pubs offering "chip's and pea's."
[Emphasis added.]

In her best-selling book "Eats, Shoots and Leaves," Lynne Truss recorded her fury at the title of the Hugh Grant-Sandra Bullock comedy "Two Weeks Notice," insisting it should be "Two Weeks' Notice."

"Those spineless types who talk about abolishing the apostrophe are missing the point, and the pun is very much intended," she wrote.

Sticklers? Sticklers??? Using correct punctuation makes one a stickler? Grrrr.

[Thanks to Frederick for thinking of me when he saw this story.]

9.03.2008

perhaps they should have hired a proofreader

This just in from AW1L.

mccainpen

Our friend Alan With One L knows that Allan and I share his teeth-grinding annoyance and mystified incredulity at the misuse of apostrophes for plurals.

Not that I've never confused its and it's. That's a tough one for many people. And non-native speakers of English, especially if they've been through the US's lousy public education system, are to be congratulated if they grasp the possessive apostrophe.

However, the use of apostrophes for plurals is beyond rampant. It's pandemic. The pen has already been pulled, but I hope it enjoys renewed life on the tubes.

Background here.

8.19.2008

language thoughts

This language column by Colleen Ross muses on how what language we speak may affect our behaviour, rather than the other way around. The author is trilingual, and notices how her behaviour differs when she is speaking English, French or German.

It's an interesting idea - that a culture's norms would be brought along with its language. On the other hand, the writer is reinforcing cultural stereotypes without questioning them. The French enjoy life more, Germans are aggressive and rude. People repeat these stereotypes, often with little or no first-hand experience of the culture itself - or with only the tiniest sample size, and that experience already prejudiced by expectations, based on stereotypes. These people are rude, these are tricky, not be trusted, these are brusque, these are obsequious. Ross seems to accept the cultural stereotypes as fact.
I'm a thoughtful sort of person. I like to mull things over before coming to a conclusion. I don't rant and rave. I'm not belligerent.

But German changed me.

I had been living in Germany for a year and felt comfortable in the language and culture. But that summer, a Canadian friend came to visit and was shocked at how aggressive I had become, speaking brusquely to slow waiters and queue jumpers.

The existence of my aggressive side fully hit me one night in Prague. I was with my sister, returning from a late night at the clubs. When the taxi driver quoted us the fare, I was incredulous: It sounded far too high. From the back seat, I spouted in German (more widely understood than English at the time) that no way were we paying that price. I halved the fare and paid the driver, insisting that was more than enough. My sister later said that I was very loud, very forceful and well, very scary. The next day, I learned the taxi driver had asked us the going rate.

I've always been fascinated by the intersection of language and personality. With the experience of my own split linguistic personalities, I was especially intrigued by a recent study that shows people who live in two cultures may unconsciously change their personality, or identity, when they switch languages.

According to researcher David Luna at Baruch College at the City University of New York, identity has traditionally been thought of as stable, but research in the past decade shows that identity is fluid, changing with the context. People do shift between different interpretations of same events, but the study shows that bicultural people do it more readily. Language, it seems, is the trigger.

This makes sense to me. When I moved to France, I felt like I'd been split into two different people. Two containers, wine bottles if you will, represented my two personas. The bottle for Canadian Colleen was full; wielding words and subjunctive clauses with aplomb, self-expression was my forte. The container for French Colleen, on the other hand, was empty, save the sediment of a mediocre Merlot.

As I gradually gained vocabulary and an ear for la belle langue, the bottle filled up. It was when I got my sense of humour in French that I felt the bottle was finally full. Yes, French Colleen had arrived and she was drunk on the finer things in life. I felt different when I spoke French: more joie de vivre, an ability to savour the daily pleasures of life.

"Language is one of the most powerful cues to activate a culturally specific way of doing things, thereby activating a different identity," says researcher Luna, who is originally from Spain. His study showed Hispanic women interpreted the same advertisement differently, depending on whether it was in Spanish or in English. They viewed the woman in the Spanish ad as more independent and assertive than the same woman in the English ad.

So why do people tap into different identities when they switch language and culture?

Here, English and Spanish are contrasted as if they represent two cultures: English and Spanish. But people speak Spanish in many countries with very different cultures. Similarly, is the English speaker adopting norms from Canada, the US, Britain, Australia, New Zealand...? If they're North American, are they using the cultural norms from Ontario, or Alabama? Maybe this idea of language changing identity is another way to confirm and reinforce cultural stereotypes?

I'm interested in what you have to say, especially the several linguists who read this blog.

In another language-related story, I enjoyed reading this book review of Reading The OED - One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by Ammon Shea, an account by a man who read the entire Oxford English Dictionary, straight through, in one year.

