Lexicon Valley Shout Out

I mentioned the Slate.com podcast Lexicon Valley in my post last week, “Is Your Mother a Geek? Linguistics and the Ramones.” If you haven’t checked it out already, you should.

I’m plugging it again because the third episode is up and I got a shout out for my submission to their LexiConundrum puzzle. Co-host Mike Vuolo gave two initial letters and the task of the puzzle was to come up with adjectival present participles that matched. For example, firing squad would fit in the given initials F___ S___.

Mr. Vuolo was being nice by not saying my name and broadcasting the extreme nerdiness of my sense of humor. I thank him for that, but anyone who knows me knows that I have no such concern. And so, the joke was:

Adjectival Present Participles = Worst. Band name. Ever.

This week’s episode discusses “the hypercorrected incorrectness of ‘between you and I.'” The LexiConundrum asks listeners to submit a name for a specific type of usage of this term. Check out the feed here. The archives are here.

Confidential to Mr. Vuolo: From one nerdy joker to another, that was a good one. I’m going to pretend such a conversation took place between Mick and Keith because it sounds hilarious.

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Is Your Mother a Geek? Linguistics and the Ramones*

Besides being a great song on a great album (Leave Home), “Suzy is a Headbanger” by the Ramones also has a very interesting line:

Suzy is a headbanger,
Her mother is a geek.

These lyrics puzzled me because they didn’t really make any sense. It wasn’t until I read the term “feed the geek” in Babel No More by Michael Erard (review forthcoming) that I decided to look into it. It turns out, the reason the lyrics didn’t make sense to me was because I was thinking of geek in its contemporary sense, the one Macmillan defines as “n. Someone who is boring, especially because they seem to be interested only in computers.” Even more recently, as we all know, the term has become to mean something like enthusiast or to describe a particular way of practicing some activity (as in geek sex). But since “Suzy” was written around 1976, those are obviously not the intended meanings.

The problem is, I’m having a hard time believing that Joey Ramone meant the other, older sense of the word. I looked at multiple dictionaries, but all of them basically defined this sense as “n. A carnival performer whose show consists of bizarre acts, such as biting the head off a live chicken.” Mmm! Mothers bring your daughters, fathers brings your sons!

So what’s going on? Did he really mean to sing geek? If he didn’t mean that Suzy’s mom is a circus freak and he couldn’t have meant that she’s a computer nerd, what did he mean? The song obviously portrays Suzy in a positive light, so was he doing something like Bob Dylan did in his song “Ballad of a Thin Man” and questioning what we think of as normalcy?

You hand in your ticket
And you go watch the geek
Who immediately walks up to you
When he hears you speak
And says, “How does it feel
To be such a freak ?”
And you say, “Impossible”
As he hands you a bone.

– Bob Dylan, Ballad of the Thin Man

Or did geek have a meaning specific to punks in New York (or punks anywhere) in the 1970s?

There was a 70s Australian punk band in Perth called the Geeks, but knowing what I know about punk rockers, they tend to relish in classifying themselves as the outcasts. It’s a way to welcome someone in and strengthen group identity (The Ramones chant, “Gabba! Gabba! We accept you, we accept you! One of us!” perfectly encapsulates this notion). So were they saying that Suzy’s mom was one of them?

Besides the Perth band, I couldn’t find any connection of geek to the 1970s punk rock scene, so I decided to look at the Corpus of Contemporary American English. If geek was being used by the punks in the 70s, I assumed it was also being used by at least the music journalists as well. I just hoped it was being used in the same way. There were two hits for “geek.[nn1]” in the 1970s, both being the carnival kind of geek. The 1980s is where things start to change since there are five hits – two carnival geeks, two nerd geeks, and one I’m not really sure of (it’s hard to tell from the bit context). After that, the usage really takes off with thirty-three hits in the 1990s and 104 hits in the 2000s.

