We’re All Verbs Now

Maybe, maybe not. Are there any English speakers today who don’t accept text as a verb? It was an easy move to permit text as a verb, follownig the paradigm of other communication channel noun-verb pairs in English — the mail/I mailed, the phone/you phoned,  her email/she emailed,  the wire/they wired (older technology, but same idea).

What about transportation nouns?  We have plane and train and also deplaning and detraining which refer to the punctual (not ongoing) activity of exiting planes and trains. But, somehow the opposite punctual activity is not available as a plain verb:

*We plane the flight for Denver in an hour

*They’re announcing training at Gate 7 now.

A different verb board is required here. For some speakers, the plain verb forms do imply an ongoing activity:

We trained to Chicago instead of driving.

But what about

?? They’re planing to Stockholm next week.

And there is

Demonstrators were bussed to the march from outlying cities.

but not

*The tour group has just debussed at the Roman ruin.

*We decided to decar at the next rest stop on the Interstate.

We can bell a cat and towel ourselves off, but we cannot ring our finger (put on a ring) or scarf our hair, and although we can shoe a horse, we can’t sneaker, boot, heel or shoe ourselves (put on foot gear).

When did medal become a verb? It has restricted usage, implying victory in a competition, often the Olympics

They are hoping she will medal in all three of her events.

What about an event that is described as an acronym, e.g., IPO?  An example of using this acronym (Initial Public Offering) as a verb did jar the linguistic sensibilities of a tech-savvy geek.

*?? She will IPO someday.

Is the following any more acceptable?

?? Not many companies IPOed this year.

Are there other acronyms that work as verbs in English? Laser is a noun acronym: Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. But, does laser appear as a verb? The following excerpts are from online stories.

He’s getting his eyes lasered.

The lasering of a large passenger plane was reported.

And of course a proper name, Google, is showing up all the time as a verb:

Just google it for the directions.

Is it just frequency of usage that is winning the day for some verbalizations? There is so much language output being generated every hour and every day by billions of language users. Does this output spread wavelike through the vast digital universe we now inhabit, or does it travel along specialized conduits, more like a circulatory system?  It would be interesting to get an accurate measure of the speed at which new word forms are entering a given language, and to define what ‘entering the language’ means in this modern era of instant digital communication.

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Linguistic Asymmetries

Have you ever noticed that, while some words which take a prefix seem to form nice pairings with opposite meaning polarity (tie/untie, compliance/noncompliance, tasteful/distasteful), other pairs don’t work this way?

For example, there is nonplussed, but not plussed, insipid, but not sipid. A short piece in the New Yorker magazine, How I Met My Wife (Jack Winter, The New Yorker, July 25, 1994) exploits these missing pair members very cleverly and humorously.

Consider the case of nonplussed.  The original sense from Latin non plus was ‘not more’, i.e., nothing further could be added. In modern English the meaning conveys a state of bewilderment, confusion to the point of not being able to react.  However, more recently in American colloquial usage, the meaning has flipped polarity and refers to a state of being unperturbed, unconcerned.  The prefix non appears to have realigned with the standard non prefix usage as in nonconformist, nonvolatile. But, will we start hearing and reading plussed (meaning confused, bewildered, flustered)?

?? I was so plussed at their reaction to his suggestion, but he was totally nonplussed.

Disgruntled is another curious case.  It is apparently descended from a Middle English dialect form for ‘little grunt’ coupled with an intensifier prefix dis- meaning ‘very’, conveying the modern meaning of  ‘angry, dissatisfied’.   Note the unusual sense of the prefix in this case, in contrast to the frequent use of dis-  to express a reversal, e.g., disenchanted, disarrayed, disinclined.  The more prevalent meaning of dis- probably contributed to the back-formation gruntled (satisfied, content) in the 1930s.  But the back-formation remains on the sidelines as a humorous construct.

