Strange etymologies are afoot at Psychology Today

Last week I was on the twitters talking about “untranslatable” words. The idea was about Dr. Tim Lomas’ work on “untranslatable words,” or his term for how some languages have words that don’t have exact equivalents in other languages (but usually English). Right around the same time I posted my blog post, Lomas wrote an article in Psychology Today. Let’s have a look at it. If you want to see my thoughts on “untranslatable” words, go see my post on it and then come back.

Lomas claims that many concepts are non-English in origin. What this means is that the words used to describe these concepts are from other languages. I think this is opening a whole can of worms, but I’m willing to go with the idea that concepts can be “from another language”. For a bit. Let’s move on.

To prove his point, Lomas analyzes an article on positive psychology by Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000). He looks for the etymology of every word in the text.

According to Lomas, there are:

1333 distinct lexemes

‘Native’ English wordsbelonging either to the Germanic language from which English emerged, or originating as neologisms in English itselfcomprise only 39.4% of the sample (and 38% of the psychological words). Thus, over 60% of the general words (and 62% of psychological words) are loanwords, borrowed from other languages at some point in the development of English.

First, Lomas has a strange definition for “‘native’ English words”. Which “Germanic language” does he mean? Proto-Germanic? One of the other West Germanic languages? Old English? It’s also strange because Lomas’ definition means that these words are not native English words: they, table, blue, and orange. [Britney Spears gif says “huh?!” Oprah gif says “hrmmm?!”]

Lomas also doesn’t say exactly how he counted the words in the C&S article. He says that there are 1,333 “distinct lexemes”. The term lexeme is used in linguistics to talk about all the inflected forms of a word: singular and plural forms for nouns, present and past tense forms for verbs, etc. So runner and runners would be a part of the same lexeme RUNNER, and run, runs, ran, running are a part of RUN. Lexemes are also sometimes called “lemmas” in linguistics.

If Lomas really went through every single word in the article, then he spent a whole lotta time on this. The C&S article is 8,124 words long (not including the References section). He doesn’t say how he did the work, but I used some corpus linguistics methods and got different results. I checked the C&S article against the Someya lemma list in AntConc and found 1,750 lemmas, or 417 more lexemes than Lomas found. This is a large difference and I’m not sure how to explain it. Maybe Lomas didn’t divide his words based on parts of speech? So he counted ran and runner as part of the same lexeme? I don’t know.

Second, let’s look at counting the words in language. Lomas seems to do a straight count. That means one instance of one form of a lexeme is equal to all the other instances. For Lomas, it doesn’t matter how many times a word occurs. In corpus linguistics, however, frequency is a big deal. I’m not going to go through the theoretical points here, but basically if a word is more frequent then it is more important or worthy of being looked at (hehe, fight me, corpus linguists).

So, Lomas claims that only 39% of the lexemes in the article are “native English words”. I took the lexemes in the article and ranked them based on frequency (using AntConc). Then I went through the 100 most frequent lexemes on the list and looked at their etymology. My numbers look much different than Lomas’. I found that 85% of the 100 most frequent lexemes are English in origin. That is, the 100 most frequent lexemes occur a total of 4,440 times in the article (so the lexeme the occurs 442 times, the lexeme of occurs 308 times, the lexeme BE occurs 300 times, and so on) and of these occurrences, 3,767 are English words. This isn’t particularly intriguing – you’ll probably find a similar percentage with any text in English. [See the bottom of this post for my data.]

Looking at this from another angle, we could treat each of the 100 most frequent lexemes as equal – forgetting about how often they occur. Then we find that 70 of them are English, while 30 of them come from another language. This is closer to Lomas’ numbers, but still pretty far off: 70 of the 100 most common lexemes in the article are still English words.

Of course, words in language do not really occur in the way that we’re looking at them. The most common word is the with 442 instances, but the first 442 words of the article are not all the. The word the is sprinkled around the article (you know, where the grammar of English calls for it). I’m not sure how to get to Lomas’ numbers. We could assume that every lexeme outside the 100 most frequent were non-English, but that only gets us down to 46% of the words in the article as being English lexemes. Lomas’ ratio was 40% English to 60% non-English.

