“Going viral” in Murphy’s pub

April 16, 2014

You might have heard about the sheep–goat hybrid born in County Kildare in Ireland earlier this month. First reported in the Irish Farmer’s Journal, the animal – informally called a geep – is a rare and noteworthy creature. But what struck me was a linguistic item connected to the story.

Michael Madden on Twitter drew my attention to a phrase in the Irish Times report on the geep:

After the Farmers’ Journal posted a video of the creature on YouTube yesterday, it quickly went viral among customers in Murphy’s pub.

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Not a notion about Irish notions

February 12, 2014

‘The Talking Trees’ by Seán Ó Faoláin is the opening story in the anthology Body and Soul: Irish Short Stories of Sexual Love, edited by David Marcus and published by Poolbeg Press in 1979. It’s a humorous coming-of-age tale of a group of teenage boys in Cork city, containing several explicit references to language.

The boys read comics from England,* “which was where they got all those swanky words like Wham, Ouch, Yaroosh, Ooof and Jolly Well.” Educated by priests and nuns, they are at a loss to understand some of the words they hear used in relation to adult and sexual behaviour.

One day the youngest, Tommy, nicknamed Gong Gong for his “wild bursts of talk like a fire alarm”,

sprayed them with the news that his sister Jenny had been thrown out of class that morning in Saint Monica’s for turning up with a red ribbon in her hair, a mother-of-pearl brooch at her neck and smelling of scent.

‘Ould Sister Eustasia,’ he fizzled, ‘made her go out in the yard and wash herself under the tap, she said they didn’t want any girls in their school who had notions.’

The three gazed at one another, and began at once to discuss all the possible sexy meanings of notions. Georgie had a pocket dictionary. ‘An ingenious contrivance’? ‘An imperfect conception (U.S.)’? ‘Small wares’? It did not make sense.

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Non-restrictive ‘that’, that can be ambiguous

December 15, 2013

Non-restrictive relative clauses, which are structured like the one you’re reading now, are usually set off by a comma followed by the relative pronoun which or who. Very occasionally that is used, and its rarity (and sometime ambiguity) sounds my Curious Grammar Klaxon.

A note on terminology: non-restrictive relative clauses are also called non-defining or supplementary relatives, distinct from restrictive, defining, or integrated relatives. (There’s more on this and associated “which-hunting” in my oversized that/which grammar post.)

A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar says non-restrictive that relatives are “extremely rare and really only marginally present in Standard English”. True enough, but I tend to come across at least a few a year. Here’s an oldish one in J. W. N. Sullivan’s 1927 book Beethoven:

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Horripilatory etymology

November 17, 2013

It’s a dark wet evening in the west of Ireland and I’m cosying up with The Poolbeg Book of Irish Ghost Stories (1990), edited by the late author and literary editor David Marcus. His brief introduction contains a word too rare even to appear in the OED. But you’ll probably know or can guess what it means:

[Ghosts’] preferred outer abode was a dark wood; indoors they inhabited rambling old castles or, more latterly, unsaleable houses, stalking creaky corridors and draughty bedchambers to the accompaniment of howls, shrieks, moans, plods and clankings. It goes without saying that they were largely nocturnal creatures, preferring the small hours and often the most inclement of weather in which to conduct their business. Daylight, electric light, gaslight were eschewed. Candlelight, because they had the capacity to extinguish a candle and so create the maximum horripilatory effect, was welcomed.

Horripilatory is a technical word meaning hair-raising. The associated noun horripilation is much more common, though hardly an everyday term; it too refers to the physiological phenomenon often called gooseflesh or goosebumps, typically caused by cold or fear. It comes from Latin horripilāre “bristle with hairs”, formed from horrēre “bristle, tremble” + pilus “hair” (cf. the cosmetic terms epilation and depilation).

Horrēre lurks behind horror, horrendous, horrify, abhor and horrid (which originally meant bristling or shaggy); and it’s also seen in the obscure horrious “causing horror”, horrent “bristling or rough”, horrisonant and horrisonous “of horrible sound”, and abhorrible “detestable”. A pretty hair-raising bunch of words, wouldn’t you say?


Language change and the arbitrariness of the sign

October 28, 2013

Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) devised a model of linguistic meaning involving what he called the signifier (a symbolic or phonological form) and what it signifies. Their association is a basic unit of communication he referred to as a linguistic sign, and it is fundamentally arbitrary.

