February 16, 2008

For you, broccoli rabbi, but NO BIKES

Three unconnected observations from the recent scene:

Item 1: My granddaughter Opal (almost 4) in contention with her friend Henry (4 1/2) when she said she'd draw a valentine for him.

Item 2: A Gordon Biersch menu offering:

"Tawny" sirloin ... atop roasted sliced potatoes and broccoli rabbi ...

Item 3: A notice taped to one of the doors of the Stanford building I teach in this quarter (yes, all caps, bold face, AND underlined):



Item 1.  Valentines.  The incident was reported on by my daughter on the Armstrong-Zwicky family blog:

[Opal] was drawing valentines for people yesterday, and said she'd draw one for Henry. He objected; he wanted to do it himself, he didn't want her to do it for him. She objected; she didn't want him drawing on her paper. Much howling ensued, mostly on Henry's part, but also on Opal's as she said "I just wanted to make him a Valentine and now he's being mean to me!" Henry never fully accepted the proposition that drawing a Valentine for someone was not usurping their rights but doing them a favor.

Ok, YOU try explaining to someone -- in particular, to a 4 1/2-year-old (Henry's father did his best) -- the two readings of for you in

I'll draw a valentine for you.

Opal intended the benefactive/recipient reading of

I'll draw you a valentine.  [the "dative-moved" variant]
I'll draw a valentine that is for you.

but Henry heard instead the substitutive 'instead of' reading of

[You can't draw a valentine, so] I'll draw one for you / in your place.

Now, in many circumstances the choice between the benefactive and substitutive readings of for will be biased by accent:

I'm doing this for YOU.  [probably benefactive]
I'm doing this FOR you.  [almost surely substitutive]

(Of course, in context, the other reading could pop out instead.)

What I hadn't realized until I heard the sad story of Opal, Henry, and the valentine card was that sometimes even accent won't do the trick.  Opal almost surely accented the for --

I'll draw a valentine FOR you.

and without further context, this could go either way.  Opal was in the midst of drawing people valentines (she drew me one), so of course the substitutive reading didn't occur to her.  Henry, on the other hand, is, like little kids in general, accustomed to having people assume that he can't do things (or can't do them very well) and offer to do them for him (an offer he usually staunchly rejects), so the benefactive reading didn't occur to him.  If only she'd used the dative-moved variant.

Item 2.  Rabbi.  The startling broccoli rabbi (for broccoli rabe, a bitter green) is not just a one-shot glitch at Gordon Biersch; I recently got 39 (dupes removed) Google webhits for it (including a number from recipes and restaurant menus).  Granted, this is versus 900 for broccoli rabe, but it's still a significant number for such a remarkable error.

There are several ways broccoli rabbi could have arisen, and it's entirely possible that different mechanisms were at work in different occurrences.

It could be a "completion error", a typo that results you start writing or typing a word and then drift part-way in to another word.  I do this all too often with -ation and -ating words -- starting the verb COOPERATING but ending up with COOPERATION, for instance.  And several people have reported on the American Dialect Society mailing list that their intention to type LINGUISTS frequently leads them into LINGUISTICS, which then has to be truncated.  (This discussion on ADS-L followed my typing "original Broadway case", with CASE instead of CAST, and commenting on it.)  So RAB- ends up being completed by -BI.

Or it could be the result of automatic word completion (essentially the automated version of the typo), assuming that RABE is not in the software's dictionary, or is marked as much less frequent than RABBI.

Similarly, it could be a Cupertino "correction" of RABE to RABBI, assuming that RABE is not in the spellchecker's dictionary.  (We've been writing about the Cupertino effect on Language Log for two years now, beginning with a posting by Ben Zimmer and continuing through about fifteen more, from various hands.)  I would have expected a spellchecker to go for RAPE or RAVE rather than RABBI, though; in fact, the spellchecker on my Word for the Mac suggests: ROBE, RUBE, RAPE, RAVE, RABBI, RAGE, RACE, RABBET.

All three mechanisms would lead us to expect at least a few errors with RABE replaced by RABBIT, a word I assume is even more frequent than RABBI.  But there are no relevant hits for broccoli rabbit (though you can find an interesting-sounding recipe for a rabbit dish with broccoli in it).

It could, of course, be an eggcorn, with the unfamiliar word rabe replaced by the more familiar rabbi.  It would be nice to know if any of the people who came up with broccoli rabbi have some sort of story in mind in which rabbis are involved.  But I suspect that it's a "demi-eggcorn", a re-working of an expression by replacing a semanticaly opaque element by some similar meaningful expression, even if that doesn't contribute to the meaning of the whole.  The classic English folk etymology sparrow grass for asparagus has one clear eggcorn piece, grass for -gus (asparagus spears resemble grass stalks, and the asparagus in flower resembles a fluffy grass; but the many species of asparagus are actually in the lily family), and one demi-eggcorn piece, sparrow for aspara-.  Who knows how sparrows are involved?  But at least sparrow is a recognizable word of English.

