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February 8, 2012

When we were young, we talked about ideas. Now all we talk about is words.
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 05:17 PM * 381 comments

From Marx, Anarchism and Web Standards, which Patrick sidelighted the other day:

This tendency [using terms of art to increase information density] means that most language that’s specific to a domain will generally trend towards the usable at the expense of the learnable. The impact this has on individuals new to the domain, however, is that of a wall. An impediment. Overcoming this obstacle requires a bit of good faith on the part of the beginner; to cross quickly over the chasm between beginner and expert, they must recognize and respect this aspect of the conversations they will invariably become a part of. When faced with a term that is used in a strange way, beginners should ask for clarification, and not start arguments over semantics they don’t yet even understand. Experts will recognize these arguments as coming from a place where concepts are not yet fully understood, and while they may recognize the need to help educate, if the newbie is being belligerent, they may just ignore them instead. Nobody wins; the signal/noise ratio has been decreased, the beginner doesn’t learn, and everyone’s time is wasted.

I read this and my moderator ears pricked right up. This is one of the classic failure modes of online conversation, particularly in social justice and civil rights circles. I estimate that it leads to wank, flamewar and exasperation about 75% of the time it appears.

What happens is this: a conversation will be bubbling along nicely, and someone will start questioning whether the term “racism” really covers the matter at hand—and doesn’t cover some other point they’d like to bring in. Or “sexism”, or “misogyny”. Is “homophobia” really a fear-based phenomenon? There’s always at least one person who thinks that all these baked-in inequalities are bad and all that, but that everyone’s energy really should be spent finding a better word than “privilege” to describe the situation. As long as we don’t fall back on “patriarchy” or “kyriarchy”, of course.

Sometimes it’s a genuine derail—someone doesn’t want to hear what’s being discussed, and starts a vocabulary fight to shut the conversation down. Your basic troll, looking to start something any old way, will have this technique in the arsenal.

Other times, the commenter is one of those people who has their ego shackled tightly to their intelligence, and prides themselves on the idea that they could, given an afternoon and plenty of tea, finally resolve this whole free will/determinism thing once and for all. So they’re trying to reinvent generations of scholarship and jargon-polishing from scratch, only better this time (because they’re involved). ‘Splainers of all stripes fall into this category, as do people whose worldview derives from an insufficiently nuanced set of base principles. They don’t really care how the content of the conversation comes out, as long as they’re on the podium at the end.

And sometimes, alas, it’s just someone who’s been argued into a corner on other matters, and is now fending off all comers in all ways. Those are the saddest ones. I try not to let that happen here, though I do fail at times.

But every now and then it’s the real deal—someone for whom the world is unfolding in a new way right then; they’re groping around for the next key and the next lock to put it in, becoming addicted to the sensation of a bunch of disparate phenomena fitting together into a new conceptional whole. You can tell these ones because they start discussing the terminology shortly after it first appears, using open questions, and genuinely responding to replies. These guys are pure gold, worth all the wankers and infraponts you have to put up with to get to them.

Of course, every conversation, and every community is different. Your mileage may vary. Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear. Please wait for the ride to come to a complete stop before exiting the vehicle.


edited to add:

The other way that these things go wrong is when the community reacts to someone of the third or fourth types as being type one or two.

Sometimes it’s bad pattern-matching, particularly in places where there have been far too many genuine trolls, derailers and ‘splainers. So it happens more often in political contexts than it does in, say, scientific or bookbinding communities, where the population of people with the impulse to intervene destructively is so much smaller.

And sometimes it’s that communities, like people, can tie their egos to their collective rightness. Then every newcomer with a question becomes a knight approaching the dragon’s cave: clearly on a quest, and about to get flambéd.

Comments on When we were young, we talked about ideas. Now all we talk about is words.:
#1 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2012, 06:18 PM:

Speaking as someone who recognizes himself as a sometime-Case 2 (ego attached to intelligence) sufferer, I wonder if there isn't another case: Someone who genuinely believes the language being used is insufficient to a sufficiently nuanced discussion.

Does this have a place of its own in your taxonomy, is it just a Case 2 variant?

#2 ::: soru ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2012, 06:33 PM:

Sure, no-one likes Etymology man.

But outside that, not sure I particularly buy this without a bunch of caveats that don't seem to be present. Is it really impossible to end up using some language that unhelpfully merges two distinct things? Would things really be exactly the same if there was, say, a single word used for both rape and misogyny, or two words for unconscious racial bias and organised political bigotry?

Surely implicit in the idea of having an expert community which people are supposed to approach in a humble and respectful way is that there is some worthwhile expertise, some true knowledge, to be gained from doing so?

Is that inevitably the case for all such communities?

If not, is the political history of the US left in the last 30 years really such a shining beacon of success that the rest of the world should be treating it with that kind of respect?

#3 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2012, 07:02 PM:

infrapont

Lovely word. Thank you, abi, for a genuinely useful and graceful addition to the jargon.

#4 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2012, 07:13 PM:

John A Arkansawyer #1: It's certainly possible that the existing conversationalists have overlooked a key distinction... but in an ongoing discussion, such distinctions do tend to get brought up naturally.

When someone challenges the "central terms" of a discussion, if they have a case, it'll be obvious. Otherwise... it's unfortunately far more likely that they're trying to move the goalposts, declare a No True Scotsman, or otherwise disrupt the argument.

soru #2: Would things really be exactly the same if there was, say, a single word used for both rape and misogyny, or two words for unconscious racial bias and organised political bigotry?

Pretty much. "The map is not the terrain". While language can be used to manipulate people's perceptions, it's normally used to represent reality -- and there's a long tradition of language shifting to represent new views of reality. Which brings us back to the jargon problem....

#5 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2012, 07:15 PM:

soru:

is the political history of the US left in the last 30 years really such a shining beacon of success that the rest of the world should be treating it with that kind of respect?

*snort*. Short answer: no. Longer answer: Hell, no. Yet longer answer: Trotskyite whacking is not a useful political behavior.

In my experience one of the nastier dangers of using jargon is that the words often become the masters, as Humpty-Dumpty would say. Just because we have a word to describe a concept does not mean either that the concept is coherent or that it represents something in the external world, outside our discourse. But having a word can seduce us into believing there's a referent for it.

#6 ::: Debio ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2012, 07:32 PM:

I don't post here often, though I have been lurking for several years now.

I don't usually post because, well, I'm shy. I often don't think I have anything to add that doesn't sound like one of the stoopidz*.

When it comes to the more controversial topics I don't post because I fear that I'll sound like a category 1 or 2 person. I hope I'm in category 3.

The moderation and community here is great. So I really shouldn't be reluctant to post.

But I have seen, on other sites, people who I thought were really trying to learn. Frequently, they would get dog piled, or if they were lucky, ignored.

As I said, ML is different, and I do very much appreciate the way Abi and everyone else, takes care of new folks.

I'll go back to lurking and learning now.

*stoopidz = a condition in which one does not take the time to think through what they are saying or doing. No ideological, political, or religious view is immune to the stoopidz. Myself included.

#7 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2012, 07:42 PM:

Ditto Bruce Cohen (StM) @ 3--I recall reading the thread in which "infrapont" made its first appearance, being confused, and then getting the meaningful flash in the old brainpan. Wonderful.

soru @ 2:
Surely implicit in the idea of having an expert community which people are supposed to approach in a humble and respectful way is that there is some worthwhile expertise, some true knowledge, to be gained from doing so?

I'm not sure where you got "approach in a humble and respectful way" out of abi's OP, which I took to mean that any newcomer to any site, when considering interacting on a thread that has the potential to generate more heat than light, might want to consider asking for definitions of terminology being used in unfamiliar ways. Of course, I'd also like to see the experts take a stab at offering an explanation to a newbie who appears to have misunderstood such usage.

There's no guarantee that either side will, as a result, immediately purge all potential misunderstanding, eliminate the ability of determined trolls to derail the thread, or keep those of use who like to think we know what all the words REALLY MEAN from stuffing our tuppence into the conversation, however well intentioned we are (***waves at John A Arkansawyer***).

The thing is, we have to have conversations with the words we have. We can certainly try to create new verbiage to cover a case in a more specific or precise way, but there's nothing to say such new terminology is really going to make the conversation more easily understood, especially when we'd have to stop and explain the new term(s); explain why we think it is/they are better than whatever word/phrase is "up for" replacement, if you will; and try to gain consensus/agreement to use the new verbiage.

It might well make the problem--the wall making participation by newbies more difficult--even worse.

I dunno. I'm concerned I'm not getting the full meaning of soru's post, so if I've missed it, my apologies.

#8 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2012, 07:46 PM:

Me @ 7: "...keep those of us..." Egad, I hate missing typos during Preview, especially here! :)

#9 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2012, 08:30 PM:

Is there any information handy about how the concept of intersectionality came to be adopted? I have a bet with myself about what the process was like, but I might be wrong.

#10 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2012, 09:11 PM:

There is a grave danger, I note as a look at the headline, of forgetting that ideas are words. Words with a significant freight of meaning that affect how we act in the world, what we take from the world, and what we give to the world. That's why, inter alia, infrapontal residents are so dangerous. They diminish the value of ideas.

Thomas Hobbes, who was a wise fellow, wrote "words are wise men's counters; they are the money of fools". He had a point, but words are still valuable. It's damned hard to communicate without them, though people can, and they convey concepts in the most compact way. Hobbes, after all, was using words to persuade us to obey an absolute sovereign, and had no other tool with which to do so since he was publishing his philosophical tract in a country where the censorship had collapsed (two years after a Mr John Milton had issued his immortal plea for the liberty of unlicensed printing).

Like coined money (or paper money, for that matter), words are utensils of craft. It is learning how to use them as tools, and how best to deploy them that enables us to create the kind of possibilities for opening worlds that Abi is talking about. That is, I find, more than craft. It is both art and science.

What I really enjoy about ML is seeing so many people here who appreciate that fact.

#11 ::: debio ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2012, 09:26 PM:

Hmm, let's test the waters a bit.

Infrapont...

Could someone explain this to me? Keep in mind I've been in Japan for the last 15 years and am woefully behind in many things.

I have a general idea from the context. I probably wouldn't like it applied to me, for example. So I shall try to avoid that.

#12 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2012, 09:28 PM:

debio: infra, beneath; pont, bridge. A reference to a dweller beneath a bridge, and to a tale where the being who lived there was a troll. 'Infrapont' is an elegant circumlocution for 'troll' (even though the term comes from the fishing style rather than the monster of folk tale).

#13 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2012, 09:29 PM:

Uh-oh. Did I just become Etymology Man? Drat.

#14 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2012, 09:30 PM:

Thanks, Xopher and debio. I was wondering the same thing.

Google searches kept turning up the domain name with the .hu extension. And this page, of course.

#15 ::: debio ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2012, 09:43 PM:

Well, dagnabbit, I should have figured that one myself. Here the entire post was about etymology.

No, I don't think you are Etymology Man.

It seems to me that Etymology Man gets to decide whether you need saving or not, regardless of whether you think so.

*Has image of big burly man helping little old lady cross the street, then being beaten with her umbrella because she didn't want to cross the street.

#16 ::: StochasticBird ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2012, 10:21 PM:

Bruce Cohen #5:

Well put. I've been thinking about that today after watching (yet another) space ostensibly inhabited by people of a relatively similar political/social stripe (radical feminists) completely dissolve into a frenzy of backbiting and useless shitslinging. It's really depressing to watch it happen, again and again and again.

What's interesting, though, is how the language has shifted and how that facilitates or completely destroys any hope of actual conversation. Every disagreement that I saw turned into accusations of "denying my lived experience" or "reverse oppression" or "bullying". And in every case, the fact that someone had used those words, as I read it, meant that that person felt that their argument immediately trumped every other argument that could possibly made.

All of those concepts are quite valid and useful, much like the concept of privilege itself. But somewhere back in the mists of time, it seems like we learned that these were "trump card" arguments, because when they were originally coined, they were in situations where they were true and meaningful. In the context of today's kerfluffle, they're just shorthands for "shut up".

The same can be true sometimes (and this bugs me) of things like Derailment for Dummies. Yup, every statement in there is a classic derailment tactic, but occasionally they're all really valid criticisms. Is it a "tone argument" to ask a feminist not to crap all over trans people? To not call them gender traitors? I don't think so, but apparently a lot of people do. Or at least people can strategically employ the concept to defend themselves in untenable conversations.

The map isn't the territory. Sometimes it's just a set of brightly-colored, neatly-outlined, to-scale Hitherbys.

#17 ::: Leah Miller ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2012, 10:52 PM:

Oh man, I just recently had a run-in with that free will vs. determinism thing... that specific example, with that exact problem, just a few days ago. Eventually the problem made me just disengage with the entire conversation and go elsewhere. I have since returned to that forum but not that specific thread. I'll see it popping up with new posts periodically, but I can feel my blood pressure going up even looking at the title, so I refrain.

The person in question was insisting that the modern definition of free will is completely compatible with the idea of a deterministic universe. When I said that my conception of free will is incompatible with the idea of a completely physically deterministic universe (but compatible with a chaotic one), they accused me of soliphism (another word I think they were trying to redefine.)

This was related to my description of a dumb philosophical paradox I discovered when I was a teenager: say I believe free will exists; either I'm right, or the universe is deterministic so it's not my fault that I'm wrong... it's not like I could have chosen to believe differently!

The funny thing is that redefining free will doesn't actually negate that paradox... either things could have happened differently or they could not have. By trying to redefine the terms, all you do is make the paradox slightly harder to describe; the premise itself is still valid.

I'm trying to find a way to describe what I found interesting and disturbing about the tone that I encountered in that particular discussion, but it's really difficult to do without sounding either trollish or condescending. I'm aware that my little rhetorical trick may be vaguely obnoxious to some, even though it's not intended that way, but this was the first time I triggered this specific reaction. Days later I'm still trying to explain why that encounter was so troubling, but I think this thread may help me with that.

#18 ::: Doug Burbidge ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2012, 11:28 PM:

T.S. Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions suggests that specific domains must have specific jargons and specific meanings for words -- without this, he says, every conversation would have to start from scratch defining terms; with it, everybody can start from the current level and build up.

#19 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2012, 11:38 PM:

StochasticBird, have you met the Onlinemanship Wikia? I think the page you want this evening is called Reason has nothing to do with it.

That one comes up a lot.

#20 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2012, 11:42 PM:

Is it really impossible to end up using some language that unhelpfully merges two distinct things?

One thing I have learned hard is that if someone, or some community, is using language that merges two distinguishable things, it is sometimes because they don't want those things distinguished, and will vehemently resist attempts to distinguish them. So what seems like a straightforwardly helpful offer of clarification or distinction is received and responded to as an attack, or a sign of some sort of ulterior motive, etc.

IOW, what you describe is far from impossible, but when it does happen, it didn't always happen by accident. And opinions on the helpfulness of the merger may vary.

#21 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2012, 11:44 PM:

I spent today trying to unpack and understand information-dense mathematical vocabulary including "stochastic sensitivity coefficients" and "multidimensional Hermite polynomials."

So when I read the quoted paragraph up through When faced with a term that is used in a strange way, beginners should ask for clarification, I thought it was about what I'd been doing today.

Then I read and not start arguments over semantics they don’t yet even understand and assumed it must be about internet social justice arguments.

Then I clicked through and read the article and it starts off being about internet Ruby arguments.

My brain is fried and I'm feeling my way through this post. So I apologize for incoherency. But I think it's related somehow.

I spend pretty much all my time trying to climb over walls between "beginner" and "expert" in all kinds of topics, and as soon as I get over one wall, I'm immediately trying to climb over another. It gets damned demoralizing sometimes. I'm used to feeling all the time like I've jumped into a conversation I don't know anything about, that I probably have no right to be in, and scrambling to understand all the vocabulary (in my field, including mathematical notation).

So I check references, and references to references, and nth-level references, and search for review papers, and dig and dig and beat my head against the wall until I find something written in a more didactic, "learnable" way -- something that unpacks the vocabulary or notation in terms of concepts I already do know about. That's what I did today. (The amount of effort this usually takes makes me feel like the number of concepts I already know about must approach zero.)

But since the "conversations" I've jumped into are between published scientific papers, not people on the internet, I can't really interrupt, much less get belligerent. Nor would I want to.

And anyway, my reaction is always "I'm so stupid for not understanding this," not "This is so stupid for not being something I understand." My failure mode is "I have no right to even think I could contribute something useful to this conversation."

Probably you can see already how this intersects with the Imposter Phenomenon -- even after I do that digging and work to learn the concepts, vocab, and notation, I still feel like I don't know enough to be worthy of contributing to the conversation.

In some scientific conversation spaces, and some social justice conversation spaces, there's a culture of oneupmanship that doesn't help. In those spaces, correcting (or calling out) somebody else is a way to increase your status and decrease their status. In order to maintain your "expert" status in those spaces, you've got to constantly be telling other people they don't deserve their "expert" status.

As someone who constantly doubts my own "expert" status anyway, I'm pretty sensitive to that sort of thing.

In social justice conversations especially, there's also often the unwritten rule that beginners ought not ask for clarification, but ought to go and figure things out on their own. Requests for clarification are summarily treated as derail attempts. This is because requests for clarification often are disguised derail attempts -- and even when they're not, it's tiresome to unpack the same thing for the 2384949th time when you're trying to have a conversation at a slightly higher level, and it has the effect of derailing regardless of intent.

But the combination of oneupmanship and extreme "go educate yourself" culture often ends up with knowledgeable people who actually do belong in the conversation feeling like they are walking on eggshells, always about to be told they aren't good enough, don't know anything and don't belong in this conversation, or in this community at all.

I don't really have a conclusion to this. I'm not really sure how it all hangs together or if it does at all.

I guess what I'm thinking is -- beginners in a field do need to be aware of what they don't know and not start semantic arguments about semantics they don't understand. But it's also important for there to be a space somewhere where asking for clarification or making a mistake doesn't mark you as a complete and utter idiot who needs to STFU and stop wasting everyone's time, but instead as a smart, knowledgeable person who understands many things but is just entering something new to them.

And it helps to be able to find somewhere learnable to start. I think sometimes there's a lack of learnable resources, so the only way is to bang your head against usable and less-learnable resources and annoy experts by asking them.

None of that works very well if you've got a lot of "beginners" who are really just dedicated jerks. So I don't know. I really don't.

#22 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2012, 11:51 PM:

There’s always at least one person who thinks that all these baked-in inequalities are bad and all that, but that everyone’s energy really should be spent finding a better word

Not around here, I hope. Besides, isn't there a better word than 'always'?

#23 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 12:17 AM:

Terminology often reflects a particular model of the world. Sometimes, you don't understand the terminology. Sometimes, you don't understand the model. And sometimes, you disagree with the appropriateness of the model or the terminology. This is very hard to see in groups/communities where you're very comfortable with the terminology/model, where it's become so familiar it's a big part of your picture of the world--you're like the proverbial fish trying to notice water. It's much easier to see outside your intellectual comfort zone.

As a pretty easy example, there's a context in which a group of libertarians might be talking about individual rights. And as an outsider, you might very well both not quite get what they mean when they talk about something like self-ownership, and also not really agree with the underlying model of the world.

#24 ::: Tony Zbaraschuk ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 12:18 AM:

My general take on this is that, while jargon is incredibly useful, you should always be able to unpack it, to take your shorthand condensations and redescribe them in the larger terms.

If you will not do this, you may be rude. (It is also possible that you're running into someone who doesn't want to learn but has other goals in mind or is just invincibly ignorant. The ability to differentiate a confused would-be learner from an infrapontal (nice word!) ranter is very important. As a librarian I see a lot more of the former in my day-to-day life...)

If you cannot do this, then you don't actually understand what you're talking about and are the prisoner of your jargon. In particular, you may end up needlessly antagonizing allies or believing that because someone uses the same words as you they have the same ideas as you.

(My particular approach to this came through online theological discussions; "law" and "grace" are loaded enough with multiple meanings that you have to be very careful to know _which_ meaning of those terms you're dealing with.)

#25 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 12:27 AM:

Nothing to add to the conversation at the moment, but I want to express my appreciation of and to Abi for a turn of phrase which I find particularly felicitous, to wit: people whose worldview derives from an insufficiently nuanced set of base principles.

Oh, indeed.

#26 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 12:34 AM:

For me, the canonical example of this problem is 'racism'. I'm in agreement with those who think racism is more than just bigotry, that it requires some ability to impose that bigotry onto others. I really need a term to describe something which is more than simple prejudice. I also understand why people don't want to reserve the word 'racism' for the 'prejudice plus power' definition which I personally prefer. But if I'm going to be able to discuss it, I've got to be able to name it somehow.

The good part is it lets me discuss why I think the 'plus power' part is so important. The bad part is I don't care to have to have that discussion all over again. The funny part is that I disagree, a lot, with many ideas attached to the 'plus power' formulation.

Answers will be greatly appreciated.

#27 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 12:46 AM:

John @26, would "privileged bigots" be a helpful term?

#28 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 12:49 AM:

John:

Another interesting wrinkle happens when terms cross between being models-of-is (trying to describe reality) and models of should (trying to talk about morality). That comes up enough that one of the first things that happens in my mind, when I come upon an unfamiliar discussion, is to try to understand to what extent the discussion is about observable reality, and to what extent about morality.

When the same words or concepts have an impact on several different levels (I'm talking about a model of reality, about questions of right and wrong, and about ingroup identity in the same turn of phrase), a discussion at one level tends to have side effects at other levels--the classic example being someone who makes a casual racist remark, gets called on it, and responds based on his fear that he's going to be abandoned on an ice floe by his ingroup.

#29 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 01:24 AM:

At the risk of looking like an all-comers troll…

soru @2:
Surely implicit in the idea of having an expert community which people are supposed to approach in a humble and respectful way is that there is some worthwhile expertise, some true knowledge, to be gained from doing so?

It's worth remembering that I'm talking about conversational patterns here, which, in my experience at least, appear in both expert and non-expert communities with about the same distribution. But, more deeply, one of the inevitable products of being a community is a belief that "we have something special here". And the members of the community will believe that that something special is true knowledge. Kind of definitionally.


Debio:
As you noticed, the first comment is always the hardest one. And, for what it's worth, the people who worry deeply about whether they're going to do badly in conversation are rarely the ones who should. It's the ones who charge in, sword swinging, or who Make an Entrance and get sullen when there's no applause that are a problem. I wish those guys had even a fraction of your care and concern.

You 're going to post more often, right? Also, do you write poetry?


Fragano @10:
There is a grave danger, I note as a look at the headline, of forgetting that ideas are words. Words with a significant freight of meaning that affect how we act in the world, what we take from the world, and what we give to the world.

This is a very, very good point. It's almost impossible to write the OP and allow for this, so I'm grateful to you for bringing it up in the comments. Both realities should be always present to us.

(The title of this thread is a comment by my father, sometime in his late thirties or early forties, after a dinner party.)


re: infrapont
My coinage, for good or ill. So you won't find it in any standard online references. But here people are asking about it shortly after its introduction, using open questions. And look what happened! A member of the community explained it clearly. Pattern four, the one we put up with the other three for.


StochasticBird @16:
Hey, thanks! You've pointed out an entire area of the conversational pattern that I completely missed: the times the wank is the fault of the community. I'll be amending the post after I post this comment.

My only excuse is that I wrote this at the ragged end of the day, after seeing yet another example of the pattern being played out live on another site.


chris @20:
One thing I have learned hard is that if someone, or some community, is using language that merges two distinguishable things, it is sometimes because they don't want those things distinguished, and will vehemently resist attempts to distinguish them. So what seems like a straightforwardly helpful offer of clarification or distinction is received and responded to as an attack, or a sign of some sort of ulterior motive, etc.

Sometimes. You're attacking the community's definition of its own wisdom, and communities are as prone as people to shackling their collective rightness to their collective egos. More so, in fact.


Caroline @21:
I'm sorry for the degree to which my post hit you where you're feeling bruised already. (This is not "you were complaining." This is "I see, reading your comment, that you're in this position, and that I made it worse.")

I think that oneupmanship and dominance are traps that communities fall into very easily. It's the idea that conversation can be "won" by making others "lose". When you get a community where that is the shared ethos, you're going to see language used as a club to beat people with, not because language is a magic weapon, but because they're also beating each other with strawmen, all available chairs, and rubber chickens.

A community that's impatient of newcomers who don't speak the dialect, but genuinely wants sophisticated engagement from outsiders, will have a sticky post with useful references, or a 101 room, or something of that sort. Ones that don't are, in my experience at least, best walked away from.

#30 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 01:48 AM:

There's a pattern I've observed that may be pertinent. For the sake of clarity I'll start with a simple-and-unreasonable version of it that happened on another site. Please understand that I am emphatically not talking about anyone here.

So.

We had a conversation going on a sensitive and difficult subject that we were coming at from an unusual angle. Some of the most valuable input was coming from participants who didn't normally post to the site, and were as skittish and prone to flight as wild birds. They were willing to participate because the initial entry and comment thread were not taking any of the standard stupid positions on the subject.

Which was very cool, while it lasted.

Suddenly, plonk, right in the middle of the conversation, was one of those loud thick-skinned internet know-it-alls. He ignored the discussion that was going on, and immediately staked out one of the standard stupid positions on the subject. Aggressively. At length.

Is it normal to be able to tell whether someone is articulating something for the first time? I often can. He wasn't. Worse, he was simultaneously being very rude to those skittish participants, and claiming that he was taking his position in defense of them and their rights.

The vowels instantly evaporated from several of his paragraphs. Don't do that, I said. That isn't what this conversation is about.

He immediately posted twice more, belligerently, at greater length. The interesting commenters disappeared. One of them paused long enough to say to him, "We recognized you the moment you appeared."

All that was a known pattern, but it's not the one I want to talk about. This is where it starts.

So. This guy tried to start an argument with me: Go ahead! He'd take me on! Not going to happen, I told him. His idea was that instead of wickedly intervening, giving orders, shutting down his remarks, violating his right to free speech, et bloviating cetera, I should let such disagreements be settled via free and open debate.

(Internet rule of thumb: people who who have experience with formal debate almost never use the term to describe online arguments.)

He also made that same argument in several other threads during that period, but I'm pretty sure that first one was where I had my realization: if I let that happen, he would immediately become the focus and center of the conversation until the thread died of old age. The same would be true of any other thread where someone attempted to check his behavior.

Here's the difference between that guy and Caroline. She's honestly trying to meet the conversation on its own ground, and wants to have some part of it explained so she can continue following it. What the doofus in that wrecked comment thread was saying, in essence, was I am going to stop this conversation dead in its tracks until you explain everything I don't understand to my satisfaction, and also engage with my arguments to my satisfaction, even though we're both aware that they're based on a very incomplete knowledge of the subject.

Really short version: But enough of that. Let's talk about me.

That's the difference between the behavior Abi describes near the end of her entry, where the participants are genuinely engaging with the language choices and trying to understand them, and the routine where you question language use until the conversation ties itself in knots.

Anyway.

I have trouble entering into those language arguments in the proper spirit. By me, in nine out of ten of them, the correct answer to "Does this word fully embody what we're trying to talk about?" is "No, and neither do any of the other words you're using; so why pick on this one?"

