Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Pavlovian peeving

While researching my next Word column, I ran across a two-year-old Language Log posting by Arnold Zwicky on the assertion (made by a Canadian newspaper)  that we cannot correctly say "standards of living increased," but only "standards of living rose." 

Not true, of course, but a surprising number of commenters were willing to defend the idea, or at least to chew over the ways it might be defended. This response inspired a comment from Language Hat that said what I too have thought (but ne'er so well expressed). I didn't have room to quote it in the column, so here it is: 
I don't know why this has never occurred to me before, but this discussion has made me realize that a mischievous person could pick any construction at random and denounce it just for the fun of watching the opprobrium spread across the prescriptivist world, or take two perfectly good English sentences and state authoritatively that one was correct and the other not and watch people fall all over themselves to provide justifications for the judgment. If you say one person or idea is better than another most people will form their own judgment and either argue or agree with you, but when it comes to grammar (or "grammar"), it seems there's a vast public eager to appropriate any proscription that comes within their ken, whether it makes sense or not. To err is human, to want to feel superior to other people's supposed errors is even more so.
Of course, if you take "mischievous" in its not-funny sense, you could argue that Dryden did just this when he disparaged the stranded preposition. It's hard to imagine him doing it out of pure cussedness, but considering how much needless trouble he caused, he might just as well have.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Word: Flat-trap

Some Tea Party spam recently came my way, bringing with it a curious neologism. "You really believe that?" scoffed the author. "Oh Ya, and Obama is a conservative! Hahahaha! What flat-trap nonsense!"

I guessed that flat-trap might be an eggcorn for claptrap,though I couldn't immediately come up with another relevant citation for flat-trap. (Google offered up a Melbourne band, some glue traps for mice, and several physics papers with titles like "Superfluidity of two-dimensional excitons in flat and harmonic traps.") But you could get from claptrap to flap-trap quite easily, I thought, if you took "clap one's trap" to be a variant of "flap one's trap (or one's gums)," meaning "talk nonsense."

But was that in fact the root sense of claptrap? Not even close. Claptrap, says the OED, is a theater term from the early 1700s, meaning "a trick or device to catch applause; an expression designed to elicit applause." ­ The first citation is a dictionary definition dated 1727-31: "A Clap Trap … a trap to catch a clap by way of applause from the spectators at a play."

That rather literal meaning fits nicely into the latter part of the English theatrical era that gave us characters named Marplot, Aimwell, and Lady Wishfort. But the evolution of claptrap into its modern meaning is also pretty seamless: by the early 19th century it means "language designed to catch applause; cheap showy sentiment" (OED), and that sense generalizes easily over time to "nonsense, rubbish."

Meanwhile, shut one's trap had been used since the 1770s; flapping one's mouth came along in the early 20th century, giving rise to flapping one's trap or gums. So flap-trap, though coined by a different method from claptrap, is just as plausible. But flat-trap? I still can't figure out a way to make that "flat" fit the idiom.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

This little piggy went to market

I'm glad Arnold Zwicky decided to post about the "Figures in Speech" sculptures by Marsha Tosk, because I've been watching them for months (several have been advertised in the NYT Magazine) and wondering if I had anything to say about them. Not really, I decided -- the literal renderings of phrases like "Pig in a Blanket" and "Hot Dog" (the dog is in front of a fan) are kind of cute, but basically they're fourth-grade wit; I couldn't imagine spending $1,000 (plus or minus, depending on the item) for a permanent embodiment of a fairly obvious witticism. (My imagination is clearly deficient; apparently plenty of customers believe the joke will never get old.)

Zwicky, however, was more appreciative than I, and in fact he has launched a solstice orgy of visual puns, with follow-up postings here and here. As I savored this bounty (the "chillin' wif ma peeps" cartoon is priceless), it dawned on me that my very own home boasts a pun-art installation, an assemblage my husband created from (once) easily available materials for a total of less than $20.

What's his homemade sculptural pun? It starts with this lineup:

These are "talking" mugs with the likeness and voice of Bill Goldberg, erstwhile pro wrestling champ. Push a button on the cup, and Goldberg emits one of his signature battle cries. So when the Goldbergs are properly primed,* you can push their buttons in succession and hear three different bellows: "THIS IS GOLDBERG," a threatening "BAHHH ...," and Goldberg's victory roar, "WHO'S NEXT?" These are, of course -- ta da! -- the Goldberg Variations.

