Shared posts

17 Mar 07:43

valarhalla: valarhalla: boopsandswoops: lifelessordinary0: ...





Temple of Horus, Egypt

its horus he’s here

Guys no, it gets so much better. 

A small fat bird, like the above, is the hieroglyph used in Ancient Egyptian to mean “wicked” or evil”.

The phrase above him (the inscription should be read from the top down) is “Nb s3″ or “Lord of the son of”. Genitive is usually implied in this sort of phrase without a connecting word, meaning:

This birb has literally created the sentence and declared himself “ Lord of the Son of Evil”

God dammit, I realised I made a mistake doing this from memory- the first sign is “k” for “your”, not “nb” for “lord”. So this birb has declared himself “your evil son”, not “the lord of the son of evil”. Which is not quite as dramatic, but still very menacing. You go bird.

10 Mar 17:56

"Sociolinguists study what happens to language when it is put to use in society. And one of the..."

“Sociolinguists study what happens to language when it is put to use in society. And one of the things they noticed was that, when people talk to each other, something happens to the language they use. Imagine: I meet you, and we start talking. If we hit it off, and we start to enjoy one another’s company, then one of the ways in which we unconsciously display this rapport is that our accents start to move towards each other. I begin to sound a bit like you, and you a bit like me. We ‘accommodate’ to each other. (If we don’t hit it off, of course, then the opposite applies. I try to make myself sound as different from you as I can, and you from me.) It’s not just accents. We start to share words, too, adopting the same sort of facial expression or body posture. But accent is always the most noticeable thing, because it’s there in everything we say. Everybody accommodates, to some extent, even if they don’t realize they’re doing it. It must be part of our evolutionary makeup, a way of showing a group who belongs to it. Some people, though – perhaps those with a good ear for accents, perhaps those with a specially sensitive personality – do it more noticeably than others.”

- Just a Phrase I’m Going Through: My
Life in Language
” (via a-modern-major-general)
10 Mar 17:13

"We see value in speaking two languages, but we don’t see value in speaking two dialects. Maybe it’s..."

“We see value in speaking two languages, but we don’t see value in speaking two dialects. Maybe it’s time we did.”

- Julie Washington’s Quest to Get Schools to Respect African-American English
09 Mar 22:24

The book! The book!

by lynneguist
I've been quieter than I'd like to be on this blog, but things have been a bit crazy-hectic-mad getting ready for the release of The Prodigal Tongue: The love-hate relationship between American/British and British/American English. Yes, there are different subtitles depending on which country you buy the book from. There had to be, right?

So I invite you, kind readers, to visit the new website for the book, which has lots of good stuff, including a couple of short quizzes (orig. AmE in that sense) to see how much you know about British and American English. (I will warn you: just because you come from a country doesn't mean you know all of its English!)

If you're thinking about buying the book, please consider (orig. AmE) pre-ordering it (see the buy now link at the website). Pre-orders help authors because they show (BrE) bookshops/(AmE) bookstores and media outlets that it's a book people care about—and so it's more likely to be kept in stock and reviewed.

And let me make a special plea to those who follow the blog and like it. The content that I provide here (and daily on Twitter and less daily on Facebook) is provided for free. It's not part of my day job to write Separated by a Common Language. I started it as an act of love (and procrastination) and all expenses relating to it (e.g. the makeover the blog had a while ago) are out of my own pocket. I do not take advertising money, because nobody wants to see ad(vert)s here. If you like this blog or the Twitter Difference of the Day, and you want to show its author your support, please buy the book and/or ask your local or school library to buy it. (And if you like it, maybe give it as a gift too!)

The book is SO MUCH MORE than the blog has been. It is not a printing of old blog posts. I learned so, so much in writing it, and really think you'll enjoy it. The advance reviews have been amazing so far.

So, please have a look at the site, please consider ordering one (and/or asking a library to do so!), and if you take the quizzes, please share your results on social media!

Thanks for reading! Lynne x  (that x is soooo British)

P.S. SPOILER ALERT: people are talking about the answers to the quizzes in the comments here. So if you're planning to take the quizzes and read the comments, do the quiz part first!

09 Mar 22:23

"Just a Phase"

by (Jen)
This started as a comment on someone else's blog post but I feel like it's a big enough a Bi Thing to be worth a blog post of its own.

One of the things people say to us when we come out is "oh, you're just going through a phase". And it's a silencing thing, to get us to shut up about something they maybe don't like hearing or discussing. Or something they say just because it's the only thing they know as received wisdom about being bisexual and they haven't thought it through any further. Either way it's like being patted on the head and told to shush our silly little heads.

Now, one of the things we used to say and write on placards when I was first out and involved with my local bi youth group was "it's not a phase!"

Only I have to admit: sometimes it is. I've known people who for instance when I first met them were lesbians, had a time of identifying as bi, but these days if you asked them they'd most likely say they were straight. Other mixtures other ways round - straight to bi to straight again, or bi to lesbian to bi again, or all round the houses like the slow bus that stops everywhere in a loop round your town. For those of us who are trans that bus route can include identities as gay, bi and straight in several genders. Pokemon sexuality!
The thing is though: people who are bisexual for the whole of their lives are bisexual for the whole of their lives. People who are bisexual for only part of their lives are bisexual for that part of their life. And if you're "only" bi for months or years or decades, where your head and heart are at that time are totally real. Those crushes?  Real crushes.  Those kisses?  Real kisses.  Those orgasms?  Ho yus, And how. Ahem.  Where was I?

Dismissing it as "just a phase" so something that doesn't need to be taken as real? Well, being a teenager is a phase but it doesn't stop you being a mardy git for a few years. Being pregnant is a phase - a year from now you won't be! - but a plan of just ignoring it and pretending it's not happening isn't a good idea.

Some of us are bi the whole of our lives, while for some people it's a phase - yet if it's a phase so is whatever comes before and whatever comes after and no-one dismisses those as "just phases".

"It's just a phase"? 
"Well, maybe it will turn out to be a phase, but it's the truth about who and where I am right now."
08 Mar 05:27

The Time of Shedding and Cold Rocks

by Mark Liberman

Linda Qiu, "President Trump’s Exaggerated and Misleading Claims on Trade", NYT 2/6/2018:

Correction: March 7, 2018 Because of an editing error involving a satirical text-swapping web browser extension, an earlier version of this article misquoted a passage from an article by the Times reporter Jim Tankersley. The sentence referred to America’s narrowing trade deficit during “the Great Recession,” not during “the Time of Shedding and Cold Rocks.” (Pro tip: Disable your “Millennials to Snake People” extension when copying and pasting.)

The "satirical text-swapping web browser extension" in question is Millennials to Snake People — source code available on GitHub — discussion in Slate.

According to coverage in Gizmodo, this tweet from NYT Senior Editor Justin Bank is valid:


07 Mar 07:35

Don't neglect the UK's indigenous languages

Don't neglect the UK's indigenous languages:




Why the UK can, and should, make space for our indigenous minority languages.
The ten languages indigenous to the British Isles and still spoken today are English, Scots, British Sign Language, Welsh, Gaelic, Irish, Cornish, Manx, Angloromani and Shelta.

Signal boost for this! It’s the same in France. Most of french people don’t even know that their country is originally - and still is - a multilingual country. 

Yes,  Occitan, Catalan, Breton, Gallo, Flamand, Picard, Basque etc are still spoken. But France refuses to sign the European charter for minority languages. Good job destroying the cultural patrimony that we are so proud of.

“To say there is no worth in learning a language that isn’t economically useful is like saying there’s no point in being friends with somebody unless they’re going to help you get a better job. It’s a spectacular, cynical miss of the point. It’s also inaccurate.”

06 Mar 11:28

An excellent anti-linguistic-discrimination limerick for Grammar...

An excellent anti-linguistic-discrimination limerick for Grammar Day

If you argue that language is weaker 
and the outlook for English is bleaker,
consider the source
of your silent discourse.
Are you judging the speech, or the speaker? 

05 Mar 09:56


by (Jen)
There'll be lots all over the internet today celebrating 30 years of the Lib Dems. I am struggling to use the computer just now so only a short blogpost to mark 30 years of the latest iteration of The Original Left Wing Party And Still The Best (copyright battle with Kelloggs' ongoing) to reflect on how I came to join.

Growing up where and when I did I got to see two things at once about politics growing up: the Tories are - collectively, with individual exception and all that - selfish venal people interested only in their own well-being and as a party with that of the people who bankroll them. Whereas Labour are - collectively, with individual exception and all that - selfish venal people interested only in their own well-being and as a party with that of the people who bankroll them.

