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I … Love … This … Language !!!

YouTube – Mad About English! – Official Theatrical Trailer 2008: “”

(Via Language Log.)

Dude! You’re getting a really stinky Dell!


For the non Japanese readers out there, this is a link to a web page at Dell Japan, where the word for “Microsoft” is misspelled just enough to be really really embarrassing for everybody involved.


Hey Staffan —

Follow this link for an example of very good writing — The Exisitential Plight of Chester Chipmate. It’s thought provoking, humorous and simply well written.

Now, why did I stash this here on my blog? Well, Staffan needs to have a wide variety of things to read, especially so as to pull him away from whichever Harry Potter book he is reading for the seventh time. And if he’s reading this, he’s probably at his computer already, so it’s less likely he’ll forget to actually do it.

I’m disturbed by the phrase “Click it or ticket” — the slogan for the recent buckle up campaign. It gets a lot of visibility here in Washington, and I know it gets the same in Pennsylvania, because WPEN always had Click it or ticket commercials during Phillies games this year, and I suspect a similar campaign is ongoing in many states.

I think the ad campaign is good policy — what bothers me is the abuse taken by the English language. In my mind, anything phrased as “A or B” implies that A is the same kind of thing as B, even if they may be opposites, as in “feast or famine” (noun or noun) , “sink or swim” (verb or verb) , “red or green” (adjective or adjective).

In the case of “click it or ticket”, that’s a verb phrase or a noun: not exactly a pair of complementary choices. I simply can’t hear this phrase without thinking about how wrong it sounds, which seems to defeat the point of the ads. Somewhere, some time ago, a marketing wonk decided that a catchy sound was worth whatever negative impact it might have on delivering the message. It may have euphony, but as far as grammar goes, its just phony to me.

Some time ago, the phrase “politically correct” was hijacked to refer to a form of absurd censorship where, for example, someone who was was losing their hair should not be called ‘bald’ — because of the negative connotations associated with that word — but instead some other phrase like ‘follically-challenged’. It is easy to make fun of such nonsense, and so use of the term “politically correct” skyrocketed.

Ironically, it became a politically loaded term, because conservatives used the phrase to ridicule those who would object to discrimination or disenfranchisement, or simply point out the fact that some words were lacking in respect.

I remember the phrase ‘politically correct’ from about 1983, specifically in reference to shopping at a particular coffee shop rather than another near the campus of Yale University. At the time, ‘politically correct’ was used to indicate that our actions, sometimes insignificant ones, can have an impact on peoples lives. Although the coffee was the same, one coffee shop treated its employees better than the other, and so arose the notion that spending money in that shop was healthier for the community.

As applied to language, the meaning seemed obvious. Subtle uses of words do frame the way we think about issues and about people, and seemingly insignificant word choices can have a large impact when repeated over and over. My favorite example is the use of the word ‘slave’ to label a person. Take this passage from “American Constitutional Law” (Mason, Beaney and Stephenson):

“In 1834, Dred Scott, a Negro slave belonging to Dr. Emerson, a surgeon in the United States Army, was taken by his master to Illinois, where slavery was forbidden”

This passage nicely illustrates a misleading use of the word. Scott is identified as a slave in the same way that Emerson is identified as a surgeon, as if ‘slave’ were a profession, and that Scott deserved his chains as much as Emerson deserved his commission. A politically correct rewriting acknowledges that ‘slave’ is a word which dehumanizes the person to whom the label is attached, replacing the phrase “a Negro slave belonging to” with “a Negro enslaved by”

The passage also prompts a further question — what about the word “Negro” ? Is skin color relevant to the Dred Scott case? If it were not, then the word “person” would do nicely. But the case occurred before the 13th Amendment, and, sadly, skin color was an issue in interpreting the laws of different states, and so substituting “person” removes a salient fact about the case. No doubt there is a more au courant term which could be used, but any other choice leaves us with the same unappealing fact that we must mention skin color because the law in 1857 (when the Dred Scott case was decided) makes it necessary to mention. It would be difficult to replace “Negro” with anything else, not because “Negro” is a connotation-free word (its not), but because there are no satisfactory replacements.

Which brings us back to the bald guy. The hijacked meaning of politically correct would lead you to believe that it is OK to refer to someone’s baldness as long as you use a hate-free term for it. But the originally meaning of politically correct prompts us to ask why one needs to talk about baldness in the first place. If there is a need which is not disrespectful, by all means use the word ‘bald’ — but if there is disparagement hiding behind the word, better just to not say anything.

In any case, today I was greatly heartened to happen upon the following quote from none less than Supreme Court Justice James Wilson, writing in majority opinion from Chisholm v. Georgia (1793):

“Sentiments and expressions of this inaccurate kind prevail in our common, even in our convivial, language. Is a toast asked? ‘The United States,’ instead of the ‘People of the United States,’ is the toast given. This is not politically correct.”