For example, rose signifies a flower with a pleasant smell, but by any other name it would, per Romeo, smell as sweet. Generally speaking, the meaning of a word cannot be predicted from its form, nor its form from its meaning.

Ferdinand de SaussureSaussure also drew a useful distinction between two approaches to linguistic study, which he called diachronic and synchronic – essentially historical and ahistorical. How he knitted these concepts together may be seen in this passage by Jonathan Culler in his book Saussure (Fontana Modern Masters, 1976):

What is the connection between the arbitrary nature of the sign and the profoundly historical nature of language? We can put it this way: if there were some essential or natural connection between signifier and signified, then the sign would have an essential core which would be unaffected by time or which at least would resist change. This unchanging essence could be opposed to those ‘accidental’ features which did alter from one period to another. But in fact, as we have seen, there is no aspect of the sign which is a necessary property and which therefore lies outside time. Any aspect of sound or meaning can alter; the history of languages is full of radical evolutionary alterations of both sound and meaning. . . . In short, neither signifier nor signified contains any essential core which time cannot touch. Because it is arbitrary, the sign is totally subject to history, and the combination at a particular moment of a given signifier and signified is a contingent result of the historical process.

The fact that the sign is arbitrary or wholly contingent makes it subject to history but also means that signs require an ahistorical analysis. This is not as paradoxical as it might seem. Since the sign has no necessary core which must persist, it must be defined as a relational entity, in its relations to other signs. And the relevant relations are those which obtain at a particular time.

There are exceptions to the arbitrary nature of the sign, such as onomatopoeia or sound symbolism, but even these may have aspects that are arbitrary or informed by the cultures in which they exist. And they are greatly outnumbered by the arbitrary signs.

John Lyons notes in Language and Linguistics that this arbitrary quality makes languages more difficult to learn, but it also gives them great flexibility and adaptability.


Sombunall coinages become cult words

October 3, 2013

Since I have neologisms on the brain, I got to thinking of one coined by Robert Anton Wilson (in his book The New Inquisition, as far as I know): sombunall, meaning “some but not all”. Wilson intended it as “semantic hygiene”, a neo-Whorfian corrective to dangerous generalisation, or a sort of epistemological buffer.

The word hasn’t caught on widely. Google hits aren’t much of a metric, but sombunall’s count of <7.5k (when last I looked) shows its relative obscurity; on the OneLook dictionary aggregator only Urban Dictionary features it (nothing in the unabridged OED or Merriam-Webster). Maybe because some but not all isn’t so unwieldy in the first place, and plain old some does solid work albeit without explicitly emphasising the not-all bit.

Sombunall words are created equalI included sombunall in an early language-links post, but never adopted it habitually myself. Because of its limited use, the word remains strongly associated with Wilson, as do its relative mosbunall (“most but not all”) and the Discordian in-joke fnord, among others. This RAW fan site, for instance, is subtitled “Sombunall things Robert Anton Wilson”.

Reading Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, I came across one occasion when it would have been very convenient to have sombunall available in general circulation. From the short essay on Simone Weil:

Yet so far as we love seriousness, as well as life, we are moved by it, nourished by it. In the respect we pay to such lives, we acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world — and mystery is just what the secure possession of the truth, an objective truth, denies. In this sense, all truth is superficial; and some (but not all) distortions of the truth, some (but not all) insanity, some (but not all) unhealthiness, some (but not all) denials of life are truth-giving, sanity-producing, health-creating, and life-enhancing.

With his commitment to systematic uncertainty, or perhaps more accurately anti-certainty, Robert Anton Wilson would, I think, have enjoyed those lines. I have sombunall faith in this assumption, of course.


Giving out, Irish style

September 7, 2013

The phrasal verb give out has several common senses:

distribute – “she gave out free passes to the gig”

emit – “the machine gave out a distinctive hum”

break down, stop working – “at the end of the marathon her legs gave out”

become used up – “their reserves of patience finally gave out”

declare, make known – “management gave out that it was unsatisfied with productivity levels”

In Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale I read an example of this last sense: “At the moment the Communist Party is giving out that he was off his head.” Had Fleming been Irish, this line would be ambiguous – Ireland has another give out, a common informal usage meaning complain, grumble, moan; or criticise, scold, reprimand, tell off.

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