Friday January 4, 2008

Word Czar for a Day!

This week my local NPR station broadcast a call-in show inspired by Lake Superior State University's annual list of banned words.  The host, Ross Reynolds, opened the show by asking:

Are there certain words or phrases that you hate?  Are there cliches that make you grind your teeth?  Common misusage that sends you around the bend?  If you had the power, what words or phrases would you ban?  On the other hand, what are the new words or phrases or slang you adore?  Words that are perfectly descriptive or just fun to say?

To my utter lack of surprise, and in spite of Reynolds's persistent attempts to poke fun at the concept of an all-powerful "word czar" and to steer his listeners back to talking about their favorite words, the great majority of calls and emails were from frowny-voiced would-be language purifiers.  Quite of few of them used the word hate to describe their feelings about (what they perceive to be) non-standard English usage.  Really?  Hate?

The litany of language complaints covered many of the old favorites of word-grouches everywhere, including:

  • Singular they
  • you know, sort of, and kind of as fillers
  • Overuse of dude
  • could care less
  • ek cetera
  • the war on X
  • no problem as a reply to thank you
  • Verbing nouns
  • mano a mano used as if it means man to man
  • Non-standard case in coordinated noun phrases, as in "Him and Sarah went to the movie last night".  (I recommend that the caller get used to this, since English speakers are all over the map on how they use the tiny vestiges of case that remain in the language.)
  • The phrase rule of thumb, because it supposedly refers to the width of rod used to beat one's wife.  (Hint: nope)
  • nauseous for nauseated

Some callers had come up with complaints that are similarly cranky, but at least new to me, like:

  • N-year anniversary instead of Nth anniversary
  • Using whatnot to mean, well, 'whatnot'
  • make no mistake (are rhetorical flourishes forbidden now?)
  • An artist complaining about the "lazy" use of stuff when people tell her, "I love your stuff".  Geez, they're trying to pay you a compliment, try to relax and enjoy it.
  • on accident instead of by accident.  Reynolds claims never to have heard this, which I find unlikely.  In any case, it's surely just dialectal variation.  He wonders if it's "correct" or not, and asks the caller, "Have you looked it up?".  Ah, the undying allure of an appeal to written authority...
  • One caller found the word awesome "absolutely disgusting".
  • Another guy wanted to replace cool with stellar. Yeah, good luck with that.
  • Another listener didn't like iconic.  Hmm, I'll have to remember not to have a technical discussion of onomatopoeia (or phonesthemes!) in front of him.
  • One gentleman insisted that erb and yuman must be pronounced herb and human.  Another brave loner fighting the good fight to stem the dialectal tide...

Some of the audience's language peeves were particular to the region.  On disliked the phrase world-class city.  This one annoys me too, actually.  It's an expression of a silly civic inferiority complex.  Attention Seattleites: you live in a charming medium-size city.  That's not bad!  Your air is clean (-ish) and your traffic is light (-ish).  Try to focus on the positive!

Another caller, from Port Angeles, was perplexed that people in her town say, needs washed or needs fixed, which she calls "mix[ing] their tenses".  A relative, perhaps, of UK English expressions like "you need your eyes testing"?

An observant caller from Tacoma noticed the use of anymore outside of the scope of negative polarity items.  She doesn't express it like that, though—she can't quite explain how she's hearing people using it (she says they "use it at the end of a sentence but it doesn't fit!"), but she is sure they're wrong.

Someone who gave off that unmistakable crackpot vibe called in upset that local broadcasters were pronouncing the 's' at the end of Des Moines (the one in Washington, not Iowa).  He claims the city's web site supports the silent 's'.  In fact, the story is more complicated than that. The following is from the minutes of the May 3, 2007 city council meeting:

Mayor Sheckler acknowledged he was interviewed yesterday by a reporter for KOMO radio regarding how our City's name is pronounced. He noted he referenced the book "100 Years of the Waterland Community" and the pronunciation of "De Moin".

Councilmember Scott expressed disagreement, noting growing up in this community the "s" in "Moines" was pronounced.


City Clerk Staab noted that on September 22, 1975, Council passed a motion, approving the official pronunciation as "Dah Moyne".

Interestingly, the Wikipedia page for Des Moines, WA cites the very same book, One Hundred Years of the "Waterland" Community, as evidence that the 's' should be pronounced.

I don't want to give the impession that the show was all negative.  A few people called in to mention some of their favorite words and expressions, including:

  • juicy
  • ginormous.  The caller's five-year-old, clearly a budding linguist, actually proposed that the gi- in ginormous and giant means 'big' (phonestheme alert!).
  • OCD to replace the "less family-friendly" anal
  • UK English brilliant where Americans might say cool
  • Similarly, smashing

The best moments in the show, though, came when listeners expressive their peeves ended up hoisted by their own linguistic petards.  One of these was kind of cute: a fifth-grader who hates it when her friends say like.  When Reynolds asked how she reacts when they do, she replied, "Usually, I'm just like, 'Be quiet!', because they know how much I hate it."  Somebody really needs to warn her about using quotative like while criticizing filler like.

Another listener wrote in via email to say that a whole 'nother X was wrong, and should instead be another whole X.  I don't think that'd do the trick—another whole year means something quite different from a whole 'nother year.  Might I suggest using a whole other X?  (Or if you're really afraid of the informal register, another X entirely?)  A later caller points out that this is an example of tmesis, but somehow I doubt this would make the listener any less angry.  Language rage knows no antidote!

