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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DARE Funding

A month ago I reported on the unfortunate situation with funding for the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). The situation has improved significantly.

A number of contributors have stepped up to the plate. An anonymous donor has contributed $100,000 and the American Dialect Society has pitched in $30,000. The University of Wisconsin has also given the project $100,000 and budgeted and additional $130,000 for the next three years. So the immediate crisis has passed.

But while this funding will keep the lights on, it’s not sufficient for all their needs. If you’re able to contribute, you can do so (tax free in the US) via this page.

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Trademarking “Día De Los Muertos”

This is a bit off topic for wordorigins.org, but I’ve addressed intellectual property issues before, and while I mostly focus on copyright, distinguishing between copyright and trademark is an important thing to do—especially if you’re a reporter writing a story about it.

Disney’s Pixar Studios has an upcoming film based on the Mexican cultural celebration, and Disney made an initial effort to trademark the phrase Día de los Muertos and several other movie related terms and images. After the public outcry, Disney announced they were withdrawing the trademark application.

Let me make clear, Disney’s attempt to create trademarks around Día de los Muertos was a very bad idea, but only because the reaction to it was so predictable. People were bound to assume that Disney was trying to “steal” a cultural tradition. You even got respectable outlets like Language Log publishing an article titled “Is Christmas Next?” It’s purely a public relations problem, not an example of an evil corporation attempting to appropriate a cultural tradition. Not that I don’t think Disney is capable of doing bad things—it has, for example, a reputation in Hollywood as a horrible place to work—but in this case I don’t think Disney intended anything nefarious.

The problem is that people don’t know what a trademark is. They confuse it with patents and copyrights, but it’s really quite different. Trademark law is essentially a consumer protection measure that ensures that products and services are labeled in such a way that one doesn’t confuse one company’s products with another. Trademark is not “ownership,” like copyright or patent. Disney, if had been successful in its trademark bid, it could not have prevented people from celebrating the holiday, or collected royalties from those that did. All it could do under trademark law would be to prevent people from making knock-off products and duping consumers. Trademark law protects a company’s profits from being poached by manufacturers of cheap knock-offs, and it protects consumers by ensuring they’re not mistakenly buying an inferior product. When trademarks are associated with widely known phrases, like Día de los Muertos, the trademark is usually limited to a specific graphical and typographical reproductions. In other words, other companies can still sell Día de los Muertos products, they just can’t label them in the same manner as the Disney movie and its associated products are labeled.

This is a case where a company took what was legally the correct course of action, but which was an incredibly stupid thing to do. Situations like this arise when you put lawyers in charge with no checks on their authority. Lawyers do what’s best for their client under the law, not necessarily what is smart.

[Addition: Svinyard118 makes an excellent point in the comments which I probably should have included when I originally wrote this post. The degree to which Disney’s action truly is objectionable depends on the scope of the trademark claim, which we don’t really know. (We know the categories of products that fall under Disney’s claim, which are numerous and broad, but we don’t know exactly what Disney was trying to trademark.) I assumed that the claim was that the phrase “Día de los Muertos” itself is not trademarked, but that Disney was only trying to trademark specific graphical representations of the phrase, as is typically the case when someone tries to trademark a term or phrase that is in common use. It’s possible that Disney threw out a wider net, claiming that all uses of the phrase in relation to marketing products in a number of broad categories is trademarked, which would be an evil act. Such a wide claim would likely not stand up to a legal challenge, but few companies have the deep pockets needed to go head-to-head with Disney in court, so a wide claim might work.

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