Sunday, August 26, 2012

Frozen yogurt with adjectives on top

Imagine you’re writing a description -- for a menu, say, or a shopping list -- specifying a certain sort of yogurt. The product is
Made from Greek-style yogurt
Vanilla flavored
Fat free
How do you list those attributes?

Since I think of “frozen yogurt” as a permanent compound, like “ice cream,” I would probably start there. “Greek yogurt” is a common compound too, but if I say “frozen Greek yogurt” I could be talking about plain old Greek yogurt stuck in the freezer, and “frozen yogurt” is not the same thing as “yogurt, frozen.” So I go with “Greek frozen yogurt.” (Or maybe “Greek-style”?)

As I pondered the next step, I went back and reread Neal Whitman’s post on the ordering of adjectives, which was entertaining and smart, but didn’t do anything so mundane as tell me what to do with my remaining adjectives. It seemed like a toss-up: “Vanilla” and “fat-free” are just about equally relevant and weighty, though I guess you could argue that “fat-free” is a more fundamental property of the foodstuff in question. So: “Vanilla fat-free Greek frozen yogurt.”

And why am puzzling over this? Because a headline in the latest flyer from Trader Joe’s advertises “Frozen Vanilla Greek Fat Free Yogurt” -- a sequence I would never come up with.

And on another page, there’s “Greek Strawberry Vanilla Yogurt” -- this time with the “Greek” before the flavor -- which I would render as “Strawberry Vanilla Greek Yogurt.”

For non-TJ customers, I should note that the store flyers are quite well written and edited; these labeling oddities (if such they are) don’t reflect any lack of skill with the language, just a choice that sounds foreign to me.

And you, dear readers? Where did you put those adjectives?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Two good books

When I heard that Geoff Nunberg was writing a book about the word asshole, I thought it was a joke. But no -- days later, the mailman delivered a review copy of “Ascent of the A-Word,” subtitled “Assholism, the First Sixty Years.”

And yes, there is a book’s worth to say about this rude word, all of it entertaining. But since my annotated copy flew off in an airplane seat pocket the other day (there were extenuating circumstances -- children, diapers, seat swaps) I can’t share all the juicy quotes I marked. Luckily, others have liked the book as much as I did: See James Parker at the Barnes & Noble site, for instance, and John McIntyre’s blog post yesterday.

The finished copy has now arrived, so I can at least quote a couple of my favorite bits from the final chapter, on assholism in public life, where Nunberg zeroes in on one of the assholiest features of political discourse: fake outrage.
You’re acting like an asshole … if you accuse someone of incivility knowing full well that no neutral observer would interpret his behavior that way. Nobody for a moment hears any “violent rhetoric” when Obama says he’s itching for a fight with the Republicans or when Michele Bachmann describes Washington as “enemy lines.” The only purpose of a charge like that is to give your own partisans the enjoyment of imagining the irritation it will engender, all the more because it’s so transparently phony.
And then there's the fake outrageousness meant as bait for (real or fake) outrage. When journalist Westbrook Pegler maligned Jews as geese (“fouling everything in their wake”), says Nunberg, he was expressing genuine anti-Semitism. But "when [Ann] Coulter makes an analogous remark about Muslims, she’s only trying to sound offensive ... We know that she doesn’t lie awake seething about Muslims the way Pegler did about Jews.”

Fake offenses, fake responses -- what would Kant have said? That we should try to restrain ourselves, says Nunberg, out of respect for the dignity of the topic. But where's the fun in that?

While I'm in book-review mode, I also want to recommend a title published several months ago, on writing and the teaching of writing: "Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing," by Peter Elbow. I haven't finished it, but like Language Hat, I don't to wait any longer to mention it, because whenever I dip into it there's something thought-provoking. On punctuation, say:
Punctuation is fascinating because it's where a certain kind of rubber hits a certain kind of road. It appeals to something deep in our relationship with language because it's the only visual cue that takes us from silent, timeless visual symbols on the page to audible, in-time, mouth-moving, performance in our bodies. It's where the mind meets the body, where the eyes meet the mouth, where space meets time.
Amazon offers a generous sampling of the book; see for yourself.

(FTC notice: The publishers of these books provided free review copies.) 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Wedge issue

An item of pure language trivia, gleaned as I was catching up on my reading: The August 6 issue of The New Yorker uses the word wedge (in one form or another) six times, in five different stories.

