Word of the Day Defense
For TMS 7/16/2012: “helmed”

So, for many months I have not listened to TMS in any capacity, which is why you haven’t seen a word defense.  But now, I’m back, and I know have access to the Oxford English Dictionary and all sorts of other academicky stuff thanks to my upcoming study at the University of Wisconsin.

So, in any case, helmed … what to say … Since I have no idea what the emailer was meant by this word*, I will just take Brian’s guess that it refers to the meaning “to direct (a film)”.  The aforementioned OED dates this very specific usage to 1930, so it’s relatively new, but not that new.  It’s not hard to imagine this leap being made, given that a director could be said to steer the direction of a film just as a helmsman steers the direction of a ship.

And what’s more, this is really just a particular extension of a much older use of helm.  OED defines this older meaning as “To guide with or as with a helm, Chiefly fig.”, with it’s earliest citation (dating to 1607) being “Fate helmeth all.”  Now, I know that that may be a poetic, metaphorical use, but language is built on metaphors.

In short, we’re talking about an early 20th century extension of a nearly four-hundred-year old figurative meaning.  I don’t think this one is going away.

EXTRA NOTE:  OK, since it came up on the show, I figured I would just have to defend the Klingon language just a bit.  Some of you may know that in addition to being TMS’s linguistic defender (well, I wasn’t for a bit) — I also host a podcast about constructed languages (and, of course, create languages myself as a hobby).  Many sci-fi properties do, indeed, throw random apostrophes into names for no reason other than decoration, but Klingon, being designed by a linguist, uses it for a purpose — it represents a glottal stop (pronounced by momentarily closing off your larynx), which is a very common convention in romanization.  I have my issues with Klingon (or tlIngan), but it is a fairly well fleshed-out language.  For a little more of my impressions of Klingon, listen to Conlangery #16 — you can skip the whole discussion of tense if you like.


* I think he may have been a non-native English speaker, for whatever that counts.  Possibly Hispanophone, if he did actually spell explain as “esplain”.

TMS 5/2/2012: “er”

Ok, this is another one of those pronunciation peeves that totally misunderstands how English works, and how sounds in general work.  It is perfectly common and natural for vowels in unstressed syllables to reduce to shwa.  This seems to have extended in or to times when it actually is stressed, for some people.  Totally unsurprising and normal phenomenon.  Let’s move on …

As for the second part, there are a couple reasons I can think of for people to do this.  One is just a simple disfluency — they essentially forgot what they were going to say.  Anyone who has listened to themselves on a recording of themselves will know that normal speech has a surprising number of unfinished sentences, hesitation markers, repetitions and other cases where the brain simply couldn’t finish an utterance properly.  It’s just part of how people talk, and in conversation we usually pass right over these problems.

The other possibility is that it’s a sort of discourse trick.  Consider the following conversation:

A: So, you want to go to a movie, or …?

B: … or get some bubble tea!

Trailing off in this way can actually be a soft way of asking for someone else’s opinion, hardly a situation where you need to ask “or what?”

So that was more interesting.  I know that the Words of the Day are backed up for months, but I do hope we eventually stop getting these pronunciation peeves.

TMS 5/1/2012: “gouda”

Ok, there’s really no real argument to be had here, so I’ll keep this brief:  Some peevers are just annoying buzzkills.  It’s just a pun.  Some people like puns, many people hate them (in our culture, I understand that puns are a little more highly regarded in China, which has lots of homophones and near-homophones to support clever ones), but really, it’s not a big deal.  Don’t sit in a corner muttering “that’s not what that word means” when you could be doing some word play of your own.

GAC out …

TMS 4/30/2012: “eck cetera”

Clearly, people who email Scott and Brian for Word of the Day do not do their research, as Merriam-Webster online includes both of the pronunciations that this peever hates, and even has a sound file for one of them (well, with the [k] as well as a vowel deletion, which is also common in pronunciations of this word and in English in general).  I don’t know if this counts as an “approval” or not — Merriam-Webster is a bit more prescriptive than many other dictionaries, but I think they still largely seek to document the language as she has spoke, at least in the more modern editions.

