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   |  The (lack of) dogs in the night

posted at 09:25 AM | | [2] |

I get so distracted by things I hear in meetings that I sometimes wonder how I manage to get anything work-related out of them at all. (Perhaps my boss wonders that too, hmm.) Anyway, the other day someone said that we should put a work item on a "dogs not barking" list.

I pondered this while the other participants continued their conversation. I was pretty sure this was new to me. I thought of a possible meaning or two, but didn't feel confident that I had it.

Fortunately, the guy who'd uttered the phrase is friendly enough, so I popped into his office and just asked him outright. "Oh," he said, and kind of laughed. "It's a phrase I picked up around here from management."

He went on to explain that "dogs not barking" refers to looking out for what's not obvious. It's kind of the opposite of the squeaky wheel, was his (anti-?) analogy — in this context, a squeaky wheel is the customer who's complaining loudly about something they need. But what's out there that customers need but we're not hearing about?

His theory was that it derived from a situation where you'd expect dogs to be barking — at a burglar, say — but they're not. There are times, goes the theory, that you should be hearing dogs bark but you're not, and that means trouble.

Anyone else know this phrase?


   |  Try and understand this

posted at 10:42 AM | | [2] |

The legitimacy of try and in the sense of try to has been debated for a long time, but it's an established usage in informal English:

I'm going to try and be there at five o'clock.
Please try and understand my point of view.

(For a good summary, including OED cites, N-gram stats, corpus search results, and a blessing from Fowler, see the blog The Writing Resource.)

Objections to try and sometimes seem a little forced; for example, Grammar Girl posits an argument from logic: "If you use and, you are separating trying and calling. You're describing two things: trying and calling." She goes on to say that try-and versus try-to may be more of a pet peeve with her.

And yet. I ran across an interesting example today of try and where I had to read the sentence a number of times before I got it:
If you try and lose then it isn't your fault. But if you don't try and we lose, then it's all your fault.
This is from Orson Scott Card's book Ender's Game.

The intent, as I eventually deduced, was "If you try and [you] lose ...". For my first several attempts to read the sentence, I kept parsing it as "If you try to lose ...", which didn't completely make sense. But first readings are stubborn. In other words, the intent is per Grammar Girl's logical parsing (two actions), but I was not reading it that way.

I think some punctuation here might have helped — a comma after try. Or an extra you inserted after try and.

Speaking of try and lose, here's The Most Interesting Man in the World on this topic:

[source: memegenerator]

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   |  People who work at "___" call themselves "___"

posted at 10:53 PM | | [1] |

For Friday Fun this week, I asked around about what corporate employees use as their nickname. For example, I work at Microsoft; we call each other Microsofties. I have it on excellent authority that people who work at Amazon call each other Amazonians, and so on.

For help, I asked my Facebook Friends, who are mostly folks in high-tech. I also enlisted the aid of naming expert and well-connected word person Nancy Friedman, who took the question with success to various lists of which she is a member.

Here are some preliminary responses. Note that these are all self-reported names, so I can't vouch for their accuracy in every case.

6 March 2012 Update! Added several that folks have sent me.A couple of responses I got sounded a bit, dunno, corporate, tho I'm assured that these are in fact the right names:
  • Disney: Cast Members
  • Starbucks: Partners
There are some companies that I really wanted to get names for, but so far no luck:
  • Adobe (based on Aldusian — a company absorbed by Adobe — I thought at least some contigent in that company might call themselves Adobians)
  • Apple
  • Boeing (two Boeing people told me they're unaware of any such nickname)
  • Nordstrom See above!
6 March 2012 Update I asked someone today who works at Tully's if they have a name like this. Not that she knows of, she said.

I'd be delighted to expand this list, should anyone be aware of more. (There must be hundreds, I imagine.)

Then there is the question of what we might call a nickname like this. A name based on a place is a toponym. A name for people from a city or region is a demonym. I solicited some ideas for this, too. We threw around corporanym and employeeonym. Someone suggested "idionym, which should mean roughly 'your own name'."

The most interesting suggestion was from Colleague Clay, who knows his way around a number of languages. He suggested ergazomenonym ("from modern Greek εργαζόμενου= employee"). I like it tons, although I'd need some coaching, perhaps, in how to pronounce it properly.

Another interesting exercise, which I have not delved into, is to try to deduce what sorts of rules might be at play in how these names are formed. When Nancy Friedman wrote about demonyms a little while ago, she referenced some rules that I won't repeat here but that go into some detail about the phonological basis for some of the names, and the various additional factors that obtain. I have no doubt that a similar (and similarly complex) set of rules could be deduced for the creation of these ... uh, ergazomenonyms.

So. Your thots?

