Category Archives: language

on the Harmless Drudge account

another passage from Jonathon Green’s Odd Job Man

The slang lexicographer is by very nature a voyeur. The lexis undoubtedly leans toward pimping and prostitution, crime and imprisonment, violence and cruelty, drugged and drunken debauches, but the lexicographer is neither whore nor thief, thug nor prisoner, addict nor drunkard. Or not professionally. They are linguistic reporters, except that unlike the tabloids’ traditional formula they make no excuses and they do not leave. The job is to collect knowledge, to explicate it, and to disseminate the information that emerges. As I say, a voyeur, but ideally an informed one. (pg 38)

Green’s Dictionary of Slang

A week or two ago I saw the announcement for Green’s Dictionary of Slang in its online version, and almost bit (at about $60/year). Intrigued, I looked on Amazon and (1) found that the 3-volume print version could be had for a bit less than $600 via Prime, and in used form for around $300; and (2) that Jonathon Green’s Odd Job Man: Some Confessions of a Slang Lexicographer (2014) was about $4, plus shipping. I ordered the latter, and started reading it when it arrived. Fantastic so far, and I’m only 20-odd pages in. His first substantive chapter (‘Beginning’) is a fascinating and utterly unique take on autobiography, raggedy bits of wry memory:

This is in no way a conventional memoir, but some things must be said. Or so it seems to me, whose working life is so committed to searching the past for origins and roots. It is a beginning that, without the memories that those from more settled lineages have on tap, has always seemed abrupt. Perhaps, like newly arrived immigrants looking forward to their future and rushing to move beyond the past, the young have no interest in asking questions about ‘before’? Perhaps that was merely me? I failed to ask and remain in ignorance. And since the past was quite literally another country, and that country no longer exists remotely as it was, I am not going to find out. I have been trying to make up for it, by proxy, ever since. (pg 15)

A quick calculation tells me that $60/year is not all that much more than $1 a week, cheap at twice the price for a subscription. So I bit. And it looks like a real winner, now that I’ve browsed a bit and tried out the various features.

argybargy du jour

All those years ago I was drawn to Anthropology because I thought it was a comprehensive and comprehensible way to MAKE SENSE of the world around me; and in my years as a prof I approached teaching Anthro in the same spirit, looking at the great variety of solutions to the practical problems of living that people had developed over the vastnesses of time and space (well, 10,000 years or so; and terrestrial space, but still…), returning again and again to the observed Fact that the Emperor was Naked. And now I find myself looking to one particular/peculiar strain of the discipline to, once again, [try to] make sense of the contemporary world.

Lately I’ve been reading a number of things that have fundamentally the same message. Much seems to emanate from David Graeber, and is concerned with bamboozlement in many forms:

…a kind of strategic pivot of the upper echelons of US corporate bureaucracy — away from the workers, and towards shareholders, and eventually, towards the financial structure as a whole… corporate management became more financialized, but at the same time, the financial sector became corporatized with investment banks, hedge funds, and the like largely replacing individual investors. As a result the investor class and the executive class became almost indistinguishable… (19)

…the last two centuries have seen an explosion of bureaucracy, and the last 30 or 40 years in particular have seen bureaucratic principles extended to every aspect of our existence… (27)

What was being talked about in terms of “free trade” and the “free market” really entailed the self-conscious completion of the world’s first effective planetary-scale administrative bureaucratic system. (30)

…public and private bureaucracies finally merged together in a mass of paperwork designed to facilitate the direct extraction of wealth. (35)

If one gives sufficient social power to a class of people holding even the most outlandish ideas, they will, consciously or not, eventually contrive to produce a world organized in such a way that living in it will, in a thousand subtle ways, reinforce the impression that those ideas are self-evidently true. (37)

…what we call “the public” is created, produced through specific institutions that allow specific forms of action — taking polls, watching television, voting, signing petitions or writing letters to elected officials or attending public hearings — and not others. (98)

(The above from The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. There’s much more I’d transcribe from Graeber’s writings, including Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology and of course Debt.

