1. n. The love of language

‘Strophes: straight or curly, smart or dumb?

by Louise


Ah, the apostrophe.

It’s unquestionably the most misused punctuation mark in the English language — so much so that its errant form has its own nickname: “the greengrocer’s apostrophe” (and that’s from widespread abuse on signage by guilty tradesmen). Orange’s and lemon’s: says who?

But it does have a bit of a bad rap, this aerial word-comma: it’s really not as complicated as the world seems to think it is. Except perhaps when it comes to its typography, not to its role in spelling. Read the rest of this entry »

Nuts: to be or not to be …

by Louise

Mixed Nuts

Do you know your nuts? (And I don’t mean that in a rude or ungrammatical way.)

I thought I did know, especially since I’m allergic to them. But I really don’t. I was aware that the fabulous peanut, which seems to be the quintessential nut in both name and appearance, isn’t actually a nut (it’s a legume). But it seems that the peanut isn’t the only impostor in our nutty midst. Take a look at the picture of the mixed nuts above. Those various protein forms have little in common with each other — they’re different colors, shapes, sizes, tastes and textures; in fact, the only quality they seem to share is the fact that they’re edible and plant-based. So what makes them nuts? (And I don’t mean to suggest they’re angry.) Well, that’s a hard question to answer — a tough nut to crack — because most of them aren’t actually nuts, at least not technically. Only one of the items pictured can lay rightful claim to that generic label.* So what exactly is a nut? And why do we call someone a nut — or nuts — when they’re off their trolleys? Read the rest of this entry »

The Fifth of November

by Louise


The Fifth of November

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive,
To blow the King and Parliament
All up alive.
Threescore barrels, laid below,
To prove old England’s overthrow.
But, by God’s providence, him they catch,
With a dark lantern, lighting a match!
A stick and a stake
For King James’s sake!
If you won’t give me one,
I’ll take two,
The better for me,
And the worse for you.
A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,
A pint of beer to wash it down,
And a jolly good fire to burn him.
Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!
Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!
Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!

English folk verse, c. 1870 (from Poem of the Week)

For Lily

Could you, would you, won’t you please?

by Louise


2014-10-31 14.33.30

It’s giving time in the US: public radio stations, which depend on member support for their operating and programming costs, put out their proverbial begging bowls at this time of year, asking listeners to dig deep and donate whatever they can. “The ask” is often creative and entertaining; the message, however, is always the same: “Could you, would you, won’t you please …?” Making a request of anyone — especially for money — is a delicate matter, and we all want to do it as politely as possible. The question is: which of those words — could, would, or won’t (or even will or can) — is most polite? Or are they interchangeable? Read the rest of this entry »

Talking Music: Philharmonic or Symphony?

by Louise


This week Glossophilia starts a new series of posts, “Talking Music”, in which we’ll try and demystify some of the confusing and often misunderstood terminology of classical music.

First off: are symphony and philharmonic synonymous? Read the rest of this entry »

That Gerund Is Funky (Oct 24)

by Louise


TGIF. Grammar and usage in the news this past fortnight include identifying Kathy Bates’s accent on a TV show, a bilingual parrot, a costly misplaced comma, a couple of embarrassing tweets, and a couple of embarrassing typos  … Read the rest of this entry »

Capitalizing and pronouncing Ebola (and the naming of other diseases)

by Louise


There’s an epidemic in West Africa, and the dreaded “E” word is on everyone’s lips and keypads. But here’s a question: does the devastating disease deserve its capital E, and if so, why? When we write about salmonella or influenza (or flu for short), diabetes or rabies, we don’t crown the names of these deadly scourges with capital initial letters. Why does Ebola get special treatment?

The AP Stylebook explains it simply: “Capitalize a disease known by name of person or geographical area: Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Ebola virus.” Ebola was named after a tributary of the Congo River in Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of the  Congo), near which the virus was first identified, so it can claim its status as a proper name for life.

