basket case

It is not uncommon for a grisly or shocking term to lose its impact over the years, to meliorate. Such is the situation with basket case. As the term is commonly used today, a basket case is someone who is under physical or, more usually, mental distress to the point where they can no longer function. It is also used to refer refers to a dysfunctional organization or situation. But the origins of the term are much more grim and rooted in the horrors of the First World War, or as we shall see, rooted in something of an urban legend that arose from that war. 

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How Many Languages?

Geoffrey Pullum examines the question.

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literally

Literally is getting a lot of press nowadays and is the target of many grammar scolds and pedants. What the reporters are writing about and the scolds are carping on is the figurative use of the word, as in “I was literally glued to my seat.” The word literally comes to us, via French, from the Latin literalis ”pertaining to letters.” It literally means “word for word, actually, exactly.” So, according to the scolds, when someone says they were “literally glued to their seat,” it is a pretty good bet that they are not actually attached to a chair with some sort of mucilage. 

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Podcast: Evolution of Language

I listen to a lot of podcasts, and one that I regularly download is Desiree Schell’s Skeptically Speaking. It’s a weekly syndicated radio program out of Edmonton, Alberta that discusses a variety of topics related to science, the scientific method, and critical thinking.

Schell’s 19 July 2013 episode is on the evolution of language and features an interview with Noam Chomsky in which the MIT linguist explains his hypothesis of universal grammar, UC Berkeley anthropologist Terrence Deacon who dispute Chomsky’s claim that language is biologically and genetically based, and biologist Con Slobodchikoff, who discusses his work animal language.

If you’re interested but don’t know much about the topic, it’s well worth a listen. Those who have read widely on the subject, however, will probably not find much new.

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hard-nosed, soft-nosed, dum-dum

Someone who is hard-nosed is stubborn, obstinate, or unyielding, tough, uncompromising. This slang sense has been around since the late 1920s. The OED records a 1927 theater program glossing the term, indicating that the usage was not completely familiar. And in 1928 the journal American Speech records it as carnival slang ("Contributor’s Column,” American Speech, Vol. 3, No. 3, February 1928, 253–57). But where does the term come from? What does an impenetrable proboscis have to do with being stubborn or unyielding?

The answer is that the term comes from the world of the military and munitions. It started out as a retronym for a type of bullet. In the late nineteenth century, ammunition makers started producing bullets that deformed upon impact, increasing the damage caused. The most famous of these soft-nosed projectiles were produced at the British arsenal in Dum-Dum, India.

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dum-dum

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soft-nosed

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Kemosabe

With all the news coming out the Supreme Court yesterday, you may have missed this Slate article on the origin of the term Kemosabe, Tonto’s name for the Lone Ranger.

As usual, there’s no definitive origin, but several plausible theories.

What’s Different in Canada

Not all of these are language-oriented, but this tumblr is dead on the money. (For those of you not resident here in Leftpondia, the “what’s different” refers to Canada and the hulking cultural behemoth to its south.)

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50 Common Misconceptions

This type of debunking is badly needed, although I don’t know how good the research team at Mental Floss is. They do get the Neil Armstrong explanation wrong. (He did indeed intend to say “a small step for a man,” but he actually said, “a small step for man.” It wasn’t a transmission problem that masked the “a.” So all those people who have been “misquoting” him have actually been correct. Armstrong claimed that it was a transmission problem for a while, but eventually admitted he screwed up the statement. Not that anyone blames him. It’s amazing that in all the excitement he didn’t make any bigger mistakes. Here’s The Onion’s take on the historic moment (NSFW).)





But this earlier video from Mental Floss on grammar and usage mistakes is horrible. It’s just unsupported peevery:

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