General Knowledge

If you listen to the television news long enough, you will hear someone address the Attorney General of the United States as General Gonzales. This usage always grates on my ear. The Attorney General is not a military officer and there is something unsettling about the chief law enforcement officer of a democracy assuming military pretensions. But as much as I dislike this particular form of address, the linguist in me recognizes that it is probably an inevitable development in the language.

The addressing of the attorney general as "general" is relatively recent, only becoming a practice when Janet Reno held the position from 1993-2001, during the Clinton administration. The problem with this form of address is that the general in the title functions as an adjective, denoting that the holder of the office is empowered to act in all cases to which the state is a party. The attorney general has general legal authority in all matters and the scope of his or her authority is not limited. The attorney general’s antithesis would be an attorney special or attorney particular, legal terms that are not used much today.

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Bloody Hell

It seems that British television has banned a new Australian tourism ad campaign for using the phrase "bloody hell."

The ad, which pitch the sights to see and activities to do in Australia, ends with a bikini-clad woman asking "so where the bloody hell are you"? Evidently British television censors deemed the ad too offensive.

The ad still runs in movie theaters and a print version is also running in Britain. The ad is running on American television without controversy.

Tourism Australia, the organization that created the ad, is reveling in the ban. Scads of Britons, hearing of ban are flocking to the internet to view it. As is typical with such censorship, the ban is boosting the ad’s appeal and success.

"Bloody" has traditionally been a very offensive word in Britain. The 1914 London opening of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion was scandalous as Eliza Doolittle utters the phrase "not bloody likely" in the third act. In recent decades, the word has lost much of its offensive character in Britain and is often heard on British TV.

In Australia, the word is only the mildest of oaths, more an intensifier than anything else. In the US, the word has little currency, but where it does it is not considered offensive at all.

The banned ad can be seen at http://www.wherethebloodyhellareyou.com.

Beyonce: Budding Linguist?

From "Beyoncé’s Boost," The Sunday Times, Perth, Australia, 9 March 2006, by Justine Parker and wires:

Bootylicious, the term coined by the former Destiny’s Child star for her own dangerous curves - and made famous by the hit single of the same name - will reportedly be added to the dictionary.

But the Naughty Girl singer is not too impressed by her newfound status as a wordsmith.

“I’m not very proud of that. It’s in the dictionary - it’s crazy,” she said to Britain’s TV Hits magazine.

The 24-year-old, who is famous for her hot hip-shaking in film clips for songs such as Crazy In Love, says she would have stuck it out and put more thought into the term if she had known it would be recorded in the lexicon.

“I wrote the song, but I wish there was another word I could have come up with if I was going to have a word in the dictionary,” she said to the pop mag.

The budding linguist, who is dating rap king Jay-Z, hasn’t yet had a chance to see if the dictionary’s definition is by the book, but she has offered her own spin on the word.

“I don’t know what it says in the dictionary but my definition is beautiful, bountiful and bounce-able,” she said.

Stories about Beyoncé Knowles’s coining of bootylicious have been appearing in English-language newspapers around the world of late. Now, I know better than to expect deep, linguistic scholarship from news reporters who write about pop stars and their music. But there are so many things wrong with the articles like the one quoted above that I just have to speak up.

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How Words Make It Into “The Dictionary”

A question that I get asked with some frequency is I’ve invented a new word. How do I go about getting it in "the dictionary"?

The questioner wants to get credit and fame for coining a term. Almost invariably, I have to disappoint them; their word usually has little chance of ever making it into a dictionary.

So how does a word get into the dictionary? The simple answer is that the editors of a particular dictionary must deem it worthy of inclusion. There is no organization that officially admits words into the English language. Our language is a very democratic one and we admit any word that people actually use. But whether or not a word makes it into a dictionary is another question and the lexicographers of each dictionary are the gatekeepers for entry into that work.

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Navajo Code Talkers

A recent posting on the wordorigins.org discussion forum discussed the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II. The subject combines two interests of mine, languages and the history of the war and it also hearkens back to my Army days when I was in charge of communications security for my battalion.

The Navajo Code Talkers were human encryption/ decryption machines that served with the US Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater. In 1942, a Philip Johnston, the son of missionaries to the Navajo Indian nation and one of a handful of non-Navajos who spoke the language, heard of the military’s search for a robust code that could be used on the battlefield and thought that the Navajo might have a solution.

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Linguistics Glossary

This week we examine some terms that used in the field of linguistics and on Wordorigins.org. Like any field, linguistics has its own jargon (see below), used to convey information precisely and concisely. Sometimes this jargon is opaque and daunting to those encountering it for the first time. So, in the interests of better communication, we present this glossary of linguistic terms:

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Corrections

I received more email comments about last week’s issues than any other. Most focused on two typos: I misspelled Velcro and who. While I am an excellent proofreader of other people’s writing, like most writers I am abysmal at proofing my own words.

One writer objected to my classification of the words as from the 20th century, stating that the 20th century ran from 1901-2000, not 1900-1999. While this hairsplitting may be technically correct, common usage has the century (and millennium) ending on 31 December 1999. But the real reason for my choice of 1900-1999 as the dates is that the OED has no words with a first citation from 2000, so rather than leaving a blank in the slot for that year I shifted the set one year back.

Word A Year: 20th Century, Part II

Last week we examined fifty words, one from each of the years 1950-99. This week we look at words from the first half of the twentieth century.

The words chosen all have their first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary from the year in question. This does not mean that they were actually coined in that year, in fact most were probably not since it usually takes some time from the coining of a term and its appearance in print and there is no guarantee that the OED has even identified the earliest recorded use. But the words were reasonably new to the English language in the year in question and as such are a good guide for tripping down memory lane and recalling what things were new and important in a given year.

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Word A Year: 20th Century, Part I

Last week we examined a number of words from one year, 1906. This week and next we will look at one word for each year of the 20th century.

The words chosen all have their first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary from the year in question. This does not mean that they were actually coined in that year, in fact most were probably not since it usually takes some time from the coining of a term and its appearance in print and there is no guarantee that the OED has even identified the earliest recorded use. But the words were reasonably new to the English language in the year in question and as such are a good guide for tripping down memory lane and recalling what things were new and important in a given year.

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Journo’s Boffo Lingo: The Slang of Daily Variety, Part III

(This article originally appeared in Verbatim, Vol. XXX, No. 1, Spring 2005.)

Those who for the first time open up Daily Variety, the trade paper of Hollywood and the American entertainment industry, are often baffled and stymied by the paper’s use of language. Variety employs a number of grammatical tricks and jargon terms, which it dubs “slanguage,” to achieve its distinctive style.

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