And how should we pronounce the name of this awful virus? According to NPR’s standards and practices editor, Mark Memmott, as posted on NPR’s Tumblr, it should be “ee-BOH-luh” (rather than “eh-BOH-la”). But as Memmott advised in his internal memo to NPR colleagues: “It’s important to note that this is guidance, not a dictate from on high. We want to say things correctly, but we also realize that we have correspondents from around the world and that when they speak they may say some things differently. In this case, NPR’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is from Ghana. She says ‘eh-BOH-la.’ It’s natural to her. We wouldn’t want to try to force her to say ‘ee-BOH-luh’.” Ebola means “Black River” in Lingala, the language of the DRC’s northwestern region where the tributary can be found. But since Zaire was a Belgian colony between 1908 and 1960, the name of the river has probably been pronounced historically in a French way — i.e. “ay-BOH-luh” (with the sound of an acute accent on the initial E), so “eh” probably best approximates how the name’s first syllable sounded when the virus was first identified and named in the early ’70s. Oxford Dictionaries lists both pronunciations (“eh” and “ee”) in its pronunciation guide.

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While we’re on the subject of naming diseases, here’s another question: is it necessary to keep the apostrophe and possessive ‘s’ in diseases named after those who discovered them? Down’s syndrome, Asperger’s syndrome, Parkinson’s disease and Crohn’s disease are a few examples; is it now more common to refer to them as Down syndrome or Crohn disease? The blog Separated by a common language explains that this actually depends nowadays on which side of the Atlantic you’re on: it’s a little-known British-American usage difference. Quoting Len Leshin, MD from the Down Syndrome: Health Issues site, Separated clarifies the thinking behind this curious usage development:

“Many medical conditions and diseases have been named after a person; this type of name is called an eponym. There has been a long-standing debate in the scientific community over whether or not to add the possessive form to the names of eponyms. For quite a long time, there was no established rule as to which to use, but general usage decided which form is acceptable. So you saw both possessive and non-possessive names in use.”In 1974, a conference at the US National Institute of Health attempted to make a standard set of rules regarding the naming of diseases and conditions. This report, printed in the journal Lancet, stated: “The possessive form of an eponym should be discontinued, since the author neither had nor owned the disorder.”(Lancet 1974, i:798) Since that time, the name has traditionally been called “Down syndrome” in North America (note that “syndrome” isn’t capitalized). However, the change has taken longer to occur in Great Britain and other parts of Europe, for reasons that aren’t quite clear to me.”

For a fascinating history of Down’s syndrome and how it got its name (it was originally called “Mongolism”), read this post on Virtual Linguist.

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Epidemic or endemic?

What exactly is the difference between epidemic and endemic? Although they’re often confused with each other, they have distinctly different meanings.

Epidemic – although it sounds more like an adjective and can be used as such — is more widely heard in its noun form, meaning “a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time” or “a sudden, widespread occurrence of a particular undesirable phenomenon” (OED). So the word is completely appropriate to describe the current outbreak in West Africa, while we can also talk about the epidemic of sexting in teenagers or the epidemic of online identity theft.

“A fashion is nothing but an induced epidemic.” — George Bernard Shaw

Endemic is more often heard as an adjective, despite being a noun too, but it is not the adjectival form of epidemic, as is often mistakenly thought. It describes a disease or condition “habitually present in a certain area as a result of permanent local factors; of common occurrence; rife.” And when describing a plant or animal, it means “native to, and especially restricted to, a certain country or area” (OED). So a condition or disease that is endemic isn’t necessarily widespread, rampant or epidemic: the word is focused more on the common and localized nature of the phenomenon than on its prevalence or severity, which might indeed be slight.

“Even modern English people are imperious, superior, ridden by class. All of the hypocrisy and the difficulties that are endemic in being British also make it an incredibly fertile place culturally. A brilliant place to live. Sad but true.”
— Pete Townshend

Pandemic describes “a widespread epidemic that might affect entire continents or even the world: e.g. the Black Death in Europe and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.” Thankfully Ebola isn’t yet in this category, although the fear is that it could spread to other parts of Africa (and further afield), becoming the first great pandemic of the 21st century. We all hope fervently that this will not be the case.