Later in the article, Lomas says that 234 words were treated as English in origin in his analysis. But this means that only 17% of the words in his counting are English in origin (234/1,333=0.17). What’s going on here? If 39.4% of the lexemes in the article are English in origin, and there are 1,333 total lexemes in the article (according to Lomas), then there should be 525 English words. Where he gets 234, I don’t know. Let’s move on.

Lomas’ includes two graphs to visualize his findings but they’re pretty weird. The graph below “shows the influx of words according to the language of origin (with the century in which they entered English as stacks within them)”. Look at the third column.

Lomas_PT_graph_1

English words entered English? I don’t get it. Or Germanic words from before the 12th century are not English words? What’s going on here? I guess in Lomas’ counting, Germanic and English lexemes are English lexemes, but then he splits them up in the graph? Are the words me, myself and I not English words? It seems very strange to me to cut things up like this and I would like to see his list of etymologies, or his rationale for doing so.

Agree to disagree?

But there are places that I can agree with Lomas. At the end of the article, he writes:

In these ways does our understanding of life become complexified and enriched. In that respect, one can make the case that English-speaking psychology would do well to more consciously and actively engage with other languages and cultures. Its understanding of the mind has benefited greatly from English incorporating loanwords over the centuries. If one accepts that premise, it follows that psychology would continue to develop from this kind of cross-cultural engagement and borrowing – including, of course, through collaboration with scholars from non-English speaking cultures themselves. One such way in which the field might develop is through inquiring into untranslatable words, since these constitute clear candidates for borrowing (given that they lack an exact equivalent in English). I myself have sought to promote this kind of endeavor, with my ongoing creation of a cross-cultural lexicography of untranslatable words relating to well-being.

I definitely agree with the first part of this. We should engage with speakers of other languages and people from other cultures (although Lomas’ wording seems to present all English speakers as a monolithic culture). I find it hard for anyone to not accept the premise that English (not just “English-speaking psychology”) has benefited greatly from incorporating loanwords. That’s kind of just a fact of language – borrowing words is one of the things that living languages do and so English is still a living language partly for this reason. But I totally agree that people should collaborate with people from different cultures (although again, Lomas’ wording blurs the distinction between language and culture too much for me and again presents English speakers as one culture).

When Lomas goes into the sales pitch in the second to last sentence, I can’t sign on, particularly based on what I’ve seen of his research into “untranslatable” words (in my last post and in this one and in a later one to come).

Lomas’ claims are true – we should reach out to people who speak other languages. But he should perhaps recognize that the reason that English has so many words from Latin and Ancient Greek is because these were once prestigious languages (and to a large extent still are in academia). It wasn’t because the Latin-speaking or Greek-speaking cultures had anything more special than other cultures, but it was believed that by using these languages people would be more civilized. Of course, we know what happened to the Latin-speaking and (Ancient) Greek-speaking cultures. They dead.

But we in English-speaking cultures could just as easily have adapted Finnish words to use in the fields of psychology and linguistics, but Finnish was never considered a prestigious language. Or consider German: once German raised its standing, we got words from German to describe abstract concepts because the texts describing them were written in German and people were supposed to know German to engage in the debate.

There’s more to say about all this and I’ll be back at cha with a later post. I’ll link to it when I write it.

 

Data

Spreadsheet with my analysis. The first sheet is the Someya lemma list analysis. I counted words from Anglo-Norman as not being English. I’m including the 3rd person plural pronouns (they, them, their, themselves) as being English. Illness counts as English. The second sheet uses AntConc’s Word List tool, so it’s not a lexeme/lemma analysis, it treats every “word” as separate (that is, was, am, and is are separate words, not part of the lexeme BE).

Link to download the C&S article as a plain text file (.txt) which was used with AntConc in the analysis. The References section is excluded. And here’s a link to download a POS-tagged version of the article (using CLAWS7).

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Thoughts on “untranslatable” words

There’s an article in the New Yorker about a glossary of “untranslatable” words. The glossary is put together by Tim Lomas, a psychologist who got interested in the idea of untranslatable words after hearing a talk about the Finnish word sisu. Of course, “untranslatable” doesn’t mean what it looks like it means, as I was quick to point out on Twitter:

So we can clearly translate these words. There just may not be a 1:1 translation for each of them. But as anyone who has ever done any translating will tell you, that’s so obvious that it barely needs mentioning. But there’s something else behind this idea and I want to open it up a little bit.

