Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Log: Big, Heavy, Wood

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

You probably know that “blog” is a combination of “web” and “log,” and you’ve probably heard of a “captain’s log” but did you know that term literally once meant “a chunk of wood”?

News to me.

That article also mentions how the term “knots” became a measurement of nautical speed. Literally, they used to be knots in a rope.

Treasure Trove of Trash Talk

Monday, December 8th, 2008

If we needed any more proof that swear words are a legislative and judicial Pandora’s Box of insanity, Jay Wexler brings up the recent hilarious Supreme Court case between the FCC and Fox TV. Justice Scalia made this curious remark:

“Don’t use golly waddles instead of the F word.”

Wexler suspected that Scalia improvised “golly waddles”[1] and consulted language expert and Harvard Psych prof Steven Pinker, who confirmed the invention, and who then proceeded to let loose this handy list of polite and/or archaic euphamisms for such things.

“I am pretty sure that Scalia made up ‘golly waddles’ on the spot. He needed a hypothetical term that was not “f*ck,” and so used that; I don’t think it was an allusion to any commonly used euphemism. On the other hand he was certainly influenced by the truncated profanities for “God” that are ubiquitous in polite speech, such as golly, gosh, egad, gad, gadzooks, good grief, goodness gracious, Great Caesar’s ghost, and Great Scott. Similar truncations pop up for just about every taboo term, including Jesus (gee, gee whiz, gee willikers, geez, jeepers creepers, Jiminy Cricket, Judas Priest, Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat), sh*t (shame, sheesh, shivers, shoot, shucks, squat, sugar), and f*ck (fiddlesticks, fiddledeedee, foo, fudge, fug, fuzz, flaming, flipping, freaking, frigging, effing). I’m not sure why he felt he needed a second word in his hypothetical euphemism, but it may have been inspired by the prevalence of two-part euphemisms for bullsh*t, like applesauce, balderdash, blatherskite, claptrap, codswallop, flapdoodle, hogwash, horsefeathers, humbug, moonshine, poppycock, tommyrot.”

Truly amazing is the human capacity for human linguistic invention, especially in finding safe alternatives for the “magic” words. I wonder if any of the outmoded examples were as weighty in their heyday. People forget that a lot of swear words from a hundred years ago are teethless and innocuous today.

UPDATE: After ruminating on “golly waddles” I think Scalia may have meant “mollycoddles.”

1.) Of course, Scalia is old as the hills, so you never know if he’s using some Depression-era Jersey slang.

George Carlin (1937-2008)

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

George will be sorely missed, and my fear is that, thanks to email forwards, he will be the most grossly mis-quoted comedian of our time. I wish there were some resource that had a list of things he didn’t say. I’ve tried to find a few, but with the Internet, how can you ever be sure unless it’s listed on georgecarlin.com? The only thing they’ve debunked is the “Bad American” email forward.

Here is one of my all time favorites from George. Caution: “strong” language ahead:

But remember, and this is a little soapbox of mine: words in and of themselves are not magic and cannot hurt you. Context is everything. There are plenty of words that you have no good reason to use in polite society[1], but that does not make them “bad.”[2] Similarly, there is no quantifiable difference between “crap” and “sh*t”[3] aside from the reactions that people cause within themselves. And so the only reason not to use “sh*t” in polite conversation is if you think you are conversing with those whose own perceptions might cause themselves discomfort.

1.) Racial slurs, for example.
2.) Quite the contrary, as my multi-cultural friends will attest to having great fun tossing around ethnic put-downs like so much expired ordnance.
3.) I am using the asterisk here to avoid getting pinged by various systems’ content blockers.

Just a Thought

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

I cringe ever so slightly when I hear conservatives Christians referred to as “homophobic.” Just because someone’s personal morality says that something is immoral, that does not necessarily mean that they’re afraid of it. I think pedophiles are immoral, but that doesn’t mean I’m afraid of them. While it’s certainly true that many conservatives are afraid of homosexuality on an individual level, I think the term “homophobic” is nevertheless a label that gets tossed around too easily. Just another tiny, irrelevant reminder from your friendly local language wonk.

Unhealthy Questions Redux

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

Perhaps the most timely example of a question that does not deserve an answer is “are we winning the war in Iraq?”

The question presupposes that we have a clearly defined enemy and objective. At least in Vietnam we had these things: the people from the North needed to be moved back up North. Success could be quantified by geographic gains, plus enemy body count estimates and defined targets destroyed. In Iraq we have a variety of ethnic groups chaotically striking at us and at each other with guerilla terrorism. You can’t fight an enemy you can’t see[1], so Iraq really isn’t a war per se.

This is where the Bush Administration’s deft abuse of language is coming back to haunt them. They’ve successfully manipulated most Americans into thinking that we’re in a war on Terror, but Terror is not an enemy. Terror is an abstract concept, so while they thought it would be a great way to scare up some cheap oil, take out a bad guy, and install a democracy, it turns out the War on Terror has gone so poorly that they have no way to answer the question of whether or not this war can be won.

So now Bush is stumbling on his words even more, because by the Iraq Study Group’s admission, the situation in Iraq is dire. He can no longer say that we’re “winning” this sham of a war, and I wonder how much longer he can stay in that position. Maybe he can successfully convince America, for whom he has set up a win-lose duality, that we can simultaneously not be winning, yet not be losing. To do that he’d have to leave the comfortable world of black and white that this administration has built its policy on, and that’s a tall order for Mr. “Fer us or agin us.”

1.) In the post-Cold War era, who would have thought that the remaining superpower could be undone by small enemy forces too small to detect? The War on Terror is roughly akin to trying to shoot bullets at a swarm of mosquitoes.