A similarly resonant voice: Tariq Ali in the latest London Review of Books:
The New World Disorder (Vol. 37 No. 7 · 9 April 2015)

But social democratic reforms have become intolerable for the neoliberal economic system imposed by global capital. If you argue, as those in power do (if not explicitly, implicitly), that it’s necessary to have a political structure in which no challenge to the system is permitted, then we’re living in dangerous times. Elevating terrorism into a threat that is held to be the equivalent of the communist threat of old is bizarre. The use of the very word ‘terrorism’, the bills pushed through Parliament and Congress to stop people speaking up, the vetting of people invited to give talks at universities, the idea that outside speakers have to be asked what they are going to say before they are allowed into the country: all these seem minor things, but they are emblematic of the age in which we live. And the ease with which it’s all accepted is frightening. If what we’re being told is that change isn’t possible, that the only conceivable system is the present one, we’re going to be in trouble. Ultimately, it won’t be accepted. And if you prevent people from speaking or thinking or developing political alternatives, it won’t just be Marx’s work that is relegated to the graveyard. Karl Polanyi, the most gifted of the social democratic theorists, has suffered the same fate.

and this announcement by William Arkin, via Gizmodo, of a Twitter feed covering a lot of the same dolorous but important ground:

o here’s what I plan to do: Expose. Explain. Secrecy and euphemisms are carpet-bombing us into submission. I’m sick of the parameters of the sanctioned debate. So instead I will try to treat the secret world like a sports league: There are coaches, players, commentators, bookies, and marketing geniuses. We’ll have something to say about all of them, something to reveal every week. The teams are the NSA, the CIA, FBI, Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Department of Homeland Security, TSA, ICE; and that’s just Division I. There’s a Division II playing somewhere else, far more obscure but nevertheless influential and odious, populated by billion-dollar institutions like the Counter-Narcoterrorism Program Office or the Defense Threat Reduction Agency or U.S. Army North, real parasites on the American spirit, survivors because what they do festers in the dark. Each has a history and personality, a lineup, a budget cap, a general manager, a narrative to sell.
(much more and very worth reading)

Cuisine collides with living language

Lately we’ve been exploring what can be done with ground duck. Last night I used half a pound in a stir-fry (with tofu, collards, a tomato; and using a Thai prik mixture smuggled by a friend) and there was a half pound of duck left… So I went to sleep on it, and woke up thinking about a solution: fine choppage of ginger, scallions, cilantro (all withering in the refrigerator and needing to be used); mix with duck; shape into little torpedoes; steam, or sauté, or poach. I followed that inspiration through several steps:




But what are these little torpedoes? From some back corner of the mind came an answer: quenelles de canard. I was pretty sure that ‘quenelle’ was the right designation for the shape and even the cooking method, but I googled it anyway. And immediately found myself in a rapidly-unfolding linguistic muck heap. Yes, I was right about ‘quenelle’ in a culinary sense, but recent argybargy in France has put the term into hazardous territory, such that one might want to find another designation for the …ummm… torpedoes. I’ll leave it for you to peruse the relevant Wikipedia page (Quenelle_gesture_) and consider the depths of linguistic play.

Others have found themselves deep in it:

(from International Business Times)


And here’s where it all began a decade or so ago.

Evidently quenelle derives from knödel, at least in the mind of the OED, so we’re somewhere in dumpling-land, a pleasant place to be on a snowy Sunday morning.

beware tl;dr

In the last few days I’ve been reading Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D. T. Max. Not sure how I got started on it (maybe via Elaine Blair’s NYRB piece or possibly via Max’s reminiscence re: the title or thanks to some more recent but untraceable blog post), but ensnared I am. I haven’t been a big DFW fan, though I’ve seen a lot of chat about his literary significance. I’m stalled about halfway through Infinite Jest, and Consider The Lobster has been on the to-read pile for a year or more.

