Tuesday, March 27, 2012

You kids get off my tree lawn!

At his Blogspot site, where anyone can visit (for free), John McIntyre has posted a tale of a tree he has nurtured through thick and thin. It's not about language -- and yet, there's a language mystery in the very first sentence: "In 2008, at our request, the city planted a redbud tree in the tree lawn in front of our house. It was a little taller than I was."

Now, as I was browsing through the new final volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English, I had bookmarked the page with tree lawn. It's a very regional term, and my home region is the hottest hot spot on the DARE map.

(The tree lawn, for those of you not familiar with it, is the strip of grass between sidewalk and street, generally considered as city property rather than part of a private lot.  It's thus an excellent place to stand while you argue with a neighbor kid about whether he can keep you off the sidewalk or not.)  It's not the oddest such term; over by Akron there's a devil strip usage pocket, and DARE reports that it's also called a parkway, boulevard, terrace, and swale, among other things.

But John is a native Kentuckian; how does he come to call it a tree lawn? Simple, he tells me: "A colleague on the copy desk when I was at The Cincinnati Enquirer had grown up in the Bronx. I had never heard of the term 'tree lawn' before."

That's doesn't quite solve the mystery, since the Bronx is farther from tree lawn country than Kentucky (which, after all, borders Ohio). I suppose the northern Ohio usage might easily enough have migrated with some journalist southward to Cincinnati, there to wiggle its way into even a New Yorker's vocabulary, and thence, perhaps, to everyone else's.

And here's a late-breaking update: While I was scanning that DARE map, with its funny-shaped population-adjusted states, John posted about tree lawn at his Baltimore Sun blog. Spread the word!

Photo of a littleleaf lindens in a Cleveland tree lawn from State of Ohio Forestry Division website.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Baseball and jazz, soda and tonic

Yesterday was Sunday, so I assume you stopped by my former home, the Boston Globe Ideas section, and read Ben Zimmer on the baseball origin of the word jazz. The earliest print citation for the word comes from the Los Angeles Times interview with minor league pitcher Ben Henderson: 
“I got a new curve this year,” he explained, “and I’m goin’ to pitch one or two of them tomorrow. I call it the Jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it.” The headline for the item, from April 2, 1912, was simply “Ben’s Jazz Curve.”
How did the word jump from sports to music? "One likely conduit was the orchestra at Boyes Springs [Calif.] brought in to entertain the [S.F. Seals] players in 1913, led by the drummer Art Hickman and featuring Bert Kelly on banjo," Zimmer writes. Kelly soon formed a jazz band in Chicago, and claimed to be the first to use the term musically, but the exact route of transmission is still mysterious.

If you haven't yet caught up with The Word, you'll find another language story worth a click in yesterday's Globe: Billy Baker's report on the status of a Boston-specific term for soda pop, the fast-dwindling tonic. Inspired by the word's history in the just-published final volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English, Baker went to Mendon, Mass. -- on the dividing line, as far as he can tell, between the tonic-loving city folks and the soda speakers of the greater Northeast -- to do a language survey for  himself. He found just one tonic user there -- a 78-year-old shop owner. That was no surprise to the language expert he consulted:
John McCarthy, a distinguished professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a scholar on the subject of Boston language, said that when he first started polling students in the early 1990s about “tonic,’’ other than a few from urban Boston, the students said it was their parents who used the word. Now, he said, it was their grandparents. 
“It has become stigmatized, like ‘dungarees’ and the broad-A sound, as markers of a dialect that people don’t want to be associated with,’’ McCarthy said.
Not for me, of course; I hail from deep in pop land, from a county colored navy blue on the map at popvssoda.com. Tonic, in my dialect, is what you mix with gin and sip on a summer evening; that's an association it's hard to stigmatize.  

Friday, March 16, 2012

The life cycle of a peeve

There's an interesting report in tomorrow's Wall Street Journal by my former Globe Ideas colleague, Christopher Shea, about a word study based on Google Books (and published in Science Scientific Reports*). The paragraph that caught my eye:
The authors even identified a universal "tipping point" in the life cycle of new words: Roughly 30 to 50 years after their birth, they either enter the long-term lexicon or tumble off a cliff into disuse. The authors suggest that this may be because that stretch of decades marks the point when dictionary makers approve or disapprove new candidates for inclusion. Or perhaps it's generational turnover: Children accept or reject their parents' coinages.
The dictionary hypothesis seems unlikely to me, a confusion of cause and effect; how many people consult the dictionary for permission to add a word (or new usage) to their lexicon? But in my years as a language columnist, I often told peevers to be patient, because every innovation they hated would either disappear or become inoffensive, sooner or later. (The category that Bryan Garner calls "skunked terms" would be the outliers that remain open wounds -- because of all the devoted scab-pickers? -- far longer than the norm.)

I've often wondered why some changes attract disproportionate ire while others blend into the language without opposition. A century ago, Ambrose Bierce and his crowd were sweating the distinction between admission and admittance, proposition and proposal, necessaries and necessities -- all forgotten now. But their worrying about anxious vs. eager, try and vs. try to, and figurative literally live on. I doubt that we'll actually find out why some peeves die and others flourish, but it's going to be fun trying.