Here, he is referring to the misconception that Government somehow has power over the citizens, when in fact it is the power of the citizenry which constitutes the Government, suggesting that raising a toast “to The United States” is a mis-targeted compliment that misleads us further upon each repetition. Instead, raising a toast “to the People of The United States” appropriately acknowledges and remonds us where the power of government originates. That’s the meaning of ‘politically correct’ that resonates with me.

In researching this entry, I happened upon this citation from H. V. Morton’s In the Steps of St. Paul (1936), which uses a darker meaning: that of avoiding language which would be politically sensitive:

“To use such words would have been equivalent to calling his audience ‘slaves and robbers’. But ‘Galatians’, a term that was politically correct, embraced everyone under Roman rule, from the aristocrat in Antioch to the little slave girl in Iconium.”

Oh, the irony!

For a reminder of what a mass noun is, wikipedia has a summary: it is a noun which grammatically does not get counted, like “sand” or “meat” or “furniture”.

The First Commandment being “You shall have no other gods”, it would seem silly to try to argue anything other than that “God” is a count noun and that true believers will believe that there is only one. But that would be making things too simple.

Luther writes in his Small Catechism that this commandment should be interpreted primarily as a commandment place nothing in our lives as a higher importance than God. So this leaves room for interpreting God not as a single countable entity, but instead as a non-countable entity. Indeed, The other things that we might be tempted to place above God — wealth, fame, knowledge, etc. are themselves mass nouns, so Luther’s interpretation of the first commandment actually demands that we view God in its capacity as a mass noun to make a proper comparison.

Taking this approach to God is instructive when trying to rationalize the Holy Trinity. Christians have long been ridiculed when trying to explain how one God can really be three Gods. Even the best of explanations are little more than enthusiastic handwaving: More indicative of the folly of the creed than anything. But if God is a mass noun, then the Trinity is its enumerator: just as one can count sand by enumerating the grains (grains of sand) , or count corn by enumerating kernels or ears or bushels, Christian mythology counts God as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

It also adds a new dimension to the institution of Ceremonial Deism. When I see “In God We Trust” written on a dollar bill, I don’t interpret that as being an endorsement of monotheism, because “God” isn’t singular or plural — it is a mass noun.

After two weeks in Hawaii, I began to appreciate that Contemporary Hawaii has its own dialect of English — with lots of influence from Japanese and traditional Hawaiian Here’s a list of great Hawaiian words:

Keiki — children or kids’ , as in “that’s a great keiki beach” — or a “keiki portion” on a restaurant menu. For some reason, keiki feels like it means “enjoyable for kids” more than it means “appropriate for kids”, which is why I like it.

Menehune — The Hawaiian tomten/troll/sprite/gnome. A waiter used the phrase “There’s a menehune at work” to try to clue us in that someone was treating us to dessert.

Skosh — From the japanese ‘sukoshi’ — meaning ‘a little bit’, as in “just move over a skosh and you’ll be in the picture”. This word also appeared a number of years ago in The Atlantic Monthly’s wordwatch. I heard it many times used comfortably by Hawaiians.

Honu — The Green Sea Turtle. An majestic and elegant beast. When I think of a turtle, I think of tiny things that lived in the little river near the house where I grew up, or the Ogden Nash “The turtle lives twixt plated decks….”. I don’t think of elegance or majesty. ‘Honu’ has elegance and majesty, enough so that Senator Akaka turns out at Turtle Independence Day as part of his July 4th Celebration

Directions – On the islands, there is a collection of words for directions which use a different coordinate space than north-south-east-west, the cartesian system used most places. As is fitting for an island, there are directional words for a radial coordinate system — ‘makai’ means toward the ocean, and ‘makua’ means toward the mountain, as in “The construction project will extend Leilani Road makai to Ono Ono Road” or “Parking is available on the makua side of Leilani Drive” Different places have different words for the tangential directions, usually using landmarks — i.e. “towards Diamond Head”, or “towards Kailua” — The only other good example of radial coordinates I know of is the commonly used system in Tokyo of agari/kudari/uchimawari/sotomawari to describe towards-downtown/away-from-downtown/counterclockwise/clockwise

Tomo commented that it would be difficult to listen to a traffic report in Hawaii, because as awful as the traffic might become, its really hard to hear something like “There’s an accident at the corner of Huapalahu’u and Aki’i’i’pu’u” without smiling.

Honcho is one of the few English words of Japanese origin whose use is not linked in any way to Japanese culture. Indeed, I venture to guess that most people aren’t aware of its Japanese roots, and probably would argue that it is really of Spanish or Italian origin. Hence the interesting variation on it which is gaining popularity: honcho has developed a feminine form — honcha.

