More Linguistic Asymmetries


The English prefix un- comes directly from Old English (and shares a common Indo-European root with Latin in- and Greek a-) Prefixed to an adjective A, the resulting new word means ‘not A’ and can convey either positive or negative sentiment, depending on the meaning of the adjective.

  • selfish/unselfish, pretentious/unpretentious  (un- has positive sentiment)
  • happy/unhappy, flattering/unflattering (un- has negative sentiment)
  • usual/unusual, aware/unaware (un- context-dependent sentiment)

Prefixed to a verb, un- conveys the reversal of a process:

  • load/unload
  • tangle/untangle
  • wind/unwind
  • do/undo

However, not all verbs form their opposite by adding un- as a prefix. For example

  • break/*unbreak

You can’t unbreak a teapot, you can only repair it. (Perhaps the special context of watching a film in reverse would lend itself to such a usage ‘watch the teapot unbreak in frame 254.’ ??)   Notice that there is symmetry for the associated adjectives — an object is either in a state of being broken or intact, or has the potential to be in one of these states.

  • broken/unbroken
  • breakable/unbreakable

Other examples of verbs that are not symmetrical with respect to un- include

  • clean/*unclean
  • develop/*undevelop
  • squander/*unsquander
  • release/*unrelease

You must dirty, retard, save, or retain. Similarly, verbs that denote speech acts are not symmetrical with respect to un-.

  • promise/*unpromise
  • announce/*unannounce
  • insult/*uninsult
  • marry/*unmarry

You can only renege, retract, apologize or divorce. Verbs that describe mental processes also don’t have corresponding opposites formed with un-.

  • remember/*unremember
  • dream/*undream
  • see/*unsee

The natural opposite of remember is forget, and there is the related misremember which implies recall of something not factual. (More on mis- in a moment.) Dream is more difficult; perhaps the opposite of dreaming is realizing? There seems to be no natural concept corresponding to a reversal or opposite of the event of seeing.  In summary, it appears that English uses un- only with verbs that describe events which are simple, reversible physical processes, seemingly ignoring the arrow of time (even though each act of covering/uncovering, folding/unfolding, winding/unwinding is indeed moving in one direction through time).

But what about the prefix dis-?  Its occurrence with verbs doesn’t appear to conform to the above patterns. The following symmetrical pairs include both speech act verbs and mental process verbs.

  • allow/disallow
  • like/dislike
  • please/displease
  • regard/disregard
  • invite/disinvite

Allow, please, regard and invite entered English from Old French, along with the Latin-derived prefix dis- which meant ‘not’. Dislike, however, is a hybrid form that replaced the native English mislike, which was at one time the opposite of like. The native English prefix mis- meant ‘wrongly, in error’ and we see it today in the verbs misjudge, misremember and probably mistake.

  • I took him for an honest man
  • I mistook him for an honest man
Notice the somewhat inconsistent modern-day distribution of dis- and un- with please and pleasure. 

  • please/displease/*unplease
  • pleased/displeased/?unpleased
  • pleasant/*displeasant/unpleasant
  • pleasure/displeasure/*unpleasure
Finally, the verb dislove was in use during the 16th century and meant ‘to hate’ or ‘cease to love’.  The new symmetrical verb pair friend and unfriend have now entered Internet English. Why not use the existing verb befriend? Perhaps because it seems archaic, along with its be- relatives befoul, besmirch and betroth. Curiously, belittle is still a verb with a presence. But notice that the negative member of the new verb pair is unfriend and not disfriend. The language is showing its Germanic pedigree.  While we’re on the topic of linguistic asymmetries I’d like to alter one — the current annoyance of having only a like option on so many web postings, reviews, tweets, pins and such. It would be nice to express an opposite view on occasion. Dislove anyone? 🙂
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Vamp 21: Old Friends


Fatigued and hungry for blood, Sam opens the door to her Somerville apartment and switches on a light. The others, Rina, Gil and Sandor, follow her in.

“The suspense is killing me, Sam! What’s going on?” Rina cuts to the chase.

“And where is Dean?” Gil asks her, a little short of breath from the brisk walk.

Sam feels their eyes on her, full of questions for which she has answers to only a few. But it’s time to tell them what she does know. “Dean is hiding.”

Hiding?

“He’s on the run. Joel Anderson is trying to kill him.” There is no point in understating the facts.

Gil stares at her, pale with shock, but also understanding.  “Why Dean didn’t pull me in on Evan’s hiring starts to make sense now. But, Dean was totally blindsided by those guys. Totally.”