In layman’s terms

Marten van der Meulen pointed out on Twitter that Lomas and the New Yorker mean something different with “untranslatable” than a linguist or translator would. What they mean is that there’s no equivalent single word in other languages (usually English) which means the same thing that the “untranslatable” word does. So there’s no way we can “translate” the Finnish word sisu into English because it means many things and it is uniquely tied up into Finnish culture and identity (we’ll get to that in a second). Instead, the meaning of sisu is context dependent – sometimes it means perseverance, sometimes it means grit, sometimes it means “the ability to grin and bear it” – but it is a Finnish version of all these things.

This is why linguists would probably scoff at the idea that we can’t translate sisu. All language is context dependent. The word grit means different things when it’s used in a Clint Eastwood movie than when it’s used in a boardroom. Language is context. Or meaning depends on context.

I actually use the word sisu in my Semantics class as an exercise to understand connotation, denotation and meaning. My students, who are almost all L1 Finnish speakers, give me examples of what sisu means to them. Then we talk about the core meanings of sisu and some peripheral meanings. That is, there is a list of ideas that most people would agree fits the definition of sisu. But that’s the thing – most people would agree, not all. You can do this with any concept in any language (Probably. Don’t quote me on that). Ask a few people what grit means and see how many different answers you get. But we can approach an agreed upon definition of what sisu includes. When we start to put the word in context, then the meaning starts to shift. The classroom exercise is fun because sisu is a popular word in these kinds of discussions and Finns are ready to talk about it. They see it as something very Finnish (more on that in a bit).

I think Marten is right, though. “Untranslatable” does have a different meaning for Lomas and the New Yorker. I would argue that linguists and translators probably wouldn’t use the term untranslatable, but it’s nothing new for the public to have a different definition of a word than specialists. To many people, the word grammar means punctuation and spelling. To language specialists, however, grammar means morphology and syntax; punctuation and spelling are in the realm of orthography. I like Marten’s notion of specialists understanding that “untranslatable” means something different to non-linguists and non-translators, and I think it’s something we should keep in mind. And I agree that the definition of “untranslatable” for Lomas and the New Yorker is “not lexicalized” or “there’s no single word for it”.

Translating morphology

Speaking of morphology, many “untranslatable” words are “words” because of the morphology and spelling norms of the language. For example, another popular “untranslatable” word from Finnish is kalsarikännit. It means “getting drunk at home in your underwear, with no intention of going out”.

kalsaritkannit

The word is a compound noun formed from kalsarit “underwear” and känni “drunk”. The Finnish writing system requires that kalsarikännit is written as one “word” – that is, without a space in between the two words which form the compound noun. This is not a particularly interesting thing about the Finnish language – it just does things like that. English sometimes does that too, such as in the word bedroom, but also sometimes does not, such as in the very similar two-word term living room. We could easily have the term “underwear drunk” or “underwear drinking” or even the word “underweardrunk” or “boxersdrunk” in English. And indeed, as the image of Homer Simpson shows, English speakers have a notion of what underweardrunk is. On the flip side, English doesn’t have a “word” for couch potato like Finnish does (sohvaperuna, literally “sofa+potato”), but that’s due to the writing system, not some cultural notions that Finnish speakers have but English speakers do not. Finnish would not seem to have a word for nothing. Instead the two-word phrases ei mitään and ei mikään are required in certain cases. This is a case where English orthography has merged no+thing into one “word” while Finnish has not.

I wonder how many of the words on Lomas’ list are compound nouns, or words which are one “word” because of the writing systems of the language that they come from. We could sort of say that they were invented because speakers saw a need for a term to describe the concept or action, but that hardly makes them “untranslatable”. Rather, if speakers of another language were doing a similar thing, they could easily coin their own “word” for it. Or they could translate the word, as in the case of Finnish speakers taking couch potato and translating both words to Finnish to get sohvaperuna (these kinds of words are called calques). Or speakers could simply borrow/steal the word for the concept or action, as in the case of schadenfreude, an idea that English speakers immediately understand but don’t have a “word” for.

nelson_muntz_schadenfreude
English has a word for schadenfreude. It’s schadenfreude.

