February 27, 2005

A Regional Dialect Quiz

I came across an interesting Dialect Quiz. I come in 45% Yankee, predictably Midwestern except for "grinder" instead of "sub", due to my Yale days when we'd go out at 10 p.m. or so to get some sustenance for studying from the Greek- owned shops. This quiz isn't really about being Southern, though that is the summary index. It tells you more about regional dialects. (Via Bob Hayes)

Permalink: 03:35 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 11, 2005

"Circumjacent"

I learned a good word today, circumjacent , sûrkm-jsnt, which means "Lying around; surrounding". Jack Meyer told me he wanted to use it in a term to define risk a certain way (which may be what I call "extremal risk" in my own paper on risk, but someone induced him to use the less interesting "strong" instead.

I wanted to find an example of circumjacent in use. Googling, I found a striking article title, "Methods of improving the circumjacent blood supply in resections of arterial trunks and obliterating endarteritis". That has a nice ring to it, though it would be even more poetic, if perhaps less descriptive, if it were "Improving circumjacent blood and obliterating endarteritis." I do like the thought of obliterating endarteritis-- it sounds like it's well worth doing.

Permalink: 08:55 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 28, 2005

Lileks's Lazy Day

James Lileks has a good post on a lazy day with his 4-year-old daughter.

Permalink: 08:45 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 11, 2005

Should Grammar Rules Evolve? Conservative and Liberal Attitudes

The American Spectator has an article on grammar that says
Often there is good reason to be skeptical of change, particularly when it comes about out of laziness and the dumbing-down of grammar rules. Again, compare Fowler's inflexible 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage to current grammars like Woe is I, in which rules that are troublesome or too difficult to remember are pronounced outdated or dead. (Rats, if I had known this was possible in my college days I would have pronounced Algebra outdated and dead and gotten on with my binge drinking.)

What the conservative sees as threats to the mother tongue are dismissed by the linguist as the natural progression of language, and nature trumps civilization (here represented by long-established rules) every time. These threats include the politicization of language, as in politically correct speech; threats from bureaucrats, businessmen, and politicians who use language to obfuscate, confuse and deceive, or in the case of academics to disguise a dearth of ideas; and, finally, threats from linguists who promote a laissez- faire approach to language.

This came up in class yesterday as I was going over how to fix flawed sentences. At what point should correct usage change to match spoken language?

That it should is clear. Strunk and White say that "claim" should not be used to mean "assert", as in "I claim that good writing is important," and should be reserved for the meaning "lay claim to". That limitation is wrong now-- as wrong as to use "prevent" to mean "come before", the King James Version meaning.

It is also true, however, that there is such a thing as correct usage. Indeed, it could not change if it did not exist. And correct usage does not change as fast as spoken English, nor does it match certain aspects that are long-established. Correct usage excludes obscenity, for example, despite the laxity even of conservative magazines now, and in formal contexts it excludes contractions.

Which approach to call "conservative" and which to call "liberal" is not as clear as you might think. Naturally, it is conservative to wish to keep rules the same. But a central feature of conservatism is the idea of the organic growth of society-- that it should gradually evolve rather than being established by decree, shoudl be decentralized rather than centralized. Writing rules that fight the evolution of language are an example of central establishment. One place where we can see the disadvantage of rules is in spelling. If rules were laxer, it would have simplified over the centuries.

Liberals are now trying to establish liberalism in the language by the use of grammar rules. They are using gender-neutered language, and not just using it in their own writing, but teaching it in schools and putting it in the manuals of style. This is an example not of evolutionary change so much as a conscious attempt to prescribe new rules that will change spoken usage. Nobody says in everyday speech, "A truckdriver must be careful to stay awake. Otherwise she might have a crash," but you see that kind of thing in academic writing.

The correct approach is for the manuals of style to keep the written language a few decades behind the spoken language, and to make it match spoken language rather than follow consistent rules. Following this philosophy, "hopefully" can now be used to mean "one hopes that" instead of just "with a hopeful attitude", but "he/she" cannot be used in place of "he". This, I think, is Fowler's approach in the classic book mentioned above.