Sam continues. “He’s been calling me from undisclosed locations, and asked me to send money, which I did.” She sees Gil’s expression. “I lent him my savings. It’s okay.”

“Why kill him?” Rina asks, her brown eyes wide, incredulous.

Sam spots an empty carton of boxed blood on the coffee table and snatches it up as nonchalantly as possible and tucks it under her arm. “Dean discovered that Joel was intentionally hacking into client sites, allegedly as a security service to them-”

“Yeah right,” Gil interjects derisively.

Sam nods at him. “You were absolutely right to believe Evan was behind the Star break-in. Dean thinks Joel is running a velvet glove extortion racket.”

“Let us protect you from what we can do to you?” Gil adds, mockingly.

“Why would companies put up with it?” Rina demands.

“Because it’s happening all over,” Gil replies quietly. “Paying off cyberhackers is the cost of doing business nowadays it seems.” He sighs.

Sandor shakes his head. “The flash crash on the stock exchange was more viral than hacking the database records of a business. Was Joel Anderson involved there?”

Sam looks at her tall, sallow cousin. “Dean doesn’t know.”

Gil walks to the couch and plops down, head in hands. He looks up at Sam. “We’ve got to help Dean, keep him away from Joel and…not let on to Evan that we know what’s up.” Gil laughs bitterly. “That won’t be hard for me, given that he fired me.”

“Should we try to steal Evan’s passwords? I’ve never done such a thing.” Rita’s voice is dark with excitement and apprehension.

“That’s a start,” Gil replies, “but you’ll have to get system logs and not leave footprints behind you.”

“I can probably get those,” Sandor offers, “It would be safest when Evan is not there.”

“He could go for coffee with Sam,” Rina suggests.

“He doesn’t like me.” Sam smiles at Rina. “He likes you, though.”

Rina grimaces. “He scares me a little.”

“He should,” Gil says emphatically. “Joel Anderson trusts him and that’s enough to scare me.”

“I’ll make something hot,” Sam tells them, turning toward her kitchen with the empty carton still under her arm. “We have to come up with a plan. Dean’s life may well depend on it.”

Sam quickly disposes of the empty blood container in the cabinet beneath the sink and  puts on a kettle of water. Sandor stands in the doorway of the kitchen and their eyes meet. She hopes he understands the meaning in hers: we must not reveal ourselves in the situation here.

Aloud she asks him, “Do we have anything?”

“There’s ginger tea,” he replies and fetches it from the cupboard.

Sam takes a sudden, sharp look at Sandor and tells him in an intense whisper, “You’ve lost the cap on your upper left canine! Don’t smile.” She sighs anxiously. “I’ve got to order you a proper set.”

Sandor shrugs at her and carries an opened box of crackers to the living room. Rina, who has seated herself cross-legged on the floor by the coffee table, looks up at Sandor and shakes her head, smiling. “You don’t eat anything. I’m going to cook you a good Russian dinner.”

Gil glances at her wistfully and Sandor’s face blanches a paler shade of white.

A few minutes later, Sam returns with steaming cups of ginger tea.  A dose of blood will have to wait until later. The foursome return to the solemnity of the  situation and the unknown menace they are facing.

“Who is Joel Anderson?” Gil muses aloud softly, “And what is he after?”

~

The geneticist in upstate New York who analyzed the swab taken from Marty Gaynor’s neck wound receives a new DNA sample from the Ninth Precinct of the New York City Police Department. The news of the NYPD’s medical case has already reached the papers and has been written up in the sensational style of modern journalism. The media are abuzz with references to alien races, lost tribes and humanoids.

Upon reading such accounts, the geneticist had contacted the forensics lab, telling them of the human-like sequence he had recently analyzed and puzzled over. Baffled by their own results and curious whether a comparison of data might shed light on their case, the Ninth Precinct has sent him what they have.

What he finds lead to further discussions with a colleague, a renowned geneticist. Their analysis confirms that, although certain sequences show significant overlap with human genetic code fragments, there are other fragments alien to any known human DNA. Of even greater interest is the closeness of certain sequences between the New York sample and the Boston sample.

The renowned geneticist is impressed and mystified by the similarities of the unknown code fragments. He sums it up in one sentence. “We’re either dealing with a genetic bottleneck of some species of uh, hominid, or these are possibly samples from a single individual of such a species.”

“How could a human-like being have avoided detection until now?” exclaims the other geneticist, thrilled and baffled by the possibility of a profound scientific discovery.