More recently I’ve been seeing many references to old school, as in ‘I guess I’m just old school and prefer the movie Hackers to The Social Network.’  In fact the expression old school is showing up frequently on Twitter where people are expressing their outlook on specific new technologies.  But is anyone seeing the expression new school?  I’d love to find examples, if so.  It doesn’t seem to have formed a contrastive pair yet with old school.

There’s also nonstarter.  Nonstarter has a current widespread metaphoric use meaning ‘an unsuccessful person or effort’. However, the  potential partner starter does not yet convey the metaphoric sense of ‘a successful person or effort’. Starter requires a qualifier to convey such meaning, e.g., slow starter, self starter.

And what’s been going on with discombobulate? It means ‘to confuse or disconcert’.  No one is saying or writing combobulate as an alternative, but we are starting to see recombobulation area in airports — you know, that place the TSA deposits you with your bins of personal effects that you must then reassemble:  shoes, belts, laptops, keys, phone, liquids and the like.  It’s as though one couldn’t be in a neutral state of composure, i.e.,  combobulation, one can only get reassembled (unconfused) after being disrupted, unsettled. Yep. Seems to reflect the reality of going through airport security. 🙂

Finally, consider antibiotic, a word which came into major usage with the appearance of the modern wonder drugs such as penicillin. The word is from Greek biotikos (pertaining to life) with the prefix anti- (opposed, against).  In very recent years the term probiotic has taken off, people are taking probiotics for their health, which usually refers to the ingestion of microorganisms that are beneficial to digestion.  The pair antibiotic/probiotic forms a semantic symmetry at an abstract level where the former is targeting the destruction of certain life forms, and the latter is targeting the nurturing of certain life forms (gut bacteria).

What about other languages?  Got some modern pairs in the making or some funny back-formations?  Please share them!

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Blind Tasting: the Audiobook Edition

Blind Tasting is now available as an audiobook.  You can listen to sample chapters for free and you can also buy the entire, unabridged novel as a digital download.

Producing this edition in a recording studio — working with a voice talent and an audio engineer — was an amazing experience. It was daunting, frustrating, exhilarating and exhausting for all of us at various points during the process. And, yes, some decent wine was consumed during a few of the sessions, and dogs were allowed in the studio more than once. 🙂

The audiobook (MP3 format) is more than 10 hours of recording and more than 800 MB  (about 637 MB compressed downloadable zip file).  As digital content, it’s considerably heftier than the accompanying ebook edition.  But, for those of you who prefer listening to your stories than reading them, an audiobook is a nice alternative. Enjoy!

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Journey in Northern Light

Just a quick add-on to yesterday’s mention of the summer solstice. Check out this beautiful time-lapse sequence of  The Arctic Light by TSO Photography.  ‘The Arctic Light’ is the name given by the photographer to the time period about 2-4 weeks before the onset of the Midnight Sun.  It’s stunning and so is the music, and it took some heroic measures for the photographer to produce it. Enjoy!

(Note: You may need to turn off the HD option for smoother streaming.)

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Happy Summer Solstice, NoHem!

Today is the summer solstice for the northern hemisphere — a consequence of the geometry of the sphere-with-a-tilted-axis that we call home in our solar system.  Today the sun will reach its highest point in the sky at (solar) noon, marking the longest day of the year for us northerners.  (And just the opposite for those in the southern hemisphere.)

In northern latitudes above the Tropic of Cancer, the sun is always a little to the south of directly overhead, even at high noon.  Not surprisingly, there is a possible connection between the Germanic base form *sunnan (sun) and words in the various Germanic languages that mean south, e.g., Old English suð, Old Norse suðr, Icelandic suthor, Swedish soeder.   Old English suð meant ‘southward, in the direction of the south’,  or perhaps ‘in the region of the sun’.

