Archive for the ‘linguistics’ Category

“Blücher” is NOT the German word for glue (my whole world is a lie)

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

The 1974 Mel Brooks comedy Young Frankenstein is one of my favorite movies. Starring Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, Madeline Kahn, and Cloris Leachman (with an uncredited cameo by Gene Hackman), the spoof of the original 1931 Universal Studio’s Frankenstein is both hilarious and well-made, standing up to repeated viewings.

[A photo Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher peering through a doorway]Sunday evening I happened to be discussing the film with some friends, including someone who spoke German. I mentioned how much I liked the joke about the horses whinnying off-stage whenever they heard the name of Cloris Leachman’s character, Frau Blücher, being uttered, because it was German for glue.

“But the German word for glue is not ‘blücher,'” my friend Mattias said.

“Oh. Well, what is the German word for glue?” I asked.

“You could say ‘der Klebstoff’ or ‘der Leim,'” he replied.

“Well, what does ‘blücher’ mean?”

“It’s a name, it doesn’t mean anything.” (Apparently it’s a common name, too, like ‘Jones.’ EDIT: Per the comments, no, it’s not common.)

Well, I had heard that the reason the horses whinny throughout Young Frankenstein is because they were afraid of being turned into glue for a long time, from at least two different people, starting at least 20 years ago.

A quick search confirmed the debunking: Snopes, About, even IMDB. Wikipedia expanded that Cloris Leachman herself had heard it from Mel Brooks. In an interview with Brooks, he claims that someone gave him the wrong translation: “Before we started shooting, someone told me ‘blücher’ means glue, so that’s why I had the horses whinny. I’m not sure if that’s true.” However, in the audio commentary, Brooks simply says that the horses whinny because she’s an ominous character.

There are millions of people who speak German throughout the world. It’s tremendously easy to look up German words for things thanks to tools such as Google translate. But here I was a couple of nights ago, repeating an urban legend. We generally tend to believe things that we’re told, even when verification is simple. The moral: Don’t believe everything you hear. Verify things yourself.

For over 20 years I believed the word “blücher” meant glue. Now it means disillusionment.

Ironee, an ironeek proposal

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

Whereas, there is widespread debate about the definition of irony;

Whereas, there are at least three entirely separate types of irony;

Whereas, much time has been wasted and will continue to be wasted debating what constitutes irony; and,

Whereas, the Alanis song is still awesome even if some of the examples aren’t really very ironic;

Therefore be it resolved, that the world begin using the neologism “ironee” to incorporate all types of irony PLUS all of the things that people call irony but purists reject. Furthermore, let one additional properly of ironee be that if someone calls something ironeek, it automatically becomes ironeek if anyone debates them on whether or not it’s an example of ironee.

Here, I have a useful illustration of ironee for you:

[illustration of what is and isn't ironee, incorporating three types of irony plus several concepts not properly considered irony]

All in favor?

Passed unanimously. Proceed!

For English to evolve, grammarians must die

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

Consider these three word pairs:

  • Choose vs. chose
  • Loose vs. lose
  • Noose vs. nose

Loose and noose rhyme, but they don’t rhyme with choose. Chose and nose rhyme, but they don’t rhyme with lose.

There are lists of frequent grammatical errors; mistaken use of choose/chose and loose/lose are commonly found on such lists.

I could pick on hundreds of other English irregularities, but these ones happened to set me off today.

My son Sammy is nearly four and we’re teaching him to read. The irregularities of English are sufficiently common that I spend more time teaching the exceptions rather than the rules.

Simultaneously, as use of cell phones for texting proliferates (along with other communication typed in real-time, such as game chat or status updates, where character limits apply), there’s an emphasis on brevity that favors abbreviations, slang, acronyms and intentional misspelling.

In the early grades, as English is taught, correct spelling is the least important skill, taught last. The lesson plans emphasize vocabulary and the more common sounds for letters, even if it means young kids create sentences that don’t have a single correctly spelled word. The exceptions are cleaned up in the later grades.

English is a difficult language for non-native speakers to learn, because of the pervasive exceptions. But that flies in the face of English’s growth as a worldwide universal langauge.

English does evolve over time — just look at how many new words are added each year to various dictionaries. Novel forms of speech are created constantly, and are adopted based on an evolutionary model: If it’s simple, readily understood, and fills a gap in our forms of expression (or more efficiently gets an idea across in one or two syllables compared to a lengthier, traditional construction), then it will be spread from group to group, and eventually be considered “standard.” In general, this evolution makes English simpler, since complex or non-standard constructions are not spread as readily. So, evolution of English is “good” in the sense that it makes English easier for non-native speakers or young learners.

