1. n. The love of language

To take or not to take an object: verbs that used to just do are starting to do something too

by Louise


It’s a strange verb, to grow. Usually we talk about things or people growing intransitively — ie. without an object. “The size of the crowd grew.” “She has grown so tall.” “The government’s power is growing.” There’s really no limit to what can grow, on its own, in an intransitive sense. However, when it comes to using the verb transitively — ie. when we’re talking about “growing something“, rather than seeing it grow under its own steam, then most bets are suddenly off: we only grow transitively when we’re referring to natural, living things. We grow plants, flowers and our own food; we grow beards, and our hair; we even grow pot-bellies — whether we like it or not. But it’s only recently that the transitive use of the verb itself has begun to grow: now embracing  inanimate objects and abstract items, grow is beginning to mean “expand” – and you can grow anything from your circle of friends to an economy or an international corporation’s revenue (whereas before they grew only intransitively). The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage advises against this growing trend of growing anything unnatural transitively: “The newer usage of grow to mean expand (grow the business; grow revenue) is business jargon, best resisted.”

Disappear is another dodgy suspect when it comes to its transitive use. Like grow, it tends to be happiest when its doing its own disappearing, intransitively. “She has disappeared.” It’s rare that we “disappear something”, even though we do cause things to disappear. However, the word has started to be used transitively in two modern settings — one contextual, and one geographical.

In the 1970s, when Western news outlets reported on the activities of the Argentine military government and its suppression of political insurgents, a subtle but striking verbal shift happened: the more passive “he disappeared” turned into a more sinister and active “they disappeared him”. That particular usage of the verb stuck, and many dictionaries now acknowledge this specific transitive definition: the American Heritage Dictionary says it’s “to cause (someone) to disappear;”especially by kidnapping or murder”; Collins English Dictionary prescribes it as “(esp in South and Central America) to arrest secretly and presumably imprison or kill (a member of an opposing political group)”; Random House is perhaps the most specific of all: “to kidnap, imprison, or kill (someone, esp. an opponent of a right-wing Latin American government).”

A few decades on, it seems to be becoming more common to talk about disappearing an object or person without having to kidnap or murder them — but only if you’re on one side of the Atlantic. Oxford Dictionaries lists a very general transitive definition  – “cause to disappear, as by consumption” — in American speech, but not British. The example it offers is “statistics show that the community disappears about 200 pounds of cabbage a year”. So apparently you can disappear cabbage in America, but not in the UK, where cabbage still has to disappear itself.

Appeal as a transitive verb is archaic and obsolete. (At least it was until very recently.) Back in the 17th century it meant to call (someone) to answer before a tribunal or to accuse (someone) of a crime or impeach them. Shakespeare’s Richard II says: “Tell me, moreover, hast thou sounded him, If he appeal the duke on ancient malice …?” Nowadays, we appeal to, for or against things or people: we make a serious or urgent request for action (“the police are appealing to the public to report any sightings”); we apply to a higher court for a reversal of a legal decision (“he is appealing against the verdict”); we address ourselves to a principle or quality in someone in anticipation of a favorable response (“I’m appealing to her better judgement”); or something is attractive or interesting (“that job appeals to me”). However, like the verb disappear but to an even greater extent, the transitive appeal is on the rise — but mainly in North America. Here in the U.S. we will appeal decisions or verdicts, missing out the “to” or “against” that most Brits generally still use.

Similar to appeal is protest, another verb that divides the Yanks and Brits in terms of its transitivity. The only time the Brits don’t protest about, against, to, or over something is when they’re protesting their innocence — and that’s something they’re arguing for, rather than against. Curiously this seems to be the only occasion on which Brits are willing to drop the preposition, unlike their American counterparts who will protest job-cuts, decisions, or anything else that puts their backs up. (Another thing to note about protest is that Brits emphasize the second syllable when they’re using it as a verb, but stress the first for a noun: “I would like to pro-TEST against this new law”, but “His PRO-test is unjustified.” Americans, on the other hand, always stress the first syllable, whatever the word’s grammatical status.)

When we think of expire, we tend to think of things or people running out of time, validity, or life — very intransitively. “The period of eligibility expired”; “my gym membership expired”; “he said his goodbyes before he expired.” But a bit like grow, it also has a limited transitive usage: according to the dictionaries, you can also officially expire something in the natural, poetic or medical sense of human breath, especially in the act of dying. Medics might measure the capacity of breath expired by your lungs; your soul or your last breath might be the last thing you expire. But also like grow, and the other intransitive verbs discussed above, expire is slowly — but not yet too surely — broadening its transitive reach, to become synonymous with terminate. People sometimes talk about licenses, memberships and other items of limited validity “being” or “becoming” expired, even though it’s likely to be a rubber stamp rather than a final breath that determines its final demise.