During the long, dark winters of New England, experiencing serious photon deprivation, I find myself tracking the sun’s movements through the short days.  It seems quite natural to associate south with sun during those frigid months.  🙂

The summer solstice is also referred to as midsummer’s eve — the calendar date for observance of this ancient holiday varies by a few days across cultures, falling somewhere between June 21 and June 24.  Weather-wise, late June does feel as though summer has been underway for a while, i.e., it seems like ‘the middle of summer’.  However, the summer solstice marks the beginning of astronomical summer (which ends on the autumnal equinox).

Whatever name you choose to refer to this time by, if you’re in the north, enjoy the lingering light this evening!

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Reading the Signs

If you examine the wording on cautionary road signs, you’ll realize they aren’t wholly consistent.  Yet as native speakers of English (or with working fluency of English) we usually have no trouble interpreting the intended meaning.  The basic semantic task is to decide whether the words on the sign are descriptive or advisory — or both.

The single word slow is advisory — it’s shorthand for a command to go slowly, whereas the words bump and dip are descriptions of conditions of the road ahead, not verbal commands to perform weird dance steps.  The phrase fog area is descriptive, alerting the driver of a condition, and fog is a noun used as a modifier, it’s not a verb directing the application of, e.g., insecticide to a locale (another possible interpretation).  However, slow children is both advisory and descriptive; it’s not a unit phrase parallel to fog area, but rather a command to proceed at slow speed because there are children in the vicinity. Slow deaf child is another such example, although here, as interpreters of the sign we split the modifiers apart; the first one is a command to the driver whereas the second modifier adds more detail about what type of child is in the vicinity. A different interpretation would assign both modifiers to child and refer to something else, either a physically slow-moving child or perhaps one with limited mental capacities.

Yet another contrastive pair is deer crossing and blind driveway; the first phrase describes a location where a certain species of animal traverses the roadway frequently,  but the second phrase does not refer to a place where unsighted persons drive vehicles — it refers to a low visibility condition that applies to a stretch of private pavement where a car could be entering the main roadway.

Road signs, including cautionary and regulatory signs, need to be brief and unambiguous.  Context obviously plays a big role for narrowing down the possible interpretations of the words chosen on these signs.  Shape and color of signs can establish some context for interpreting linguistic phrases.  No left turn appears on a white rectangular sign whose shape and color convey the meta-meaning of regulating driver behavior, so no left turn is a command. No train horn appears on a yellow diamond which means a warning, so the expression is interpreted as a descriptive alert, not a command.  Nevertheless, even when it’s understood the context is regulatory,  the quirks of language can leak through. So, it’s hopefully assumed that drivers will interpret the sign use two lanes as a shorthand command to get out of a third lane that is going away shortly (due to road work or some other condition), or fan out into two lanes from a narrower single lane, but will not interpret the sign as a command or (invitation!) to straddle the dividing stripe of two lanes with their vehicle. 🙂  (The alternate phrase form two lanes makes the intent clearer.)

A cautionary sign that seems peculiar to New England (or even to just Massachusetts?) is thickly settled. It’s a command actually, to not drive faster than 30 mph because houses and buildings are closer than 200 feet apart. People new to the area are sometimes puzzled by this sign, as well as the regulatory no salt zone.

The inherent ambiguity of language is further reduced by using broader, more universal symbols, including lines, arrows and numbers and other non-linguistic graphics. Is there universal psychological validity to some of these symbols, or is their acceptance just a consequence of historically widespread dissemination of certain symbol conventions?

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What are you searching for?

There’s a lot of talk these days about the limits of current search technology, of the fact that people don’t want to scan pages of blue links anymore. The new goal, as evidenced by the work of legions of energetic startups, is to bring you what you are looking for and present it to you intuitively, effortlessly.  People who are seeking answers or products and services out in the digital universe will be freed from the tedious artifacts of current search; a user won’t have to think in terms of pages, keywords, links and clicks, but will instead be presented with a highly distilled and personalized set of solutions gleaned through the clever mining of the information-rich world of social media and the wizardry of next-generation algorithms.  It sounds pretty appealing.  Mostly.

