Friday, July 30, 2004

NY TimesThis week in my B&C blog: Part four in a series on consciousness and perception. Plus, the closing of Berlin's historic Tempelhof Airport (pictured). LINK/ARCHIVE
My latest Tribune language column:
On the blogging linguists at Language Log, which just turned one year old.
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Here's more from LL on measuring Google hits, or Ghits, as I mentioned at the end of the column.

My column last week (temp link/perm.preview) was on the 25th anniversary of the Plain English Campaign. Here'sPEC founder Chrissie Maher's op-ed in the Guardian; more from the Gdn here and here. Here's more from the BBC on Britain's recent civil court reforms.

From the PEC's weekly e-mail, 7/2:

Thanks to everybody who has sent examples of foreign equivalents for the term 'gobbledygook'. (By the way, one reader pointed out that the Dutch word 'onzin' is actually a literal translation of 'nonsense'.)

Josi Luis Iparraguirre D'Elia suggested 'galimatmas' or 'jerigonza' in Spanish. Another reader told us that 'beliberda' was the Russian term. Jarka Dvorakova gave us 'kecy' and 'blaf' (both plurals) from Czech.

And another Czech speaker, Daniel Deyl gave an interesting alternative.

"The Czech equivalent is 'ptydepe', pronounced 'pteedehpeh'. The word doesn't sound Czech at all; in fact, it doesn't sound like anything, and neither should it. It was devised by Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright-turned-president, specifically for the purpose of being utterly incomprehensible. He used it in his play 'The Memorandum' (1965) to denote an artificial language designed to prevent rather than facilitate verbal communication; it is used by omnipotent authorities and their officials. The word, its meaning slightly broadened to denote any excessive officialese, outlived the play and has become part of regular Czech vocabulary. After almost four decades, Havel's compatriots still find it useful. Unlike the communist system which produced it, gobbledygook is still alive and kicking."

From a recent Hagar the Horrible' cartoon: "As your lawyer, allow me to clear up this matter for you... in most cases, the defendant supersedes the pro bono factors unless and until the plaintiff decides to coagulate the judicial pontification of all parties involved..."

Finally, here's more on plain English in air traffic control, and here's more on the meaning of "al Qaeda."

- Sports Illustrated, July 12
In English we have a word for disillusionment but not, oddly, for its opposite: that moment when you meet a person whom you've admired from afar, and he turns out to be kinder, more decent, more heroic than you'd ever imagined.

- "Dumb is just not knowing. Ditsy is having the courage to ask." Jessica Simpson, qtd in the Syracuse Post-Standard, via The Week

- "Under certain circumstances profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer." Mark Twain, qtd in the WSJ, via The Week

- The NYT on interpreters and business travel.
Conventions are such charades now, I was thinking the media should avoid them altogether. But Jay Rosen, quoted in the Wash.Post, points out that there is a need for good journalism about cultural rituals. As I wrote earlier this month in my review of The Creation of the Media, the media's function is to facilitate ritual. And it is odd that the media keeps cutting back on convention coverage citing the ceremonies' lack of news, yet they were all over the Ronald Reagan funeral, which also lacked news--Reagan wasn't going to get any deader.

Jay Rosen is here to chronicle the convention for his Web column, PressThink, along with about 30 other online entrepreneurs who will be placed on the convention's "Blogger Boulevard" and offer an idiosyncratic take on the proceedings.

Conventions can be interesting, says Rosen, "but it would require a very different lens of journalism to show that. Rituals do have meaning, just not in the category of new information. Journalists tend to think of rituals as inherently meaningless, but they're not."

The dominant theme of the coverage, Rosen wrote online, is "irony about politics, irony about newslessness, and irony on TV about TV. That is where we are marooned today. But the irony ('one big infomercial, folks') no longer instructs or inspires anyone, professional ironizers included. It's a big dead zone in the narrative of presidential politics." x

More here and at left under "About this blog." Relevant word from WordSpy: banalysis.
Seen at this quote page:

``I will always remember the day Rene Decartes died. We had just finished a wonderful meal and were sitting around plotting our next move over coffee. The waitress came up and asked, `More Coffee?' Decartes replied, `I think not.' And just disappeared right before my eyes.''
Etymology Today from M-W: kvell \KVELL\
: to be extraordinarily proud : rejoice

The history of "kvell" is far from a megillah, so don't kvetch. Etymology-meisters have determined that the word is derived from Yiddish "kveln," meaning "to be delighted," which, in turn, comes from the Middle High German word "quellen," meaning "to well, gush, or swell." The Merriam-Webster mavens whose shtick is dating words have not pinpointed an exact date for the appearance of "kvell" in the English language. They have found an entry for the word in a 1952 handbook of Jewish words and expressions, but actual usage evidence before that date remains unseen. (The words "megillah," "kvetch," "meister," "maven," and "shtick" are also of Yiddish origin.)

