A fine distinction from Philip K. Dick

July 16, 2015

Philip K. Dick’s pleasurably paranoid science-fiction novel Time Out of Joint (1959) has a passage that shows the ingenuity of children in using language to manipulate perceived reality (something Dick himself did with brio in his writing). Sammy, a boy working on a makeshift radio, needs to get its crude antenna somewhere high:

Returning to the house he climbed the stairs to the top floor. One window opened on to the flat part of the roof; he unlatched that window and in a moment he was scrambling out onto the roof.

From downstairs his mother called, ‘Sammy, you’re not going out on the roof, are you?’

‘No,’ he yelled back. I am out, he told himself, making in his mind a fine distinction.

I imagine most kids, once their command of language is sufficiently sophisticated, play similar semantic games for short-term gain or amusement. The same kind of hyper-literalness is the basis for a lot of childhood humour (e.g., ‘Do you have the time?’ ‘Yes.’). I like PKD’s understated use of it which puts us in Sammy’s head for a moment.


A–Z of linguistics in rhyming couplets

July 2, 2015

Here’s a self-explanatory bit of silliness from Twitter yesterday. There were requests to assemble it somewhere, for convenience and posterity, so I thought I’d reproduce it on Sentence first.

I’ve replaced the quotation marks I used on Twitter with italics; other than that it’s identical. The tweets are all linked, so you can also read them by clicking on the date of this introductory one:

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A is for ARBITRARY: a sound’s tie to meaning.
B is for BACK-FORMED, like dry-clean from dry-cleaning. Read the rest of this entry »


Fixer-upper(er) and funnerer reduplication

June 22, 2015

My recent post on ludic language has prompted me to dig up and rework some old notes on playful reduplication in English. I’ll begin with a short comic verse by author and editor William Rossa Cole:

I thought I’d win the spelling bee

And get right to the top,

But I started to spell ‘banana,’

And I didn’t know when to stop.

The poem’s title, ‘Banananananananana’, as well as underlining the joke draws our attention to how unusual a spelling banana is. Once you start the string of alternating a’s and n’s that constitute the bulk of the word, it’s easy to imagine absent-mindedly overshooting the mark, stuck in a groove like Langton’s Ant on its endless highway.

Read the rest of this entry »


‘The nicest no I ever heard’

June 5, 2015

In Richard Feynman’s The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1999) is the transcript of an interview conducted under the auspices of the AAAS, in which Feynman recalls his very first formal lecture. As an undergrad working with John Wheeler the pair had formulated a new theory of how light works, and it was considered interesting enough to warrant a seminar.

Richard Feynman - The Pleasure of Finding Things Out - Penguin book coverEugene Wigner, who had suggested the seminar, felt the theory was sufficiently important to appeal to various luminaries of physical science, and duly sent special invitations to Wolfgang Pauli, John von Neumann (whom Feynman calls ‘the world’s greatest mathematician’), astronomer Henry Norris Russell, and Albert Einstein, who lived nearby.

Feynman, then aged 24, was understandably daunted, but he reports the situation with characteristic humour:

Read the rest of this entry »


A muffit of tea

February 25, 2015

‘Do you want a muffit of tea?’ This expression – if you’re unfamiliar with it – can be heard in a short sketch by the Scottish comedian Brian Limond, aka Limmy, in series 2 of his brilliant Limmy’s Show:

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Read the rest of this entry »


Signing and sociolinguistics in Ed McBain’s ‘Axe’

December 9, 2014

I went on a binge of Ed McBain’s crime fiction recently, enjoying his keen ear for language and tight storytelling style. Below are three language-themed excerpts from Axe, written in 1964, which features detectives Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes investigating a grisly murder.

First, to continue the theme of whom usage, is a doorstep encounter the detectives have with an old woman of unsound mind:

‘We’re detectives,’ Carella said. He showed her his shield and his identification card. He paused a moment, and then said, ‘May I ask who I’m talking to, ma’am?’

‘Whom, and you may not,’ she said.

‘What?’

‘Whom,’ she said.

‘Ma’am, I . . .’