However, standing in the way of English’s evolution is prescriptionism. Linguists (those that study language) are generally either descriptivists (who observe and describe how language is actually used) or prescriptionists, who dictate how language should and shouldn’t be used.

No one has enjoyed a quick spelling or grammar flame more than me, but today I’ve come to the conclusion that English needs to evolve faster, and armchair grammarians (even ones with linguistics degrees, like me) must stop what they’re doing in discouraging novel forms of expression.

For everyday communication online, from now on, my only consideration is if I understood the other person. Instead of, “Is every word spelled and used correctly?”, my standard will now be, “Is the intent clear?”

Starting today, I resolve to never make another spelling or grammar flame. For informal forums, I may gently encourage others to stop making such corrections as well.

I’ll still apply higher standards for business communications, especially for my own e-mails and from prospective employees . Bad spelling as a signifier for low intelligence is a deeply-ingrained bias in our culture, and misspelling a few words in a widespread corporate e-mail is still a career-limiting maneuver.

The next barrier will be lowering my standards for my own informal writing, such as here on this blog. It’ll take a while before I’m ready for that leap.

Changing gears #3: Word change

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008

I sometimes find myself repeating the same clichés, expressions, and verbal shortcuts. The exercise for the rest of the week is to take one word or phrase you overuse or would prefer not to use, and not say it all.

(You can go to extremes here — consider, for example, the E-prime movement and their goal to avoid using “is.” Don’t make this too hard or you won’t do it.)

Here are some ideas:

  • “Sucks.” While English desperately needs a one-syllable verb that means that something is awful, “sucks” is a pretty repellant choice, and isn’t very professional. No fair replacing it with “blows” or “bites.” Instead, consider “fails” (popular lately) or a verb phrase such as “is truly awful.”
  • Swear words. Especially while at work, there are good and well-documented reasons not to swear. (Alternately, if you already never swear, then take this week as a chance to start.) I hate the traditional substitutions (such as “sugar” and “fudge”) but there’s an opportunity here to be creative and unique. My nearly-three-year-old son Sammy’s favorite word right now is “swoppy” (which has no fixed meaning to him) and I think it would make a marvelous swear. Battlestar Galactica has popularized “frak.” The 1980s film Johnny Dangerously featured Joe Piscopo’s character’s unique vocabulary, including “farging icehole.” If you’ve ever read a Tintin comic, Captain Haddock may inspire. And Shakespeare always had a curse ready.
  • “You’re kidding.” Many times when people say something, the automatic response is a not-very-reassuring statement of disbelief: “Oh really?” “No way.” “Get out of here.” Instead, try the opposite: “I believe you!” “Thank you for telling me.” “That sounds right.”
  • “Fine.” Someone asks you, “How are you?” Don’t answer with the rote. Be distinctive! “I’m ecstatic.” “Fair to middling.” “Better than tomorrow, but not as good as yesterday.”
  • “Bless you.” Whenever she hears someone sneeze, my sister never says “bless you” in English. Instead, she uses a foreign language: Most people know the German gesundheit, but there’s a wide range traditional responses around the world.

There’s no “I” in “Team” but…

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

…there is a “me.”

Here are some other words that are in team, just as an FYI:

  • Meat
  • Tame
  • Mate
  • Mat
  • Eat
  • Meta
  • Tea
  • E.T.A.
  • Met

A meta team mate met me. Am at tea mat. Tame meat eat ETA? Ate!

How to enter accent characters on the iPhone keyboard

Sunday, January 27th, 2008

(Sorry, iPhone haters! Three blog posts in a row about the iPhone… Go read The Sneeze or something.)

Maybe everyone already knows this, but I just found out about it by accident: Holding down a virtual letter key can produce alternate versions of that letter for different languages.

For example, if you want to enter a character such as é (for you francophiles) or ö (for you Mötörhëäd enthusiasts), just hold down the E or O buttons on the keyboard for a second or two.

  • E offers È É Ê Ë Ę
  • Y offers Ÿ
  • U offers Ú Ù Ãœ Û
  • I offers í ì ï î
  • O offers Ø Å’ Õ Ó Ã’ Ö Ô
  • A offers À Á Â Ä Æ Ã Ã… Ä„
  • S offers ß Åš Å 
  • L offers Ł
  • Z offers Ź Ž Å»
  • C offers Ç Ć
  • N offers Ń Ñ
  • ? offers ¿
  • ! offers ¡
  • $ offers â‚© Â¥ £ €
  • ” offers » « „ ” “
  • ’ offers ‘ ’ ‘

Now I’ve got a question for the world. When entering a URL, how can you enter in a # character? It’s used for web page anchors within a page. There doesn’t seem to be a way to enter that character at all (other than bookmarking on your computer and syncing that bookmark over).