“Indeed.” His renowned colleague gives him a frank look. “And can we now locate the individual or individuals — the beings — whose samples we’ve analyzed.”

“That’s a job for the Ninth Precinct detective in New York.” The geneticist picks up the phone. “There’s also a doctor, a GP, in Boston who might prove useful.”

~

It’s not a good neighborhood and Dean is doubtful the phone booth on the street corner is actually in working order. He waits for a scruffy, emaciated man, probably a junkie, to walk past it before he approaches it himself. Dean slips inside the booth, his eyes now making an accustomed sweep of the surroundings. He inserts a coin, hears a dial tone and dials. The phone seems to be working,  it’s ringing. Then he hears Philip’s voice.

“Yes?”

“Philip. It’s Dean.”

“Well hello! You’re in the D.C. area?”

Startled, Dean remembers that Philip’s phone is almost certainly displaying the number of the pay phone, including its local area code.

“Uh, yeah. I am. Philip, I need to talk to you.” Dean looks around outside the booth, Bands of tension arch across the back of his neck. “I’m in a real pickle and I need your help.”

“Are you in some kind of danger?” Philip sounds technical, already in problem-solving mode. It gives Dean a shot of confidence.

“So it seems. Ever hear of Joel Anderson? He runs an investment fund, Scorpio II.”

There’s a pause before Philip answers. “Yes.”

“I sold a chunk of my company to him, Philip. And I was trying to sell him more until he creeped me out by his open admission of cyberhacking as part of his business model.”

Dean hears Philip clear his throat quietly, it’s one of Philip’s familiar, comfortable idiosyncracies. “Mr. Anderson is a POI.”

“A person of interest?”

“We’re not on a clean connection here, Dean.”

Dean sees two men across the street and scrutinizes them. They walk past a seedy-looking convenience mart and disappear around the corner. “Philip, this guy has thugs. One was going to kill me I think. I didn’t stick around to find out.”

“In New York?”

“Yes! How do you know?”

“He’s on our team.”

“Bernard? Not possible.”

“We can’t continue this conversation on this line, Dean.”

“Can I come to your place?”

“Sure. Better yet, remember that bar in Georgetown where you flirted with the female bartender from Chile? It’s still there. Nice and noisy, very private.”

“Okay.”

“Will I recognize you?” There is a measure of humor in Philip’s voice.

“Maybe not. I’ve shaved my head and I’m wearing big black geek glasses.” Dean is amazed at how easily this lie slips off his tongue, but he makes sure there is a touch of humor in his own voice when he relays this to his old friend.

— to be continued

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Vamp 20: Black Running Shoes


Rina, Sandor and Sam are jammed together at a small table in a loud Cambridge pub. They’d left work a few minutes early today with glum, defiant faces. Leaving early was their symbolic protest against Evan’s treatment of Gil. A pitcher of beer and a plate of nachos now sit on the small table in front of them, but remain largely untouched.

Rina has texted Gil and left voice mail but he hasn’t replied to any of her messages. Privately, Sam is increasingly worried about him. She believes without a doubt the thing was a setup and that Gil is certain of this also. But, will Joel Anderson and his thugs leave Gil alone at this point? Or is it the first step in an even worse scenario from their playbook? Sam feels she is running out of time, especially after her phone conversation with Dean an hour ago.

Rina leans her elbows on the table, pushing her dark, red-streaked bangs from her forehead.  “Can you believe that Evan could do this?” she says softly. “I just couldn’t realize he was such a prick.” She shakes her head in disgust. “I really want to punish him.”  The words ‘prick’ and ‘punish’ carry a special punch conveyed by her Russian accent.

“Gil had no motive to hack the client’s site. He wouldn’t risk his job for such a silly prank.” Sandor drums his long pale fingers uneasily on the table top. He’s wearing the new long-sleeved black shirt Sam bought for him.

“That’s absolutely right, Sandor. I had absolutely no motive for something I did not do.”

They look up to see Gil standing at their table.

“Join us!” Sam pulls back the remaining chair at the small table and Gil takes a seat next to her. He digs into the plate of nachos. Rina hails the waiter for another mug and she then fills it with beer and sets it in front of Gil. Sam watches with slight amusement as Gil immediately downs two-thirds of the contents of the mug and tops it up himself. She recalls that he barely touched alcohol at other social occasions with coworkers.

“Where the heck is Dean?” Gil asks in a resigned voice. “He’s just abandoned Bubble Trendz. I thought it was his dream.”