This still hasn’t answered my question, however. Certainly another word besides geek would fit there just as easily, especially if you’re rhyming it with “ooh ooh wee.” But there’s the catch. I want to conclude that Joey was speaking positively of Suzy’s mother, but that’s not realistic. Joey was most likely using geek to describe a disapproving mother.

Wordnik, which is a great site, lists one definition of geek as “n. An unfashionable or socially undesirable person.” Today there might be wide agreement on which type of person is a geek (because we’re all so cool, you know, man?), but what’s interesting is that in “Suzy is a Headbanger” we have a counter-culture band, who by no means owned the majority stake of Cool, using geek to insult a member of another group. But the reason he’s doing so is that he sees Suzy’s mother as being judgmental, which is not a trait often attributed to geeks. So there’s a disconnect between the connotations of the two meanings of geek, which suggests the term was in flux. Notice also that insulting someone else by calling them a geek is simultaneously an attempt to prove one’s cool, but that’s beside the point.

I think geek is a great case of how quickly words can change their meanings, something linguistics call “semantic shift.” It’s also a simple example of what linguistics mean when they say, “We’re not sure.” Words are tricky things to pin down, especially when they are ones that are used infrequently. Add to that someone using the word in a novel way (or at least with a slightly different meaning) and things get even trickier. Had Joey’s meaning taken off, we might today be using geek to describe older people who disapprove of the younger generation’s activities. Geek then would have a decidedly uncool meaning. Instead, being a geek is an aspiration since it means not only enthusiasm, but knowledge and mastership of a certain area. The success of this meaning of geek, of course, is obviously due to the success of computers and the success of geek as an adjective to be applied to any and all activities. In this way, later in Babel No More, Michael Erard can write, “Indeed, boasting about the languages one has studied or can speak is a display of geek machismo,” and everyone understands the meaning.

As a side note, for those interested in linguistics, semantic shift, or the etymology of contemptuous words, I recommend checking out Slate.com’s new podcast Lexicon Valley. They have two episodes and both are excellent. What’s even better, and even more pertinent to this article, is that in the second episode, entitled “The Other F-Word,” you get to hear linguist Arnold Zwicky reference Pansy Division. What a headbanger.

[Update – July 24, 2012] The Oxford Dictionaries blog has written twice about geek. The most recent post compares the collocates of geek to nerd in their corpus, while the older post explains the transformation in the meaning of geek. Sadly, there is no mention of the Ramones. Maybe it’s time for them to update their corpus?

Here are the posts:
Embrace Your Geekness – July 13, 2012
Are You Calling Me a Geek? Why, *Thank You* – March 4, 2011

 

 

 

*These are a few of my favorite things.

The Real Reason Short Words Are Best

In the opening of a recent Macmillan Dictionary Blog post, Robert Lane Greene quotes the editor of the Economist’s style guide, who in turn quotes Winston Churchill as saying “Short words are best, and old words, when short, are best of all.” Greene then goes on to discuss how difficult it is to write clearly. If you think you’ve heard this one before, don’t. Greene’s post is brief, practical, and a touch insightful. He believes that journalists often get a “bad rap” as writers of plain English because of the schedules they are under. I can go along with that.

Greene also says that metaphors are one way writers can improve. He says there are “three ways to use a metaphor to get ideas across, and two of them are bad.” The two bad kinds are tired metaphors and strained metaphors. Greene suggests using the best kind of metaphors, those that are “simple, clear, memorable and quite often short.”

Greene uses the conventional meaning of “metaphor,” of course, since that’s how most people still understand the term. But the updated meaning shows us that phrases like on Wednesday and the sun came out are also metaphors (for those unfamiliar, think about actually putting something on a day in the way we put something on a table). This realization of metaphors lurking all around our language is important because it adds what I think is the most important element of Greene’s (and Churchill’s and the unnamed Economist editor’s) belief that short words are best. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to get into Conceptual Metaphor Theory or Blending. I’m trying to keep your attention, believe it or not.)

