Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Today’s Words: ultimate, penultimate, antepenultimate

ultimate: last; penultimate: next-to-last; antepenultimate: third from the end. Today — December 23 — is the antepenultimate day before Christmas!

We're all pretty familiar with the prefix ante-, meaning "earlier, prior to," from words like antediluvian, antebellum, antedate, and antecedent. The prefix pen-, meaning "almost," isn't so common; penumbra, for example, means "almost shadow." Antepenultimate, therefore, works out as "prior to almost the last." (This very well could be the antepenultimate blog post of 2009!)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Today’s Word: petard

petard: This word really only survives in the phrase "hoist with his own petard." A petard was a small bomb used by medieval engineers to breach castle walls or bring down drawbridges. It comes from the French word peter, "to break wind, toot, fluff, fart." (So if a Frenchman laughs at you because your name is Peter, now you know why.) JRR Tolkien fans might remember that the Deeping-wall of Helms Deep was opened by a suicidal Uruk-hai toting a petard.

Long before the creation of Middle-Earth, the word petard (indeed, the well-known phrase) appeared at the end of Act III, Scene 4 of Hamlet, after he had inadvertently murdered Polonius and had reminded his mother that he was to leave for England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

There's letters seal'd: and my two schoolfellows, —
Whom I will trust as I will adders fang'd, —
They bear the mandate; they must sweep my way
And marshal me to knavery. Let it work;
For 'tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petard: and 't shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines
And blow them at the moon . . .

Hoist with his own petard now means, of course, to be injured or killed by one's own schemes. Or maybe it refers to accidentally catching one's pants on fire when lighting one's farts.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Another Case of Missing Commas

Neil Gaiman tweeted a link this morning to an article at The article is about a budding chemist who apparently liked to dip his chewing gum in citric acid, but on this day accidentally dipped it into some explosive chemical. When he started chewing the gum again, the gum exploded and he died.

The unfortunate Ukrainian is certainly up for a Darwin award, but that isn't why I'm writing about it. What I'm writing about is the summation sentence that appears right below the article's title:

A student in Ukraine died after his jaw was blown off reportedly by exploding chewing gum.

I had to read this sentence three times to figure it out because I didn't know how something could be "blown off reportedly." I assume that what the reporter meant to write was A student in Ukraine died after his jaw was blown off, reportedly by exploding chewing gum. This would be the clinical and unbiased edit that the Telegraph would likely go for. A more cynical reporter might use an em dash instead of a comma, and then maybe italicize, boldface, or all-cap "chewing gum." On the whole, though, a good editor should have completely rewritten the sentence.

Thus the subtlety of the English language and the power of punctuation and formatting of the printed word. Using the exact same words, you can "say" something in different ways. Consider the differences:

  • A student in Ukraine died after his jaw was blown off by exploding chewing gum.
  • A student in Ukraine died after his jaw was blown off — BY EXPLODING CHEWING GUM!
  • A student in Ukraine died after his jaw was blown off by exploding chewing gum.

Not to mention emoticons:

  • A student in Ukraine died :( after his jaw was blown off :o by exploding chewing gum. :P

They say that sarcasm and other forms of emotional expression are difficult to express online in print. But it isn't impossible.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

All Your Basis Are Belong to Us: Rant from an Exasperated Editor

Can someone please tell me the appeal of the word basis? Specifically the idea of doing something "on an adverbly basis." 

I've been seeing this structure a lot lately — or at least it seems that way — while performing some of my daily editorial duties (not the editorial duties that I perform on a daily basis!). And it's really beginning to bug me. 

Recently, I've "learned" that one can add firewall exceptions "on an as-needed basis" and that one's hard drive should be backed up "at least on a monthly basis." Surely it is much easier to "add firewall exceptions as needed" and to back up a hard drive "at least once a month," or even just "monthly"? I'm not arguing grammaticality here, but style. Certainly there are times when "an adverbly basis" is the best way to go — as an editor, I might let some things be decided "on a case-by-case basis" (though I'd prefer that such things be handled individually.) But overall, on an adverbly basis is wasteful. 

It sounds like the high school student who has already increased the font to 14 points, has set line spacing at 2.5 lines, has widened the margins, but still hasn't made it to the five-page minimum for his history report. Time to fluff up the text needless verbiage! 

William Strunk was on to something when he encouraged his students to "Omit Needless Words"; he just framed it wrong. I think "Be Succinct" is a more helpful direction, and it's a full word shorter! 

Look, writers, I'll make you a deal. If you promise to remember that grammatically correct is not the same thing as well-written, I promise to remember that grammatically incorrect isn't the same thing as badly written.

