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kottke.org posts about language

Today on the grammar rodeo: that vs. which

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 07, 2016

New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris explains when the magazine uses “which” and when it uses “that”, a distinction I confess I had little knowledge of until just now.1 A cheeky example of the difference by E.B. White:

The New Yorker is a magazine, which likes “that.”
The New Yorker is the magazine that likes “which.”

(via df)

  1. This is why, when anyone asks me what I do for a living, the answer is never “writer”. Writing for me is a brute-force operation; I’ll use whatever is necessary to make it sound like I’m talking with you in person. (Wait, is a semicolon appropriate there? Should I have used “as though” instead of “like”? Who gives a shit!) I use too many commas (but often not between multiple adjectives in front of nouns), too many “I”s, too many “that”s (OMG, the thats), too many weirdo pacing mechanisms like ellipses, dashes, & parentheses, mix tenses, overuse the passive voice, and place unquoted periods and commas outside quotation marks like the Brits, although I was doing it before I learned they did because it just seemed to make sense. So, anyway, hi, I’m not a writer…who writes a lot.

In a game of big words, brevity triumphs

posted by Jason Kottke   May 20, 2016

If you love reading about unusual Moneyball-esque strategies in sports, check out how a player on the Nigerian team won the Scrabble World Championship last year.

So while Scrabblers still fancy bingos, they increasingly hold off on other high-scoring moves, such as six-letter words, or seven-letter terms that only use six tiles from the rack. Instead, by spelling four- or five-letter words, a player can keep their most useful tiles — like E-D or I-N-G — for the next round, a strategy called rack management. The Nigerians rehearse it during dayslong scrimmage sessions.

Also, thanks to a design quirk, the board is oddly generous to short words. Most of the bonus squares are just four or five letters apart.

“The geometry of the Scrabble board rewards five-letter words,” said Mr. Mackay, who lost to Mr. Jighere in the world championship final, during which the Nigerian nabbed a triple word score with the antiquated adjective KATTI, meaning “spiteful.” “It’s a smart tactic.”

Sign language translation gloves

posted by Jason Kottke   May 09, 2016

A pair of undergraduate students, Thomas Pryor and Navid Azodi of the University of Washington, have invented a pair of gloves that translates the sign language movements of the wearer into spoken English in realtime.

Thomas and Navid developed SignAloud, a pair of gloves that recognizes hand gestures that correspond to words and phrases in American Sign Language, using resources at the University of Washington CoMotion MakerSpace, a place that offers communal tools, equipment, and opportunities for students. Each glove contains sensors that record hand position and movement. As users put on the gloves, the device calibrates to account for differences in sensor placement. Data from the sensors is sent from the gloves wirelessly via Bluetooth to a central computer. The computer looks at the data for gestures through various sequential statistical regressions, similar to a neural network. If the data matches a gesture, then the associated word or phrase is spoken through a speaker.

Update: A woman named Katie, who is a linguistics professor and ASL interpreter, wrote a not-so-positive review of the gloves on her blog. Actually, she calls them impractical and “nothing more than a fun party trick”.

ASL uses facial expressions and other “non-manual” markers to show grammar. The difference between a question, a statement and a command is purely on your face. How can the gloves interpret your face?

And she also points out the biggest thing I noticed when I first watched the video:

These guys are not signers. The signs they demoed are (laughably) not even correctly produced. Programming the device with incorrect input will not, as they say in their video, “translate American Sign Language into speech”. Without the collaboration of a deaf person (the targeted audience of these things), how do these guys even know that what they’re doing is right?

Sounds like a well-meaning experiment that may have merit in the future (like the Apple Watch?), but, as Katie says, presently impractical. (via @jonathonbellew)

Update: Alex Lu writes that deaf people don’t need new communications tools.

Deaf people should not have to wear gloves to make their words and presentation palatable to hearing people. You already have all the tools you need to communicate with us, if you would only learn how to use them. It is time that hearing people respect Deaf people for who they are, instead of forcing us to be empty caricatures of hearing standards.