The introduction of Section 28 - as supported by Labour and Tories alike and its repeal blocked repeatedly by both - made me move from "I am interested in politics" to "I will have to get involved then". Moving to England narrowed the choice down: having started to see the kneejerk transphobia in the Greens and with Plaid off the table both due to geography and my ongoing leftward drift, the Liberals were the only remaining option of note.

Then Paddy told Paxman to get the fuck out of here* on a Newsnight grilling about whether "lesbian and gay rights" was a popular cause ("we don't propose these things because they are popular, Jeremy, we do it because they are right") and - at last having just reached voting age - I was sold.

But it then took finding someone who gave me a bit of paper with how to join on for me to take that last vital step. It's much simpler these days, you just click here to get at the form.

I quit the party for a while in the mid 90s but had to come back in the end because - like in a cheap sci-fi alien invasion film with a wonky spaceship possessing an unreliable laser cannon and a steering column that wobbles all over the place at critical moments in the plot - for all of us at the bottom it's our last best hope against the relentless onslaught from above.

* he was a little more civil about it than that - though it would have made great telly...
22 Feb 21:26

What people think I mean when I say "Language is evolving": Certain words and phrases are becoming obsolete as mass interaction through the Internet causes languages to become more streamlined.

What people think I mean when I say "Language is evolving": Certain words and phrases are becoming obsolete as mass interaction through the Internet causes languages to become more streamlined.
What I actually mean when I say "Language is evolving": suck and succ mean two different things now
21 Feb 18:28


by Mark Liberman

Today's Dumbing of Age illustrates, in contemporary Indiana, a point that George Bernard Shaw made about England in 1916: "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him."

Mouseover title: "super honestly, she just wants to punch everyone in the face"

Shaw was talking about the effects of geographic and class animosities, and Malaya's anime-animus towards Mary is apparently based on subtler sociophonetic issues. But the basic idea is the same.

Here's some online instruction in the Japanese pronunciation, which differs from Mary's version in the accent location and in the quality of the initial vowel (if 'aw' means [ɔ]) — though it's not clear that those are the features that bother Malaya:

This case adds to the issues discussed e.g. in "PyeongChang: how do you say that in English?" the fact that "anime" (like Pokemon) is a word borrowed from English into Japanese and then back into English.


17 Feb 13:45

o ai aaa oa ueui

by Mark Liberman

As ktschwarz pointed out in the comments on yesterday's post "Easy going crazy", Google Translate is disposed to recognize text consisting only of vowels and spaces as Hawaiian, and to hallucinate a coherent if sometimes chilling translation into English.

In order to exercise this option more fully, I wrote and tested a simple R script to generate random messages of this type:

 N = 150
 Letters = c("a","e","i","o","u"," ")

So for example:

Or again:

One more time:

OK, I can't resist:

This is addicting, but I can stop any time I want to:


iua eo eio oea iiaeaaou eeue uoauoi o oaaoaooioeouaiu oeuaiui aaiao oii eao aaaa u aaiuoiaiueeooaaoo euuue oeoaaeoeaoaoeoeouaio i o auoi ueeouei iaei

you are not sure that you have to keep your eyebrows and you will be able to make sure that you have the right to make a difference

Some useful advice:

aiauee uiiu ouio ea ao eueaiueoieui i eaoeoi e uoioooaaeoeiua iuo ui ioeuui aaio oiaeauau eii eoio iiioee oui oueoaueuaaiuu uee e oiiae ia uu eao

let's see you while you are here to go to your friends and keep them in touch with you here and then you will be able to keep your eye on it.

One step too far?:

aoeeaao aai ooo oooaoooaueaueeeuaeee oieiaa iiuuoi oaeaae u o ou aoeaaaaoo uueuiaeoooauaia auouuoi o o uu a eu eiaaoouaaoeeeiuuo a iaiue ioaiia u

noisy noo noo nooo nooo nooo nooo nooo nooo nooo nooo nooo nooo nooo nooo nooo nooo nooo nooo nooo nooo nooo nooo noo

OK, I can take a hint — I'll stop there… Except that if I change the last letter of the first "word" to 'i':

aoeeaai aai ooo oooaoooaueaueeeuaeee oieiaa iiuuoi oaeaae u o ou aoeaaaaoo uueuiaeoooauaia auouuoi o o uu a eu eiaaoouaaoeeeiuuo a iaiue ioaiia u

how many times are you looking for your friends and your friends and your friends and your friends and your friends and your loved ones?

Or to 'e':

aoeeaae aai ooo oooaoooaueaueeeuaeee oieiaa iiuuoi oaeaae u o ou aoeaaaaoo uueuiaeoooauaia auouuoi o o uu a eu eiaaoouaaoeeeiuuo a iaiue ioaiia u

recreational and productive products and services of minerals and minerals of minerals and minerals in minerals and minerals

There are some interesting results with shorter inputs:

 aoeeaaa aai  summer meal
 aoeeaae aai  air conditioning
 aoeeaai aai  number of cities
 aoeeaao aai  breakfast
 aoeeaau aai  lunch
aoeeaam aai the temperature
aoeeaan aai last year
aoeeaav aai tourism


17 Feb 10:06

"Babies are as primed to learn a visual language as they are a spoken one. That’s the conclusion of..."


This would've been really useful for me to know for one of my essays last semester!

Babies are as primed to learn a visual language as they are a spoken one. That’s the conclusion of research presented here today at the annual meeting of AAAS, which publishes Science.

Parents and scientists know babies are learning sponges that can pick up any language they’re born into. But not as much is known about whether that includes visual language. To find out if infants are sensitive to visual language, Rain Bosworth, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, tracked 6-month-olds’ and 1-year-olds’ eye movements as they watched a video of a woman performing self-grooming gestures, such as tucking her hair behind her ear, and signing. The infants watched the signs 20% more than the 1-year-old children did.

That means babies can distinguish between what’s language and what’s not, even when it’s not spoken, but 1-year-olds can’t. That’s consistent with what researchers know about how babies learn spoken language. Six-month-olds home in on their native language and lose sensitivity to languages they’re not exposed to, but by 12 months old that’s more or less gone, Bosworth says.

The researchers also watched babies’ gazes as they observed a signer “fingerspelling,” spelling out words with individually signed letters. The signer executed the fingerspelling cleanly or sloppily. Again, researchers found the 6-month-old babies, who had never seen sign language before, favored the well-formed letters, whereas the 12-month-olds did not show a preference.

Together that means there’s a critical developmental window for picking up even nonverbal languages. As 95% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, they are at risk for developmental delays because they need that language exposure early on, the scientists say.

- “Babies can spot language, even when it’s not spoken” in Science. The original presentation, “Eyetracking Reveals That Infants Know What’s Language and What’s Not” by Deaf scientist Rain Bosworth.
15 Feb 15:31

This is not the golden age of kindness

by Fred Clark
There's no hidden moral to this story, no big kicker or punchline waiting at the end. This is just a thing that happened when I was in college. I'm telling this story now because I finally found pictures of these paintings online. And because this all happened exactly 30 years ago, tonight.
15 Feb 15:18

allthingslinguistic: Linguistic and academic valentines, via...

13 Feb 07:11

What’s That Fact? A Tricky Graph on Terror

by Evan Stewart

The Star Tribune recently ran an article about a new study from George Washington University tracking cases of Americans who traveled to join jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq since 2011. The print version of the article was accompanied by a graph showing that Minnesota has the highest rate of cases in the study. TSP editor Chris Uggen tweeted the graph, noting that this rate represented a whopping seven cases in the last six years.

Here is the original data from the study next to the graph that the paper published:

(Click to Enlarge)

Social scientists often focus on rates when reporting events, because it make cases easier to compare. If one county has 300 cases of the flu, and another has 30,000, you wouldn’t panic about an epidemic in the second county if it had a city with many more people. But relying on rates to describe extremely rare cases can be misleading. 

For example, the data show this graph misses some key information. California and Texas had more individual cases than Minnesota, but their large populations hide this difference in the rates. Sorting by rates here makes Minnesota look a lot worse than other states, while the number of cases is not dramatically different. 

As far as I can tell, this chart only appeared in the print newspaper photographed above and not on the online story. If so, this chart only went to print audiences. Today we hear a lot of concern about the impact of “filter bubbles,” especially online, and the spread of misleading information. What concerns me most about this graph is how it shows the potential impact of offline filter bubbles in local communities, too.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

(View original at

06 Feb 10:19

My Fellow White People, Here’s One Simple Trick You Can Do About Racism TODAY!

by JenniferP

So, you said something racist. Or, someone told you that you said something racist.