I have said it before and will say it again, I really hate when people pick on variant pronunciations, particularly ones that are very common, as in this case, or are regional.  In this case, the transformation [t]~[k] seems pretty natural.  Though I don’t think it’s a regular process in English, the position of that [t] makes it a little difficult to distinguish as you hear it.  If they have some sort of originalist argument, then, well language changes, and we have phonologically adapted many thousands of loanwords, many from Latin and it’s decendant languages.  Even the claim that it is “two words” doesn’t hold up — et cetera, despite its spelling, is clearly seen as a single word by most English speakers, and we have dozens of loanwords where multiple words became reanalyzed as one.  Consider all the many Arabic loanwords reanalyze the article al as part of the word — such as alcohol, algebra, and alchemy.  And how many people who use terms like Je ne se quoi? really know the break down of the foreign words and what it means in the original language.

As usual, these variant pronunciations for et cetera are just variants, not errors.  They’re too widespread to really be called wrong.  Very few English speakers learn Latin nowadays, and they shouldn’t have to — it’s a dead language with limited applicability.  So stop treating a perfectly good English word as if it were still in the foreign language we borrowed it from.

TMS 4/26/2012: “Nip it in the butt”

I have been waiting since I started this blog for something like this to show up.  Nip it in the butt belongs to a special class of “errors” known as eggcorns, wherein a common word or phrase (often an idiom, as is the case here) wherein the change has some sort of logic for the speaker.  As the above linked Wikipedia article mentions, it was coined by linguist Geoff Pullum in response to this Language Log post, where Mark Lieberman was looking for a particular name for this kind of error and listed (among other things) a case where a woman wrote eggcorn for acorn (as many of you will know, the two would sound the same in much of Southern American English, and the bit under the cap of the acorn can look kind of like an egg).  The Eggcorn Database actually has an entry for nip it in the butt, if you are interested.

To me, eggcorns are just an evidence that we learn idioms as lexical units independantly of their actual structure.  In other words, when you learn an idiom like nip it in the bud or kick the bucket, the words don’t matter so much as the meaning of the entire unit.  In some cases, an eggcorn may actually come to become the preferred form, which may well happen with nip it in the butt — at which point it wouldn’t really be an error anymore.  Anyway, food for thought!  Feel free to share your own eggcorns for us all to hear! (I don’t know how to make Tumblr comments work, but everyone seems to discuss these on the Tadpool Facebook group anyway.)

TMS 4/25/2012: “Who are you wearing?”

OK, I don’t watch awards shows much, and red-carpet interviews even less.  But I must admit, Who are you wearing? bothers me not in the least.  ”But George,” you say, “you’re the Word Defender, none of these usages bother you.”  If you are the person in my formulaic straw-man reader impression, you do not read this blog closely enough.

In any case, the phrase Who are you wearing? is an interesting example of metonymy, a linguistic phenomenon where something is referred to by the name of something associated with it, such as using Washington to mean “the United States Federal Government”.  I think the most interesting thing about Who are you wearing? specifically is that the speaker is asking a question in a way that expects a metonym, a little like asking “What is your capital?” to find out what country someone is from.

Ultimately, I think that Who are you wearing? is really just a fun, pithy way to ask “Who designed your outfit?”, and feels quite natural in its rather restricted context of asking incredibly people who receive expensive outfits for free who gave them said free outfits so that they can pay back the designer with some advertising.  And really, what would Hollywood be without such things?

TMS 4/24/2012: hoplophobe

Today’s emailer has a point in that hoplophobe is not, in fact a medical term.  Whether or not that makes the word any less “real” is open for debate.  I think I should state up-front that I am in favor of gun control laws in general, particularly covering such things as automatic weapons.  However, when I put aside my political leanings (which of course bias me against the word), I see a couple of linguistic arguments to be made:

First of all, it is fairly typical for technical terms to get extended to different meanings in layman’s speech, particularly, it seems, in psychology.  How often have you heard the term antisocial applied to someone who is reclusive or shy (note: in psychology, the term actually applies to people who are highly manipulative and likely to commit crimes — basically — though of course there is more to the definition than that).  How about a use of claustrophobic to describe a particularly small or closed space, rather than a person with a fear of such spaces.

Given that, it seems a natural extension for people to coin new words using the conventions of psychology or any other field as a rhetorical device.  Meme is a similar coinage.