What I wish would happen: instead of arguing about what they think is the TROO meaning of the term, everyone should briefly explain what they've been using it to mean. That way, it's not about which interpretation is privileged; it's about figuring out what we all mean.

#31 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 02:09 AM:

Fragano @10 -- I have to disagree with you that ideas are words. Ideas often get words attached to them; some of the best ideas require a great many words to describe them, especially when they're newly realized.

I'd say that words represent ideas, instead; and that the mapping from words to ideas is an incomplete "onto", with a huge mass of ideas that don't have words connected to them. And a problem is that it's not a one-to-one map in either direction, with multiple ideas connected with the same word and multiple single words connected with the same idea.

Tony Zbaraschuk @24: nodding in strong agreement.

#32 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 02:17 AM:

I think we're talking about several different kinds of discourse, or perhaps a spectrum from informal/wide-ranging to formal/highly-specialized, and different kinds of communities have evolved different methods of dealing with the problem of agreement on definitions.

Caroline's comment at 21 reminds me of how pleased I was to discover the common practice in scientific fields of publishing survey articles that record the consensus on terminology and other conventional practice for a particular research community. It allows someone coming into a field to get up to speed on the basics quickly and without using up another's time to explain things for the nth time. There are scientific web sites that have pages dedicated to the basics of their fields; for many other communities FAQs serve the same purpose.

A community like ML, since the discourse here covers far more than one field of knowledge or area of discussion, and often gets into areas where there is no one simple answer, and where we often aren't in agreement on the definitions, let alone the answers, requires a much more interactive and dynamic solution to the problem of consensus on meanings, and that works best if we all remember the points that abi made in the OP. Actually, I think things will work fine as long as we all remember that the reason we're here isn't to win arguments, but to win understanding. Well, maybe I shouldn't speak for others, but that's why I'm here.

#33 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 02:26 AM:

I know I raised a question of this sort, a month or two back. When there is an X-myth, emphasising a particular sort of X, does the use of X as part of a compound-label risk backfiring?

Sooner or later, you have to explain it to people who have bought into the myth.

What's interesting is that, while you can use words to put a misleading frame around the issue, in public politics, the internet and the blog means that you can still be challenged. It's a sort of virtual heckling, and like the real thing it can go unreported by the press and other mass news media.

So it can be hard work finding a different truth and that maybe is a factor in the apparent link between right-wing beliefs and low intelligence. The right-wing (and it may be better classed as authoritarianism) is feeding the masses with the ready-meals of political discourse, and the press hand them to you with a smile, and ask if you want fries with that.

#34 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 03:31 AM:

Tom Whitmore @31: Yup, I was about to say much the same thing -- words are ideas (approximately), but not all ideas are words.

I am reminded in particular of something I read a while back about Harley Earl's leadership of the GM styling division in the 1950s, specifically how he coined a lot of local jargon for specific shapes in car design, such as how a body crease might have a certain sort of kick-up in the middle. Those were all ideas that existed well before they had words, and are extremely difficult to put into words in any usable way, but attaching nearly-nonsense words to them gave them handles, so people could talk about them.

So, ideas are not words, but words can be handles on ideas. Not all ideas have handles yet.

Thus, with that example, I also disagree somewhat with Tony Zbaraschuk @24: While it is necessary to know how to unpack the jargon for it to be useful, I am dubious about the assumption that that means it is possible to "re-describe" it or otherwise fit that unpacking into words.

#35 ::: soru ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 06:53 AM:

Trotskyite whacking is not a useful political behavior.

Stalin would, I suppose, disagree.

But to be clear, the 'US left' I was referring to was the generalised liberalish lefty-wefty grouping, not whatever remains of Marxism.

When compared to similar movements in other wealthy democracies, this has a few distinguishing characteristics, including a focus on cultural or symbolic issues, and a certain lack of interest in the idea of doing something different with the underlying economics. And a tendency, pronounced amongst non-professional politicians, to use some of the words listed in the OP.

And also, in perhaps unrelated news, there is the existence of Santorum as a plausible candidate for the highest office in the land; the poll margin between him and Obama is _7%_.

Now, correlation is not causation and all that...

#36 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 07:41 AM:

Brooks Moses @ 34:

Ideas are not words, but is it possible to either communicate or think about an idea without describing it in words? It may take a lot of words, in which case you could claim that your description is a circumlocution which doesn't either efficiently or clearly communicate the meaning you intend, and justify creating a new term of art (a much less loaded phrase than "bit of jargon", IMO). But what difference does it really make if you're using one word or 10 to signify your idea?

#37 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 08:13 AM:

Soru @35, I appreciate that you're trying to be helpful.

Bruce Cohen @32:

Actually, I think things will work fine as long as we all remember that the reason we're here isn't to win arguments, but to win understanding.
Amen. An argument I win hands-down is one I come out of knowing nothing that I didn't know going in.

#38 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 08:19 AM:

Tom Whitmore #31: I see what you mean. I was, probably, being too concise. I should have said that ideas are inseparable from words. I spend a lot of my time dealing with ideas that are distilled into single words: "democracy", "liberty", "justice", "equality", and others of that kind. You are, of course, right that some ideas need a lot of words to describe them.

#39 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 08:44 AM:

Bruce:

A piece of jargon or terminology can activate a whole behind-the-scenes set of related concepts. It can remind the participants of long-settled (in their community of ideas) issues, and how they were settled. It can also remind them of common errors by newbies. And it can be a signal that the discussion is all happening among people with a shared set of basic assumptions, or even values.

This makes a lot of discussions possible, which would otherwise be swamped in recursive definitions. But it also sweeps a lot of assumptions under the rug, in order to make the part of the discussion you want to have now manageable. (I think this is a feature of the limits of human brains, though you can to some extent train yourself to keep in mind that you're thinking about models or abstractions that have some not-always-true assumptions baked in, even while thinking of very complicated things.)

Think about two economists discussing policy prescriptions to get us out of recession. They are folding a *huge* amount of model and assumptions (which they know are approximations and simplifications and sometimes-more-or-less-true statements) into terms like "multiplier effect" or "liquidity trap." Really, those refer to models about stuff that happens to their models of the world.

Now, it's valuable to be able to put on that worldview enough to understand what's being said. But it's also really critical to be able to remember that what you're talking about is abstractions that may or may not correspond too closely to anything actually happening in the physical, observable world.

And as an outsider, trying to understand a new area of thought, you're probably both trying to understand the underlying model of the world, *and* trying to understand its weak points or even decide if you think it's full of crap.

#40 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 09:01 AM:

One of the tricky pieces that fits here somewhere is when a word has a technical definition, as jargon, and a non-technical connotation.

For example, the underpinnings of most economics is "rational" behavior. The book definition here is something like "people do what they perceive, at the time they do it, as best serving their interests."

But rational has a substantially richer meaning and connotation as non-jargon. And human brains [1] aren't well-wired to keep the two separate, so the positive implications of "rational" sneak into economic assessments of behaviour, and non-economists get annoyed because economics-rational doesn't seem well-connected to human-rational.

1) Software isn't either; did you ever try using the same variable name for two variables in different classes? (Or, worse yet, for both a runtime-built function and a variable in APL; I inherited a program that did that, and debugging was a true nightmare.)

#41 ::: rat4000 ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 09:14 AM:

abi @29

A site whereon the first important question
to ask a poster is if they're a poet.
Of all the many things here that amaze me
There have been none that overjoyed me more.


(Couldn't pull up more than iambic pentameter on short notice.)

The more time I spend on this site, the more I like it, and this post & thread perfectly exemplify why.

#42 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 09:35 AM:

Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little @ 14

Xopher and debio. I was wondering the same thing.
Here, too. Thanks for clarifying.
And Abi, a delightful and elegant term d’art. Thanks again.

Caroline @ 21
my reaction is always "I'm so stupid for not understanding this," … I still feel like I don't know enough to be worthy of contributing to the conversation.
I know how that feels. It’s very uncomfortable, especially when you’re used to understanding things easily and generally view yourself as intelligent.
And it helps to be able to find somewhere learnable to start. I think sometimes there's a lack of learnable resources, so the only way is to bang your head against usable and less-learnable resources and annoy experts by asking them.
I just finished my MAT a couple years back, and that was probably my biggest complaint. My experience as an undergrad was of a lot of people flailing around equally, working together to try to get an understanding of the terms, and come to a consensus of meaning. As a graduate student there was a lot less of that. You could often tell when someone was having trouble because their background hadn’t covered a particular foundation, but more often than not the attitude was, "Well as a grad student you should know that, look it up on your own time, don't bother us with that now."

Tony Zbaraschuk @ 24:
My general take on this is that, while jargon is incredibly useful, you should always be able to unpack it, to take your shorthand condensations and redescribe them in the larger terms. ... If you will not do this, you may be rude.
Should, yes. The one exception – which admittedly doesn’t apply on line (although has some similarities to TNH’s story at 30) – is when the person asking about the jargon is inviting themselves into what was a private conversation, where expanding the group was not expected.

John A Arkansawyer @ 26
Re: racism
I hear you. One of the things I wish is that there was a larger term for the concept. The term “racism” is so hot-button I’ve met a lot of people whose “defense” of their particular prejudice or bigotry (against other life-styles, other religions, etc.) is that those aren’t about race, so it’s not “racism,” as if that somehow makes it OK. In Catholic terms, it’s like they see racism as a mortal sin, but other pieces of hate-filled bigotry are venial, and somehow OK. Drives me nuts.


Abi @ 29
Your father’s title quote is excellent. Has a stong flavor of Oscar Wilde about it.

Abi, again, and Bruce Cohen @ 32

oneupmanship and dominance are traps that communities fall into very easily. It's the idea that conversation can be "won" by making others "lose". When you get a community where that is the shared ethos, you're going to see language used as a club to beat people with, not because language is a magic weapon, but because they're also beating each other with strawmen, all available chairs, and rubber chickens.

Actually, I think things will work fine as long as we all remember that the reason we're here isn't to win arguments, but to win understanding. Well, maybe I shouldn't speak for others, but that's why I'm here.

Yeah, I was thinking before reading your two comments that one of the biggest dangers is which direction the person focuses the communication in. The problems come when instead of trying to use the language to understand what someone else means, the poster wants everyone else to understand them. This becomes an even larger problem when that person’s ego has translated “understand” as “agree with.”
Sadly, this used to be me. Still is sometimes. I’m working on it. As with John Arkasawyer in #1, I saw a little too much of myself in some of Abi's descriptions, but I hope I have worked myself to the point I'm a 3 or 4 more than a 1 or 2. I have to say, ML helps.

Tom Whitmore @ 31
Fragano @10 -- I have to disagree with you that ideas are words. Ideas often get words attached to them; some of the best ideas require a great many words to describe them, especially when they're newly realized.
I'd say that words represent ideas, instead; and that the mapping from words to ideas is an incomplete "onto", with a huge mass of ideas that don't have words connected to them. And a problem is that it's not a one-to-one map in either direction, with multiple ideas connected with the same word and multiple single words connected with the same idea.
And this is why I love Making Light: Platos’s cave comes through again.

Yeah, the problem is the idea, ideal, or concept is something that can’t be described except in words, and words are insufficient, so even when everyone “knows” what someone means, no two understandings are exactly the same. And sometimes are completely different. Which is why we fine and redefine terms to make things fairly precise, and end up with jargon. Or sometimes, broaden them to the point there is no meaning left. It's all so very circular. :)

Ideals become words;
Words bridge the space between minds.
Beware infraponts!

#43 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 09:36 AM:

In areas where there is a FAQ (or other reference material) pointing the ostensible newcomer at it can also be a way to distinguish among types. Noisy refusal to learn, quick return with "But the FAQ is wrong!", slower return with "Aha, but/and here are some issues I have with those definitions", "Oh, now I understand."

My own experience has been some of these issues depend crucially on the implicit bandwidth of a community and the types of tools available for segregating posts and reducing cognitive load among participants. Back when I as one of the moderators of a low-volume usenet group, at some point during the decline we put through a rule change that said, in effect, "you must have done some basic homework before posting here" because the volume of posts asking for basic explanations or questioning fundamental premises swamped actual discussions. (With the tools available, there was essentially only one space for posts, and you pretty much had to read at least the first page of something to decide it wasn't worth reading.) Today, that sort of thing could be handled much less obtrusively.

#44 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 09:37 AM:

I have been gnomed.

For the first time.

(I'm guessing for length, but maybe I misused a WoP)

-Thanks

#45 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 09:50 AM:

Brooks Moses @34, you don't have to be able to re-describe them, if they're particular shapes or inflections of shapes in automobile design, but you ought to be able to point at an example of what is denoted by that term, and have the other designers who use the jargon agree that that's what it is.

One of the reasons I prize the fanfic community's hands-on brand of literary criticism is that its vocabulary is so useful in my own profession: Mary Sue, plot bunny, UST, fanon, squick/squee, Jossed, aura of smooth, woobie, etc. Even if I can't use a term in conversation because my fellow editors don't know it yet, having a label for some phenomenon helps me think about it. I also have faith that if I briefly explained those terms to other editors, they'd grasp them almost immediately, because they're familiar with the phenomena they describe.

#46 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 10:14 AM:

Tony Zbaraschuk @ #24:

My general take on this is that, while jargon is incredibly useful, you should always be able to unpack it, to take your shorthand condensations and redescribe them in the larger terms.
Richard Feynman, who was really good at explaining stuff, explains why it's often impossible to unpack some things.
#47 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 10:16 AM:

re 40: There is another reason, though, why those two "meanings" overlap. It makes a difference what that rational economic behavior is; and in trying to deal with the phrase "perceive as best serving their interests," one has to work out what that perception is. If one takes it strictly empirically, then "rationality" here doesn't provide more than a promise of consistency, that is, that people presented with the same situation will behave the same way rather than reacting randomly or arbitrarily. Therefore an illogical response, if it is consistently presented, is "rational" under this definition. I think even that is questionable, but be that as it may, the reason why we have the word "rational" for this in the first place is the long history of economics of leaving the word "perceiving" out, and perhaps even "at the time". There is a strong tendency in the literature to deduce what economic actors will do by working out what it makes the most sense for them to do.

#48 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 10:42 AM:

re: infrapont definition

For what it's worth, I googled 'infrapont' and got the .hu thing. Then I paired it with a variety of other terms, ending up with 'infrapont troll' (because I knew the thread in general was about trolling, and thought that likely to lead to corpulent results). I got a post from Whatever from Spetember 2011 including a comment from our own Xopher, to wit: "Brad, you’re at most a demi-troll. Scorpius is the true infrapont."

It sounds like abi @29 is claiming to have just coined it in this post, but clearly it's been kicking around a while. Or at least is the sort of term that congenial people well-acquainted with Latin were likely to invent eventually … Etymology Man for the win, Xopher! :->

(oh, dammit, did I just go "But enough about that, let's talk about me" ??? I hope this is an amusing side-eddy that adds to the whole, but was it a derail?)

#50 ::: pedantic peasant still gnomes at 44 ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 10:58 AM:

Sorry, guess I didn't signal it right the first time.

Not sure where the problem is.

#51 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 11:04 AM:

Re: infrapont. Xopher was quoting me in September; the original use is here, from July of 2011.

#52 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 11:09 AM:

Words and ideas... The idea of nerds didn't exist where I came from because my language had no word for it.

#53 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 11:13 AM:

Thank you for freeing me from the gnomies.

Their hands are so cold.

#54 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 11:28 AM:

I find it easier to think of ideas without using words, instead using mental equivalents of diagrams and/or movies, and "clouds" (a personal jargon-metaphore for complex relationships that don't easily translate into images; for instance, an art project is usually a "cloud of possibilities", which is made of all the branches of all the decision trees that I conceive to be within the project's constraints, and which may guide the eventual production of one or more physical objects).

I model peoples relation to words as each person having their own cloud of associations for a given word, unlike any other person's cloud. A person may give a definition of a word, and that definition may be the same as another person's definition, or nearly so, but what is in their minds are their personal, ever-changing clouds of associations. Communication is only possible to the extent that these clouds are similar. Apparent communication may occur if the vocabularies are similar, though the associations are different. So I find words illusory and inadequate, though still the best available tool for some purposes.

Many vocabularies of art ("jargons" does seems pejorative to me) such as math notation and poetry can have extreme information density that is a joy to work with, but I once had an very frustrating conversation resulting from asking a friend whose field is fungus genetics what he was working on.

Someone said that "understanding" means the point at which we stop thinking about something. Recent research seems to imply that to avoid overtaxing their mental resources, humans must do this. Bokonon had something to say on the subject....

#55 ::: Leif Fearn ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 11:33 AM:

My students last evening might think I am lexicography man, for I insist on the right word(s) for the right reason(s), especially for people who speak for at least part of their living -- teachers in this case. Someone used the word "diversity" with regard to students in her class. I asked the group about the diversity in our classroom, and many turned to look around the room. I asked, "What the hell are you looking for? Do we suppose diversity is printed on people's foreheads, displayed in skin color, eye shape, and combable hair? I explained the lemon exercise and demonstrated a circle session. "Diversity" is a slop word, used to connote anything and everything, so it means nothing. When language is used that way, I call it. I figure that is my professional responsibility.

Leif Fearn

#56 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 11:38 AM:

Don Simpson @54:

I model peoples relation to words as each person having their own cloud of associations for a given word, unlike any other person's cloud. A person may give a definition of a word, and that definition may be the same as another person's definition, or nearly so, but what is in their minds are their personal, ever-changing clouds of associations.
The scaled-up multi-user version of that one, nonsensical when you first encounter it, is "the meaning of a word is the negative space defined by all the things it doesn't mean." People who believe the meaning of a sentence is the sum of the meanings of its words get themselves into terrible difficulties.

#57 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 11:45 AM:

Teresa Nielsen Hayden @ 56:

Out of curiosity, how would you scale that up to define a sentence? It can't just be the combined non-negative space of each word, because context will increase (cancel?) some of the possible meanings, correct?

#58 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 12:26 PM:

Here's abi using "infrapont" here in July 2011

#59 ::: Niall McAuley ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 12:28 PM:

Here's me looking embarrassed after abi's #51.

#60 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 12:30 PM:

It seems like those two ways of thinking of definitions of a word reflect two different algorithms for inferring meaning. In one case, you're trying to build up meaning from components. In the other, you're trying to rule out some meanings. And you're always doing both, I think--some possible meanings get kicked out automatically because they just don't make sense in context. Like when someone says "Jane has really rocketed to the top of that organization," assuming the organization isn't a space station, your brain recognizes that "rocketed" has a set of possible meanings including "rode atop a real, live rocket", but the top of an organization isn't somethign you'd ride a rocket too, but it is something you can quickly ascend.

#61 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 12:32 PM:

soru @ 35:

I suspect that one of the major reasons for the ineffectiveness (I'm tempted to say "ineffectualness") of the American left in the last generation or so is that there has been no credible progressive, socialist, or communist movement to pull them away from the center. And the center has been subject to massive suckage from the right, pulling the Overton Window that way.

#62 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 12:55 PM:

Niall McAuley: I almost did that too, but I wasn't quite quick enough on the Google (I remember that I noticed the coinage and hoping it would catch on).

In other news, I notice that there is even an Infrapont blog. The mind boggles. Mostly in Hungarian.

#63 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 01:00 PM:

Don Simpson @54: I use a variant of that same model much of the time. And I think that the cognitive dissonance that a lot of this discussion has looked at is the discovery of the fact that the similarity of the meaning clouds is less than either user had expected. (There's a separate AHA! moment when the similarity of the meaning clouds turns out to be greater than either had expected -- in a small subset of interactions, the result is what I call "love".) My base underlying thought patterns do not appear to me to be words: they're moving clouds of shape and color and overlap. Which may be why I bounced off G. Spencer Brown's The Laws of Form -- he assumes separability as an axiom, and I'm not sure it's invariant (look at fractal boundaries, for example). But, we are getting into really specialized language here....

#64 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 01:11 PM:

Bruce Cohen @61

I don't see the "ineffectiveness of the American left over the past generation". Starting in 1979, it seems like every cultural measure I can imagine is much more to the left than it was. (Homosexuality is the most visible, but disability issues, divorce/single parenthood, the government-required pro-Northern version of the causes of the Civil War, etc.)

On economics, yes--there's been little change; but the American left in my lifetime has been culturally-focused, and seems to me to be winning everywhere.

(Note that these statements are intended as descriptive.)

#65 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 01:14 PM:

abi@29: I love how "Also, do you write poetry?" has become a standard friendly welcome message here!

And I'm musing on how/why it's "infrapontal" but would be "trollish". "Infrapontish" and "trollal" both sound wrong!

#32 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) @32: "the common practice in scientific fields of publishing survey articles that record the consensus on terminology and other conventional practice for a particular research community" Common practice? I wish! Actually, I'm pleased to report that there are now several online definitions for a phrase I met some time back and couldn't (at that time) find a definition for, anywhere.

#66 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 01:19 PM:

dcb: 'infrapontic' also has a good sound to it.

#67 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 01:21 PM:

praisegod barebones #66: Also 'infrapontine'. Some, though, might accuse me of being a bit, ahem, marshy.

#68 ::: Tony Zbaraschuk ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 01:34 PM:

One [i]should[/i] be able to unpack, admittedly. Sometimes this is very hard to do in any practical manner. Perhaps a better way of saying it would be "you should always be able to explain the terms you're using in such a way that a person new to the term can understand." I [i]have[/i] run into people who couldn't do that; either it was their vocabulary or nothing, and I couldn't get them to explain their vocabulary in ways that I understood.

And since (some) explanations depend on grasping the underlying idea, Which May Be Hard, while others depend on people going "oh, my, yes, I know [i]that[/i] -- how nice to have a word for it!", explaining isn't always the easiest thing in the word.

#69 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 01:54 PM:

dcb @ 65:

I'm sorry to hear it's not as common as I thought. My experience has been in Computer Science, Physics, and Math (primarily geometry and analysis), where the only reason I've been able to follow some areas since leaving school is because of the availability of survey articles.

#70 ::: LMM ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 02:12 PM:

So I check references, and references to references, and nth-level references, and search for review papers, and dig and dig and beat my head against the wall until I find something written in a more didactic, "learnable" way -- something that unpacks the vocabulary or notation in terms of concepts I already do know about. That's what I did today.

The frustrating part is, however, that vocabulary changes, and it often changes far faster than the turnover rate of professional scientists.

Sometimes it's just because of a difference in experience: the same value may be considered small for one system is called large for another, and, since the two groups of researchers don't frequently interact, the problem doesn't become obvious until someone from one of the fields starts talking about the other.

Frequently, however, it's a clear change in terminology. Sometimes that's for clarification purposes: a term applied to an entire system may be narrowed to apply to only a specific aspect. Other times, it's just because of a change in how something is perceived.

I've seen arguments -- friendly arguments, but long, complicated arguments nonetheless -- at lectures between professors about specific terminology, professors trained in the same fields maybe (at best) twenty years apart. I've had those arguments myself, with people my age working on the same project as I am. (And review articles -- especially those which explicitly seek to define terms -- are just as prone to being biased as anything else. There's one highly-ranked journal in my field that excels at publishing passive-aggressive review articles: "Recently, there has been some confusion regarding the use of [term]…." There are, to be fair, a handful of articles put out by actual scientific authorities (IUPAC, for example), but there's a lot of fights that I think most 'official' sources are reluctant to wade into.)

But I think (and this is the part I'm reluctant to mention) the complication with jargon comes when the implications of the map become emotionally tied to the territory in ways which may alienate individuals or groups who don't deserve to be alienated. As far as I can tell, that's rare in scientific fields but found among activist groups. (Is it a "disability" or a "different-ability"? Are women who give birth to children who are then adopted by another family "birth mothers" or "real mothers"?)

#71 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 02:18 PM:

SamChevre @ 64:

I think of left vs. right as primarily a spectrum of socioeconomic description and prescription. The cultural issues have always seemed to me to be orthogonal, needing another axis to describe them. I've known many people who favored strongly centralized economic systems who also believed in rather rigid moral strictures. The USSR, for instance, which is usually classified as far left by Americans, persecuted homosexuals and exhibited strong racial bias except in its public utterances (an Uzbek or a Tatar in Moscow or Kiev had similar experiences to an Iraqi in Detroit or Spokane).

In the US in the last two generations the center-left has paid lip service some of the liberal social issues, but most of the real change has come (as it did in the Civil Rights movement) from the oppressed groups themselves acquiring political power.

#72 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 02:24 PM:

"Activate the... INFRAPONT!!!"

#73 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 02:28 PM:

LMM @ 70:

In scientific fields there's sometimes an interaction with jargon-based disagreements from other fields. Politics is, I think, the most common intruder; consider for instance Gould and Eldredge's promotion of the concept of punctuated equilibrium, which so often got entangled in Gould's politics.

#74 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 02:51 PM:

Fragano Ledgister @ 67: praisegod barebones #66: Also 'infrapontine'. Some, though, might accuse me of being a bit, ahem, marshy.

Well, if it's marshy, maybe we need an infrapontoon?

#75 ::: Nanette ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 02:59 PM:

dcb @65
"And I'm musing on how/why it's "infrapontal" but would be "trollish". "Infrapontish" and "trollal" both sound wrong!"

Ooh, Language Log time! :) I bet there is a lovely heritage of the English language reason there. And
I totally agree. May have to do with syllable count and or the multiple "lll" factor. Lovely thought though .

#76 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 03:33 PM:

rat4000: Welcome! I'm glad you're here.

#77 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 04:21 PM:

Sam:

My sense is that the ruling class consensus, for good and ill, has moved left on social issues and right on economic issues. There's a reason you have to dogwhistle to attract the racist vote now, whereas you just said n----r 40 years ago. There's also a reason neither Democrats nor Republicans are planning to restart the CAB.

Bruce:

When you're thinking about actual policy questions, politics should be massively multidimensional. But in practice, politics invokes a whole bunch of our non-rational mental machinery in ways that have nothing at all to do with reason or facts. That's why I can learn a lot about whether or not you believe in global warming by asking what you think about gun control and abortion.

Libertarians usually push the personal/economic freedom axes, which (like every possible way to reduce the dimensionality of the space of possible policies) loses a lot of information[1], but which does make some important distinctions clear.

[1] And that tracks with our discussion here nicely. By getting you talking about the personal freedom/economic freedom axis, some important issues that blend the two, like racial and gender discrimination, become harder to think about.

#78 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 04:28 PM:

Tom Whitmore @31 & Brooks Moses @34: words are ideas (approximately), but not all ideas are words.

Reminds me of a discussion I got into with a friend about "thinking." In his brain, it isn't "thinking" if it's not words. In my brain, anything that can be represented mentally in any sensory system is "thinking."

Bruce Cohen @36: Ideas are not words, but is it possible to either communicate or think about an idea without describing it in words?

Fragano Ledgister @38: I should have said that ideas are inseparable from words.

Pictures? Music? Dance? Math, for heavens sake? (Of course, then you get into the question of whether math is a subset of words.)

We confront the potentially murky problem of defining "ideas."