True, Paul's little showpiece is harder to dust than a plastic pig, and it does require AAA batteries. But then, the Scottish wool blanket on the high-priced porker is surely not maintenance-free either. I'd been hoping we might get rid of the Goldbergs, but what did I know? Turns out they're not tacky souvenirs at all, they're witty pop art.  

*As I wrote this, I realized that in fact, any one of the Goldbergs can run through the entire repertoire of Goldberg Variations; the three make a formidable array, but they're not strictly necessary to the joke artwork. So if a Goldberg (variations included) would make your life complete, do make an offer; I'll be sure to pass it on.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Or was it Christopher Columbus they laughed at?

From the NYT's report on Gary Faulkner, the American arrested in Pakistan on a solo mission to kill Osama bin Laden, comes the Rhetorical Question of the Day, supplied by the man's brother-in-law, John Martin:

"How many people thought Paul Revere was a nut?’” 

Some of us would have been dumbfounded, but the reporter nimbly followed Martin's train of thought: "Asked if his brother-in-law was a hero or a nut, Mr. Martin replied, 'I think if he would have accomplished his task, he would have been a hero.'" Got it.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Annals of peevology: Endorsing "endorse"

From Henry Alford in 1863 to (at least) Eric Partridge in 1954, certain usage traditionalists fought the extension of endorse from the literal sense (to sign the back of a check) to the figurative ("approve, vouch for"). William Cullen Bryant listed the verb on his (circa 1870) "Index Expurgatorius." My buddy Ambrose Bierce called endorse "a commercial word, having insufficient dignity for literary use. You may endorse a check, but you approve a policy, or statement."

Fowler, by 1926, had accepted that one might metaphorically endorse "a claim or argument," but he balked at the rapidly spreading use of the verb in advertising: "To talk of endorsing material things other than papers is a solecism." 

Not all educated opinion was on their side, though. Emerson, an early adopter, had used the new endorse in 1842. And in 1882, the Oxford historian Edward A. Freeman, writing on American-British language differences, dredged up an anecdote from university life to show how far endorse had come toward respectability in the decades since then:
Let me take an Oxford story of perhaps five-and-thirty years ago. A story was told in a common-room of an American clergyman who was in the habit of getting into theological discussions with his bishop, and who was sometimes a little puzzled as to the way in which he ought to behave in such cases towards his spiritual superior. "I had a respect for his office," said the presbyter; "but I did not like to endorse all that he said." A fit of laughter went round the room. Thirty-five years ago there seemed something irresistibly ludicrous in applying a commercial word like "endorse" to agreement or disagreement on a theological matter. I am quite sure that no one would laugh at it now either in America or in Britain; we all endorse, or decline to endorse, positions on all questions, theological, political, philosophical, or any other.

(From "Some Points in American Speech and Customs," Part I, first published in Longman's Magazine, 1882; the link is to a reprint in Littell's Living Age.)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The pejoration of "douchebag"

For the past few years, I've been watching the steady progress of the insult douchebag, the latest reminder that our collective choice of language taboos is nothing if not arbitrary. Still, I was surprised when a good friend told me the other day that her 12-year-old son had declared it "the second-worst swear I know."*

If his judgment is general, then douchebag is making a (bad) name for itself with unusual speed. Less than two years ago, the Baltimore Sun Media Group's free paper, b, printed the headline "DOUCHEBAG." (Yes, there was controversy -- John McIntyre blogged about it here and here.) But last week, the New York Daily News (online) wouldn't even use the word in a direct quote. The headline read "Creme brawlee! Anthony Bourdain gripes Alan Richman is a 'd-----bag' in new book." (The chapter title is, indeed, "Alan Richman is a Douchebag.")**

And a Globe interview with Bourdain today was even more discreet, quoting the title as "Alan Richman is a [Tool]."

(The New York Times, cautious as always, wrote about the word's popularity last fall, but outside of a quote, it would not let the two parts of the compound word touch: In the '90s, the Times delicately noted, "it [the word douche] was invoked, usually with the suffix 'bag,'" on the TV show "NYPD Blue.")