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Tuesday, July 20, 2004

This week in my B&C blog: The history and theology of happiness. Also: cleaning up the Tigris River, advertisers and the vanishing mass market, when groupthink isn't so bad, jokes and quotes in spam, the obesity of medieval monks, and more ... LINK/ARCHIVE
My latest Christianity Today online article:
On indifferent apologies, or "kinda culpas."

I had thought about working in the theme of hypocrisy, and would have quoted this line from Neal Plantinga in The Banner: "At some point the hypocrite becomes blind to his falseness. He becomes that most impenetrable of creatures, the sincere hypocrite."

Meanwhile, the Trib's Clarence Page wrote about the indifferent remorse of both Bush and Kerry. And this headline caught my eye: "Clinton: Monica Affair Was 'Moral' Mistake." Finally, Martha Stewart's recent statement went in different directions:

"I'll be back," she promised afterward, speaking in a strong voice on the courthouse steps. "I'm not afraid. Not afraid whatsoever. I'm very sorry it had to come to this. ... Today is a shameful day. It's shameful for me, for my family and for my company," she said. But outside the courthouse, Stewart was far more forceful and confident, complaining that a "small personal matter" was blown out of proportion and promising that she would not go quietly.
The Hippie DictionaryMy latest Tribune language column:
On The Hippie Dictionary.
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As a blond-haired Dutchman who can't dance, I was glad to see that "groovy" comes from the Dutch word "groeve," meaning pit. More on the legacy of Dutch in English here from LL.

- The journal Daedalus has some fascinating etymology on words for happiness:

It is helpful to look for a moment at the principal word in ancient Greek for happiness, eudaimonia, one of a constellation of closely related terms that includes eutychia (lucky), olbios (blessed; favored), and makarios (blessed; happy; blissful). In some ways encompassing the meaning of all of these terms, eudaimon (happy) literally signifies ‘good spirit’ or ‘good god,’ from eu=good and daimon=demon/spirit. In colloquial terms, to be eudaimon was to be lucky, for in a world fraught with constant upheaval, uncertainty, and privation, to have a good spirit working on one’s behalf was the ultimate mark of good fortune. Even more it was a mark of divine favor, for the gods, it was believed, worked through the daimones, emissaries and conductors of their will. And this, in the pre-Socratic world, was the key to happiness. To fall from divine favor-or to fall under the influence of an evil spirit-was to be dysdaimon or kakodaimon-‘unhappy’ (dys/kako=bad), or more colorfully, ‘in the shit,’ a not altogether inappropriate play on the Greek kakka (shit/ turds). 2 In a world governed by supernatural forces, human happiness was a plaything of the gods, a spiritual force beyond our control. When viewed through mortal eyes, the world’s happenings-and so our happiness-could only appear random, a function of chance. ...

In every Indo-European language, the modern words for happiness, as they took shape in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, are all cognate with luck. And so we get ‘happiness’ from the early Middle English (and Old Norse) happ-chance, fortune, what happens in the world-and the Mittelhochdeutsch Glück, still the modern German word for happiness and luck. There is the Old French heur (luck; chance), root of bonheur (happiness), and heureux (happy); and the Portuguese felicidade, the Spanish felicidad, and the Italian felicità-all derived ultimately from the Latin felix for luck (sometimes fate). Happiness, in a word, is what happens to us. If we no longer say that we are kakodaimon when things don’t go our way, we still sometimes acknowledge, rather more prosaically, that “shit happens.”

- I wanted to do a column on wise as a suffix, but it didn't go anywhere. But Geoff Pullum was good enough to do a search for "-wise" in the Wall Street Journal between 1987 and 89.

My guru-level Unix skills enabled me to compile this list with
a single one-line command. (I deleted words that are obviously not
grist to your mill, like "wise" and "unwise", and also "all-wise",
"clockwise", "crosswise", "lengthwise", "likewise", and "otherwise".)
There were 24 left, including variants with and without hyphen:

clematis-wise media-wise
composition-wise money-wise
heartwise penny-wise
PR-wise pennywise
streetwise people-wise
tax-wise percentage-wise
weatherwise pricewise
anotherwise recreation-wise
bloomwise retail-wise
coastwise street-wise
cost-wise streetwise
inflation-wise vitamin-wise

Of course, some may be false hits; for example, "vitamin-wise" just
might mean "wise to the value of vitamins in a healthy diet".