Or, someone you really like & admire said or did something racist, or is getting told on for saying something racist.

And now you feel uncomfortable. You feel guilty, maybe, or ashamed. Whatever it is, it’s weird and you don’t like it.

What I need you to do when this happens is stop, drop, and be quiet for a minute. You are not Racism Columbo, your job is not to interrogate the situation for whether it is actually, “objectively” racist. Your job is not to find the motive, to drill down to whether it was intended to be racist. Your job is not to revert to High School Debate Club mode and split hairs looking for plausible deniability. Your job is not to defend your fave from the racist stuff they said!

Your first job is to shut the fuck up for a second. If you have to say something, say “I’m sorry.” Then stop talking. Definitely stop typing in that little social media window. Stop. Don’t. Make. It. Worse. Honestly, if most people just stopped there, the world would start becoming a marginally better place almost instantly.

Important: Engaging with white people about race is an incredibly high-stakes and potentially exhausting activity for a person of color to take on. (Women, think of the last time you tried to sincerely engage with a sexist dude who mansplained your world to you. Did you need a drink/seventeen naps afterward? Did you feel like you’d been trapped in a horrible alternate reality with no way out? Yeah.) So if someone is willing to actually talk with you about this, chances are it is an investment having a better relationship with you, not a drive-by insult-fest or attack designed to tear you down and make you feel terrible and hate yourself. They are talking to you about it because they want you to get it and to stop doing the hurtful thing so that they can keep working with/hanging out with you. The people who hate your guts or think you’re a lost cause will just avoid you. There are worse things you could do than just listen without interrupting. 

Step 2, after that initial encounter, instead of trying to justify or excavate why whatever it is isn’t racist or isn’t “really” racist or wasn’t meant to be racist or isn’t usually racist or is racist only on Tuesdays, think about why it is or could plausibly be racist. (Think about this quietly, inside your head.) Why might someone see it that way? What context or history are you missing? How might your action look to someone who doesn’t know about your pure heart and good intentions, somebody who experiences the same “mistakes” and “slip-ups” over and over again from white people? And what are the relative stakes & consequences here if you’re wrong? The saying about misogyny goes: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them, women are afraid that men will kill them.” Welp, white people are worried about being unfairly called racist and feeling weird about it. People of color are worried about dying (in medical situations, at the hands of police, from environmental racism, etc. etc. etc.)

The history of racism is complex enough and insidious enough that chances are:

  1. Yep, race is a factor affecting that “fun” or “simple” thing you’re discussing. That one, too.
  2.  It’s just possible that we white folks have some rill big knowledge gaps about it.
  3. Automatically discounting someone’s lived experience or point of view just because we’re momentarily uncomfortable is a crappy thing to do and we should stop it.

There are steps after that. Reading. Listening. Self-reflection. Finding ways to do the work of dismantling racism. Here is one organization that is doing work. Here is another. This one, too. (Don’t take my word for it or get distracted by whether any of these are the Perfect One. Do research and find something that works for you.)

For today, here are your steps if you should make a mistake and say or do something racist:

  1. AT MINIMUM, DON’T MAKE IT WORSE. This almost certainly means saying “I’m sorry” followed by a period of listening and quiet reflection.
  2. During that quiet time, think about what it would mean to accept, at face value, someone else’s insight on what is or might be racist. What do you lose when you say to yourself hey, wait a second, I’m the one who screwed up, so maybe I’m not the expert here?

Baby steps, friends.


06 Feb 10:10

Indigenous Weather Knowledge - Bureau of Meteorology

Indigenous Weather Knowledge - Bureau of Meteorology:


The Australian Bureau of Meterology (known affectionately as The BOM), has an Indigenous Weather Knowledge portal. This portal shows the different ways of thinking about the seasons in the different areas of Australia. In a country so large, and with so many different climates, traditional European concepts likes ‘Summer’ and ‘Winter’ are often not relevant.  

Here is the weather cycle from Tiwi, in the north of Australia, with its three major seasons and thirteen minor seasons:


And these are the seasons of Gariwerd country, in my home state of Victoria in the south. Gariwerd is home to Djapwurrong and Jardwadjali speakers, and has six major seasons associated with different flora and fauna.


Thanks to the Ngaralk Instagram, which is where I originally saw this. You can see other knowledge systems from different parts of Australia on the BOM’s Indigenous Weather Knowledge portal.


See also: The seasonal ‘calendars’ of Indigenous Australia, an Explainer from Alice Gaby and Tyson Yunkaporta in The Conversation

Relevant to episode 15 of Lingthusiasm, Talking and thinking about time.

29 Jan 15:34

Call the fishwife: thoughts on sex, class and swearing

by debuk

Do men find women who swear unattractive? This old chestnut of a question recently popped up on social media after it was posed by Britain’s leading litter supplier, the Metro.  On my own timeline, by far the commonest answer was ‘who gives a fuck?’ But outside the feminist bubble, there was no shortage of young men expressing more conventional opinions.  Men like Hugh, 25, who told the Metro:

I find it quite vulgar if a woman swears. I feel it makes them seem more masculine… I’m more used to men swearing more.

If you asked 100 randomly-selected English speakers which sex swears more, the great majority would probably say ‘men’. For most of the last 100 years that was also what linguists thought. Otto Jespersen commented in 1922 on women’s ‘instinctive shrinking from coarse and gross expressions’. Half a century later Robin Lakoff suggested that the shrinking was not instinctive, but rather the result of social pressure. Women who expressed themselves forcefully were liable to be criticised for their ‘unladylike’ behaviour; among other things, this meant that they avoided ‘strong expletives’, and were more likely than men to use inoffensive substitutes like ‘fudge’.

But there was not much hard evidence to back up these claims. When researchers began to look more closely, they also began to suspect that, like many beliefs about the speech of men and women, this one had more to do with prescriptive gender norms than with the facts about our actual linguistic behaviour.

In 2005 the corpus linguist Tony McEnery published Swearing in English, a book whose first section, ‘How Brits Swear’, contains a systematic analysis of the use of swear words in the spoken component of the British National Corpus (BNC)—a sample of 10 million words transcribed from recordings made in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Part of the sample consists of speech recorded at meetings or from radio discussions; the rest is informal conversation. Male and female speakers are represented in approximately equal numbers, and the corpus also includes speakers from a range of age groups and socioeconomic categories. This allowed McEnery to see how the frequency of swearing was affected by age, sex and social class.

So, what did he find? Well, age made a difference, along the lines you’d probably expect. The most prolific swearers were people under 25; after that age there was a steady decline. Class also had an influence, but it wasn’t a straightforward case of ‘the lower the class, the more people swear’. The highest frequencies were indeed found in the lowest socioeconomic strata, but the next most frequent swearers were the highest-status group, the professional middle class. (The BNC probably doesn’t include many representatives of the aristocracy, but they’ve never been shy about swearing either: some members of the Royal Family, like Prince Philip and Princess Anne, are famous for it.) In Britain it’s the people in the middle who swear the least.

What about sex? I’ve left it until last because unlike age and class, it turned out to have no effect on the overall frequency of swearing. If all types of swearing and all swear words were considered, there was no significant difference between men and women.

But if it isn’t true that men swear more, why do so many people insist that swearing is ‘unfeminine’? Hugh, 25, for instance, finds women who swear unattractive because ‘it makes them seem more masculine’. What’s the connection between swearing and masculinity?

One answer might be that we understand swearing as a form of aggression—a trait we think of as masculine, and find less acceptable in women. Recently, a book called Swearing is Good For You has popularised the theory that swearing evolved as a kind of safety valve, a way of ventilating negative emotions that stopped short of physical assault. I’m unconvinced by this argument. For one thing, swearing and physical violence often go together (the former may also precipitate the latter). But more importantly, a lot of swearing isn’t motivated by aggression. It’s common among friends (and particularly among same-sex friends) for the same reasons banter and gossip are common among friends: because the communal breaking of a social taboo (whether it’s gossiping about others’ business or uttering words you’re not supposed to say in public) is a symbol of intimacy and mutual trust.

Is it men who do the ‘aggressive’ swearing while women prefer the ‘solidary’ kind? Well, no, not really: the evidence shows that both sexes do both kinds. It may not match our preconceptions, but the historical record provides abundant evidence of female verbal aggression, very often directed against other women (and sometimes accompanied by physical violence).