#79 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 04:34 PM:

Would that make the spiritual leader of the troll community the Infrapontiff?

#80 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 04:43 PM:

Is Ibk Qnl* the Infrapontiff?

*ROT13'd for your protection. Do not invoke this Lovecraftian horror into your online community.

#81 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 04:48 PM:

Drat you, heresiarch! (I also drat myself* for not checking before posting.)

*Does that make me an autodrat?

#82 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 05:15 PM:

Xopher @81 I also drat myself*

I am reminded of Dilbert's Phil, the Prince of Insufficient Light, who can only darn you to heck

#83 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 05:32 PM:

"Infrapontine" would -- in my mind at least -- refer to a brain structure.

#84 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 05:35 PM:

dc b@65: how/why it's "infrapontal" but would be "trollish". "Infrapontish" and "trollal" both sound wrong!

I'd say it was owing to the preference in English for suffixes in coined terms to match the root word in terms of language-of-origin. Infrapont is Latinate, and in its adjectival form wants to be matched with the -al suffix, from the Latin -alis. Troll is Germanic, and gets a Germanic suffix, -ish from the Old and Middle English -isc.

Signed,
Your Friendly Local Word Nut
(Etymology Man has given the rest of us a very bad name, damn him.)

#85 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 05:44 PM:

I like 'infrapontic'. May not be correct, I just like the way it sounds. Infrapontic lifeform. The infrapontic shores where the snowflakes

Anyway.

#86 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 05:45 PM:

Xopher @81 "Does that make me an autodrat?"

Your troll is your only emperor for cursing. We drat all creatures else to drat us, and we drat ourselves for derailers.Your l33t expert and your scorned n00b is but variable signal, two
speakers, but to one roundtable. That's the end.

Hamlet, the Prince of Bloggers, Act IV, scene III

#87 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 06:46 PM:

Debra Doyle @84: yes, that's pretty much what my (English graduate) husband said when he came home!

I'm pretty good at doing English grammar, but I can't analyse, break it down and explain what I'm doing most of the time. I did have to parse sentences and stuff back at school (middle school/high school equivalent) but mostly I think I absorbed the rules by reading well-written books.

#88 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 07:07 PM:

are we going to have words like trollarity and trollality?

#89 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 07:17 PM:

Jacque @ 78:

D'oh! You're absolutely right about pictures, music, and dance, especially as there are symbolic "languages" for music (e.g. bar notation) and dance (e.g. Labanotation) which can be described in words but lose a lot of their concision and precision when you do. That's also somewhat true of math, but I think there mapping from symbols to words is a little more direct and comprehensive because there is usually a reasonably direct way to describe a mathematical statement in words. Dance and music notation on the other hand both lose some meaning when translated into words and aren't complete: there are always aspects of the performance that aren't included in the notation.

#90 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 07:18 PM:

heresiarch @ 79 -- I was thinking of the infrapontifex, the creator of the negative space that defines the connecting structure above.

#91 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 07:21 PM:

Bruce Cohen STM @89: Trying to describe many theories of abstract algebra, ring theory and group theory in simple words is really pretty difficult. I expect this is quite true in other branches of math that I know even less about.

#92 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 07:27 PM:

Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) #36: Ideas are not words, but is it possible to either communicate or think about an idea without describing it in words?

As others have noted, yes -- moreover, there are plenty of experiences that aren't well represented by words, especially when they're linked to internal states, altered states of consciousness, and/or extreme complexity.

Consider also that I can communicate surprisingly well with my dog just using our shared mammalian wetware, despite that her understanding of English is about on a par with, well, animal signals. And of course, learning the beginnings of language is classically done with "point and speak"....

Words are a "hack" -- we generally do pretty well about attaching the same referent to a given word, but that's possible primarily because we live in a world of common experience. Where that common experience breaks down,¹ the communication tends to break down too. (The "jargon problem" is really just a particular case of that.)

And when emotions or instincts come into play, words can become strikingly subordinate -- instead of communicating meanings, they get recruited to transmit dominance signals and suchlike....

Serge Broom #72: "Activate the... INFRAPONT!!!"

<What? Why you...Eew! Oh No He Didn't...>

"DE-Activate the Infrapont!"

¹ Such as between cultures, or approaching a specialized field of knowledge. Or even within the same field, after 20 years of advancement and/or divergence.

#93 ::: soru ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 07:51 PM:

there has been no credible progressive, socialist, or communist movement to pull them away from the center. And the center has been subject to massive suckage from the right, pulling the Overton Window that way.

I think this all neatly ties in to the common theory that the way to move the Overton window (the range of views that get taken seriously) is to say something beyond it. This then causes the window to be replaced with a new one in which the thing said is no longer seen as extreme; typically this is said to have already happened.

There is a cartoon I couldn't find a link to where it shows the window as a 15 foot pane of glass and a bunch of people have tied a rope to it and are dragging it to the left.

That's a nice visual metaphor, a true modern myth that gives a neat story providing a justification for things that are in any case fun enough to do for their own sake.

I'm just not convinced it tracks well to reality: what's the rope?

For one thing, if the window is so important, how does there get to be a whole gang of people with views outside it? And if their views are, by definition, being ignored, how do they manage to do the work of moving the glass?

More directly relevant, does that really track well to most people's reaction to views that, on first reaction, they find too extreme to engage with?

Isn't it rather more likely to be 'ok, this is an issue on which some people are clearly idiots; better be extra suspicious of those saying apparently sensible related things?'.

Now there are some situations where you are likely to succeed in getting beyond that reaction to compromise or agreement. But, outside the education system, the only obvious ones involve a power relation like being someone's boss, parole officer or similar. Or, if Stockholm syndrome counts, when you just have a gun.

If your job is based on, say, learning Ruby, you will probably struggle through those initial conceptual difficulties until you get to the point you are competent enough to judge it. On the other hand, as Upton Sinclair said:

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it

#94 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 08:26 PM:

Infrapontificate!
Infrapontification!

#95 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 08:48 PM:

TNH @ 56 & pedantic peasant @ 57 & albatross @60

"the meaning of a word is the negative space defined by all the things it doesn't mean." The concept's _wza-v'ei_, as they say in _aklo_ (obscure Alan Moore Lovecraftian reference). But I apply prototype theory to words; some associations are more central/likely, with the (metaphorically) outer parts (metaphorically) thinning down unevenly to nothing (or nearly so), and the influence of other words shifts the centers. And in a sentence, all the words influence each other, by proximity and order; the resulting pattern is the meaning of the sentence. Except that sentences also influence each other... There is an essay by Samuel R. Delaney on how this process builds a universe in the reader's mind (and on how a work being science fiction shifts the cloud centers).

#96 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 08:50 PM:

Tom Whitmore @ 63

I agree (or, given this discussion, I think I agree). I suspect that meaning cloud similarities require similar experiences, and that a lot of language learning is getting your clouds sufficiently similar.

I have G. Spencer Brown's _The Laws of Form_ (because of your mentions of it, IIRC). I assume formal logic requires hard boundaries. I do find the thought of fractal logic pleasantly brain-tickling, though.

#97 ::: Don Simpson ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 08:51 PM:

soru @ 93

Maybe if you have a bunch of people saying things way outside the window, someone saying things just outside the window could move the edge a bit. Repeat as necessary.

#98 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 08:57 PM:

Bruce Cohen @ 89
I think there mapping from symbols to words is a little more direct and comprehensive because there is usually a reasonably direct way to describe a mathematical statement in words.

You don't necessarily lose meaning, but the difference in clarity between Euclid and modern symbolic analytical geometry is huge.

#99 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 10:12 PM:

soru @93: Are you familiar with John Tukey's box-and-whisker plots? I think a better model for the Overton window is thinking of it as covering the middle section, the interquartile range (the "box"). There are a lot of statements made outside the box. Increasing the frequency of those on one side moves the median, and eventually the box, in that direction. The outliers are often thrown out in any analysis (or discussion); but the outer quartiles have an effect on both the median and the range. It's a good metaphor for me in thinking about the Overton window.

#100 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 10:13 PM:

abi @ 29: You didn't hit a bruise, really. You didn't say "STFU n00bs!" or anything approaching it -- instead you made a very nice thoughtful post, concluding with how awesome it can be when beginners ask for clarification and accept and engage with said clarification. Which I very much agree with.

It was more some of the earlier comments in the thread that reminded me of some of the more dysfunctional community dynamics I've observed involving this issue.

Also, it had been a day of way too much "usable" and not nearly enough "learnable" and I was more exhausted than I realized at the time.

Striking the balance between usable and learnable is a complex problem. Your post and the article it linked to are discussing one side of that problem, what happens when newbies encounter vocabulary intended for usability rather than learnability. I have just been spending more time lately thinking about other sides of the same problem, and was trying to link those thoughts to your thoughts on this side of the problem.

By the way, it's clear to me that you don't think the problem has only one side. I think that's the source of a lot of dysfunctional responses -- either "I don't understand you and therefore you are wrong!" or "You don't understand me so STFU forever!"

As you say, the whole enterprise goes much better when everyone is trying to figure things out together, not score points off each other.

This is what I like about Making Light: it is always that sort of conversation space. Thank you for keeping it that way.

#101 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: February 09, 2012, 11:45 PM:

Here's something I keep thinking about when I think about the Overton window.

I was watching CNN sometime in the middle of the last decade and they were saying, "Some people are for the death penalty because blah blah blah ultimate punishment for the ultimate crime. And some people are against the death penalty because it's worse to have to live with what you've done." What a way to shut out all those who think that it's bad to kill people, or that there's substantial bias in how the death penalty is applied! What a way to narrow the window of acceptable viewpoints down to the most vengeful and vindictive.

In the last fifty years or so, it seems to me that the Overton window has come down to what TV news decides is a viewpoint worthy of getting covered. So maybe there are two ways to shift it. You can be like the Occupy movement and yell loud enough and long enough that the mainstream media can't ignore you. Or... you can take your message to blogs and Twitter and try to make TV news irrelevant. But the right can use those as well as the left can, and then the question becomes, do we have any alternative to a polarized future where everyone just yells past each other?

#102 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 12:20 AM:

I feel like there's a seussian variation on infrapontalism, but my intrapedant isn't being cooperative, so the whole thing is annoyingly squoodgy.

Also, I keep being distracted by my brain trying to hook infrapont up to various superhero activation phrases... No, that really isn't working for me tonight either, I don't know why my brain is obsessed with it.

I think my best alternative tonight is to infrapunt...

#103 ::: Dave Fried ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 01:32 AM:

Emily H.@101:

If you listen to certain commentators, even on left-leaning stations like MSNBC, you would get the impression that the Obama Administration's ruling on birth control was an inconceivable blunder, and sure to alienate the entire membership of every church in America (especially the Catholics).

And then you look at the actual polling and find - not surprisingly - that a majority of Americans, including a majority of Catholics - support the decision. But you'd never know that listening to the talking heads blather.

#104 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 01:59 AM:

David Harmon @ 92:

You're right, there are often situations where symbolic communication channels are used for communicating things that aren't in the meanings of the symbols. Humans do that with normal conversation, a great deal of which is either phatic, or intended simply to indicate that the conversant is still interested in continuing the conversation. Networked computers do it with ACK and NACK packets and physical layer protocols that deal with channel sharing and packet collisions.

soru @ 93:

The way the Overton Window has been dragged rightwards over the last 30 years is by one set of communicators repeating a small number of memes that assert the validity of concepts past one end of the window while denying the validity of concepts in the window on the half away from that side. Lather, rinse, repeat. This was made easier by the fact that communicators on the other side of the window did not have a common goal or strategy, so that most of their utterances canceled each other out.

SamChevre @ 98:

the difference in clarity between Euclid and modern symbolic analytical geometry is huge.

Certainly. I think, though, that you can expand on a symbolic statement such as the proof of a theorem in words that track the original symbols more closely than an older version of the mathematics might. There's usually a somewhat canonical oral reading of the symbology that, of course, is mostly jargon, but it's still in words.

It's interesting that that is not necessarily the case with geometry and, more recently topology, as the use of diagrams and computer visualization have become respectable supplements or even replacements for abstract symbols. I think we can thank H. S. M. Coxeter for keeping the use of diagrams alive in geometry for a significant part of the 20th century, long enough to keep Bourbaki from killing it forever.

#105 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 02:06 AM:

Dave Fried @ #103, "you'd never know that listening to the talking heads blather."

They all listen to one another, and many of them are Catholic. Mark Shields on The News Hour, E.J. Dionne @ WaPo, Chris Mathews on MSNBC, Lawrence Kudlow, and on and on. It's kind of surprising to me how non-WASPy TV is compared to earlier eras.

Heck, I think the Supreme Court is majority-Catholic these days, and who ever expected that?

A friend reminded me that JFK had to make a speech in Houston to a group of Protestant ministers explaining he'd be a President of the US, not an emissary from the Pope. Now it seems the Church has all the help it can get from the pols and nobody expresses skepticism.

JFK said something I wish would be remembered and followed by politicians and media people : "I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me."

#106 ::: soru ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 04:06 AM:

Tom Whitmore @ 99:

There are a lot of statements made outside the box. Increasing the frequency of those on one side moves the median, and eventually the box, in that direction.

Bruce Cohen @104,

The way the Overton Window has been dragged rightwards over the last 30 years is by one set of communicators repeating a small number of memes

Those are both restatements of the theory I am questioning. Yes, a lot of people people believe that: is it true?

Without becoming epistemology man, by 'true' I mean not merely does it have some truth, some relation to reality, some evidence in favour; a lot of things have that level of truth. But, amongst the set of models of similar complexity, is it the one with the least wrong with it?

There are at least two other models that could well work better. One is you say things inside the window, but towards one edge; pushing it rather than dragging. No imaginary rope needed.

The other is that once you have moved a bunch of people outside the window (by whatever means, perhaps you held a gun to their head?) then the very fact that they have moved means the window has. Whether or not they say anything; they probably will, so you will probably notice.

I don't think you can move the Overton window for Ruby by repeating 'we should rewrite Linux in Ruby' a hundred times. You'd move it by creating something using it. One that was good enough to form the basis of a community within which the message 'we should ditch this junk and use Python' was outside the window.

In perhaps related news, just 9% of US private sector workers are now in unions. Another 4% work for non-profits, and an unmeasurably small group work in cooperatives. And within non-unionised for-profits, the interests of proprietors and shareholders generally carry more weight than they perhaps did in the 1950s.

It would be deeply strange for the signs of those changes in the things people do all day to not be noticeable in the things they think and say.

#107 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 08:21 AM:

Heresiarch @79:

Would that make the spiritual leader of the troll community the Infrapontiff?
I do believe it would.

Is there an infrapontifex? If so, can we persuade them to take up a different hobby?

#108 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 08:31 AM:

Emily H. @101: [..] do we have any alternative to a polarized future where everyone just yells past each other?

KayTei @102: I feel like there's a seussian variation on infrapontalism [..]

This juxtaposition suggested another trollish variation. Dr Seuss had a tale of the south-going zax and the north-going zax who deadlocked each other. The rest of the world built a bridge over them to get by.

#109 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 08:40 AM:

Ideas are not words, but is it possible to either communicate or think about an idea without describing it in words?

I don't know about anyone else, but it quite frequently happens to me that I'll have an idea twice--once as a sort of gestalt, all at once, and the second time in words, which takes way longer.

#110 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 08:49 AM:

Jacque #78:

Hmm. A picture can be described in words. Has to be in fact, since we do have fairly standard ways of explaining visual images. Music, on the other hand, there you're right. Mathematics, now,can be transmitted as words.

#111 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 08:51 AM:

The Gnomic Divinities (or else the Chthonic Gods) appear to have held a comment of mine in durace vile. It has no hyperlinks (or hyper lynx). Probably another punctuation error).

#112 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 09:05 AM:

Ginger #83: I did not know about those structures, that's interesting.

#113 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 09:35 AM:

Pedantic Peasant @57:

Teresa Nielsen Hayden @ 56:

Out of curiosity, how would you scale that up to define a sentence? It can't just be the combined non-negative space of each word, because context will increase (cancel?) some of the possible meanings, correct?

Correct. Each successive word can add, modify, or close off potential meanings. This is why English speakers have adjective order encoded in their bones: A grubby blue Dodge Minivan pulled up outside the building. You must avoid re-modifying what has already been established.

Sentences do the same thing within paragraphs, which is why always starting with a topic sentence clarifies but limits meaning, and teaches sloppy reading habits. Like a threaded hierarchy imposed on comments, it declares that all subsequent items in this unit are subordinate additions or responses to the initial one.

Jumped up by an order of magnitude, this process of addition, modification, and exclusion explains why William Atheling/James Blish's ambition to say nothing unnecessary, and nothing more than once, is both impossible and undesirable. Sometimes, a thing is said to forestall some unwanted interpretation, or remind the reader of information given to them some while ago, or for some other related purpose.

#114 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 10:09 AM:

TNH @113:

One memorable day, I found another way to tie a necktie, and tried to show it to Martin. He was unable to tie his tie any way for a week thereafter.

Your comment, while very interesting, makes me feel that way about writing prose. I keep getting flashes of semantic vertigo.

#115 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 10:21 AM:

TNH @ 113

Thanks for the second. I knew I didn't like always starting with a topic sentence, knew professional writers often didn't, but could not quite put the why into words.

But I guess part of what I'm asking is, if you can define a word as meaning everything it isn't -- which is in some ways the only way to define a word in isolation as there is no way of knowing which usage is meant (Hmmm. Alternate definitions are approximately equal to elemental isotopes?) -- is there a similar summary way of defining a sentence to encompass everything it does not mean/say/imply, especially in cases where a sentence is ambiguous, leading to multiple meanings in isolation?
And would that definition be based on the sentence as a discrete unit, or refer back to its parts?

Appropriately for the thread, I know what I mean, but I am not sure I am getting the concept into words clearly.

#116 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 10:22 AM:

abi #114: Heh, "the centipede's dilemma" in action. That's another reason why not everyone's up for questioning of their basic presumptions and paradigms.

#117 ::: Marty In Boise ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 10:22 AM:

Tom Whitmore @99: Imagine my disappointment when I clicked your link and discovered that "box-and-whisker plots" have nothing to do with Maru the Cat.

#118 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 10:32 AM:

TNH @113 said: explains why William Atheling/James Blish's ambition to say nothing unnecessary, and nothing more than once, is both impossible and undesirable. Sometimes, a thing is said to forestall some unwanted interpretation, or remind the reader of information given to them some while ago, or for some other related purpose.

This is rhyming with the part of me that was pissed off in English Comp to discover that formal essay-writing basically involves saying, on a meta-level, "I'm going to lead you into my thesis; this is my thesis statement. Here are three pieces of evidence that back up my thesis, and why they are about my thesis in each paragraph. And here is my thesis (only said in other words), and a concluding paragraph driving home my thesis."

I am more at peace with it now, thanks to a wonderful community-college prof, but the meta-level of it still kind of amuses me darkly. Yes, it's tedious, but it kind of has to be, because of the nature of the form ... or, at least, the writing has to be tedious and over-wrought in order to lead to a product that reads transparently and gets your thesis across in a persuasive way.

(I hate writing papers, though I love learning about things and excitedly telling people what I've learned)

#119 ::: Marty In Boise ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 11:04 AM:

Elliott Mason @ 118, as a sometimes college composition teacher, this is precisely why I hate the 5-paragraph essay. It's restrictive, artificial, and almost anti-communicative (there's my thesis statement that could be developed in 500 to 700 words). Its only conceivable benefit is that it imposes a sort of order and structure on writing that has to be produced quickly, as in an essay test, but I'm also fairly convinced that the main reason it's still with us is that it's "easy" to teach--look! simple rules!--and it has a readily-discernible structure that can be easily graded by teachers who have to plow through scores of them.

#120 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 12:02 PM:

Hmm
So far, only Teresa @ #45 has related this to fandom, but one of the first things I thought of was the generation gap between the greying fandom and the increasingly varying fandoms we see as offshoots.

(Recently I pinpointed a distinction in the different attitudes toward time-binding . . . )

Otoh, recently I was at Confusion, which I don't get to at all enough. I was counting on my fingers and realized that the first confusion was as long ago as the very first Worldcon was at the first Confusion . . .

#121 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 12:40 PM:

Marty in Boise @ 119:

I'm also fairly convinced that the main reason it's still with us is that it's "easy" to teach--look! simple rules!--and it has a readily-discernible structure that can be easily graded by teachers who have to plow through scores of them

This is partly true. It is not "easier to teach" so much as easier for certain students to understand. There is a certain percentage of students who want formula. Part of this, IMO, is because of rubrics: they have come to expect a guide that says give me X, get this grade. Writing does not distill down to this well, and the 5-para fits that need of x paragraphs, y sentences per paragraph, and z topics. It's not good writing, but it is passable, literally, and for many that's what they want, surety.
The other side, that it's easy to grade, isn't really on teachers. A couple maybe, but teaching the 5-para technique is more often imposed by administration because any standardized test that has writing, from the SAT to the various state NCLB tests, needs to be able to be graded quickly. Studies have shown that 5-para essays get better grades on standardized tests than "quality" writing does.

#122 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 01:21 PM:

Soru @106: Ah, I see you're trying to come up with a working definition of the phrase "Overton window" and looking at some edge cases. Yes, your proposed definition can be a useful one. It's not quite the one I use, though its meaning cloud has a large overlap and for most practical purposes will get us to the same place. Further discussion might focus on the definition of "the group to whom statements within the Overton window are acceptable" (very different acceptability standards if one is speaking at a formal White House dinner and a Klan rally, for example).

This discussion reminds me of two statements that I attribute to Don Simpson (yes, the one who comments here). "There are an unlimited number of perversions, but some of them have never been tried because they're just too painful or disgusting for anyone who's been alive yet," and "God loves everybody, but he's kinky." Their relevance to this discussion is left as an exercise for the reader.

#123 ::: Marty In Boise ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 01:34 PM:

Pedantic Peasant @ 121: heh--"imposed by administration for the sake of standardized testing" is indeed a far better encapsulation of what I meant.

#124 ::: cajunfj40 ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 01:51 PM:

pedantic peasant @ #115:

(Hmmm. Alternate definitions are approximately equal to elemental isotopes?)

Oh my.

Your comment provokes an imagining of a Periodic Table of the English Language.*

Want.

*No, sadly, that is not a link.

#125 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 02:13 PM:

cajunfj40 @ 124

Your comment provokes an imagining of a Periodic Table of the English Language.

I also would want. Although the idea raises a question quite appropriate to the thread (IMO), to wit, what is "the English Language"? Would the table present a very limited set of words [Sc - 21 - scrofulous], grammatical terms [Na - 11 - Noun agreement], root terms [Li - 3 -Latin influence] or something even more outre?

And, who decides?

#126 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 03:13 PM:

Tom:

Yeah, I think there are a number of overlapping ideas referenced by the Overton Window. The one that makes the most sense to me goes like this:

There is a more-or-less shared consensus picture of reality in any community. This is stuff that almost everyone believes or says they believe.

There is a window of ideas that are at least acceptable to this consensus picture of reality in a community--some are mainstream views, some are minority views, but they're all widely considered things reasonable people can differ on.

There are also ideas that mark you out as crazy or evil or at any rate not worth considering or talking with.

My sense is that this is broadly true in any community. (Each individual has such a window, more-or-less, and the community's window is the result of sort-of summing them all up.)

At a national level, the window is largely determined by what the big media organizations will and won't allow on their networks, both in news and in entertainment. (For example, there aren't a whole lot of sympathetic overtly racist characters on TV, as far as I have seen. This is part of the mechanism by which the Overton window is maintained on a national level.) To a lesser extent, big newspapers, smaller magazines and newspapers, relatively widespread church teachings, and books you can find in your bookstore or library are all part of what determines this window. And this is maintained mainly by a feedback loop--media viewers and advertisers and people within the media organizations, when they see stuff outside the window, are offended or upset, and this manifests itself in terms of ratings, advertiser complaints, and executive decisions. Politicians and activist groups are very much inclined to jump on stuff outside the window they personally don't like.

The most important thing to understand about this window is that it has nothing directly to do with rational thought. To a huge extent, I think it's just what people are used to hearing. When nobody ever talks about gay marriage or drug legalization, nobody can really talk about it without stirring up a lot of controversy about not-appropriate-for-kids or sending-the-wrong-message or irresponsible or whatever. When people get used to hearing about that stuff, there's less and less pushback, and so those things can be talked about more and more freely.

One really weird and creepy part of this is that sometimes, the window excludes stuff that's obviously true and potentially important. (Think about that Ron Paul speech made into a commercial, where he's imagining how Americans would feel about the Chinese army behaving in Texas the way we're behaving in Afghanistan--this isn't something you're likely to see on CNN outside of an actual interview or debate including Ron Paul. Or the decision of just about every major US media source to call our torture program something other than a torture program. Or the blackholing of the St Paul RNC pre-emptive arrests.)

I think the internet is fragmenting this window even more than it always was fragmented. On the one hand, the internet means there's really no way to keep people from seeing some ideas discussed which are outside the range that any big media company would ever put on the air. On the other, many of the sources of that information are quite narrow--most people don't read Radley Balko's blog, or John Robb's, or Steve Sailer's, or Robin Hanson's, or Juan Cole's, or Glenn Greenwald's. So each of those blogs can and do carry ideas that are massively outside the mainstream of American thought[1], which would seldom end up getting any kind of a hearing on CNN or Fox or NBC. But there's nothing like a majority of voters or citizens or educated people or whatever who will see that stuff.

The combination of the Overton Window (my model, anyway) and the unreliability of the big media sources in important areas leads to this creepy situation, where very important parts of the world almost can't be discussed without being seen as seriously weird, anti-American, crazy, etc.

[1] It should go without saying that all those blogs include plenty of ideas I disagree pretty strongly with.

#127 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 03:49 PM:

Marty In Boise @119: Its very artificiality does encourage students to think about how they're saying what they're saying, and it teaches vividly that 'written English' and 'spoken English' can be quite different, in the ways you get your ideas across. It also breaks the students out of the habit of writing school assignments in stream-of-consciousness, just as it occurs to them, babbling around until you just stop writing (and man have I seen a lot of papers like that come out of my just-past-high-school sister, who should already know better).

Kind of like how all poems are not haikus, but learning to write good haikus (or sonnets, or limericks, or whatever) can make you a better writer all around.

Also, distilling everything down to a thesis and three (simple, can be addressed in a short paragraph) supports does teach one to EDIT, also valuable in their later writing.

However, the overwhelming focus on it as the only acceptable kind of writing for a big long swath of one's academic history (in my case, somewhere mid-9th-grade until two years into college) can (a) train those who learn it well into rigidities of thought that get in the way of later good writing, and conversely, (b) convince the kids who have trouble learning it and keep straying into other, vivid kinds of writing, that they will 'never write well' and encourage them to turn off or go into other fields that don't require paper-writing to pass the classes.

#128 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 03:56 PM:

albatross @126 said: I think it's just what people are used to hearing. When nobody ever talks about gay marriage or drug legalization, nobody can really talk about it without stirring up a lot of controversy about not-appropriate-for-kids or sending-the-wrong-message or irresponsible or whatever. When people get used to hearing about that stuff, there's less and less pushback, and so those things can be talked about more and more freely.

