Posts Tagged ‘Language’

Monday Medley

What we read while the government spying- NEVERMIND EVERYTHING’S FINE!

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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

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

Stylish

9780205309023Who died and put Strunk and White in charge of the English language?

If you talk to anyone who takes the rules of grammar and usage seriously, the names Strunk and White are bound to come up. The Elements of Style, the “little book” that was originally self-published by Professor William Strunk, Jr. at Cornell University and then, fifty years ago, was edited and mass produced by his former student, E.B. White, has become the definitive authority for amateur grammarians.

Wondering what constitutes a split infinitive? Check Strunk and White. Need to know when to use a semicolon? Check Strunk and White. What’s the difference between “shall” and “will”? Check Strunk and White.

But where exactly does their authority come from?

On the one hand, it comes from the fact that the snobs who always correct you when you misuse the subjunctive mood and wince when you use “good” as an adverb generally worship at the alter of Strunk and White. Its brevity and sardonic tone (“Prestigious: Often an adjective of last resort. It’s in the dictionary, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it.”) help to make it handy for every show-off on the go. Continue reading

Plagiarism Symposium Part I: Whose Own Words?

A scandal has broken out over at InfiniteSummer.org. I should stress that this scandal is entirely personal—everyone else has known about this for years.

Last December, I read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest for the first time, and it instantly became one of my favorite novels of all-time, if not my outright favorite.

When I read it, however, I was not aware of something Kevin Guilfoile points out at the Infinite Summer website. At one point early in the novel (actually, it’s page 139,but that’s early when the book is over 1,000 pages long) Wallace includes a transcript of an insurance claim made by a bricklayer after an unfortunate accident. The story is quite humorously told. Apparently, though, not only is the story not original to the book, but it’s practically folklore. Continue reading

Cringeworthy Words

In a past Monday Medley, we linked to a list of the most beautiful words in the English language. Tyler Cowen lists the words that make him wince based on this article:

“Some contenders:noah_webster_dictionary_1828_small

pulchritude
chillax
hubby
no-brainer
webinar
staycation
any word starting with “mommy”

What can you add to this list?”

Continue reading