Without question, though, the best moment of the show came when a caller said, "I hate it when the President says nucular instead of [hesitates]'s like, wow, hello, you're the President, you should be able to say the right word."  I can't tell if she realizes what she's said—Reynolds doesn't call her on it, and they just finish up her call.  Definitely go listen to it if you haven't yet, it's a hoot.

These ironic moments, where someone complaining about a language error makes makes a related error during the complaint, seem to imply a spoken-language analogue of Skitt's Law [from the GooCache, because the WikiPage is missing].  Slow down and speak carefully, angry language cranks—the dignity you retain may be your own!

[Update: Benjamin Zimmer mentioned tonight at the language blog get-together that he'd been scheduled to appear on this show, but they cancelled because they already had a full show. This included a discussion of the Oxford University Press 2007 Word of the Year, locavore—by coincidence, one of the coiners of that word is a producer of The Conversation, so she was interviewed about it.  I think they would have been better off going with Zimmer—I think a linguist might have been able to cut through the fog of misconceptions and prejudices.  Call me an optimist.]

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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I was interested to read: "Someone who gaves of that unmistakable crackpot vibe".

If it had said "gives off", or "gave of", I could have put it down as one of those typos that still produces a valid word, which is surely the most irritating from of typo, right?

But two in a row... is there an expression whereby one "gives of" a vibe? I'm not being sarcastic, and I'm not poking fun at the typing. It sounds like something that could make sense...

Posted by: Simon Blake at Jan 4, 2008 2:36:13 AM

That's just le Tensor's French showing through... It's originally "donner d'une vibe de crackpot", of course.

Meanwhile, I am ashamed to admit that it was only upon reading this blog post that I realized that "mano a mano" wasn't just fake Spanish for "man to man".

Posted by: Matt at Jan 4, 2008 4:46:55 AM

The on accident vs. by accident one was funny to me. Growing up in both the north and the south has left me completely unable to determine which one is supposedly "correct," so I use them interchangeably. Also, I'm skeptical that a linguist would have been able to do much damage to the language police. It's hard to listen when you're on such a high horse, after all. And it's a horse they take much solace in, for all the anger it causes them.

Posted by: Jason Adams at Jan 4, 2008 6:55:26 AM

Heh. I listened to that show... for about thirty seconds. I listened to the nucular guy, rolled my eyes in irritation, and switched back to KEXP.

Posted by: JS Bangs at Jan 4, 2008 8:44:43 AM

I was interested to read: "Someone who gaves of that unmistakable crackpot vibe"...

Nope, no obscure dialectal variant intended. It's fixed now. I swear I proofread these posts.

Posted by: The Tensor at Jan 4, 2008 9:36:46 AM

"Needs ed" is quite common in Western Pennsylvania, as well.

Posted by: FS at Jan 4, 2008 12:26:05 PM

Sorry, meant "needs [verb]ed", there.

Posted by: FS at Jan 4, 2008 12:28:55 PM

re mano a mano, enough people have that meaning that I'd argue it's a "legitimate" meaning of the phrase - that is, that it's undergone reanalysis. 'man to man' and 'hand to hand' aren't all that far in meaning, either,

Posted by: Claire at Jan 7, 2008 6:04:39 AM

This is one of those things that makes me feel like Father William. I've never encountered this new meaning of mano a mano. Sigh. It's hard enough making myself get used to changes I see around me; now I have to start doing it for ones I only hear about on the internet...

Posted by: language hat at Jan 7, 2008 8:35:29 AM

Hall and Oates knew that "mano" meant "hand," but they translated it "hand IN hand" instead of "hand TO hand," and stressed the wrong syllable on the second "mano."

Posted by: Stephen Tilson at Jan 7, 2008 10:33:00 AM

Oh. I just learned the use of "they" in third person singular, and I really like it. It was not taught in school, but I find it very useful. But then I'm a foreigner, and I can probably get away with it without annoying the word czars too much!
(Being foreign: here in Canada everyone asks me if I'm French. I don't think my accent sounds French, but Canadian French is not the same as the European.)

Posted by: Åka at Jan 7, 2008 10:55:37 AM

"An observant caller from Tacoma noticed the use of anymore outside of the scope of negative polarity items."

Can you give an example of this? I don't know what usage you (or the caller) meant.

Posted by: Pious Agnostic at Jan 11, 2008 1:31:38 PM

Positive anymore example: "Thanksgiving is becoming so commercialized anymore"

Posted by: The Ridger at Jan 12, 2008 1:52:34 PM

"Positive anymore example: 'Thanksgiving is becoming so commercialized anymore'"

Thanks Ridger. I've never heard this particular monstrosity. Is it common?

Posted by: Pious Agnostic at Jan 13, 2008 7:57:43 AM

Yes, it's been common usage for a long time in certain dialects. There's nothing "monstrous" about it except that you're not familiar with it. Why is it OK to use "any time" positively but not "any more"?

Posted by: language hat at Jan 15, 2008 8:54:45 AM

Sorry, didn't mean to ruffle any feathers by the use of the word "monstrosity." In my particular dialect, that's a positive thing.

OK, that's not true. But you are right, its the unfamiliarity that makes it sound wrong to my ears.

Posted by: Pious Agnostic at Jan 16, 2008 1:58:59 PM

Speaking of proofreading, one notes:

"On disliked the phrase"

Posted by: Owlmirror at Feb 5, 2008 5:50:21 PM