Identity and what’s on these lists

So which words are good enough for these kinds of lists? That would be a very interesting research topic – and in an alternate universe, Marten and me are working on that question right now. Sticking with Finnish, the language has the word jääkiekko. It refers to the sport played on ice where players use sticks to try to push a small rubber disc into the net or goal of the opposing team. English doesn’t really have a word for it. The closest term is ice hockey. Does this mean that Finnish speakers somehow understand the sport of ice hockey better than English speakers? If so, I think the English speakers in Canada would like to have a word with you. (This idea is very timely since the one-word-having Finns just won the Ice Hockey World Championships. And they beat Canada in the finals. #mörkö). The thing is jääkiekko isn’t sexy enough to make these kinds of lists. French speakers don’t have a “word” for please and instead use the phrase s’il vous plait (In certain cases? Correct me in the comments if I’m wrong!), whereas Finnish speakers don’t have a “word” because for please because they either attach –isi to the verb or use ole hyvä or they use the word which also means “thank you” (kiitos). But you’re unlikely to see please on these lists. And if we want to get really boring, we can talk about how other languages don’t have a “word” for the and a and an. But these aren’t sexy enough either. Only linguists check out language for the articles. (Seriously, though, click that link. It’s a hilarious satire of these lists.)

Instead, what we’re likely to see are words that somehow fit into an identity-shaping role of the speakers. If we’re egalitarian, the words are chosen by the speakers in order to shape and control the collective identity of what it means to be a speaker of a certain language. That is, Finns put sisu on the “untranslatable” word lists because Finns generally see sisu as a positive thing and it helps to create the identity of Finnish speakers – they have perseverance and grit, in the way that British English speakers have a stiff upper lip (but go ask 10 Brits what “stiff upper lip” means and whether it’s positive). Finnish speakers can put kalsarikännit on the list because the idea of laying around drinking beer in your underwear is silly and fun (until it’s not, of course).

These words then help shape the identity of speakers for those who do not know the language that they come from. That is, learning about sisu helps shape English speakers’ perception of Finnish people. This is where we cross over from language to culture. The word sisu doesn’t shape our perception of Finnish speakers but rather Finnish people. I can speak Finnish (kinda sorta), but sisu doesn’t apply to me because I’m not Finnish – my parents weren’t Finnish and I wasn’t born and raised in Finland. If we’re less egalitarian with this idea, then the words that get put on the list have to fit our ideas or stereotypes of the speakers of the language. This perpetuates the myths about Inuit people having 50 words for snow. The language isn’t usually mentioned, it’s just “those natives in northern-ish Canada have a bunch of words for snow because they live in igloos”. That’s what’s behind that myth, so stop using it. Or the idea the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of “danger” and “opportunity”. This is incorrect, but it fits the stereotype in the West that people in the East are somehow smart and cunning and they can easily use these traits to their advantage, especially in the business and political world, which is where this language myth lives and thrives.

Untranslatable words from other languages?

I want to end on an idea that doesn’t usually get brought up in these discussions. Languages borrow words from other languages all the time. It would seem that English is especially guilty of this, but any time you get people who speak different languages living in close proximity to each other, you’re going to have language transfer. People are going to trade words and sometimes even grammar. But when a word transfers from one language to another, the meaning and connotations don’t always come along. And as it gets used in the “new” language, it can acquire other meanings. Consider what John Waters said in a recent interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air:

GROSS: This fits into something else you write, which is, I realize now how hard it must’ve been for my parents to understand my early eccentricities. So in addition to your terror at seeing hammers, what were some of your eccentricities when you were really young?

WATERS: Well, I was obsessed by car accidents. And I played car accidents. And my mother would take me to junkyards and walk around with me. And I’d be like, oh, there’s been a terrible one over here. Look at this.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATERS: And I think, what did the junk man think? Well, what is this little ghoul? So that kind of thing.

The word ghoul comes from Arabic. It’s first attested in English in 1786 (according to the OED). But here Waters applies it to himself when he was a young child. It referred to an evil spirit that robbed graves. But later it came to mean a person “who shows morbid interest in things considered shocking or repulsive” (MW). Do Arabic speakers use ghoul this way (and I’m not even bringing up the fact that there are vast differences between local varieties of Arabic)? If not, can we say that the word ghoul is “untranslatable” from English to Arabic?