Here's the American Heritage Book of English Usage on wise as a suffix, and here are some recent instances from Lexis.

One other thing: I read once that writers should practice re-writing famous lines to see the kind of elbow grease it takes to polish good sentences. It gave the example of how the beautiful "There are times that try men's souls" could have emerged from the banal "Soulwise, these are trying times."

- Ever since Jon Stewart said in his commencement speech (at William & Mary) that "'terror' isn't even a noun," I wanted to do a column on President Bush's phrase war on terror. How can you wage war on an emotion? But as usual, Geoff Nunberg closes the case: "Terrorism may itself be a vague term, as critics have argued. But terror is still more amorphous and elastic, and alters the understanding not just of the enemy but of the war against it," he wrote earlier this month in the NYT. He suggests that sloppiness of words leads to sloppiness of policy. "Even if Mr. Hussein can't actually be linked to the attacks of Sept. 11, 'terror' seems to connect them etymologically."

- One thing I didn't hear in the freedom fries nonsense last year but did read recently in John McWhorter's The Power of Babel: fry is a French word (see the top right of this page). So should it have been "freedom frees"?

- LL on the syntactically sketchy phrase share divergent views.

- The history of d'oh.

- From the Trib: "In a matter of hours, the Illinois Republican Party's search for a replacement for U.S. Senate candidate Jack Ryan went from Ditka to bubkes."

- One company-wide e-mail update I receive always contains this verbless sentence: "As always, any problems or questions, let me know."
(Somewhat relatedly, see the WP on management-speak).

- The Trib did a story on people named Kerry Edwards.

- Safire's column this week is on a word I hadn't heard: gobsmacked

Last week's column and inflections

The fearless, reassuring face of our leader as he threatens Saddam with war and rallies a nation to his bewildering cause, on 3/17/03.

Airing Network, as Bravo did yesterday, is always an ironic act for a TV executive. But it was a Chayefsky-ian moment when, just after Faye Dunaway tells her underlings that they need "angry television" to get high ratings (a zeal that let to the network airing the rantings of Howard Beale), the scene cut to a promo for "The Ten Things I Hate About You." Tune in!
NY Times

Civilian astronomers are using the Air Force's Aeos telescope, above, and an experimental new camera to try to record images of planets around other stars. NY Times

- This sounds like an excuse, but it's a good point. The Trib's Don Wycliff:
I sometimes wonder at the reluctance of journalists to own up to what seem to me simple mistakes. But a letter like this helps me understand. In today's poisonous political atmosphere, nothing is ever just a mistake. It's a slander, a calumny, an assault on the truth itself and--by the way--no doubt part of some evil conspiracy. Who would admit to that? x 

From the Chi. Tribune 7/16: "'You are officially a neighborhood when you get a Starbucks,' said [5th Ward Ald. Leslie] Hairston, who fought to bring one to South Shore even as residents of affluent neighborhoods bemoaned the spread of the chain coffeehouses."

You are?
Presented by a U.S. Army linguist (via LL) :

Why did the Iraqi Chicken cross the road?


The fact that the chicken crossed the road shows that decision making authority has switched to the chicken. From now on the chicken is responsible for its own decisions.


We were asked to help the chicken cross the road. Given the inherent risk of road crossing, and the rarity of chickens, this operation will only cost $326,004.

US Army Military Police:

We were directed to prepare the chicken to cross the road. As part of these preparations, individual soldiers ran over the chicken repeatedly, and plucked the chicken. We deeply regret the occurrence of any chicken rights violations.

Al Jazeera:

The chicken was forced to cross the road multiple times at gunpoint by a large group of occupation soldiers, according to witnesses. The chicken was then fired upon intentionally, in yet another example of the abuse of innocent Iraqi chickens.


It's the 25th anniversary of the Walkman.
Things people have been kind enough to say about this blog:

"... a thought-provoking blog worth viewing."
-Chicago magazine online

"... thoughtful treatment of difficult subjects."
-blogger Cat Connor,,

"He has many thoughtful ideas that aren't the same as mine so that makes him very much worth reading."

-blogger MF

And about my monthly news roundup at my B&C blog:
"... one cool weblog ... good quick way to get a pulse of some of the events happening in our world."
blogger JR Woodward.

Etymology Today from M-W: mansuetude \MAN-swih-tood\
: the quality or state of being gentle : meekness, tameness

"Mansuetude" was first used in English in the 14th century, and it derives from the Latin verb "mansuescere," which means "to tame." "Mansuescere" itself comes from the noun "manus" (meaning "hand") and the verb "suescere" ("to accustom" or "to become accustomed"). Unlike "manus," which has many English descendants (including "manner," "emancipate," and "manicure"), "suescere" has only a few English progeny. One of them is "desuetude" (meaning "disuse"), which comes to us by way of Latin "desuescere" ("to become unaccustomed"). Another is "custom," which derives via Anglo-French from Latin "consuescere" ("to accustom").

