English is a mutt and it’s the best thing. I love dives like this, into the history of a language. Well, at least this one.
Informal language is the athletic clothing of ideas.
A new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player, and voice-mail.
The word “yes” is an extremely dull way to express the varied sentiments of “yes.”
It goes without saying that “culture” is a confusing word, this year or any year.
In a study of more than a million Yelp restaurant reviews, Mr. Jurafsky and the Carnegie Mellon team found that four-star reviews tended to use a narrower range of vague positive words, while one-star reviews had a more varied vocabulary. One-star reviews also had higher incidence of past tense, pronouns (especially plural pronouns) and other subtle markers that linguists have previously found in chat room discussions about the death of Princess Diana and blog posts written in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks.
In short, Mr. Jurafsky said, authors of one-star reviews unconsciously use language much as people do in the wake of collective trauma. “They use the word ‘we’ much more than ‘I,’ as if taking solace in the fact that this bad thing happened, but it happened to us together,” he said.
Another finding: Reviews of expensive restaurants are more likely to use sexual metaphors, while the food at cheaper restaurants tends to be compared to drugs.
Not only did “problematic” become popular because it suits identity politics and sounds smart, it’s also highly shareable. “Problematic” bundles urgency, seriousness, and debatability into a single vague word, which is great for both sound bytes and tweets.
I figured I should read this eventually. I mean look at this thing. It cuts off the miraculous bookends of Jesus’ life and focuses on the Enlightenment-friendly moralizing. There was nothing in here I hadn’t heard before, but reading it in all in one go made me remember how many common phrases come out of the Bible. A quick run-through, just from the Sermon on the Mount:
- blessed are the…
- salt of the earth
- light of the world
- town upon a hill
- turn the other cheek
- left hand knowing what the right hand is doing
- serving two masters
- can’t serve God and mammon
- lilies of the field
- ye of little faith
- tomorrow will worry about itself
- just not, lest you be judged
- cast pearls before swine
- seek and you will find
- do to others what you would have them do to you
- wolf in sheep’s clothing
- by their fruit you will recognize them
- bearing bad fruit
And that section is only, what, 2500 words? That’s some influential shit.
People ridiculed George W. Bush when he called them “the internets” but he had it right. Technically, the internet is one huge interconnected network. Linguistically and socially, it is many networks, and they are very distinct. For example: There are 40 million Brazilians on Twitter. Do you follow any Brazilians?* This is a significant fraction of a service that many of us consider our internet front porch—and yet, unless you speak Portuguese, it’s invisible. It might as well be a different service entirely.
There’s a positive correlation between a student’s vocabulary size in grade 12, the likelihood that she will graduate from college, and her future level of income. The reason is clear: vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening, and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history, and the arts. If we want to reduce economic inequality in America, a good place to start is the language-arts classroom.
Truth and falsity properly considered are properties of language, not of images.
the figure of speech in which two or more clauses are related to each other through a reversal of structures in order to make a larger point; that is, the clauses display inverted parallelism.
So they’re mirrored (like the shape of the letter X… Greek letter chi… chiasmus…). Think ABCCBA, or ABCDEDCBA, or whatever. This is really common in the Bible, e.g. Isaiah 6:10:
A “Make the heart of this people fat,
B and make their ears heavy,
C and shut their eyes;
C lest they see with their eyes,
B and hear with their ears,
A and understand with their heart, and convert [return], and be healed.”
And in songwriting, e.g. Snoop’s Gin and Juice:
I got my mind on my money, my money on my mind.
Or the wisdom of Stephen Stills:
If you can’t be with the one you love, honey / Love the one you’re with.
Man, I really like words.
One cannot be too careful with words, they change their minds just as people do.
Lots of great examples here. E.g., ideas are food (raw facts; a half-baked theory; let an idea percolate; devouring a book) and theories are buildings (ideas need a foundation and support; construct a theoretical framework; buttress an argument), etc. (via). Makes me think of George Saunders:
When we get better at expressiveness, we get better at understanding, better at sympathy, better at bullshit-detection, better at experiencing pleasure, better at true engagement (with others, with the world, with ourselves).
Update: I think this is one reason I love learning about the history of a word. Like when I learned the word raga is related to the Sanskrit word for dye (the musical form colors your mood!), or when I was reading The Gift of Fear recently and learned that intuition has roots in a word meaning protection, defense, guardianship (you trust it because it has your interests at heart). Learning where a word comes from, like metaphors, has a way of changing your perspective or giving you another lens to see language through. And yeah, I just used two metaphors to explain how etymology is like a metaphor. Boom!
Wish. Try. Should. Deserve.
I was at a Hilton a few weeks ago. They had taken this absurdity to its logical end. There was a huge sign in the lobby that said, “Our goal is to exceed the customer’s expectation.” The best way to start would be to take down that bullshit sign that just reminds me, as a customer, how cosmic the gap is between what businesses say and what they do.
Filed under: bullshit.