Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

A Word of Advice to Environmental Advocates: Stop Saying “Game Over”

It’s not helping…

The phrase “Game Over” has recurred several times over the last few months when scientists talk about the environment: Most famously, James Hansen of NASA said it about the potential impact of the Keystone pipeline; recently, Jane C.S. Long told The New Yorker that it would be “game over” if Arctic permafrost started to melt; the phrase has appeared in headlines and op-eds about seemingly every environmental issue.

I’m not sure if one scientist said it first, and everyone else thought it sounded cool, or if some liberal Frank Luntz-type sent some memo about the phrase to environmental advocates everywhere, or if it’s just a coincidence. Either why, though, they should really stop, for at least six reasons:

 

1) Saying “Game Over” makes you sound like you are talking about a video game Continue reading

The Best First Lines in Music

In yesterday’s Pretty Little Liars recap Tim called the opening line of The Outfield’s “Your Love” his favorite opening line to any song ever. He even dared me to come up with a list of songs topping it.

Well, in the immortal words of Barney Stinson…

And I have bad news for you, Tim, “Your Love” doesn’t even crack my Top 50.

Of course, the topic raises several tricky questions: What constitutes an opening line? The first complete sentence? The first rhyming couplet? Until the first pause? And what criteria should we use to evaluate “the best” opening line? The catchiest? The most memorable?

I ended up being pretty flexible on both questions. Some of these lyrics were chosen because they are legitimately great lyrics. Others were chosen because of how they’re sung. Others are chosen because they are the most iconic moments of great songs. I’m sure I’m forgetting some great ones (I had only one day, chill out!), but here is an initial draft of the Top 50 opening lines in music history: Continue reading

This Day in Revisionist History

January 26:

“You know, putting aside for a moment the atrocities of battle, you have to admit we live in a pretty hilarious time!” – Lieutenant William Gilliam, as he led his troops against the Walla-Walla, at the Battle of Seattle.

There are few things in history cooler than a sloop-of-war, and in the mid-nineteenth century, when it came to sloops, few were as “of war” as the Decatur, which on this particular day in 1856 was anchored in Elliott Bay. However, what could have been simply a “cool” battle turned into one of history’s most absurd stories. (Note: I’m not making any of these names up. Seriously.)

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The Drawing Board: Plagiarism

Is plagiarism bad? People have discussed it before, but I can’t exactly tell you what they said, now can I? I guess I could, if I put it in my own words. But I don’t have any words. I got mine from a dictionary written by this guy—I don’t want to say his name because you bastards will probably tip him off that I’m stealing his words. Or I could cite the source, but I don’t have my own system of citation, and I’m not about to just rip off the Modern Lang…er, I mean, no one.

That first paragraph is what’s called satire. We learned about it in 10th grade. It’s when you say something really smart, but then you trick people into thinking you want to eat babies for food. I’ll spare you that part and just tell you: The really smart thing I was trying to say is that plagiarism isn’t easy to understand, and it’s not necessarily bad. I bet we’ve all benefited from plagiarism at some point in our lives. I know I have. Let’s just say that without plagiarism, this would be my very first column.

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In Defense of -Gate

Tim: You know what bothers me? People adding ‘-gate’ to the end of every scandal. Like this ‘Spygate’ thing. It doesn’t make sense. Watergate was a place–not a scandal about water.

Me: Yeah…

Tim: It’s like how we add ‘–oholic’ to the ends of things we’re addicted to, even though ‘-oholic’ is not a suffix.

Me: You’re right. Gateoholicgate is really quite the scandal.

—Conversation circa 2007

Like most fans of language, I find many of the linguistic phenomena of the last few years to be nonsensical, stupid, meaningless, and annoying. This was, basically, how I felt about the ‘-gate’ suffix we now habitually attach to every scandal. Since Tim and I first discussed this problem, we have seen Climategate, Troopergate, Kanyegate, Tigergate, Cablegate, and even something called “Sexy Photo Gate.” In fact, the suffix is now so common that it is attached to things that pass through the news cycle so quickly that they barely qualify as scandals.

My objections stemmed mainly from the historical inaccuracy of the source. As Tim said in the epigraph, the original “-gate” scandal, Watergate, was not a scandal about water, as the current usage would imply. More importantly, though, comparing Richard Nixon’s high crimes and conspiratorial nefariousness with a pop star who exposed her breast on television struck me as a false equivalency. Indeed, it was a brilliant political stroke by William Safire, who initially popularized the usage, at least in part to help dilute the impact of the crimes of his former boss. Continue reading

The Drawing Board: Phrases

We’ve all grown sick and tired of the dime-a-dozen axioms, idioms, and platitudes that pepper our language. It’s high time someone took them back to the drawing board. (It’s me—I’m going to take them back to the drawing board.)