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Monday, July 12, 2004

temple in Luang Prabang, LaosThis week in my B&C blog: Why book lovers said the sky is falling on reading after an NEA report last week, and why they were wrong. Also: resistance to historic preservation in Laos (pictured at left), Iowa City as a literary haven, Microsoft patents the human body as a data processor (seriously, sadly), Mesopotamia's status as earliest civilization questioned, the latest surge of solar storms, video screens may be coming to gravestones, dinosaurs' fleas, and more ... LINK/ARCHIVE
My latest Tribune language column:
How call centers in India train workers to use Western accents.
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Here's the Discovery Channel's companion page to the documentary I mentioned. Here's an LL post about the clip from the accent class. Here's 60 Minutes' piece on outsourcing call center work to India, and here's 24/7 Customer's still sunnier take on how great outsourcing is for Indian workers.

More on Italian idioms from the article I mentioned in the briefs at the end:
As the Italians say, "la perfezione non è di questo mondo" - perfection is not of this world. There's that Italian majesty again.
Take the Italian version of our cryptic "looks count." Choosing personification and lending more majesty to the expression, the Italians say "vero è che l'occhio vuole la sua parte," translated literally, "it is true that the eye wants its share."
And here's the Kimball link.

- I've had this slogan stuck in my head, don't know whose: more than you thought for less than you'd think. Someone should make that into a sentence and diagram it.

- The NYT's Jodi Wilgoren used to be a vivid writer, but covering campaigns has ruined her writing. In May she wrote that a Kerry speech was "kicking off an 11-day focus on national security." (Careful, don't kick the focus!)

- David Brooks is much better. I think this term of his is an original coinage: "the whole range of ampersand magazines (Town & Country, Food & Wine) that display perfect parties, perfect homes, perfect vacations and perfect lives." (Does Books&Culture count? It's improved my life!)

- Here's the NYT's review of a recent documentary on whether African Americans should use the N-word.

- More on values as a political platform plank with which to whack opponents (as I wrote about earlier).
UPDATE: From Geoff Nunberg's piece in the NYT:
"Values" is a word that's made for political mischief, as it slithers from one meaning to another. Sometimes it simply refers to cultural preferences or mores, and sometimes it suggests religious principles or morals, the sorts of things that some people have more of than others do. Or often it blends mores and morals together. That point was nicely made in a line from the recent movie "Win a Date with Tad Hamilton." Nathan Lane's playing a Hollywood agent who's trying to persuade his dissolute movie star client to dump the small-town West Virginia girl he's smitten with. "Your values are different." Lane tells the actor. "For instance, she has them." ... It says something about what we've come to that a word that ought to be a bland political bromide has turned into a battle cry for both sides.

Last week's column and inflections
via Slate

Last night's 60 Minutes interview with John Kerry and John Edwards didn't include a single question about what they actually want to do as president and vice-president. Which makes sense, since there aren't really any pressing foreign and domestic problems out there right now ...

NY Times

Cover image for "The Chinese Century," NY Times Magazine, 7/4

Links with no place to go:
- 100 year-old's sprint record bid ruined by clock failure from the BBC
- Why Hollywood stars clamor to do cartoon voices, from the BBC
- Why Ken Lay's charity could bring him sympathetic Houston jurors, from Business Week
Etymology Today from M-W: primordial \pry-MOR-dee-uhl
1 a : first created or developed : primeval b : existing in or persisting from the beginning (as of a solar system or universe) c : earliest formed in the growth of an individual or organ : primitive
2 : fundamental, primary

The history of "primordial" began when the Latin words "primus" (meaning "first") and "ordiri" (meaning "to begin") came together to form "primordium," the Latin word for "origin." When it entered English in the 14th century, "primordial" was used in the general sense "primeval or primitive." Early on, there were hints that "primordial" would lend itself well to discussions of the earth's origins. Take, for instance, this passage from a 1398 translation of an encyclopedia called On the Properties of Things: "The virtu of God made primordial mater, in the whiche as it were in massy thinge the foure elementis were ... nought distinguishd." Nowadays, this primordial matter is often referred to in evolutionary theory as "primordial soup," a mixture of organic molecules from which life on earth originated.

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Monday, July 05, 2004

This week in my B&C blog:
June news and book review roundup. LINK/ARCHIVE
My latest B&C online book review:
Paul Starr's The Creation of the Media.