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TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky (Sep 12)

by Louise


TGIF. In grammar, language and usage news this fortnight: the uber-ubiquity of uber; what little words reveal about us; how economic development is driving the extinction of languages; and who was it that made up the word supercalafragilisticexpialidocious?

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In what some might call an ironic twist of fate, the ride-sharing company Uber faces a ban on one of its services in the country from which the company gets its name: Germany. Linguist Ben Zimmer talks in the Wall Street Journal about the growing ubiquity of uber: it’s uber all of us — and not just in the word’s native land.

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Our use of little words can reveal hidden interests. James Pennebaker, a psychologist interested in the secret life of pronouns, has recorded, transcribed and analyzed conversations that took place between people on speed dates. “We can predict by analyzing their language, who will go on a date — who will match — at rates better than the people themselves,” he says. And he found that “when the language style of two people matched, when they used pronouns, prepositions, articles and so forth in similar ways at similar rates, they were much more likely to end up on a date.” NPR reports how our use of little words can, uh, reveal hidden interests.

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Economic development is driving the extinction of some languages, scientists believe. A study has found that minority languages in the most developed parts of the world, including North America, Europe and Australia, are most at threat. The researchers found that the more successful a country was economically, the more rapidly its languages were being lost. The BBC reports.

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Was the word supercalafragilisticexpialidocious really made up by the Mary Poppins writers? According to mental_floss, there were others who claimed ownership. “Though the Sherman Brothers claimed they made the word up themselves, a 1949 song called “Supercalafajaistickespeealadojus” would seem to say otherwise. The writers of the song, Barney Young and Gloria Parker, sued for $12 million. They lost because lawyers were able to present evidence showing that the nonsense word had been around, in some form or another, for decades. Indeed, the Sherman Brothers later claimed that their made-up word was a variation on a similar word they had heard at summer camp back in the 1930s: ‘super-cadja-flawjalistic-espealedojus.’”

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Another word, knish, was explored on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show a few weeks ago.


Isis: from goddess to terrorist state. What’s in a name?

by Louise

ISIS1                   Isis2

Isis: she is the epitome of femininity, an Egyptian goddess worshipped as a mother and wife, a patroness of nature and magic. A friend of slaves, sinners, artisans and the downtrodden, she’s a protector of the dead and a goddess of children and motherhood. Her name, meaning “woman of the throne”, is bestowed on thousands of girls taking their first breaths around the world; last year it was ranked as the 575th most popular girl’s name in the US. But now the gentle moniker of the fairer sex – in the form of a screaming acronym — has been hijacked by the world’s newest and most frightening embodiment of organized terror: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (commonly referred to as ISIS). Will Isis ever be able to throw off this new shroud of evil and regain its womanly strengths?

Among the thousands of women named Isis around the world, there are those of some renown: the actresses Isis Carmen Jones and Isis Valberde; the models Isis Casalduc, Isis Gomes, and Isis King (or Isis Tsunami), as well as 1954′s Miss Cuba, Isis Finaly; Isis Nyong’o, the Kenyan-American media and technology leader; and Isis Pogson, the late British astronomer and meteorologist, are but a few. Read the rest of this entry »

Schmo, Blow, Doe & Bloggs: not just any old Joe, John or Fred

by Louise


Joe on his own can mean any bloke, chap or fellow.* Especially if he has average in front of his name. (It can also mean coffee, but let’s not get off topic.) To the Brits, Joe is sometimes the embodiment of an American — as in GI Joe. But when we’re talking about a hypothetical average normal ordinary guy, Joe tends to get his own surname: Bloggs if he’s British; Schmo or Blow if he’s American.

In its recent review of the coffee-making alarm clock the Barisieur, commented that “this $200-330 purchase is certainly not for the average Joe Schmoe.” [Isn't that tautologous, "average Joe Schmoe"? Isn't he average by definition?] And on the other side of the Atlantic, “the general Joe Bloggs you meet in the street or at Sainsbury’s may have watched women’s rugby a bit on TV,” English rugby player Maggie Alphonsi was quoted as saying in The Independent Read the rest of this entry »

Labor Day: the meaning of labor

by Louise



Labor Day Parade, Union Square, New York, 1882

It’s Labor Day here in the U.S.: an annual holiday on September’s first Monday that celebrates the American labor movement and honors the social and economic achievements of workers. Labor Day was first marked in 1882 in New York City. What does labor actually mean?

Merriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionaries define labor (spelled labour in the UK) as an expenditure of physical or mental effort, especially when difficult or compulsory. It also describes the human activity that provides the goods or services in an economy, the services performed by workers for wages (as opposed to those rendered by entrepreneurs for profits), and an economic group comprising those who do manual labor or work for wages. Last but certainly not least, labor is the name for the physical activity (ie. the dilation of the cervix and contraction of the uterus) involved in giving birth, and the period of time that such labor takes.

The word’s first meaning, of “exertion, trouble, difficulty, or hardship”, dates back to the late 14th century. A couple of centuries later, in the 1590s, its meaning expanded to embrace the physical exertions of childbirth, and from 1839 it denoted a body of laborers considered as a class.

The word labor is also employed more poetically in three common expressions. “A labor of love” is a task done for pleasure, not reward. “To labor the point” is to explain or discuss something at excessive or unnecessary length. And “to labor under” means either to carry (a heavy load or object) with difficulty, or to be deceived or misled by (a mistaken belief): people are said to labor under an illusion, a misapprehension, or a theory.

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“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Labor disgraces no man; unfortunately, you occasionally find men who disgrace labor.” — Ulysses S. Grant

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Bulls and boners, bloopers and bloomers, barrys and boobs: the world of blunders

by Louise



We all know what a blunder is; we all make mistakes. Google the wordand you’ll read about some seriously red-faced people whose boobs were blabbed to the world: just yesterday, ITV News reported that “Fifty Shades director left red-faced over gun blunder”; “CDC Scientist Kept Quiet About Flu Blunder” and “Eardrop blunder could have left Valerie deaf” were recent headlines screaming people’s boo-boos. Dating back to the mid-14th century, when it meant “to stumble about blindly,” from a Scandinavian source akin to the Old Norse blundra, meaning to “shut one’s eyes,” blunder means not just any old mistake — but a stupid or embarrassing mistake. Isn’t it good to know that we were making and talking about stupid mistakes seven centuries ago?

Now try Googling boner — supposedly a synonym of blunder in North American slang — and you might be the red-faced one. Nowadays it is slang for an erection (probably derived from bone-on in the 1940s) – but it wasn’t always that way. Dating back to 1912, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, boner was originally baseball slang for a stupid mistake, probably derived from the word bonehead referring to a stupid person.Merkle’s Boner” refers to a notorious mistake made by baseball player Fred Merkle of the New York Giants in a game against the Chicago Cubs in 1908. The rookie failed to advance to second base on what should have been a game-winning hit, and for the rest of his life he would live with the nickname “Bonehead”. Fast forward to the 1950s, and boner still referred to something a bonehead might pull — not something most men wake up with in the morning. In an issue of the Batman comic strip of the time (#66, Aug-Sept 1951), the villainous Joker talked about his very own such bloomers, and how he planned to turn them to his advantage. “So! They laugh at my boner, will they?! I’ll show them! I’ll show them how many boners The Joker can make! This emphasis on boners has given me an idea for a new adventure in crime! Gotham city will rue the day it mentioned the word boner! I will take the greatest boners of all time and turn them into crimes!!” You can see the Joker’s boner antics in full color at Dial B for blog. Read the rest of this entry »

TGIF : That Gerund Is Funky (Aug 29)

by Louise


TGIF. In language and usage news this fortnight: grammar rules that can sometimes be broken; a socialite’s guide to elegant expletives; a mispronunciation leads to the renaming of a TV show (if only briefly); the fading art of diagramming sentences; and a childhood spelling error of adult proportions.

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“You shudder at a split infinitive, know when to use ‘that’ or ‘which’ and would never confuse ‘less’ with ‘fewer’ – but are these rules always right, elegant or sensible?” In The Guardian, linguist Steven Pinker identifies 10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s OK to break (sometimes). Read the rest of this entry »

Chris Hardwick on you’re and your …

by Louise



There was a profoundly important moment at last night’s Emmy Awards: when Chris Hardwick got up and gave the world’s internet trolls a dressing down for not getting their grammar right.

“There’s one very important message and I wanted to use the Emmy stage as a global stage to get this message out  … It’s very important … I want them to listen … This is very important, trolls, please. Understand what I’m about to tell you, and write it down. ‘Your’ — Y-O-U-R — is a possessive pronoun. ‘You’re’ — Y-O-U-apostrophe-R-E — is the contraction of ‘you are’. As in ‘you’re bad at your grammar.’ Thank you.”

