Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Today's Word: proprioception

proprioception: The normal physiological sense of your posture and the location of your limbs based on your sense of touch, space, etc. Proprioception is the reason you can close your eyes and touch your nose without poking yourself in the eye, walk down a stairway without staring at your feet, or eat soup without ending up with a face-full of hot chicken and noodles.

(With gratitude to the Dinosaur Comics.)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Today's Word: macaronic

macaronic: Characterized by a mix of vernacular and Latin words or of vernacular words with Latin endings, or simply characterized by a mix of two languages. I imagine that pidgins are macaronic , at least when they first begin to form. Without having delved into the intricacies of the meaning of this word, I would imagine that creoles, and especially the Creole of Louisiana with its mix of English and French, could be described as macaronic.

This word has metaphorical possibilities outside of language, if only people knew it existed. Considering the Democrat/Republican partisanship in congress, one might say that the bills coming from Congress are sometimes ironic, sometimes moronic, but always macaronic.

The Language Log Blogroll: An Honor

I just discovered this afternoon that Logophilius now appears in the blogroll at Language Log. I do indeed feel honored. And worried. I feel like I now need to post more often. Because, as we hear in every superhero movie these days, "With [a] great [blog] comes great responsibility."

Friday, September 19, 2008

It Be That Day Again

Shiver me timbers! It be talk like a pirate day again! ARRRR! Methinks many a scurvy scallywag ha' forgot this blesséd day and gone about ye merry way parleyin' in the King's English. ARRRR!

Avast, ter celebrate the occasion, methinks I'll make the salmon walk the cedar plank! Tonight, I eat with the fishes!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Book Review-ish: Kate Chopin's The Awakening

I finally finished reading Kate Chopin's The Awakening last night. It wasn't that it was a difficult read, just that it didn't give me much of a sense of anticipation. I didn't put it down reluctantly, and when I put it down, I wasn't anxious to pick it back up to see what happens next. I mostly just read it in restaurants, over a solitary dinner.

But I finished it. I think this does have a decently high reading level — I'd think a HS senior honors class or above. I'd certainly feel sorry for any high school freshmen (especially the boys) who had this thrust upon 'em. The language is just too different from what we're used to. And since most of the novel takes place in New Orleans, there are a lot of French words thrown in there sideways. I guess it makes the main character look more like she is a bonafide member of the upper class. It's also hard to keep track of all of the minor characters who pop in and out of the life of the main character, Edna Pontellier — the Lebruns, the Ratignolles, Madame Weisz, Victor, Arobin — and their relationships with and to each other.

My major criticism, though, is that the symbolism is too obvious. For instance, I rolled my eyes a little at the appearance of the bird with a broken wing on the beach in the last chapter. And Edna's nakedness in that same chapter. It was a little too thick with symbolism.

Still, this would be a great book for a class on feminist literature, or feminism in literature. It's definitely a "woman's book," but beyond that, Chopin's message about the role of women and of wives, and the history of the book's public reception, reveals an important message that came way before its time.

But now my quest to read all the "classics" for which there are CliffsNotes can continue. I think I'll go for a little more action this time, though. Maybe Treasure Island or Gulliver's Travels?

Friday, September 12, 2008

Watery Names and Baby Beatles

My younger child entered kindergarten this fall. This morning, as I was dropping him off at his classroom, I heard one of the other teachers call to a student apparently named Dasani. I don't know if that is how it is spelled, but that's how I heard it.

I reconnected with an old friend from high school via Facebook this morning and found out that her two daughters are named Penny Lane and Lucy Sky. Those names aren't too horrible, considering they could have gone with Eleanor Rigby and Abbey Road. And they're still nicer than some of those horrible baby names that come out of Hollywood. Poor Pilot Inspektor Riesgraf Lee is probably counting down the days to his 18th birthday so he can legally change his name to "John Smith."

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Today's Word: traducianism

traducianism: The theological doctrine that a child's soul is generated from his or her parents. No witty remarks about this today, unfortunately. My best friend Jean is pregnant with her first, so this may come up in conversation over sushi (she sticks to the cooked sushi rolls just to be on the safe side).

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Make Use of the Red Pen

We all have our pet peeves — in life, at work, and in language. Reading certain phrases just makes me want to shout expletives and flip off my computer screen. "Make use of" (hereafter MUO, so I don't have to keep reading it) is one of those phrases. Rrrrgh! I just HATE it. Why MUO something when you can just use it instead?