This morning’s blogroll brought me Jon Evans’ Such DFW. Very Orwell. So Doge. Wow., and that pointed me to DFW’sTense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage, which is a deliciously detailed exposition on Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage (the article was originally published in Harper’s in 2001, and is reprinted in Consider the Lobster). I hadn’t thought I’d be in the market for a[nother] Usage tome, but the Brown Truck will be delivering it on Tuesday. Here are some extracts from Tense Present that may trick you into reading the whole thing (if you can get past the old tl;dr bugaboo, you’ll probably love it):


From one perspective, a certain irony attends the publication of any good new book on American usage. It is that the people who are going to be interested in such a book are also the people who are least going to need it, i.e., that offering counsel on the finer points of U.S. English is Preaching to the Choir. The relevant Choir here comprises that small percentage of American citizens who actually care about the current status of double modals and ergative verbs. The same sorts of people who watched Story of English on PBS (twice) and read W. Safire’s column with their half-caff every Sunday. The sorts of people who feel that special blend of wincing despair and sneering superiority when they see EXPRESS LANE — 10 ITEMS OR LESS or hear dialogue used as a verb or realize that the founders of the Super 8 motel chain must surely have been ignorant of the meaning of suppurate. There are lots of epithets for people like this — Grammar Nazis, Usage Nerds, Syntax Snobs, the Language Police. The term I was raised with is SNOOT. [see fn below] The word might be slightly self-mocking, but those other terms are outright dysphemisms. A SNOOT can be defined as somebody who knows what dysphemism means and doesn’t mind letting you know it.

[fn: …which term itself derives from an acronym, with the big historical family joke being that whether S.N.O.O.T. stood for “Sprachgefuhl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance” or “Syntax Nudniks of Our Time” depended on whether or not you were one.]

Descriptivism so quickly and thoroughly took over English education in this country that just about everybody who started junior high after c. 1970 has been taught to write Descriptively — via “freewriting,” “brainstorming,” “journaling,” a view of writing as self-exploratory and -expressive rather than as communicative, an abandonment of systematic grammar, usage, semantics, rhetoric, etymology. For another thing, the very language in which today’s socialist, feminist, minority, gay, and environmentalist movements frame their sides of political debates is informed by the Descriptivist belief that traditional English is conceived and perpetuated by Privileged WASP Males [fn: which in fact is true] and is thus inherently capitalist, sexist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, elitist: unfair. Think Ebonics. Think of the involved contortions people undergo to avoid he as a generic pronoun, or of the tense deliberate way white males now adjust their vocabularies around non-w.m.’s. Think of today’s endless battles over just the names of things — “Affirmative Action” vs. “Reverse Discrimination,” “Pro-Life” vs. “Pro-Choice,” “Undercount” vs. “Vote Fraud,” etc.

These are tense linguistic times. Blame it on Heisenbergian Uncertainty or postmodern relativism or Image Over Substance or the ubiquity of advertising and P.R. or the rise of Identity Politics or whatever you will — we live in an era of terrible preoccupation with presentation and interpretation. In rhetorical terms, certain long-held distinctions between the Ethical Appeal, Logical Appeal (= an argument’s plausibility or soundness), and Pathetic Appeal (= an argument’s emotional impact) have now pretty much collapsed — or rather the different sorts of Appeals now affect and are affected by one another in ways that make it almost impossible to advance an argument on “reason” alone.

Take, for example, the Descriptivism claim that so-called correct English usages such as brought rather than brung and felt rather than feeled are arbitrary and restrictive and unfair and are supported only by custom and are (like irregular verbs in general) archaic and incommodious and an all-around pain in the ass. Let us concede for the moment that these objections are 100 percent reasonable. Then let’s talk about pants. Trousers, slacks. I suggest to you that having the “correct” subthoracic clothing for U.S. males be pants instead of skirts is arbitrary (lots of other cultures let men wear skirts), restrictive and unfair (U.S. females get to wear pants), based solely on archaic custom (I think it’s got something to do with certain traditions about gender and leg position, the same reasons girls’ bikes don’t have a crossbar), and in certain ways not only incommodious but illogical (skirts are more comfortable than pants; pants ride up; pants are hot; pants can squish the genitals and reduce fertility; over time pants chafe and erode irregular sections of men’s leg hair and give older men hideous half-denuded legs, etc. etc.). Let us grant — as a thought experiment if nothing else — that these are all reasonable and compelling objections to pants as an androsartorial norm. Let us in fact in our minds and hearts say yes — shout yes — to the skirt, the kilt, the toga, the sarong, the jupe. Let us dream of or even in our spare time work toward an America where nobody lays any arbitrary sumptuary prescriptions on anyone else and we can all go around as comfortable and aerated and unchafed and unsquished and motile as we want.

