Archive for the 'Historical' Category


No shelf life

USA Today has an article on Bill Cosby with the headline Bill Cosby prides himself on comedy that has no shelf life. I thought that was an odd thing to have pride in: comedy that’s out of date as soon as it’s out of your mouth. But then the entire piece was about how timeless his comedy is.

Google, please! On the one hand,

Young Coconuts are perishable and have virtually no shelf life at all. (link)

Unlike our regular growler selections, cask ale has no shelf life and is highly perishable. (link)

There is basically no shelf life on expensive caviar, two or three days so plan to plan accordingly. (link)

On the other hand,

If you want a safer product that will last much longer in the fridge, add a bit of acid blend or citric before its cooked. Pomona is a citrus based product that has no shelf life like regular and no/low sugar types. (link)

REAL black powder has no shelf life if stored well. Substitutes like pyro and trip 7 im convinced loose effectiveness if several years old. (link)

Flashlight Batteries – 10 years (the flashlight can be recharged forever and has no shelf life) (link)

As far as distilled spirits go, like your Bacardi Limon (YUM!), or your whiskey, an unopened bottle has no shelf life. (link)

Excellent. I think the “lasts forever” meaning is more common, but for whatever reason it’s not what came to my mind first when I saw the headline. I guess it sort of means, “it has nothing which you would call a shelf life, i.e., lasts forever,” as opposed to “it has a shelf-life value value at or near zero.”

I was trying to think of other expressions like this. What first came to mind was what I (once upon a time ) thought “priceless” and “no/little love lost” meant. (apparently originally the latter was in fact ambiguous, but I don’t know if anyone still uses the “they’re still good buds” meaning anymore).

A non-rule I don’t have

The other night someone I was with mentioned a nauseous smell. I thought: huh, interesting! I was of the impression that nauseous was an experiencer-taking predicate (I feel nauseous, nauseous individuals), and that this (and no doubt many other) individuals had done the experiencer/stimulus dance to let that which causes nausea be called nauseous.

I later became rather embarrassed that I hadn’t remembered the old fake usage guideline that, in fact, nauseous is only to be used for the stimulus, and nauseated only for the experiencer. So in effect I not only didn’t have that guideline in my grammar, I felt sure (momentarily) that the standard was the exact opposite!

Now, first off, if you look in any dictionary or usage guide you’ll see that experiencer-nauseous is widely accepted and basically unexceptional. At the same time, nauseated is said to be rather rare (whether the frequencies take into account the sense of nauseous is unclear; the lexeme is overall more frequent on Google, though interestingly not in the BYU TIME corpus).

But further, I asked myself if I even make the distinction between nauseous and nauseated, ever. Certainly I don’t think I use stimulus-nauseous. Do I use nauseated? I have no idea. I don’t think so, but I couldn’t guarantee it. There must be some reason I thought the nauseous smell use was non-standard, and I don’t think it’s because I had done some sort of strange prescriptive rule-reversal.

(Then there’s the unambiguously stimulus-selecting nauseating, and I’m pretty sure I use that.)

So, in conclusion…valence alternations and semantic change: it’s weird! (or am I weird from it?)

(for fun, search Google or whatever for “nauseated smell”)

An adjective quantified-noun

Back on the best holiday of the year, Mark Liberman wrote on LL about some strange claims about the constituency and plurality of a million dollars. In a comment, I noted some perhaps genuinely-strange uses of “a,” leading to this follow-up. Having had the fear of Zwicky etched into my brain, I thought I would avoid a too-long comment and just talk about it here.

First, the sentences:

He was there for a good seven years.

An additional three people are required.

A mere four nations recognize that standard.

She collected an amazing and heretofore unprecedented forty million dollars.

What we have is “a” and then some adjective phrase, and then a quantified nominal. There are some interesting questions to be asked: first, what is the range of adjectives? It seems sort of limited: a grueling 100 miles, but ?an asphalt-paved 100 miles. All the examples given so far involve some sort of “evaluation” (shock, amazement, disappointment, unprecedentedness, etc.). Maybe someone nice will do a corpus study and report the findings (and of no one does it soon, I might just have to).

Next question: does the whole thing act as a singular or plural phrase, for the purposes of subject-verb agreement? The comments seem to show that, depending on the “context” (how the NP is construed semantically, let’s say – either as a divisible group of individuals or as a lump), you might get singular or plural agreement.

A good 100 people have/*has arrived.

A mere four nations recognize/*recognizes that standard.

A mere four nations is/are not enough

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Where did that dictionary come from?