This relates into the How to make being a gay teen really suck particle: that school district had a policy informally called "No Homo Promo", which was articulated behind-the-scenes to all the teachers as a complete administration intolerance for bringing up or mentioning anything related to homosexuality, because the administration refused to define 'promoting' homosexuality. Teachers were terrified that everything from mentioning the non-heterosexuality of historical figures when it was relevant to things taught in class on right through to explicitly answering the question, "Mr. (name), I heard you're gay. Is that true?" might end in their immediate firing for violating No Homo Promo.

This complete official silence at school by adults meant two things: kids getting evangelically-originated hate messages at home could say anything they wanted at school to their classmates without the school telling them to knock it off, and similarly, anything everyone is THAT silent about is often presumed by adolescents to be shameful … so the overall message from the administration was that homosexuality must be shameful.

Because they were forbidden from talking about it, nobody could raise it non-controversially.

#129 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 03:58 PM:

On the 5-paragraph essay. Speaking mainly from the perspective of watching my daughter, now in her second year of college. It seemed to be good training for her. Her high school hammered on this; she thought it annoyingly rigid at the time but found when she got to college that it had given her a solid foundation for writing longer papers as well. The twin points of "have a clear structure" and "support what you say" generalize to lots of things.

On the other hand, she's also been writing fanfiction all along and taken a couple of creative writing courses, so had the parallel experience of getting feedback on a very different writing style.

And she's going to have to take a college writing course (her AP English gets her out of one but she needs two) and she's been putting it off because she expects to find it painfully dull repetition of the same principles.

#130 ::: Joseph M. ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 05:21 PM:

I don't understand the frequent extreme dislike for the five-paragraph essay. To my mind, OtterB's observation in 129 is pretty spot-on: the format provides an opportunity to teach structure and support in an easy-to-work-with way. It even, I believe, provides a nice starting point to discuss larger-scale non-fiction writing, as the skeleton of the process (intro, argument, conclusion) is the same. The issue of teachers beyond high school clinging to the form (as alluded to by Elliott Mason@127) is a different issue.

As a further question for Elliott, I'm curious: I'm assuming that your mention of people who stopped writing because they couldn't work the five paragraph essay in 127 is from your experience (as in, you know someone who had this happen, not that you, personally, felt that way)--is that correct? I've had the opposite--those who write well or vividly just add the form as another tool to their toolbox (if a bland one) and use it when required.1
***
1: How many of these opinions are directly related to my schooling? I don't know, but I certainly wouldn't claim that my high school was great. My college is generally well regarded, though. On further review, my preference for the concise and well-organized may be showing, though.

#131 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 06:28 PM:

Joseph M @130: It was nearly me, actually. I put off writing papers (because I couldn't figure out how to shove my idiosyncratic production method into the form -- especially with teachers who insisted you use THEIR process and turn in interim pieces [brainstorming, various detail-levels of outline, etc] periodically and GRADE you on it) throughout my high school career, in many classes writing 4-5 very overdue papers in the last week before final exams to salvage a passing grade in the class ... and when I turned them in they got As.

The entire process was so traumatic for me that it took two decades and attending community college as an adult for me to be able to sit down to write a classic 5-para essay without hyperventilating.

This was after over a decade of being a fairly 'popular' blogger, whose posts got lots of comments and interaction. I can WRITE, I just couldn't write THAT (or wasn't being successfully taught to, I should say).

#132 ::: Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 07:10 PM:

One of the problems of the science fiction field is that, while sf is not a cult in and of itself, it has a lot of the raw materials for cultish behavior floating around. This has, at least in one case, grown up into an actual cult. (Let's not mention the S world.)

It is not specialized terminology alone that creates some of these toxic social situations; but in some cases rather the crystallization of elements like shunning outsiders, charismatic leaders, and specialized vocabulary, and perhaps the addition of situations in which self-criticism sessions are expected, that should set off one's social alarm system.

The world doesn't need to know that someone is wrong in a blog post or a comment section; so the best thing to do when you see all of these elements falling into place is to leave, just as you would if you found yourself in the wrong house.

#133 ::: Nanette ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 08:20 PM:

Elliot @131

I, being sneaky by nature, got around the idiot requirement of note cards, outline, etc. by writing the ddd paper and then! producing the pre-requisites, turning in the paper later. Worked great. My mind , too, never worked the way it was "supposed" to. Blessedly after freshman year college didn't bother with that drivel.

#134 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 08:40 PM:

albatross @ 126:

At a national level, the window is largely determined by what the big media organizations will and won't allow on their networks, both in news and in entertainment. (For example, there aren't a whole lot of sympathetic overtly racist characters on TV, as far as I have seen...)

With the caveats that I have watched almost no episodic television since I canceled my cable service 4 years ago, and didn't watch much episodic TV for several years prior to that--the last even remotely sympathetic-yet-acknowledged-racist character I recall was Archie Bunker. Although All in the Family made it very clear that Archie was "lovable" in spite of his racism, etc., it also didn't shy away from it and made sure the audience knew Archie was wrong in his prejudices. (I would direct you to the last few seconds of the ep "Sammy's Visit" for a priceless reaction if you have not seen it, or not recently enough to recall it offhand. Offbrain? ***sigh***)

cajunfj40 @ 124/pedantic peasant @ 125: I also want the Periodic Table of the English Language! But looking at the items pedantic peasant offers as potential starting points, I'm not sure a table is going to do it.

It seems to me that language, English or any other, is, in no particular order, (1) its current vocabulary; (2) its historical foundations, which may or may not incorporate root structures (Latin, etc.) and methods for deriving them, plus how one might use them to create new formations; (3) its grammar re: the words themselves (noun, verb, etc.); (4) its structural grammar--the idea being that even if you have the words but lack at least some knowledge of the way the words generally fit together, you will probably not communicate as effectively as you wish; and probably a number of other things I haven't really thought about since the last time I took an English class, including the exceptions to the various rules.

Would each of these get its own table? Would they interlock/intersect at points? Or are we looking at something more like a language Zwicky box than a table?

I wish my books were closer to the front of my storage spaces--I'm feeling a deep need to reread On Writing and some of my reference books...

#135 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 09:24 PM:

Nanette (133): The one college class for which I was required to hand in an abstract before the paper was due, I wrote the paper early, then produced an abstract by the simple procedure of stringing all of the topic sentences into a single paragraph. It worked surprisingly well. Fortunately, the professor liked it and didn't suggest any changes "before" I wrote the main paper.

For long research papers (all both of them), I did write an outline first, but short things worked much better for me if I just sat down and wrote them. Only one draft, too, although I edited extensively as I went.

#136 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: February 10, 2012, 11:29 PM:

Elliott @ 131

Oh, man, that used to drive me crazy. It wasn't until I was a fair way into my career and I needed to be able to pull abstract ideas out of complicated documentation and into a simplified, accessible form, that some of those brainstorming tools became relevant and started to make sense. When you apply them to topics and ideas that are ridiculously simple, they just don't click. Or didn't for me.

I agree with Nannette @ 133, the only way to make those assignments work was to write first, then put some likely-seeming things into whatever format the teacher was recommending that week.

#137 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 12:20 AM:

Joseph M. @130

I don't understand the frequent extreme dislike for the five-paragraph essay. To my mind, OtterB's observation in 129 is pretty spot-on: the format provides an opportunity to teach structure and support in an easy-to-work-with way. It even, I believe, provides a nice starting point to discuss larger-scale non-fiction writing, as the skeleton of the process (intro, argument, conclusion) is the same. The issue of teachers beyond high school clinging to the form (as alluded to by Elliott Mason@127) is a different issue.

I believe the problem isn't with the five-paragraph form, per se, but with the fact that today, in most cases, the "teaching of writing" means "teaching the five paragraph essay," and with the exception of spelling and grammar, that five-paragraph form is the most important element even, in some cases, more important than the effectiveness of the essay.

I've had the opposite--those who write well or vividly just add the form as another tool to their toolbox (if a bland one) and use it when required.

There are two problems with this. One is that it ignores those who struggle with writing, who often cling to the security of the five-paragraph form, and resist or refuse to progress to more complete and complex forms. The other is that with the five-paragraph essay becoming an endemic and ubiquitous part of the curriculum, those who write well and vividly are not encouraged, and sometimes not allowed to indulge their more vivid and complex skills.

Imagine taking a poetry course for an entire year, but being given an arbitrary restriction for the whole year that you could only write haiku, or that everything had to be in iambic pentameter ...

#138 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 12:22 AM:

Tom Whitmore @ 31: "I'd say that words represent ideas, instead; and that the mapping from words to ideas is an incomplete "onto", with a huge mass of ideas that don't have words connected to them."

I think the rub is that words refer to ideas, and are also ideas in their own right. The two ideas pivot around each other, but there is always the possibility of slippage, of friction and complete unhinging.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden @ 56: "the meaning of a word is the negative space defined by all the things it doesn't mean."

I wonder what your feelings on "the meaning of a word is the negative space defined by all the meanings of the words that it isn't" are.

SamChevre @ 64: I would say that the very fact that the left of the past thirty years can be fairly described as being mostly culturally-focused is itself a sign of its utter collapse.

Tony Zbaraschuk @ 68: "One [i]should[/i] be able to unpack, admittedly. Sometimes this is very hard to do in any practical manner. Perhaps a better way of saying it would be "you should always be able to explain the terms you're using in such a way that a person new to the term can understand."

I agree with this as a useful corrective and guard against jargon for the sake of obfuscation, but I think there is a dnagerous tendency to interpret "knowledge that can be explained" as "knowledge the speaker really understands." In my experience this is not nearly so safe an assumption nor so tight a correlation as all that. Being able to describe something in words so that someone else can recognize it is a kind of knowledge that captures only a small, and often rather irrelevant, part of the thing. Describing how one rides a bike, or how a bike works, is not in any way essential to being able to ride or repair the thing. The same is true, I'd say, of knowing when an argument is fallacious and being able to describe why.

#139 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 12:31 AM:

Xopher @ 81: oh no! I have been dratted. I knew I needed to leap right on the idea the instant I had it, before someone else got there first--I accept a dratting as no more than my due for snagging such a fine pun.

#140 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 12:31 AM:

Syd @ 134
Would each of these get its own table? Would they interlock/intersect at points?

I don't know, I'm starting to think that maybe you could organize the categories along the same line as the periodic elements:

Noble Gases as Parts of Speech
Prepositions and conjunctions as Transitional elements
Grammatical rules as non-metallic elements
Literary terms as metallic

Or something like that ...

#141 ::: pedantic peasant has been gnomed ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 12:38 AM:

This Is Just To Say

I have been gnomed
my comment
now held
in the icebox

waits for
you to come,
illuminating,
and enlighten.

Forgive me
there were these WORDS
so sweet
and so light.

#142 ::: debio ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 01:16 AM:


So much depends
upon

Abi the gnome
slayer

freeing our words
from

those gnomes in
the icebox.

#143 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 01:21 AM:

So different, his words
and these tributes:
A conversation growing
In the light.


[And the gods bless Abi Light-bringer]

#144 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 01:22 AM:

So different, his words
and these tributes:
A conversation growing
In the light.


[And the gods bless Abi Light-bringer]

#145 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 01:23 AM:

heresiarch @ 138:

The two ideas pivot around each other, but there is always the possibility of slippage, of friction and complete unhinging.

Yes, and I think meta and ground get exchanged, both in discourse and in thinking (and out in the world of emergent systems as well, but that's another kettle of memes). And there are subjects where meta and ground are exchanged as often as figure and ground in the Rubin vase.

#146 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 07:25 AM:

Syd #134: cajunfj40 @ 124/pedantic peasant @ 125: I also want the Periodic Table of the English Language! But looking at the items pedantic peasant offers as potential starting points, I'm not sure a table is going to do it. ...

Yeah, I wasn't going to start in on this, but this is surely another example of Table Abuse, so welcome to my mini-rant.

Every so often someone does this -- they take some topic or meme, and just stick the "elements" thereof into boxes in little rows, without any actual structure to justify the "Periodic" part of the description.

But... the important thing about Mendeleev's table, was precisely that it wasn't merely "a complete list of the elements". Instead, it arranged the then-known elements so as to reveal underlying patterns in the behavior of the elements, so firmly that several then-unknown elements could be predicted, eventually discovered -- and found to have precisely their predicted properties. There are two axes to the PTE, which turned out to be valence electrons from left to right, and mass/shell count from top to bottom. Both factors are meaningful and useful in chemistry, and their significance is found by examination of reality. Further, having chosen to display those axes, the positions of everything short of the transition metals is pretty much determined by that choice. So are the table "breaks" that give the PTE its distinctive shape, because those gaps also represent underlying reality, which doesn't always fit into even grids.

Compare that to the so-called Periodic Table of Storytelling that showed up in the sidelights a while back. The boxes are disordered lists of tropes, and the columns are arbitrary categories, stacked two or three wide for graphical convenience. There is no natural progression along either axis¹, nor does the arrangement actually reveal any unifying patterns to the trope. The only reason to call it a "Periodic Table" is because the boxes are arranged in towers-and-valleys resembling the PTE.

Sorry, but I call that Table Abuse. If you want to create an Important Significant Table for Storytelling, or the English Language, seek out the underlying structure for that and a graphical form to represent it. Don't just pack your stuff into some shape from a field of knowledge that's utterly alien to your actual topic.

¹ To pick a column and a row at random; What progression unifies: Protagonist, Idiot Ball, Flanderization, Badass...? What pattern is represented by MacGuffin, Sliding Scale of Idealism/Cynicism, Mind Screw, Sealed Evil in a Can?

#147 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 09:38 AM:

pedantic peasant @ 137:

Imagine taking a poetry course for an entire year, but being given an arbitrary restriction for the whole year that you could only write haiku, or that everything had to be in iambic pentameter...

There was an exercise I never had to do in class and never had the will to do on my own that struck me as mindbendingly difficult in many different ways and likely very good for a poet:

Students were given a list of words and were required to use them in fifty or so metrical lines, typically iambic pentameter, disregarding syntax and specifically not making any sense.

#148 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 10:10 AM:

My freshman English teacher in high school gave us many useful writing exercises (most of them not 5-para essays); I am reminded of one in particular every time Things come around in ML threads, because the assignment was basically, "Parody the plums/icebox poem, keeping the shape and basic thrust but changing the topic utterly." I did one about having run over, perchance deliberately, my neighbor's annoying toy poodle, which was the most gruesome one turned in -- I didn't know we'd have to read them aloud in front of class, so I amused myself!

KayTei @136: I also found (in paper-writing as in several other things, like estimation-instead-of-exact-answer) my teachers very often gave me skills I derided until 5-10 years after they introduced them. An awful lot of things I learned in school seemed either stupid or blitheringly obvious, but much later I saw the use of HAVING the tool in my kit ...

In my case, nowadays I do outline somewhat before writing a paper, but something in my writing method skews it when I write the actual paper. My community college had an amazing 'writing lab' (meaning adjunct teachers off duty who would read your paper and offer edit suggestions), which I used every time. Not, as many of my classmates did, for help (a) making their English sound more native-speaker-generated, or (b) fixing their basic bonehead grammar mistakes, but for my own idiosyncratic reason … I'd walk in and say when they asked what level I wanted them to read it at, "Um, if you run into any major logic holes in my argument let me know, and when you see my thesis statement, could you underline it?"

Because every DURN paper I write, what I thought was my thesis statement at the beginning ends up NOT being it by the time I write the paper (usually it turns into a support), and though the paper is clear and readable, by the time I'm done I'm utterly incapable of SEEING my new thesis.

Once I got the helper to point it out to me, it was obvious, of course, and then I could do a final whip-through making sure everything hung off the same spine and (to borrow EBear's kinesthetic view of a written work as a top, or in my case a mobile) swung and balanced pleasingly when so hung.

#149 ::: Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 10:23 AM:

As the parent of a current high school student, I see two problems with the standard 5-paragraph essay.

One is that they are almost never asked to write anything else. My kid's a sophomore and has never written a paper that's longer than about 2 pages--longer than the 5-paragraph essay, obviously, but hardly something that requires a considerable amount of research, thought, or writing. In fact, most of her "papers" haven't been papers at all, but "projects" like PowerPoint presentations, brochures, etc. Nearly all the work is designed as "quick hits" rather than as opportunities to actually develop an idea in any depth.

The other problem is that the 5-paragraph essay is designed to be written in snatches. The student can write the first paragraph, check Facebook, write the next paragraph, check email, repeat through the 5 paragraphs. Because the 3 intervening paragraphs don't develop or depend on each other--they hang off the first paragraph--and the last paragraph is a summation. So once again, no real requirement to develop a thought or support an idea beyond the scope of an individual paragraph.

Now, there's no question that some writing works like that, but much writing does not.

I agree that for some people, the 5-paragraph essay makes a good blueprint, and that it's certainly easier to grade, but it's uses are limited, and I worry that the focus on this form decreases not the ability to write in depth, but the ability to think in depth.

#150 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 10:45 AM:

I don't recall that we ever had to write "five paragraph essays" in high school or college. For one thing, the word "essay" was never used. But more importantly, it didn't have to be exactly five paragraphs, that was just the minimum. The format I was taught was

introduction
at least three supporting points, each in its own paragraph
conclusion

This worked when expanded to twenty-page research papers, too.

#151 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 10:47 AM:

Forgot to mention: the topic sentences didn't have to come first, although that was most common. I remember reading-comprehension exercises in which we had to underline topic sentences--very specifically not always the first sentence of the paragraph.

#152 ::: little pink beast ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 11:30 AM:

It could be worse - we could be trying to teach the Eight-legged Essay in our high schools.

It could be even worse than that - we could be selecting our bureaucracy and civil service on the basis of skill in writing five-paragraph essays.

#153 ::: Joseph M. ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 11:58 AM:

Elliott Mason@131: Ah--I see. Thank you for sharing your story; I will have to consider this before engaging in future discussions on this topic.

And I, too, hated those intermediate-step assignments.

Pedantic Peasant@137: Interesting. You may be highlighting the effect of my distinctly-mediocre1 high school: those of us who were looking for 'more' knew we needed to go outside of the usual structure and provided our own support group. If you didn't have that, it might be more difficult to stretch your legs, as it were.

However, I think your comment at the beginning is important, too--that the 5PE is, at the end, a tool, and if taught well there is nothing inherently wrong with it.

Finally, I have taken poetry classes like that. They may be why I don't contribute poetry here--which may, in the end, prove your point. On the other hand, maybe not: there isn't much call for base-form 5PE in the real world, either.

***
1: It wasn't a bad school--not dangerous, or particularly toxic to those of us who lived off the beaten path, but there sure wasn't much interest in offering opportunities to those who wanted to learn more, however.

#154 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 12:22 PM:

I feel about the 5-paragraph essay like OtterB @ 129 does.

It may help that at least by high school, we weren't assigned 5-paragraph essays to do at home, in which case they would have been pointless. They were always assigned as in-class essays, as practice drills for the AP English test. We drilled a lot on being given a prompt, mentally outlining an argument, marshaling evidence for each point of your argument, and writing the whole thing, in a total of 30 minutes. By the end of senior year I could do it in 15.

While I rarely have to do that specific task IRL, the drill did hammer principles of structure and organization into my head that transfer well to real-life writing tasks.

That said, it is true that a lot of teachers and students don't seem to understand the 5-paragraph essay as a "toy problem" to teach basic structure and organization, instead thinking that it's really how you should write. That's a problem.

I think the best method of teaching structure is George Gopen's method. From his website:

In trying to make sense of an English sentence, readers need to answer five essential questions:

1. What is going on here?

2. Whose story is this?

3. How does this sentence connect backwards to the previous sentence?

4. How does this sentence lean forwards to the next sentence?

5. What is the most important piece of information in this sentence?

Remarkably, the interpretive clues to the answers to all five of these essential questions are conveyed to the reader not by word choice, but rather by structural location. Where a particular word shows up in a sentence -- and not what that word is -- controls the way that word will be interpretively processed.

(If you click the link, there's an example immediately following the bit I've quoted.)

The principles of sentence organization extend to paragraph and document organization.

I've been lucky enough to be able to take one of his writing workshops at a serious discount; usually they're expensive. He has a couple of books with the stuff in his workshops. One is The Sense of Structure: Writing from the Reader's Perspective, and the other is Expectations: Teaching Writing from the Reader's Perspective.

It takes a lot more work to write this way, but it takes significantly less work to read something written this way.

#155 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 12:49 PM:

David Harmon @ 146, you make an excellent point about Table Abuse. I hadn't overtly thought about the underlying structure of the table of elements with its descriptive and predictive abilities (if you will), but in the back of my head was the idea that a periodic table of language should share that structure and its powers.

Language being what it is, I wonder if that's exactly why we don't already have a functional periodic table of English: it's got so many rules and exceptions and borrowings from other languages with that other language's underlying structures, there may not be a way of shoehorning it into anything as neat and "simple" as a table.

Would the idea work with a language with fewer inherent oddities than English? Or is all language just "irrational" enough (in the sense that there's always something, or several somethings, that defy its own standards) to elude neat categorization?

Definitely an intriguing mental exercise, though.

#156 ::: Raine ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 12:54 PM:

This whole thread is excellent, but I'm especially fascinated by this discussion of the 5-paragraph essay because I'm currently a graduate student in my second semester of teaching a freshman level composition course. During the first week of class I assigned What is academic writing?, by L. Lennie Irvin, which goes through and discounts a number of myths about academic writing, one of which is that academic writing always follows the 5-paragraph essay.

This myth got a lot of attention from my students and they've requested that we talk about other ways for structuring a paper. This thread is giving me some great ideas about how to go about that in a way that will balance the wide range of skill levels in the course (especially Caroline @154 - that seems very similar to the ideas behind a paragraph structure exercise I used last semester).

Elliott Mason @131 and Joseph M @ 153 - I haven't yet figured out how to work flexibly with the interim assignments. The semester is focused around a large research paper, which many of them have never completed before, so I feel like without those (and several required drafts) a large number of students would put it off until the end and completely flounder. I do emphasize that the final paper doesn't have to look anything like the outline, for example. It's just a way to get ideas on paper and start working with them. But as someone who usually only uses an outline between drafts, rather than before starting, I'm still unsure about how helpful this is.

#157 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 01:12 PM:

Raine (156): One thing I found very helpful for writing a* research paper my freshman year in college was the requirement that we hand in a tentative list of sources several weeks before the paper itself was due. Without that, I would have put off the research proper until entirely too late.

*the only research paper I had to write in college, as it turned out. As a Literature major, I had to write a lot of shorter papers, but they didn't involve research in the same way.

#158 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 01:14 PM:

Syd #155: In fact, I think you'd need something more like a "graph diagram", with key elements appearing as nodes, and their relations noted by lines and arrows. Of course, this wouldn't be limited to a simple tree structure, and would probably have some self-similar parts.... Some such graphs tend to wander across the page; this one would be wandering off the table and out the door!

Other languages might well have more compact diagrams, but English is particularly complex....

#159 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 01:37 PM:

Bruce Cohen @ 145: "And there are subjects where meta and ground are exchanged as often as figure and ground in the Rubin vase."

What is the designation of meta and ground but a description of one point of view at one moment in time?

Elliot Mason @ 148: "I also found (in paper-writing as in several other things, like estimation-instead-of-exact-answer) my teachers very often gave me skills I derided until 5-10 years after they introduced them. An awful lot of things I learned in school seemed either stupid or blitheringly obvious, but much later I saw the use of HAVING the tool in my kit ..."

I think this touches on one of the most profoundly misguided elements in our education system: having determined the set of skills which provide the largest and most useful tool kit for understanding the world, we then attempt to teach those skills to children without ever once demonstrating to those children how and why they are useful. It is like being forced to memorize every possible shape and design of key without ever being shown a lock--or better yet, what treasures lie beyond them.

#160 ::: Kevin Reid ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 01:38 PM:
1) Software isn't either; did you ever try using the same variable name for two variables in different classes?

Any language (or implementation thereof) which is unhappy with that should be discarded posthaste. Scope is not an unsolved problem.

#161 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 01:48 PM:

Hmm, Kevin, I agree that it should work, but it's a bad programming practice from the standpoint of readability. I'm not quite in the camp that says a variable's class identity should be unambiguously evident from its name, but why court confusion?

#162 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 03:04 PM:

161
Xopher, I think I agree on that: using the same name for two different things in the same program is just asking for trouble.

#163 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 06:02 PM:

heresiarch @ 159:

What is the designation of meta and ground but a description of one point of view at one moment in time?

Well, those two terms do say something about the relationship between the two points of view.

P J Evans @ 162:

I also agree, and I'm very much in the camp that says that communication to other humans (and to yourself at a later date) is much more important in software than other concerns like concision of names or statements. It's the compiler's job to create efficient and debuggable code, assuming basic care on the part of the programmer; it's the programmer's job to ensure that the code can be maintained and extended with as little effort as possible.

#164 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 08:11 PM:

Xopher, #161: Count me as another in the "don't re-use variable names within a program" group. I can't think of any good reason to do so, and I can think of a LOT of ways in which it could cause problems. In my programming days, if I'd run into something like that, I'd have spent however long it took to track down all uses and separate them, cursing the original idiot who did it all the while.

#165 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 08:31 PM:

Lee #164: Well, there is a case or two where name reuse actually helps the cause. One is when various local or object variables are parallel, representing "the same thing, but in this context".

#166 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 08:38 PM:

David, I'd still want to distinguish them.

#167 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 09:14 PM:

David Harmon @165: the different variables represent "the same thing" only in a particular way, under some specific form of measurement. And the context is probably enough to define the particular form of measurement used, but also maybe not. Under a different measurement criterion, they're different variables -- by your own statement. So -- similar names might be very useful, but the same names (like the different meanings of i I mentioned above) can easily cause confusion. And why expand confusion without necessity?

#168 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 10:10 PM:

Tom #167: Wha? Dude, that was about programming, not physics.

#169 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 10:17 PM:

I have been following the discussion of the five-paragraph essay with interest. Back when I learned prose writing, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was taught something called "English composition" and had to write things called "compositions". These were prose essays on specific topics which had to begin with what would now be called a topic sentence, and lay out the subject in detail, then be brought to a conclusion. I didn't have a five-paragraph limit.

For variation, I had, from time to time, to write these as letters to an imaginary correspondent abroad. I think I developed a prose style out of these exercises that was remarkably flabby. The style that I have now, for expository prose, came out of my experience as a journalist in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There's nothing quite like being yelled at by an editor for honing one's prose. Nor anything like having it critiqued by journalists of vast experience. To this day I worry if my paragraphs run too long. Not my sentences. My paragraphs.

It took me a year of graduate school to be cured of writing two-sentence paragraphs. Honest.

At least of having every paragraph be no more than two sentences, that is to say. I'd got into the habit as a result of a fair amount of practice. It was pointed out to me by a colleague at NYU that my writing style was very different from the one that she'd been taught as standard academic writing -- two paragraphs to a page -- I'd have four, sometimes five, short paragraphs.