Permalink: 09:51 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Should Grammar Rules Evolve? Conservative and Liberal Attitudes

The American Spectator has an article on grammar that says
Often there is good reason to be skeptical of change, particularly when it comes about out of laziness and the dumbing-down of grammar rules. Again, compare Fowler's inflexible 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage to current grammars like Woe is I, in which rules that are troublesome or too difficult to remember are pronounced outdated or dead. (Rats, if I had known this was possible in my college days I would have pronounced Algebra outdated and dead and gotten on with my binge drinking.)

What the conservative sees as threats to the mother tongue are dismissed by the linguist as the natural progression of language, and nature trumps civilization (here represented by long-established rules) every time. These threats include the politicization of language, as in politically correct speech; threats from bureaucrats, businessmen, and politicians who use language to obfuscate, confuse and deceive, or in the case of academics to disguise a dearth of ideas; and, finally, threats from linguists who promote a laissez- faire approach to language.

This came up in class yesterday as I was going over how to fix flawed sentences. At what point should correct usage change to match spoken language?

That it should is clear. Strunk and White say that "claim" should not be used to mean "assert", as in "I claim that good writing is important," and should be reserved for the meaning "lay claim to". That limitation is wrong now-- as wrong as to use "prevent" to mean "come before", the King James Version meaning.

It is also true, however, that there is such a thing as correct usage. Indeed, it could not change if it did not exist. And correct usage does not change as fast as spoken English, nor does it match certain aspects that are long-established. Correct usage excludes obscenity, for example, despite the laxity even of conservative magazines now, and in formal contexts it excludes contractions.

Which approach to call "conservative" and which to call "liberal" is not as clear as you might think. Naturally, it is conservative to wish to keep rules the same. But a central feature of conservatism is the idea of the organic growth of society-- that it should gradually evolve rather than being established by decree, shoudl be decentralized rather than centralized. Writing rules that fight the evolution of language are an example of central establishment. One place where we can see the disadvantage of rules is in spelling. If rules were laxer, it would have simplified over the centuries.

Liberals are now trying to establish liberalism in the language by the use of grammar rules. They are using gender-neutered language, and not just using it in their own writing, but teaching it in schools and putting it in the manuals of style. This is an example not of evolutionary change so much as a conscious attempt to prescribe new rules that will change spoken usage. Nobody says in everyday speech, "A truckdriver must be careful to stay awake. Otherwise she might have a crash," but you see that kind of thing in academic writing.

The correct approach is for the manuals of style to keep the written language a few decades behind the spoken language, and to make it match spoken language rather than follow consistent rules. Following this philosophy, "hopefully" can now be used to mean "one hopes that" instead of just "with a hopeful attitude", but "he/she" cannot be used in place of "he". This, I think, is Fowler's approach in the classic book mentioned above.

Permalink: 09:51 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 06, 2005

Sontag's Thinking and the Core Dump Style of Writing

Here's a nice description of typical thinking from The American Spectator.
What I mean is that, for all her rhetorical gifts, Sontag could not think -- or, rather, she could not reason. She didn't do if-then logic. She tossed around ideas as though they were horseshoes and hoped that their proximity to a thesis formed an argument. This method made her consistently provocative, consistently readable, and consistently irrelevant.
It is teaching logical thinking that I find most important and most challenging. The description makes me think of the "core dump" style of writing for test essays: write down every fact you know that is connected with the subject of the question and hope the right answer is in there somewhere.

Permalink: 01:48 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 03, 2004

Kramer on Meeting Criticism Targets; Lincoln on Condescension

Jay Nordlinger's "The Joy of Tokenism" has three good separate bits, on Kramer's attitude on meeting people who's work he'd criticized, the Chicago Times on Lincoln, and Lincoln on being condescended to. ...

... Hilton Kramer, the eminent art critic and co-founder of The New Criterion. At a dinner once, he and Woody Allen were seated next to each other. The actor said, "So, Mr. Kramer, do you find it embarrassing when you encounter people whose work you have slammed?" "No," replied Hilton: "I think they should be embarrassed for having made such lousy art." Later on, Hilton realized that he had once criticized a movie that Allen was in (The Front).