The OED dates the insult to 1967, citing American Speech: "Douche bag, n. phr., an unattractive co-ed. By extension, any individual whom the speaker desires to deprecate." Oddly, though, as the slang word is taking off, the literal douche is already in decline. In fact, when douchebag made its pop-culture move, I was among those who wondered if anyone under 50 knew what a douche bag was. (When I wrote about scumbag, a dozen years ago, I heard from several surprised adults who had never associated the word with condoms.)

If my faint and fallible memory serves, the douche was then already a relic of the bad old days before the Pill. Surely, by the '70s, "Our Bodies, Ourselves" was denouncing the feminine hygiene fetish as another corporate scam? But apparently there were mothers (and marketers) who kept the tradition alive. The Globe's teen advice column, Ask Beth/Sense about Sex, was still fielding douche questions from 1988 to 1994. ("It means using a douche bag or syringe to rinse out the vagina with a solution containing a cleansing agent. It is seldom necessary since a healthy vagina constantly cleanses itself. It can even be harmful.")

Even during the '90s, the rude slang usage was not widespread enough to set off alarms among Globe editors. The literal douche bag made a comic appearance in a 1991 Diane White column on collectibles: "Another enthusiast is seeking 'enema and douche bags and bulbs, rubber and hot water bottles, accessories, catalogues and advertising.'" The first insulting douchebag in the Globe, in 1999, snuck in under cover of curmudgeonhood, when  Joan Vennochi quoted the infamous Boston city councilor Dapper O'Neil greeting a bag lady with, "Good morning, my douche bag." But in the mouth of an aging crank, no doubt the term sounded old-fashioned rather than taboo-busting.

I still suspect most users of douchebag are clueless about its denotation, though John McIntyre reported that his copy-editing students "[knew] the origin of the term as well as its contemporary use." (Really? I'll bet he didn't give them a quiz.) The bag part, after all, was familiar -- as the OED notes, it was a disparaging term for a woman by 1924, a variant of the Shakespeare-era baggage. My guess is that douchebag sounded weird, maybe (only maybe) with some feminine-secret weirdness; it echoed scumbag and dirtbag; and it wasn't actually obscene, so it could be instantly adopted by movies and TV. What's not to like?

So here we are, with douchebag, douche, d-bag, douchebaggery, all causing head-scratching at the classier print media, all based on an innocuous and semi-obsolete contraption. Just think: Had linguistic events taken a slightly different course, the latest insult might be truss or enema or tampon or mouthwash. Of course, it's not too late; maybe their turn will come.

*Yes, the worst was the C-word.
**Richman, who earned the appellation with a negative review of a restaurant connected with Bourdain, seemed unfazed. In a response in the Village Voice, he asked: "Is it possible to deal somebody like Bourdain a 'low blow'? He is a living, breathing, low blow. That's all he does."

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Say not the struggle naught availeth

In today's Word Routes column at Visual Thesaurus, Ben Zimmer  looks at a number of words that are going their own way in Indian English, including undertrial, incharge, and the delightful tiffin. But the one that stood out for me was the verb avail, used as Americans now often use access:
avail: to make use of something, especially an opportunity or offer: "To avail all these benefits, just register online." "Why not avail of our special offers?"
Avail was already on my mind, thanks to a similarly surprising example in yesterday's New York Times. In the page one story, "Hooked on Gadgets," the writer said of a teenager with too many distractions: "His iPhone availed him to relentless texting with his girlfriend."

That differs from the Indian usage, but to me it is equally foreign; I could write "he availed himself of his iPhone" or (more archaically) "his iPhone availed him naught," or maybe "his iPhone availed him to text relentlessly." Indeed, Google Books has plenty of examples of "availed him" plus infinitive -- "It little availed him to produce proofs to his judges" (1820) -- but my brief search found just one avail that parallels the NYT's: "But this availed him to no account whatever" (1880).

Did the writer just blow the idiom, and substitute "availed him to" for the usual "availed him of"? (Which would still have seemed over-formal in the story, but not wrong.) Or have I missed another fashion update? If everyone else has taken to saying things like "this coupon avails me to 15 percent off" and "her talent avails her to an excellent income," please clue me in.