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”)

New phrase much

Perhaps you’ve noticed a slight dropoff from the normally low-frequency posting here. Well, whatever it is that caused it, it’s also causing more cars to be on the road every day, and more people to be on various college campuses. In any case, I have a question. It involves things like this:

For example, in the item description she busts out with the following paragraph: “If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact me! I do have cats, but I keep them away from the fabrics/craft area.” Uh… non sequitur much? (link)

Your writer’s true colors are revealed when they refer to a Big Mac as “charred flesh”. Ummm, vegan much? Thank you, and have a nice day. (link)

Uh, okay. Prejudiced much? (link)

Beetle: uh, hmmm…literate much? (link)

Not part of my idiolect much? I have to admit that this is not really part of my speech, and I don’t have a good grasp on how to use it and what phrases can the much-ified (thus leaning on the crutch of there sometimes being as uh/um before the item in question). And it sure seems like there must have been some popular or cult individual who popularized this sort of thing – any ideas?

And it could be that I’m not really all that sure what these things mean, at least in the semantic details. That is to day, in something like busy much? or come here much?, you’re asking about frequency. In enjoy movies much? you’re asking about degree/extent (or possibly frequency…I suppose). In something like non sequitur much? is the person (sarcastically) asking about the frequency of non sequiturs (by some individual), or is that not really what’s going on?

Best this side

Superlative descriptions like to be limited to a particular groups of things to be compared. People are best in their class, a mountain might be the tallest in the lower 48 states, and several things are no doubt the best inventions since sliced bread. Of course, something could always just be the worst idea ever. One way to express how you’re limited the domain of compared items is to use the phrase this side of X. Now, you can’t go around using this for just any sort of domain limitation. It works really well when you’re talking about geographically limiting the domain of comparison to…well, shouldn’t it be obvious? Here’s some old timey examples from the OED.

1840 T. C. HALIBURTON Clockmaker III. xviii, He is..the best live one that ever cut dirt this side of the big pond.

1914 Sat. Even. Post 4 Apr. 10/2 There ain’t a kid like him this side of the Hump [sc. mountain range in west of N. America]–nor t’other side either.

Big, or at least salient, geographic features seem to work well – oceans, mountain ranges, mason-dixon lines. Also good are salient locations. Nearby pizza favorite Zachary’s has been lauded as the best pizza this side of Chicago. A place at Tahoe seems to have the best mesquite tri-tip and ribs this side of Texas. Now, it’s not clear to me that these claims are about, for example, taking the area between Chicago and the SF Bay Area and saying that there’s no better pizza in that region. It’s rather that they’re picking a place famous for pizza (or ribs), and saying that their own pizza may not be quite as good (or authentic), but it’s pretty darned close.

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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.