...

It so happened that, during this weekend, I was reading a biography of Lincoln, and noted that many of the denunciations of the 16th president sounded familiar. After a Lincoln speech, the editor of the (Democratic) Chicago Times wrote, "The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States."

The speech to which the editor was referring was the Gettysburg Address.

...

And a good many liberals were awfully warm to this conservative. Most of the compliments were sincere, I'd say. Others were of the "For a fat girl, you don't sweat much" variety. I noted something else in that Lincoln biography. He said, "I have endured a great deal of ridicule without much malice, and have received a great deal of kindness not quite free from ridicule. I am used to it." I'm no Lincoln, believe me, but I know what he is saying.

Permalink: 08:20 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 01, 2004

Wordorigins.org; Rope a Dope

I came across Wordorigins.org, a good site about terms like the ones below. I was looking up "Rope a Dope", so the three excerpts below are from the "R" section:

Ring Around the Rosie...

The common folkloric explanation is that this is a rhyme about the bubonic plague. "Ring around the rosie" refers to buboes on the skin. "A pocket full of posies" refers to flowers kept in the pocket to ward off the disease. "Ashes, ashes" is a reference to death, as in "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." The common variant of the third line, "Atishoo, atishoo," is a reference to sneezing and sickness. Finally, falling down is a representation of death.

A neat tale. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support it...

Rope-A-Dope

The term dates to the 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle" between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman. Ali spent the early rounds against the ropes in a defensive posture, taking a series of blows from Foreman. After Foreman had tired himself out, Ali went on the offensive and beat the exhausted Foreman. It wasn't a pretty victory or a fan-pleasing strategy, but it was effective. So to employ the "rope-a-dope" strategy is to feign being weak and on the defensive, like a dopey boxer who is on the ropes, in hopes your opponent will exhaust himself in the early going. The term was coined by Ali.

Rule of Thumb

The phrase is almost certainly an allusion to the fact that the first joint an adult thumb measures roughly one inch, literally a rule (or ruler) of thumb. Since human dimensions vary, any measurement so taken would be only a rough approximation and not to be trusted where precision was required.

Permalink: 08:02 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 30, 2004

Overhead Projectors and 20-Minute Technical Presentations

I listened to three 20-minute student presentations of economic research recently, and noticed something all three had in common: Each would have been better if the overhead projector had been destroyed and the student had just written on the blackboard instead.

The problem was that the speakers threw up numerous detailed slides that were too complicated to have any meaning to the audience. and without putting the notation on the board. Having to write things down would have slowed them down enough that the audience could have followed them. Also, the mathematical notation could have been up on the board for the audience to see, and they could have studied equations for more than the few seconds they are up on a screen.

It's interesting that for a short talk overhead slides are such a trap for the novice speaker. For the experienced speaker, overheads are all the more important if a talk is short, because he can save time otherwise spent writing on the board. The experienced speaker does not need the discipline of being limited to just a few equations by his writing speed.

I should note, too, that this problem is not limited to theory papers. Empirical papers are subject to it too, because the student is tempted to post too many numbers, showing too many of his different specifications. In twenty minutes, one regression equation is plenty! (combined, of course, with detailed discussion of its meaning)

Permalink: 11:14 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

September 29, 2004

Two words: Aporia and Facticity

Here are two new words I've come across. Both of these look like they might be useful, if I could remember them and if anybody else knew what they meant.

APORIA A*po"ri*a [L., doubt, Gr. , fr. without passage, at a loss; priv. + passage.] A figure in which the speaker professes to be at a loss what course to pursue, where to begin to end, what to say, etc.

FACTICITY facticity
Pronunciation: fak-'ti-s&-tE
Etymology: French or German; French facticit, from German Faktizitt, from
Factum fact, from Latin factum
: the quality or state of being a fact

Permalink: 01:16 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 25, 2004

"An institution is the lengthened shadow of a man."

