What Rahm says/What Chicago hears

I once saw a cartoon entitled “What You Say/What Your Dog Hears.”  In the first panel we see the owner shrieking: “You’re a very bad dog, Ginger!  Look how you broke my favorite lamp, Ginger!  Bad, bad Ginger!”  In the second panel we see the dog wagging its tail with glee as it hears, “Ooooooo, Ginger! Oooooooo, Ginger! Oooo, oooo Ginger!”

This came to mind as I read the latest chin-strokers about the impact of Rahm Emanuel’s personality on the likelihood that he’ll hold onto Chicago’s mayoralty.  Journalists have emptied their thesauri searching for the closest analogue to the unprintable “asshole;” but most of their accounts suggest that the entire topic is unworthy of discussion.

That’s probably because many journalists have backgrounds like mine.  When Rahm speaks, I hear the boys I went to high school with, or the guys with whom I practiced law: loud and obnoxious, blunt and profane.  Plenty of those guys were assholes—but just as many weren’t.  Their swearing and yelling was pretty much beside the point, just a matter of style.  And a familiar style, at that: the style of urban Jews from loud-mouthed families where you had to shout to be heard.

So when the mayor is rude, I don’t take it personally.  But it seems likely that what African-Americans hear is disrespect, and they do take it personally.  Nor would I claim that they shouldn’t.  I suspect to many black people Rahm’s profanity and flippancy register as ways of saying, “You’re so unimportant I can’t even bother to be polite to you.”  It comes across as one of the thousands of variations on addressing adults as “boy.”

So the issue isn’t whether Chicagoans are too thin-skinned to handle a tough-talking mayor; it’s whether what they hear is tough talk, or disdain.  And given Rahm’s determination to do things his own way and his reluctance to listen to other people’s points of view, the ones whose reaction is that the mayor doesn’t care what they think or even believe them qualified to have opinions—those people cannot be held to be wrong.

Bleg: polite and up-to-date substitute for “happy horsesh*t”?

Apparently that highly useful phrase is no longer current. Did something replace it?

In a draft essay that I sent out to colleagues for comment, I used the phrase “happy h.s.,” assuming that the meaning “Absurdly and probably insincerely over-optimistic prediction, explanation, or interpretation from official or semi-official souces” would be familiar. In fact, two of my friends - neither much more than a decade younger than I - weren’t even sufficiently acquainted with the phrase to expand the initials.

Note that HHS is not synonymous with BS; rather, it is a sub-category under BS.

So: Does contemporary idiom have a comparably punchy (and if possible less pungent, or at least more printable) phrase that means the same thing?

A Syntactical Mexican Mystery

My kids like the Mexican restaurant chain Rubio’s and so do I. Part of the appeal is the fun of guessing each week what comes with their kids meal. The menu says that along with the main (burrito, quesadilla etc.) each kid’s meal

Includes a choice of: applesauce, chips, beans or rice; and a churro.

Walk through that punctuation mindfield and consider my family’s last three trips to Rubio’s.

1. After I order the kid’s meal, the cashier asks “Do you want beans or rice with that?”. I say “rice”.

They bring us applesauce, chips, rice and a churro.

2. After I order the kid’s meal, the cashier asks “Which side order do you want?”. I say “rice”.

They bring us rice and a churro. I ask about the applesauce and chips and they say that the dish comes with only one side order

3. After I order the kid’s meal, the cashier asks “Which side order do you want?”. I say “rice”.

They brings us rice only. I go back and ask for a churro and they say that if I wanted a churro instead, I should have asked for a churro instead of rice.

Apparent interpretations of the menu text, where M = meal brought to the table, A = Applesauce, C = Chips, B = Beans, R = Rice and CH = Churro.

Cashier 1 M = A + C + (B or R) + CH
Cashier 2 M = A or C or B or R + CH
Cashier 3 M = A or C or B or R or CH

Who is correct?

p.s. Yes, I notice that we keep getting less food each time, but I am assuming this about how different staff read the menu and not the declining state of the economy.

If you like language…

…you’ll love this diversion.  I grew up in New York, but not recently, and haven’t lived there since I was 18.  You would think decades in Boston and the Bay Area would have covered up an accent I never thought I really had, but with twenty five questions, this gadget located my origins with amazing accuracy; here’s where it pegged me.

When you’re done playing with that, go here and help advance the science behind it with your own data.

