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  • 10/15/14--21:01: Looking at American Speech
  • If you read Lingua Franca, you might be among the select few who want to know what is really going on with our language, as opposed to the many who mainly want to change it to their liking. Nothing wrong with the latter, except that it’s like wishing for the good old days when chemistry involved just four easy-to-remember elements—earth, air, fire, water—as opposed to the notion promulgated nowadays by professional chemists that there are more than a hundred elements, while the original four...


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  • 10/20/14--21:01: The Giants Won the Pennant
  • On Thursday, in the National League Championship Series game between San Francisco Giants and the St. Lous Cardinals, Giants outfiender Travis Ishikawa came to bat in the bottom of the ninth inning.

    Jon Miller was announcing the game on the Giants’ radio affiliate. “Now the stretch,” Miller said. “Here it comes. There’s a drive, deep into right field, way back there. Goodbye! A home run. For the game. And for the pennant. The Giants have won the pennant and Travis Ishikawa is being clobbered a...


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  • 11/02/14--21:01: Stuff Like That There
  • After Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants won the World Series Most Valuable Player award, Chevrolet called on a local regional manager to present Bumgarner with the keys to the truck that went with the award. On national TV. The man fumbled, lost his train of thought, and ended up blurting out that the pitcher was sure to like the truck because it has “class-winning and leading, you know, technology and stuff.”

    Social media erupted, as only social media can do, in a festive mock-a-tho...


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  • 11/17/14--21:01: Noping Out
  • keep-calm-and-nope“I love how that goat just nopes out of that situation.” And I love the ring of a newly hatched bit of slang that hasn’t even received its Urban Dictionary definition yet. Here, at its inception, nopes out doesn’t yet sound juvenile to me, or evasive, or overused, or imprecise; it hasn’t yet earned any of the pejoratives that purists may hurl its way if and when it becomes as widespread in the language as amazeballs or totes. Rather, it describes a quick series of actions that seem to have been ...


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  • 12/04/14--21:01: This Transatlantic Life
  • I’ll grant that it might have been my location at the time—sitting in a university clinic—that made the phrase “winding up in hospital” jump out at me when listening to a recent podcast of This American Life. But I put the jolt down to the lack of an article. This was This American Life, after all, and the speaker, Nancy Updike, sounded as Yankee as they come; shouldn’t it have been “winding up in the hospital”?

    Well, yes, according to custom and Google’s Ngram viewer:

    That’s looking in the Ame...


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    As I promised last week, let me briefly discuss a further noteworthy fact about an interesting 1914 paper by George O. Curme. When I first saw the paper I thought there was a PDF encoding bug, or my eyes were playing tricks, but not so. It turns out that Curme was a radical reformer in one respect: He published his paper using an extensively revised spelling system. (My quotations from him last week regularized his spellings to current practice.)

    Curme was apparently following proposals made ove...


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    Marvin Gaye

    Marvin Gaye

    A couple of years ago, the BBC published an essay on that staple of British journalism, the terribleness of Americanisms polluting the mother tongue. The Beeb invited readers to send in their own pet peeves and got such a response that it published a list of the 50 that were sent in most often. The top five, in reverse order, were:

    • Deplane.
    • 24/7.
    • Two-time or three-time, as in “two-time award winner” (though I don’t see how else that could be said).
    • Least worst option.
    • And the N0.1 m...

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  • 01/11/15--21:01: #WOTY2014
  • This past Friday night was the 25th time that the American Dialect Society (ADS) has voted for the Word of the Year. We were reminded at the beginning of the meeting that this makes it only the 24th anniversary, so no champagne yet. … It was, as usual, a lively gathering, with standing room only in the back and even, at one point, chanting in support of one word on the ballot. As we do every year, we voted on other categories too, such as Most Outrageous, Most Useful, Most Creative, etc. We adde...


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  • 01/12/15--21:01: A Real Tweet for Linguists
  • Early in January every year, nearly a thousand people who study how language works flock together for the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America together with six smaller groups under its wings, including the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas, the Association for Linguistic Evidence, and of course the American Dialect Society.

    This year they migrated to Portland, Ore., for meetings January 8 through 11. There were hundreds of talks on the workings of ...


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    4622063623_c3a61fda47_oA commenter on a newspaper article about Prince Charles (the opinionated royal destined to inherit the throne under Britain’s hereditary monarchical and theocratic system of government) said this:

    The moment the Monarchy, with he at its head, begins a campaign of public influence is the moment the Monarchy should be disbanded.

    “With he at its head?” Not “with him at its head”? Let’s face it: The traditionally accepted rules for case-marking pronouns in Standard English are simply a mystery ...


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  • 01/21/15--21:01: O Canada! in New Orleans
  • LouisiCANADA“I’m so New Orleans, when I go out of town people ask me if I’m Canadian.”