Now, I realized that many Tadpoolers who work as therapists or psychologists or other similar professions will be very annoyed at these extensions and coinages, and I don’t blame you.  I get rather annoyed myself sometimes at people using passive voice to refer to things that are not, syntactically, passive voice, or who use grammar for much less technical meanings, or even occassionally when inflection is used where I would say intonation or stress.*  But these things happen, and sometimes you have to deal with them.

Yes, it can be difficult to either correct friends and family every day or stew in silence, but anyone with any kind of specialized knowledge has the same problem — we all know people who just plain WRONG!  Sometimes, you just need a coping strategy — like attempting to defend words that are being condemned on a popular livestream and podcast.

That is all!

PS: OK, I just listened further and got into all this stuff about stumpifying and discombobulated (the latter of which strikes me as fairly common).  I could go on a big rant on how people calling things “not a word” is so often laughable and annoying at the same time, but this post is long enough.  All I will say right now is (and I’ve said this before): a word does not have to be in a dictionary to be a word.


*No, I am not a professional linguist, but I hope to become one some day,  and have familiarized myself with these terms in preparation.  Also, these terms are listed in order from most to least annoying, where my issue with inflection mostly negligible and indifferent, whereas I may correct you on passive voice

TMS 4/23/2012: IFYKWYM

Someone needs to correct me, was there actually an “F” in there?  It seems that the “F” variant, if used at all, is really rare.  Google corrects it to IYKWYM (which gets 861,000 results), and gives me no results for IFYKWYM when I click through.

Perhaps, it is something that occurs particularly in communities that the emailer is involved in.  I will say that many of the initialisms used on web fora can be confusing to the uninitiated, but IME*, they’re not all that frequent, and in the fora you really want to be part of, there are usually nice people who will define them if you ask (and of course, the more common ones are probably on Urban Dictionary).  All in all, these things tend to stay slangy and contained in a particular context, and I particularly don’t see any initialism as long and unwieldy as IFYKWYM jumping from online and perhaps text usage any time soon.  It has the ring of the strange initialisms that are coined by clueless parents on some sitcoms (sorry, my parents enjoy the Disney channel, and occasionally I see a bit of one of those ridiculous shows that are on it).

In short, IFYKWYM is probably not going anywhere.  And even if it were to jump into common speech — that’s not really a crime.  Heck, it could make some interesting shifts in semantics — after all, no one is precisely sure what OK originally meant (please don’t inundate me with theories, I’ve heard the common ones). 

*In my experience

TMS 4/19/2012: “circle back”

I never really understand the objections to these “corporatespeak” words, since I’ve never been in a corporate environment (nor analyzed a corpus from one), and thus never gained the sense of them being overused.  Circle back seems to me to be a perfectly good metaphor for returning to a topic later on, aka “tabling” something, since the term, at least in my estimation, usually refers to a vehicle going back somewhere in a roundabout way (like a car going around a few blocks to get back to where it was).

I dunno, if people are overusing it, it makes sense that people grow to hate it.  Of course, I wonder if highly educated English speakers are especially sensitive to “overuse”, since English writing seems to avoid repeating content words through use of synonymy.  But anyway, yeah, I can’t defend overuse, but I’m always against outright bans, as usual.

TMS 4/18/2012: “anyways”

I was rather interested to see that anyways.  I also knew exactly where to look, as it just so happens that Gabe Doyle of Motivated grammar wrote a post on the subject to kick off his S-Series, where he talks about a number of disputed usages involving the presence or absence of  Gabe notes that, according to the Google n-gram, both variants were about equal in terms of use until around 1860, when anyway suddenly shot far ahead of anyways.

Also, Brian Ibbot is wrong to think of anyways as plural — historically, it’s a genitive (that -s being a relative of the possessive clitic -’s itself the surviving relic of the Old English genitive suffix -es), though since etymology is not meaning, I think we can say that the -s doesn’t really carry any meaning to modern speakers.

In the end, I think I will sum it up with Gabe’s summary, which gives some sage usage advice I fully agree with:

There’s nothing wrong with anyways; it’s merely nonstandard. But a lot of people consider it an indication of poor education, so you may want to be cautious about using it if you are beholden to other people’s opinions.