On a recent trip to Barnes and Noble (I have a gift card) I happened upon a book in one of the bargain sections called (IIRC) Where’s that word from? I looked inside the front jacket and saw what I expected, namely things like “did you know [word x] actually came from the Old [English/Norse/etc] word [blah] that means [amusing thing]? Find out all about this and many other words in this collection of…” I figured that it would be a series of one- or two-page-long descriptions of maybe a hundred words, with some light commentary and anecdotes, or whatever. So I turned to a random page in the middle, and was slightly surprised to find that a more appropriate description of the book would have been English Etymological Dictionary, because that’s what it was: a list of words with a short definition (the sort helpful only to an already-literate user of English) and a line about the proximal source language (Middle French, Latin, etc.) and word. Then I looked at the front matter, and found a description of the history of the English language, not surprisingly. Only the author talked about “Indo-Germanic (or Indo-European).” Then I turned to the publication information: yep, 1974. And probably the really original publication date was rather earlier. Sweet repackaging, guys.

At the moment I’m trying to recover the exact publication information, including the editor and original title, but for some reason I can’t find it out. Might be another trip to B&N for me.

Oh no a joke

How do you describe a cow that’s rather pessimistically chowing down on grass in a meadow?

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Nothing to chortle at

It seems as though we have Lewis Carroll to thank for the word chortle. He coined it in his poem Jabberwocky, apparently as a blend of the words snort and chuckle. We also have him to thank for the application of the word portmanteau to linguistic forms that contain multiple parts–though the morphologist’s use of the word usually refers to morphemes with specifications across multiple grammatical categories (number/gender/tense/etc.), while in common (?) parlance a portmanteau word is a blend of multiple words, like chortle.

I’d like to report a case of zeugma

I participate in a weekly syntax reading group (though my participation is decidedly less frequently than weekly). This semester our desired topics all ended up starting with the letter A: adverbials, argument structure, adjuncts. After several weeks of readings, we were reaching a point where we felt satisfied with our coverage of material, and were thinking about what to read for the next meeting. Someone suggested we should move on to the Bs, which immediately brought up binding, and so we moved on to the Cs (control? case?). Then someone suggested that we instead just go for the Zs, at which point the only possible suggestion was zeugma.

We then got sidetracked into a little discussion of exactly what zeugma was, and an example was brought up that was sited at a campus health facility. It went something like

Please do not place or take away anything in this box

Nice. This might actually be a good argument for undergraduate syntax students for seeing exactly why the structure of this sentence is…well, strange. And of course also an example of the sort of thing that, while unexpected if you’re a syntactician, is basically understandable (maybe we can find out how long the sign has been there, and how often its message is misunderstood).

The next step is, as someone suggested at the meeting, to call of the facility and say, “I’d like to report a very serious case of zeugma.”

[Yes, yes, this is not a typical case of "zeugma" as (I think) most linguists understand it; there isn't any lexical ambiguity with both meanings realized by different conjuncts, nor have two incompatible valences of a single verb been combined into a single clause. But I think we can expand our definitions a bit, can we not?]

We don’t need no gestures

The other day in the class I’m TAing, the professor said, “by the end of the semester, there are ten questions that you should be able to answer like that.” That got me thinking, what is up with the phrase “like that” and its meaning, namely ‘with ease’. For one thing, it’s really hard to represent in writing. You could use typographic emphasis: he can do it like that. Or you could add a word to make it clearer: she finished it just like that. Or, you could notice that it’s sometimes (often?) accompanied by a snap of the fingers, so could have: “You should be able to answer it like that,” he said with a quick snap of the fingers.

And on that note: it seems likely to me that what we have here is a phrase that was at some point rather dependent on a concurrent snap (either timed with that, or perhaps, for dramatic effect, just before that) to make any sense, but over time the association became conventional enough that the gesture was no longer needed. And in fact you could say like that along with any appropriate gesture that indicates speed, ease, or some similar idea. It’d be interesting to see if, in the absence of any gesture, it is regularly or obligatorily replaced by some prosodic cue.

Then I checked the OED entry for like, and lo and behold, there was a meaning! But it wasn’t what I was expecting:

[...] of the nature, character, or habit indicated; spec. (usu. accompanying the crossing of the speaker’s fingers) as an indication that two people described are very friendly or intimate

The first written attestation for this use is from The Great Gatsby. For me, if I want to express that meaning, I’d have to use the finger-crossing gesture – no amount of facial or intonational gymnastics seems to get it quite right. Which is interesting, since my first associations with that particular gesture are the “hope” and “nyah nyah I can break my promise” meanings.

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