One of my teachers later, at UCSD, explained to me that I ought to be writing slowly rather than quickly, taking an hour over each page, at least, rather than trying to produce a page in 15 minutes. "This is very different from journalism; we really want you to take time in thought", he said. I've done that ever since. It has turned out to be wise advice.

#170 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 10:46 PM:

#113 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden

"Necessary" is so vague. Some readers (me for example) need some redundancy to be able to follow the story.

#126 ::: albatross

I agree. For another example of the Overton Window getting moved, look at the changes in what may be said about sex.

*****

The five paragraph essay: Are there other formats which would be worth teaching? What about having students analyze the structure of classic essays?

#171 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 11, 2012, 11:33 PM:

1678
Summarizing:
Using the same name for two (or more) different things in the same work is a Bad Idea. It's too easy to get confused. Don't do it.

#172 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: February 12, 2012, 10:48 AM:

My high school had a term-long class on how to write a term paper. It included interim assignments such as creating and turning in quotation cards (index cards with the citation information attached) as well as outlines, potential thesis statements, and so on. This was a primary source paper; we went over the other types of papers but only dealt with the (incredibly long!) ten-page paper we were to write.

I still managed to procrastinate. It's a talent.

I prefer not to write that way, but I am very glad I did. It was not only useful when I got to college, but it helped to make this intuitive thinker present well to a process-oriented educational system.

#173 ::: JerryN ::: (view all by) ::: February 12, 2012, 01:13 PM:

The five-paragraph essay discussion has ended up tying back into the topic of jargon for me in a sort of oblique way. My formal education predated the popularity of teaching the five-paragraph essay. I was taught the five-part essay form (i.e. classical argument) and conflated that with term under discussion. So, I was a bit confused until I did a quick Google / Wiki check and realized that I had misunderstood what was being discussed. Call it an Emily Latella moment.

#174 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: February 12, 2012, 01:21 PM:

I think that all the writing I did at school was supposed to prime us for the essay-answer to exam questions, which was essentially a half-hour to write the answer. But I don't recall the teachers actually teaching that. I ended up with good passes in English Lang. and Lit. and a flop with History. The History syllabus was 19th century British Politics, centred on Electoral Reform. It didn't engage me.

(The English Lit. had too much Dickens, but one of the possible questions was on other books, a what have you read question, and I suppose I talked sense about James Bond.)

Looking at Fragano's account of how his writing has changed, I wonder how mine has. It seems my English teacher is still alive, which is a little bit of a surprise.

#175 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: February 12, 2012, 02:45 PM:

I may have mentioned before that my AP English teacher gave us an essay exam every Friday for an entire school year. Three-choose-two questions, five-part essay expected for each.

Our class did very well on the AP exam.

#176 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2012, 02:42 PM:

Syd @155 said: Language being what it is, I wonder if that's exactly why we don't already have a functional periodic table of English: it's got so many rules and exceptions and borrowings from other languages with that other language's underlying structures, there may not be a way of shoehorning it into anything as neat and "simple" as a table.

It may not be terribly regular, but it's certainly more regular than I was ever taught in school. Taking Latin taught me about verb conjugations (and noun declensions, though overwhelmingly English nouns are usually not declined or inflected anymore), and taking two semesters of Spanish recently blew my mind: Spanish has what I think of as 'checkbox' irregular verbs, where multiple kinds of 'irregularity' are well-known to have patterns, and individual verbs may have one or more of them.

In other words, I was expecting "sum, esse, fui, futurus" levels of irregularity, and got verbs instead that in certain tenses are 'o->i verbs' and change one vowel in the stem, etc.

Spanish looks suspiciously to me like it was forcibly regularized sometime in the last hundredish years; its spelling and phonetics are RELENTLESSLY regular, with words respelling themselves in certain inflections to keep their pronunciation the same and so on. Was it Franco? Seems a Franco-like thing to have done. My teacher says nobody did, but languages just don't grow THAT regular naturally, my instincts whisper.

Getting back to English, though, I've come to the hypothesis that a lot of our 'irregular' verbs are in fact the only surviving members of what used to be regular conjugations -- the sing-sang-sung group, for example, and the ones that go to 'ought' in the past (bring, buy, teach), and many more I can't bring to mind at the moment. It seems to me it could be useful to think of the language has having one main 'regular' method of conjugating verbs, and an assortment of smaller, but still regular, fossil remnant conjugations. At worst, they're 'checkbox' irregular groups like Spanish has, not wildly irregular crap like be/do/have/take/etc are in Latin and French.

I've been told that our English 'is' is actually a mosaic verb, with forms in it that used to be part of several ancient-er words that disintegrated and were eaten into it (which makes some of its wild irregularity a little more sensical ... or, rather, shows why there are patches of seeming regularity in it).

IANAL(inguist), nor do I even play one on TV, but I'm fairly word-obsessed and I'm a geek, so I process by looking for patterns.

I also like to joke that "The first rule of the English Language is we do not talk about the English Language", a la Fight Club. Certainly, hardly any of my grade school or high school teachers had anything to say about its structure that were particularly sense-making, aside from the nun that taught us to diagram sentences (and even that was 'off the curriculum,' a two-week side trip on her own recognizance). I didn't really learn WHY various grammar things I knew how to use were right or wrong, and why, till I took Latin and they had to explain it to us so we could learn to do it NOT in English.

#177 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2012, 02:48 PM:

Elliott: French only has four wildly irregular verbs--be/have/go/do. The rest are, as you suggest, fossilized remnants of dead conjugations.

#178 ::: hedgehog ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2012, 03:06 PM:

re: #161 ::: Xopher HalfTongue

Hmm, Kevin, I agree that it should work, but it's a bad programming practice from the standpoint of readability. I'm not quite in the camp that says a variable's class identity should be unambiguously evident from its name, but why court confusion?

Programs are composed of too many pieces, developed by too many programmers, for people to be forced to worry whether two identifiers in two different scopes -- say, two different classes or two different method definitions -- are the same.

The variable name `i`, for example, gets reused all over the place, but since those places are different methods whose scopes don't intersect (much), it doesn't matter. Two different structs (or classes) can both sensibly have members called `name` or `description` or `dateCreated`. Two different methods for different classes can both be called `getWeight` or `engage`.

Of course sometimes there will be situations where choosing a name to be the same as another name will be confusing, just as there will be times when whether the base value for something -- say, day of the week -- should be 0 or 1, or whether a rectangle is identified by its corners or one corner and its size, will be confusing. But just because something can be used in a confusing (if utterly unambiguous) way doesn't mean that it's always, or even vaguely often, done in that confusing way.

Programming-language scope is a hard-won, powerful concept which is responsible for more program clarity than otherwise: let's not FUD it just because it's possible to do daft things with it.

I appear to feel strongly about this, so apologies if the tone has come out wonky.


#179 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2012, 03:41 PM:

hedgehog:

Yeah, I agree, it would be silly to try to scrub every repeated loop variable or temp variable out of your code. And modularity is all about being able to think about two different parts of a problem separately. On the other hand, using the same variable name for two slightly different things in the same program is setting yourself up for a bug that will be really irritating to track down later.

I once had occasion to read a spec for a crypto algorithm in which they made the opposite error. As I recall, there were three entirely different sets of notation used for the same stuff in different (obviously written by different people) sections. This made for an entertaining WTF moment while reading the document the first time. ("Wait, what happened to all those other variables, and how do these ones relate to them?")

#180 ::: linnen ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2012, 03:45 PM:

5 paragraph essay:
I never knew that was the term of art for that particular style of essay writing. What my Dad told me (from a military perspective, I would guess) is "Say what you are going to say. Say it. Then say what you have said." Which I generally took as "Abstract. Body. Conclusion."

The Overton Window
Media Critic, Jay Rosen, has an article on this in the media called the Sphere of Deviance. His article on the ideology of the Press has other terms of art he uses when discussing the media that might be helpful.

Questions on Terms of Art:
I have encountered examples of the first three seekers-of-knowledge in other threads in other communities, addition to the 'Enough about that, now about me"-types. (Query: Would this last have any relation to the 'Waiting for the funny noises you are making to stop, so I can talk'-type 'splainer?) I cannot say that I have come across the 'driven into a corner' type. It could be that I cannot see the signals.
I can say that I am appreciative of newbie (and not-so newbie) questions and those patient enough to explain or link to an explanation. I learn from those conversations.

#181 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2012, 06:08 PM:

Fragano Ledgister @110: Hmm. A picture can be described in words.

All right, smarty. Describe this picture in words in a way that conveys everything the original does. Or maybe this one. ;-)

#182 ::: Jacque gnomed again ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2012, 06:08 PM:

woe.

[Linking to anything at all in Russia will get the gnomes looking at the post with their high-powered magnifiers. -- JDM]

#183 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2012, 07:13 PM:

Elliott @176 - A fair number of the less-regular verbs in English correspond to the so-called strong verbs in German. (lgt Wikipedia on Germanic strong verbs).

So yeah, fossilized remnants of a structure more fully realized elsewhere. English seems to have acquired lots of those - an accretionary language not unlike a pudding stone, all kinds of unrelated bits of stuff stuck together with other stuff that somehow makes a whole more complicated than the sum of its parts.

#184 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2012, 08:00 PM:

Thena @183: I also heard a long piece on NPR some time ago about new studies (involving MRI and other things) illuminating how verbs gradually become regular in English. I mean, we knew they did it (most verbs end up with -ed past forms, and so on), except that sometimes they didn't, and, puzzlingly, verbs we use most often remain least regular. This led to some hypotheses involving the assertion that the more a verb is used, the more it is 'broken' from a regular starting-point ...

But now it's looking like the LESS a verb is used, and, most importantly, the fewer times all its myriad nonregular forms are used in front of children acquiring the language, the more regular it becomes in the next generation.

I'm sure all of us remember hearing a 3-5 year old kid (possibly ourselves) say "I bringed it", "I sawed you", "I founded it", and so on; the language instinct is apparently to learn a rule, apply it indiscriminately, be corrected by local adults when it does not apply, and attempt to extrapolate new rules for the special cases.

The MRI data shows that for regular verbs, only a single part of the brain lights up during an entire conjugation-chain recitation/reading. However, the same subject reading off a list of parallel forms of an irregular verb lights up a different 'I use this for these verb endings' brain-segment for *each* irregular verb they know. The 'regular' section is used for every regular verb.

Google is not turning up references; I hope I haven't mangled the explanation.
most 'irregular' verbs

#185 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2012, 09:28 PM:

Elliott, it's pretty simple, really. There are two kinds of linguistic change that are most relevant here: analogic change and regular sound change.

Analogic change happens when forms change by analogy to other forms. In this case, verb forms change to match the regular form. That happens most with verbs that are in infrequent use.

Regular sound change affects all the words in the entire language, regardless of whether they're verbs or whether they're used frequently.

Verbs in frequent use are subject to regular sound change, like all words, but are not subject to analogic change, because they're used so often the speakers never "forget" the special forms. So the tendency is for the most frequently-used verbs in a language to be irregular, since their forms are distorted by sound change but never re-regularized by analogic change. (There are other regular changes, too, but regular sound change is usually the biggest factor.)

This isn't the explanation for bizarre conjugations like the English verb 'to be', though. That has to do with the different forms coming from different ancestral source words.

#186 ::: Yarrow ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2012, 10:58 PM:

This is fascinating, and I'm confused.

I think I understand this: Regular sound change affects all the words in the entire language, regardless of whether they're verbs or whether they're used frequently.

And I don't see how it leads to this: So the tendency is for the most frequently-used verbs in a language to be irregular, since their forms are distorted by sound change but never re-regularized by analogic change.

I'm seeing how regular sound change makes words distorted compared to their own pre-change forms, but I'm not seeing how it makes the post-change forms of frequently-used verbs distorted compared to all the other post-change words in the language. Do they change more rapidly than other words because they're used more often, and so get out of sync? (Or change less rapidly because they're used so often and so get out of sync in the other direction?)

#187 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2012, 11:22 PM:

Yarrow, regular sound changes affect everything, but frequently-used forms are resistant to changes by analogy.

#188 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2012, 11:35 PM:

Elliott, #184: But now it's looking like the LESS a verb is used, and, most importantly, the fewer times all its myriad nonregular forms are used in front of children acquiring the language, the more regular it becomes in the next generation.

Somehow I don't think this explains the use of "gift" and "gifted" as a replacement for "give" and "gave". Especially among people in my generation, who most assuredly did NOT learn it that way!

#189 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 13, 2012, 11:42 PM:

Another example: 'flew' and 'flied'
'He flew out' is certainly not the same as 'he flied out'!

#190 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 01:13 AM:

P J Evans @189:

But isn't "flied out" a relatively recent term of art that was created independently from the "fly", "flew", "flown" conjugation?

#191 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 01:29 AM:

Without in the least disparaging this turn of the conversation (which is fascinating; please do continue), I confess to being amused at how well the thread is conforming to the title of the post.

#192 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 01:43 AM:

linnen @180:
Query: Would this last ['Enough about that, now about me"-types] have any relation to the 'Waiting for the funny noises you are making to stop, so I can talk'-type 'splainer?

Yup. That's one expression of the underlying type.

I cannot say that I have come across the 'driven into a corner' type. It could be that I cannot see the signals.

It was one of them elseweb that prompted this post. They started as a bit of a devil's advocate in a conversation about a particular piece of discrimination against gays. Like many devil's advocates who haven't looked into the matter closely enough, they were countered with a bunch of facts by a bunch of people, and slowly began a conversational advance toward the rear. They then threw "I never did like the term 'homophobia' into the conversation as a kind of flashbang to cover the final retreat.

#193 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 06:29 AM:

Elseweb, Abi?
I *like* that.

#194 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 07:58 AM:

Elliott Mason @#176: I've been told that our English 'is' is actually a mosaic verb

The linguistic term is "suppletion", if you're interested in looking into it.

Yarrow @#186: I'm seeing how regular sound change makes words distorted compared to their own pre-change forms, but I'm not seeing how it makes the post-change forms of frequently-used verbs distorted compared to all the other post-change words in the language. Do they change more rapidly than other words because they're used more often, and so get out of sync?

Their sounds change, just like all the other words and at the same pace. The difference is that less-used words also change to match common patterns, while often-used words don't. An English speaker uses different forms of "be" a lot, so there's plenty of opportunity to remember I am, you are, he is, etc. Whereas, if (example totally made up here) "to check" had suppletive forms, one wouldn't use them as often, and the next time one needed to invoke one it'd be less likely to come to mind and the speaker would be way more likely to fall back on "he checked" or whatever.

#195 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 08:14 AM:

abi @ 192: Have you been reading my mail?

I am thrashing myself into a corner there, being neither Catholic nor Mormon nor (gawd hep me) Hubbardtologist, but I just get a little sick of this particular brand of hatemongering.

And it gets worse from there on out.

#196 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 09:05 AM:

Elliott @ 176

The TV show The Adventure of English covered a lot of this, and as Abi has said, it is fascinating [at least, to those of us of a certain mind /grins]. A large part of it is the crazy-quilt nature of English. Think of how you designate a town, for example: -bury, -burg, -let, -ville, -town, -ton. These are the basics from England (I've probably forgot a few) and they reflect the various Saxon, Norman, and Anglo roots of the area. The same with beef/cow, pork/pig, poultry/chicken and the other Norman/Saxon conflicts depending on which side of the culture did most of the work.

It's the same sort of thing with nouns and verbs. IIRC, the oldest Germanic roots of the language had declensions and conjugations galore, but many of the later additions to the language had simpler forms, at least in some places, and over time, that simplicity over-wrote much of the language.

and @ 184 Yeah, language acquisition, especially with children, works by learning a rule, and applying it as a blanket. Then as they come to truly understand it, they reduce its use to where its appropriate. This is easiest to see with irregular words -- nouns and verbs -- so the child starts talking about foot and feet, and drink and drank, because they learned the words for function. Then, when they internalize the rules for plurals or past tense, they generalize it, and you get 3-6 months of "foots" and "drinked" as they apply the rule to all forms. Then, over time, they re-learn the exceptions (and the more common the usage of the irregular form, the more frequent the correction, and the quicker the correction is made). [This works with writing, too, even at the high school level. As they concentrate on internalizing a new rule/style/tool, they often lose control or complexity of older techniques until they've mastered the new one.]

The less frequently words are used, the less likely the words are to be corrected, and gradually they get subsumed into the "regular" form group.

Likewise, that "analogic change" Xopher was talking about in 185can happen any time words are similar in form. This often happens with adoptions, la riat becoming lariat, for example, or with plurals reverse engineered into singular froms, for example the new word "verse" for fight used by high schoolers today, based on a phonetic reverse-conjugation of "versus" (verses).

I have no idea if it's accurate, but I believe we are actually seeing a lot more analogic change at the moment, due to the demise of spelling as a result of broad use of texting and e-mail, and the reduction in reading and conversation brought about by mass media (present fluoro-company excepted, of course), so there is less (authoritative) reinforcement of irregular forms.

#197 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 10:40 AM:

pedantic peasant @196: I saw two lovely buttons 'arguing' on someone's vest a convention once.

"Verbing Weirds Language"

right next to

"It's not the verbing that weirds language, it's the renounification."

#198 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 10:57 AM:

Elliott Mason @ 197:

:D

The first one sounds very close to a Calvin and Hobbes, and I love the pun in the second. They remind me of my other favorite C&H for grammar:
Calvin: What's a pronoun?
Hobbes: A noun that's lost its amateur status?
Calvin: What the heck. Maybe I'll get a point for originality.

Convention humor rocks!

#199 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 10:58 AM:

Lee@188: 'gift' and 'gifted' have a long history in some dialects of English, notably Scots English (which is not the same thing as Scots): I guess they have spread from there. They are useful, in that 'give' can just mean 'hand over' (as in 'If I give you a five-pound note can you give me change in coins?'), whereas 'gift' unambiguously means 'give as a gift'.

An interesting case of a verb becoming less regular is the way that 'snuck' is gradually taking over from 'sneaked', to the extent that people now sometimes claim that 'sneaked' is a mistake.

#200 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 11:08 AM:

pedantic peasant (198): I believe the first of those is in fact a Calvin and Hobbes quote.

I love those, too; I own the second.

#201 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 11:36 AM:

And can anyone tell me why the media is using "kneeled" instead of the more proper "knelt" -- "shined" (as in the Sun shined) instead of "shone?"

This can really jar me out of something I'm reading/listening to, and yes I know that in some constructions "kneeled" and "shined" are correct.

#202 ::: Ken Brown ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 12:17 PM:

John A Arkansawyer @26: "For me, the canonical example of this problem is 'racism'. I'm in agreement with those who think racism is more than just bigotry, that it requires some ability to impose that bigotry onto others. I really need a term to describe something which is more than simple prejudice. I also understand why people don't want to reserve the word 'racism' for the 'prejudice plus power' definition which I personally prefer. But if I'm going to be able to discuss it, I've got to be able to name it somehow."

I have more than once sat in on discussions, or arguments, about the difference between "racism" and "racialism". Most memorably in a pub after a fringe meeting on racism (or was it racialism?) at the 1983 Labour Party conference in Brighton where a black delegate was explaining to a white delegate who had an Indian wife why it was possible for him to be racist but not racialist, but the other guy could be racialist but not racist. Or was it the other way round?

For at least some British lefties one of those words meant something like "the belief that the human species is divided into races with different innate characters" and the other one something like "using race to reinforce political or economic power". The trouble is, even then I could never remember which was which. And for at least some of them both were different from "racial prejudice" which was perhaps "allowing feelings of dislike against people of other races to influence your behaviour towards them". A classic case of a community re-purposing normal words as terms of art, than bumping into a clash of definitions.

Then of course we had the brief escape into the popular press of the term of art "institutional racism" which originally meant something like "racism that is inherent in the systems and structures of an institution, so that even if individuals operating the procedures are non-racist or anti-racist, the outcomes can be racist" (which is an important concept, and one many people don't get) but got used by the newspapers as if it meant "some people employed by public institutions such as the police are racists" (which is hardly news).

pedantic peasant @42: "Re: racism. I hear you. One of the things I wish is that there was a larger term for the concept. The term “racism” is so hot-button I’ve met a lot of people whose “defense” of their particular prejudice or bigotry (against other life-styles, other religions, etc.) is that those aren’t about race, so it’s not “racism,” as if that somehow makes it OK. In Catholic terms, it’s like they see racism as a mortal sin, but other pieces of hate-filled bigotry are venial, and somehow OK."

I've definitely seen this. In real life as well as on blogs!

A live issue here in Britain, where it is now becoming socially acceptable to be racist against Muslims, and always has been to be racist against Gypsies and Travellers, even amongst mild-mannered well-educated soft-left liberal folk who would never dream of saying anything racist about blacks or Jews. But as Muslims or Travellers aren't a "race" they don't think of it as racism.

Its as if their model of what a "racist" is is so bad it can't possibly apply to normal people like them so any criticism of racists, or any attempt at raising awareness of racism, can't possibly be relevant to them. Do they can safely ignore it. Sometimes I feel like saying "Being a racist doesn't mean you are an Evil Nazi who wants to destroy the world. Lots of quite ordinary people are racists. Some of them, are quite nice, when they aren't being racist. Some of my best friends are racists. And you are a racist. Why not admit it?"

Different communities use these community terms of art differently of course. They are used differently on left and right, differently by people with different academic backgrounds, and differently in different countries. That's especially true about language connected with racism, as race (and races) are constructed differently in different countries. "Black" and "white" do not mean quite the same thing in Britain and America. That might be one source of the fruitless arguments mentiojed in the OP, for example about the word "privilege" in this context. If I can trust my own memory it hasn't been used about race in Britain in the sense it was in the USA - I think I have been familiar with phrases like "male privilege" for some decades but the phrase "white privilege" is only one I started noticing in the last few years, mainly on American blogs. So perhaps a British person coming across the term in an American context reacts to it differently from the way an American might.

#203 ::: Ken Brown ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 12:47 PM:

pp@196, I really don't think that texting and email are causing a general demise of spelling. Nor is reading going out of fashion. Its more popular than ever before, largely because of that texting and email. The first quarter century or so of the Net Era has so far been the most textual and least visual period of our history for pretty much ever. Almost everyone reads and writes almost every day now. That wasn't true when I was a teenager.

And thread as a whole, thanks for the new words. The true pedant might want to recast infrapontic in Greek. Not that I have any idea what that would be. But thanks for the word. And even more thanks for "Overton Window" a new (to me) name for an old idea. And yes, box-and-whiskers is the way to plot it! It helps to explain why the right-wing domination of the press and other media is dangerous. Its not that people vote the way the newspapers tell them to vote - almost no-one is that stupid - but that the media set the agenda.

(Maybe this well get through the gnome traps.... my previous post about other things did not :()


#204 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 01:54 PM:

Yarrow @186

I'm seeing how regular sound change makes words distorted compared to their own pre-change forms, but I'm not seeing how it makes the post-change forms of frequently-used verbs distorted compared to all the other post-change words in the language. Do they change more rapidly than other words because they're used more often, and so get out of sync? (Or change less rapidly because they're used so often and so get out of sync in the other direction?)

and relevantly

Lori @ 201

And can anyone tell me why the media is using "kneeled" instead of the more proper "knelt" -- "shined" (as in the Sun shined) instead of "shone?"

Lori provides examples that illustrate the answer to Yarrow's question. It's not that the less and more frequently used verbs change at different rates, it's that the less frequently used verbs get "re-set" to the default (regular) state.

"Knelt" is an example of a regular past tense that was subject to sound change. That is, the regular past form was in the process of becoming "irregular" in a way, but we are now seeing people re-regularize it by generating the past tense anew from the root + suffix.

"Shone" is a strong past tense form (possibly a better description than "irregular" in this context), whereas "shined" re-generates a regular past from the root "shine".

Amusingly, analogical change can work in both directions, creating strong/irregular forms from what were originally perfectly regular verbs. The use of "dove" as the past tense of "dive" may[1] be an example of this, where "dive" has been analogized to behave like other "-ive" verbs such as thrive and strive (but note that while we have striven, we have not diven).

Re: Lee @ 188

Somehow I don't think this explains the use of "gift" and "gifted" as a replacement for "give" and "gave". Especially among people in my generation, who most assuredly did NOT learn it that way!

I had similar questions about that particular development, wondering if it were a "recency illusion", and since I'm both a linguist and a data geek, I wrote a little squib on the topic back when Google searches of Usenet provided far more useful statistical usage data than is now the case.

The summary (although it's quite a short little squib) is that this use of "gift" as a verb dates well back to the Early Modern period, but there does seem to have been a sudden surge of popularity in the '90s for "gift" as a simple transitive verb (with prepositional phrase marking the object given), but with this popularity, "gift" has been shifting (analogically no doubt) to becoming a di-transitive verb, similarly to "give". (I.e., the initial popularity was for constructions like "My father gifted me with a new car." but usage has rapidly been shifting to "My father gifted me a new car.")[2]

In studying the range of use of the verb "gift", however, I concluded that its rise in popularity isn't simply faddish or sloppy usage, but that it narrowly expresses "given as a gift or present" as contrasted with generally "handed over". So, for example, it can be used to distinguish "I was cold so my friend gave me his coat" (probably a temporary loan) from "I was cold so my friend gifted me his coat" (a sudden generous impulse). In other words it's the verbification of the noun "gift" to express a precise shade of distinctive meaning that people found useful.

But read the article -- it has graphs and tables and statistics and descriptions of methodology.

[1] For "dive" the case gets complicated by there having been two verbs of this form, one intransitive (I will dive into the water) and one transitive (I will dive the submarine into the water) with one originally being weak and the other strong.

[2] One key usage difference is that as a simple transitive, the object being given cannot be made the subject of a passive construction, but as a di-transitive, it can. So the only possible passive form of my first example is "I was gifted with a new car by my father", but the second example can be passivized as either "I was gifted a new car by my father" or "A new car was gifted me by my father."

#205 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 02:16 PM:

Heather, #202: My partner is of the opinion that the recent upsurge of "gift" and "gifting" is the direct result of an upsurge in "Cash Gifting" scams. These are nothing but Ponzi schemes by another name, but their popularity has given a push to this otherwise-limited usage.

#206 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 02:19 PM:

One more thing on Lori's "shined" @ 201 and my discussion @ 202

One of the things going on here is the same historic distinction I footnoted about "dive". "Shine" can be an intransitive verb:

[1] He shines with an inner light.

or a transitive verb

[2] Every Saturday he shines shoes.

but also

[3] As he turns, he shines the flashlight into my eyes.

The first, historically, has clearly been a strong verb, taking the past tense "shone":

[1a] He shone with an inner light.
*[1b] He shined with an inner light.

* = standard linguist's mark of an ungrammatical sentence/form

The second, historically, has clearly been a weak verb, taking the past tense "shined":

[2a] Every Saturday he shined shoes.
*[2b] Every Saturday he shone shoes.

The third tends to have far less clarity of agreement:

[3a] As he turned, he shined the flashlight into my eyes.
[3b] As he turned, he shone the flashlight into my eyes.