To my mind, MUO often leaves some ambiguity about exactly how you're supposed to use something. If you're shooting for ambiguity, then this usage is okay (though it can still rub me the wrong way). "If your husband talks in his sleep, make use of available pharmaceuticals." This sentence doesn't state which of the two, the husband or the wife, should take the "pharmaceuticals," or exactly what should be ingested — Valium for the wife? Cyanide pills for the husband? But then again, "use available pharmaceuticals" is nearly as ambiguous.

But that isn't usually how I find it. "MUO your office's recycling bins." is more like it. Luckily, as an editor, I can wield my mighty (virtual) red pen to obliterate two-thirds of that hated phrase.

(To be clear: There's nothing grammatically wrong with MUO. It's a matter of style. I imagine this is one of the phrases William Strunk had in mind when he warned against using passive voice in The Elements of Style.)

Corrected 9/4/08. I don't know what I was thinking. This isn't in the passive voice. Writing this in the passive voice would be much more horrible to my internal ear. Thanks, Bryn.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Today's Word: zugzwang

zugzwang: In chess, the point at which any move a player makes will damage his position is said to be "in zugzwang." It seems like this term ought to be used more often in international relations and government, though I doubt that even the best translators could come up with an Arabic translation on the fly. But you never know.

On Proper Pronunciation

After a garage sale that met with mediocre success a few weeks ago, I discovered a book that I had inherited (pre-mortem) from my now-ex-father-in-law . . . my father-out-law. It's called 20,000 Words Often Mispronounced," by WHP Phyfe, originally published in 1889, this one with a copyright date of 1937. As with many 19th-century books, this one has a verbose subtitle: "A Complete Handbook of Difficulties in English Pronunciation, Including an Unusually Large Number of Proper Names, Words and Phrases from Foreign Languages."

I'm sure Lynne Truss would be quick to point out that the inclusion of a comma after Words in the subtitle would make the meaning clearer. I, however, just wonder at what point the author's large list became "unusually large."

We read from the Preface to the New Edition that "there are a few changes from the former edition of '18,000 Words Often Mispronounce.'" (A few? I'm guessing there were at least 2,000 changes.) To continue:

These changes are prompted by the fact that the New Webster and the latest Standard dictionaries, in keeping with the pace of the constantly changing spoken tongue, have not only noted but have accepted and authorized recent popular variations in pronunciation; these variations have been added to and in many cases substituted for the old ones.

At least the compilers of this edition (Fred A. Sweet and Maud D. Williams) recognized that language changes, and accepted that fact. But they do seem to rely on that Dictionary = Language Bible mentality, as revealed by their choice of "authorization" of a variation.

The text proper begins with an explanation of the symbols and diacritics used to indicate pronunciations, divided into sections:

  1. The Forty-Two Native or Common Elementary Sounds
  2. The Eight Adopted or Naturalized Elementary Sounds
  3. Compound or Diphthongal Sound

The symbology is pretty extensive, though probably no big deal for someone who has given any study to linguistics (which doesn't describe me). For example, on p. 258, we find the entry for diphthong:

dĭf'thŏng. Worcester and Stormonth say dĭp'thŏng. The Century gives it as an alternative pronunciation. See triphthong.

I don't want to go into a lot of specifics about pronunciations and what words are found in here (though I was surprised to see both Brobdingnagian and Houyhnhnm). What strikes me is the sheer gall and ego of an author to state that this is the proper pronunciation of a word. Alternative pronunciations are occasionally noted, but more often, the commonest mispronunciations are put down. To wit:

data. dā'tå, not'

That is, Star Trek NG had it right with Commander Data. The ä, in the pronunciation guide, is given as "the a in arm," which seems strange. The "a in at" is notated as ă, so I would expect "dă'tå" to appear as a pronunciation, either good or bad. But nope.

Has pronunciation changed that much?

There are plenty of surnames thrown in there, like Sousa (sōō'zå, not sōō'så) and Zaleszcyki (zä-lĕsh-chē'kĭ), as well as some words I've never heard before. I wonder how common words like notochord (nō'tō-kôrd) and enfilade (ĕn-fĭl-ād') were in the mid-to-late 19th century.