If I’m shopping for shoes or an interesting new restaurant, I can well imagine the beyond-search technology would be a big win. I often take a look at the suggested ‘similar items’ that current websites dish up when I’m examining or buying a product there. And the product reviews can be quite useful. Beyond-search technology will provide us this type of thing in spades — just the super relevant stuff — just for us.  Do you enjoy having someone make you your favorite meal and serve it to you? How about if they also cut up the food on the plate and feed it to you?

If I’m really exercising my mind to explore a topic, a new idea, something complicated and not well-defined (to me, or in general), I care about the sources of the information, how reliable they are.  This usually involves formulating multiple sets of keywords to search on, and sifting through the resulting hits leads to other, yet-to-be-formulated sets of concepts to explore. In these cases, what is relevant isn’t known ahead of time and the trail to knowledge can be esoteric, convoluted and take you far out on the long tail of available information. Initiating the cross-referencing myself is vital to this type of process.  I might decide to not buy a dress online if 20 reviewers complain about its quality, but I’ll need to search a lot deeper to decide on questions such as whether I’d participate in the clinical trial of a new drug, or whether a politician is telling the truth, or what the relationship is (if any) between ocean temperature and cloud formation.  I want to follow those blue links (or their proxy) in order to peruse and compare source materials — a summary with a consensus rating in these cases is not sufficient to answer the question.

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Nutty Nomenclature

Have you ever wondered why walnuts have surfaces with ridges and grooves whereas almost all other nuts are smooth? Pecans have rows of ridges, but hazel nuts, cashews, brazil nuts, almonds, macademia nuts and pistachios are all smooth, even though they may vary in size and degree of roundness. I haven’t figured out the answer to this yet, but thinking about it led me to wonder about nut names. Just can’t help that linguistic curiosity!

Nuts are sometimes named for locales or for a person bearing some association with them. The word nut itself is straightforward, derived from Old English hnutu (hard seed) and related to other IE forms, e.g., German nuss, French noix, Latin nux.

For nut names belonging in the locale camp there is the rather self-evident brazil nut which grows on a tree by the same name in the Brazilian rain forest. (The biggest exporter of brazil nuts turns out to be Bolivia, not Brazil.)

The hazelnut was a familiar nut to the Germanic peoples, the Old English name is haeselhnutu. The alternate name for a hazelnut — filbert — comes from association with St. Philbert from the 7th century,  whose feast day was close to the time of year when the hazelnuts were ripe.  Hazel appears to be an ancient tree name with origins in IE *koselos, descendant Germanic *khasalaz, and related to German hasel,  Danish hassel and Dutch hazel.

Walnut is interestingly in the locale camp: the Old English word is walhnutu (foreign nut), a combination of wealh (foreign) + hnutu (nut). Walnuts came from more southern regions of Europe and were viewed in contrast to the local hazelnuts. Wealh/Wahl literally referred to people of the Celtic region, but the word eventually expanded in reference to include Romans — non-Germanic foreigners.  In later times (18th century?) a variety of walnut was referred to as a butternut, presumably because of the lighter coloring of the nut.

The macademia nut is named for John Macadam, the colleague of Ferdinand von Mueller, the botanist who first described the genus of this plant. (Gosh, wouldn’t you love your botanist friend to name his/her newly-classified nut after you?  Personally I’d be thrilled.) But, in the English-speaking world, the nut also sides with locale when going by the names Queensland nut or Bush nut.

Moving on to pecans, the word pecan originally comes from Algonquian languages and means ‘nut’; French borrowed it as pacane and English took it from the French. It turns out pecan trees are a type of hickory, but not all hickories are pecans, and there are hickory nuts which have much harder shells than do pecans, but are said to be quite tasty nuts.  Taking into account the names  hickory nut and pine nut, it appears nut is now highly productive as a combination form.  Chestnut is another example of a place name, chestun, being combined with nut; O.E. chestun derived from O.F. chastaine and Latin castanea which derived from earlier Greek kastanéā which meant either ‘nut from Castanea’ (Pontus, Asia Minor) or ‘nut from Castana’ (Thessaly, Greece).