    A joke, right? No, it seems that, contrary to all expectations, a certain Canadian pronunciation is beginning to emerge in the Big Easy.

    I heard about it in a talk by Katie Carmichael of Virginia Tech at the annual gathering of linguists this month in Portland, Ore. She found “when I go out of town people ask me if I’m Canadian” on Facebook, together with this response: “most people don’t come out and say, ‘are you canadi...


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  • 01/22/15--21:01: Not by a Long Chalk
  • As I have mentioned here before, my hobby is writing and maintaining a blog about British expressions that have become popular in the United States. I know, I know. Listen, it keeps me off the street.

    Anyway, not long ago, Alex Beam, a Boston Globe columnist, opened a piece this way:

    And here I thought we had the place to ourselves.

    Not by a long chalk, it turns out. New census data show that Massachusetts is the fastest-growing state in New England, population wise.

    The opening of the second p...


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  • 01/28/15--21:01: Garage Sociolinguistics
  • Read the above title aloud before you continue. I have a real problem about pronouncing it. Let me explain. In the fall I was quite unexpectedly forced to move house. my_garage_3 My new home has not only an off-street parking spot but also a standalone structure (pictured at left) intended for storing an automobile (but actually occupied by garden tools, boxes, unused furniture–you know how it goes). Uttering the name for this outbuilding plunges me into a sociolinguistic minefield.

    The suffix -age that te...


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  • 02/04/15--21:01: Nice Going, Genius
  • Scalia: Sarcastic

    Scalia: Sarcastic

    In the slim annals of professorial humor, one of the cherished entries concerns an anthropological linguistics conference where the speaker declaims, “In languages all over the globe, one finds examples of the double negative denoting affirmation, but never the double positive denoting negation.” At which point a guy in the back of the room stands up and says, “Yeah, sure.”

    I’ve been pondering sarcasm since Adam Liptak’s recent New York Times article about a law review essay by...


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    Say the magic word, and it’s yours.

    Please? No, not please. The magic word that truly cements ownership, at least for a lot of us, is dibs.

    If you’re not familiar with dibs, you can look it up. For this word, the grand new Dictionary of American Regional English has first dibs for lookup. There we find dibs (always plural) defined as “a claim; rights; right of priority—often used as exclamation.” And DARE presents examples of use going back to 1930 in South Carolina. Likewise,  the Historical Di...


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  • 02/10/15--21:01: Comprise Yourself
  • wikipedia-globe-sans-textBryan Henderson’s hobby is eliminating comprised of  from Wikipedia articles. Just another quixotic purist struggling to retard linguistic evolution? That’s what people seemed to think I’d say, as they busied themselves sending me links to Andrew McMillen’s Backchannel article about Henderson. But the situation is subtle, and head-swirlingly complex. I’ll explain as clearly as I can. Comprise yourself—I mean compose yourself.

    A 20th-century prescriptive tradition insists that comprise and compos...


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    lain_shot

    The other day my Edinburgh colleague Professor D. Robert Ladd noticed an odd verb form in a subhead in The Guardian, under the arresting headline “Parisians carry on shopping as mass graves are exhumed below their feet”:

    Archaeologists unearth hundreds of carefully lain skeletons underneath Monoprix supermarket where medieval hospital once stood

    It moved him to call lain “the whom of verb morphology.” I saw immediately what he meant. Let me explain.

    I first need to summarize certain facts about...


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  • 03/11/15--21:01: Mewling Quim
  • Loki

    Loki

    It started with an e-mail in 2012 from a Londoner named John Stewart. He was writing to me because I conduct a blog called “Not One-Off Britishisms,” which deals with British words and expressions that have gained currency in the U.S.

    Stewart directed me to a post on the Bleeding Cool website about a moment in the then-current film The Avengers, written by the Americans Joss Whedon and Zak Penn. Loki (a bad guy) addresses Black Widow with the two-word epithet that’s the title of this post...


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  • 04/02/15--21:01: Oh, Man
  • I did a mental double take the first time I heard my wife, Gigi, say the word policeman. She gave the second and third syllables roughly equal stress and said -man with an ash sound (what was traditionally referred to as a short vowel), represented in International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as /æ/. It came out the way I would say Batman or milkman. To me, the -man in policeman has a reduced stress and a schwa vowel (/ə/ in IPA), as in woman.

    I actually must have done a physical double take because...


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    A forensic linguist once used DARE to find a kidnapper, whose ransom note read “leave the money on the devil strip,” a term used in northern Ohio. Image courtesy DARE archives.

    Since the 19th century, one of the grandest of scholarly projects in the humanities has been the making of historical dictionaries. These are comprehensive multivolume dictionaries that aim to cover a language in all its historical depth and contemporary breadth. The best known of these is the Oxford English Dictionary, b...


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