A list of nonbinary gender identities

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 31, 2016

From the nonbinary.org wiki, a list of gender identities that aren’t male or female.

transgender is an umbrella term for all genders that go beyond society’s ideas of gender, which includes some kinds of binary gender people. Some call their gender identity simply “transgender,” as a nonbinary identity itself.

genderfuzz. Coined by lolzmelmel in 2014. “having multiple genders that are fuzzy and blurred together, making it impossible to identify each one individually or separate one from the rest. alternative names: blurgender (not to be confused with genderblur)

cosmicgender. Coined by dragon-friker in 2014. “A gender so vast and complex that you are only able to process a small bit of it at a time. like viewing the night sky through a telescope you cannot hope to see all of it at once however you may gain more knowledge about parts of it the longer you focus on one part. may contain any number of sub genders within it that may present themselves to you. it is infinite in its possibility. name from the vast reaches of space filled with things we cannot begin to imagine.”

hijra. In south Asian countries including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the Hijra are people assigned male at birth who have a feminine gender expression. This is a very ancient tradition. Today, Hijra are legally recognized as a gender other than female or male.

nocturnalgender. Coined by passengender in 2014. Any gender that feels more intense during the night, “but weak/nonexistent when it is light out.” Syn. batgender, owlgender, moongender. Counterpart: flowergender.

Fascinating.

Update: Sam Escobar answers some frequently asked questions about non-binary gender.

The gender binary separates those who identify as male or female, simple as that. Non-binary genders, however, don’t fit neatly within these two-they can be a combination of male and female, a fluid back-and-forth, or totally outside of the binary. Cisgender people, on the other hand, are folks whose identities align with the gender they were assigned at birth.

(via @djacobs)

Text editor restricted to 1000 most common words

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 31, 2016

Simple Language Editor

Inspired by Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer, Morten Just built a simple text editor for OS X that restricts your writing to the 1000 most common English words. You can also use Munroe’s Simple Writer on the web.

Business jargon we got used to

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 29, 2016

Everybody hates management-speak and corporate jargon, but here are some terms that people used to think of as horrible jargon that we all got used to. Maybe one day we’ll all be leveraging deliverables without a second thought.

(via @mulegirl)

Plagiarism of crossword puzzles

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 06, 2016

Not to be outdone by the recent New Yorker piece on cheating in bridge, FiveThirtyEight has written about allegations of plagiarism by a prominent crossword puzzle editor. Much like in the pro bridge case, an online repository of games has led to people uncovering inconsistencies in dozens of Timothy Parker’s crossword puzzles that would not have been otherwise noticed.

Crossword Plagiarism

There are two types of Parker’s puzzle duplications that the database has laid bare: what I’m calling the “shady” and the “shoddy.” The shady are puzzles that appeared in Universal or USA Today with themes and theme answers identical to puzzles published earlier and in separate, unrelated publications, most often The New York Times and occasionally the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune. In every such case I saw - roughly 100 cases - the theme answers were in identical locations within the grid, and in many cases, the later puzzle also replicated the earlier puzzle’s grid and some of its clues.

(via waxy)

The color thesaurus

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 03, 2016

Color Thesaurus

Color Thesaurus

Designer and author Ingrid Sundberg collects the names of colors and has compiled them into a color thesaurus.

Americanisms

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 04, 2016

The Economist style guide’s section on Americanisms is just a tad catty.

Try not to verb nouns or to adjective them. So do not access files, haemorrhage red ink (haemorrhage is a noun), let one event impact another, author books (still less co-author them), critique style guides, pressure colleagues (press will do), progress reports, source inputs, trial programmes or loan money. Avoid parenting and, even more assiduously, parenting skills. Gunned down means shot. And though it is sometimes necessary to use nouns as adjectives, there is no need to call an attempted coup a coup attempt, a suspected terrorist a terrorist suspect or the Californian legislature the California legislature. Vilest of all is the habit of throwing together several nouns into one ghastly adjectival reticule: Texas millionaire real-estate developer and failed thrift entrepreneur Hiram Turnipseed…

(via @mccanner)

Chinese nicknames for American pop stars

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 28, 2016

Ethnographer Christina Xu discovered a few of the nicknames that young Chinese fans have devised for American pop stars.