What I mean to say is that, again, language and meaning are context-dependent. And they are also dependent on time. If English adopted the word sisu from Finnish, it wouldn’t really mean sisu in the same way it does for Finnish speakers who were raised in Finnish culture (the same way that English “sauna” doesn’t really mean Finnish “sauna”). It would mean something slightly different. And in time it could mean something totally different.

 

So those are just a few of the thoughts I had on this topic. I’ll try to get my hands on Lomas’ books to have a deeper look at what he means by “untranslatable”. And I’ll take a look at his list.

Update on that F-K paper

Three months ago I posted about a paper in PLoS ONE called “Liberals lecture, conservatives communicate: Analyzing complexity and ideology in 381,609 political speeches”. I noted that there are serious problems with that study. For the tl;dr:

After I posted on here, I also commented on the article with my concerns. The PLoS ONE journal allows commenting on their articles, but I’ll admit that my first comment was neither appropriate nor helpful. It was more of a troll than anything. The editors removed my comment, and to their credit, they emailed me with an explanation why. They also told me what a comment should look like. So I posted a grown-up comment on the article. This started an exchange between me and the authors of the article. Here’s the skinny:

1. The authors confuse written language with spoken language
2. The study uses an ineffectual test for written language on spoken language
3. The paper does not take into account how transcriptions and punctuation affect the data
4. The authors cite almost no linguistic sources in a study about language
5. They use a test developed for English on other languages

The authors tried to respond to my points about why their methodology is wrong, but there are some things that they just couldn’t argue their way out of (such as points 1, 2, 3 and 5 above).

Behind the scenes, I was talking with the editors of the journal. They told me that they were taking my criticisms seriously and looking into the issue themselves. In my comments on the paper, I provided multiple sources to back up my claims. The authors did not do in their replies to me, but that’s because they can’t – there aren’t studies to back up their claims. However, my last email with the editors of the journal was over a month ago. I understand that these things can take time (and the editors told me this much) but a few of the criticisms that I raised are pretty cut and dry. The authors also stopped replying to my comments, the last one of which was posted on April 9, 2019 (can’t say I blame them though).

So I’m not very positive that anything is going to change. But I’ll let you know if it does.

What is the grammar of thankyouverymuch?

 tl;dr – From a functional perspective, thankyouverymuch is an evaluative adjunct (a type of stance adjunct) according to Downing & Locke because it is “attitudinal, reflecting the subjective or objective attitude of the speaker towards the content and sometimes also towards the addressee” (2nd ed.; pp. 73-74, 234). According to the Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English, thankyouverymuch is an attitude stance adverbial, which “convey an evaluation, or assessment of expectations” of the speaker’s attitude toward the proposition (p. 384).

From a discourse perspective, Blommaert (2005) would probably see thankyouverymuch as a performative element and a way for speakers to mark an orientation to what they have just said. But I’m not great at discourse analysis, so please tell me more in the comments.

Finally, syntactically, thankyouverymuch is a finite clause.

Read more to see a deeper analysis Continue reading “What is the grammar of thankyouverymuch?”

What’s up with “try to” and “try and”?

The other day my wife asked me about the constructions try to and try and. She said it came up at work and no one seemed to know why either one was used and which one was right. I had a vague recollection about learning this in the past, but it had slipped my mind.

So it was very nice to stumble across this article while I was researching something else. It’s called “Why does Canadian English use try to but British English use try and? Let’s try and/to figure it out” and it’s by Marisa Brook and Sali A. Tagliamonte. The article appeared in American Speech 91(3).

And then I came across this post, “We’re going to explain the deal with ‘try and’ and ‘try to’.” I swear sometimes that Merriam-Webster is checking my browser history. How do they know the exact thing that I’m interested in? It’s almost like people who are interested in language are interested in the same things.

What it boils down to is that the oft-criticized try and is most common in phrases where the word try means “attempt” and it’s been around for at least as long as the supposedly more standard try to. Brook and Tagliamonte show that what happened was try and became grammaticalized, which is fancy linguist speak for saying a word or phrase goes from just giving content or lexical information in a sentence (as nouns do) to serving a grammatical function in a sentence (as the past tense –ed does for verbs, for example). This means that the and in try and no longer works as a coordinator, but now functions as the marker of an infinitive verb (the verb that comes right after it). Pretty cool.