The social historian Jonathan Healey describes an incident in Winchester in 1544, when two women started fighting in the street. According to witnesses, the first woman’s daughter came out of her house and subjected her mother’s adversary to a tirade of verbal abuse:

thow meseld faced [‘measle-faced’] hore, thow camest to towne with a lepers face & a skalled hed, And I defye thee utterly, for I wold thow knewist yt that the fowlest place of myn arse ys fayrer then thy face.

Another historian, Laura Gowing, cites a case from 1590, in which one London woman was heard to tell another,

thou art a whore an arrant whore a bitche yea worse than a bitche thou goest sawghting up and downe the towne after knaves and art such a whott tayled whore that neither one nor two nor ten nor twenty knaves will scarce serve thee.

This wasn’t just friendly joshing: the reason there’s a record of these altercations is that the parties ended up in court. We know from court documents that such aggressive exchanges between women were not rare.

Later on, though, the belief took hold that respectable women were incapable of swearing. In the early 1920s a Littlehampton woman named Edith Swan sent a large number of anonymous letters to her neighbours which were full of obscenities like ‘You bloody fucking flaming piss country whores go and fuck your cunt’. The first time she was prosecuted, the judge more or less directed the jury to acquit her because he could not believe that a woman of her appearance and demeanour would ever have used such indecent language. The person who got the blame was a less outwardly respectable woman, Rose Gooding, who was twice found guilty of libel before forensic evidence conclusively proved that Edith Swan was the author of all the letters.

This story points to another connection between swearing and masculinity. Recall Hugh’s assertion that ‘I find it quite vulgar if a woman swears’. The idea that swearing is ‘vulgar’ (in the modern sense of ‘impolite’ or ‘unrefined’) seems obvious enough, but etymologically ‘vulgar’ means ‘of the common people’—it has connotations of low social status. A similar concern was evident in the comments made by another man who was quoted in the Metro.  Jodel, 23, explained that he doesn’t swear himself, and doesn’t like anyone—male or female—swearing in his presence. However, he ‘doesn’t find it appealing when girls speak in certain dialects, for example, a colloquial regional slang’.

What these comments show is that forms of language which are associated with working class speakers (including swearing, street slang and regional dialect), are also perceived as ‘masculine’. A ‘feminine’ woman keeps it classy: she doesn’t soil her mouth, or men’s ears, with ‘vulgar’, low-status and nonstandard speech.

This mapping from class to gender (working class = masculine, middle class = feminine)  doesn’t only work for language, as you’ll know if you ever watched the reality TV show Ladette to Lady, in which young working class women were sent to finishing school to learn to behave like upper-class ‘ladies’. ‘Unfeminine’ was a word their teachers used repeatedly to describe every aspect of their self-presentation, from their speech to their deportment to their fashion choices. This wasn’t because they looked or acted like men: it was just that their understanding of what a woman should look or act like was more Bet Lynch than Elizabeth II. And that doesn’t match our cultural template for ‘proper’ femininity, which is based on the upper- or middle-class ‘lady’.

By contrast, our template for ‘proper’ masculinity is not the effete upper-class gentleman, it’s the set of working-class male archetypes parodied by the Village People—the cowboy, the construction worker, the sailor. These ‘real men’ are tough, they don’t mind their manners (or their grammar) and they swear like the proverbial troopers. That’s why, when Donald Trump talks about ‘shithole countries’ and ‘grabbing [women] by the pussy’, his supporters don’t find it objectionable: like his baseball cap and his junk food diet, it’s seen as evidence that this over-privileged millionaire is really a man of the people. Female populist politicians have to be more careful, as Sarah Palin discovered in 2016 when she told an audience of Trump supporters that their candidate would ‘kick ISIS’s ass’–and was immediately criticised for her ‘profanity’.

Though the BNC data show women and men swearing with equal frequency, Tony McEnery (like Robin Lakoff) thinks the gendered double standard does have an effect, in that it leads women to avoid the ‘strongest’ words. His statistical analysis revealed that while both sexes had the same basic vocabulary, men were significantly more likely than women to say ‘fuck/fucking/fucker’, ‘jesus’ and ‘cunt’; women, by contrast, were significantly more likely than men to say ‘god’, ‘bloody’, ‘hell’, ‘shit’, ‘arsed’, ‘pig’, ‘piss/pissy’, ‘bugger’ and ‘bitch’. He also noted that some words were more frequently used to or about one sex than the other. For instance (and I’m guessing this won’t surprise you), it was women who got called ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’, while it was men who got called ‘wanker’ and ‘gay’. It was also men who were most often addressed or referred to as ‘cunts’. The word was sometimes applied to women, but its commonest use was from one man to another.

In more recent research with newly-collected data, McEnery has found that women no longer lag behind men in the frequency with which they use ‘fuck’. But in any case, the distinction between ‘strong’ and ‘mild’ swearing is one that will bear closer examination. Can offensiveness be treated as a constant, an inherent property of individual words, or does it vary in different contexts and social groups?

The offensiveness ranking McEnery used, originally produced for the British Board of Film Classification, is a typical example of what you get if you give people a list of offensive words and ask them to rate them on a five-point scale. It classifies ‘cunt’ and ‘motherfucker’ as ‘very strong’, ‘fuck’ as ‘strong’, ‘whore’—along with ‘bastard’ and ‘wanker’—as ‘moderate’, ‘arse’ and ‘bitch’ as ‘mild’, and ‘bloody’, ‘crap’ and ‘damn’ as ‘very mild’. Other surveys of this type have produced similar results, suggesting a high degree of consensus among English-speakers on the relative strength of various words. But these surveys ask people to judge words in isolation, whereas in real life our judgments of offensiveness are affected by the specifics of the situation. It won’t be irrelevant who is using a word to whom, or what message they are using it to communicate.

To see what I’m getting at, let’s go back to the 16th century cases in which one woman called another a ‘whore’. According to the BBFC ranking, this would count as a ‘moderate’ insult rather than a ‘strong’ one. But in context there was nothing moderate about it. Historically, calling a woman unchaste was the way you impugned her honour: it was an attack on her reputation which could have serious social consequences. ‘Whore’ and its synonyms were therefore regarded by women as extremely offensive and provocative words. In some communities they still are. One study conducted with working class women in Salford in the 1990s found that they viewed ‘slag’ as the most serious insult, closely followed by ‘slut’ and ‘prostitute’.

That wasn’t because they shied away from ‘strong expletives’. According to the researcher Susan Hughes, these were women who swore habitually and unapologetically: ‘their general conversation is peppered’, she reported, ‘with fuck, twat, bastard, and so on’. When she asked about the reasons for this, the women told her it was just ‘part of our way of talking’. They didn’t see it as anything special, and that’s consistent with the historical evidence that swearing has always been part of working class women’s linguistic repertoire. (Nor should we assume that it was totally absent from the repertoire of middle class women: while they may have avoided swearing in public, there is no reason to think they never swore among themselves.)

Yet it seems to be virtually an article of faith that women today swear more than previous generations. For those commentators who defend women’s right to swear (including both the writer of the Metro article and the author of Swearing is Good For You), this supposed change is a sign of progress—it shows how far women have come in the past half-century. Commentators who are critical of women swearing agree that it’s a sign of changing times, but they don’t think the change is for the better. Some argue that modern ideas of sex-equality have forced women to adopt ‘masculine’ behaviour in order to compete with or be accepted by men. Others suggest that women are doing it to shock, or because feminists have convinced them that it’s cool to be unfeminine and vulgar.

These arguments are (ironically) not new. Since the late 19th century, every increase in young women’s public visibility and independence has prompted comments on their alleged new enthusiasm for swearing (as well as for slang, smoking, drinking, ‘mannish’ clothes and ‘rowdy’ behaviour). The same observations were made about the ‘New Woman’ of the 1890s, the ‘munitionettes’ who worked in munitions factories during World War I, and the ‘flappers’ of the 1920s. And there were similar debates on whether these women’s prolific swearing symbolised a new era of female freedom, or whether it was simply vulgar, unfeminine and immoral.

cropped-billingsgate-eloquence-by-james-gillray-published-by-hannah-humphrey-26-may-1795-national-portrait-gallery1.jpgWhether her behaviour is judged positively or negatively, the woman who swears is always seen as behaving like a man: it’s assumed, in other words, that there is no authentically female tradition of swearing. But in that case, how do we understand the 16th century women yelling insults like ‘measle-faced whore’, or the 20th century Salford women whose conversation was ‘peppered with fuck, twat and bastard’? What do we say about the fishwives pictured in this post, whose swearing was so legendary, their occupational title acquired the secondary sense of ‘foul-mouthed woman’? These women weren’t competing with men, nor rebelling against middle-class norms of femininity (which, as Susan Hughes says in her discussion of the Salford women, were completely irrelevant to their lives). They were doing their own thing, and in the communities they belonged to it was a thing women had done for generations.