[Update 12/18/09: As bad as "on an adverbly basis" is, "in an adverbly fashion" is even worse. Just came across the imperative "Give instruction in a step-by-step fashion." Again, grammatically correct but so horribly wrong on every other level. Why wouldn't you just "give step-by-step instructions"?!]

Monday, December 7, 2009

The First Snowclone

December 7, 2009, marks the first snowfall of the season. What better time than now to talk about the phenomenon that gave snowclones their name.

If you don't know, a snowclone is a type of fill-in-the-blank cliche based on a framework of a (usually) well-known phrase. Snowclones have generally become multi-purpose idioms that can be easily shaped to the task at hand. (To find out more about snowclones, and from bona fide linguists, check out some of the links at the end of this post.)

Some of my favorite snowclones are

  • This is your brain on X.
  • There's no crying in X!
  • What Would X Do?

My least favorite is "X and Y and Z, oh my!" simply because it is SOOOOO overused, and each person who uses it thinks they're being witty and original.

But anyway, in each of these snowclones, there's an X (and sometimes other stand-in letters) that gets filled with some other word or phrase. For example, if you Google "This is your brain on", you'll find results that talk about your brain on music, God, Kafka, neurotechnology, and Google. The instant recognition of this fill-in-the-blankedness, as well as the wide variety of forms that come out the other end, is what makes these phrasal structures snowclones.

Snowclones are so called because a couple honest-to-blog linguists (Geoffrey Pullum and Glen Whitman) were discussing arguments based on the supposed number of words that Eskimoes have for snow. If you've never heard the phrase "Eskimoes have N number of words for snow" (pick whatever number for N you want), then you've been living under a rock.

What's invalid (and ridiculous) about these arguments is that people have tried to use word counts to show how language reveals culture. In this case, they argue that Eskimoes have a lot of words for snow because snow is such a big part of their culture and daily life. From this first premise, they argue that either a) if a culture has a lot of words for a single phenomenon, then it must be an important part of the culture, or b) that if a particular phenomenon is really important to a culture, there ought to be a lot of words for it.

To thinking people, this is obviously a ridiculous argument. But if you buy into the argument, it can be a little scary. Think about what that would mean for American culture. What phenomena have we created the most words and phrases for?

Do you see where I'm headed? I'm headed to sex.

Take penises, for example. How many euphemisms, dysphemisms, and idioms can you think of that simply give a name to a penis? Some of them actually differentiate types of penises based on certain characteristics (e.g., third leg and pork sword vs. piddle and weeny), but the majority of them exist simply for the joy of sexual wordplay. Why talk about your penis when you can tell stories about your John Thomas, your wang, your schlong, your trouser snake, your joystick, your bayonet, your beaver cleaver, your pecker, your horn, your love shaft, your tally whacker, or your cock? The list is long, and always growing (rim shot).

Lists of "terms of endearment" for the female anatomy and for the act of copulation are likewise lengthy. My point is that, if you buy into the argument that word counts indicate culture, then you'll likely buy that American culture revolves around sex, and that Americans are thus oversexed monsters. Keep your children at home! Horny strangers are ready to poke the unsuspecting at any second!

Make your own arguments about how oversexed Americans are, but this is simply a bad argument. Eskimoes don't have an inordinate number of words for snow, and even if they did, it isn't a good basis for any arguments about culture.

If you want to find out more about snowclones, you can watch the birth of the word snowclone on Language Log. There's even a Snowclone Database online that logs and discusses the snowclones that people find. And finally, Marks Peters is cataloguing versions of the snowclone "X is the Y of Z" — where Y and Z don't have really have anything to do with each other — that he finds in the wild over at The Rosa Parks of Blogs.

I would ask what your favorite snowclone was, but I know that I'm more likely to get lists of euphemisms for sexual organs. Have at it.

Kurt Vonnegut Goes to Hell

I recently (well, over a month ago) changed apartments. I'm still not entirely unpacked, but I am down to those large boxes in which items were thoughtlessly tossed just to get them packed and out of the old place.
While wading through one of these boxes this weekend, I discovered a paper I had written during my senior year of high school for my Classical Literature class. We had been studying Dante's Inferno, and our assignment then was to choose a famous person, decide which Circle of Hell he or she belonged in, and explain why.