Gallery listings, p. 11: “oddball arrangements of tomatoes, cheese wedges, and melons and balloons.”

Shouts & Murmurs, p. 33: “R.S.V.P. using the tiny card that is wedged somewhere between the fourth and seventh layers of tissue paper.”

Letter from Rangoon, p. 53: “Wedged like an arrowhead between India and China, Burma has been ruled by dictators …”

Ibid., p. 61: “all comically wedged into school chairs with plastic desks on the arms.”

The Theatre, p. 77: “Alcibiades … gets his wedge from Timon to pay for the soldiers.”

The Current Cinema, p. 78: “At an age when many men consider it a trial of strength to carry their own pitching wedge, [William Friedkin] still devotes himself to finding the optimum angle …”

That’s three uses of the past participle wedged and three of wedge the noun, in three different senses. Two of them -- the hunk of cheese and the golf club -- are familiar; the third, as I learned a couple of years ago, is British slang for money. The OED tells me it’s based on a “wad of bank notes” (a wedge, sort of, when folded in half) but no longer necessarily implies folding money.

This sense dates only to the 1970s, but wedge had two earlier careers in the financial field, one as "cant" for "silver, whether money or plate," in the 18th and 19th centuries, and another, much earlier, meaning "silver ingot," stretching back to the Venerable Bede. “The Old English wecg is in translations of Matt. xvii. 27 used for ‘piece of money, rendering Latin stater’” notes the OED.

How unlikely are the six wedges in one issue? It’s not worth going deep on the question of comparative frequency, but wedge has recently come up only once or twice a month in TNY. So it’s surely coincidental, just as a newspaper section will end up with five present-participle headlines, or toasters will pop up in several comics on the same day. (In fact, in yesterday’s Boston Globe three of the 30 comics used superhero jokes.)

The repetition would be hard for an editor to spot, and hard for most readers too, unless they  were reading several stories in succession. I wouldn't be surprised if someone else noticed the (mild) rash of wedges -- but I guess I wouldn't be surprised if nobody did, either. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Whisperer campaign

My friend Vicki Croke, who writes about animals, was frustrated to find that online dictionaries weren’t giving her a relevant definition for whisperer. "M-W tells me it means rumormonger," she e-mailed, and indeed, Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary (like several others I consulted) gives only the literal sense (“one that whispers”) and the 16th-century sense “rumormonger.”

What about horse whisperer -- widely known since the 1995 novel “The Horse Whisperer” and the 1998 movie based on it? Lexicographers are naturally cautious about admitting senses that may be fleeting fashions, but horse whisperer has not only stuck with us, it has generated dozens of variations: Dog whisperer, baby whisperer, wood whisperer, and so on.

And Vicki isn’t the only reader looking for this general sense in the dictionary. M-W’s site asks readers to say where they heard a term or why they’re looking it up. The responses under whisperer: "TV show called dog whisperer."  "I was looking for a definition that could make horse whisperer make sense." "The true story of the American man who became known as the Horse Whisperer."

So I asked Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster in Springfield, Mass., when we could expect the new whisperer to show up in that dictionary. It's already in the Unabridged online, he replied: Sense 2 is "a horse trainer who soothes unmanageable mounts by whispering to them."

My old Webster’s 2nd Unabridged (1959 printing) has it too, with a slightly more skeptical gloss: "One supposed to manage horses by whispering." But here's the kicker: horse whisperer is actually two centuries old. The Oxford English Dictionary calls it "an appellation for certain celebrated horse-breakers, said to have obtained obedience by whispering to the horses," and provides an 1810 quote from the Statistical Survey of the County of Cork:
He was an awkward, ignorant rustic ..., his name James Sullivan, but better known by the appellation of the whisperer, … from a vulgar notion of his being able to communicate to the animal what he wished, by means of a whisper.
And yes, Merriam-Webster is on the case, says Sokolowski. Their citation file -- showing whisperer "preceded by cow, (fashion) model, ghost, fish, beast, wolf -- pretty much confirms that anything can modify whisperer to have the meaning 'one who is able to calm, coach, or control.' The culture absorbed horse whisperer and then began to apply the concept more broadly -- a very typical pattern."

These non-horse whisperer examples, however, come mostly from the past decade, he says -- too recently to make it into the 11th Collegiate Dictionary. But "we may well see this new sense in the next Collegiate." And, presumably, in other abridged dictionaries, wherever you like to consult them.