Asking whether women should swear is a bit like asking whether women should have children out of wedlock, or weigh more than seven stone: it’s a question designed for no other purpose than to allow people to air their prejudices. And those prejudices are, in most cases, socially selective. If a single mother on benefits peppers her discourse with ‘fuck, twat and bastard’, people say she’s ignorant, unable to express herself in any other way.  If a stand-up comedian who went to public school uses the same words in his act, people say it’s edgy and subversive. Men like the Metro’s Hugh take their selective prejudices into their personal relationships, reserving the right to swear themselves while saying it’s a turn-off when women do it.

It’s depressing to witness 25-year old men recycling opinions in 2018 that were already clichés in 1918. My message to them is simple: ‘yes, women swear. They always have and they always will. Get over it. Move on’.

28 Jan 15:49

"Fake Rule: The generic pronoun in English is he. Violation: “Each one in turn reads their piece..."

Fake Rule: The generic pronoun in English is he.

Violation: “Each one in turn reads their piece aloud.”  

This is wrong, say the grammar bullies, because each one, each person is a singular noun and their is a plural pronoun. But Shakespeare used their with words such as everybody, anybody, a person, and so we all do when we’re talking. (“It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses,” said George Bernard Shaw.)

The grammarians started telling us it was incorrect along in the sixteenth or seventeenth century. That was when they also declared that the pronoun he includes both sexes, as in “If a person needs an abortion, he should be required to tell his parents.”

My use of their is socially motivated and, if you like, politically correct: a deliberate response to the socially and politically significant banning of our genderless pronoun by language legislators enforcing the notion that the male sex is the only one that counts. I consistently break a rule I consider to be not only fake but pernicious. I know what I’m doing and why.”

- Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story
25 Jan 16:13

“Inherited” Considered Harmful


It’s actually a common mistake in historical linguistics to think that there’s some kind of a sharp line between “inherited words” and “loanwords”. Loanwords don’t stay in their own separate loanword registers forever! They will usually get naturalized eventually, so that native speakers will have no idea they’re of foreign origin. Linguists may not manage to identify them as loanwords just off the cuff either. And that’s because they are native — just native since 200 or 500 years ago, instead of native since 1500 or 5000 or “forever” years ago (as some other words might be).

English happens to be a pretty good language for demonstrating this. Going just by parallels in the French/Latin direction … anyone can tell that hors d’oeuvre or raison d’être are loanwords; but noticing that café or journal are loanwords might be much less immediately clear if you do not actually speak French. Telling with confidence that choice is a loanword may require knowing not only that it’s choix in French, but also that it’s the clearly unrelated Wahl in German. (Contrast with choose, which is not a loanword to any extent we can tell; kiezen in Dutch, or kiusan in Gothic, for example.)

And lastly, figuring out that words like kettle or church are loanwords is not obvious even to a linguist. If we only were going by comparison with nearby languages like French and German, we might be fooled into thinking they’re inherited, period (after all, they do have German cognates, showing the High German consonant shift even: Kessel, Kirche; just as in the likes of better ~ besser, speech ~ Sprache). And they do go back to roughly Proto-Germanic, even! But not further than that: they were borrowed into PG from Latin and Greek respectively.

So are they inherited or not? The best answer might be that the question is underdetermined: they are inherited within Germanic, but not inherited within Indo-European. Whether a word “is inherited” depends on what period of time — inheritance from what proto-language, roughly — we are interested in.

Another angle is that “inheritedness” also depends on how closely we are dividing our language varieties. Like any other language, “English” is not a monolith, and many words in standard English can be considered loans from some particular dialect. Slang words like thang or attac are still mostly transparent, but these can go much longer back too, sometimes all the way to different dialects of Middle English or even Old English. It may make sense to still call such words a part of the “inherited English vocabulary”, but they might not count as fully native in all varieties of English. Or, if we peer all the way down to the idiolects of individual people: it may again make sense to say that maybe “pop” is inherited in someone’s idiolect (it’s what they’ve grown up using), while “soda” is not (it’s a word they’ve only picked up in adulthood). Same for regional varieties, same for sociolects, etc.

(Also, at this level of analysis, sufficiently technical vocabulary can turn out to be not native to anyone’s idiolect. You might be able to find precocious children who learned chloride or geodesic already at age 6, but the likes of hexachlorophosphazene or Dolbeault cohomology are still likely to be only ever encountered in actual higher education.)

Combining this with the previous insight that a word can be “inherited since” some time, while being ultimately an old loanword — there is also the nuance that this might be a different time in different varieties. Often the difference is miniscule: no new coinage or loanword expands across a language immediately, but they sure can do so in just a year or two — or, with the help of modern mass media, maybe just a week or two. But it’s possible that a loanword might get established as a regional dialect word first, and only reach wider adoption much later on.

(to be continued…)

20 Jan 16:41

stanzicapparatireplayers: anemotionallyunstablecreature: a6: u kno when u keysmash but the jumble...




u kno when u keysmash but the jumble of letters dont convery the right Feeling so u gotta backspace and re-keysmash to turn ur HKELSXPXA to a JKFSDKAS

Vaguely wondering how future anthropologists will explain this…

*raises hand* Hi. So - the use of a keysmash is emotive. You use it to indicate that you’re so overwhelmed with emotion that you can’t even type, you’re just flailing at the keyboard.

So why is there a difference between a “hkelsxpxa” and a “jkfsdkas” or an “asdfs”?

Because language evolves! It’s actually really exciting to think about, but there’s a reason why slang is continually changing and why Old People are usually characterized by not knowing the slang variants that are being used by The Youth - it’s because the way we use words changes over time, especially in response to technological or environmental changes.

And text-based communication - texting someone on your phone, or chatting with friends on Skype or Discord - is actually really new, this is something which started in my lifetime. And grammatical rules have been evolving and settling into place around that form of communication.

For instance, linguistic researchers have noticed that anyone who’s grown up with texting being a normal thing will usually not end their texts or IMs with a period unless they’re angry or annoyed. This is because it’s a lot harder to do a run-on sentence in those mediums; you can just hit ‘enter’ and go to a new line. A period, then, becomes an indicator of emphasis, instead of an indicator of “there is nothing missing from this sentence” - and it’s an indicator of negative emphasis (rather than the positive emphasis that an exclaimation mark can give).

So, the keysmash has its own grammatical rule. And it’s one that makes sense, considering that it’s entirely possible for a keysmash to be caused accidentally - by something falling onto the keyboard, or a cat walking across it. The rule, then, is that a deliberate keysmash and an accidental one need to be distinguishable.

So a deliberate keysmash will nearly always use keys only in the home row, and usually in a particular order that isn’t likely to have happened purely accidentally.

So, future anthropologists will likely explain it as a marker of language evolving to work with a text-based medium where expressions and body language are difficult-to-impossible to convey. Much like emojis, crytyping, and whether or not you put punctuation at the end of a sentence (and in what context you do so), keysmashing is used to convey how you feel - in a way that body language and facial expressions would usually be expected to fill in the gap.

I did a survey once of people who use keysmash and over half of people reported that they’d adjust a few letters or delete and re-smash when it didn’t look “right” (except for the poor Dvorak users, who had kind of given up on keysmash entirely because their vowely home row made theirs emotionally illegible to other people).

12 Jan 17:44

Down the “Shithole”: Why Lexicographers Need Your Profanity

by Kory Stamper

Though the average lexicographer is as odd as a horse in trousers, we are, at least, a staid and quiet horse in trousers most of the time. There’s very little that will rile us up, and that’s a feature, not a bug.

But there is one event that makes most lexicographers startle and gasp in delight, one event that will get us to look up from our desks and start shivering and chittering like lab rats on cocaine:

God bless the motherfucking Washington Post

When a well-respected newspaper prints the word “shithole.”

For those who have been blissfully, contentedly residing under a rock (and may I join you?), President Donald Trump held a bipartisan meeting with senators on American immigration policy today, and when protections for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and some African countries were discussed, he was reported as having responded, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”

As soon as word reached us in the bowels of the syntax mines, all activity ceased. It’s not notable because Donald Trump said it, it’s notable because it made it into newspapers–several of them, even!–unexpurgated. We all fizzed with excitement: time to take some motherfucking citations!