‘Your grammar is bad, and your granpa is worse,’ the woman said, and began laughing.

The ellipsis in Carella’s last line, which shows he’s being interrupted, is a stylistic device known technically as aposiopesis. An em dash is also commonly used in this context.

Carella later meets his wife, Teddy:

Teddy Carella watched his lips as he spoke because she was deaf and could hear only by watching a person’s lips or hands. Then, because she was mute as well, she raised her right hand and quickly told him in the universal language of deaf mutes that the twins had already been fed and that Fanny, their housekeeper, was at this moment putting them to bed. Carella watched her moving hand, missing a word every now and then, but understanding the sense and meaning, and then smiled as she went on to outline her plans for the evening, as if her plans needed outlining after the kiss she had given him at the front door.

‘You can get arrested for using that kind of language,’ Carella said, grinning. ‘It’s a good thing everybody can’t read it.’

ed mcbain axe - pan books cover 1964Leaving aside the naive reference to the “universal language of deaf mutes” (signing, far from being singular, comprises many languages and dialects), it struck me as a laudable description, presenting signing as a normal activity and showing its potential for humour and seduction. I don’t read enough such accounts in fiction.

The final excerpt has Detective Hawes visiting an accountancy firm where he talks to Mr Cavanaugh, a portly businessman “born in Philadelphia and raised on that city’s brotherly South Side”, about someone previously employed by the firm:

‘We’re investigating a murder,’ Hawes said flatly.

‘You think Siggie killed somebody?’

‘No, that’s not what we think. But certain aspects of our information don’t seem to jibe, Mr Cavanaugh. We have reason to believe Mr Reuhr is lying to us, which is why we felt we should look into his background somewhat more extensively.’

‘You talk nice,’ Cavanaugh said appreciatively.

Hawes, embarrassed, said, ‘Thank you.’

‘No, I mean it. Where I was raised, if you talked that way you got your head busted. So I talk this way. I got one of the biggest accounting firms in this city, and I sound like a bum, don’t I?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Then what do I sound like?’

‘Well, I don’t know.’

‘A bum, right?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Okay, we won’t argue. Anyway, you talk nice.’

I liked this exchange a lot too. That McBain, he writes nice.


Misheard lyrics, and ‘overall’ criticism

November 13, 2014

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Mildew all around me, and other mondegreens looks at misheard song lyrics, including some famous, favourite, and personal examples:

Everyone’s experience of a song is unique, so new and idiosyncratic mondegreens keep appearing. Others are common enough to be famous in the field, like Jimi Hendrix’s ‘kiss this guy’, instead of kiss the sky. Some mondegreens might begin as accidents of perception but be amusing enough to then be deliberately adopted, replacing the original words. Wright herself [Sylvia Wright, who coined the term] wrote that they were ‘better than the original’, and some singers even embrace the mondegreens.

Among my favourites are ‘Shamu the mysterious whale’ (She moves in mysterious ways) and ‘R-G-S-P-E-P-P’ (R-E-S-P-E-C-T). I also summarise how they got the name mondegreens and explain the titular ‘Mildew all around me’, which is family lore. There are also great examples in the comments (‘All we are saying is kidneys and jam’).

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This week’s post, Overall, there’s nothing really wrong with it, examines the use and criticism of the word overall. It’s part of a critical series at Macmillan on prescriptivism. I’m particularly interested in how long overall has been labelled a ‘vogue word’:

In The Complete Plain Words, first published 60 years ago, Ernest Gowers described as ‘astonishing’ the word’s growth in popularity, then spent two full pages showing how it was being used as a synonym for more than a dozen other words. A few years later, overall was described (fairly, I think) as a ‘vogue word’ in Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage. Vogue words are ‘faddish, trendy, ubiquitous words that have something new about them’, writes Bryan Garner in his Modern American Usage. One of the vogue words in this 2009 book is… overall. Just how long can a word be in vogue?

The post goes on to report other complaints about overall, weighs up the evidence, and offers advice on whether you should use it.

You can browse all my older posts for Macmillan Dictionary Blog here.


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