I’m #1!

Tuesday, September 12th, 2006

Last June I made up a word, “inspiratorial,” and just today I discovered I’m #1 in Google for it, out of some 140 pages! I rule!

Most of the other sites in the SERP[1] are blogs, which means I’m more important than all of them. This feeds my little nerdy ego a glorious repast. Granted my ego is roughly the size of a walnut and I keep it in a barren cupboard, fed only by occasional trips to Banjo Center.

1.) Search engine nerd lingo for “Search Engine Results Page.”

Dialogues of Frustration

Monday, August 7th, 2006

Here are some of the more frustrating types of dialogue I have with clients:

Me: Option A or Option B?
Client: Yes.

Me: Person A will not be here to perform Task X. Can it wait until their return?
Client: Can you perform task X+1?

Me: Task A requires input from you before it can be accomplished.
Client: OK.
Client, two weeks later: Where’s Task A at? It was supposed to be done two weeks ago.

Richard Pryor (1940-2005)

Sunday, December 11th, 2005

One of the great things Richard Pryor did was take the “bad words” and make them funny. I may be wrong, but I think that the more you laugh at words like “motherfucker” and “nigger” the less powerful they become. Pryor was so funny, all he had to do was say those words and their socio-linguistic[1] hegemony started to crumble. The more we laugh at the things that make us uncomfortable, the less power those things have over us.

Frank Zappa was a tireless crusader for the idea that words, in and of themselves, cannot hurt you. For the same reason that guns don’t kill people, people kill people, so also words can’t hurt you, only people can hurt you. If a word hurts you by itself, then that pain comes from inside you; it is but a dagger of the mind.

To extend that even futher, at 29 I still refuse to believe there is any qualitative difference between the word “shit” and the word “crap.” That whole “swear word” thing never worked for me as a kid, and it still doesn’t. If I train myself to say “crap” rather than “shit” or “fuck” when I stub my toe, the meaning and intent of the word hasn’t changed, only its linguistic garb. To say that one word is safe and another is not, when they both mean the same thing and convey the same image, is ludicrous. Another particularly vexing example is the phrase “that sucks,” which is somehow permissible to most people, even though the unexpurgated version of the phrase involves direct reference to either fellatio or cunnilingus [2]. That was the phrase’s intent and origin, yet stripped of its object it somehow becomes harmless.

Well now that I’ve set off all your pr0n filters, I guess I’ve made an effective tribute to Richard Pryor. I’d also like to say that, while Pryor’s films were rarely box office smashes, they have an easy amble to them; I don’t know how many times I’ve watched Brewster’s Millions, The Toy or his Gene Wilder buddy flicks. Or his best work as a screenwriter, Blazing Saddles, which he co-wrote and was supposed to star in, were it not for the studio’s fear of what Mel Brooks charitably termed as Pryor’s “sniffing habit.”

1.) Not sure if that’s a word, but let’s preted it is because it sounds really cool and pretentious.
2.) Somehow those terms are safer than “blow job” and “rug munching.” Perhaps because they are entirely devoid of all humor.

The Unhappy Life of “Used To”

Friday, December 2nd, 2005

I don’t know how this perverse little phrase was born. It has always struck a dissonant chord in my perception of language, although this is probably due to a personal grudge I have harbored since early childhood, when I thought it was a single word, “usta.” Life was so much simpler then. Eventually I learned that it was two words, “used” and “to,” which if you think about it, when put together, make absolutely no damn sense.

Stop and think about the different usages of the phrase “used to.” It is most often employed as a synonym for “previously” or “in the past” – “I used to love Bea Arthur,” or “crack whoring is not what it used to be.” Another, altogether different, definition is “accustomed to” – “Abe Vigoda is still alive, get used to it” or “I just need to get used to all these fistulas.”

But “use” is a word of utility; to use something or put something to good use – “I will use this coat hanger to perform an emergency tracheotomy” or “I should use a sterlizing agent to prevent infection.” To use something is perhaps to handle something, so to “get used” to something makes as much as sense as to “get handled.” Doesn’t that sound awful?

And did I mention that, for as much as I love the English language in all it multifarious permutations, it is truly deficient in that it only has one word for “love”? That’s what we get for leaving our linguistic development in the hands of Limeys and Jerrys.

The Darning of the Sox

Thursday, October 27th, 2005

Slate had a fun article on why the White Sox and Red Sox have an “x” in their names. The piece contains links to some interesting stories about late 19th/early 20th century spelling reformists who wanted to simplify the English language. Sadly, they failed, and schoolchildren get their first taste of the breakdown of logical standards by first grade. And as if the indeterminacy of standards weren’t bad enough, wait until they find out about the indeterminacy of rules.[1]

In other news, here’s a picture from Tara’s reunion. It felt like prom, but with good wine instead of cheap beer. And I have better hair now.

Tara, will you marry me?

And to all you lurkers out there who didn’t offer opinions on my last post…you pansies. I know you’re out there; some of you have emailed me. People from Harrison, people from Arkansas Times, the doctor that works with Jessica. Go give me your opinion on the restaurant question. I need to know what y’all think.

And another thing. Check out Shelley Raymond. She’s really good. She’s a friend of a friend.

1.) Fortunately for them, they probably never will. I was surprised to find that searching Google for “wittgenstein ‘indeterminacy of rules’ chair” brought up only two websites. I thought Wittgenstein’s example of the Chair Problem was an elementary philosophical conundrum. Of course, my philosophy professor was John Churchill, the Teddy Roosevelt of Philosophical Inquiry, so it’s hard for me to know what everyone else was taught in Intro to Philosophy.