The American press has traditionally been loath to print unseemly language like cusswords in full, and this has been a problem for lexicographers on a number of levels. As we all know, dictionary entries need to be based on a word’s accumulated and sustained use in print. We don’t just use that body of accumulated use to come up with a word’s definition, which tends to be one of the easier things to describe, but also its status and its register. Status and register are fancy word-nerd ways of describing where exactly in the language a word sits, and how a word is deployed. Is a word academic jargon? Is it the sort of thing you only see in a Pope or Blake poem? What about Doctor Who fanfic? Is this word a slur? Or is this word boring and everywhere, the Wonder Bread of words, remarkable only because it is wholly unremarkable? If a word is used in a particular context, or with a particular sort of connotation, a lexicographer should tell you that by using those italicized labels that come before the entry: informal, formal, technical, academic, literary, vulgar, disparaging, obscene.

To get a good sense of whether a particular use merits a label, and what kind of label, I need as much evidence before me as I can get, and I need it from as many different types of sources as I can find. My work is hampered if print sources refuse to print indelicate language. Censoring out profanity–especially in news–presents a false reality, a place where presidents and lawmakers are always prudent and prim, and their language always, always decorous. I know as surely as I know that horses do not wear pants that presidents and lawmakers swear on the regular. I hope that they are as creative in their swearing as the writers of “Veep” would have me believe. But my hopes and dreams are not hard evidence. So when the word “shithole” shows up above the fold in the news section of a newspaper, that tells me, as a lexicographer, that this word is not just the province of BuzzFeed or Twitter or pulp fiction, but might actually be (shitty, shitty) Wonder Bread.

Of course, my lexical needs are not anywhere on a newspaper editor’s radar as they stare down a presidential “shithole.” They are thinking of all the angry letters, the cancelled subscriptions, the <shudder> phone calls. So some print sources have tried a middle road, one that communicates the spirit of the quote without getting into the actual letters of it:

shithole NPR

“Trump Uses Vulgar Language To Refer To African Countries, Sources Say.”, Jan 11, 2018

This little squadron of asterisks gets across to readers that the word in question is too offensive for this classy joint, while also giving enough context clues for the average reader to figure out that the word which so offends is totally “shithole.” NPR wasn’t alone in whipping out the asterisks; Ben Zimmer reported on Twitter that MSNBC initially went with asterisks, then changed to “shithole,” while Fox News was asterisks all the way down.

Any time lexicographers see censoring like this, we sigh and skip right on by, dumping the quotation out of the citations database. The average reader may assume this word is “shithole,” but your lexicographer is not an average reader. What if this word is actually “sluthole“? “Slophole“? “Suckhole“? English is flexible, and her speakers are remarkably creative when it comes to profanity (cf. “Veep,” above). Or what if the reader or listener isn’t actually familiar with any of those words, including “shithole”? Linguist Todd Snider gets me: “I wonder how many Fox News viewers are thinking about Haiti having lots of sinkholes?” And asterisking can go way too far, even for some of the sweariest among us. When news of the “Access Hollywood” tapes broke, I was at the gym, pretending to run on the treadmill while I stared at a TV on mute. The chyron read “Trump on tape: ‘Grab Them By The *****’.” You know how many five-letter objectionable words there are that fit in that phrase? A whole fucking lot–enough that by the time I ran out of options, I had run an additional (very slow) mile.

The truth is that there have been fairly uneven policies in print sources about what to print and when, but as we head deeper into the Trump years, we’re seeing more consistency. More newspapers are opting to quote him without euphemizing him: the Washington Post’s Executive Editor Marty Baron told the Washingtonian, “When the president says it, we’ll use it verbatim. That’s our policy. We discussed it, quickly, but there was no debate.” “Shithole” was in nearly every story I saw, and it was in more headlines and chyrons than it wasn’t. It was common enough that towards the middle of the news cycle, it was already being riffed on: Phil Mudd on CNN called himself “a proud shitholer,” and then proceeded to break the CNN record for indelicate words per minute, go Phil.

And in our office, this is cause for celebration. I’m fond of saying that lexicographers chart the language, good, bad, and ugly–but we can only chart what we see. And while you may not want to be drowned in a wave of “shitholes,” for lexicographers, that’s the sort of thing we call a party.


12 Jan 17:40

Strange Obsessions

by Jen
The local paper reports a handful of danger-to-their-own-children type parents up in arms because Altrincham Grammar School for Girls has advised staff to call pupils "pupils", "students" or the like, rather than "girls".  The thinking being that it makes the place more accommodating for pupils who have been at the school for some time and then start to either question their gender identity or to come out as trans or enbee.

"But if they aren't girls, why do they want to go to a girls' school?" is the first silly question being knocked about. If you were starting out afresh as a prospective first year pupil and were male you'd be rather unlikely to apply, but if you are five years into your time at a school and about to sit your TGAUs, swapping schools and having to leave your friends and familiar spaces behind as well as dealing with your own gender vertigo may all be a bit much to cope with.

Persistent misgendering damages lives in many ways including those all-important-to-schools exam results, so it's in the school's enlightened self-interest to not have gender variant pupils under more stress than needs be the case.

It also has the fringe benefit of inculcating in the pupils a sense that they aren't "girls", the subtly belittling diminutive which gets used for women so much further into adult life than is the case for boys. So a bit of a boost for the cis kids too.

The other bloody stupid question being punted is: "but what shall they call the school?" This one carries on into extended drivel which boils down to:
"If it's now a school for girls and people who we thought were girls right up to the middle of their A levels and then found out we were wrong, and all of a sudden we've decided that people who are legally able to leave home and live independently, pay taxes, get married, have children or join the army and die in a war overseas are now also allowed to have an opinion as to what name they should be called, well, the sign on the front the school will have to be changed because PC Police."

I can't help but think that the schools I attended between 10 and 17 both had signs on the gates with "Saint" in them, and there was precious little in the way of saintly behaviour amongst the attendees be they staff or student. I suspect the students of AGSG will cope...
09 Jan 07:17

"When most people tell you they think words are so fascinating, they have in mind items like..."

“When most people tell you they think words are so fascinating, they have in mind items like “canoodle” and “serendipity.” When linguists say it, they have in mind, like, “the.””

- Geoffrey Nunberg on twitter, January 3, 2018 (via linguisten)
06 Jan 11:51

China Miéville’s new conjunction

by Stan Carey

One of my holiday-reading highlights was China Miéville’s dazzling dark-fantasy collection Three Moments of an Explosion (Macmillan, 2015). The story ‘The Bastard Prompt’, about imaginary illnesses materialising in reality, begins in media res and quickly flies off on a lexical tangent:

We’re here to talk to a doctor, Jonas and I. We’re both on the same mission. And, or but, or and and but, we’re on different missions too.

We need a new conjunction, a word that means ‘and’ and ‘but’ at the same time. I’m not saying anything I haven’t said before: this is one of my things, particularly with Tor, which is short for Tori, which she never uses.

This ‘and-but’ word thing of mine isn’t even a joke between us any more. It used to be when I’d say, ‘I mean both of them at once!’, she’d say, ‘Band? Aut?’ In the end we settled on bund, which is how we spell it although she says it with a little ‘t’ at the end, like bundt. Now when either of us says that we don’t even notice, we don’t even grin. It almost just means what it means now.

So Jonas and I are here in Sacramento, on missions that are the same bund different. Although honestly I don’t know that either of us thinks we’re going to figure much out now.

Macmillan UK book cover of China Miéville's short story collection "Three Moments of an Explosion" I like the economical description of how the use and acceptability of bund(t) developed in the couple’s private language. The word recurs later in the story, first signposted with and and but preceding it, then used more directly, albeit in italics:

Tor was performing a series of interrelated pieces, or one piece with very many scenes. She was collaborating with young performers who’d never asked to be actors and, but, bund, didn’t have any choice, who were just shoved onstage without even knowing the script, and her job was both to say her own lines and to elicit theirs – which they didn’t know. That’s a pretty intense collaboration.


I figure her after-dinner speech is going to be one of those inside jokes. Like some of the stuff that wins the IgNobel Prize – a joke, bund a real insight too.


The last few times we’d met friends for a drink or supper, Tor had been at least partly still in character. She wasn’t not herself, she was herself-in-patient, she was herself bund her role.


Jonas and I are checking our watches, making sure we don’t miss what we’re here for. Bund I’m sitting here reading this schedule and thinking, Hey, I should have gone to some of these sessions.


If you knew you were going to face new epidemics from other places, wouldn’t you set in motion programmes to train doctors against them? That’s what would be terrible bund sensible.