Update: Kevin Fox answered this in the comments. Use the shift button after hitting @123.

Clichés from around the world

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

I love idioms from other languages that have a different tilt on common phrases used in English.

An example is the French phrase «chacun à son goût», which literally translates as “to each his taste,” and is equivalent to the English phrase “to each his own.”

Or take «on ne saurait faire boire un âne qui n’a pas soif», which translates as “you can’t force a donkey to drink when he’s not thirsty” — which we know better as “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” (Somewhere along the line, the donkey became a horse, or vice versa.)

In his influential 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote, “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” One way to keep your writing sounding original is to replace the English cliché you were going to use with a foreign equivalent. But it has to be well-known; in that same essay, Orwell says, “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”

I only speak French, but I know a few idioms from other languages. Another one I like is from Spanish: «Empezar la casa por el tejado», which literally means “to start the house with the roof” and is a relative of the English cliché, “To put the cart before the horse.”

And that reminds me of a bad joke I used to tell when I was a kid. A construction foreman walks into the architect’s office and says, “Say, did you want us to build this skyscraper from the bottom up, or the top down?” And the architect is a bit confused and says, “Well, from the bottom up, I’d say.” The foreman nods and then turns around and yells, “Rip ‘er down, boys, we gotta start over!”

I close with this thought: Mixed metaphors are a pain in the butt and should be thrown out the window.

Long words

Friday, January 18th, 2008

Don’t actually read this entry. Skip on to something else.

Some of my favorite long words include dithyrambic, exothermal, disambiguate, ostentatious, loquacious, and confabulate. In business, we frequently hear phrases such as de minimis, the word “architect” used as a verb (a vile neologism, to be sure), discussions of emolument, and other variegated farrago and miscellany.

I inscribe this with stoic fervor solely to determine if I can unduly influence The Blog Readability Test, which previously rated this blog at the Junior High School level, a lachrymose result which induced acrimonious umbrage.

EDIT: No effect? Still Junior High? I didn’t know any of these words in Junior High. Feh.

The horse race

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

As a Linguistics undergrad at U.C. Berkeley in the late ’80s, the best course I took was by George Lakoff, centering on his book, Metaphors We Live By.

In that wide-ranging course, one of Professor Lakoff’s observations was that the horse race metaphor for presidential elections has come to dominate our thinking of politics so much that the media rarely covers anything else.

If a candidate gives a speech proposing, say, a new health plan, the media reaction is not to analyze the health plan or quote experts discussing whether it is a good health plan or a bad health plan. Instead, the media reaction is, invariably, to quote experts who analyze whether or not the proposed health plan would help the candidate in the polls or hurt the candidate in the polls.

(Certainly a good health plan might be expected to help the candidate in the polls, but instead of analyzing the effectiveness of the plan first and the impact on the election second, we do it backwards, and the deeper analysis is often an afterthought or even not included at all.)

I am wearied by the current coverage of the primaries because of just this. I will not link to prime examples on the major news sites, yet. But I assure you that if you watch for this in the newspaper articles you read, or the TV news coverage that you watch, you will rarely see anything else.

I grant that knowing who is in the lead is important. But should it be all that we care about?

Just added to the dictionary…

Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

DVR” is now a word. (You can see the whole list of Merriam-Webster’s new words for 2007.)

In the early days, I recall a lot of debate about what we should call the category of device for TiVo. At first we were pushing “PVR,” for Personal Video Recorder. In a 1999 management meeting (back when TiVo was small enough that every single manager, director and VP could meet in a single conference room every week), I remember Mike Ramsay, TiVo’s co-founder and first CEO, agreeing to reach out to Anthony Wood, founder of ReplayTV, to see if TiVo and Replay could reach consensus on whether the category should be DVR or PVR. I think Anthony and Mike were not on speaking terms at the time (too many lawsuits), so no consensus was reached. Which was a shame, because many stores and e-commerce web sites then went ahead and made up their own categories for us, using odd terms such as “TV servers.”