Nicki Minaj - 麻辣鸡 (má là ji): a slant transliteration of “Minaj”. Means spicy chicken (ma la is a spice combo commonly used in Sichuan cooking).

Drake - 公鸭 (gōng yā): Literally “male duck”, as in the definition of a “drake”. I laughed out loud when I finally figured this one out.

Kanye West - 侃爷 (kǎn yé): a transliteration of Kanye. In Beijing dialect, this means someone who brags a lot with no actions to follow it up.

Update: According to @billyroh’s coworker, Rihanna is known to some as “the Pop Queen of Shandong Province”.

A brief history of swearing in movies

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 20, 2016

Swearing in Hollywood movies was banned from the 1930s until 1968. And even then it took two more years for a movie (MASH) to use the word “fuck”. NSFW if you’ve got your fucking sound turned up.

The secret world of casinos

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 13, 2016

From Ben Schott, an examination of the inner workings, personnel, and lingo of casinos.

It is curious how irrational even experienced dealers and floor men can be, though inexplicable runs of luck may signal a flaw in security.

Supervisors have been known to perform a range of rituals to cool the action: Shaking salt behind players or under tables, turning the drop-box paddle around in its slot, standing on one leg, swapping out winning dice or cards-sometimes for replacements that have literally been chilled in a fridge. One shift manager places a folded surveillance photograph of a “lucky” player inside his shoe before walking the floor.

Craps is a hotbed of superstition. Pit bosses have been known to place seven ashtrays around a table, to spray paint the number seven on the table when changing the cloth and even to have “hot” tables moved an inch or so. Unscrupulous dealers might throw coins under the table to bring bad luck or find any excuse to touch the dice or brush against a shooter.

I still think it’s hilarious that casinos ban players for counting cards but it’s perfectly ok for the casinos to have the advantage in every single game they offer.

Editing as Punctuation in Film

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 12, 2016

Riffing on Kathryn Schulz’s piece about the five best punctuation marks in literature, Max Tohline explores how editing in film can function as punctuation to separate or join together characters, shots, and ideas within movies.

58 commonly misused words and phrases

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2015

From Steven Pinker’s book, The Sense of Style, here are some of the most common words and phrases that trip people up.

Bemused means bewildered and does not mean amused.

Correct: The unnecessarily complex plot left me bemused. / The silly comedy amused me.

Data is a plural count noun not, standardly speaking, a mass noun. [Note: “Data is rarely used as a plural today, just as candelabra and agenda long ago ceased to be plurals,” Pinker writes. “But I still like it.”]

Correct: “This datum supports the theory, but many of the other data refute it.”

Enormity means extreme evil and does not mean enormousness. [Note: It is acceptable to use it to mean a deplorable enormousness.]

Correct: The enormity of the terrorist bombing brought bystanders to tears. / The enormousness of the homework assignment required several hours of work.

A deplorable enormousness!

The Real Wi-Fi Of Baltimore

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 09, 2015

From Julia Kim Smith, The Real Wi-Fi Of Baltimore, a look at the names of wifi networks in various neighborhoods of Baltimore. Some favorites:

Abraham Linksys
NSA Surveillance Van
Fuck Off
Bill Wi The Science Fi

There was even a Wu Tang LAN sighting. Note: about 4 years ago, my wireless network was called hamsterdam. Currently: surfbort.

Writing while passive

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 20, 2015

In McSweeney’s, Vijith Assar writes about the increasingly pernicious use of the passive voice in the media and how it may have developed, one small step at a time, from:

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

to “the ultimate in passive voice”:

Speed was involved in a jumping-related accident while a fox was brown.

New language for slavery and the Civil War

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 15, 2015

Drawing upon the work of colleagues, historian Michael Todd Landis proposes new language for talking about slavery and the Civil War. In addition to favoring “labor camps” over the more romantic “plantations”, he suggests retiring the concept of the Union vs the Confederacy.