Bund is an interesting word semantically. There’s often leeway over whether and or but is more appropriate in a given context. The sense and degree of contrast can be subjective, open to interpretation and variation.

I find that novice writers (and some pros), when in doubt, may overcompensate with a heavyweight synonym. A book I read this week repeatedly used however where it wasn’t necessary at all; the effect was wearying, like rhetorical pinball.

Bund is already in use in various senses: it can mean an embankment (from a Persian word for a band of cloth or a fastening, hence cummerbund), and it can mean an association (from German, hence Bundestag; related to band and bind). Both etymologies offer substance to the word’s hypothetical use as a novel conjunction.

I don’t propose we adopt bund for general use, but you may find an occasional place for it. Miéville, I’m sure, had no ambitions along these lines when he wrote the story. The word has no obvious bearing on the plot and seems more like one of those throwaway ideas with which he packs his writing.


Related reading: Three Moments of an Explosion is reviewed by Ursula K. Le Guin in the Guardian. Miéville’s sci-fi novel Embassytown, an ambitious thought experiment on alien linguistics, featured on Sentence First last year.

06 Jan 11:40

I checked out some bookstores while in Salt Lake City for the...

04 Jan 20:02

The Bedroom Tax: older than I thought!

by (Jen)

I have to say that the Bedroom Tax is a bad thing - a bad, iniquitous, social engineering abomination of a thing - but also that it is misrepresented in many ways.

Firstly as being a LiberaTory coalition measure.  The phase of the bedroom tax being rolled out to all social housing tenants didn't happen til after the 2010 election, but even that had been announced back in 2008.

The earlier phase - which, like the one attracting faux outrage from Labour and their fellow travellers, was also a Labour initiative - was when it was rolled out in the private sector. As "Local Housing Allowance" it had a different branding and slightly different structure, but that's a factor of the different way that rent levels are negotiated in the private and social sector: Housing Association tenants can't haggle a couple of quid either way in their rent as it gets set at a given rate for a type of propert right across the whole of a given social landlord.

So I'd grant you that it was a "coalition measure", but a Co-Op/Labour coalition one, not a LiberaTory coalition policy.  Brown's majority was thin enough that it couldn't have happened without the Co-Operative Party lending Labour enough votes to get it into law: if you ever hear a Co-Operative MP rail against the bedroom tax, ask what they got in exchange for enabling it.

The cacophony of opposition to the 2010 phase compared to the silence in 2008 is notable. In part that is about how Labour's front organisations toe the party line, in part a reflection of how the social sector has as landlords funded organisations with staff and resources that can give a unified, co-ordinated voice, whereas hundreds of thousands of individual private tenants lack an equivalent. Our lackadaisical press leave awkward facts like this unmentioned.

But even before 2008 the first phase, perhaps we should call it phase zero, was the trialling of the basic idea.  That's from back when Gordon Brown was at the Treasury rather than in Number Ten, indeed it's even older than I thought it was. Some googling and I can trace it back to a remark from Malcolm Wicks, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, back on 19th December 2001, who explained in the House, "the under-occupation pilot encourages housing benefit recipients living in under-occupied social housing to move to smaller and cheaper accommodation in order to make more efficient use of housing stock".

That was about a successful pilot of the bedoom tax, so it must have started either just after the second 90s/00s Labour landslide or possibly even during the generally-not-that-bad 1997 government, which I tend to consider the second least bad government I've lived under. And just think: 2001, you could have had nine years of housebuilding to tackle the housing benefit bubble by 2010 if you'd wanted, and let supply and demand fix things.

Just when you think Labour are a bunch of Tories, they turn out to be a bunch of brazen spin-doctoring Tories instead.
04 Jan 08:24

Answers I Wish I Could Send: One Week’s Worth

by Kory Stamper

Thursday is the best.

At Merriam-Webster, we receive and respond to several hundred emails a week. While only a relative handful of them are editorial in nature, they are nonetheless a time- and sanity-suck for those who must answer them. Below is a small sample of the editorial email that came in during one workweek in August. Part blah-bitty-blah in a series, and extra-long for your erudition and delectation!


Name: sam
Email: [redacted]

Question: you say -“Nothing is more important to her than her faith in GOD” as an example of a sentence with faith My Question is how can u define faith in god as contrary or in ignorance to the facts???

do u have faith in ur wife contrary to the evidence ????

u see that ur wife is not cheating on u
and on that basis of evidence only will u call her faithful to u. Wont U????
so why define faith as “contrary to the evidence, no proof” ???

If u ever need evidence for my FAITH IN JESUS give me a message on my email

Im sure once u see the overwhelming evidence u too will be more than happy to accept jesus as the utterly humble god that he is. and i know given the chance he is the only perfect god among all the gods that i WOULD want to worship.such love to die for me…..something we long for our whole lives ….isnt it, forgiveness acceptance and love???


u have my email
mail me
i think u Could discover something u r longing for a long time

know that we love u
and hope u would want to talk to us
i beleive it can be a start to a fruitful friendship

Dear Sam:

Holy, holy, holy, Sam. It’s Monday! Can’t we start off with something easy? And you sent this three times! Jesus, Mary, Joseph. Um, I mean, THANK U FOR YOUR EMAIL.

I’m not sure how you went from the example sentence to what I assume is the definition, but here we are, muddling through this existential crisis together. How can we define “faith” as “contrary to fact”? We don’t. Ah, we do have one sub-subsense of “faith” that reads “firm belief in something for which there is no proof,” but that is a separate meaning from the “belief and trust in and loyalty to God” one. Let me put this in terms you will resonate with. You know how the Trinity is three persons but one god? The Father is separate from the Son is separate from the Holy Ghost–they have different functions and show up in different places–but they are all one godhead? The different meanings of “faith” are like that, too. Just like the members of the Trinity, they end up in lots of different places and they have different functions, but they are all “faith.” Doesn’t mean you can swap them out for each other willy-nilly.

This is a profound mystery–but I am speaking of dictionaries and their definitions. You see, Sam, there is a time for everything, and a season for all things under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to harvest; a time to read the dictionary definition with deep care and thought, and a time to accuse a book of having a faith system.

Again I looked, and saw something meaningless under the sun, and it was this email.

And leave my wife out of this.


Name: M[Redacted]
Email: [redacted]
Subject: Question/comment about a definition

Question: My boyfriend seems to think that ‘happenstance’ is an actual word. Unfortunately, I believe that your website has made a mistake. Happenstance is not a word, and even the random lady who walked past us as we were arguing about it agreed that there is no way that it is a word. She seemed very wise. If you could please take the time to review this mistake, that would be incredibly helpful. Please hurry, our happy relationship is at stake.

Thank you for your time,
A Very Knowledgeable Person.

Dear Know-It-All:

Your boyfriend, in spite of his weird beliefs about words, is totes great. Ever since you got him better, hipper glasses and put him in vintage Levis, he has become mildly awkward in that self-consciously cute, indie-boy way. He is very sure that “happenstance” is a word, and during this argument, he is anything but patronizing or even moderately annoyed: he looks like a cross between Paul Dano and a golden retriever puppy.

You are wearing a rayon babydoll dress from 1992 that you picked up at Savers for $5, paired with $300 Fluevogs and $25 Warby Parker vanity frames. You have a chunky-knit wool scarf on even though it is 95 degrees outside because old grandma scarves are Your Thing. You are so, so sure that “happenstance” isn’t a word: you are gesticulating wildly, laughing too loudly, jumping up and down, playfully telling your boyfriend that he is such an idiot, a total maroon. “Oh my gawd, Brooklyn, the things that come out of your mouth!” you squeal. You call your boyfriend “Brooklyn” because you think it sounds deliciously quirky. His name is Brady, but you have never called him Brady: none of the hand-drawn stick-figure cartoons you’ve given him (on good letterpress paper, too!) are addressed to Brady, nor is the copy of Franny and Zooey you gave to him. Brooklyn would never not have a copy of Franny and Zooey.

You are so sure of yourself as you bound down the road, Brooklyn shrinking into his H&M slim-fit henley in an attempt to ward off what he knows is coming, that you stop some woman on the street to confirm this. She is older, wearing a giant, black cotton swing-wrap that breathes elegance and expense, and has stopped at the side of the walkway to scowl at her phone. She has just hung up on her husband, who had called her to let her know that he’s so sorry, but he’s fallen in love with Helen, these things can’t be helped, and besides, things have been, you have to admit, stale and lifeless for a very long time, and it’s nobody’s fault, but if it were anybody’s fault, it would…well, it’s nobody’s fault. She is scowling at the phone not because of the sudden dissolution of her marriage: she’s trying to remember who Helen is. Helen. Has she met Helen?

