Wednesday, December 29, 2010

More Ngram fun: carrots and sticks

Carrot and stick, or carrot on a stick? In my last go-round with this one -- when I found "turnips on a stick" in the 1840s -- I decided they might well be two independent creations, rather than an original and a variant. Michael Quinion also covers the issue pretty exhaustively at World Wide words. And here's the Google graph, showing that "carrot and stick," if no more respectable than its stablemate, is a lot more common.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Ngram view of "another think/thing"

Mark Liberman has courageously returned to the nor'easter-northeaster debate, though he admits its futility: more evidence is needed, and in any case, "people are entitled to use phony dialect forms if they want." (He cites, among other evidence, some research I did on the topic in 2003, now behind a Globe paywall and outdated in any case.) I hoped he came bearing fresh results from Google's new book search toy, the Ngram Viewer, but it won't let us compare the histories of the two versions -- apparently it can't handle the internal apostrophe in nor'easter (though there are hits for noreaster).

I've been trying out the the Ngram Viewer, too, and it's easy to see its limitations. As Geoff Nunberg and other early commenters have said, it's a pretty blunt instrument, unable to handle many of the search refinements you'd need for real scholarship. But I'm having fun seeing what it says about various competing usages (not hindered by internal punctuation) that I've written about before.

For example, here's the graph for "another think coming" vs. "another thing coming," as in, "if you think you're wearing that, you've got another think coming":

Pretty scary for a traditionalist like me to see the rogue "another thing" rocketing toward respectability! But I was heartened to see that the OED entry has it as "another think," with the "thing" version labeled "arising from misapprehension of to have another think coming." Not that it will affect usage, but someday I can show it to my disbelieving grandchildren ...

Friday, December 24, 2010

Less invasive than what?

Even if I had celebrated Festivus on schedule, I'm not organized enough to have gathered up my grievances into a neat package the way Fritinancy did. But there was a complaint-worthy headline in yesterday's Times, on the holiday itself, and since I'm behind schedule on everything else, I might as well be a day late recording this too.

It came with the lead story in the Times's Styles section, which had a photo and headline borrowed from Nora Ephron -- "Can We Feel Good About Our Necks?" -- and then a very strange subhead:

Put Away the Turtlenecks:
Less-Invasive Options Exist
To Tackle That Area of Dread

Wouldn't that be nice -- a neck-firming treatment that's less invasive than putting on a turtleneck? But of course the headline writer didn't mean that: The procedures covered in the article are only "less invasive" than a full face- or neck-lift. (They're also expensive and as yet unproven, of course, like so many of the cosmetic remedies that get free advertising in the Skin Deep column.)

It's fine to call something "less filling" or "less expensive" and leave the comparison implied; less has always worked that way. But you can't stick a word like "turtlenecks" in there, in a spot where it insists on being read as the term of comparison, without confusing readers. (I'm not the only one who noticed the problem; the subhead doesn't appear on  the web version of the story.)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A little "no problem" problem

The Ridger’s recent  post on the “no problem” curmudgeons reminds me that I finally had my own "no problem" revelation not long ago. After years of wondering (privately and publicly) why people get so cheesed off at the phrase, I finally heard it used in a way that sounded inappropriate even to me, the language libertine.

I was paying the receptionist after a massage, and when she handed me the receipt, I said "Thank you." She replied: "No problem."

Now, I don't even blink at "no problem" in other situations. I ask for a new fork and the waiter brings it; I say "thanks" and he says "no problem." I ask the mechanic, "Can I leave the car overnight?" and he says, "No problem." I’ve always assumed the complainers were objecting to this response, which seems completely normal (if casual) to me.

But these interactions were different from the one at the massage place. I asked the waiter or mechanic for something, got it, and thanked him. In those cases, “no problem” (as The Ridger notes) is no more rude, contentwise, than the time-honored “it was nothing” or “don’t mention it.”

In the transaction at the cash register, though, no service was requested or granted. My “thank you” for the receipt was just part of the minimum  ritual – you hand me a receipt, I acknowledge it. In response, either a return “thank you” or “you're welcome” or even a cheery “mmm-hmm” would have been normal, but "no problem" sounded distinctly odd. It seemed to say "yes, I did you a service," when that wasn't the case.

So maybe the “no problem” problem is more subtle than I’d thought. For me, it seems, some “thank you”s can be answered with "no problem" and some can't. Is this true for (some of) the people who object to "no problem," or is theirs a blanket condemnation? And does the distinction exist in other languages that use the equivalent of "no problem, it was nothing" as a response to "thank you"? 

Or have I just been thinking about this non-problem for too long?