Specifically, let us drop the word “Union” when describing the United States side of the conflagration, as in “Union troops” versus “Confederate troops.” Instead of “Union,” we should say “United States.” By employing “Union” instead of “United States,” we are indirectly supporting the Confederate view of secession wherein the nation of the United States collapsed, having been built on a “sandy foundation” (according to rebel Vice President Alexander Stephens). In reality, however, the United States never ceased to exist. The Constitution continued to operate normally; elections were held; Congress, the presidency, and the courts functioned; diplomacy was conducted; taxes were collected; crimes were punished; etc. Yes, there was a massive, murderous rebellion in at least a dozen states, but that did not mean that the United States disappeared.

Why are parents called “mama” and “papa” worldwide?

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 15, 2015

In seemingly disparate languages around the world, the words for “mother” and “father” are surprisingly similar…usually “mama” or “nana” for “mother” and “papa”, “baba”, “dada”, or “tata” for “father”. It’s tempting to believe these parental words were all derived from a single proto-language, but according to the work of Roman Jakobson, the words come from the first sounds all babies make.

If you’re a baby making a random sound, the easiest vowel is ah because you can make it without doing anything with your tongue or lips. Then, if you are going to vary things at all, the first impulse is to break up the stream of ahhh by closing your lips for a spell, especially since you’ve been doing that to nurse. Hence, mmmm, such that you get a string of mahs as you keep the sound going while breaking it up at intervals.

(via df)

Climate change and boiling frogs

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 08, 2015

I made a boiling frogs analogy in my post about coral bleaching this morning.

The oceans are slowly boiling and we’re the frogs who aren’t noticing.

James Fallows has been waging a small war on the use of that analogy for several years now.

You remember our old friend the boiled frog: It’s the staple of any political or business-management speech, used to show that problems that build up slowly can be explained-away or ignored, while ones that happen all of a sudden are more likely to be addressed.

Conservatives use it to talk about the expansion of the socialist state. Liberals use it to talk about climate change. Business managers use it to talk about a slide toward mediocrity. Everyone can use it to talk about something.

And that’s the problem with boiled-frogism. The minor issue is that the metaphor is flat wrong. If you put a frog in a pot of lukewarm water and gradually heat it up, the frog will stay there — until things get uncomfortably warm, at which point it will climb out. But if you drop a frog into a boil of already-boiling water, the poor creature will be so badly hurt and scalded that it will stay there and die.

I’m going to defend my usage just a little. The ocean is literally water that is getting warmer. But other than that, yeah, guilty as charged. (via @jpiz)

The earliest use of “fuck”

posted by Tim Carmody   Sep 14, 2015

Get ready to update the OED. There’s a new attestation of English’s most colorful and versatile word, from the year 1310.

Dr Paul Booth of Keele University spotted the name in ‘Roger Fuckebythenavele’ in the [Cheshire] county court plea rolls beginning on December 8, 1310. The man was being named three times part of a process to be outlawed, with the final mention coming on September 28, 1311.

Dr Booth believes that “this surname is presumably a nickname. I suggest it could either mean an actual attempt at copulation by an inexperienced youth, later reported by a rejected girlfriend, or an equivalent of the word ‘dimwit’ i.e. a man who might think that that was the correct way to go about it.”

We’ve doubtlessly been using the word “fuck” in English for a lot longer; this is just an unusual set of conditions that’s led it to be preserved in the written record. Like an animal falling into a tar pit.

(Via @kirstinbutler)

The life and death of languages

posted by Tim Carmody   Sep 11, 2015

John McWhorter looks at Aramaic, once the lingua franca of the near east, now reduced to about half a million speakers (who separately call it Chaldean, Syriac, Assyrian, Mandaic, etc.).

