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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See hard-nosed


See hard-nosed


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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Games With Words: VerbCorner

A team of researchers at MIT has devised a series of games to crowdsource the meaning of verbs. They’re gathering data on how particular verbs are used (e.g., does to strike always denote physical contact). There are currently four different games available with more promised.

Crowdsourcing the analysis of data is one of the hot trends in science. Galaxy Zoo may be the most successful and famous of these efforts. Dictionaries have been crowdsourcing the collection of citations for well over a century, but now linguistic researchers are bringing the power of massed human minds to definition writing.

You do have to register to participate in VerbCorner, but the info you give is pretty minimal. (Some basic demographic info, like age and country of origin, and an email address for password recovery.)

(Tip o’ the Hat to the Lousy Linguist)

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Netflix Adultery

The phrase Netflix adultery popped out at me when I read this Maureen O’Connor column in New York magazine. Netflix adultery is when you secretly watch a show that you had promised to watch with your partner.

A quick Googling shows that O’Connor didn’t coin the term, but it is quite recent. There are numerous hits from various sites, all within the last two weeks.

I immediately thought of the construction _____ porn, as in food porn or war porn, and wondered if there were other similar _____ adultery terms. Sure enough, Urban Dictionary has movie adultery going back to 2004. Urban Dictionary also records soapdultery from 2008, although that is slightly different in that entails watching a different soap opera.

Is Netflix adultery going to catch on? (As a term, that is; as a phenomenon it’s inevitable.) Or is it just a flash in the pan, a flurry of articles about a topic the media is temporarily interested in?

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