I suspect this is because people are uncertain whether the analogy should be to the semantic field (production of light), in which case it should take "shone", or to the syntactic structure (transitive verb), in which case it should be "shined". Historically, syntactic structure would be the driving basis for grammatical forms, therefore I suspect that "He shined the flashlight in my eyes" would be the historically prevalent form. A few simple corpus-based searches might turn up some evidence but I don't have time at the moment.

#207 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 02:47 PM:

Jacque @ 181: "Describe this picture in words in a way that conveys everything the original does. Or maybe this one. ;-)"

This strikes me a little funny. From a certain point of view, the only way that picture communicates anything at all to me, sitting in front of my computer way over here, is because it has already been described in words, or at least abstract symbols.

#208 ::: Julie L. ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 03:07 PM:

I've noticed for the past few years that whenever I hear a news report about a past-tense legal plea, *neither* version sounds consistently right anymore:

"He pleaded innocent" vs. "He pled innocent"?
"He pleaded the Fifth" vs. "He pled the Fifth"??

This may be another case of intermingling between the simple past tense and the past participle; I still think that the past tense of intransitive "spin" (as in "He spins around to face me") is "span", but "spun" seems to be increasingly creeping over there from the participle box.

#209 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 03:16 PM:

Jacque #181:

I'd describe the first picture as droplets bouncing off a black surface (perhaps a splash of some kind). The second picture is small hooded figures on a bridge leading into a corridor in a massive stone wall.

#210 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 04:25 PM:

Fragano:

By my count, you've still got 1963 words left.

#211 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 04:45 PM:

Lori: I got strange looks in the USA when I said "learnt" rather than "learned" - it's a lot more common in the UK than in the USA.

#212 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 05:39 PM:

dcb:

"Learnt" sounds English to me, rather than American. I have no idea why.

#213 ::: Dave Crisp ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 05:46 PM:

Albatross / dcb:

I dunno if this is universally true, but this particular Brit tends to parse "learned" as "learnèd" - as in Barristers referring to each other as "my learned friend".

#214 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 05:47 PM:

Re the evolution of language toward more regularity for less-common forms, it seems like this is just the manifestation of limits on brain capacity and learning. Like your brain can easily remember special cases for commonly-used words--go/went, am/are/was, etc. But at some point, the special cases become rare enough most people just can't remember them.

Alternatively, maybe this reflects limits on learning. If you use a seldom-used word incorrectly, maybe nobody around you will notice (because it's so rarely used that even if they think it sounds weird, they're not quite sure), which re-enforces the incorrect use. Foreigners and children will often not know the rare word's correct usage from just not having learned it yet, and again, you can see how that would drive the common usage toward the regularized, incorrect form instead of the weird, correct one.

#215 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 06:24 PM:

Dave Crisp @ 213: this particular Brit tends to parse "learned" as "learnèd". This Brit does as well.

Albatross @212: According to the dictionary I looked in, for interest, it is more English than American!

#216 ::: J Homes ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 06:40 PM:

#197 and following.

I once read (I recall not where) that what this is actually about is that in English (which is not Latin) nouns, verbs, etc, are not classes of words, but roles in sentence structures, to be filled by whichever word might best convey the desired meaning. The so-called verbing of a noun is no more than the perfectly-legitimate dropping of a word into a verb slot, although it is a word more commonly dropped into a noun slot.

This cannot be done in Latin. In Latin, a word cannot be used as a verb unless it can be conjugated, or as a noun or adjective unless it can be declined. Whether a word has a conjugation or a declension constrains how it can be used.

Too much of too many people's understanding of English grammar appears based on the conceit that English is just Latin with a coded vocabulary. Not so.

J Homes.

#217 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 07:10 PM:

Ken Brown @203: "Infrapontic" in Greek would be "hypogethyran".

(When I was learning Greek it took me a surprisingly long time to connect "hypo-" as in "hypodermic" or "hypothyroidal" with ὑπο.)

#218 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 07:16 PM:

Incidentally, people interested in the language-change thread might enjoy reading Steven Pinker's book Words and Rules. He has quite a bit to say about that and other interesting topics.

#219 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 07:37 PM:

Ken Brown @ 202:

I've decided to deal with the word "racist" by not using it anymore. Instead I will call anyone who expresses prejudice against any ethnic, religious, racial, economic, gender, ... group a bigot.

#220 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 07:49 PM:

J Homes @ 216

I once read (I recall not where) that what this is actually about is that in English (which is not Latin) nouns, verbs, etc, are not classes of words, but roles in sentence structures, to be filled by whichever word might best convey the desired meaning. The so-called verbing of a noun is no more than the perfectly-legitimate dropping of a word into a verb slot, although it is a word more commonly dropped into a noun slot.

This cannot be done in Latin. In Latin, a word cannot be used as a verb unless it can be conjugated, or as a noun or adjective unless it can be declined. Whether a word has a conjugation or a declension constrains how it can be used.

(Apologies for the extensive quote, but you were so succinct that I needed almost all of it for context.)

I'm going to disagree with this framing of the situation because the differences between English and Latin in this context are merely ones of degree and not of kind.

When English verbs a noun, it doesn't simply drop a noun into a verb slot as an immutable object, it takes that noun as the verb stem and does to it all the usual grammatical things one normally does with verbs. So for example, we say, "When English verbs a noun" not "When English verb a noun", and we say "Verbing weirds language" not "Verb weird language" (with both the noun "verb" and the adjective "weird" being verbed).

Similarly, when English nouns a verb, it gets modified in all the usual nounly ways, e.g., "one strike, two strikes, three strikes ... yer out!" And when English adjectives a noun, it gets treated in the usual adjectivish fashion, including the odd little rules like those that allow it to be nounier but will only allow it to be more adjectivish and not adjectivier.

But conversely, Latin has no problem at all with taking noun stems and turning them into verbs ... or vice versa. Or pretty much any other category conversion. It's just that the apparatus is more in-your-face. Yes, a Latin verb must be conjugated, but that only means that you run a particular set of conjugations on your verb stem. You can steal the stem itself from some other category -- you just have to file off the serial numbers ... um ... original grammatical forms first. I'll try to come up with some examples when I'm home with my dictionaries.

#221 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 08:17 PM:

Fragano @ 209:

IANJacque, but I find both those descriptions fail her actual condition, which was in a way that conveys everything the original does. Even massive doesn't half convey the issues of scale Whelan painted.

I think it might indeed be possible to convey all that the Whelan at least contains in some prosaic or poetic format, but it would take considerably more words.

#222 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 09:09 PM:

The real reason I get shirty with people who insist English is Latin in chav's clothing (and also insist on hyper-correcting someone's English usage until it could be a fairly direct translation of an equivalent Latin utterance) is what that mindset does to their view of constructions more complex than just noun/verb.

That horrid 'no split infinitives' bullpucky, for example. Infinitives physically (?) cannot be split in Latin, as they are a single word: an inflected verb form. In English they're no such thing, because of our addiction to and obsession with 'helper words' tacked onto verbs instead of using integrated suffixes/prefixes/whatever as part of the word itself.

That's something else taking Latin for four years in high school taught me about English -- some of the horrible contorted things I was told were 'correct' became very obviously Latin-derived hypercorrections, and when I looked into it further, they mostly started being inserted into English grammar books in the mid-1800s.

By now they've been passed on mouth-to-mouth for so many generations an awful lot of well-meaning people (to tie back loosely to the top post) genuinely think it's correct and will Start Stuff up in other people's faces for talking ignorantly ... without ground.

I'm a language geek, and I don't call myself a grammar Nazi not only because I believe it's wrong to dilute that word, but also because I'm mostly a vehement descriptivist-not-prescriptivist, except when it's pretty clear we have a Vizzini moment ("That word[/construction] ... I do not think it means what you think it means.")

Because my stupid minor superpower is reflexive proofreading skill, eggcorns bother me when I run across them in people's online communications, but I try not to be a dick about pointing them out.

#223 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 09:12 PM:

As I understand it, 'flied' as a past tense of 'fly' came in via baseball (I was going to say it snuck in), which is about the only place where it's used. You can argue about the origin of it all you want, because I don't know when or where it started. (It's not the only verb where the normal past tense is irregular, and the regular past tense has a precise-but-different use.)

#224 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 09:41 PM:

P J Evans @223: It makes my categorizing mind happy to regard 'fly/flew' and 'fly/flied' as effectively two different verbs with separate meanings that have the same spelling in the present tense. As with beagles and great danes, they have some ancestry in common, but have been specialized for rather different purposes since.

#225 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 09:52 PM:

I have a Canadian friend on another site whose tag (a thing under your name on that site) reads "I spell spelled spelt." I love things that mess up my parser for a second!

pedantic 196: This often happens with adoptions, la riat becoming lariat, for example, or with plurals reverse engineered into singular froms, for example the new word "verse" for fight used by high schoolers today, based on a phonetic reverse-conjugation of "versus" (verses).

Or the reanalysis of 'a napron' into 'an apron'. That's actually a historical process called folk etymology...not to be mistaken for the OTHER kind of folk etymology, which is just polite talk for "incorrect etymology" (example: 'babble' coming from 'Babel').

P J 223: Elliott is correct, methinks. And I think it's 'flied' because 'fly' is a NOUN in that context. They're verbing a noun, and that always uses the regular form (unless someone is being whimsical; I wouldn't be surprised to see 'thing' verbed as "thing, thang, thung" among the Best People).

And by the way, in English nouns can be used attributively. They do not thereby become adjectives; a "security station" is not the same as a "secure station." Their noun force is very much in effect; in 'White House press briefing room podium sound equipment' each of the six ('White House' counts as one) attributive nouns has a specific and quite nominal (which is how you turn 'noun' into an adjective if you have to) referent.

This helps make English more compact. Try translating 'There's been a malfunction of the White House press briefing room podium sound equipment' into Spanish or French (don't use Google Translate, which mangles it pretty thoroughly) and you'll see what I mean.

And come to think of it, a noun phrase is not the same thing as a nominal phrase.

#226 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 10:07 PM:

I'd verb 'thing' as 'thing, thinged, thought'. Or maybe 'thing, thinged, thang'.
It's kind of a 'why not' issue: why not do it that way?

#227 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 10:14 PM:

Xopher @ #225: attributive noun strings are fun. We were once inspired by a highway exit sign reading "Ash Branch Church Road" to invent the "Ash Branch Church Road State Park Arts Festival" which doesn't exist, but should. And then of course there would be an Ash Branch Church Road State Park Arts Festival Award Ceremony....

#228 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 10:40 PM:

Lila @227 -- I used to do that attributive noun string thing with an added restriction of four letter nouns. Which started when I saw the Wolf Trap Farm Park Road Exit off a DC freeway. One can add Turn on the end, and possibly East or West on the front (meaning Eastbound or Westbound); and I'm sure there are more additions....

#229 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: February 14, 2012, 10:56 PM:

Ken Brown @ 202:

Its as if their model of what a "racist" is is so bad it can't possibly apply to normal people like them so any criticism of racists, or any attempt at raising awareness of racism, can't possibly be relevant to them. So they can safely ignore it.

Oh, yes, yes, yes! This is why the stereotyped bigots in "The Help" are so problematic: No one wants to be one of them. No one believes they are one of them. Hardly anyone really is one of them.

And thus we go merrily along our way, unselfcritically into the abyss. See also guilt, white--uses as anesthetic to avoid responsibility.

#230 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 12:49 AM:

Ken, #203: There is one way in which I definitely feel that texting and online activities do affect spelling adversely. One of the ways most people learn to spell is by reading things which are correctly spelled. The correct spelling is reinforced by seeing it used in the correct context. Unfortunately, what works for good also works for ill -- the more badly-spelled online reading you do, the more it interferes with your own internal database! A friend of mine calls this effect the Internet Brain Virus (IBV). I have so far managed to avoid most of it, but I do have a problem these days with discreet/discrete; I've seen both of them misused so frequently that now I have to stop and think about which spelling is required for the sentence I'm writing, a selection which used to be made automatically.

Lila, #227: This reminds me of a sign near Dallas that always makes me giggle. It's for Collin County Community College, Spring Creek Campus. One can't help wishing that Spring Creek had instead been named something that began with C.

#231 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 01:21 AM:

Elliot Mason @ 224:

As with beagles and great danes, they have some ancestry in common, but have been specialized for rather different purposes since.

And at first I read that as "bagels and great danes" and spent a few seconds trying to visualize the common ancestor before realizing my mistake. As for specialization, I wonder about spreading cream cheese on them.

#232 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 03:41 AM:

Mentions of split infinitives have, I have no doubt, evoked recollections of Henry Watson Fowler's opinion, expressed in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage of 1926. His prose sounds odd to modern ears, but, like the Mississippi, it just keeps rolling along.

The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish. . . . Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are happy folk, to be envied by the minority classes.

I do not recall the URL, but since the First Edition is out of copyright in Europe, and most other countries, I suppose it will do no harm to admit that I downloaded a rather spiffy usable electronic version from, I think, archive.org It is some sort of indexed and searchable PDF.

My introduction to Fowler was the revised second edition, which may very well have corrected the failings of a lacklustre teacher of English—failings that were compensated for by some enthusiasm for Shakespeare as a performance—but I reserve the right to vehemently condemn the labeling of the Third Edition as having anything whatsoever to do with anyone surnamed Fowler.

Fowler rocks!

#233 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 06:06 AM:

re 204/205/223/224/225: I think there is a rule of ad hoc construct contraction going on here: that to reduce the phrase "verbed a noun" to a single word, the past tense is always "nouned". That's what makes "gifted" come out peculiar, because the phrase being reduced is "gave a gift", in which "gift" specifically means a present rather than any object being given.

#234 ::: Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 08:38 AM:

Lee at #230:

Fermilab's founder, Robert R. Wilson, once got a paper into Reviews of Modern Physics with the following abstract:

Foreword
Fancies can be fantasized for fabricating future facilities at Fermilab, but fulfillment will depend on the unfolding of physics, on finding funds, on the focus of other laboratories, on forceful personalities and fierce fights; most of all it will depend on new facts, new findings, and new fancies. Thus Fermilab physicists might find it futile to feel their way to five TeV, might find it more fun to fill in facts about physics at fifty GeV, or they might find more felicitous the flowering of photon physics at five hundred GeV. In the following phantasmata, let me first figure on the most fruited fulfillment, let me flounder in a veritable fantasia of physics facilities; for realistic factors finally “little by little will subtract faith and fallacy from fact.”

(Reviews of Modern Physics Vol. 51(2): 259-273.)

#235 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 08:51 AM:

Lenora Rose #221: I suspect it would. I didn't feel like taking the time to do so, however.

#236 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 09:19 AM:

Julie L. #208: I've never seen "span" as past tense for "spin".

#237 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 09:31 AM:

David Harmon @236, I think of "span" as an old usage. I've never seen it except in the quote "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" And people still "delve" but they don't generally call it that any more, either.

#238 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 10:28 AM:

Ken Brown @ 203

I understand what you are saying, but I don't believe you are correct.

Yes, one can argue that because of texting and teh interwebs the current generation is doing more written communication than anyone in (say) the past thirty to forty years.

But that's a pretty superficial comparison, and comparing the length, style, content, thought, depth, and grammatical and syntactical correctness of texting, posting, and commenting to the types of letters, correspondence, stories, and articles written earlier would show that while, per instance, their writing is up, by almost any other standard writing is down.

Do not misunderstand me. While I am nostalgic for more careful and nuanced writing (as is often found here, for instance), I am not sounding the deathknell of writing and English and etc. English is a living language, meaning it is changeable and adapts to all aspects of life. I am merely noting that just as TV has moved political writing from two hour speeches to two minute soundbites, the tendency of electronic communication has been, overall, to shorten conversation, to promote (or reinforce) idiosyncratic, abbreviated, and phonetic spelling, and to reduce or eliminate face-to-face conversations. All of these have the effect of reducing the overall identification of errors and preventing the reinforcement of "proper" English spelling and grammar, leading to a larger segment of the population that is "norming" English conjugations.

Elliott and Xopher My Lating teacher asked me to review noun forms. I declined.

#239 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 10:30 AM:

* Latin teacher, obviously.

Speaking of more nuanced writing

bah

#240 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 10:31 AM:

Highway exits: "North East Rising Sun" -- lent hours of hilarity to our drive.

#241 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 10:51 AM:

Xopher HalfTongue 225
I love things that mess up my parser for a second!
I, too. Have you heard or seen Pete Seeger's "English is Cuh-Ray-Zee"? It's great for that.

Another example: Many, many years back at a gaming session, the party ran into the (obvious) grand villain. One of the party members began trying to talk our way around him, and the bad guy puffs up with vainglory and proclaims, "I think not!" The party member, without a blink or a pause, puts on a sad, sympathetic face and replies, "I'm sorry to hear that, must make it very difficult to get through the day. Well, we need to be moving on." And the entire party was able to sneak by while the GM tried to re-set his and the villain's parser.

That's actually a historical process called folk etymology...not to be mistaken for the OTHER kind of folk etymology, which is just polite talk for "incorrect etymology" (example: 'babble' coming from 'Babel').

So, what is the proper etymology of 'babble'?

Elliott is correct, methinks. And I think it's 'flied' because 'fly' is a NOUN in that context. They're verbing a noun, and that always uses the regular form

You're probably right.

But I've apparently been thinking on this stuff to long. First, when trying to put in my HTML tag at the opening I wrote 'spelling' instead of 'strong.' Secondly, the flied/flew initially struck me -- in a completely logical way -- as a transitive/intransitive issue, as in the bird flew on its own, but someone made the ball fly.

unless someone is being whimsical; I wouldn't be surprised to see 'thing' verbed

thing, thinged, have thinged, will thing, will have thung

Hmmm. I'm drawing a blank at the moment, but aren't there a couple words that have cycled around, starting as verbs, becoming nouns as well, dropping out of use as verbs, then centuries later, getting "verbed," and coming back as a verb root with different conjugation?

#242 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 10:53 AM:

Not quite the same thing, but on Martha's Vineyard there is a "County of Dade County Airport" that always sets off my "Dept. of redundancy dept." alert.

#243 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 10:55 AM:

Bruce Cohen @231: My beagles are very pleased to have cream cheese spread on them, for what it's worth.

As to nonplussing (yet correct) highway exit signs, my favorite remains "A Street Downtown" ... which made more sense if you passed it and found exits for B, C, and further letters of the alphabet. The line-break on the sign was after 'street', of course.

#244 ::: Marty In Boise ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 11:22 AM:

PP @ 238 & 239: "My Lating teacher" sounds really great if you imagine Popeye saying it.


#245 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 12:05 PM:

My favorite noun phrase place name is (are?) the Wind River Mountains, in Wyoming.

Xopher's 'White House press briefing room podium sound equipment' can be extended to 'White House press briefing room podium sound equipment maintenance engineer'.

#246 ::: E. Liddell ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 12:07 PM:

#231: I suspect that cream cheese spread on a Great Dane would disappear with alacrity, followed by various nonverbal pleas for more, indicating a superior adaptation to the consumption of cream cheese on the part of Great Danes. Cream cheese on bagels tends to have more staying power, indicating that bagels are better adapted for conveying cream cheese to the human buccal cavity. On the gripping hand, one can fit a lot more cream cheese on a Great Dane than on a bagel . . .

#247 ::: tykewriter ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 12:10 PM:

And then there's Fritz Spiegel's alleged Hottentottenpotentatentantenatentat.

#248 ::: Ken Brown ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 01:05 PM:

pedantic peasant@238: "Yes, one can argue that because of texting and teh interwebs the current generation is doing more written communication than anyone in (say) the past thirty to forty years."

Than ever. Most people in my parent's generation didn't write at all once they left school, other than filling in the occasional form (which they had trouble with). The proportion of the population who read a lot of books was no higher than it is now, and the propoprtion who read any books at all in a typical year probably lower than now. (After all we sell more books than we used to - someone must be reading them)

And their parents generation left school at twelve (in England at any rate, Scotland was probably a bit better) . And *their* parents generation had no free or compulsory schooling at all.

I think perhaps you are focussing too much on the comparitively well-educated middle-class (in the American sense, including skilled workers) and on self-selected book-lovers (like me and nearly all of us here). Most people never did write according to all those rules you think we are forgetting.

Also the age cohort that makes most used of abbreviated txtspk are now in their (our) forties, fifties, and sixties. We experienced email and bulletin boards with 1200 baud modems. (Or worse). Our kids have nimbler fingers, can tolerate predictive text, and have never known a world without mobile phones.

#249 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 01:39 PM:

Tom Whitmore @ #228, Wolf Trap Farm Park Left Turn Exit Lane...

#250 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 01:57 PM:

It's claimed that the first BBS in the UK started in 1980. Since it was located in Hull, that's plausible. The Phone service system of charging in Hull was very different to the rest of the UK, and maybe better suited a BBS.

But it isn't just when people started using text in new ways, it's how many people did it.

#251 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 02:02 PM:

Lenora Rose @221: I find both those descriptions fail her actual condition, which was in a way that conveys everything the original does. Even massive doesn't half convey the issues of scale Whelan painted.

Thank you! Yes, that was exactly what I was driving at, but I couldn't articulate it satisfactorily (thus being another case where it's hard to get words to do the desired job).

I think the case where words do come close to performing a similar function is in poetry. I could envision someone writing a poem that would convey some of the same sense that either or both of those images does. But that someone would most certainly not be me.

#252 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 02:07 PM:

Elliott Mason @222: The real reason I get shirty with people who insist English is Latin in chav's clothing

::falls over laughing:: See, this is the reason I sent the Mounties out after you when you dropped off the ML radar for a while. Making Light is well-supplied with wonderful writers, but none of the others is you. If you see what I mean.

#253 ::: Julie L. ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 02:28 PM:

236/237: I guess Fowler really missed that prediction in 1920s England. "Spin: for the past tense the OED 19th-c quotations give 'span' and 'spun' in exactly equal numbers; 'span' is likely to prevail."

Which doesn't explain how "span" got stuck in my head in 1970s suburban America, but it did. Along with occasional conversational use of the proximal demonstrative "yonder": over here, over there, and way yonder.

#254 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 02:39 PM:

pedantic 241: So, what is the proper etymology of 'babble'?

From Middle English babelen, which is apparently imitative of children's early speech (technically referred to as "babble" in true esoteric linguistics jargon). 'Babel', on the other hand, is from a Hebrew borrowing from an Akkadian word that means "Gate of God" (I thinkt that's the same 'el' as in Michael, Raphael, etc.).

I once told a co-worker that the common Babel -> babble etymology was simply wrong, to have her blow up at me and say "then you're really saying the Catholic religion is wrong, because that's what I was taught in school!" Since she was the lead in my group I just said "I wasn't talking about religion and I'm sorry if I offended you" instead of "not everything some nun said to you in school is Catholic doctrine" or "you've apparently learned your logic from Tony Alamo, you fucking idiot."

#255 ::: rat4000 ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 02:52 PM:

Jacque @251 & previous

There's an argument to be made that there is no way at all to put an image into words or words into an image. Images are more than information. Even if you manage to convey all of the information they contain, you lose the experience. This doesn't matter with, say, graphs, except for ease of understanding, but with anything artistical it's important -- how do you describe Monet's famous sunrise? I don't have words for the effect he uses, and even if I did there's no way my words would be equivalent to the reader's having seen it; a different faculty of perception is involved.

It is, of course, similarly impossible to try to paint a poem, or a symphony; or to compose a sculpture. All the forms of art have something about them that is inseparably connected to the format. You can make something similar, maybe even make the person experiencing your art experience something similar to what the original would evoke -- but it wouldn't be the same.

#256 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 02:54 PM:

#245 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 12:05 PM:

My favorite noun phrase place name is (are?) the Wind River Mountains, in Wyoming.

And that reminds me that my mom and I used to have a running joke that suburbs (especially not-very-old suburbs -- postWar) are named by their developers using a Column A/Column B chart, and pick one element from each before calling it good enough.

Unfortunately, we decided that certain elements (Park and Forest, among others) do occur in both columns, and that the buggers need to be careful about that.

Our game may have been partly inspired by the fact that Chicago's nearish suburbs include both a 'Park Forest' and a 'Forest Park,' as well as Oak Forest, Oak Park, Forest Glen, Deer Park, Buffalo Grove, Park Ridge, Long Grove, Oak Grove, and Highland Park and so on.

My husband later contributed one from up in his neck of the woods (Toronto) that always makes him blink at it: Glendowns. As far as he's concerned, you can have one, but not the other, darnit! Shades of Torpenhow Hill and all its relatives.

#257 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 03:01 PM:

Elliott Mason @256, my husband and I had a similar running joke about Chicago-area suburbs (we used to live in Lisle). Something about, I was supposed to go meet someone in Oak Park Forest Grove, but I couldn't find them...

Here in the DC area, I am amused by the signs others have already posted about, for Wolf Trap Farm Park.

#258 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 03:02 PM:

Elliott Mason @256: Around here, the joke is that the names of apartment complexes are based on whatever they bulldozed to put up the buildings. (From which we conclude that this city used to have a lot of oak trees, as about two thirds have Oak in the title somewhere.)

#259 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 03:07 PM:

Julie L. (253): What part of suburban America? I picked up 'yonder' (almost always 'over yonder') in Atlanta, which probably means it's a Southernism. (The pronunciation 'ova yonda' would tend to support that.)

Elliott Mason (256): Whereas Atlanta just calls everything Peachtree and leaves it at that.

Wyoming does have some wonderful names. One of our bookmobile stops was Poison Spider School (located, naturally, on Poison Spider Road).

#260 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 03:16 PM:

Julie 253: From the information at your link, it would seem that 'yonder' is a distal demonstrative, rather than a proximal one. What don't I understand?

#261 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 03:20 PM:

Xopher @260: The south-side-Chicago-Irish subculture version is 'over by dere.' "Where'd Jimmy go?" "Over by dere."

#262 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 03:59 PM:

Talking about words... First, "Santorum" got redefined. Now, "to romney" has been defined as "to defecate in terror". Next... it's Gingrich's turn.

#263 ::: Julie L. ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 04:08 PM:

Xopher @260: Oops-- I meant "distal", but had a braino and typed "proximal" instead.

For me, "yonder" is always "waaay yond'r" with a very definite final R. I grew up in Northern Virginia, but as any fule kno, that's not *really* part of Virginia or the rest of the South. Beats me.

#264 ::: Joseph M. ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 04:14 PM:

Jacque@251: My concern with your question is that we're getting into the question of interpretation. If I have enough words, I can describe things pretty well--as long as all I have to describe is what's on the page. However, if I have to match the feelings that someone has when they see the picture, I'm in trouble because I may not feel the same thing. (To my mind, Lenora Rose's comment about "massive" being insufficient is such a situation: if I see that painting and think 'massive,' I don't know if I should be told that that is wrong.)

Consider Ellsworth Kelly. My wife (who studied art) loves his very minimalist paintings, such as Green Curve, which I find...lacking. I can describe the physical form of that painting pretty easily with words (and, if I want to get it exact, a mathematical formula for the curve); however, I will never be able to describe the emotional impact it has on my wife because I frankly don't see it at all.

I also don't think I am conceding the inability for words describe art because art isn't the only thing that people have different emotional responses to. People have different emotional responses to any number of things, but we still accept that, say, rain, still describes something--even if it makes some people feel sad, some people feel happy, and some people just feel damp.