I also remember that in our manuals and interface screens, we initially had the device call itself a Receiver. (“Your Receiver needs to change channels.”) Then we switched to Recorder. Then one CE partner wanted to call it a “Unit.” (“Your Unit needs to restart.”) We didn’t want to call it a Unit; not only would the manuals and screens and customer support documentation have to change, but it was a stupid name. One unlucky program manager drew the short straw and had to write an e-mail to the CE to tell them that we hated their proposed name. Among other reasons she listed for why we wanted to reject their proposal, she told them that “unit” could be taken as obscene slang. The CE reps took a while to respond, but eventually they politely said that they had never heard of such slang usage, but even so customers would understand the word “unit” correctly in context. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard at work. Eventually a VP talked them out of “Unit” and back into “Recorder.”

Nowadays, I believe all of our units call themselves DVRs. (“Your DVR has new software!”) So it’s good that Merriam-Webster has formally blessed “DVR” with word status.

* * *

However, while the DVR definition is fine, I think many of M-W’s definitions for their inaugurated 2007 words are poorly written. (I’ve never had that much respect for M-W as a dictionary, although I do default to using their web page when I want to look up a word quickly.)

Particularly egregious is their definition of telenovela:

a soap opera produced in and televised in or from many Latin-American countries

Oh? So a soap opera produced only in Mexico but not any other country is not a telenovela? How many Latin-American countries need to be involved before it is a telenovela?

Back when I was a UC Berkeley Linguistics undergrad, in Linguistics 105, we had a unit (hah!) on writing dictionary definitions. All I remember is how hard it was to write a good definition — bang-your-head-against- the-wall-for- hours-searching- for-just-the- right-phrase hard. But it’s awfully easy to mock a bad definition.

Redundant duplication

Friday, February 9th, 2007

There are certain phrases I can’t stand:

  • ATM machine
  • PIN number
  • SALT talks
  • HIV virus (or HPV virus)

These are examples of something I just learned is called (humorously) RAS Syndrome.

At work we have something called DGs, or Distribution Groups, and my teeth grate if someone calls them “DG groups.”

We work with CNET (one of our TiVoCast partners), and someone today called it “CNET networks” — and I was prepared to correct them, but it turns out the company’s name really is CNET Networks, even though their corporate history admits that “CNET” stands for “The Computer Network.”

This is similar to DC Comics (home of Superman and Batman), because the “DC” part stands for Detective Comics.

I wonder if DC Comics Inc. or CNET Networks Inc. each have a division of redundancy division?

Happy Februum

Thursday, February 1st, 2007

You may be the kind of person who recognizes the following:

  • The word “September” is related to the French word sept, for seven. (The Latin word for seven is septem.)
  • “October” sounds a lot like the Spanish word ocho, meaning eight, and is related to the word “octopus,” a creature with eight legs. (The Latin word for eight is octo.)
  • It’s no mere coincidence that “November” and “nine” start with the same letter. (The Latin word for nine is novem.)
  • “December” and “decimal” are references to the number ten. (The Latin word for ten is decem. The word “decimate” literally means to reduce by one-tenth, although when we now use that word it suggests a reduction of a lot more than 10%.)

So what gives? Why do the ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth months of the year have root words that suggest they should be the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months of the year?

Well, the Romans didn’t have a name for the first two months of the year until the 7th or 8th century BC. January and February were added much later than the other ten months, and originally they were at the end of the year, not at the beginning.

February was named for the Latin word for purification, februum, after a cleansing ritual that was held on the ides of February (February 15th) each year.

The Straight Dope has a good summary of this and an explanation for why February is the shortest month. (It’s probably not because three days were “borrowed” from February and given to other months, which is what I was taught growing up. Instead, it’s just because it was the last month of the year and was therefore the logical one to make the shortest.)

So, this is the month of cleansing and purification. Time for me to focus on that diet….

X, the Kiss

Tuesday, February 14th, 2006

The Greek word for “Messiah” is “Christos” — or Χριστος to use the Greek alphabet — and it begins, as you can see, with a character that looks like the Western X (or a Chi as you’d know if you studied Greek or if you were ever in a fraternity).

In legal tradition dating back centuries, when you signed your name to a legal document, it was practice to sign your name beneath the phrase, “As Christ is my witness.” It was further tradition to kiss the document in order to seal it and prove your honesty.

For those who were non-literate and couldn’t sign their name, the X alone was signed as an abbreviation for the phrase involving Christos. And, with the following act of kissing the X, over time the letter X itself came to represent a kiss.

Is this folk etymology? Perhaps. A cursory search didn’t turn up anything except this Wikipedia article about hugs and kisses, and that one doesn’t cite any sources.

But assuming this isn’t a fabrication, now you know why you sign your mushy love letters with XOXOXOX. Happy Valentine’s Day!