Consider the opening to Greene’s post, which is really the opening to the Economist editorial:

“Short words are best, and old words, when short, are best of all.” Thus, quoting Winston Churchill, began an editorial in The Economist that consisted entirely of one-syllable words. It went on:
“AND, not for the first time, he was right: short words are best. Plain they may be, but that is their strength. They are clear, sharp and to the point. You can get your tongue round them. You can spell them. Eye, brain and mouth work as one to greet them as friends, not foes. For that is what they are.”

Churchill, Greene, and our anonymous editor aren’t the only ones that love short words. You’ll hear language gurus promoting them all over the place. It’s a common idea, but a good one. It goes: Keep it simple, stupid.

And yet, I can’t help feeling that short words are anything but “plain.” The more I think about them, the more I realize that short words are downright complex, especially ones like prepositions. For example, you know what on, of, at, in, etc. mean, but could you define them? It’s pretty tough when you think about it. Fortunately, every language has a way of expressing the notions that prepositions in English express, such as spatial relations. So when you encounter a new language, no matter if it has prepositions or suffixes doing the job of English prepositions, you will be able to understand them. That’s not plain, in my mind. Prepositions do some complicated things.

I don’t think Greene, Churchill or Mr. Editor were talking about prepositions, though. So let’s think about some other short and “plain” words. The English word set, according to Macmillan, has fifteen definitions. Stand has seventeen definitions. Run has nineteen. And that’s not counting the entries for phrases that include these words.

These are not plain words. Short words are not great because they are “to the point,” but because they are to so many points. The fact is, I can do a lot more with set, stand, and run than I can with Australopithecus, midi-chlorians, and Tyrannosaurus rex. That’s because English packs a lot of information into little tiny words.

Or, then again, maybe it doesn’t. Sometimes we’re forced to say yesterday or tomorrow, pretentious or university (two unrelated words), Superman or Professor Xavier. That’s just the way things are.

In his editorial, the Masked Editor uses literature as an example of what can be done with short words – “to be or not to be,” “The year’s at the spring/And day’s at the morn…/The lark’s on the wing;/The snail’s on the thorn.” But he’s using a double-edged sword and he’s not using it well. Sometimes people write thinigs like this:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore–
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door–
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door–
Only this and nothing more.”

Or this:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

Or this:

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.

So it goes. I guess some folks know what they’re doing. Neither Churchill, nor Greene, nor the artist formerly known as an editor tell us what a short word is. One syllable? Two? Three is stretching it, I guess.

The point is, Greene, Churchill, and the editor who wasn’t there are correct. Everyone should keep it simple (stupid). They should do that all the time. It’s a good rule to follow. But we should realize that in English our “short and simple” words are often only the former, not the latter. I’m not picking on Greene, who I think is a great journalist (seriously, DuckDuckGo his name, read his articles, watch his TED Talks). It’s just that his article made me think of this idea, which has probably been brewing for a while.

By the way, here are the first three sentences of The Gathering Storm, the first book in a series which won Churchill the Nobel Prize in Literature:

After the end of the World War of 1914 there was a deep conviction and almost universal hope that peace would reign in the world. This heart’s desire of all the peoples could easily have been gained by steadfastness in righteous convictions, and by reasonable common sense and prudence. The phrase “the war to end war” was on every lip, and measures had been taken to turn it into a reality.

And then there’s the rest of Hamlet’s speech that our friendly neighborhood editor used as an example. Guess what, there’s disagreement over its meaning. So much for short words. Shakespeare does away with them after the first line. To wit:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come…

[Update: Mr. Greene was kind enough to drop by and leave a link to his reply, which you can find here.]

And Read All Over Wuz Here

Recently, an Estonian friend sent me a link to The Chaos, an interesting poem which points out the irregularities of spelling in English. I’ve been seeing it pop up on Facebook for a little while now and although it is an impressive piece of poetry (for its content, not its meter), I don’t think many people think about why exactly it’s interesting. If you haven’t read it, go here and check it out. No need to read the whole thing, the first couple of lines will tell you what you need to know.