Aramaic, then, is in a splintered and tenuous state. Yet it was the English of its time—a language that united a large number of distinct peoples across a vast region, a key to accessing life beyond one’s village, and a mark of sophistication to many. The Aramaeans—according to Biblical lore named for Noah’s grandson Aram—started as a little-known nomadic group. But they were seekers, and by the 11th century B.C.E. they ruled large swaths of territory in Mesopotamia, encompassing parts of modern-day Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, including, for a spell, the city of Babylon itself. On the basis of this expansion alone, however, theirs would likely have become just one of various languages of the area that briefly enjoyed fame and then vanished in the endless game of musical chairs that was ancient Middle Eastern politics. The Aramaeans themselves were in Babylon only temporarily: In 911 B.C.E., the Assyrians, who spoke a language called Akkadian, ousted them. But the Assyrians unwittingly helped the Aramaeans’ language extinguish their own.

Namely, the Assyrians deported Aramaic-speakers far and wide, to Egypt and elsewhere. The Assyrians may have thought they were clearing their new territory, but this was like blowing on a fluffy milkweed and thinking of it as destruction rather than dissemination: The little seeds take root elsewhere.

There are many differences between English and Aramaic — English is supposedly simple and easy to learn, while Aramaic is manifestly not — but that actually had little effect on English’s emergence as a global language, or on Aramaic’s rise and decline. But one set of differences between the two languages, McWhorter argues, really is material:

At this point, I am supposed to write that English’s preeminence could end as easily as Aramaic’s. Actually, however, I doubt it: I suspect that English will hold on harder and longer than any language in history. It happened to rise to its current position at a time when three things had happened, profoundly transformative enough to stop the music, as it were: print, widespread literacy, and an omnipresent media.

Together, these things can drill a language into international consciousness in a historically unprecedented way, creating a sense of what is normal, cosmopolitan, cool even—arbitrary but possibly impregnable. If the Chinese, for example, rule the world someday, I suspect they will do it in English, just as King Darius ruled in Aramaic and Kublai Khan, despite speaking Mongolian, ruled China through Chinese translators in the 13th century C.E. Aramaic held sway at a time when a lingua franca was more fragile than it is today.

Restaurant menu definitions

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 31, 2015

All the terminology on fancy restaurant menus can be overwhelming. From Judy Wu at Gaper’s Block, a glossary of common menu items and terms.

Gluten-Free: This dish contains a small trace of gluten, but a full dollop of bullshit.

Duck Fat: Duck fat fries, rillette, popcorn, confit, Brussels sprouts — never skip this menu item.

Amish: This chicken was raised without electricity and fear.

Dictionary Stories

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 26, 2015

Jez Burrows is writing short stories composed of example sentences from the New Oxford American Dictionary. Here’s a story called Noir; the underlined words are those from which the example sentences are drawn:

The midnight hours. The rain had not stopped for days. A stranger slowly approached from the shadows. The walls threw back the echoes of his footsteps. His voice was low and shaky with emotion. A day’s growth of unshaven stubble on his chin. He took an envelope from his inside pocket. Her alabaster cheeks flushed with warmth, high cheekbones powdered with freckles. “We should talk somewhere less public.” She grabbed him by the shirt collar. “We’re going to settle this here and now.” He drew a deep, shuddering breath. Chest pains. A trickle of blood. She was smiling. “I got all dolled up for a party.”

A total clustercuss

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 24, 2015

I hadn’t realized there was so much cussing swearing in Wes Anderson’s movies. Here are some damn examples:

Just realized what the world is missing: the “fuck fuck fuck” scene from the first season of The Wire, but done in the style of (“cuss cuss mothercusser”) and with the characters from Fantastic Mr. Fox.

The lost language of gay English men

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 21, 2015

Polari was a secret slang language spoken by gay men in England so that they could converse together in public without fear of arrest. It fell into disuse in the 1960s, but this short film by Brian Fairbairn and Karl Eccleston features a conversation conducted entirely in Polari.

This Slate article has more on the film and Polari.

