Wednesday, December 08, 2004

My latest Tribune language columns:
• On the state of sentence diagramming.
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• On the real origins of Chicago's nickname "the Windy City."
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I've posted additional links and information on the history of "Windy City" here.

I wanted to do a whole piece on "Word Myths" and so-called folk etymologies (or "mythetymologies," as they are called in the second item below), but "Windy City" called for special attention. Here are two relevant clips; the first from an etymology site, the second from Language Log:

- die is cast
This has nothing to do with gambling or dice; instead, it refers to a mold (die) which has been cast (made). Once the mold is made, everything which comes from it, will have the shape of the mold. 'The die is cast' thus states that a pattern has been laid down, and thus subsequent events will conform to the pattern.

- One of the great lessons for me as a participant in ADS-L over the years has been the discovery of just how little even the experts know about the history of idiomatic and formulaic expressions, and how tremendously difficult these investigations are. We can speculate, and produce suggestive citations, but just an enormous amount of history is hazy, and some of it is probably unknowable. Even worse, things that "lots of people know" are just false; go back and look at the die is cast above. Mythetymologies abound. link

• I'd heard the song several times before (67 times alone on NBC's coverage of the Olympics), but it didn't hit me until I was watching Josh Groban's LA concert on PBS Sunday: He sings, "You raise me up to more than I can be." Isn't that impossible? (I know that "more than I had previously been" is not as lyrical, but still ... )

• "She said she would go [fly to St. Louis] later in the day," my wife reported. "What day?" I asked. She meant, "she said later in the day that she would go next week."

• From my church newsletter: "The room opened up the day I was talking to the social worker about moving her because of her verbally abusive roommate. So we were able to advocate for her priority." I've been hearing this a lot lately. The verb "advocate" is transitive (M-W: "to plead in favor of"), but the problem is that the noun can be used this way: "I was an advocate for her priority." (For that matter, I'm not sure about "for her priority" as opposed to "to make her a priority."
But I am glad the room switch worked out!)

LL on thesaurusizing quote attributions. "We caught them on the wrong day," Reese understated. (Reminds me of the classic line: "Shut up," he explained.

From AHD:

Among the many discoveries of Captain James Cook was a linguistic one, the term taboo. In a journal entry from 1777, Cook says this word "has a very comprehensive meaning; but, in general, signifies that a thing is forbidden . . . When any thing is forbidden to be eat [sic], or made use of, they say, that it is taboo." Cook was in the Friendly Islands (now Tonga) at the time, so even though similar words occur in other Polynesian languages, the form taboo from Tongan tabu is the one we have borrowed. The Tongans used tabu as an adjective. Cook, besides borrowing the word into English, also made it into a noun referring to the prohibition itself and a verb meaning "to make someone or something taboo." From its origins in Polynesia the word taboo has traveled as widely as Cook himself and is now used throughout the English-speaking world.

The word frank, "straightforward, open," which originally meant "free, not a serf," goes back to the Late Latin word of Germanic origin, Francus, "Frank." The Franks were a West Germanic people that conquered Gaul in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., and their name is still used today to designate the new lands they occupied, France. As the dominant group in the newly conquered territory, only the Franks possessed full freedom; eventually, their tribal name described their fortunate social and political status. The idea of political freedom originally conveyed by the English word frank was later extended to include freedom of expression as well. And while most of us pay postage on every letter we send, members of Congress and other high-ranking government officials have franking privileges - that is, their postage is free. The word franchise is related to frank; it comes from the same Latin word through Old French franc. Originally, franchise meant "the social status of a freeman" or "the sovereignty of a political entity (such as a city or the Church)," along with all the rights and privileges that went with this status. The various nature of these rights explains the multiple senses in which the word franchise is commonly used today. The current political sense of the word, "the right to vote in public elections," emerged in the eighteenth century. Another specialized use of the term, "the right to engage in certain commercial activities," is frequent today, as many fast food restaurants and retail stores operate on a franchise granted by the parent corporation.

• P.J. O'Rourke's boilerplate post-election editorial in the Atlantic. It's hilarious, but deceptive in appearing easy to write. You have to think through what the cliches would be and then strike the right words (I'm assuming).

The people have spoken, choosing to [blank] the course of American [blank]. We see from the [blank] size of the electoral margin that the people have spoken [blank]ively. It is up to you, [blank] [blank], to navigate these [blank] but [blank] waters with [blank]fullness. Remember, the voters, though often [blank]istic and sometimes [blank]ious, are ever un-[blank] in their [blank]ism.
A President's [blank] term in office is the measure of his mettle. Only then does a chief executive have the [blank] to [blank] without undue partisan [blank]. Therefore this is the time to re-[blank] our commitment in Iraq, re-[blank] our international alliances, and re-[blank] the threat of [blank], [blank], [blank], [blank], [blank], and [blank]. ...

[To the victor]It will be your job to balance [blank] and [blank], giving full weight to [blank], while never losing sight of [blank]. There is no other way to provide America with the [blank] it so [blank]ly requires.
Although we [blank]ed your candidacy, we believe that, even as your [blank]s, we have the duty to [blank] you when necessary. This is the American [blank]. Likewise it is the American [blank] to seek a leader who will [blank] when the storm of [blank] requires a [blank] hand on the [blank]. As you so [blank]ly said in your victory speech, "America is [blank]." We could not agree more.

Previous column and inflections

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