First, the poem was written by a Dutchman, Dr. Gerard Nolst Trenité, as an introduction to spelling irregularities for learners of English. In that, it’s quite amazing as the full version of the poem lists about 800 irregularities. But the real question is, why would English learners need to be told about the irregularities of English spelling? Presumably they would come across it in every class. Also, English certainly isn’t the only language with irregular spelling. What is amazing about The Chaos then is that it is a poem about a language with irregular spelling (English) by a native speaker of a language with irregular spelling (Dutch) and dedicated to a native speaker of a language with irregular spelling (French – do I really need a link here?).

Second, the poem is bound to trip up native English speakers in some places. Consider:

And I bet you, dear, a penny,
You say mani-(fold) like many,
Which is wrong. Say rapier, pier,
Tier (one who ties), but tier.

That tier/tier tripped you up at first, didn’t it? It’s because the context which the pronunciation is based on comes after the first instance of two homonyms – tier and tier. There are other examples presented without any context (does – third-person singular of do or plural of female deer?), but they really just point out what speakers of languages with irregular spelling already know – context is key.

Third (and somewhat related to the point directly above), mispronunciations are rarely examples of a non-native English speaker rhyming a word with another of similar spelling. Consider this line from the poem:

Hint, pint, senate, but sedate.

Have you ever heard a non-native speaker rhyme these words? I didn’t think so. If I was more of a dialect expert, I could speak better about this, but learners of English (whether as a first language or not) very clearly learn to do away with the notion that words with similar spellings always rhyme (or to base their pronunciations of unknown words on the pronunciation of words with similar spellings). This is very easy for humans to do.

Fourth, The Chaos is bound to not rhyme in some places for some native speakers. There’s a classic example of the difference in pronunciation between, for example, Brits and Americans in the last stanza:

Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?

The different pronunciations of rather nicely encapsulate the problem with this poem, i.e. that English orthography is causing a problem with learning. This idea is not as spelled out in the poem as it is by (Dum Dum Dummmm) The English Spelling Society. According to their “Axioms,” the spelling irregularities of English make “literacy unnecessarily difficult in English throughout the world, and learning, education and communication all suffer.” Hmmm… sounds tempting, but at the risk of sounding like a crotchety old man (“no good rotten kids can’t bother to learn the language like I had to”), there are also some major problems with spelling reform.

I’m willing to kind of sort of suppose that English orthography could be easier on the eyes, but in light of the problems associated with spelling reform and a lacking body of research on dyslexia (both in and across languages with different orthographies), I’m left to wonder which is the bigger problem – irregular spelling or spelling reform? I also don’t think the spelling reformists take psycholinguistics and the capabilities of the human brain seriously enough.

Finally, and completely unrelated, is the English Spelling Society’s take on why English spelling should be more like Finnish spelling. It’s not that such a thing wouldn’t help, it’s just that they clearly don’t know much about the Finnish language. It’s hard to take a group seriously when they publish nonsense like this. I recommend those with knowledge of Finnish to head on over here for a few chuckles. Here are a couple of highlights with my comments:

NK and NG [in Finnish] are sounded as in English sinking. [Not by native Finnish speakers, that is.]

The lack of a B means that most Finnish ears cannot distinguish, eg, Big Ben from pig pen. Nor can they distinguish between shoes, choose and juice, and as they always stress the first syllable, they tend to pronounce interpret as interbreed. [Seriously, the Finns this guy was hanging out with either had a twisted sense of humor or they were retarded. Interbreed? WTF?]

Canadian Snowclones, eh?

Speaking of snowclones, I’m surprised that none of the linguistic sites I read have made a note of The Onion‘s take on them. It’s OK. I’ll do it, you guys.

On the map of Canada in their book, Our Dumb World: Atlas of the Planet Earth, they make fun of the original snowclone by marking a spot on the map with, “Inuit community that has 20 words for having 50 words for snow.”

As with most things Onion, I like it. How many words do we have for having words for things? If anyone knows of any or of any sites that have already wrote about this Onion joke, please let me know in the comments.