*Update 3/17: The WSJ credited the paper to Science, but Mark Liberman's post today at Language Log correctly cites Scientific Reports.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

"I could care fewer" (and other NGD musings)

Apparently I have completely lost my sensitivity to the Timeliness Mandate in which all true journalists believe. Am I rebelling against all those years of deadlines, or am I just slower on the draw these days? Whatever; I may be 10 days late (or 355 days early), but I’m still going to offer a couple of comments on National Grammar Day, since I was otherwise occupied when it rolled around way back on March 4. 

First, of all the celebratory haiku and faux-haiku selected by the NGD judges in this year's contest, the one I found totally irresistible was a mischievous rebuke to humorless prescriptivism submitted by Tom Freeman (no relation!): 
People shouldn't say
"I could care less" when they mean
"I could care fewer"
Words to live by.

Also, because another National Grammar Day will be here in less than a year, I'd like to suggest that the language blogosphere take up a question Arnold Zwicky returned to in a recent post: What to call the mess of issues we lump together as "grammar" -- "the domain that takes in spelling, punctuation, choice of inflectional form, word choice, syntactic usage, and actual grammar?" 

Zwicky wishes we could disentangle these separate issues, but "if you really have to have a term for the great grab-bag of linguistic peeve-triggers taken together, I suggest garmmra," he says.

Zwicky is a whiz at naming -- see Recency Illusion and Frequency Illusion -- but I'm having trouble getting my mind (and tongue) around garmmra. I appreciate the appeal of anagramming, but the word is so un-English that I can’t remember where the r’s are supposed to go. (In fact, one commenter on his blog suggests that garmmra sounds like the name of a 1950s Japanese movie monster.)

So I've been looked for alternatives -- words that sound something like grammar, but are actually English and (more or less) suitable as labels for the “usage/spelling/punctuation/vocabulary/grammar” category of popular peeving.

How about gammer, for instance? It's "A rustic title for an old woman," says the OED, "the female counterpart of gaffer," probably derived from "godmother." Suitable for a language category replete with old wives' tales, no?

Or gammon, though it may be a bit too pejorative in its obsolete sense: "ridiculous nonsense suited to deceive simple persons only; ‘humbug,’ 'rubbish.'" (Possibly related to gammon "ham," but evidence is lacking.) “A Student’s Guide to English Gammon” has a certain ring to it. 

Grimmer, maybe, or grubber(y)?  Or we could press usance into service (replacing usage, which has other work to do). Or modify Safire’s gal pal, Norma Loquendi, and call her realm normalingo. Or how about lexiquette, to remind everyone that language is all about consensus, not eternal verities. 

Eleven and a half months is barely enough time to get started. After all, if naming the usage-spelling-punctuation mess were simple, copy editors -- who deal with most of its components -- would surely have coined a more impressive title for their trade. Maybe their jobs would be safer today if only they’d thought to call themselves ortholinguists or lexperts.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Turn up your nose, or turn it down?

I was drafting a post about "looking down one's nose" when I was distracted, over the weekend, by the slightly early arrival of the grandchild formerly known as the New March Baby. So when I noticed yesterday that Arnold Zwicky had posted about the idiom "look down one's nose" while I was off toasting little Bridget Frances with pink champagne, I thought maybe I'd been scooped.

But no, it was a just a cosmic coincidence. Arnold's post is about the reanalysis of look down one's nose as a verb + particle rather than verb + preposition, giving birth to the novel construction look one's nose down (at). The innovation I'd heard on the radio was a different one: A week ago on "Talk of the Nation," Ken Rudin referred to Rick Santorum's "turn[ing] his nose down" at the idea of higher education for all.

A nice blend, I assume, of turn up one's nose and look down one's nose. And hardly an unlikely one, since turning up one's nose and looking down one's nose are so closely related that the Oxford English Dictionary defines them together: "(b) to turn up one's nose (at): to show disdain or scorn (for); similarly to look down one's nose (at)." Also, turn down all by itself means "reject, refuse," so it may sound more appropriate for a phrase that conveys dismissiveness.

The OED's earliest cite for the turn up version comes from Colley Cibber's 1721 play "The Refusal": "A Man must be nice indeed, that turns up his Nose at a Woman, who has no worse Imperfection, than setting too great a Value upon her Understanding." Its earliest example of the look down variant is two centuries later, from John Galsworthy: "That chap Jolyon's water-colours were on view there. He went in to look down his nose at them -- it might give him some faint satisfaction" (1921). But Google Books easily antedates it to the mid-19th century: "Be very proud, look down your nose, make him a distant bow" ("The Personal Adventures of Our Own Correspondent in Italy," 1852).

Now, I vaguely remember doing Google searches for turn down one's nose (and finding a few hundred), but I don't see my notes, and I'm too tired to do it again. So I will leave the topic with this almost relevant observation from stand-up comedian Tom Cotter: "We say stupid stuff -- 'He looks down his nose at me.' Well, of course, we all look down our nose. If he could look up his nose at you, either he'd be a freak or you'd be a booger."