If you're not familiar with the OED, it's a massive, multi-volumed book that contains a miniature history of every word in the English language. It's so huge that it's usually displayed on its own reading stand, and often with a magnifying glass. I see entries from the OED when I get my weekly Pepys Diary installment (the diary is daily, but I catch up on it weekly). I also bought the OED on CD-ROM for Allan as part of a birthday present. So I have a lot of OED exposure. The idea of reading it straight through makes me feel better about my own obsessive-compulsive tendencies!

The review itself, by the author Nicholson Baker, is very enjoyable.

8.09.2008

one day late

Yesterday was 08/08/08. And I missed the opportunity to share that with you because I was so busy.

Now I'll have to wait a year and a day for the next one.

7.31.2008

content alert: jargon ahead

I miss a lot of marketing-speak because I usually mute commercials. But sometimes, for whatever reason, the sound stays on, and some new bit of jargon slips through. Recently I learned that sports drinks - those brightly coloured beverages that are supposed to replenish all the precious bodily fluids you supposedly lost while supposedly working out so hard - are now marketed as hydrators.

Perhaps you can consume a hydrator in your luxury sports utility vehicle while expanding your skill set with other individuals in your demographic.

Now rewrite that sentence in English.

Today the excellent Globe and Mail columnist Russ Smith writes about jargon, and tries to articulate why writing is not content. I also reject that stupid word; as soon as a prospective editor refers to my work as "content", I know we're not on the same wavelength. As Smith says, it's difficult to explain why, but he does an admirable job.
I find it hard to explain to anyone in business why I can't stand the word "content." I've tried before and it annoys people. "Yes, yes," they say, "we're sure you're very clever and artistic and all that, but we need a word to refer to what you guys do as distinct from what the marketing people and the management people and the technical people do. Why does it bother you?"

From a literary point of view, the word "content" bothers me because it falls into the category of the pseudo-technical: It's like saying "individual" for man or woman, or "offline" for talk privately. It signals "business jargon ahead." It's a way of making old-fashioned things such as books and music seem archaic: In the speaker's brave digital world, these things become part of a streamlined, scientific system of exchange - platform, delivery system, partners, synergy, content.

I also just can't imagine Leonardo or Derrida or Jean-Paul Gaultier sitting down at the desk or studio and thinking, "Today I produce Content!" (What are you working on, Mr. Bob Dylan? "Oh, some Content.") The only people I ever hear using this word are non-creators. Every artist says I'm working on a play, a video, a novel, a sound experiment.

I don't think of my own work as content. I think of the whole newspaper - and everyone who works on it - as content. It seems strange to differentiate between the content and the product as a whole, as if anyone who buys a paper or goes to a website or buys a ticket to a concert is interested in anything but content. Yet this is the way producers of entertainment think. "You know what's great about this movie? It's got fantastic brand equity, a narrowly targeted and influential demographic, and it also has some solid content."

I have heard people who work in entertainment industries - record labels, cable-TV chains - plan new entertainment products. I have been privy to conversations about platforms and demographics and advertising opportunities that mention "content" as a necessary afterthought. "Of course," I have heard people say, "we'll have to have some really top-level content as well. We have someone who can handle that."

Most of these discussions are about new websites or Web magazines. They are conceived as platforms for advertising. You think up a target market first, then you think up a look or style you think they will appreciate. There is a lot of describing the ideal consumer for this advertising: He or she lives in this part of town, drives this kind of car and has these products in his bathroom. Printed proposals for new magazines or TV shows often have pictures of these fictitious people - usually, amusingly, cut and pasted from advertising in other magazines.

Then, once you have your ideal consumer described (you call them "Jenny" and "Aqbar"; they are smiling in the pictures, and drive hybrid cars, and drink merlot and sauvignon blanc, and know who Robert Lepage is), you talk to a designer about fonts and colours. Then you find someone with celebrity status to be attached as a host or figurehead. There is talk of A-lists and C-lists.

Once you have this juggernaut rolling, money starts to flow. It is only at this point that you can start to think about "content." You know some people who are fresh out of school to do that: They need the money and are not going to be too demanding about it. Make sure they don't get too weird with it, and you should be okay. (Their own private projects - their blogs, their bands - they tend not to call "content." They call them blogs and bands.)

Not surprisingly, projects launched this way don't all do terribly well. You know what does well? When a bunch of experts in some subject, say economics, get together and say, "Let's publish a magazine about economics that expresses our views. We'll call it, say, The Economist."

I am quite sure that when that happened, the words brand and content were never mentioned. Nobody ever thinks of a good idea as content. They think, "I am really sick of fashion magazines that don't reflect my taste and life, and I would love to publish Dave's photos, and Gail could write her brilliant articles."

The idea of media as a vehicle for "content" is a virus. It's a subtle diminution of the importance of creative people and thinkers. To talk about your cultural artifact as a brand or a vehicle is to think of its creators as paid suppliers, as small cogs in a machine. If you start thinking about entertainment in terms of ideas - stories, strong sensations, provocations - rather than in terms of vehicles for ideas, you'll make entertainment that people might voluntarily absorb. If that works, you can sell advertising in it.