“Don’t you think it’s pretty strange that he’s not back when the new guys are here?” Rina says.

Gil nods. “I never expected this from him. Guess I’m the fool, though. Guess the money was always what he was really after. After all, he’s the one who hired Evan.”

Sam looks at him with dismay. They’ve all got it so wrong. Without further reflection on the matter and without a clearly defined plan, Sam states simply, “This takeover by the Anderson group is a hostile one and I’m not even sure it’s legal.”

Sam sees the startled looks on the faces of Rina, Gil and Sandor. She doesn’t want to say Dean’s name in public, even here where there is only a remote chance of the wrong people overhearing it. In a low, soft voice she tells them, “Our guy, the boss, has not abandoned his company. But this is not the place to discuss it.”

“What are you saying, Sam?” Rina asks in a hushed tone.

Sam knows there is no turning back now. She’s going to put her trust in all three of them. She should have talked it over first with Sandor alone, but it’s too late for that. Quietly she says, “Let’s get out of here and go to my place. It’s close-by in Somerville.”

~

Dean is startled at his own reflection in the restroom of the fast food restaurant where he just finished a quick meal. His normally fair hair is a dark brown, and there is five days’ growth of stubble, also dyed dark brown, on his face. The hair dye looks a little harsh in the fluorescent light, his tired pale face looks chalky in contrast. You’re a pretty seedy-looking character he thinks to himself, staring through the cheap pair of sunglasses he bought at a drugstore. He wonders whether he should have shaved his head instead. It’s still an option for later. How much time does he have? This is the crucial variable: whether Joel Anderson now knows that he is still alive.

Dean exits the restaurant with a take-out coffee cup in hand and walks along the bustling road of a nondescript stretch of gas stations, car dealerships and fast food chains. The bus station is still another half mile away. He maintains a brisk walk, glad for his cardiovascular fitness. It’s probably the reason he’s alive right now.

For at least the hundredth time, Dean replays those minutes of his life in New York City last Thursday afternoon. From the start of it, he’d felt something was off. Then, Joel Anderson had turned suddenly, unexpectedly, mild after an overly long and harsh explanation of why their clients would appreciate having the holes in their computer security systems revealed to them. He’d then introduced Dean to a new fellow, Bernard, whom Joel said worked with the bankers and would be able to take Dean over to their offices to meet them after all. Joel would join them within the hour.

Bernard presented himself to Dean with quiet, deferential manners, but he didn’t project the air of someone in finance. For one thing, Bernard’s well-muscled physique asserted itself through an ordinary off-the-rack suit, more jock than stock analyst. They didn’t speak much in the elevator on the way down, despite Dean’s efforts to engage him in talk in the hopes of getting Bernard to reveal more of himself, more of the bankers’ angle in all of this. Bernard only mentioned in the briefest sentence that the office they were going to was ‘two blocks west’ and mostly avoided eye contact, looking neutrally ahead.

As they pushed through the heavy glass revolving doors and entered the loud, busy Manhattan street, Bernard’s strong index finger pointed the direction they should go. He seemed even bigger and bulkier than in Joel’s office and Dean felt himself moving slightly away from the man whose proximity was just overstepping the boundary of Dean’s personal space, even giving allowances for the throngs of people crowded along the street.

“You grow up here?” Dean remembers asking Bernard as they crossed the first intersection at a light. Bernard said “no” and kept his gaze focused ahead. That was the moment when Dean glanced down and noticed Bernard’s shoes — black running shoes, not the expensive Italian loafers favored by investment bankers.  A bolt of instinctual clarity flashed through Dean’s mind and body and he knew at once what he must do. Run.

He bolted from Bernard’s side into traffic, running at full speed, his peripheral vision guiding him past collisions with taxis and a delivery truck, a bicyclist. He didn’t look back, he knew Bernard was coming after him. He just ran, elbowing past pedestrians, sheer terror driving him forward at amazing speed. He ran for blocks, adrenalin coursing through him, his lungs fiery with exertion, eyes ever vigilant for the safest escape route. When he spotted a wide alley he raced into it and flattened himself against the worn brick exit door of some building, catching his breath, trying to listen for his stalker above the pounding of his own heart. At once he realized this was a mistake — he would be safer in a crowd. Bernard was a hired assassin and would welcome the opportunity to catch him in an alley.