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   |  From functional to decorative

posted at 06:16 PM | | [2] |

For Friday Fun, a word that's new to me (tho not a new word per se — in fact, it's from the 1800s). First: I really like the word retronym, which refers to a term that has to be amended due to a technological change. Thus before the invention of the electric guitar, there was no notion of an "acoustic" guitar; all guitars were acoustic. Likewise dial phones, analog clocks, Classic Coke, and so on. (List of retronyms)

The new word I just learned is semantically kinda-sorta in that camp. (Maybe it's kind of opposite-y.) The term is skeuomorph (Greek: "vessel-shape"), and it refers to a vestigial design feature that represents something that was once functional. A popular example is the buckles on shoes — originally used to, you know, buckle the shoe, now used just for looks. Other examples are faux wood or fabric patterns in plastic; light bulbs shaped like candle flames; fake shutters that people mount next to the windows of their house; fake spokes in a hubcap; the "wax" on a bottle of Maker's Mark bourbon; and (a famous example) the tiny and useless "handle" that's on virtually all bottles of maple syrup.

Digital things often involve skeuomorphic features, and a lot of digital UI is often deliberately designed to look like something real. As a trivial example, drop shadows on anything and everything are purely decorative, since of course there is no light source on electronic bits. If you design digital things, you have a choice of a wide variety of textures — wood, metal, etc. — that you can paint onto something to make it look real. Digital cameras often have a fake shutter sound when you take a picture. The icons for every music player (for play, stop, pause, etc.) all derive from those same physical functions in a tape player, where the Play arrow actually represented physically moving the tape. Obviously, the desktop metaphor for Windows (et al.) is skeuomorphic, along with "files" and "folders". Lexicographerix Erin McKean notes that online dictionaries display information in a format that's based on book-y layouts, even tho that format was originally dictated by the constraints of the printed medium that don't really apply to online stuff.

Skeuomorphic design elements are by no means inherently bad or silly. Sure, putting fake rivets on jeans seems a little unnecessarily quaint. And there's a rousing discussion in the UI design community about whether skeuomorphic design is ultimately a good idea for something like tablets. One blog post calls it "the tactile illusion." For an earful, search for "skeuomorphic user interfaces".

But the argument in favor is that a skeuomorphic design provides a familiar interface — a "material metaphor" — so that people can fit a new design pattern into their existing understanding of the world. For using a music player on a computer this is convenient, tho not essential; ditto for being able to "flip" "pages" in a "book" on an e-reader. If I were designing a jet plane, tho, I would think long and hard before I made any changes to the control panel, no matter how anachronistic it might be in the age of fly-by-wire to have physical control yokes. When we start seeing cars that are likewise controlled all digitally (and we're not far off), it will be a long time before we are weaned off steering wheels, brake pedals, and accelerators.

Update 17 Jan 2012: Cory Doctorow posted a piece (In praise of skeuomorphs) on skeuomorphs just today (17 Jan)! (h/t to Edward Banatt for the link)

Anyway, I'm happy to know this new word and to have been introduced to the whole idea of skeuomorphic design. Apparently the learn-new-words part of my brain remains, in fact, more than just a vestigial decoration.

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   |  "Lazy" speech

posted at 09:02 AM | | [7] |

Once again I have heard someone refer to a speech pattern as "lazy." Of all the complaints about the way other people speak (and by golly, there are plenty), the one that makes the least sense to me is that people's speech is lazy. And yet:
... my pet peeves. They’re about pronunciation, rather than grammar and news people on television are doing this more every day:

1. Fill, instead of feel.
2. Pill, instead of peel.

To me, this “sims” just lazy. [source]
Plural forms are always going to be determined by what the majority is used to or comfortable with, with a tendency towards laziness. Very few people are going to bother with Priora when Priuses is perfectly functional. However, that doesn't mean that words adopted into English should use regular plural forms; it simply means that they are likely to. [source]
If I'm talking with friends or sending a text, I don't use "proper" English grammar, but I do recognize that my grammar is incorrect. I just don't care, and I know that my listener will understand me even if I'm lazy. [source]
A split infinitive can be a lazy way not to write a better sentence. [source]
When a speaker or writer uses incorrect subject/verb agreement, it tells the audience that he is either lazy or does not care. [source]
Using the singular 'they' means you're not trying, you don't know grammar rules, or you're lazy. [source]
There's also a Facebook page titled Poor Grammar is the sign of a lazy mind.

What doesn't make sense to me is that lazy means unwilling to put forth some sort of effort. But for a native speaker, emitting correct sentences is literally effortless. People don't say aks instead of ask or I could care less instead of the nominally correct version because they've expended all the effort they're going to put forth and simply refuse to go that extra mile (or syllable, or consonant cluster). People don't say readin' and writin' because using a velar -n (-ng) is harder to use than a dental one. People don't say Priuses because it's so hard to emit some made-up plural like Priora.