This all happened when the verb try was undergoing a shift in meaning. It originally meant “test” or “prove” (and it still means these things), but it started to also mean “attempt,” which is the definition that probably springs to mind first for many of us.

Brook and Tagliamonte show many interesting things about the two constructions – including how their use breaks down by age and education, and the increase of try and over time – but one thing that I thought was cool is this: try and has a strong preference to be followed by the verbs be and do, while try to can work with a wide range of verbs – even though these constructions essentially mean the exact same thing. Neat-o!

Biber et al. (1999, according to Brook and Tagliamonte) claim that try and is much more common in British English than American English, but I would really like to see more research on this, especially now that there are many more corpora available. I don’t have the time now to go search other corpora but I’m going to offer this to the students in my corpus linguistics course and I’ll update this post if any of them decide to research this. And I’ll update it if I look into it myself.

But go check out Brook and Tagliamonte’s article for lots more on try to and try andhttps://doi.org/10.1215/00031283-3701026.

Book Review: The Great Typo-Hunt by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson

Short review: tl;dr

Jeff Deck, an Ivy-league-educated middle-class white man, goes around the country to correct typos in everything from store signs to t-shirts to whatever else he comes across. He enlists friends (including his Ivy-league-educated co-author Benjamin D. Herson) who do not check him on his privilege, but rather enable him on his path to be as petty as possible. Deck and his friends learn little to nothing about language before, during or after their excursion. What could be a profound journey of discovery turns out to be nothing more than an aimless adventure of assholery. File this one under “Language books not worth reading”. Hunter S. Thompson would be pissed to know that these asshats stole the title of one of his books.

Continue reading “Book Review: The Great Typo-Hunt by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson”

The vowels haven’t gone anywhere

There’s another brainfart article on language in the New York Times. The author, John Williams, shows right away that he’s thinking out loud from somewhere deep inside his armchair with this one. Basically, Williams is having some vague instance of a Recency Illusion as he ties James Joyce and MGMT to Tumblr, Flickr, and other modern companies which opt out of using vowels in their names. His idea is that – apparently all of a sudden – no one is using vowels anymore. lol.

A couple of things. First, as a Twitter friend pointed out, orthography and speech do not correspond. That means that our writing system and our spelling system only have a passing resemblance to each other. Writing is not speech on paper – it’s so much less than that. You think we need vowels in writing to distinguish between words, but we really don’t. This is Linguistics 101. Williams totally whiffs on it.

Second, Williams claims that people are only now routinely removing vowels from their writing by signing their correspondence with “Yrs” (his example). He makes a reference to “Finnegans Wake” and says “Time was that you had to be an experimental weirdo to ditch vowels.” That’s a nice dig at ya boy Joyce, but ol’ Jimmy J was just stealing this style from other writers. John Adams didn’t use vowels when he signed his letters. Neither did Jane Austen. Time was when no one wrote vowels because ink and paper were precious commodities yo.

Third, I kinda have to give Williams some credit for actually reaching out to a linguist, but unfortunately it doesn’t make the article any better. Williams contacted John McWhorter to see what is going on with people dropping vowels. I don’t know how much he talked to him – I only have the quotes included in the article – but it seems like McWhorter was really phoning this one in.

Now, full disclosure: I like John McWhorter when he talks about linguistics. He’s made some highly questionable political debates and articles recently, but his linguistics stuff has always been sound. In this article, however, McWhorter says “There is a fashion in American language culture right now to be playful in a way that is often childlike. This business of leaving out the vowels and leaving you to wonder how to pronounce something, it channels this kid-ness in a way — like saying ‘because science,’ or the way we’re using -y, when we say something like, ‘well, it got a little yell-y.’”

I don’t know what McWhorter is on about here. No one wonders how to pronounce Tumblr, Flickr, MNDFL or Mdrn (except maybe NYT writers working on a deadline?). And saying “because NOUN” is not channeling “kid-ness” (what is kid-ness anyway, linguistically speaking?). And and, adding a y-sound onto the end of words is really not child-like. That’s just language-like. They’re called diminutives. Go talk to the Aussies about them. Or any other English speakers.

So yeah, stay away from the NYT Style Section’s hot takes on language.