His calves shaking with fatigue, Dean darted once more onto the main avenue, now trotting, allowing himself a furtive glance to one side and the other. Ahead in the cold bright sunlight was an entrance sign to the subway and he descended the stairs, moving quickly, trying to disappear into the crowd. He bought a ticket and jumped on the first train, having no idea where he was going. Exhausted, he found a seat and slowly quieted his breathing and wiped the perspiration from his brow, trying to relax his demeanor, blend in. No passengers paid attention to him, all were absorbed in texting, reading or just their own thoughts as the train rattled on. But Bernard could be anywhere and there might be others as well. Many hours and several train rides later, Dean had found a secluded pay phone, one of few remaining, and placed his first call to Sam.

Dean’s thoughts refocus on the present as he continues walking along the side of the highway. He would bet every cent of the deal he signed with Joel Anderson that Perry Hinds’ death was not a suicide leap from a building. He knew Perry. The guy was a great entrepreneur at the top of his game. Probably just like Dean, Perry had learned too much through initial negotiations with Joel and then had refused to sign on, so Joel threw him out a window. Dean shudders. It was probably Bernard who had done the throwing. Has Bernard confessed his bungled job to his boss? What’s the punishment for such a thing? This is the one consideration that gives Dean hope that Joel doesn’t yet know that Dean remains a free man.  But why is Joel Anderson playing such mean ball? What’s at stake — some extortion of companies to avoid having their databases hacked? That’s not a plan to take a two-billion-dollar investment firm to the next level and Joel Anderson is no fool. Something bigger, more sinister, is afoot and Dean hopes he’ll have enough time to figure it out, and to convince the one man he can trust and who might be able to stop it. Philip, his college friend, who works for a nameless agency in Washington.

Dean sees the bus station ahead and finds himself looking forward to a few hours of rest on his journey south toward the capital. Time to sleep and time to figure out what exactly to tell Philip. He hasn’t been in touch with his friend in several years, and Philip will need data, not stories. He can show up at Philip’s in his disguise and on the run, and Philip won’t conclude that he is a delusional psychotic.  But, Philip will want to look at hard evidence. Dean discreetly touches the money belt under his shirt and thinks gratefully of Sam. Can she help him with this?

— to be continued

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Teenage, Middle-age, New Age


English can form adjectives from the past participles of verbs. Consider:

  • break:broken  the vase was broken -> the broken vase
  • fall:fallen   his popularity has fallen recently -> his fallen popularity
  • bake:baked  the bread was baked in a brick oven -> baked bread
  • age:aged  the wine is aged in oak barrels -> aged wine

Concerning age, the combination adjective teenage almost never appears in current usage with the past participle final -d.  You almost always read or hear

her teenage daughter

not

her teenaged daughter

English dictionaries do include the word teenaged as an adjective, along with teenage, although teenaged (1952) appears several decades later than teenage (1921) according to the Online Etymological Dictionary. Teenage is more in line with new age (new age music) and ice age (ice age relics) with age as a noun, not a verb, i.e., a period of time.  Similarly, there is mid-life crisis, not mid-lived crisis, again related to a period of time.

What about the adjective middle-aged? First, it almost always appears with a hyphen in written English (unlike teenage/teenaged). And the situation is nearly the opposite of the case for teenage/teenaged.  You almost always see the forms middle-aged men, middle-aged women, or simply the middle-aged.  Kind of  interesting, too, that we have teenagers but not middle-agers.  So, my linguistic intuitions were a bit jarred to read in print “middle-age men in shorts” recently — without the final participial -d.   Is that because middle-aged is more verbal, referencing a weathering process, rather than a time period?   But then why middle-age spread (abdominal fat accumulated in mid-life) and not middle-aged spread?

What about other cases of modifiers that usually take the final -d? Are the d-less alternates as acceptable?

  • three-fingered glove/three-finger glove
  • left-handed presidents/left-hand presidents
  • right-angled turn/right-angle turn
  • bare-fisted fight/bare-fist fight
  • three-toed sloth/three-toe sloth
  • three-cornered hat/three-corner hat
  • heavy-handed methods/heavy-hand methods
  • strong-armed tactics/strong-arm tactics
  • underhand pitch/underhanded pitch  — these mean something quite different 🙂
My intuitions don’t like either middle-age men (no d) or new-aged men (with d), but teenage boys and teenaged boys are both fine. What do you think?
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Vamp 19: Mission Accomplished?


Dean Divers finishes the bad cup of coffee made in the small coffee maker in his motel room. He glances at the alarm clock next to the bed. The guy at the front desk said the mail usually arrives by eleven. It’s two minutes after eleven now. He’ll wait three more minutes to not seem overly anxious. Dean is confident the money will be there; Sam is very capable. Sam is more than capable he reminds himself, scrutinizing his face in the mirror. He needs hair dye and different clothes. He needs a rental car but he’s not going to get one — too risky, too easy to trace.

