The Language Snakes on Carl Sagan’s Plane

In my last post, I mentioned that Matt Kaplan’s book Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite pointed me to an interesting claim made by Carl Sagan. Early in the book, Kaplan mentions in a footnote that Sagan claimed there might be a link between snakes and the sh-sound that people make when they want to command attention or silence. The book Kaplan refers to is Sagan’s Dragons of Eden (1977) and in it Sagan postulates the idea in the form of a question (that he doesn’t answer):

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Some strange language claims in Kaplan’s book on monsters

Matt Kaplan’s book Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite is about the science behind monsters, or how we can trace the origins of some of our most classic horrible creatures. The book does a good job in that regard, but it also makes some interesting claims about language. One of these seems to be a simple slip up, while a second follows some unfortunate tropes of describing languages that aren’t in the Germanic or Romance families. The third one is a side note about a claim made by Carl Sagan and it’s very interesting. Let’s look at these in turn.

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Comics and language! An update to the Super Dictionary

There’s the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, the Macquarie Dictionary, and even the leviathan called the Oxford English Dictionary. But there is only one SUPER DICTIONARY!

Put out in 1978 as a kids dictionary featuring DC Comics characters, this amazing work became internet famous sometime in the 2010s. (Full disclosure: every dictionary is an amazing work, this one is just extra amazing). Not least because of this absolutely wild definition of forty:

And now, because nothing and no one in comics stays dead for ever, the SUPER DICTIONARY has an update.

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Is you guys really a gender-neutral term?

Recently, a colleague pointed me to this 2018 article by Grace Jennings-Edquist on the word guys. The article discusses whether guys is gender-neutral these days, especially in regard to using it at the workplace. This topic is something that’s been on my mind for a while since you guys is the second-person plural pronoun where I come from. I’ve been actively trying to use other terms when addressing my classes – and not just because most of my students are women.

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The subject is not (always) the “doer” in a sentence

Here’s some advice on grammar that I’ve seen a lot, both online and in print: the notion that the subject is the person or thing that is the “doer” of the verb in a sentence. Turned around a bit, this advice is given as a way to find the subject in a sentence. Just figure out who or what is doing the action in the sentence et voila! You’ve found the subject.

But this is wrong. Let’s find out why.

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Walt “Clyde” Frazier’s words and phrases

The podcast On The Media recently ran an interview with Walt “Clyde” Frazier, who is a former professional basketball player and current color commentator for the New York Knicks. As the interview shows, he has a way with words. But I found his commentary on how he developed his voice really interesting. He told host Brooke Gladstone:

Frazier: To improve my vocabulary, I used to get The Sunday Times, the arts and leisure section when they critiqued the plays.

Brooke Gladstone: Oh, the plays?

Frazier: Yes. Riveting, mesmerizing and provocative, profound. People think I’m a voracious reader but I have books and books of words and phrases. When I first started, I just studied these books over and over. Ironically, you can use cliches and no one will ever say anything, but if you use ubiquitous twice, they’ll go, “He used that word twice already.”

[laughter]

Frazier: Then all of a sudden, I fell in love with words. Words are like people, the more you see them, the more you relate to them. Even today, just like fashion, I’m always looking for new words and how I can incorporate them into my style.

[applause]

That’s a pretty good point about ubiquitous. People love to nitpick when that word is used. But it’s an even better point about cliches. Even though the style guide will tell you to avoid cliches, using one is often the best way to go. Check Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage if you don’t believe me.

This part of the interview starts at around 12:30 minutes in. Go listen to the interview with Frazier. That page also has the transcript of the interview.

More political scientists doing bad linguistics

There’s a new article out that uses faulty methods to study the linguistic complexity of politicians’ speech. It makes many of the same mistakes that I criticized Schoonvelde et al. (2019) for – and even references that article. But it somehow comes to the right conclusion… for the wrong reasons. I know, it’s strange. Let’s check it out. Continue reading “More political scientists doing bad linguistics”

Superman and Batman and Language!

I bet you weren’t expecting some tricky linguistic commentary in the pages of SUPERMAN & BATMAN VS. VAMPIRES AND WEREWOLVES! But here it is!

In Issue #4 of the six-part series, our heroes are hanging around making plans and waiting to be attacked by demon-like creatures (as you do). That’s when Jason Blood, aka the rhyming demon Etrigan, senses the creatures’ arrival and says “THEY’RE HERE”:

Superman_Batman_Vampires_Werewolves_Issue_4_1
SUPERMAN AND BATMAN VS. WEREWOLVES AND VAMPIRES #4 by Kevin VanHook (w), Tom Mandrake (art), Nathan Eyring (c), and Steve Wandis (l)

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Dictionary.com with some good advice

I don’t know what’s going on over at Dictionary.com, but I like it. They’ve been stepping up their blogging game recently. Gone are the days of word hating (I hope)! Instead, they recently published a post about the problematic nature of some words that get casually thrown around. If you don’t know why it might be harmful to use words like Sherpa, Nazi, and hysterical, you might want to check this one out.

Stop Using These Phrases in 2020 (Use These Synonyms Instead)” on Dictionary.com

Good job, Dictionary.com. Keep it up!