#265 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 04:18 PM:

For parallax, consider the opening of Wallace Stevens' Peter Quince at the Clavier:

Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,

Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music.

#266 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 05:05 PM:

Elliott Mason @256 suburbs (especially not-very-old suburbs -- postWar) are named by their developers using a Column A/Column B chart

... Or, very often, by the developer's advertising agency, usually to try (vainly) to evoke something more than "the cheap condo complex that replaced that farm at...."

My favorite of these are names that utterly fail to reflect any feature of the local geography. As in the street in Sarasota named "Ridgeview." The closest thing to a "ridge" would have been the bridge going over to the local key.

& @261: The south-side-Chicago-Irish subculture version is 'over by dere.' "Where'd Jimmy go?" "Over by dere."

Which in turn reminds me of the NY Yiddish(?) use of "by" to mean "with," as in "How's by you?"

rat4000 @255: There's an argument to be made that there is no way at all to put an image into words or words into an image.

Joseph M. @264: My concern with your question is that we're getting into the question of interpretation.

Yes, exactly. My original point was to dispute Fragano Ledgister @10's assertion that "ideas are words." Ideas, IMHO, are much vaguer, squooshier things, that can be expressed/conveyed by any number of means, though each has its strengths/weaknesses.

we still accept that, say, rain, still describes something--even if it makes some people feel sad, some people feel happy, and some people just feel damp

Verily, but just as the word "rain" can refer to water falling out of the sky, it can also refer to reprisal falling down on a foe.

In other words, what abi @265 said. :-)

#267 ::: Joseph M. ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 05:39 PM:

Jacque@266: Squooshy ideas, you say? (Also piggybacking off Abi@265):

Because You Asked About the Line Between Prose and Poetry
Howard Nemerov

Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned into pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.

There came a moment that you couldn't tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.
***
I think the place where I disagree is with the effect of art: I agree the ideas aren't necessarily clearly defined, but I believe that the different methods for expressing them are more related to efficiency ("a picture is worth a thousand words") or ability (I can't draw, but I can sort-of write) than efficacy (an idea can only be expressed one way).

And now, if you mind, I think I need to step back from this portion of the conversation. I'm not sure I'm well-established enough in this community that my stubbornness won't push this conversation off-track and leave me proving one of Abi's original points.

#268 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 08:19 PM:

Xopher at 225: "Try translating that into Spanish or French"

Like NATO becomes OTAN, for instance.

#269 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 09:32 PM:

re 240: ... and you can get to them by Accident.1

re 238/248: One thing I have noticed is that my kids and other kids their age (now high school age) very commonly type at speed to gladden the heart of any 1960s bureaucratic lord of the secretarial pool.


1 Actually Accident is in the far western end of the state, but hey...

#270 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 09:50 PM:

There's this set: this here, that there, these here, them there.
(Because 'those there' doesn't sound nearly as good. It's 'those over yonder', anyway. *g*)

#271 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: February 15, 2012, 11:37 PM:

We (in the Seattle area) have a Lake Forest Park Town Center. ( or, perhaps with all those spelled with trailing ees, I'm never quite sure)

There aren't (sadly) any examples of The Mews at Windsor Heights.

#272 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2012, 08:20 AM:

The housing development going up near my parents' house has a big sign up declaring it to be [name of suburb] Heights. The land is flat as far as the eye can see.

(There is one small hill a ways over yonder, but it's already had a housing development built on it a decade or so ago. I think that one might have been Mount something-or-other, but the only part of its big sign I clearly remember is the label announcing "Only six more lots remaining!" - I remember that very clearly because the number remained at six for years.)

#273 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2012, 08:28 AM:

"My Lating teacher" sounds really great if you imagine Popeye saying it.

Or Stan Freberg, after the network censor has been buggin' him about droppin' his Gs.

#274 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2012, 08:30 AM:

pedantic peasant @ #241: "I think not!"

Do you know the one that begins: "Rene Descartes walks into a bar..."?

#275 ::: Ken Brown ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2012, 09:15 AM:

Xopher@254 From Middle English babelen, which is apparently imitative of children's early speech (technically referred to as "babble" in true esoteric linguistics jargon).

True, but it might also be one of those words (the others are mostly names for parents) that constantly gets reinvented. For example the idea that "Babel" = "babble" is in Genesis 11, as part of the Tower of Babel story, so the pun obviously worked in ancient Hebrew as well as Middle English.

Which is of course not mutually exclusive with the etymology of "Babel" as "Gate of God". And even that is not entirely secure apparently. Although "Babel" obviously does mean "God's Gate" in Hebrew, and so (we are told) does the equivalent "Babili" in Akkadian (the language spoken in Babylon during its most powerful era, very closely related to Hebrew and Aramaic but distinct from both), at least some people think its a folk etymology and the original name was a non-semitic word that might have meant something else. Or so the Wikipedia article claims.

I've also heard a suggestion that the name was a loan translation from a Sumerian name with the same meaning (I have half a memory of something like "Kadingira" but that might be wrong - neither Sumerian nor Akkadian are exactly my speciality!)

'Babel', on the other hand, is from a Hebrew borrowing from an Akkadian word that means "Gate of God" (I think that's the same 'el' as in Michael, Raphael, etc.).

Yes, and the same word as "Allah" as well. (Though some people deny that on rather spurious theological grounds. If you want a really depressing time, look it up on Google. You can find hundreds, possibly thousands, of websites where Muslims claim that it cannot be the same as the Hebrew word for God or the Babylonian word for their pagan gods because it is God's proper name and the ancient Babylonians (& perhaps modern Christians) didn't know his name. And you can find almost as many websites from the nuttier end of Christianity claiming that it was in fact the old pagan Arabic name for gods (or for some supposed pagan moon god) so the Muslims do not in fact worship the true God at all but have been led astray into worshiping a demon or idol. All deeply irritating. And all rubbish of course - Arabic speaking Jews and Christians call God "Allah", and Aramaic-speaking ones use other words very much like that, and have done since before Islam. It makes you want to run around shouting "ETYMOLOGY IS NOT MEANING!!!!" very loudly. Well, virtually very loudly in ALL CAPS.)

#276 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2012, 09:38 AM:

Ken Brown @ 248

Most people in my parent's generation didn't write at all once they left school, other than filling in the occasional form (which they had trouble with).

I understand what you are saying, although part of your argument depends on which generation was your parents' generation. I agree with you that there are more literate people in the US or Britain today, as a portion of the population, that there were fifty to a hundred years ago. I'm not sure how much the basic literacy rate has changed (in the US; I don't know UK stats and history) since, say, the 1950's when the mandatory public schooling really hit its stride.

The proportion of the population who read a lot of books was no higher than it is now, and the propoprtion who read any books at all in a typical year probably lower than now. (After all we sell more books than we used to - someone must be reading them)
I'm not sure whether or not this is true. Before TV, and especially before radio, reading books was one of the few past-times there was, and so almost anyone who could read, did. While not 100% germane to the argument, I recall hearing -- I don't know how apocryphal it may be -- that in the age of Dickens, the literate would be called on to read newspapers and penny dreadfuls to the illiterate, so even the non-literate had, perhaps, greater exposure to the written word. Maybe.
More importantly, I think you are mis-applying your statistics. More books does not necessarily mean a larger portion of the population, as the population is also larger than ever before. In fact, IIRC, the society of the book has said that sales in books -- as a ratio to the population -- has been going down for at least three to five years.

I think perhaps you are focussing too much on the comparitively well-educated middle-class (in the American sense, including skilled workers) and on self-selected book-lovers (like me and nearly all of us here). Most people never did write according to all those rules you think we are forgetting.

I am aware that grammatical rules are often followed more in the breach than the observance. At the same time, based mostly on personal experience, which may be the victim of nostalgia and rose-colored glasses, there was more care taken with public language once upon a time. You would not find large numbers of errors in newspapers, advertising circulars, (business) correspondence, and official documents. It seems to me they are more prevalent now than they used to be, which I think is partly due to a currently laissez faire culture that says those rules don't matter as long as you understand me, and partly due to the number of venues, like texting, FB posting, and blog comments where things like spelling and grammar are not always required, leaving people out of practice, reducing the reinforcement of "proper" form, and, as someone said above, cluttering up the editing filters of a segment of the population.

Also the age cohort that makes most used of abbreviated txtspk are now in their (our) forties, fifties, and sixties. We experienced email and bulletin boards with 1200 baud modems. (Or worse).
I am not sure, but I think this assumption is based on a weighted sample. Based on my experiences in the workplace, I believe those who use textspeak and abbreviations are mostly in their 30s and under, with those in their 40s falling to either side of the divide quite evenly.

Our kids have nimbler fingers, can tolerate predictive text, and have never known a world without mobile phones.
Indeed. As I said earlier, I am not sounding an alarm that, "OMG English is dying!" just noting what seems to me to be a trend, and a possible influence.

#277 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2012, 10:18 AM:

Xopher HalfTongue @ 254

Thanks. I had heard the Babel story any number of times. It sounds good, and the folk etymology helps remember the meaning of the story, but it doesn't surprise me it's just a good story. Although a sudden thought occurs: Does anyone know, in the older Greek and Aramaic texts, is the name of Babel similar? I know the Old Testament has a big conflict with Babylonia, and I had always assumed Babel to be a shortened form of this, but I wonder if the English translator may have re-named or at least twisted the location name to match "babble," rather than the other way around?
I once told a co-worker that the common Babel -> babble etymology was simply wrong, to have her blow up at me and say "then you're really saying the Catholic religion is wrong, because that's what I was taught in school!"
Ouch! And I'm sorry. So many things wrong with that illogic string I can't count.

Jacque @ 266, Elliott Mason @256:

the developer's advertising agency, usually to try (vainly) to evoke something more than "the cheap condo complex that replaced that farm at...."
My favorite of these are names that utterly fail to reflect any feature of the local geography.

My favorite version? Greenland.


Re: 'yonder,' 'over by dere,'

The conversational lead-in of "Not for nothing, but," strikes me as one of these.

Paul A. @ 274

Do you know the one that begins: "Rene Descartes walks into a bar..."?

I confess I do not. Please share.

And to balance:


Three guys walk into a bar.
.
.
You'd think one of them would've seen it!

#278 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2012, 10:23 AM:

pedantic peasant @276: The increase in stupid errors in our newspapers, advertising, etc, seems to me to be primarily due to companies slashing their workforce, especially in 'unnecessary' fields.

The Chicago Tribune, for example, has quartered the size of its newsroom in the past decade (I wish I were kidding), and now the layout people are ALSO the 'copyeditors,' in the main, with individual writers being expected to keep an eye on their own stuff.

No matter how good a writer you are, it's very hard to spot errors and brainos in your own work, because you've written and rewritten it so much you're reading the version in your head. Even from my time on a community-college student newspaper, I can't even tell you how valuable it was to have someone who had NEVER seen the stories before layout-day available to read over them as they came out in first-draft-of-final version ... this is a step an awful lot of major corporations are completely skipping, nowadays, and it shows.

(Proofreaders: We Make You Look Good! Please, please let us!)

#279 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2012, 11:06 AM:

pedantic peasant @ #277:

Rene Descartes walks into a bar. The barman says, "Can I get you something?" Descartes says, "I think not" -- and ceases to exist.

#280 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2012, 11:27 AM:

278
When you're seeing errors in headlines, it's time to bring back poorfwritters.

#281 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2012, 11:34 AM:

Whoa -- "span" used to be the past tense of "spin?!"

I blush to admit the first time I encountered the "when Adam delved and Eve span" in a historical novel, the image it conjured was um, not work safe...

#282 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2012, 11:40 AM:

pedantic peasant @ 277: According to the Authorised (King James) Version: 'therefore is the name of it called Babel, because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth'. So - it seems that there is a pun in the underlying Hebrew text, where apparently 'balal' means 'confuse', but at this point the translators either haven't thought of making a pun in English, or consider themselves above such things. The English pun with 'babble', it would seem, comes in in later versions.

Note also that the claim made in the text is that 'Babel' derives from a word for 'confuse', not the other way round.

#283 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2012, 11:42 AM:

Andrew M @ 282... at this point the translators either haven't thought of making a pun in English, or consider themselves above such things

"Puns are the lowest form of humor - unless you think of it first."
- Seamus Zelazny Harper

#284 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2012, 11:49 AM:

Elliott Mason @ 278

The increase in stupid errors in our newspapers, advertising, etc, seems to me to be primarily due to companies slashing their workforce, especially in 'unnecessary' fields.

Yes, certainly true, although I find most (or at least more) "stupid errors" end up in comment posts and the like, rather than the newspapers and OP of news articles on-line. Occasional obvious errors excepted, of course.

Paul A. @ #279:

Rene Descartes walks into a bar. The barman says, "Can I get you something?" Descartes says, "I think not" -- and ceases to exist.

Excellent! This reminds me of the Douglas Adams "babelfish disproves God" sequence.

#285 ::: pedantic peasant ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2012, 12:11 PM:

Andrew M @ #282

According to the Authorised (King James) Version: 'therefore is the name of it called Babel, because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth'. So - it seems that there is a pun in the underlying Hebrew text, where apparently 'balal' means 'confuse', but at this point the translators either haven't thought of making a pun in English, or consider themselves above such things.

Note also that the claim made in the text is that 'Babel' derives from a word for 'confuse', not the other way round.

Erm. Maybe. I'd actually read "It's called Babel because 'the Lord did there confound the language'" as implying the connection between Babel and babble [babble dating to the 1200's it predates the translation].

Or, as you say someone could have made the connection later ...

#286 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2012, 03:40 PM:

You think it's a hidden pun - 'it's called Babel because the Lord confounded their speech - "babble", you see.'?

I think that would be a possible reading if we had just this passage, but actually the Old Testament is full of passages which say 'The place is called X because of Y' where there is no connection between X and Y in English - we are obviously meant to accept that it works in Hebrew (and some editions have a marginal note saying what the word means in Hebrew). E.g. 'He called the place Mizpah [watch-tower] because he said "The Lord watch between me and thee when we are parted one from anohther".'

Anyhow, here is the Latin Vulgate: et idcirco vocatum est nomen eius Babel quia ibi confusum est labium universae terrae ('and therefore its name is called Babel because there the language of the whole earth was confounded'). So it seems there was a pun in Hebrew; it was translated into Latin, and no doubt many other langages, without a pun; but in English, by a happy coincidence, it did generate a pun.

#287 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2012, 03:46 PM:

And I just had a look at the Greek Septuagint text, and there it's not called Babel at all but Σύγχυσις (synchysis) which means "confusion".

#288 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2012, 05:00 PM:

I got the etymology of 'Babel' from The American Heritage Dictionary 4th Ed. I'll trust that over Wikipedia any day! Actually, I'll also trust it over the King James translators and even the people who wrote the Old Testament.

The people who wrote the Old Testament are just as capable of creating a folk etymology as anyone today. I won't say "even more," because the science of linguistics is still a completely alien thing to most people; folks who'd never tell invent wacky physics or chemistry feel perfectly free to invent etymologies, because who cares anyway.

I suppress my homicidal rage.

#289 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2012, 05:44 PM:

pedantic peasant @276 -- I think it's closer to "pass-times" than "past-times", at least in my lexicon. Just to be pedantic....

#290 ::: Andrew M ::: (view all by) ::: February 16, 2012, 06:54 PM:

Xopher HalfTongue: Oh yes, I'm not disputing your etymology; I'm sure a lot of the 'therefore the place is called ...' passages are folk etymologies. My point was that even if the text is correct, it doesn't say that 'babble' derives from Babel, which is the claim you were initially objecting to, but that 'Babel' derives from (something like) 'babble' - so those who claim that 'babble' derives from Babel aren't even reading the Bible right.

#291 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2012, 02:12 AM:

Xopher @ 288:

These days seems like an awful lot of people are inventing wacky physics, chemistry, and biology, so crazy etymology doesn't surprise me at all.

#292 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2012, 02:43 AM:

Bruce: Oh, absolutely. But even some people who rightly scoff at intelligent design and client denial think any word story they make up is true.

#293 ::: debio ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2012, 03:18 AM:

If I were to admit, for example, that for me and where I grew up, it has always been...

spin, span, spun

would that make me an idjit? Or, more importantly, do I need to rewire that connection to keep myself from teaching my students the wrong conjugation?

*I was born and raised on the coast of Oregon, in the US, if that makes any difference.

#294 ::: Gray Woodland ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2012, 04:49 AM:

debio @ 293: No, unless it makes me the same. 'Spun' as a simple past tense feels utterly unnatural to me, and always has ever since I first noticed that it was sometimes used that way in Standard English and on purpose.

London, England - where my instincts are not universally shared.

On a related note, the first time I heard somebody not Buffy or a Scooby use the verb 'slayed', the culprit was successfully campaigning to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

#295 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2012, 06:07 AM:

debio @293

The regularities in English are sometimes surprising, and oft lead to a certain silliness. A language which is prone to leading more constrained—nay, more respecable—languages into dark alleys is not one which may stand for a rigidity of usage without some risk of mockery.

Yet it is inevitable, and in accord with linguistic patterns, that a notice "pinned" to a board will soon be "panned" by the critics before the eventual punning.

#296 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2012, 11:01 AM:

debio, #293: This must be a regional thing; I can't ever recall hearing someone use "span" as the past tense of "spin", and had thought that it was indeed an archaic usage preserved only in that quote. Nor do I think that I would ever adopt it; to me, it sounds weird and wrong.

OTOH, I am charmed by the occasionally-seen coinage of "knat" as the past tense of "knit". Go figure.

#297 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2012, 11:51 AM:

Lee (296): knit, knat, (have) knut?

I occasionally (to myself, in the privacy of my own head, strictly for the silliness factor) use 'shove' as the past tense of 'shave'. It goes 'shave', 'shove', have 'shoven'.

#298 ::: Dan R. ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2012, 12:07 PM:

Span does make sense of the word spanner for wrench.

#299 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2012, 12:35 PM:

DanR, thank you. If you were here, you would have seen my connective-realization expression, which I'd describe as being halfway between "the penny drops" and "o my gods."

It does indeed. I'll have to look it up and see if they're really related in that way (because the most reasonable etymologies are still not necessarily correct), but I definitely like it.

#300 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2012, 12:40 PM:

I always thought of a spanner spanning the distance across whatever it was turning, myself.

#301 ::: Julie L. ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2012, 12:56 PM:

I agree on "spin, span, spun". Can't remember whether I was actually taught this in school, or picked it up from childhood reading.

Fascinatingly, this etymology entry says that the rotational-motion sense of "spin" only dates from the 1610s-- before then, the act of "spinning" thread really referred to elongating out the fibers into a continuous long strand, very much cognate to "spanning" a distance.

"Spanner" is cited as starting from the 1630s as "a tool for winding the spring of a wheel-lock firearm", which suggests that the rotational aspect was already being invoked there.

Mind = blown.

#302 ::: debio ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2012, 05:57 PM:

I'm starting to feel like the caterpiller asked how he coordinates all his feet.

The spin-span-spun thing is taking up my thoughts.

I think it matters what you are spinning and how you do it.


I span a top.
I spun the wheels of my car.

Does that make any sense?

*OK, I need to replace the keyboard. Spacebar no longer works. I have to paste in spaces. 2 year olds and keyboards should never be allowed to meet.

#303 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2012, 07:11 PM:

It seems to me that the proper whimsical-irregular past tense of "knit" should be "knot". (Past participle: "frogged".)

#304 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2012, 08:02 PM:

Lee @ #296: OTOH, I am charmed by the occasionally-seen coinage of "knat" as the past tense of "knit".

So, you'll swallow a "knat". How do you stand on the subject of camels?

#305 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2012, 08:45 PM:

One hump or two, Paul A.?

#306 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2012, 09:02 PM:

Regarding "spin, span, spun":

I never heard "span" as a past tense for "spin." So I looked it up in the OED.

The OED entry for the verb "spin" says "Past tense: spun, span." (Apparently a Middle English past tense form was "spoon"!) The past tense "span" isn't marked obsolete or archaic, so I assume that means it's still considered current usage. There are also no notes about its being any kind of regional usage.

"Spin" definitely started out meaning "to draw out and twist fibers into a thread." The earliest quotation for the sense of "to rotate" is from 1612.

As for the eytmology of "spanner," the OED refers us to one sense of the verb "span," meaning "to stretch, extend, make taut or tight; to draw (a bow)." The OED gives examples of this sense from 1527, 1598, and later. It also seems to have meant "to harness or yoke [oxen, horses, etc.]."
The etymology is "Old English spannan: to fix or fasten, to join, to draw tight, etc."

The relationship between this sense of "to span" (and therefore "spanner") and the verb "to spin" is not clear. "Spin" comes from Old English "spinnan." The OED says "the stem is perhaps related to that of span v.2" (that's the sense of "span" I mentioned above).

So Old English "spinnan" (to draw out and twist) and "spannan" (to fix or fasten, join, draw tight) might be related. But "to spin" and "spanner" are probably not more closely related than their Old English precursors. Particularly, the OED doesn't seem to think that "spanner" comes from "span" as a past tense form of "spin."

Then I got curious about "wrench." That verb (and therefore the noun) comes from Old English wrencan, meaning "to twist, turn." ("Wrench" used to be an intransitive verb, which I didn't expect -- it meant "to perform or undergo a quick or forcible turning or twisting motion; to turn or writhe." You could speak of a fish "wrenching" after you caught it. "Wrench" as a noun also used to mean "a trick or wile" -- a figurative twistiness.)

So apparently, you've got two different names for the same tool, depending on whether you named it for its fastening/tightening effect, or for the twisting motion you perform to use it.

Words are so much fun!

#307 ::: Melissa Mead ::: (view all by) ::: February 17, 2012, 09:06 PM:

@293, from the online American Heritage Dictionary: span (spăn) pronunciation
v. Archaic
A past tense of spin.

I guess it just makes you old-fashioned?

#308 ::: Julie L. ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2012, 12:35 AM:

Maybe "span" (as simple past of "spin") is considered archaic/regional in standard American English but still acceptable in current British English? I definitely read enough Brit lit in childhood to've lost grade-school spelling points with "neighbour". (And to've decided for some years that a "lorry" was some sort of large oxen-sized draft animal.)

Caroline @306: As for the eytmology of "spanner," the OED refers us to one sense of the verb "span," meaning "to stretch, extend, make taut or tight; to draw (a bow)." The OED gives examples of this sense from 1527, 1598, and later.

Now that's an interesting double angle of attack, as it were-- I wonder whether the original "spanner" hand tool for firelock springs was named in analogy to tautening a bowstring, then.

#309 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2012, 01:54 AM:

Paul, #304: I couldn't stand on a camel if I tried. :-)

#310 ::: soru ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2012, 09:16 AM:

Its as if their model of what a "racist" is is so bad it can't possibly apply to normal people like them so any criticism of racists, or any attempt at raising awareness of racism, can't possibly be relevant to them. So they can safely ignore it.

Precisely. To abuse the concept slightly down to a personal level, them being quote _racists_ is outside their overton window. So it is not a concept they need to consider or negotiate over, just out-of-context nonsense. Like you walk into a car lot looking for something for the daily commute, and the salesman tries to sell you a private Jetstream. You don't think 'maybe I can go a few hundred higher than I was planning if you say it's that much better', but 'You appear to have made a mistake; I'm not in the market for that'.

Whereas it's often possible to express exactly the same intended sentiment in different words. Something like you may be displaying unconscious bias, lacking in social skills, or whatever. That can be within the window, and so taken seriously by them.

Apologies, of course, to all the people who already knew this; undoubtedly many. The only, likely hypothetical, person I'd wish to disagree with on this topic is with someone who thought it's a good idea to deliberately use alienating language to move what could be a viable proposal outside the window; I do think that is based on a wrong understanding of how the window works.

#311 ::: David DeLaney ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2012, 11:22 AM:

... but surely the past tense of _shave_ is _shorn_? (Momentary flashback to Allan Sherman querulously singing "Has it ever occured to you / that the plural of 'half' - is 'whole'?".)

Spelt, dealt, smelt, felt, belt!

--Dave, the ghost of James Nicoll approves of this conversation

PS: Yes, I _know_ he's alive. This is James; from his history he probably has at least two dozen ghosts wandering around in various places.

#312 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2012, 03:21 PM:

'Shorn' is the past participle of 'shear'. Shear, sheared, shorn. Go out shearing and come home shorn.

#313 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2012, 03:42 PM:

"When what's left of you gets around to what's left to be gotten, what's left to be gotten won't be worth getting, whatever it is you've got left."
"When I figure out what that means, I'll come up with a crushing reply."
- 1954's 'White Christmas'

#314 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2012, 09:07 PM:

Or, to go for wool and come back shorn. (Which ties loosely into the discussion about old cars and lemons....)

#315 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: February 18, 2012, 09:10 PM:

Soru @ 310

I'm concerned if the definition of "alienating language" means that we can't call people on racist behavior. There's a time and a place for having carefully framed discussions about defining racism and the need for sensitivity in a diverse society, and there is also a time and a place for looking at someone directly and saying "Dude, that's really racist. Not cool."

#316 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2012, 12:20 AM:

Several years ago, one of my friends at work, a man of East Indian descent who had an Arabic-sounding name and had grown up on one of the Caribbean Islands, was complaining to another cow-orker about being broke (for the moment, at least). And he said, "I wish I was a Jew, they have ALL the money!" So I went to his desk to quietly point out how horrible that had sounded--and he didn't get it. And the more I tried to make him see why it was horrible--like, how did he know that none of our coworkers were Jewish?--how did he know I wasn't? (I'm not but was trying to make a point)--the more upset he got that I was even daring to imply he had made a racist comment.

I almost bailed on attending his wedding because he stopped talking to me. The only reason I went is that his fiancee (whom I had met several times and liked a lot) managed to smooth things over.

Obviously, it made an impact on me. We've been out of contact for several years; I wonder if he even remembers it.

#317 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2012, 01:34 AM:

I would always write the assignment, and if it was too short I'd pull out my copy of The Elements of Style and start violating rules until it was long enough.

#318 ::: soru ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2012, 07:03 AM:

@315 KayTei

Agreed there are such cases. One obvious one is when you have some, even minimal, level of power over them; the threat of disemvoweling would count. If you are outside the window, you can still go through the wall.

Just needs sufficient leverage.

#319 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2012, 07:37 AM:

Syd @316: I was once at a concom meeting where, in the heat of some discussion about division of resources, the person feeling attacked use the phrase "Jewing them down a little." You could tell the instant it was out of her mouth and the rest of us gasped that she knew what she'd said and hadn't intended to; unfortunately, the person she was arguing with (who was, as were about 1/3 of the people in the room, of the relevant descent) was instantly nuclearly button-pushed and the entire meeting had to derail for about 15 minutes to separate the combatants, talk them both down, get A to apologize to B (while A still felt attacked about not getting her resource thing) .... etc. Bit pain in the ass.

