web analytics
Currently viewing the tag: "Language"

Even well-meaning journalists need to realize how important simple word choices in a political column can be:

Since the late 1960s, America has seen the growth of what the late Donald Warren in a 1976 book The Radical Center called “middle American radicalism.” … It ebbed during George W. Bush’s war on terror, but has re-emerged with a vengeance in the wake of the Great Recession, Obama’s election and expansion of government, and continuing economic stagnation.

See that bold bit?  It’s in a paragraph that perhaps might otherwise suggest that “some loony Tea Party people believe…” that Obama has presided over an “expansion of government”.

But that’s not how it reads.  It reads as if the author is making a factual statement, as suggested by the three other factual references that surround it.

So what’s the issue with the statement “…Obama’s … expansion of government…“, you ask?  Well, as everyone should know from the hard work we do here on the debunking of zombie Republican lies, Obama has actually presided over the biggest contraction of government in modern history:


So, yeah.  Word choice matters.  And we all wonder why the Sheeple are so misinformed.


Jack Shafer says “Foreign Correspondents”:

Pyongyang reliably remains defiant; talks have resumed or been proposed, canceled, or stalled, while a U.S. envoy seeks to lure the North back to those talks to restart the dialog; North Korea is bluffing, blustering, or is engaging in brinksmanship; tensions are grim, rising, or growing—but rarely reduced, probably because when tensions go down it doesn’t qualify for coverage; North Korea seeks recognition, respect, or improved or restored relations, or to rejoin the international community, or increased ties to the West that will lead to understanding; deals with North Korea are sought; North Korea feels insulted and is isolated by but threatens the West; the Japanese consider the North Koreans “untrustworthy“; the West seeks positive signs or signals or messages in North Korean conduct but worries about its intentions; diplomats seek to resolve, solve, respond to, overcome, defuse, the brewing, serious, real crisis; the escalating confrontation remains dangerous; the stakes are high, but the standoff endures.

The reliance on stock phrases indicates a lack of imagination on the part of foreign correspondents (and their editors), who if they are serving old wine they should find some new bottles from which to decant it. But it also confirms Shafer’s First Law of Journalistic Thermodynamics, which states, “Copy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change form.”

but minimally change a few particulars, and all those “North Korean” cliches could be applied to domestic coverage of the GOP.

Or, I guess, any conversation. From Chunking by Ben Zimmer on the NYT (from a while back):

Ritualized moments of everyday communication — greeting someone, answering a telephone call, wishing someone a happy birthday — are full of these canned phrases that we learn to perform with rote precision at an early age. Words work as social lubricants in such situations, and a language learner like Blake is primarily getting a handle on the pragmatics of set phrases in English, or how they create concrete effects in real-life interactions. The abstract rules of sentence structure are secondary.

In recent decades, the study of language acquisition and instruction has increasingly focused on “chunking”: how children learn language not so much on a word-by-word basis but in larger “lexical chunks” or meaningful strings of words that are committed to memory. Chunks may consist of fixed idioms or conventional speech routines, but they can also simply be combinations of words that appear together frequently, in patterns that are known as “collocations.” In the 1960s, the linguist Michael Halliday pointed out that we tend to talk of “strong tea” instead of “powerful tea,” even though the phrases make equal sense. Rain, on the other hand, is much more likely to be described as “heavy” than “strong.”

Perhaps if foreign correspondents and political writers compose columns entirely out of stock phrases, maybe the things they’re covering are all still meaningless jibber-jabber to them. They haven’t gotten beyond writing as performing a trick–the same way as one may feel about finally being able to roll an Italian “r”–as opposed to writing to convey a thought or reveal a truth.

Or something.


Linguist Sarah Ogilvie discovered in the course of researching her new book Words of the World that former Oxford English Dictionary editor Robert Burchfield had deleted non-English-sounding words from the publication by the bucketful. From The Guardian:

[Ogilvie] undertook a detailed analysis of Burchfield's supplement, comparing it with the 1933 supplement by Charles Onions and William Craigie. She found that, far from opening up the OED to foreign linguistic influences, Burchfield had deleted 17% of the "loanwords" and world English words that had been included by Onions, who included 45% more foreign words than Burchfield.

Insert obligatory references to Orwell, to the universality of language police, and to people acting like asses when nobody's looking or when they think they got license.

H/T Scandal redefined: Former Oxford English Dictionary editor accused of removing words for being too 'foreign' on the NYDailyNews.

