The unsung value of singular ‘themself’

January 23, 2014

I’ve written before about the reflexive pronoun themself, showing its history in English and potential to fill a semantic gap in the language. Once a normal, unremarkable word, themself became less preferred over time, and its use today is low: Oxford Dictionaries says it’s “not widely accepted in standard English”, while Macmillan Dictionary says “most people consider this use incorrect”. Many dictionaries omit it.

This is a pity, but these are not permanent prescriptions – they’re observations about the usage’s current state of acceptability. And they are subject to change, because language is, because we are.

stan carey conspiracy keanu reeves meme - singular themself as a descriptivist plotThemself is no mere quirky substitute for the more familiar pronoun themselves: it enables us to make subtle anaphoric distinctions. As my earlier post shows, there are situations where the use of themselves in place of themself would be misleading. By avoiding and stigmatising themself we miss a useful linguistic trick.

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Punctuation support group

July 31, 2013

Support”, by Tom Humberstone:

Tom Humberstone - New Statesman cartoon = Punctuation support group

[click to enlarge]

I love Exclamation Mark’s happy bafflement, and the last two frames tie the strip together very nicely (though for comic timing and pathos I’d have put the ellipsis between them rather than before them).

I don’t think I have anything to say about the Jay Z hyphen non-story – but if you do, I’m all ears.

You can see more of the artist’s work at the New Statesman and on Humberstone’s own website.


Unrhetorical question

March 23, 2013
[click to enlarge]
 
Jef Mallett - Frazz comic strip - detention for tomato semantics

From the “Frazz” archives – comic strip by Jef Mallett.


Words are tasty!

February 18, 2013

Jay Kinney - eating words - Anarchy Comics 1, 1978

Image from Anarchy Comics #1, 1978, edited by Jay Kinney.

For readers unfamiliar with the idiom: eat one’s words means retract what one has said, take back a statement, admit an error. So it’s similar to eating humble pie (whose origins are surprisingly visceral), and worth comparing with laughing on the other side of your face.

“You gotta break an omelet to make an egg”, of course, reverses the natural entropic order, playing with a proverb (“You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”) to make a political point. If you’re interested in the comic’s history, here’s a recent interview with Kinney at BoingBoing.


Tongue-tied, by Li-Chin Lin

February 5, 2013

The current issue of Words Without Borders has an interesting comic about language and identity by Taiwanese artist Li-Chin Lin, translated from French by Edward Gauvin.

Tongue-tied, excerpted (I think) from her début graphic novel Formose, vividly explores the politics of dialect and language, social attitudes towards their use, and the complications of squaring one’s sense of self with these conflicting pressures.

Li-Chin Lin - Tongue-tied - comic on language and identity

Li-Chin Lin is interviewed here about her work; the page is in French, so drop the text into Google Translate or similar if you want a rough version in English or another language.


Contrastive reduplication: a thing, or a THING-thing?

August 7, 2012

Since writing about reduplication (choo-choo, splish-splash, heebie-jeebies) for Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been meaning to elaborate on a particular form of it, known as contrastive focus reduplication or just contrastive reduplication (CR), also called lexical cloning, the double construction, and word word.

It sounds obscure, but it’s a common phenomenon in informal English. This Zits comic illustrates it well:

Zits, by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman, via Language Log

Jeremy can be “up” while still in bed because up can mean simply awake, as it does in the first speech bubble. So UP-up in the second bubble indicates a contrasting kind of up – “up and about”, i.e. out of bed – that the word normally refers to in the context.

I came across a good example last weekend, in Augusten Burroughs’s novel Sellevision [underlines added]:

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Rumble Tumble stumble

November 23, 2011

This guy Leonard knew sold cold guns was named Haskel Ward.

Did this line wrongfoot you? More than once?

It’s a great example of a garden path sentence, and one with multiple paths. It appears at the beginning of chapter 7 in Joe R. Lansdale’s novel Rumble Tumble, which I’m reading at the moment.

It boils down to “This guy was named X.” Inserting a relative pronoun or two —

This guy [who] Leonard knew [who] sold cold guns was named Haskel Ward.

— clarifies the syntax, but robs the line of its charm and of the narrator’s distinctive voice.

Dinosaur Comics, 25 November 2003

(If you’re a regular visitor here, you might remember seeing Rumble Tumble in this bookmash, where I found another use for its rhyming reduplication.)


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