I chose Kurt Vonnegut, who was and still is one of my favorite writers, and placed him in the Sixth Circle, among the Gluttons. The essay itself is nothing to write home about, but a decent job for a high school senior who thought he was going to be a professional musician. (You can read the whole thing here.) But at the end, whether it was part of the assignment or not (I'm guessing it wasn't), I wrote my own Canto about Dante and Virgil coming across Vonnegut down there. Reading this today, I think it's mostly awesome. I also think that it might be partly plagiarized — if it isn't, I'm even more impressed with the me of 18 years ago. Some of the language, especially in the first half, may have been "borrowed" to some degree from whichever translation we used for class. Certainly the rhyming structure is based on that

No, the rhythm isn't very good. I understood the mechanics of poetry just slightly less back then than I do now, and I don't really understand poetry now. But still . . . when I reread this nearly two decades later, it still excited me. So here it is. If you think it sucks, that's fine. Just don't waste anyone's time commenting about it.
A few quick notes about this. This is extremely based on what I have read about Vonnegut's stint in the army during World War II, and especially on his time as a POW in Dresden when it was firebombed. "The Florence of the Elbe" is what Dresden was called back then.

My guide and I edged closer to the brink
of screaming, for our heads and stomachs churned
because of the most rank and putrid stink

that spewed forth from the level on which we stood.
Greyed and browned slush hailed from the sky
onto shades who, lacking umbrella or hood,

could do naught but turn their heads away
in hopes that their head-backs might catch
the brunt of the eternal storm, and take anguish away.

But anguish did still spring from pale lips
soiled grotesque tints of brown and black from the storm.
These sinner's shades were buried to hips

in thickish waste, wailing and weeping and moaning
their hellish plight. Said I to my Guide:
"What sin is it that brings these shades here groaning

to this wasteland of suffering dolor where forever
must they mix tears with this rain of refuse?"
And he: "These are sinners who never

partook of anything in divinest moderation.
They chose their one material love and pursued it
with all unending hope and aspiration

of yet still more of their superfluity. Never mind
these gluttons." So we turned to continue deeper,
but then I spotted a quaint shade. "How is it I find,

in this most odorous of levels," said I,
"where every breath is filled with eternal anguish,
a single shade whose weary-caked eyes

are not wet with tears; whose mouth moves
not to bemoan its fate, but mumbles softly
to any ears? I do believe he speaks of doves!"

My Guide was astonished. Said he: "Let us meet
this curious shadow." He seemed not to notice
our approach, for he continued, mumbling "Poo-tee-weet?"

Apparently he had just finished his tale, for he raised
his face to us as we were upon him. The vile slush pummeled
his features, but he noticed not as it rolled down his glazed

figure. My guide spoke first: "Who art thou
that denies Hell your grief and scorn?" Spake he:
"I am one whose witty intellect hast bowed

to verbosity, of a sort, for I loved words so much
that I metamorphosed myself into a string of them,
and transferred my identity onto pages into such

fictitions as Billy Pilgrim and Kilgore Trout.
I am the Master of Black Humor." I intoned:
"But how is it that your words come without

a twinge of sorrow or suffering? Do you not smell
the mephitis emanating from this sludge
to which you are interred forever here in Hell?"

Thus he answered: "The effluvium of my prison
is fragrant to my nose when juxtaposed
to my living experiences, for after I had risen

from the Slaughterhouse to see the destruction
wrought upon the Florence of the Elbe by my
supposed allies, I was given German instruction

to exhume the German civilian dead
and pile them high, alternating human flesh
with wood for the pyre. I uncovered

these bodies for two months' time, and not
one day's rest was I given. The bodies soon
decayed, and forth from every foxhole the rot

from decomposition and pain was on all noses.
Hell cannot compete with that two-month tang.
When compared to that, this smells like roses!"

"But do not the sighs and moans of fellow shades
bring tears into your eyes?" Virgil continued.
"I have heard the moanings on European glades,

beautiful hillsides, and sandy beaches, of children wishing
for death to come quick; children with fresh festering wounds,
lacking limbs, bloody immature digits twitching

as life holds no to make them suffer.
Those infants' moans can overpower any
sound in Hell, and have provided my with a buffer

from emotion that might stem from seeing
shades thrown down in muck and mire."
"But surely throughout all this, your being

must still be affected by the icy deluge
forever beating your brow with splashes
of brown and grey, making stains of huge

proportion upon your skull!" "This icy cold
is the wonderful winter following the
fire-storms of a fiery summer of old."

A thought occurred to me, and I could hold
it back not long. I thus exclaimed: "What in
heaven's name is keeping you here in this cold

dank dungeon? How can Hell confine
you without the benefit of your anguish?"
As I uttered these final words, his eyes began to shine,

and hope, ever a stranger here, appeared upon his face,
and he began to arise from the grime
like one reborn, he rose into space

like his very own Harrison Bergeron, dancing to some
unheard tune. My senses overtook me and I
swooned. The shade, free at last, thought I had come

to my end, but showed no sign of woes,
for as I stumbled into the quagmire,
I heard him mutter "So it goes."

But that is not the end of his tale,
for he is free of his prison in circle three,
but forever must be confined to all of Hell.