June 25, 2006

More rhetorical abuse of the Eskimo lexicon

I look forward to the day when "Linguists tell us that Eskimos have N words for the different states of snow" joins "Some of my best friends are Jewish" in the list of sentences that people have learned to suppress their impulse to write. In fact, I thought that in the lexicographic industries, this day had already arrived. But in the latest issue of the Vocabula Review (motto: "A society is generally as lax as its language.®"), David Isaacson begins an article on "Drunk Words" with a classic example:

Linguists tell us that Eskimos have dozens of words for the different states of snow. Alcoholics, their victims, and others with more than a passing interest in the state of drunkenness have hundreds of words describing what happens when people have too much to drink.

I'll suppress the impulse to observe that a publication is generally as lax as its rhetoric.

In fact, I'll refrain from any further comment, except to point readers to the Wikipedia's article on Eskimo words for snow, and to list a small selection from (the dozens of) earlier Language Log posts on rhetorical abuse of the Eskimo lexicon:

"112 words for misunderstanding meaning" (2/5/2006)
"Snowclone blindness" (11/19/2005)
"Etymology as argument" (6/18/2005)
"No word for sex" (3/12/2005)
"Can Geoff Pullum rest on his laurels?" (8/13/2004)
"The Eskimos, Arabs, Somalis, Carrier .. and English" (3/4/2004)
"Sasha Aikhenvald on Inuit snow words: a clarification" (1/30/2004)
"A short sharp slap for Dennis Overbye" (1/8/2004)

Well, I'll also provide a link to Laura Martin's seminal work, "Eskimo Words for Snow: A Case Study in the Genesis and Decay of an Anthropological Example", American Anthropologist, 1986, pp. 418-423.

I don't want to seem ungrateful: right under Isaacson's essay, on the VR web site, is a "Book Excerpt" from Far from the Madding Gerund (it includes "Phineas Gage gets an iron bar right through the PP", originally from Language Log of 11/21/2003, plus "Forensic Syntax for Spam Detection" from 9/22/2004, "The SAT fails a grammar test" from 1/31/2005, and "Without Washington's Support . .. . Who?" from 3/1/2005). But fair is fair.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 25, 2006 12:52 PM