September 10, 2007

Morning mailbag

I'm way behind in dealing with LL-related email -- apologies to those of you that I haven't answered. A few especially interesting links came in yesterday, and I don't have time to do them justice, so I'll just dump them here with a couple of brief comments.

From Pat Schwieterman:

America's finest news source seems to have picked up on "moist" aversion. The latest copy of The Onion (9/6/07) has the following brief "correction":

Last week, we promised never to say "moist" again. That was incorrect. We are going to say "moist" two more times in this issue, and after we say "moist" those two times, we might say "moist" again in the future. If we feel it, we'll say it. The Onion apologizes for your discomfort.

I wasn't able to find the passage in a quick search of the online version, but it's at the bottom of page 10.

This might be a lift from Language Log, but with The Onion it's hard to say -- they too are marvelously in tune with the zeitgeist.

I couldn't find The Onion's "moist" note on the web either, but I did stumble on Zach Caldwell's "Bro, You're a God Among Bros", which has nothing to do with word aversion, but is the densest presentation of punning neologisms that I've seen in a long time. Actually, they're not exactly neologisms, and I'm not sure what the word for them is -- I'm talking about things like

You are the king of all bros. Brotankhamen. You are the Ayatollah Bromeini. You are Broseidon, lord of the brocean.


I've long admired your absolute broficiency in all things bro-related, and the way you've always carried yourself in a brofessional manner. I consider you a brole model.

This is a mode of speech that I associate (perhaps unfairly) with young male underachievers -- another example would be the sequence in Wayne's World where Dana Carvey (as Garth) says things like "She's such a babe, if she were president she'd be Babraham Lincoln". The idea seems to be that a certain word is raised to such a level of mental activation that it takes over the rest of the vocabulary through substitution for phonetically-similar syllables in semantically-associated words and phrases. (If you think you know what this rhetorical style is called, tell me.)

[Update -- Andy "the Androidinator" Hollandbeck writes:

The style you attribute to Garth of Wayne's World was taken to a whole new level with the introduction of Rob Schneider's character Richard "The Richmeister" Laymer. You can find a transcript of one of his sketches here.

If there isn't already a name for this annoying habit, I suggest "Laymerism," which has a certain resonance, considering that each new "nickname" is lamer than the last.

There's certainly a connection, but the Richard Laymer link suggests that this trope is only used for creating nicknames, which seems slightly off the mark.

Greg Stasiewicz suggests that there might be a connection to Smurf Language.

And Seth Kleinerman brings another source into the discussion:

I wonder whether you know Ludacris's seminal 2000 work, "Ho," from his album called, um, "Incognegro." In it, he uses a very similar strategy to the one under discussion in serenading the listener or some third party with claims that she is, in fact, a ho.

"Reach up in tha sky for tha hozone laya" is one lyric. But altogether the effect is diminished in print; maybe the 30-second preview clip on iTunes might illustrate the point better.


From Don Blaheta:

In this week's Straight Dope, Cecil Adams does a lovely job debunking the myth that Americans' vocabulary has shrunk 60% in sixty years: "Does the American student have less vocabulary today than in days gone by", 9/7/2007.

Once again, the journalists fail to do their jobs (this time in a flub dating back to 1984), and the slack gets picked up by columnists and bloggers, although the damage is already done, sigh.

It's indeed an excellent piece, as usual from Cecil. But just to keep the numbers straight, I think he identifies the origin of the flub as an item in Harper's Index from 1990, which referenced studies from 1945 and 1984.

(Harper's Index might be responsible for introducing more dubious factoids into American culture than any other source, despite (or perhaps because of) their practice of footnoting sources.)

For more background on how to lie with numbers about vocabulary usage, see "Britain's scientists risk becoming hypocritical laughing-stocks, research reveals", "Vicky Pollard's revenge", and "An apology to our readers".

Dick Oehrle, an old friend who's now Chief Linguist at Cataphora, pointed me to a Red Herring article from 8/24/2007 that I somehow missed, "DC Madam Bets on Valley Firm".:

Accused of running a high-priced prostitution ring that catered to the rich and powerful in Washington, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, dubbed the “D.C. Madam,” earlier this year threatened to name names. But political elites breathed a sigh of relief when a television reporter reviewed a list of her clients and, save for a couple of exceptions, declared the names to be of little interest.

Now the woman at the center of Washington’s most titillating scandal in years is hoping to bolster her defense by hiring a small Silicon Valley search and data analysis company that she hopes will be able to mine a treasure trove of phone records, Congressional papers and other documents to draw up a much longer list of her clients.
That could put Cataphora, a relatively unknown Redwood City, California-based company, at the center of one of the most closely-watched scandals in Washington in recent memory.

“It could be the cornerstone of our defense,” Ms. Palfrey's attorney, Montgomery Blair Sibley, said of Cataphora’s work.

Privately-held Cataphora will analyze thousands of pages of Ms. Palfrey’s old telephone records—which do not have names attached to them—to names and numbers subpoenaed from telephone companies. Ms. Palfrey has said she knew most of her customers by first names or aliases only. And Mr. Sibley said her telephone records are the only evidence she has not yet destroyed.

Ms. Palfrey was charged in March with running a prostitution ring but she claims that her firm, Pamela Martin and Associates, was a legitimate escort service that catered to the erotic fantasies of up to 15,000 customers—but did not provide sexual services. Mr. Sibley said that without new names provided by Cataphora’s analysis, it could be difficult to call witnesses to support his client’s position.

“This is the best way (for me) to put people on the stand to say, ‘I was just getting a massage or sniffing underwear’ or whatever,” he said.

I'm sure that they're all looking forward to it.

(In fact, Dick was in town for a visit, and told me about the article in person.)

From time to time, a student asks me "but what can I do with a degree in linguistics?" Now I can give them an even more diverse list of career options.

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 10, 2007 08:08 AM