Thank you, Chris. And internet trolls: learn your lesson well. We’re watching you …

Who pronounces foreign words more correctly: Yanks or Brits?

by Louise


Nowadays it seems to be good etiquette to pronounce loanwords as closely to their native pronunciation as possible. So how do the Yanks and Brits fare comparatively in the face of this challenge? Brits are known to lean more  towards pronouncing words literally/phonetically as their English spellings prescribe, whatever their origins; Americans, on the other hand, are more bravely inclined to try and approximate the original pronunciation — even if the attempt is ultimately misguided. (The subject of “hyperforeignisms is tackled further down – and Eddie Izzard puts in his two cents too.) As well as the particular sound of the word’s vowels and consonants, it’s also a matter of syllable emphasis that helps determine how much a word sounds like its foreign forebears. 

Although Americans and Brits tend to agree on the pronunciation of most of their linguistic immigrants, there are a number of words that we approach differently depending on which side of the Atlantic we’re from. Here’s a selection of those words, and I’ve denoted with a larger flag the nation that seems to come closer to the original pronunciation (based on both sounds and syllable emphasis). Strangely enough, despite the theory above about Brits sticking to their own phonetic rules, 9 of the 16 words below are pronounced more “authentically” by the Brits, at least by my reckoning. Go figure.

herb:    unionjack HERB        usflag  ERB


croissant:   unionjack  KWAH-song        usflag kruh-SAHNT


valet:    unionjack  VAL-lett        usflag  val-LAY 


fillet:   unionjack  FILL-uht         usflag  fi-LAY


mauve:  unionjack  MOHV (rhymes with drove)       usflag  MOV


crepe:  unionjack  CREP          usflag  CRAYP


address (noun, postal sense):  unionjack  a-DRESS       usflag  ADD-ress


cigarette:   unionjack  si-guh-RET       usflag  SI-guh-ret


paella:    unionjack  pah-YEAH-luh       usflag   pah-YAY-yuh


basil:   unionjack  BAZ-il         usflag BAY-zil


lieutenant:  unionjack  lef-TEN-uhnt       usflag  loo-TEN-uhnt 


humo(u)r:  unionjack   HYOO-muh         usflag   YOO-murr


Van Gogh:  unionjack  van-GOKH (like “loch”, Lochness) or van-GOFF    usflag  van-GO


schedule:    unionjack  SHED-yool       usflag  SKED-yool


Risotto:    unionjack  rih-ZOT-toe       usflag  rih-ZOH-toe


Pasta:   unionjack  PASS-tuh (“pass” like “lass”)      usflag  PAH-stuh


Please add other words to the comments section below.

Now we come to “hyperforeignisms”: this is where English-speakers try unsuccessfully to emulate the pronunciation of the word’s original language — by getting either the country of origin or the native pronunciation wrong.

Take the word parmesan. Although it names an Italian cheese, it actually derives its spelling from French and therefore should sound like PARM-uh-zan (and that’s how Brits verbalize the stuff they sprinkle on their spaghetti). However, it is often mispronounced as parm-uh-ZHAHN by Americans, who are presumably trying to approximate the Italian name for the cheese — parmigiano, which is pronounced parm-uh-ZHAHN-o in Italian). Sorry guys: it’s a French word.

Lingerie is another one. Americans often call their intimate clothing luhn-juh-RAY — making the final syllable sound like the many French loanwords that end in -é, -er, -et and -ez  and are pronounced “-AY”. Yes, lingerie is a French word. But it ends in ‘ie’ – and that sounds like ‘ee’, not ‘ay’. Oy. Repartee also falls into this category: even though it’s from the French word repartie (which sounds like party with a “re” in front), it’s often pronounced by Americans as reparTAY.

Here’s an interesting one. Forte — when referring to a personal strength, something you’re especially good at (or, in fencing, the strongest part of a sword) — comes from the French word, meaning “strong”, and therefore the final ‘e’ should be silent: “FORT”. This shouldn’t be confused with the Italian word forte, which means loud, whose final ‘e’ is pronounced “AY”. But we all say FORT-ay when we’re talking about our personal strengths — just proving that pronunciation isn’t necessarily one of them. Hey — it sounds foreign, so surely we must be saying it correctly.

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Let’s give Eddie Izzard the last word on this subject of pronunciation. Take it away, Eddie:

Round the bend: nutty, knotty — or coming soon?

by Louise


At least three times in the last few weeks I’ve heard friends and colleagues talk about an event or occasion “coming round the bend” — meaning, I assumed in each case, that it’s just around the corner: it will be happening before we know it. It’s coming down the pike.

Elvis did sing about a train coming ’round the bend, and Will Rogers captained the madcap “Steamboat Round the Bend” …


… but these were clearly references to vehicles traveling round a geographical bend.

Read the rest of this entry »