In a similar vein, who knows what rabbis have to do with the bitter greens in question?  But at least rabbi is a recognizable word of English.

Though I suspect that rabbi is some ordinary kind of error, Ned Deily has suggested to me that it might spring from a dialect form in German -- maybe rabi [ra:bi] or even rabbi [rabi] -- meaning 'turnip' (broccoli rabe and turnips are both in Brassica rapa subspecies rapa -- the brassicas are something of a taxonomic morass).  After all, there's kohlrabi.

But kohlrabi, the OED tells us, goes back to Italian cavoli rape, which is the plural of cavolo rapa 'cole-rape', with its first element altered through the influence of German Kohl 'cabbage' (yet another brassica) -- an element clearly visible in modern English cole slaw (made from cabbage) and more distantly discernible in cauliflower (another brassica) and kale (of several types -- still more brassicas).  (No, the -col- piece in broccoli is not an occurrence of this element.  Broccoli is a diminutive of brocco 'shoot, stalk'.)

So maybe an Italian (rather than German) dialect was the source.  I've found the following as possibly relevant variants of broccoli rabe:

broccoli raab [a spelling that represents clearly the pronunciation of rabe -- an Italian dialect pronunciation of rapa or rape]

broccoli rape
broccoli di rape
cime di rapi

[In recent discussion on the ADS-L, Alison Murie suggested that the aa in raab might have influenced the bb in rabbi.  A certain number of spelling errors in English arise from people's recollection that "there's a double letter in there somewhere", and aa is infrequent in English spelling, while bb is unremarkable.  Possibly.]

[Further side note: rape [rep] as the name for these greens in English has an understandably unhappy history.  Even rapeseed oil, for the cooking oil made from the seeds of the rape plant, is edgy -- which is why we now have canola oil, made from a variety of rapeseed originally developed in Canada.]

The variants in the list above edge close to rabi or rabbi in Italian (or German) but don't quite make it.  I wouldn't be at all surprised if some Italian or German dialect with rab(b)i for 'turnip' and/or 'broccoli rabe' turned up.  But I find it hard to credit that the menu writers at Gordon Biersch's corporate headquarters -- who distributed this spelling to GB's 17 locations (from Honolulu to Atlanta, Miami, and the DC area) -- were drawing on dialect names for the greens in Italian or German.  I hold to some version of the (demi-)eggcorn account.

I should add that the staff of my local GB have been fascinated by my interest in this oddity on their menu.  Of course they have no idea how it originated.  And, though I'll forward a link to this posting to the relevant staff people at corporate headquarters (with a copy to the locals), I don't expect to be illuminated.  Mostly, when you ask people about such things, you get one of two responses:

(a) Isn't that how you say/spell it?

(b) Oh, I have no idea where that came from.

Reasonably enough.  Ordinary people shouldn't be expected to reflect on the sources of what they say or write; they're too busy unconsciously picking stuff up from what they hear and read, and then saying and writing it.

Item 3.  NO BICYCLES.  This notice is certainly inept, in two ways, both having to do with the design of the wording for its audience.

First way: the shift from plural bikes ("do not bring bikes into the building") to singular it ("it will be removed, whether or not it is locked").  It's just fine to prohibit bikes [generic plural] in the building, and to use a generic singular bike following this plural ("any bike in the building will be removed").  It's also fine to lead with a plural ("do not bring bikes into the building") and follow that with an anaphoric pronoun they ("they will be removed").  It's also fine to lead with a generic singular ("do not bring a bike into the building") and follow that with an anaphoric pronoun it ("it will be removed").  But if you lead with the plural, a singular it is very hard to interpret.  A well-intentioned reader can work out what must have been intended, but it takes real work.

Second way: "if this happens again", with its reference to a history that only particular miscreants might have access to.  A well-intentioned reader will speculate that the building supervisor (the writer of the notice) was writing in medias res and will supply a plausible background story: oh, this must be in response to some specific incident(s) in which someone brought a bike into the building, and it's aimed directly at the offender(s) -- though it will also serve as a warning to everyone else.

It would have been so much clearer to jettison the previous history and to stick to one number in both parts of the notice.  Here are two (of several) possibilities:

  Do not bring bikes into the building.  If you do, they will be removed ...

  Do not bring a bike into the building.  If you do, it will be removed ...

[Added 2/18/08: several readers have noted that the notice can easily be read as a threat to remove the BUILDING, whether or not it is locked.]

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at February 16, 2008 01:04 PM