Dean walks into the front office of the motel. The clerk is not visible, but sounds from a small television can be heard coming from a back room. Dean sweeps his eyes across the counter and across the desk behind it. No sign of mail. The clerk appears.

“Morning. What can I do f’you?”

“Any mail come in this morning for me?”

“What’s the name?”

“William Hall.”

The clerk returns to the back room and Dean’s spirits leap to see a letter-sized brown mailer in his hand.

“Here you go. Will you be checking out today?”

“I’m staying through tomorrow.”

The clerk nods. “I’ll just need you to pay for the room then before twelve. Or we can charge it to your card.”

“I’ll pay you now.” With the envelope secured under his arm, Dean hands over the last of his cash to the clerk.

 ~

 Sam files paperwork as she focuses on the cell phone in her pocket, vigilant for its motion. It is set to vibrate because she doesn’t want Mary or Evan to be aware of incoming calls to her. Dean agreed to call her at this number from a pay phone when he had the money she sent to him. It’s mid-afternoon Wednesday and Sam is fairly certain he should have it by now. However, pay phones are hard to find nowadays and he doesn’t have a car.

Sam remains on edge from Joel Anderson’s appearance at BubbleTrendz on Monday. Except for Dean’s warning, the available evidence supports Joel’s assertion that Joel is now running the company. Joel has not reappeared at the office since Monday afternoon, only the red-haired guy with the stubbly beard, Rolf, returned yesterday and today. He is using Dean’s office, mostly with the door closed.

Sam suddenly hears an exasperated “Jeeesus!” emitted from Gil’s office and goes down the hall to see what’s up. Gil isn’t normally a shouter. She sees him at his desk, scowling at his screen banging at keys on his keyboard.

“Gil?”

“Another DoS at Star!” He nods slightly as a way to acknowledge her presence but continues scrutinizing the information in front of him on the monitor, his expression desperate, incredulous. Evan appears at the doorway and looks sharply at Gil.

“What are you doing, Gil?”

Gil glares at Evan. “Denial of service attack at Star. Again.” Seeing Evan’s accusatory eyes Gil adds, “You don’t know this?”

“Don’t touch another key.” Sam sees Evan’s icy expression and rapidly assesses what is unfolding.

What?” Gil’s eyes narrow in bewilderment.

“You need to leave your desk. Do it quietly and there won’t be a problem.” Evan is now standing over Gil, his arms folded, his body taut.

“You’re accusing me?” Sudden contempt floods over Gil’s face as he stares at Evan.

“Leave your desk. Leave the office now.”

Gil rises from his chair, still not believing his ears. “This is ridiculous! I’m the one trying to figure-”

“The game’s over, Gilbert. We’ve been tracking you. You’re fired. Security will escort you out. Your personal effects will be sent to you.”

Sam sees the security guard, Tom, from the main lobby desk of the building who has apparently been summoned. He looks somber, unhappy to be doing his duty at the moment. Sam turns to Evan.

“Surely there’s some mistake here! Of all people, Gil would never-”

“I wouldn’t interfere unless you consider yourself an accomplice to this cyber criminal and need to be fired, too,”  Evan tells her in a flat tone.

“You condescending toady!” Gil is flushed red, furious, breathing hard as he regards Evan.

“Let’s go, Gil,” Tom says softly, “I’m sorry, but you need to leave here.”

Gil walks with Tom but says with quiet determination, “You won’t get away with this, Evan. It’s a farce and you know that.”

Evan with equal determination rejoins, “I strongly advise against considering legal action. We’ve got you nailed, dude. So, if you leave quietly and never attempt to hack the website of Star Rock Financial Group again, Joel Anderson will not press charges against you. I wouldn’t press my luck if I were in your shoes.”

As if to underscore Evan’s point, red-haired Rolf has approached the group, quietly speaking into his cell phone about what seems to be an important matter. He’s letting Evan handle the situation, just endorsing it with his presence. Sam turns to see that Sandor and Rina are standing in the hall with shocked concern on their faces. Sam catches Sandor’s eye  and narrows her pupils rapidly. He’s young, but he understands this classic warning signal that vampires communicate to each other when silence is required.

Evan turns to his team. “Okay, everyone, let’s get back to work!”

Sullenly, Sandor and Rina return to their office.