The origins of almond can be traced to the Greek word amygdalos (almond tree); the origins of the Greek word may be Semitic.  The l in almond was introduced in French, (reasons vary as to why this was so) and English took the word from French before the French ditched the l to form modern-day amande. English re-borrowed Latin amygdala in more recent times: this term has acquired an anatomical meaning — twin almond-shaped gray masses deep within each hemisphere of the brain that are associated with the ability to smell.

Cashew is taken from Portuguese acajú (18th century) which in turn the Portuguese took from the Brazilian-based Tupi indigenous people who named the tree acajuba in their own language.

And what of peanuts? They’re legumes, not really nuts at all.  They are related to pigeon peas to the extent that both are legumes. This may bear on the name; before the early 19th century, peanuts were referred to as groundnuts or ground peas, presumably because the peanuts actually mature under the ground. Perhaps the prevalence of nut as a combining form by the 19th century made it natural to coin the word peanut? I am a little curious as to why groundnut didn’t prevail though, having already been established. Probably an interesting story lurking there that involves pigeon peas. 🙂

And, I’m still curious as to why walnuts are so gnarly compared with all the others!

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Word Jumbles #10


Solutions posted tomorrow on Answers

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The word bootstrap is pretty common nowadays and shows up mostly as a verb. It is used frequently in the context of Internet and technology enterprises and refers to the process of getting things done, built, or advanced without much in the way of initial resources to accomplish the task.

They bootstrapped their startup into a multi-million-dollar company without any capital from outside investors.

Prior to the usage illustrated above, the word more narrowly designated starting up a computer system from a minimal set of operating instructions which would then activate more and more of the computer’s full capabilities.  The Online Etymological Dictionary cites usage from 1953 that refers to a fixed set of instructions for loading a computer’s operating system, so bootstrap in this context is still a noun, metaphorically extending the utility of a physical riding boot’s loops. (The wearer tugs on the loops as an aid to pull the boots on.) By 1975 bootstrap has expanded its role to include verb — the act of starting up a computer. The more familiar shortened form of this verb is boot and it has acquired an optional accompanying particle, boot up, and a prefix, reboot.  (Normally we don’t speak of booting down a computer — we just shut it off. But, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, was Dave unbooting or booting down Hal by selectively pulling out some of Hal’s banks of higher reasoning modules? He couldn’t shut down Hal altogether and have a functioning spaceship. Perhaps unique situations and contexts require unique words? :-))

So how did this robust modern usage of bootstrap evolve from a rather obscure noun which referred to the loops attached to riding boots? A quick look at bootstrap in Google’s Books Ngram Viewer shows almost no occurrences of this form until around 1940, after which point it shows a continual rise into the 21st century.

Here’s an idea to muse: Robert Heinlein published a short story in 1941 in Astounding Science Fiction called By His Bootstraps. The story explores some of the paradoxes and implications of time travel: the main character does the seemingly impossible (lift himself up by his own bootstraps) by interacting with other versions of himself through time travel. It’s an abstract, metaphoric sense of bootstrap, perhaps even recursive in the story’s context.

Given that computer geeks are a group who tend to read a lot of science fiction, could it be that the word bootstrap gained its contemporary currency from this story by Robert Heinlein? Who decided that bootstrap was the right word for a set of computer instructions? It’s also interesting to note that the impossibility of the physical act described in the phrase lift yourself by your own bootstraps (you can only jump off the ground, you cannot hoist your feet off the ground while simultaneously standing) has become modified to mean do something on your own without external help. In this case there is a literal phrase that expresses an impossible event changing its meaning into a metaphorical phrase that expresses an act of personal industry and self-sufficiency.


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