Matmos filed this under: , ,  

We all knew this was going on, but Steve Benen gives us a handy list of how words have changed due to Republican hijinks over the last 10 years:

“Obstructionism,” for example, only refers to Democratic minorities opposing Republican proposals.

“Tyranny” is found when an elected Democratic majority passes legislation that Republicans don’t like.

“Reconciliation” describes a Senate process that Republicans are allowed to use to overcome Democratic “obstructionism.”

“Terrorism” refers to acts of political violence committed by people who aren’t white guys.

“Bipartisanship” is found when Democrats agree to pass Republican legislation.

“Big government” describes a dangerous phenomenon to be avoided, except in cases relating to reproductive rights or gays.

“Treason” refers to Democrats criticizing a Republican administration during a war.

“Patriotism” refers to Republicans criticizing a Democratic administration during a war.

“Fiscal responsibility” is a national priority related to keeping our deficit in check, which only applies when Republicans are in the minority.

“Parliamentarian” is a seemingly independent official on the Hill who Senate Republicans are allowed to fire when the GOP disapproves of his/her rulings.

Metavirus filed this under: ,  

I’ve always wondered why scientists and some in the media refer to earthquakes as “temblors“. It always sounded weird to me. Why not “tremblor” or “trembler” –where did the R go? — I wondered…

As it turns out, temblor is the Spanish word for earthquake.

Seriously, how did we live before Google?

Metavirus filed this under: ,  

I’ve always been fascinated by language. If given oodles of money and a point of disembarkation from the never-ending racetrack of maintaining a “real” career, I might take up comparative linguistics as a prolonged academic pursuit.

On that note, I find insults (and “bad words” generally) to be one of the most interesting facets about everyday language usage.

So, I just wanted to start out a thread where we can share some of the more amusing ways to insult someone or swear in a foreign language.

My favorite right now is:


I came across this one while studying in Germany. Schlampe, by itself, generally means Slut. However, when you combine it with the word Bahnhof, which is German for Train Station, it transforms Shlampe into something like Train Station Whore, which has a more commercial, sex-selling context, presumably from the heavy pedestrian traffic at German train stations that would make it easy for a Bahnhof Shlampe to ply her wares.

Just to ruminate on this in a comparative context, think about this term versus our storied American Truck Stop Whore. I know it’s not a commonly used term, as such. However, we can all immediately bring the meme to mind when the topic of women of ill repute loitering in truck stops comes up. Considering that America is The Land of the Free and the Home of the Automobile, it would make sense that we wouldn’t contextualize whores in a mass transit context.

Anyway, enough from me, what are some of the interesting seedy phrases you’ve come across in your travels? Please share in the comments.

Update: As a bonus, I was just doing a bit of googling and found an interesting context for the Thai manner of calling people Ugly:


Writes KnowPhuket:

It means ugly but you will also often hear Thais use it affectionately for babies and small children. It is an old Thai superstition that you do not call babies lovely or beautiful because that may attract the attention of demons who want to whisk beautiful babies away. Of course, Thais do not actually believe this, but just in case…

{ 1 comment }
Metavirus filed this under: , ,  

One of my favorite photos…

Off towards the left is San Diego, USA. Right side is Tijuana, Mexico (wiki entry)

Here’s to hoping the next big topic after the health care craze will be immigration reform. I’m pretty excited about a Democratic majority finally having a crack at it.

I support wide open borders, with restrictions solely for known criminals/enemies and those with communicable diseases. Obviously our political system and xenophobic conservatives/southerners won’t stand for borders that open, but any nudge in this direction (including amnesty) will be a useful improvement for the economy, social justice, our fabulous melting pot effect, and general prosperity. As any student of history knows, high immigration rates made the USA what it’s been in years past. We’ve always been a nation of immigrants.

Immigration is enormously wonderful for development. Yet roughly since 1914/WWI, nationalists in more-developed nations have become so obsessed with protecting their relative power over less fortunate people, they’ve lost sight of how labor mobility benefits everyone in the long run.

One thing I also keep hearing from nationalists is that them darn immigrants oughta be required to learn English—that it should be a national language. Um, not really (xkcd). Let immigrants and future generations pick up the dominant language on their own. It’s worked fine in the past, it will work fine in the future.

Besides, English’s role as our globalized world’s lingua franca is only going to increase. Too much intellectual capital has been invested for it to be otherwise: vast amounts of business, information, science, and other research and works of art have been produced in English. What does every odd person in Europe speak? English. On an international flight from China to Japan with a South Korean flight crew, want to guess what language “This is your captain speaking, …” is in? English!

(For a bit more on the inanity of political barriers to labor and trade, a previous post)