Try this. If people were truly being lazy in their speech, what you'd expect is that they'd just use less speech — shorter words and shorter sentences. Or maybe they'd just stop talking.

Or try this. Compare a "lazy" speaker with someone who actually is having difficulty speaking: someone who's drunk. You can easily tell the difference, and even the "laziest" speaker sounds different when inebriated.

Or try this. Listen to other people who speak the same dialect. They all sound the same, right? So are they all lazy? That would seem to go against the observation that laziness, like ambition, smarts, and good looks, is spread around about the same everywhere.

There are of course alternative readings for "lazy." Perhaps someone is trying to say that a speaker is "too lazy" to learn the correct forms of words. I think you can parse this as "This speaker has a different dialect, but should also acquire a standard dialect." That's an interesting sociological discussion about the place of non-standard dialects in a given culture.

It also raises the question of whether the accusers feel that they themselves have made extra effort to acquire the speech patterns that are used by the non-lazy. Did they, for example, rise at dawn to practice their pronunciation drills and stay after school to master tricky verbal forms like ask? Or did they in fact acquire their dialect the way everyone else does, with the difference that theirs happens to conform more closely to standard written English?

"Lazy" is basically a moral judgment. But there is no moral calculus for dialects. Sure, there are social consequences to how you speak, just like there for how you dress. Is someone who shows up at a wedding in jeans "too lazy" to dress properly? Or are they maybe just clueless, or tactless, or "born in a barn," or even rebellious?

Probably what an accusation of "lazy" speech really means is that those "lazy" speakers should speak like me, because I speak correctly. That, of course, is a common human sentiment. But let's not confuse our conviction about the correctness of our speech with laziness on the part of those who don't share that conviction.


   |  The KJV in everyday speech

posted at 03:17 PM | | |

The King James Bible (alternately, the Authorized Version or King James Version or KJV) is 400 years old; it was originally printed in 1611. Many people have noted that the book -- specifically, the language of the translation -- has had a widespread impact on everyday English.

For some Friday Fun (tho it's Wednesday, it's a virtual Friday for many in the US), here's a pleasing observation from an article in the latest National Geographic about the creation of the King James Bible. This is by Adam Nicolson, whose book about the KJV is listed below.
If a child is ever the apple of her parents' eye or an idea seems as old as the hills, if we are at death's door or at our wits' end, if we have gone through a baptism of fire or are about to bite the dust, if it seems at times that the blind are leading the blind or we are casting pearls before swine, if you are either buttering someone up or casting the first stone, the King James Bible, whether we know it or not, is speaking through us. The haves and have-nots, heads on plates, thieves in the night, scum of the earth, best until last, sackcloth and ashes, streets paved in gold, and the skin of one's teeth: All of them have been transmitted to us by the translators who did their magnificent work 400 years ago.
Personal anecdote. In my grad school days, I was exposed to a variety of extinct Germanic languages, including Anglo-Saxon and Gothic. Studying these languages often involves Bible readings; in fact, for Gothic, fragments of a Bible translation are the only substantive written text. Early on I acquired a King James Version to aid me in my translation exercises. Although I'd just plucked that version off a shelf full of options at the university bookstore, it proved to have been a good choice. The sometimes archaic language of the KJV is quite close to what I was encountering in my readings, reflecting grammatical anachronisms like second-person plural ("ye"), be as the auxiliary for certain participles ("I am become a stranger unto my brethren"), dative constructs ("salvation to thee"), and such. If I remember right, there might have been instances where untangling the grammar of a text in (e.g.) Gothic actually explained an otherwise odd construction in the KJV.

I say all this as a person who has no connection to the KJV in any sort of religious sense. I understand that some people find the text uplifting independently of the words used to express it :-), but even I in all my secularism, can appreciate the beauty of the language and its impact on that remains in our modern language.

More reading

God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson

Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language by the amazingly prolific David Crystal

In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture by Alister McGrath

King James Version Search. Handy.

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   |  I speak, therefore I am a linguist

posted at 09:41 AM | | |

From an article on Ebonics by Ronald Kephart:
If the topic is physics, most people are happy to defer to physicists; if the topic is digestion, even though most people can digest food, they still defer to the gastroenterologists. But if the topic is language, everyone thinks they’re a linguist.


   |  Cohort party?

posted at 10:20 PM | | |

Do you know the term cohort party? Go talk to me over on the other blog:

Let's (cohort) party down


   |  Yeah, I'm fluent in that

posted at 03:12 PM | | [1] |

Among the many privacy-invading questions (haha) that Facebook asks you is what languages you speak. This is a slightly odd question to me, because I can't imagine why this is interesting information to post on a Facebook page. (On a LinkedIn profile, sure, where there might be professional advantages.) In cynical moments, I suspect that people sometimes fill this in to a) show off that they speak more than one language and b) neener-neener.