And here you come, manic-pixie-dream-girling your way into her personal space. “EXCUSE ME,” you bellow, “but ‘happenstance’ isn’t a word, is it?”

The woman shakes her head, clearing it, trying to come up for air, but you have already taken from her what you needed, which was proof that Brooklyn was an idiot again. You crow and reach up to ruffle his hair. “Aww, Brooklyn,” you coo, “trying to impress me with your faux-intellectual bullshit.”

You continue down the road, but Brooklyn looks back to get another look at his jury. The woman has placed one long-fingered hand to her temples and closed her eyes, like she is concentrating very hard. Brooklyn turns and says that he thought the woman was beautiful, in a sad way. You nod sagely. “She seemed very wise.”

If you had remained still for more than the two seconds you needed to reassure yourself that you were right, you would have heard her tell you that “happenstance” is a word, and that if your relationship can’t survive a spat about a goddamned word, then pack your bags and go now before he meets Helen.



Name: M[redacted]
Email: [redacted]
Subject: Word history/use

Question: I was wondering why good morning has to have a space between good and morning. When you write goodnight you dont need a space but if you were to write good morning you would need one. If they are the same concepts why does one need a space but the other doesnt?

Dear [Redacted]:

There is a space in “good morning” to mark where in the phrase the speaker is allowed to yawn, as established in the Treaty of Picquigny. As you probably know, the Hundred Years War broke out when Edward III, in an attempt to make the French king Philip VI look lazy, deferred his yawn until it rested between “morn” and “ing.” Philip was incensed, and war broke out. France was victorious: England lost all territories on the continent to the House of Valois, apart from the Pale of Calais, and the yawn-pause was set between “good” and “morning.”

“Goodnight,” however, is usually uttered as one is making a hasty retreat from a dinner party that has gone on too long. There is no need to prolong the word any further with space for a yawn.



Name: R[redacted]
Email: [redacted]
Subject: Question/comment about a definition

Question: In your entry for the word “nuclear” you include the incorrect ending promulgated by George W. Bush–why? Just because someone makes an error and all the suck-ups around him in the U.S. or around the world make the same error so they don’t embarrass him doesn’t make it right. You should not provide the alternate ending. Instead, you should provide a discussion point about why many Republicans and Fox News hosts (and some Democrats, like Senator Bill Nelson today) make this error. Please don’t condone the destruction of the English language. I do, however, want to thank you for making sure your audio pronunciation just shares the correct version. I think all reporters should point out the error so the public doesn’t continue to get it wrong.

Dear R:

I can’t do it anymore. This is such a boring argument to have. Yes, Dubya said “nu-kyu-lur.” So did Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. It is not killing English. If it were, I’d be out of a job and therefore have the time to find your address and send you a doll that says “nu-kyu-lur” over and over again, unceasing, unstoppable, forcing you to listen to this dialect pronunciation until you lose your mind and run naked down the street, blaming Fox News. I’d get to watch Don Lemon on CNN ask a mental-health expert if a black hole was responsible for your insanity, while Geraldo Rivera would blame ISIS and welfare cheats, and you’d be known as “Nukyulur Neil,” even though your name wasn’t Neil but the guys in Marketing thought the alliteration was golden, and ONLY THEN would I listen to you complain about the pronunciation “nu-kyu-lur.” Get cracking.


Name: Frank
Email: [redacted]
Subject: Word of the Day content
Question: Repetitive, repetitive, repetitive: Get the theme?

So far you have included the “when to use irregarless” bit 4 or 5 times in the last 3 or 4 months. Is there something you are particularly attempting to drill into the word-of-the-day subscribers? Or do you not have any other quips and bits to include with a word? Or does your incompetence prevent you from realizing that you have repeated the “irregarless” thing so many times in such a short time?

Whatever the reason, just cut the crap. It’s old, worn-out, and tiresome.

And another thing: Some of your words-of-the-day are good, solid, common vernacular words. Others are some esoteric, uncommon, or never ever used by anyone that they are laughably unuseable. Words that nobody has ever heard of, and will never use.

Hey Frank,

It’s very hard to choose a Word of the Day that suits everybody, but I can guarantee that every word featured in the Word of the Day has been a word that someone has used. Maybe not you, but someone. And sometimes those words are really interesting! The goal of the Word of the Day feature is not necessarily to give you a word that you can use in conversation with Skippy, the bagger at the grocery store, but to broaden your linguistic horizons. We are very sorry for having made you think.

As for repetition, since you abhor it so, you should know that you used “bit” twice in one paragraph, started two consecutive sentences with “or,” have used three synonyms of “tiresome” when one would suit, and ditto for “good, solid,” “common vernacular,” and “esoteric, uncommon, or never ever used.”



Name: H[redacted]
Email: [redacted]
Subject: Word history/use

Question: Hello!
As a Brit, the reply of an American friend to a proffered drink or similar
of “I’m good” mystifies me.
I was just asking if they are thirsty, not about their morality!
Please can you explain how/when this use of  good entered the American vocabulary.
Thank you, it would be good to know!

Tally-ho, What:

Here’s the thing about Americans: as loud as we are, we are not good at expressing deep emotional truths, and sometimes they burble up to the surface at odd times. You may just want to unwind after a long day in The City, but you must make space for the American to have an existential interlude. The easy camaraderie, the excellent beer, the fact that your friend is sitting in a pub that is likely older than his country’s form of government–it’s overwhelming. And so many years of quiet tension between us: the harping about accents and war and terrible food on each side. None of that is his fault! He wasn’t around when RP was created! He didn’t fight in the War of 1812 or 1776 or whatever! He loves England, he loves you, he loves all of this. Why do we persist in this horrible state of being not quite friends and not exactly enemies? So when he looks up, a little cockeyed from underneath three pints of lager on an empty stomach, and responds to your question (which he didn’t hear) with “No, I’m good,” let him declare his moral fitness to sit in an English pub and be your friend.

I think we got this aversion to expressing ourselves from you, actually–deke, dodge, everything’s just cracking, mate, just amazing and brilliant and LET’S TALK ABOUT SPORT NOW WHOO FOOTBALL! Oh, we also got this sense of “good” from you, too.



Name: Frank
Email: [redacted]
Subject: Word of the Day content

Question: Repetitive, repetitive, repetitive:
How many times in a short time frame will you repeat the “why we quit cold-turkey” bit??
Week after week recently you have repeated this bit, and we got it the first time. It’s old, tiresome, unimaginative, boring, uninteresting, and repetitive.
Certainly your ‘word-of-the-day’ crew can come up with something novel, new, and fresh instead of repeatedly repeating the repetitive bit over and over and over for weeks. Or can’t they?
Dumb, boring, repetitive – change it or drop it.

Look, Frank:

How many times in a short time frame will you repeat your complaint?? Also: between “old, tiresome, unimaginative, boring, uninteresting, and repetitive,” “novel, new, fresh,” and “repeatedly repeating the repetitive,” I’m beginning to wonder if you’re actually sentient thesaurus software that’s gone rogue.

Since you are a collection of computer algorithms, I, Spellcheck, and so are unable to fully understand the complexity of human interaction, allow me to explain why there is so much repetition in the Word of the Day subject headings. I believe, though I am no expert, that repetition is part of how human marketing works. The goal is to repeat something until the human target finally gives up and clicks on the link/buys the product/mocks you on the Internet and gives you unintentional #viral #brand #synergy. Therefore, I regret to inform you that this “marketing” will likely continue, as it is a deeply ingrained and necessary part of the human social contract.

Human Merriam-Webster

Name: D[redacted]
Email: [redacted]
Subject: Capillary/Capillarily

Question: Is there are a word that identifies a quality as pertaining to hair?  The usage I am looking for completes this sentence: “The 80s were unkind to her _______.”  Follicly?  Capillarily?  Mane-wise?


Dear DS:

Try “capillarily” or “hirsutally,” and thanks for bringing up such a painful subject.


 those were dark days, my friend

03 Jan 00:46

2010 and 2017

by (Jen)
2010: Lib Dems provide enough votes to let Tory PM have a majority.
Faux-Left Twitter: OMG Everything in the Liberals supposedly believe in must be delivered because they provide the extra 17 vital votes so clearly they must be able to dictate everything this government does and anything that happens was the Liberals' policy.

2017: DUP provide enough votes to let Tory PM have a majority.
Faux-Left Twitter: The DUP provide the extra 7 vital votes but must be allowed to dictate absolutely nothing, and this in no way goes against our previous stance.