Back at her own desk, Sam ponders what to tell her cousin — and when. If Sam is to help Dean she needs to learn what Joel Anderson is up to, and she’s going to need the help of at least Sandor, but probably Gil, too. And maybe Rina. As Sam weighs the options of alerting her co-workers to the fact that Dean is now in danger, there’s a sudden vibration in the back pocket of her jeans.

~

 Joel Anderson paces across the expansive floor of his New York office at a slow, deliberate gait. He glances casually at his wristwatch — a sporty, luxurious European chronograph of rose gold. Then he looks at Kurt, the blond guy whose rest pulse Sam had speculated about in the BubbleTrendz conference room.

“This isn’t like him. He’s prompt.” Joel raises an eyebrow at Kurt, inviting a response to his observation.

“Two days. Not like him at all. Shall I call him?”

“Give him another half an hour. I don’t like to micromanage my people.” Joel scans the city skyline, contemplating the dark waters of the East River flowing far below. His cell phone rings. Joel answers and smiles at the familiar voice.

“So, Bernard. What do you have for us? Good news I hope?”

Kurt watches the face of his boss with well-trained acumen. He knows Joel is the master of cool, but that the tiny nuances of his facial expressions must be read accurately or at one’s peril. Joel’s smile remains on his lips, but has moved on from his eyes. He inhales slowly, deliberately before speaking into the phone. “I don’t understand why we’re talking probabilities here. The answer should be 100 percent, right?  100 percent.  But you’re telling me 98 percent. That’s a sloppy number, Bernard. If you can’t tell me it’s 100 percent, you can’t tell me it’s 98 percent. It could be 50 percent.”

Joel is pacing across the room and there’s an iron quality to his body language, a ruthless purpose that Kurt has seen many times. Joel listens and then continues, shaking his head. “I need 100 percent, Bernard. Call me back when you have figured this out and have a clean number to report. Okay then!”

Joel pockets the phone and looks Kurt in the eyes. Kurt knows to state the conclusion so his boss won’t have to. “Bernard screwed it up. Wow. This surprises me.”

“He doesn’t work for the Department of Surprises. Playing the odds are for gamblers, not winners. I’m afraid you’ll have to take care of it now, Kurt.”

Kurt nods in acknowledgment and receives a smile in return. Kurt knows it’s as close to a gesture of camaraderie as Joel bestows on anyone.

— to be continued —

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Word Purge


There is an online post at the British newspaper Guardian reporting on words to be excluded from new editions of dictionaries. The post invites readers to list their own choices for words they’d like removed from the English language.

My immediate reaction as a linguist to this proposal was “Delete a word from the English language? Never!  Words, words, beautiful words — obscure words, rare words, archaic words, and obsolete words! Keep them all.”  Then I began to rummage through my mental lexicon.  Here’s my list:  🙂

  • edutainment   – surely a choice for the ugliest word to pronounce in all of English?
  • infomercial – a cheesy, rather manipulative concept
  • beige – I just don’t like it. Boring beige. Alternates: fawn, sand, dun, tan, wheat
  • awesomeness – don’t purge it, just place it in cryonic suspension for a generation (along with its cousin awesome). Let it regain the semantic power of its original root awe.  Awesomeness mostly signals a brain on autopilot nowadays.

So let’s hear your candidates.

Hat tip: BBear

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VAMP 18: Delayed Pastries


The morning air is bracing as Sam dashes across the street where Lila’s Bakery is. She walks past the shop and down the block and turns into the branch office of a local bank.

Good thing I brought the checkbook with me Sam reflects as she rummages in her bag, waiting in line for the next available bank clerk. Dean will need more than a thousand dollars and she won’t be able to withdraw enough from an ATM machine in one transaction.

A woman ahead of her is discussing some issue unhappily with one of the two bank clerks on duty. Sam watches the other clerk who finishes up with a customer but then walks away from the window.

A more senior bank officer is now at the window with the clerk who is tending to the unhappy woman, whose voice has grown more agitated. Sam fidgets impatiently and looks up at the clock, she’s been waiting in line for twelve minutes. The other clerk reappears at the window and beckons Sam over.

The bank clerk briefly studies the hastily written withdrawal slip and asks to see ID which Sam hands to her.

“How would you like this? In twenties?” the clerk asks Sam.

“Hundreds, please.”

~

When Sam returns to BubbleTrendz with a platter of Lila’s pastries, Mary is in the kitchen and gives Sam a mild glare.