Of all the cultural forms that gay men have created and elaborated since coalescing into a social group around the late 19th century, Polari, a full-fledged gay English dialect with roots among circus folk, sailors, and prostitutes, has to be one of the most fascinating-not least since it has faded along with the need for discretion and secrecy. While some words remain in common use-zhush or zhoosh (to adjust or embellish something to make it more pleasing) and trade (highly masculine or straight-acting sex partners) come to mind — the richness that we know once defined Polari is difficult to capture in 2015.

Food truck name ideas

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 21, 2015

From Mark Christian, a selection of deliciously pun-filled food truck name ideas. Some favorites:

Shwarmageddon
Calamari Damacy
Get Quiche Or Die Tryin’
What About Kebab?
Planet of the Crepes
Naan Disclosure Agreement
Entrée the Giant

(via @mathowie)

Their life without gender

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 10, 2015

Tyler Ford

Tyler Ford was born a girl, transitioned to being a man in college, but now identifies as an agender person.

I have been out as an agender, or genderless, person for about a year now. To me, this simply means having the freedom to exist as a person without being confined by the limits of the western gender binary. I wear what I want to wear, and do what I want to do, because it is absurd to limit myself to certain activities, behaviours or expressions based on gender. People don’t know what to make of me when they see me, because they feel my features contradict one another. They see no room for the curve of my hips to coexist with my facial hair; they desperately want me to be someone they can easily categorise. My existence causes people to question everything they have been taught about gender, which in turn inspires them to question what they know about themselves, and that scares them. Strangers are often desperate to figure out what genitalia I have, in the hope that my body holds the key to some great secret and unavoidable truth about myself and my gender. It doesn’t. My words hold my truth. My body is simply the vehicle that gives me the opportunity to express myself.

Ford uses the “they”, “them”, and “their” pronouns to refer to themselves. (Is it themselves? Or would it be themself? English is a relatively young and fluid language but even it can’t keep up.)

Maps of the United States of Swearing

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 30, 2015

Most everyone in the United States swears, but the specific words used vary by region. For example, “fuck” is popular in California but not so much in Oklahoma, which is the “crap” epicenter of America. “Motherfucker” is unusually popular in Maine, as is “shit” in the Southeast, “douche” in Iowa, and “fuckboy” in Jersey.

United States of Swearing

United States of Swearing

United States of Swearing

Translating Seinfeld

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 26, 2015

Translating episodes of Seinfeld (and other sitcoms that rely on wordplay) is not an easy task. The Verge’s Jennifer Armstrong has a piece that focuses mostly on the struggle to translate Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer’s antics for a German audience.

Seinfeld’s Jewish references posed a unique challenge: as Sebastian explained, “The Germans have a certain you-know-what with the Jewish.” Her editor was worried about some of Seinfeld’s Jewish jokes. “We better not say it like that,” she remembered her editor saying, “because the Germans may be offended.” She added later, recalling the incident to me, “They should be offended, in my understanding. They did it!”

Sebastian appreciated Seinfeld’s direct approach to Jewish history. She wanted to use jokes in direct translation, but the editor wouldn’t let her. She lost several battles. It was a fine line: Der Suppen-Nazi? Sure. Subtle reference to an uncle who survived a concentration camp? Not so fast. An entire episode based on George being mistaken for a neo-Nazi was problematic. So were references to the TV miniseries Holocaust and the film Schindler’s List. Take Elaine’s voiceover narration in “The Subway” episode when her train gets stuck: “We are in a cage. … Oh, I can’t breathe, I feel faint. Take it easy, it’ll start moving soon. Think about the people in the concentration camps, what they went through.”

(via mr)

The game is the game

posted by Jason Kottke   May 28, 2015

It is what it is. What’s done is done. My name is not my name. My name is my name.1 Derek Donahue found all of the tautologies from The Wire and collected them into one video:

These types of phrases characterize the immovable forces the characters feel govern their lives and actions: poverty, bureaucracy, addiction, institutional corruption, ethnicity, etc.

  1. The juxtaposition of Vondas’ “my name is not my name” from season two and “my name is my name” from Marlo in the final season is one of my favorite little moments in the show. Two men pursuing similar ends going about it in opposite ways.