On the other hand, it turns out you probably know more languages than immediately come to mind. In fact, you're probably fluent in quite a few of them. Like which? Well, Colleague David discovered some of these recently when he was updating his profile:

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   |  "Whom" is moribund. And that's ok.

posted at 11:23 AM | | [7] |

The other day I posted this on Facebook: "The thing I like best about LinkedIn is finding out who knows who(m)." The (m) on "who(m)" was intended to mean something like "I am showing that I know when to use "whom", but am nonetheless refusing to use it."

This inspired a surprisingly vigorous discussion about whom in general. I have opinions about this, so rather than leave them buried in the comments on a Facebook post, I thought I'd put them out there for discussion. Here's my position:

  • In conversational English, whom is moribund. People don't use it in everyday speech, or in written English that's essentially conversational, like email and Facebook posts.

  • And this is ok. It's not a crisis in English.

  • On the dying state of whom:

    Point. You will not find native speakers hunting around for guidance on the difference between I and me or between he and him. That's because native speakers don't need that guidance. However, there are many pages on the web (example, example — see comments especially) that explain the distinction between who and whom. If native speakers of a language — including many people who obviously read and write just fine — need schooling to learn a feature of their native grammar, that feature of the grammar is on artificial life support.

    Point. People often get the difference between who and whom wrong, including people who think they know how to use it right (example, example). Garner has a long list of (published!) examples of "nominative whom" in which people mistakenly use whom when they should use who. See previous point; people just don't have this sort of trouble with other case-marked pronouns.[1]

    Point. Some people make a point of using whom in conversation. But do they use it every single time? Because if they don't — if they, too, occasionally use who as an object — it's evidence that whom is optional. In contrast, they don't use, say, he for him in casual speech; in even the most casual speech, you can't use he as an object.

    Point. You don't have to look hard to find moaning about how a lot of people don't use whom correctly (example). What percentage of speakers have to use a feature "incorrectly" before we just acknowledge that it's not the speakers that are wrong, rather that the feature may not be a part of their dialect?

    So. I think this is just fine. Some people disagree. For example, some people think that if we lose whom, we lose an important grammatical distinction in the language. My thot: many grammatical features of English have disappeared without damaging the expressiveness of the language: an entire case (dative)[2], all gender distinction in nouns, almost all verbal conjugations in regular verbs (except 3rd singular), and the distinction between informal and formal second person (thou/you). For each of these, you could argue that they represented important grammatical markers, and they were. But they disappeared anyway, and we don't really miss them today.

    Some people think that using who for the objective case instead of whom can result in confusion or ambiguity. I don't think so. Is there a native speaker of English who would have trouble with any of these sentences?

    To be clear, here's what I'm not claiming:
    • I'm not claiming that whom is out of fashion in Standard Written English (SWE). On the contrary, there it's more or less mandatory. My thoughts are entirely about whom in informal spoken English — demotic English.

    • I'm not claiming that whom is incorrect in conversational English. Use it all you want (assuming you know how to use it). It's between you and your interlocutors whether using whom makes you sounds stuffy, but it's not wrong.
    As I say, people disagree. I'm particularly interested in hearing about examples in conversational English where using who for whom results in confusion for the listener specifically.

    Let me add disclaimatory text. First, this is not a new or original discussion; people have made this claim for decades. Second, I have no statistics based on, say, corpus searches that would show that whom is rarely used in conversation. (Such statistics might, in fact, overthrow the entire premise here.) If you've got 'em, let's see 'em.

    PS I might not need to say this, but I consider irrelevant any argument whose premise is that English is going to hell or that changes in English have some sort of moral overtone or are markers of cultural decline. Just so you know. :-)

    [1] I will grant that the use of who/whom as wh- question words introduces some syntactical complexity that can mask the role that the word plays in the sentence. However, German speakers have to inflect their version of who (Wer), and they can keep the case of the pronoun straight in questions and relative clauses, so syntactical rearrangement is not a sufficient reason to explain why English speakers don't bother with case-marking who.

    As an aside on the aside, if you read German, check out the poem "Der Werwolf" by Christian Morgenstern for some very, very clever play with pronoun cases. (And to think that someone managed to translate this ...)

    [2] I suppose technically the forms of accusative and dative collapsed into one; it's not that we don't have dative functionality (She gave him a lollipop), we just don't have a distinct marker for it any more. Does that mean that dative disappeared? Whatever.

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