I wrote this review before the Reagan funeral, which illustrated my conclusion. As the Chicago Tribune wrote, the week of national mourning was "both a reminder of television's power to unite the nation in ceremony and a test of how strongly the nation still clings to its civic rituals."

I cut these grafs from the review for space reasons:

Although he doesn't say it, this question [of media ownership] is especially pertinent now, with the fervent efforts of Michael Powell's FCC to increase the market share of media companies under the dubious justification that, what with the Internet and all, it's harder for corporations (even Clear Channel, with its 1,200 radio stations) to make a buck. (A bipartisan outcry against Powell, from everyone from the ACLU to the NRA--and the bizarre assumption that this year's Super Bowl halftime show, produced and aired by Viacom-owned entities, was primarily the result of media consolidation--has slowed his efforts somewhat). ...

Think of it this way: by the transmission view, it is very important for both left-wing and right-wing groups to "get their message out" about say, gay marriage. But in the ritual or narrative view of journalism, the presence of such ideological diversity is unremarkable--the way that readers and viewers will tend to hear and react to such groups is to figure that they both sound alarmist extremist overreacting to something. ...

In short, though it is billed as a history of "public discussion, public knowledge, and public opinion," Starr's book is actually about control, not culture: who controlled what and when, but not how the media actually shaped society.
My latest Tribune language column:
On whether Rico the dog, who responds to dozens of different commands, actually understands language.
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More on Rico from the AP, USAT, NPR, NYT, Wired, and the Wash.Post. Here's the summary from Science. Discussion and followup at Language Log here. As I wrote, there was a lot of hype about Rico. I was struck by this statement, which I think was from the Post article: "If Rico had a human vocal tract, one would presume that he should be able to say the names of the items as well, or at least try to do so," says Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, who studies animal communication and intelligence at Georgia State University. "It also raises the issue of whether Rico and/or other dogs or other mammals might already be trying to say words but have great difficulty being understood."

Here's NPR on the use of dogs in interrogation, and here's Ananova on reading the barks of watchdogs. Here's more on Kanzi the bonobo. Here's more on Clever Hans. Here's more on B.F. Skinner. And, what the hey, here's LL on duck dialects.

- BG's Jan Freeman looks into the adverbial phase real live:
How to punctuate "real live," Ideas colleague Joshua Glenn asked, in a phrase like "`a real, live license plate'?" But maybe that was a bad example, he added: "It seems wrong to apply `real, live' to an inanimate object." It does, once you think about it. But you're better off not thinking about it: "Real live" (I like it, usually, without the comma) has been around since 1887, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It's jocular, the OED says, except when used of inanimate things ("A real live glass milk-jug"). In that case it's slang -- or at least it was a century ago. Real live is still jokey, but it seems to have no problem, these days, hooking up with mere objects and concepts: "Real live violins" and "real live statistics" are now a real live part of our language. x

- William Safire goes back and forth with Antonin Scalia on whether recuse is transitive:

Last week's column and inflections

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If there had been no Kenneth Starr, if we had different kind of people I would have said here are the facts, I'm sorry. Deal with it however you please.

STEWART: If there had been no Ken Starr [Clinton] would have confessed. You know, I'll say this for Bill Clinton, his integrity is at his highest when the situation is at its most hypothetical.

More from Stewart's 6/25 appearance on Larry King:

STEWART: I'm not a pacifist in any stretch of the imagination. As a matter of fact, I like bombing countries.

KING: You do?

STEWART: Well, just purely for the knowledge of geography. It's just fascinating to learn about these countries. ... I didn't know Kabul was the capital of Afghanistan until we started bombing it. ... If we would haven't gone to war there, I certainly wouldn't have known that.
NY Times

A computer-generated image of what the London skyline would look like in 2010 if planned high-rises come to fruition. NY Times

Signs from around Chicago.
NY Times

President George W. Bush at the dedication of the National World War II Memorial, Washington, May 29, 2004. NY Times

Etymology Today from M-W: redolent \RED-uh-lunt
1 : exuding fragrance : aromatic
2a : full of a specified fragrance : scented
b : evocative, suggestive

"Redolent" traces back to the Latin verb "ol?re" ("to smell") and is a relative of "olfactory" ("of, relating to, or connected with the sense of smell"). In its earliest English uses in the 15th century, "redolent" simply meant "having an aroma." Today, it usually applies to a place or thing impregnated with odors, as in "the kitchen was redolent of garlic and tomatoes." It can also be used of something that reminds us of something else or evokes a certain emotional response, as in "a city redolent of antiquity."

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