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TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky (Oct 10)

by Louise



TGIF. In language usage and abusage news this fortnight: Hugh Grant’s new character offers an English lesson; David Remnick talks about the New Yorker‘s copy-editors; a French MP is fined for using sexist grammar; a new documentary about grammar; and the superiority of paper over digital in book-reading …

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Do you know what assonance means? Or alliteration? Hugh Grant does, and he explains all in his role as an English teacher in his new rom-com movie, The Rewrite. Cosmopolitan has the exclusive clip (but listen carefully, since he has a mouthful of French fries and he’s more focused on flirting than teaching at this point …)

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David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, joined WNYC’s Brian Lehrer to discuss the upcoming New Yorker Festival. He spent some time talking about the magazine’s legendary fastidious proofreading processes, and his fabulous copy-editors (“they’re kind of geniuses at what they do”). Oh, and they discussed the Oxford comma.

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Will “cisgender” survive? As Paula Blank writes in The Atlantic, “the linguistic complement to “transgender” has achieved some popularity, but faces social and political obstacles to dictionary coronation.”

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“A French MP has been reprimanded and fined for using allegedly sexist grammar in the Paris parliament. In a bizarre case which will be of particular interest to British people who have struggled over ‘le’ and ‘la’ during torturous French lessons, Julien Aubert called a senior colleague ‘Madame le President’. ‘Madame le President’ is technically correct, because all nouns in France have a sex, and ‘president’ is a male word.” The Daily Mail reports.

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The Los Angeles Times reports that a new documentary, Grammar Revolution, is now out, featuring star grammarians such as Columbia University professor John McWhorter; Brad Hoover of the website Grammarly; Harvard linguist Steven Pinker; Lucy Ferriss, writer in residence at Trinity College; and Noam Chomsky, the 85-year-old political activist who began his career as a linguist. “Why is grammar a controversial subject? Why has it faded out of many schools? Hear from teachers, students, grammarians, CEOs, and linguists, and discover why grammar is an important subject that needs to be reconsidered, reconceived, and revived”.

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Rock, paper, Kindle? Paper seems to trump Kindle when it comes to “good” reading, and here’s some scientific proof. A 2014 study found that readers of a short mystery story on a Kindle were significantly worse at remembering the order of events than those who read the same story in paperback. Lead researcher Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University concluded that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does.” has the story.

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And here’s a bit of fun:

Take the “How good is your British English?” quiz brought to us by Oxford University Press.

Check out all the different names for French fries around the world on mental_floss

Are you called Nigel or Nigella? Hermione or St John? If so, you’re almost certainly living in — or an import from — England’s green and pleasant lands. BBC America brings us 10 British boys’ names and 10 girls’ names that haven’t made it successfully across the Atlantic. Eat your hearts out, Basil and Poppy …

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Ish, esque, or y? They’re a lot like each other — ish

by Louise


Peter Paul Rubens: The Three Graces (Wikimedia Commons)

When someone describes an experience as “Kafkaesque”, we get that it must have been nightmarish. “Orwellian” we understand as totalitarian in a futuristic kind of way, à la Orwell’s novel 1984. But why “-esque” for Kafka and “-ian” for Orwell? (And, indeed, why “ish” for nightmare and “istic” for future?) Why don’t we say Kafkaish, or Orwellistic? Read the rest of this entry »

Gender: the labels and language of transition

by Louise


In Netflix’s hugely successful prison drama Orange Is the New Black, the trans actress Laverne Cox plays a prominent role as the transgender hairstylist inmate Sophia Burset — a role that has brought not just fame to Cox but also an insight for many of us into the transgender world, which until Orange hit our screens wasn’t much to be found in mainstream popular culture. Last week our horizons were broadened further when Amazon Studios gave us its new transgender comedy-drama series, Transparent, which is raking in rave reviews and ravenous binge-watchers around the world.

As we learn and understand more about the trans experience and community — thanks in part to this developing profile and popularity on our entertainment screens — let’s take a look at the language etiquette of gender transition. It’s an area of terminology that is still in a state of flux and sensitivity, and that evolving state itself both reflects and makes us examine the complicated social, psychological and biological factors that determine what defines, describes or identifies a transgender person. Has transgender replaced transexual, or is one an umbrella term that embraces the other? Does the latter refer only to those who have had gender-reassignment surgery, or is it simply an outdated term that has been superseded? Is trans acceptable as an abbreviation? Is transgender both an adjective and a noun, and should it be capitalized? Is cisgender simply the opposite of transgender? A lot of these questions don’t have simple answers. Read the rest of this entry »