This is joke in a number of ways. Japanese has no masculine / feminine grammatical construction (gender in Japanese takes the form of classes for counting — different words are used to count round things, skinny things, flat things, living things, flying things, cyclical things, etc. , but no difference for boy things vs. girl things). So there is no reason at all why honcho shouldn’t be equally applicable to men and women, at least in its original form.

The root of honcho is actually read hancho in Japanese, literally “squad leader”. han is “squad” — in the military or emergency rescue (think earthquake preparedness drills) context, and -cho” is a common suffix for leader ( shacho for company president, kocho for principal, bucho for company department head, etc.).

On the other hand, honcha in Japanese is most likely to be read as “true (green) tea” — meaning a pure variety of Japanese green tea,

I can only guess that naive English speakers feel that honcho isn’t feminine enough to describe the Martha Stewarts of the world, and have turned a somewhat latin-sounding word into a somewhat more latin-sounding word, but I’d love to hear from anyone who has an alternative explanation. Meanwhile, honcha gets thumbs down in my dictionary.

Earliest reference I can find in 5 minutes: March 1, 1996 Booklist, from a review by Whitney Scott of She Came by the Book, a mystery by Mary Wings:

Fans of Wings’ lesbian detective, Emma Victor, will welcome her return, too, and find her resourceful, irreverent, and sexy as ever as she attends the opening of a gay and lesbian archives only to witness the murder of a high honcha in the mammoth San Francisco gay and lesbian community.

The Hokey Pokey as written by Shakespeare
( from the Washington Post Style Invitational )

O proud left foot, that ventures quick within
Then soon upon a backward journey lithe.
Anon, once more the gesture, then begin:
Command sinistral pedestal to writhe.
Commence thou then the fervid Hokey-Poke,
A mad gyration, hips in wanton swirl.
To spin! A wilde release from Heavens yoke.
Blessed dervish! Surely canst go, girl.
The Hoke, the poke — banish now thy doubt
Verily, I say, ’tis what it’s all about.

Thanks to contest winner (grand prize: a shotgun shell salt and pepper shaker) Jeff Brechlin . I owe you a beer or two for a good laugh.

Aaron Brown ( the CNN anchor doing the evening war coverage on CNN ) tries hard to give a balanced delivery of the war news, but it is easy to find the subtle phrasings which mark CNN coverage as being Coalition biased.

I’m not talking about the agenda bias — i.e. there is always a human interest story where the mother or wife of a Coalition soldier tells how their loved one is a good boy, good father or good husband, but there are no interviews with Iraqi mothers who say their (injured or captured or killed) sons in the Army are/were good boys, good fathers, and good husbands. There is plenty of commentary from retired American or British military men about the war, but of course none from any other military professional. There are plenty of pictures of bullets being fired in the direction away from the camera, but very few pictures of bullets flying towards the camera.

And of course, the war coverage in America is very sanitized. Aaron Brown was speaking with an Al Jazeera representative about the gruesome images shown on Iraqi TV and rebroadcast by Al Jazeera. Brown said “but these images were simply gruesome — can’t you convey the gruesomeness of war without showing such repulsive video?” I wish I had been there to respond ” No Aaron, even showing the most gruesome film of the war will never be able to convey the utter horror and ghastliness of combat, and you are lying to your viewers if you tell them otherwise”.

But these are the inevitable faults of war coverage: The human interest story would induce channel changing if it were the Iraqi mother lamenting the capture of her son, Iraqi military pundits are hard to come by, and the reporters just aren’t allowed to travel with the Iraqi units, and unsanitized war makes for bad press, and the last thing the press wants is bad press. They cause bias, but it is easy to understand why things are the way they are.

But language is more subtle. Compare the phrases:

“the injured Americans are coming home”
“the injured Americans are going home”

When spoken by a TV journalist, the first is biased, creating the feeling that the American soldier is part of the viewers’ community, whereas the second one isn’t

“the American troops made better progress today as they continued towards Baghdad”
“the American troops continued their advance towards Baghdad today”

In the first quote, progress is only better if you are on the American side. The second is neutral.

“the 3rd Brigade 7th Cavalry opened fire on enemy positions”
“the American 3rd Brigade 7th Cavalry opened fire on Iraqi positions”

In the first quote, the word “enemy” creates the impression that the journalist has taken the side of the Americans. Furthermore, leaving out the word American creates the impression that because the nationality is not stated, it must be the nationality of the reporter, or, worse, that the journalist believes that viewers’ will understand that if the unit number is given, it must be American, because viewers do not care about such details about the enemy forces, perhaps because their sons and daughters will not be part of that unit.

All of these examples were from CNN — the first line being the actual phrase which aired ( at least what I remembered). Listen carefully and you will find that CNN and ABC reporters try to avoid it but make such mistakes regularly. FOX reporters apparently make no effort to avoid them. NPR and BBC reporters very seldom make such mistakes.