“What took you so long?  I’ve already made the coffee. Just take that platter on in to the conference room.”

“I’m sorry. There was a line.” It’s a half truth, but Sam is not going to discuss her bank errand with Mary. Without taking off her jacket, Sam goes to the conference room and sets the pastry platter on a side table next to the coffee urn. The three visitors are standing by the window holding cups of coffee and talking in low voices.

“Good morning, gentlemen!” she says brightly, saluting the three men quickly with a perky smile.  They regard her as an attractive minion and say nothing, but wait for her to remove the wrapper covering the pastries. Joel Anderson immediately walks over and selects a brioche, bites into it and resumes his conversation with the other two men. Sam can smell his aggression, his power chemistry. A dangerous human to be avoided. But she needs information. She looks at Joel with feigned apology.

“I’m sorry that Dean is not here yet. He’s usually the first one in the office, but-”

“We’re not expecting Divers today,” Joel responds quietly, dismissively.

“Oh. Is he still in New York then? He was supposed to be back here last Friday and I was expecting faxes from him.”

Sam is aware that Joel is looking at her incredulously, at her presumption to enter into a conversation with him as equals. But, it’s obvious that he has now reassessed her status: she’s more than an office bimbo, she’s a potential obstacle to be dealt with swiftly.

With calculated measure she continues to look at him, eyes wide but unintimidated. Joel stares at her with unmasked annoyance.

“Sweetheart, make me a cup of tea. Earl Grey. Black.”

She shrugs and stays put. “I’m just a little concerned about my boss now,” she says with a touch of deference directed at Joel.

“Okay, doll. They don’t tell you much here, do they. I’m you’re boss now. Dean Divers sold me a controlling share of this firm on Friday. He reports to me now. That’s not too hard to understand, is it? Now, make me that tea. And make it strong.”

~

After serving Joel his tea, Sam takes a quick glance at Mary’s desk when the latter woman appears to be gone. There is paperwork from BubbleTrendz’ attorney and Joel Anderson’s name appears in several places on the top page. Is it a transfer of ownership contract?  Should she call the lawyer’s office and ask him whether he has heard from Dean since last Friday?

Sam’s thoughts race as she walks back to her desk. Is Dean just cracking up and concocting a crazy story after signing away sixty percent of his company? Seller’s remorse?

Sam reminds herself of Dean’s sudden treatment of her as his only confidante. He’d been a decent guy to work with, but his behavior toward her bordered on the aloof. Until these recent phone calls. But, she trusts her instincts. It’s why that envelope of money is stashed in her purse. She hears Mary’s voice and sees the three men following Mary down the hall. Time to look busy.

It seems Mary is taking the men on a brief tour of the place and they linger a bit at Evan’s office. Sam’s acute vampiric hearing picks up most of the conversation and it’s obvious Evan has worked with those guys before. She’ll discuss that in private with Gil when she gets the chance. Her office phone rings and she picks up the receiver with a pounding heart.

“Sam?”

“Yes. I have it for you.”

“Thank you! Were you able to get a thousand?”

Sam’s eyes scan the hallway as she half-whispers into the receiver, “Four thousand. Forty bills in an envelope. Where shall I send it?”

“I’m in New Jersey. I’ll be here for a couple of days, until the money gets here. Tell no one!” Dean sounds desperate as Sam scribbles down the address, a motel in some beach town outside Atlantic City.

“They’re still here,” she tells him in a hushed tone. “He says he’s running the company now, that you sold a controlling share to him. He didn’t reveal where he thinks you are.”

“He’s not what he appears to be.”

“What he appears to be is not exactly Prince Valiant.” Sam chuckles despite the situation.

“He’s a dangerous man, Sam.”

“Dean! What should I do here?”

“I don’t know yet. But sending the money is the first thing. How did you manage four thousand?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Sam! You didn’t–”

“It was absolutely no problem. And there’s more if you need it.” She realizes she’s sounding more like Zaira now than Sam.  She hears Dean let out a long breath over the phone line.

“Sam, you’re a great little office manager, but I had no idea what a gem of a human being you are. I underestimated you greatly. I’m sorry.”

“You trusted me. I’ll try not to let you down.”

“I know that.”

Sam sees the men leaving Evan’s office and immediately brings up a display of inventory on her computer, pretending to look it over while speaking into the phone. “I’m fine with printer cartridges for now. What was that number to reach you? Let me just repeat it back to you.”

In a quiet voice she relays her personal cell phone number to Dean as Joel Anderson walks past her desk.

— to be continued —

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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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