In which I examine the unity of mind and body

Over on the Nonprofiteer I consider the expression “pain in the ass” and its application to actual asses everywhere. The money graf:

So when you go home for the holidays and abruptly find yourself troubled by an injury you’d
thought long healed, look around the room: maybe it’s Mama and maybe it’s Uncle Jim, but I’ll
bet somebody familial is the cause. And if you notice a brother who seems to manifest a limp
every time he sees you, consider this: you might be the pain in the ass of which you’ve always

Language Bleg

Having been living and working in the US almost all year, I have virtually recovered from mixing up British and American spellings. The only thing I sometimes still stumble over is a language quirk which I have fruitlessly searched for information about on Language Log. Hence this bleg.

There are a number of English verbs which are sometimes ended in the past tense with a t instead of ed: Dreamed/Dreamt, Burned/Burnt, Leaped/Leapt, Creeped/Crept, Learned/Learnt.

However, at least some of these are considered misspellings on this side of the pond, whereas other are not. Is there any rule on this, and, does anyone know where this variant in some past tense English verbs comes from in the first place? I wonder also if English ever used the words sweeped, weeped and sleeped before the current norms of swept, wept and slept.

Any information appreciated.

What Are Your Favorite Split Metaphors?

Stanford University President Gerhard Casper once gave a speech in which he commented on his tendency to mix metaphors, which amused and at times bemused those around him. My favorite of the ones he quoted was:

“Let’s not drop anchor when we aren’t out of the woods yet”

My best friend, my wife and I got into the habit of calling such things “split metaphors” and keeping track of ones that made us laugh. Here are a few:

“I don’t think she’s shooting straight off the bottom of the deck”

“You really hit the nose on the face”

“He’s so good at chess that every time we play, he cleans my butt”

What are your favorite split metaphors?

The OED as (literally) the first wiki?

As noted by the Senior Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, there’s been some consternation recently about the inclusion of a figurative interpretation of ‘literally’ to the list of acceptable definitions of the word.

What may surprise [people] is to find that th[e figurative] usage is much older than you would think. While it is true that it has become increasingly common in modern usage, it was actually first included in the OED in 1903. When the entry was updated and published online in September 2011, we found even earlier examples of this usage – our earliest example is currently from 1769…

I’m no lexicographer, nor am I a philologist by any stretch of the imagination. My knowledge of the terms ‘prescriptivist’ and ‘descriptivist’ just about exhausts my familiarity with the field.

Simon Winchester’s history of the OED did, however, make me think that inclusion of the figurative interpretation of ‘literally’ may in fact have been well overdue. If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to squeeze it in as (perhaps your final) summer read.* I won’t regurgitate the history, as much of the material can be found in condensed form at Wikipedia, or in far more entertaining and engaging form from the book itself. I’ll draw attention to just one aspect of the story: the Dictionary project emerged after a series of lectures that were delivered to the newly formed Philological Society convinced its members of the inadequacy of previous efforts (notable examples including Dr. Johnson’s). If the task was to succeed, the lectures argued, the English Dictionary would need to jettison the approach of having a committee decide on the correct usage of words by central diktat. While such an approach might have worked for languages like French or Italian, for which the rules and vocabulary were more rigid, the “mongrel” nature of English required a different approach altogether. Instead, an English Dictionary necessitated soliciting English speakers for suggestions of how words have been used, rather than how they ought to be used.

The Philological Society lectures argued that because English is such a mish-mash of different rules and practices, any lexicographer assembling an English dictionary would be forced to apply only the very lightest touch in providing guidance. Indeed, this is reflected in Ms. McPherson’s post. Back to her:

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that people often have strong opinions about “new” senses of words. Perhaps the question is not so much why do people have a problem with literally but rather why do lexicographers not have a problem? It comes down to that oft-spoke mantra – language changes. Our job is to document that for better or for worse. Except for us, there is no worse. We have to look at language objectively and dispassionately. Of course, part of our job is to give guidance on what might be acceptable when. That is why we label some words as slang and why we give a usage note at the offending sense of literally, making clear that although it is very common, it is considered irregular in standard English.

We’ve known for a long time what is meant when someone says “I literally can’t take any more.” It’s perfectly regular and comprehensible, and objection to its use is really just the same kind of snobbery as quibbling over whether ‘data’ is singular or plural. The answer: yes, technically, ‘data’ is a plural word, but if you want to treat it as such, you’re probably being a hypocrite in the way you use many other words. So you’re best off just sticking with what comes naturally (i.e., the singular). Moreover, as McPherson notes, the greatest harm (if any) is that a figurative use of ‘literally’ is pleonastic. All of this is just another way of saying that language use in English generally resorts to conventions rather than rules set out by lexicographers. The originators of the OED at the Philological Society have been vindicated, it seems.