I was at a dinner Thursday night where IU President Emerson gave a good speech. In particular, he quoted Emerson as saying something like


(1) "An institution is the lengthened shadow of a man."

Looking this up on the web, some unreliable sources such as Brainyquote say


(2)" Every great institution is the lengthened shadow of a single man."

while others such as
Bartleby have

(3) "An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man."

Bartleby, which uses Bartlett's 10th edition, at least cites Emerson's
"Self-Reliance," First Series (1841). I wish there were a quotation book that did a tolerably good job of giving citations.

At any rate, I much like version (1) the best. It is both the punchiest and the most true. Institutions are usually *not* the shadows of one man alone, and great institutions, especially, are not.

I'll have to remember to tell my students in G492 not to indiscriminately trust web sources for quotations.

Permalink: 10:17 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 14, 2004

"mind-meld with such an alien psyche"

I've found a wonderful passage from Jonah Goldberg that I hope to imitate one of these days:

I have no desire to go trolling around inside Dan Rather's brain. We all know from Star Trek that a mind-meld with such an alien psyche could leave me permanently damaged. But it's clear that Dan Rather doesn't understand what's going on any more than those poor last dinosaurs understood why the tasty green fronds became so hard to find when it got cloudy.

Permalink: 09:57 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

September 02, 2004

Girly Men, Pumpitude, and Flabulence from Hanz and Franz on Saturday Night Live

Here are excerpts from the best "Pumping up With Hans & Franz" skit I have seen, one from 1988 in which Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger also appear....

...

Hans: Alright. But before we can pump you up tonight, we have to answer a piece of viewer mail.

Franz: Ya. Ya. This is a letter we received from a Bill Tompkins. I'll only read an excerpt, so I don't go into his loser details. "Dear Hans & Franz: I have recently seen your.. mo-.. mo-"

Hans: Moronic.

Franz: "..Your moronic show, and have wondered why you don't open your own gym. Maybe you are too stupid." [ crumples letter ] You know, maybe you thought this letter would make us angry; but it only makes us sad.

Hans: Really, ya. We are sad, you know, because anyone who calls us "stupid" is really just jealous. Because their girlfriend looks at us, then looks at him, and realzies she's cuddling up with a little girly-man!

Franz: Ya. Ya, girly-man. Hear me now and believe me later - but don't think about it ever, because, if you try to think, you might cause a flabulance!

...

Hans: Oh, Arnold, I can't believe how properly pumped up you really are!

Franz: Ya! You are the embodiment of perfect pumpitude!

See also: this skit.

Permalink: 10:44 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 01, 2004

Words: Baditude and Downer

My wife came up with a good new word tonight: BADITUDE, which is short for "bad attitude". If you go to something with baditude, you are not going to enjoy it. Children often have baditude, as do students, and how to eliminate baditude is an interesting problem. "Gooditude" does not work so well as a word, perhaps because it is too similar to "gratitude". I now see, however, that even BADATTITUDE would be rather useful as a word, and it has a nice look and sound.

My daughter Elizabeth came out with another new word of possible utility: DOWNER, meaning "further down". I forget the sentence in which she used it, but an example would be "The name 'Rasmusen' is downer on the list than 'Anderson', since it starts with an R instead of an A." The word has a number of good features:

1. It is Anglo-Saxon in its entirety-- both root and modifier.

2. It is short and easy to say and spell.

3. Its meaning is immediately apparent, even to someone who has never heard the word before.

"Baditude" has some Latin in it, which is unfortunate, but its meaning would be clear from context and despite its three syllables, it is short and flowing enough to be useful, and the Latin is in the modifier, which is less obtrusive than it would be in the root.

How, though, would we get these two new words into the language? A problem with a new word is that it stands out and really ought to be footnoted or otherwise explained to the reader. That is okay if it can be done at the start of a long discourse on the subject of the word, but it is self-defeating if the word is introduce merely to save a few syllables. I don't know how to solve that problem, which is akin to the problem of simplifying spelling.

Permalink: 03:59 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack