McCawley cited for linguification (by Newmeyer)

A topic of continued interest (primarily by(?) Geoff Pullum) is linguification, or the expression of a particular idea or argument in terms of language. A couple years ago I wrote about one particular type of linguification that often takes the form of

You rarely hear X and Y in the same sentence

and which expresses, basically, X and Y are really different and totally unrelated. In case X is a modifier of Y, then it means Y is anything but properly described by X (e.g., you never hear “politician” and “honest” within three words of each other).

In the June 2008 issue of Language, Frederick (Fritz) Newmeyer writes, in a footnote:

The late Jim McCawley wrote somewhere that he can always pick out theoretical linguists at academic cocktail parties. We are the ones who talk about the Fibonacci sequence, the laws of thermodynamics, and Romance clitic climbing, all in the same sentence.

This reflects what I guessed was a folk theory of discourse, one part of which is the idea that sentences have only a single topic, and that nothing is present in the scope of negation (e.g., “studying Romance clitic climbing clearly has nothing to do with the laws of thermodynamics, which is just as well considering that I know nothing about the latter”). This particular form of linguification relies on the idea that if any concepts are mentioned in the same sentence, this indicates at least that the speaker is interested in all three topics, and perhaps even that the speaker is somehow arguing for a significant relation between them. (Or perhaps just that they are concept-dropping in order to impress their colleagues).

Coherent spam

The combination of the subject line and first few main text lines of a bit of spam I got this morning was, in fact, slightly coherent.

Subject: Or coherent

Body: increasingly so the longer I m here and the more time I spend at

C A 9N A D/8AN P 0 4H A RM A 5CY

I prefer a colon after coherent and a comma after increasingly so

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.