And yet the fact remains that, in the broad cultural mainstream of millennial America, men do not wear skirts. If you, the reader, are a U.S. male, and even if you share my personal objections to pants and dream as I do of a cool and genitally unsquishy American Tomorrow, the odds are still 99.9 percent that in 100 percent of public situations you wear pants/slacks/shorts/trunks. More to the point, if you are a U.S. male and also have a U.S. male child, and if that child were to come to you one evening and announce his desire/intention to wear a skirt rather than pants to school the next day, I am 100-percent confident that you are going to discourage him from doing so. Strongly discourage him. You could be a Molotov-tossing anti-pants radical or a kilt manufacturer or Steven Pinker himself — you’re going to stand over your kid and be prescriptive about an arbitrary, archaic, uncomfortable, and inconsequentially decorative piece of clothing. Why? Well, because in modern America any little boy who comes to school in a skirt (even, say, a modest all-season midi) is going to get stared at and shunned and beaten up and called a Total Geekoid by a whole lot of people whose approval and acceptance are important to him.[26] In our culture, in other words, a boy who wears a skirt is Making a Statement that is going to have all kinds of gruesome social and emotional consequences.

A dialect of English is learned and used either because it’s your native vernacular or because it’s the dialect of a Group by which you wish (with some degree of plausibility) to be accepted. And although it is the major and arguably the most important one, SWE is only one dialect. And it is never, or at least hardly ever, anybody’s only dialect. This is because there are — as you and I both know and yet no one in the Usage Wars ever seems to mention — situations in which faultlessly correct SWE is clearly not the appropriate dialect.

Childhood is full of such situations. This is one reason why SNOOTlets tend to have a very hard social time of it in school. A SNOOTlet is a little kid who’s wildly, precociously fluent in SWE (he is often, recall, the offspring of SNOOTs). Just about every class has a SNOOTlet, so I know you’ve seen them — these are the sorts of six- to twelve-year-olds who use whom correctly and whose response to striking out in T-ball is to cry out “How incalculably dreadful!” etc. The elementary-school SNOOTlet is one of the earliest identifiable species of academic Geekoid and is duly despised by his peers and praised by his teachers. These teachers usually don’t see the incredible amounts of punishment the SNOOTlet is receiving from his classmates, or if they do see it they blame the classmates and shake their heads sadly at the vicious and arbitrary cruelty of which children are capable.

But the other children’s punishment of the SNOOTIet is not arbitrary at all. There are important things at stake. Little kids in school are learning about Group-inclusion and -exclusion and about the respective rewards and penalties of same and about the use of dialect and syntax and slang as signals of affinity and inclusion. [35] They’re learning about Discourse Communities. Kids learn this stuff not in English or Social Studies but on the playground and at lunch and on the bus. When his peers are giving the SNOOTlet monstrous quadruple Wedgies or holding him down and taking turns spitting on him, there’s serious learning going on … for everyone except the little SNOOT, who in fact is being punished for precisely his failure to learn. What neither he nor his teacher realizes is that the SNOOTlet is deficient in Language Arts. He has only one dialect. He cannot alter his vocabulary, usage, or grammar, cannot use slang or vulgarity; and it’s these abilities that are really required for “peer rapport,” which is just a fancy Elementary-Ed term for being accepted by the most important Group in the little kid’s life.

This reviewer acknowledges that there seems to be some, umm, personal stuff getting dredged up and worked out here;[36] but the stuff is relevant. The point is that the little A+ SNOOTlet is actually in the same dialectal position as the class’s “slow” kid who can’t learn to stop using ain’t or bringed. One is punished in class, the other on the playground, but both are deficient in the same linguistic skill — viz., the ability to move between various dialects and levels of “correctness,” the ability to communicate one way with peers and another way with teachers and another with family and another with Little League coaches and so on. Most of these dialectal adjustments are made below the level of conscious awareness, and our ability to make them seems part psychological and part something else — perhaps something hardwired into the same motherboard as Universal Grammar — and in truth this ability is a far better indicator of a kid’s “Verbal I.Q.” than test scores or grades, since U.S. English classes do far more to retard dialectal talent than to cultivate it.