In addition to being one of the most impressive and inspiring projects of which I know, the OED also strikes me as a model for one of the first ‘open-source’ data collection projects. With its practise of soliciting input on word usage from word users throughout the world, I wonder how much precedent can be found in the history of the OED in the formation of Wikipedia.

*By which I mean Winchester’s book. Then again, if you want to read the OED, …I suppose some people do that for fun.


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Language police inquiry

Before we even get to our big question, we need to clear preliminary underbrush aside.  English does not really have a word for the small room furnished with a water closet (incorrectly called a toilet, a word that properly denotes not an object but the process or activity involving a hairbrush, innumerable lotions and unctions, a dressing gown, a mirror, and the like) and lavatory (semi-correctly called a washbasin and incorrectly called a sink).  Perhaps because there is no possible way to bathe in it, we call it a bathroom or even more strangely, a bath.   Other languages known to me are awash in similar fogs of euphemism and indirection here.   Spanish-speaking countries often have these marked for caballeros (but I have never seen a hitching rail), and none for peatóns.

One way or another, we get to it, and find equipment for one person at a time, marked graphically or verbally for either men or women.  Why?  what modesty is offended by using one of these, alone, after someone of the opposite sex has done so, modesty that does not demand hotel rooms be so segregated?  Why should someone be standing around waiting for the one on the left when the other is empty? But this is not a language question.

We may also find a sign that reads Unisex. Ah, and now we come to my question:  why is a uniperson, disex (or multigender) bathroom, labelled with a madeup word that is wrong both ways, with no fastidious or euphemistic result?

Update 13/VIII/13: anyone who reads this far (and I’m humbled by seeing more than 30 comments!) deserves more and better lunacy.  So with the thinnest possible connection, I nominate (i) Jonathan Miller’s immortal bit (by the way, the complete BtF is here, woo hoo!) and (ii) a Wikipedia article I never in my wildest fevered dreams imagined could exist, let alone extend beyond about fifty words.

It is a wondrous world, in so many ways

The next crime reduction breakthrough

Many of our great universities are having some awkwardness about how they deal with people who sexually mistreat their students.  The government is making them report on cases and how they are handling them, and Yale’s offers an innovation that has vast promise for all criminal justice, even though its merit completely escapes some bloggers.    The innovation is to rename rape as  non-consensual sex.  Like most innovators, Yale didn’t push their invention as far as they should have, but we can fix that: what they actually meant was partially consensual sex: surely they didn’t mean to completely ignore the enthusiastic consent of the rapist that is universal in these cases! In the student-on-student cases, it’s not just anyone consenting, but a Yale Man, not to mention a future stream of alumni bucks - possibly even  a letter athlete. In gang rapes, it seems only right to say “minority nonconsensual sex“.

The language change is much more interesting than it might appear.  For one thing, it sounds much less like something that’s done to you by somebody, and more like something that just happened.  Like when you trip on a loose rug when you didn’t mean to.  So all that blaming and fault-finding that makes the dean have Seriously Awkward Meetings with the spoiled son of a rich alum gets the heat turned down from the start. For another, it elides what we know about rape being a matter of power and not, mainly, sex. And finally, it wonderfully raises the subconscious suggestion that maybe not consenting was the offense!

I foresee a whole penal code worth of creative renaming in this line.  For a start, it will be super useful as the military looks under its sexual abuse rock; in lots of those cases, the consenting rapist outranks the victim, a clear case of predominant consent. When someone points a gun at you and takes your money and your cell phone, that’s not robbery; it’s partially consensual sharing!  When Yale students cheat on their exams, they’re using partially approved study methods.  If that armed sharer just shoots you to move things along, he’s aggravated the offense with partially consensual lifespan determination.  The possibilities in international relations make my head swim; armed occupation, for example, is partially consensual governance, which is obviously not that far from enacting legislation in Congress with a less-than-unanimous vote.

Rape is a felony, and felonies tend to involve the police, prison sentences, and a bunch of other really messy stuff. If we call this something that sounds a lot more like kids having fun…well, you get the idea. If you call a dog’s tail a leg, the dog has five legs, right?

I am ashamed that my alma mater does not get credit for this breakthrough, but maybe we can come up with something like it in the next round.