An apple a day keeps the doctor away. This one doesn’t even make any sense. Away from what? Also, is this even empirically testable? I tried it once and got sick of it on the first day. Apples blow.

Jake’s suggestion: If you’re hurt real bad, and you need a doctor, for God’s sake put down the apple  because what if it’s true?

A bird in a hand is worth two in a bush. Try telling that to the head bird keeper of Scripps Aviary at the San Diego Zoo. I went down there last weekend, figured I’d make a few extra bucks. Brought in a one-eyed pigeon I’d plucked from a sewer and tried to trade it in for a couple of rare gold-breasted starlings they had. No dice. Turns out, she tells me, that saying only applies when they’re the same type of bird. Well, I went back the next day with a blue-naped mousebird, but she wouldn’t give me a two-for-one. That right there explains a lot about that aviary.

Jake’s suggestion: A bird in a hand is likely to transmit one of many communicable diseases. Continue reading

Humble Pie

Did I miss something? Has there been a change that Dictionary.com has yet to reflect in how we define the word “humble”? It still means to be “modest” or “having a feeling of insignificance,” right? Then how come the acceptance speech for every award has to include some variation of the word “humble”?

It’s not like “humble” is an article like “the” or a conjunction like “and” or a preposition like “of”—you know, the words that find their way into everyday sentences because it would be impossible to speak without them. “Humble” is not grammatically essential. It is common but not ubiquitous in our parlance. It is only used in one cliché—when someone emerges from “humble beginnings.” So why does “humble” appear in award acceptance speeches about as often as the word “I”?

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Symposium on Handwriting Part III: Why Handwriting’s Demise is Still Awesome

I acknowledged that there were trade-offs with less emphasis on handwriting. And, perhaps the most significant is the reduction in the supply of beautiful penmanship such as that exhibited by Tim.

Unfortunately, Tim’s analysis isn’t nearly as persuasive as his handwriting is beautiful. Let me first offer a general critique of Tim’s argument.

Tim claims “So if I understand Josh’s whole argument correctly, he wants schools to limit to a greater extent the time they spend teaching handwriting” and proceeds to list an array of negative consequences that flow from reduced basic handwriting skills. The problem with this is Tim offers no analysis whatsoever of how much handwriting instruction needs to be reduced for children to reach such a level of handwriting ineptitude that all of these negative consequences result. Is 70 minutes per week not enough: if not, why? While I probably favor the elimination of cursive instruction, I certainly never advocated the complete elimination of handwriting instruction; given that fact, it’s not clear at all to me that after 25 minutes per week in class, for example, the marginal benefit of additional handwriting instruction is particularly high. Tim needs to argue that it is if he wants to justifiably claim all of the benefits that he’s claiming.
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Handwriting Symposium Part II: In Defense of Handwriting

Josh’s opening salvo in the symposium, explaining why the demise of handwriting is “awesome,” can be found here. And I apologize for the “Tim” not coming out too well up top; I’m not used to signing just my first name.

I think I should be clear on my position from the start: I am not a technophobe. I have two iPods and a Blackberry. I own and frequently use a laptop. I do a lot of typing. I typed this whole post. I do not advocate that college students be required to handwrite their theses or even simple 5-7 page papers. I do not think we should spend hours each day in the classroom learning proper Palmer technique or calligraphy so as to make our penmanship more artistic or romantic. I’m even on board with the printing press, which I think is a pretty neat invention.

I want to make a very simple point: Josh, the demise of handwriting is not “awesome.” It is not awesome because handwriting is intimately tied to learning proper composition* in young children, and it is a personal means of communication that cannot be duplicated through the medium of a computer.

*Composition here meaning the ability to structure an argument or a story—more likely a story for this age group.

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Must We Win?

Tim and I have each spent time challenging the uses and abuses of the English language. Josh, for his part, has highlighted words the make him cringe. It’s not unfair to say that we are sticklers for linguistic precision here at NPI.

So it is with this in mind that I take umbrage with the overuse of the phrase “must-win” in sports parlance. When the Yankees lost Game 1 of the World Series, people started calling the next game a “must-win” for New York. Except that it wasn’t. “Must” means that something has to happen, from the sheer force of necessity. The Yankees were down one game in a best-of-seven; they didn’t need to do anything. Continue reading