Only its mother could love it

Still chewing at the bones of this Poststructuralist carcass, and this morning I’m trying to puzzle through just why the stuff is so hard to read. It’s passages like this that stick in the craw:

Foucault sought to understand the discontinuities within Western European history by highlighting the differences between distinct contingently constituted epistemological situations. In studies influenced by Foucault, history is mapped in order to trace the borders of discursive formations for discontinuities of meaning… Foucault imagined differences in terms of discontinuities internal to a given culture’s history and as marking the interior structure of the subjectivities formed within that culture. (Peter Jackson “Mapping Poststructuralism’s Borders: The Case for Poststructural Area Studies” Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 18:1 2003:49)

The bolded fragments must be meant to mean something, but I have to read them about six times before what that something might be starts to percolate through to my thinking brain, and even then I’m awash in alternate readings. How does anybody ever learn to read this stuff?

It is deconstruction’s positing of a single field of meaning upon which opposed dominant and marginalized binary categories are mutually defined that permits this approach to become linked with universalisms despite a professed interest in particularity. (Jackson 2003:54)

The mind quails, rebels, withers, and declares itself too goddam old and inflexible to get it.


I enjoy the playfulness of linguists much more than that of, say, economists or quantum physicists, perhaps because it seems accessible and directly relevant to things I might do, hear, or be. Today’s Geoffrey Pullum posting at Language Log (A wee conventional implicature) relays his observation of Scottish English and “its much more inscrutable sister language, Scots, which in general I cannot even understand” and has all the charm of the aforementioned linguistical playfulness, and so is worth quoting at length (though you’ll doubtless want to go and read the whole thing):

…When you check in at the desk for a dental or medical or optician’s appointment they will mark you down as having arrived and then say, “If ye’d just have a wee seat over there, we’ll call ye in a minute or two.” The seats indicated are not liliputian but of standard size, with a sitting surface about as 1.3 times the width of an average butt.
Usages of this sort are actually the majority of instances of wee that I hear. And what this usage seems to be doing is to impart some kind of friendly and encouraging attitude about this event not being a significant setback…the wait for the doctor won’t be too long and they’ll call you quite soon… That’s the sort of thing people seem to be implying by popping a wee wee in there.
I have a hypothesis about the meaning. I think wee is developing into something rather like damn, only positive. Let me explain.
Damn has the syntax of an attributive adjective but the semantics of a scowl. When you say Somebody stole my damn guitar, you aren’t describing the guitar as damned. It might be a much-treasured full-bodied Martin acoustic from the 1960s with genuine mother of pearl fretboard inlays and you might love it dearly. The irritation is at the whole event, the theft and everything surrounding it. Damn can be inserted as a modifer of any suitable noun phrase in the sentence (and I agree that “suitable” there needs some detailed explication), but its semantic contribution is always one of speaker attitude toward the whole situation…
It seems to me that wee has a similar syntactic privilege of occurrence — you can just pick a salient noun at random and stick wee on that — but the semantic contribution is just an optimistic and comforting attitudinal overtone: rather than the vague impression that the speaker is pissed at the situation, which is what damn conveys, wee supplies a vague impression that the speaker is being helpful and optimistic and that things are going to be just fine. But there is no necessary entailment that anything is little.
I’ll keep an eye open for further examples of this, and perhaps post them here as updates.

[Ye shouldnae hold yer breath for me tae open comments, even if ye’re a Scot, but if ye’ve got a wee example for me tae consider, I wouldnae object tae a wee email. Try mail2languagelog at; but keep in mind that we’ve no staff at all here at Language Log Plaza, and we’ve no got the time tae read all the email that comes in as it is.]

See? A stem-to-stern treasure

Natty Latinisms

I’ve had occasion to think fondly of 3 years of Latin, 50 years and more ago. I wasn’t ever really engaged in rigorous study of the language, though my boyish charm got me the Latin Award at least one of those years. Wish I’d really comprehended the possibilities for fine-tuned imprecations at the time, and been able to summon such as this:

“vade et caca in pilleum et ipse traheatur super aures tuo,” which, loosely translated, means “Go shit in a hat and pull it down over your ears” (lit., “go shit in a [knit] hat & let that same hat itself be pulled over your ears.”)

(See this BoingBoing story for context)

Amy Walker introduces herself

via BoingBoing, which probably means that everybody has already seen it, but just in case you haven’t:

One may ask just what a native speaker of each dialect would identify as bogus, but one doesn’t need to really.