However, English does have a helluva lot of institutionalized racism built into its idioms. I didn't have a word I could feel good using for the garment now known as a 'sleeveless ribbed tee' for most of my life, after someone told me at about age 12 that it wasn't cool to call them 'dago-tees,' which is what I'd learned by osmosis the word for them was. Thank goodness for Old Navy advertising circulars. :->

The Dutch people I know are amused by things like 'Dutch treat', but one friend of mine with significant Romani blood had to bring to my attention that I'd just used the word 'gypped' in front of her and could I keep an eye on that, please. This was after many years of feminist and intersectional consciousness-raising, and I swear it had never occurred to me the etymology of that particular verb! I have since rooted it out of my vocabulary, stem and branch, so I won't use it accidentally again.

Many, many props to a certan classy gentleman for giving us the coinage "That soooooo Takei". :-> Sometimes it takes having a drop-in replacement to help one remove something from one's own vocab that one KNOWS is bad, but keeps saying anyway.

#320 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2012, 03:06 PM:

Elliott Mason @319: I've also been working on pulling "gypped" out of my vocabulary, after I learned about the origins of the word. The writing part of my brain mutters about the synonyms not having quite the same meaning, and then the rest of my brain tells it to shut up, because if the Right Word is racist, it's just not the right word after all.

There are other words I'm having more trouble with, because they're even more common and deeply rooted, which are ableist rather than racist. It is one of the reasons I'm grateful I get to do so much of my social interaction through text; it's a heck of a lot easier to edit before hitting send than to do all my editing while speaking.

#321 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2012, 04:17 PM:

"Gypped" is to me an interesting problem, because a large number of people don't associate it with Romany people at all. If a word loses the connection with the ethnic group of which it was originally a slur, does it retain the taint of racism? See also "niggardly", which is not racist at all but has come through homophony to be considered racist: the flip side of the same coin.

I'm not suggesting free use of either word, as either one might offend: I'm more interested in looking at how the words change of time. In brief: I'm mentioning them, not using them.

#322 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2012, 07:12 PM:

321
See also 'welshing' on bets. Which probably was racist.

#323 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2012, 07:43 PM:

Jew down, gyp, welsh (on a bet), get your Irish up, Dutch [treat, courage], French [kissing, inhaling, sex, letter], Mexican [standoff, divorce], Polish (anything), Bohemian (used to mean countercultural), Chinese (used to mean strange or backward, frex Chinese checkers), turning Japanese, Russian roulette.

Btw Romanys were called "Gypsies" because people thought they were from Egypt. Actually their language shows they originated in the Indian Subcontinent.

#324 ::: Melissa Mead ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2012, 07:58 PM:

What's the correct name for Chinese checkers? I've never heard it called anything else, or thought of it as inferior to "regular checkers."

#325 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2012, 08:03 PM:

Xopher: also Chinese Whispers, for the game I was raised to call 'Telephone'.

#326 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2012, 08:51 PM:

Melissa, according to Wikipedia:

Despite the name "Chinese Checkers", the game is not a variation of checkers, nor did it originate in China or any part of Asia. (The lesser-known game "Chinese chess", or xiangqi, is from China.) The game was invented in Germany in 1892 under the name "Stern-Halma" as a variation of the older American game Halma.[2] The "Stern" (German for star) refers to the board's star shape (in contrast to the square board used in Halma). The name "Chinese Checkers" originated in the United States as a marketing scheme by Bill and Jack Pressman in 1928. The Pressman company's game was originally called "Hop Ching Checkers".
So the Pressmans just made up the name to sound exotic. Typical of racism toward Asians...they're "inscrutable" and so on.

#327 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2012, 08:54 PM:

Xopher @ 323

Hang on, what's the context for your list? Just the number of ethnic terms incorporated into English, or ones you find particularly problematic?

#328 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2012, 09:12 PM:

It's a list of terms based on offensive national and/or ethnic stereotypes.

I left out ones I think are harmless, even though inaccurate, like English muffin (an American variation on the crumpet, which isn't a muffin by any stretch), French fries, Canadian bacon, Dutch oven.

Not sure about Irish coffee. Is it called that because the Irish are stereotypically drunkards? (Wikipedia seems to think it was really invented in Ireland. Buncha drunks!*)

*I'm allowed to make this joke because I'm Irish on my mother's father's side.

#329 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: February 19, 2012, 09:24 PM:

Re: Its as if their model of what a "racist" is is so bad it can't possibly apply to normal people

I shall recommend Doug Muder, again...Why Imus Doesn't Think He's Racist

#330 ::: Mea ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 12:12 AM:

Xopher at 323 - I always thought the term Dutch treat was because the Dutch were more egalitarian than Americans, so I have always thought it had a positive, feminist meaning.

#331 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 01:01 AM:

Mea @330:
I always thought the term Dutch treat was because the Dutch were more egalitarian than Americans

Nope. It's because they, like the Scots, are said to be...careful with their money. I've now lived in both places. It's genuinely true of the Dutch but not of the Scots.

(Really-o, truly-o. Lowest amount of consumer credit in Europe over here. And I have never heard so many people talk openly about how much things cost, always with an eye to a bargain rather than boasting of expenditure. Boasting of bargains is a high-status thing to do.)

I wouldn't say "Dutch treat", because I feel like the term "treat" there is insulting (in that it's not a treat to pay for one's self). But I would certainly say "going Dutch", which I think is clean of that particular sting.

I'd also happily use "talk to someone like a Dutch uncle"—the other thing the Dutch are justly and truly famed for is unsparing honesty.

"Dutch courage" is another matter.

Also, for Xopher's list, Scot free.

#332 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 01:22 AM:

Abi, it was my understanding that 'Dutch uncle' means precisely the same thing as 'sugar daddy' ...

#333 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 01:28 AM:

A quick perusal of online sources suggests that you're wrong about that, Elliott.

#334 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 01:29 AM:

Elliot Mason @332:
it was my understanding that 'Dutch uncle' means precisely the same thing as 'sugar daddy'

Huh. I'd always heard it as the person in your life who tells you the unpalatable truths ("Deodorant. It exists for a reason. Get some." level of truths.)

#335 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 01:51 AM:

Oh, weird ... I've never looked it up before, I just 'knew' what it meant!

Now I'm fascinated about wondering how I picked that one up. I'd say about 85% of my vocabulary comes from having learned words by context (usually in text; sometimes in speech*), and I know I've hit some howling misunderstandings before, but thought I was done with all that crap.

Except for 'built like a brick shithouse,' which I still maintain OUGHT to mean "stunningly overengineered for its intended purpose; exceptionally durable" instead of "yes, a lot" with an addendum that it usually refers to a female's zaftig curves. Likewise, "mind like a steel bear trap" I understood throughout my childhood to mean "tenacious, never lets free what it has mangled" instead of the apparently more common "quick-witted".

* The biggest howler of a misunderstood definition that I picked up by context from the speech of my peers was 'blowjob,' which I meta-mologied via backformation from 'to come to blows,' and intuited meant 'to beat someone up' ... especially since the way it was used on the playground by my 7-8yo peers seemed to imply it wasn't something you wanted to happen to you and was used in inter-peer dominance rituals. Now, if they'd said "fellatio" I'd have totally known what they meant!! Luckily, I ran across it in an utterly different (text) context several years later, before I tried to use it in a sentence in the wild.

#336 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 03:12 AM:

Abi @331: And I have never heard so many people talk openly about how much things cost, always with an eye to a bargain rather than boasting of expenditure.

I'm guessing here that you didn't grow up in NYC, and don't have Jewish relatives. (But then, NYC did start out as New Amsterdam.)

#337 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 03:36 AM:

Xopher, #323: A few you didn't mention...
Dutch wife - a pillow or a prostitute, depending on who you ask
Dutch reckoning - an unitemized bill
Double Dutch - gibberish
the French disease - gonorrhea (known as "the English disease" in France, or so I'm told)
Welsh rabbit - a cheese dish (the spelling "rarebit" may be an attempt to remove the racist overtones)
Mexican overdrive - picking up speed on a downhill slope
Mexican condo - a vehicle (usually a van) large enough to sleep in comfortably
Mexican a/c - driving with all the windows open; 4/60 a/c ("4 windows down, 60 MPH") is the non-racist version

#338 ::: J Homes ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 04:28 AM:

abi @ 331.

Also, for Xopher's list, Scot free.

I think you may have been led astray by another homonym. Scot in this phrase is an old Germanic word for tax, not an ethic slur.

J Homes.

#339 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 04:34 AM:

abi @331

Scot-free

O.E. scotfreo "exempt from royal tax," from scot "royal tax," from O.N. skot "contribution, reckoning, shot" + freo (see free). Related to O.E. sceotan "to pay, contribute," Du. schot, Ger. Schoß "tax, contribution" (see shot).

#340 ::: Dave Luckett ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 07:11 AM:

Lee, #337. In this part of the world, four windows open at 60 mph is known as "government aircon".

#341 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 07:33 AM:

Re Scot free...huh. So the explanation I heard of it (English people not liking the Scottish "not proven" verdict) is a folk etymology. Interesting.

Here in the Netherlands, a car without air conditioning will often being described as having arko. This stands for alle ramen kunnen openen (all the windows can open).

#342 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 07:53 AM:

I think one of Jack Kirby's New Gods was called Scott Free, and was an escape artist. Of course.

#343 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 07:58 AM:

"You are very logical, Mr. McEwen."
"It's the logic of an empty purse."
"How like a Scotsman!"
"I *am* a Scotsman."

- from 1959's "Journey to the Center of the Earth"

#344 ::: Michael I ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 08:00 AM:

Serge Broom@343

But is he a True Scotsman?

#345 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 08:53 AM:

Abi #331, Avram #336: Which in turn raises the question of whether an accurate, but perhaps local, stereotype is racist.

Consider that haggling over stuff is really a cultural thing -- it shows up in a variety of contexts, mostly where people are (or recently were) "poor now, but working on that" (as opposed to Scalzi-type "adapted to poverty").

In my case, I come from a family of Jewish schoolteachers, with two immigrant grandparents and another second-gen. (And the fourth was an entrepreneur in his own right.) I was always very bad at haggling, or knowing when to, but most of my family run pretty fierce about it. I've occasionally chided Mom about trying to haggle in an inappropriate situation.

#346 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 09:20 AM:

Lee @337 Double Dutch - gibberish

Huh. I never knew that one except as a jumprope variation with two ropes. A quick google took me to wikipedia, which suggests the jumprope game as one alternative, and another being a language game like Pig Latin. So that would be consistent with gibberish, but I don't know that it would count as derogatory.

But I will add to your list, Mexican standoff, a form of gridlock in which drivers are unable to decide who should go first.

Elliott Mason @335 "mind like a steel bear trap" I understood throughout my childhood to mean "tenacious, never lets free what it has mangled" instead of the apparently more common "quick-witted".

We joked about my MIL having a mind like a lobster trap - get an idea into it, and you'll never get it out again.

And I'm amused by your misunderstanding of "blowjob" and glad you figured it out for yourself rather than by some spectacular conversational fail.

#347 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 09:43 AM:

David:

Stereotypes are a very generic kind of mental process of filling in blanks in your knowledge with stuff from your experiences and model of the world. Doing away with that process entirely would make you much less functional. The failure modes for stereotypes are stuff like inaccurate stereotypes, where media images or something drive you use incorrect assumptions to fill in the blanks, and situations where your stereotype-filled-in-blanks are too sticky, so you can't revise your understanding of someone when you realize that they're a spendthrift Dutchman, or a janitor with a high IQ, or whatever.

The social failure mode is different and harder to fix. If you come from a group that often has some negative behavior (crime, drunkenness, etc.), it's frustrating to always get stuck with that label before you've even done anything. It's not clear how to address that, since the problem is caused by accurate use of information.

#348 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 10:26 AM:

337
Lee, I ran into that last one as 'Model 55' a/c (or maybe 'Model 65'. (I grew up with that kind; I still prefer the window open a bit.)

#349 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 11:03 AM:

Michael I @ 344... Yes, if the Unexploded-Scotsman Squad showed up.

#350 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 11:52 AM:

If "Chinese fire drill" appeared so far, I missed it. (Sometimes rehomed to "Mexican fire drill".)

#351 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 12:21 PM:

Elliott Mason @ 319: I didn't have a word I could feel good using for the garment now known as a 'sleeveless ribbed tee' for most of my life, after someone told me at about age 12 that it wasn't cool to call them 'dago-tees,' which is what I'd learned by osmosis the word for them was.

Here, those garments are colloquially called "wife-beaters," because of their appearance on the TV show "Cops," frequently worn by guys who have been beating their wives.

That name is also considered problematic by many. I think "tank top" or "muscle tee" or "sleeveless ribbed tee" are probably the best options.

Tom Whitmore @ 321: Yes, "gypped" is still offensive. Because even though lots of people don't associate it with Romany people, many other people, including Romany people, do.

It's the same problem as someone who says "jewed" without realizing that it's connected to ugly stereotypes of actual Jewish people. They may not have intended to say something hateful -- but they did.

Or the same problem as Elliott Mason's childhood word for a sleeveless ribbed tee, or "n*****-head" as the commonly used name for a big rock. The people who use those terms genuinely don't connect them with slurs against actual people, and maybe the majority of people in their local communities don't either. But that doesn't mean actual people aren't being hurt when they hear those words, and it doesn't mean the people using those terms don't need to stop once they find out they're actually racist terms.

I get that you weren't suggesting that people should continue using those terms. But the answer is that even if a term isn't associated with actual people in one community/locality/subculture, when you carry it into another conversational context, it will be understood as a racist slur.

"Niggardly" is a different problem. Many more people know the n-word than know the word "niggardly," so it's natural for them to assume the words must be related. People often assume it's a reference to stereotypes about black people (link to a comment in a Pandagon conversation about the n-word). So your audience is likely to think you meant to use a racist slur, and react accordingly.

It also can sound like you're trying to use the n-word but have plausible deniability (link to another comment in that Pandagon conversation). I haven't seen this happen in the wild with "niggardly," but I have seen it happen with "knicker" (link to Sadly, No! post with non-autoplaying video). So I'd believe that it happens.

Furthermore, when I looked up "niggardly" in the OED, I found that it has been occasionally conflated with the n-word going back to at least 1800 -- blending the "stingy" meaning with other nasty racial stereotypes. The OED specifically mentions this usage. The conflation is not a new phenomenon, in other words. It seems to happen whenever the two words coexist.

(What am I going to do when I graduate and no longer have free OED access?…)

Finally, I would like to point everyone to this blog: Yo, Is This Racist? (Some swearwords, and occasional photographs of incredibly racist stuff, so potentially NSFW on those grounds.)

#352 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 12:30 PM:

Lee 337: Welsh rabbit - a cheese dish (the spelling "rarebit" may be an attempt to remove the racist overtones)

Hmm. So the idea is that there's this strange Welsh beer sauce called "rarebit" rather than making fun of the Welsh for being poor? Maybe.

albatross 347: It's not clear how to address that, since the problem is caused by accurate use of information.

albatross, one form of prejudice is the application of statistically-likely assumptions to a specific individual.

#353 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 12:50 PM:

Xopher:

There is no plausible way to function in society without doing this all the time, though, automatically. Depending on the dress and diction of the people you're interacting with, you modify your own dress and diction. When you meet someone and start a conversation, you try to infer what topics they would find most/least interesting. When walking into a restaurant, you quickly assess the place for likely cleanliness and physical safety, and leave if you don't like what you see. All this is filling in unknown information, good and bad, about individuals based on statistical patterns. To stop doing it is to become unable to function effectively in the world--the way someone from a completely different culture stumbles around making incorrect assumptions and inferences all the time, because he doesn't know enough to fill in the blanks accurately most of the time.

There are specific statistical patterns regarding race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc., where:

a. It's easy to get the blank-filling-out wrong in ways that offends the hell out of someone.

b. It's easy to get patterns where everyone interacting with some member of an identifiable minority treats him with the same wrong-starting-assumptions, to his irritation or cost.

And yet, it's part of our normal mental machinery, which we cannot and should not jettison. The hard part about this kind of stereotyping is that it does damage even when it's correct, which means that trying to avoid that damage involves making worse decisions.

#354 ::: Dan R. ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 01:04 PM:

Xopher @352... My undergraduate social stats prof called "the application of statistically-likely assumptions to a specific individual" the Ecological Fallacy

#355 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 01:46 PM:

Caroline #351: I'm pretty sure that calling those shirts "wife-beaters" long predated the cop shows.

#356 ::: JM ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 02:03 PM:

Elliott @319: I've never heard "dago-tees" before, but I still occasionally slip up and refer to those shirts as "wife beaters." What is it about that particular garment that attracts appalling names? I suppose, come to think of it, that they're cheap and very informal and thus linked to poor/working-class people who don't have a lot of power and are therefore easily othered.

#357 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 03:07 PM:

Serge Broom @342: Yes. His superhero name was Mister Miracle.

#358 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 03:17 PM:

Serge Broom #342, David Goldfarb #357: And he got a cameo early in Sandman.

#359 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 03:26 PM:

Re ribbed Ts being called "wifebeaters," I think there's also a Hollywood semaphore going on there. If you see a guy in a movie and he's wearing one, it probably once indicated he's abusive to his wife. This is similar to the way the native accent of Hoboken (and surrounding communities) signals "thug" in Hollywood movies...though it's now become such a cliché that it's only used as a joke.

Remember this is Hollywood, where the good guys are never ugly, and where people get thrown THROUGH (as opposed to against) plate-glass windows and get up and run away (as opposed to bleeding out from many deep cuts as they lie on the ground with fractured skulls).

#360 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 03:47 PM:

David Harmon: And Neil Gaiman put in a thing with "Scott Free" not really being his name, that nobody has ever done anything with before or since. Probably wise.

#361 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 04:27 PM:

Caroline, #351: I was under the (possibly erroneous) impression that the term "wife-beater" for a tank-style undershirt derived from the movie version of A Streetcar Named Desire -- in any case, it certainly predates Cops. Serge would probably know for sure.

My grandmother called Brazil nuts "nigger-toes". I don't recall that she ever did so in my hearing, but I do remember being about 7 or 8 and my mother telling me about the term and that I shouldn't use it because it was vulgar. Not that my parents didn't subscribe to plenty of racist stereotypes, but heaven forbid we should be vulgar about expressing them.

#362 ::: Older ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 05:54 PM:

When I was young (and I'm pretty old) the shirt now called "wife-beater" was the standard men's undershirt. I don't really understand why it still isn't. Don't the sleeves on tee-shirts bunch up in people's armpits when worn under a standard men's shirt? That's why *I* stopped wearing tees.

If it were still the standard undershirt, we could just call it an "undershirt", and not need any invidious ethnic references.

I think the association with low-class people who might beat their wives arises out of the notion that only very low-class people would sit around the house in their undershirts. This could be true, but then we're all losing class (by the old standards) as time goes on.

#363 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 06:22 PM:

Xopher @ #359, word. My father-in-law actually WALKED through a plate-glass sliding door (he had just had a stroke) and damn near bled out from a severed artery.

Lee @ #361, my grandmother called them the same thing, and I was also explicitly forbidden to do so. Still current among my contemporaries when I was in high school was "nigger-rigging" for a make-do arrangement of available parts, though sometimes that was 'corrected', with a sneer, to "afro-engineering". It was also considered cute to refer to MARTA (Atlanta's commuter rail/bus service) as "moving Africans rapidly through Atlanta"*, and I know people who still refer to Chamblee (an Atlanta suburb) as "Chambodia" because of the many Southeast Asian immigrants there.

*I don't, however, object to making fun of Atlanta institutions per se: a local DJ said recently that Delta Airlines' name stands for "doesn't ever leave the airport". That one, I like.

#364 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 07:25 PM:

Lila, #364: Oh yeah, I've heard all of those except the last one. During and just after WWII, it was more common to hear references to "jerry-rigging", because "Jerries" was one of the common derogatory terms for the Germans. This has since partially shifted to "jury-rigging", which avoids the racist sentiment at the cost of relevance; rigging a jury has nothing to do with ad-hoc engineering.

#365 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 08:22 PM:

considered cute to refer to MARTA

BART has been called Bay Area Random Transit - it wasn't quite reliable when it first started running, and the nickname has sometimes stuck with people.

#366 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 08:56 PM:

Lee @364, are you sure that "jury-rigged" is a recent development, rather than a return to an older form? I know that Patrick O'Brian refers to "jury masts" or the like quite frequently, and I haven't noticed any (other) linguistic anachronisms in his writings. The little searching that I did suggests that the two actually evolved independently, with jury-rigged dating to 1788 and jerry-rigged to 1869:

One set of etymologies

I have no access to the OED and cannot confirm either date. I think it's entirely possible that anti-German sentiment during the wars led to increased usage of "jerry-rigged", even if that's not the original etymology, but I'm highly skeptical of the claim that "jury-rigged" is a post-war euphemism.

#367 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 10:33 PM:

@355, @356, @359, @361, @362: I was once told that calling them 'wife-beaters' date at least to Stanley Kowalski in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'

I think that garment is often derogatorily named because it is, effectively, underwear, and there's a classist prejudice against people who 'wear their underwear on the outside,' either because they don't care about standards or because they're too poor to have lots of socially-acceptable layers.

Nowadays, even under business shirts, an awful lot of men don't WEAR an under-layer at all, and the ones that do often wear t-shirts (short or long sleeves).

@363: Also, in re DELTA == Doesn't Ever Leave The Airport, my mother has a succession of acronym-explanations for Ford:

Found On Road Dead
Failed On Race Day
Fix Or Replace Daily

#368 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: February 20, 2012, 11:08 PM:

I will continue to believe that Double Dutch is a language game and not gibberish. I must, because it's in too great a line to discard, in "New Amsterdam":

Till I speak double dutch to a real double duchess

The days of his McCartney-Lennon obsession were good ones for Elvis.

#369 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2012, 12:43 AM:

re 351: The thing about "niggard" is that there is an etymological connection, but it runs back into the past from both rather than straight from one to the other. I can tell you though that, as someone who knew the denotation of the word, it was jarring for this Marylander to read Aragorn telling Eomer that he was "no niggard". It's impossible for a somewhat-southerner not to hear the other word in the passage.

364: It's perhaps possible that "jerry-rigging" refers to the Germans, but like pretty much all nautical terminology, "jury rig" goes back into the 18th century, and in a lot of American dialects the distance between "jury" and "Jerry" is very small.

re 361: Brando wears a standard white T-shirt in Streetcar. Googling "wife-beater shirt" gives very interesting Gnews results: it is possible that the whole thing started when some company around 1997 sold tank-tops labelled "Wife-Beater". This appears to have lain dormant for several years, but in 2001, there was a rash of reaction stories about that. The next year NOW got in on the act and we got the inevitable word origin article. I think a good case could be made that the slang originated in the late 1990s.


#370 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2012, 10:31 AM:

John A Arkansawyer @368: You got there before I did. That song is an INCREDIBLY strong earworm for me! The fact that I love it anyway speaks volumes about Elvis Costello's songwriting skills.

Off to sing it in the shower, and if that doesn't work I'll have to play the album. Oh, woe is me. ;-)

#371 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2012, 03:05 PM:

Remember this is Hollywood, where the good guys are never ugly,

...and the bad guys seem, remarkably often, to speak with an English accent. (To the extent that I object, it's mostly that I'd prefer not to have things flagged to me quite that obviously.)

#372 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2012, 03:50 PM:

Lee #364: Jerry-rig is, I think, a later back-formation from jury-rig. The OED's earliest citation of jury-rig is from 1788. It is a specifically nautical term. Hence: jury- is used in comb. to designate other parts of a ship put together or contrived for temporary use, as jury-rig n., jury-rigging n., jury-rig v., jury-rigged adj., jury-rudder n., jury-tiller n., and humorously of other things as jury-buttocks n., jury-leg n. a wooden leg, or any contrivance to supply the place of a disabled leg. jury-legged adj., jury meal n.

But jerry-build hasn't got anything to do with the use of Jerry for German in either World War. The OED's first citation dates to 1893.

#373 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2012, 04:06 PM:

Praisegod barebones @ 371... the bad guys seem, remarkably often, to speak with an English accent

...unless it Rufus Sewell or Tim Roth, who swing both ways. Meanwhile, if your name or your accent are French, here's what "Criminal Intent" had to say about a seedy outfit:

"Their clientele is all anorexic models and Eurotrash named 'Serge'."

#374 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2012, 04:38 PM:

Lila #363: Indeed, I've heard some interesting things about different parts of Atlanta when I've been on the phone to people. ("That's real Congoville", for example, said on an area not too far from where I now live.)

#375 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: February 21, 2012, 04:57 PM:

Speaking of words: the Wall St. Journal had an article today on the publication of the final volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). Article here. One item probably not in the DARE: The WSJ calls that little amusing article on the front page the A-Hed. Who knew?

#376 ::: Marty In Boise ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2012, 06:27 PM:

Color me gobsmacked. I'm temping as receptionist for a county office that assists people in divorce and custody cases, and about 15 minutes ago, one of our social workers was coming back from an interview with a little girl, maybe 7 years old or so, and as he and the intern who'd sat in on the meeting returned her to her dad in the reception area, the social worker, in Light Conversation Mode, said, "I was just asking her if they'd talked about Leap Year in school today." Dad (a white guy in his late 20's) said, in a similarly Just Making Conversation tone, "Oh, all they've been teaching about has been Black History Month. Goldurn coon schools."

After the dad & daughter left, I went back to the social worker's office to confirm that I'd heard what I'd heard--he and the intern were both just as astonished as I was. I suppose maybe we should offer the gentleman a cookie for politely saying "goldurn" instead of "goddamn."

It's 2012 in Idaho, and I feel like yelling at someone.

#377 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2012, 08:00 PM:

That would tempt me to make sure there was a noting of the event in the family's file, Marty.

#378 ::: Marty in boise ::: (view all by) ::: February 29, 2012, 08:53 PM:

I would imagine that the social worker is already figuring out just how that conversation will fit into his eventual report and recommendations to the judge; the assessment process is still ongoing, and something that weirdly disturbing can't help but play a factor, even if the comment was incidental to the formal interview process. It wasn't exactly a shining example of parenting.

#379 ::: Marty In Boise ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2012, 03:36 PM:

Update: Good grief! So now this story turns into a tale of eyewitness unreliablity: The social worker actually called the dad back last night, because the incident was pretty unsettling to him. It turns out that the man had actually said that his daughter's school hadn't [even] been teaching about Black History Month, and that what he had muttered at the end was "goldurn Kuna schools"--the name of that town is usually pronounced "kyoo-na," though I guess "koo-na" is also used.

So it turns out he was saying, more or less, that it's no surprise the girl's school didn't teach anything about Leap Year, because, hey, in the month of February, they hadn't done anything with Black History Month, either. So what all three of us were pretty certain we heard as a racist epithet was actually 180 degrees from what the dad actually meant, and was a criticism of the schools' (and by implication, the town, which is small, rural, and largely white).

So, I guess I'm still gobsmacked--but considerably relieved.

#380 ::: Naomi Parkhurst ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2012, 04:08 PM:

Mary #379 *phew* and a different sort of bogglement.

#381 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: March 01, 2012, 04:28 PM:

Marty, #379: Thank you so much for the update! That makes me feel a lot more hopeful about the young girl's future.

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