• Monthly Archives: December 2013

Twerk: An Etymology

December 28, 2013

In the twenty-first century generally, and more recently in particular, the verb twerk (from which the dance called twerking is derived) has become widely known in popular culture to denote ‘the rhythmic gyrating of the lower fleshy extremities in a lascivious manner with the intent to elicit sexual arousal or laughter in ones [sic] intended audience’ (Urban Dictionary). The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as follows: ‘dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance’. And Dictionary.com, basing itself on the OED, says:


verb (used without object) Slang.
to dance to hip-hop or pop music in a very sensual way typically by thrusting or shaking the buttocks and hips while in a squatting or bent-over position.

1990–95,  Americanism; probably alteration of work, as in “Work it”

There is no accepted etymology for the word, but here is a plausible hypothesis that reposes on the form-meaning relations between the initial and final sequences in twerk, on the one hand, and a synthetic meaning that can be assembled from the generalized meanings of words that contain these sequences, on the other. Far from being a portmanteau word (blend), therefore, twerk is what should be called a synthetic icon. Here is the evidence.

The initial sequence tw– occurring in words like twist, twerp, twine, twig, twit, twitter, and (N.B.) twat can be generalized to signify an icon of an additive meaning consisting of the elements ‘contorted’, ‘thin or of limited extent’, and ‘awkward or devalued’. The final sequence –rk that occurs in words like jerk, quirk, dork (N. B.!), and snark can be analyzed as connoting something that is ‘egregious’, ‘marginal’, ‘outlandish’, and ‘rude or sarcastic’.

Twerk, accordingly, is a composite or synthetic product of these semantic elements as realized in a verb that particularizes the elements by applying them to a specific kind of dance. This, then, is the most plausible etymology of the word.


The Supersession of Literal Meaning (incredibly, unbelievably)

In contemporary American English parlance (but not only), the words incredibly and unbelievably have all but replaced very, highly, and extremely as designations of the ultimate degree of the adjective they qualify. The fact that the literal meaning of the former––namely, ‘not susceptible of belief’––runs athwart the assertion of ultimate degree looms as a perverse semantic development: if something cannot be believed or is not credible, how can it simultaneously be valorized as obtaining for the adjective thus qualified?

The answer, of course, lies in the tendency of all languages to create new meanings through troping, i. e., by subordinating or submerging the literal in the transferred sense. Here the state of not being believable is given the figurative meaning  of ultimate degree. Ultimacy is to be interpreted, accordingly, as the state of beggared belief. The ultimate degree of assertibility, in other words, lies in a semantic space beyond believability, and it is only the tropologically established convertibility between the two states––assertibility implying believability––that conduces to the rise of the new counter-literal meaning of the two privative adverbs.


The Mentality of a Neologism (game-changer)

December 27, 2013

Since sometime in the early 1990s, two words have entered American English vocabulary that are frequently heard and read in the media, as noted in the Oxford English Dictionary Online, namely:

game-changer n. orig. U.S.  (a) Sport a player who, or tactic, goal, etc., which decisively affects the outcome of a game;  (b) (in extended use) an event, idea, or procedure that produces a significant shift in the current way of thinking about or doing something.

game-changing adj. orig. U.S.  (a) Sport that decisively affects the outcome of a game;  (b) (in extended use) that produces a significant shift in the current way of doing or thinking about something.

Now, there is nothing out of the ordinary about these two words in their meaning as applied to sports, but the “extended use” warrants commentary because it betrays yet again the mentality of speakers of American English in particular, derived in large part from the general English heritage of an attitude that regards everything as either “a show” or “a game.” Sentences like “Let’s get the show on the road” or “Who’s running the show?,” when no stage performance is literally involved and the application of the word show is in a purely transferred sense, is a special feature of English, hence not to be encountered in other languages. The same transference applies to game, whereby everything is capable of being likened to play-acting or artifice. Note, interestingly, that play and show are part of the same semantic universe, denoting as they do some variety of staged event for entertainment that is more properly to be observed in a theater, a stadium, or an arena than in real life.


The Lure of Latin (Sherlock Holmes and the Science of Abduction)

December 21, 2013

To a writer of the old school, whose academic training dates back to the ’50s and ’60s of the last century, working in a Latin phrase is akin to flashing a badge of one’s scholarly credentials, and the lure is strong. At one time, before the onset of the digital age, there was nothing unusual about reading the following utterance of Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson in Conan Doyle’s novel The Sign of the Four: “Quite so. They are in a state of extreme contraction, far exceeding the usual rigor mortis. Coupled with this distortion of the face, this Hippocratic smile, or ‘risus sardonicus,’ as the old writers called it, what conclusion would it suggest to your mind?” Here, note Holmes’s stylistic qualification, “as the old writers called it,” marking the Latin phrase as already somewhat obsolescent at the time of writing. Speaking of Holmes and the lure of Latin, here is a fresh example, meant originally for publication in the public press.

Lately, in these pages [The NY Times] and elsewhere in the media––including movies, plays, and even letters to the editor––there have been numerous mentions of and adversions to Sherlock Holmes, the fictional master detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In Conan Doyle’s early second novel, The Sign of the Four (1890), the opening chapter is entitled “The Science of Deduction,” meant to characterize the mode of reasoning (“deduction”) that is Holmes’s stock in trade and that enables him to solve even the most abstruse cases. Indirectly, moreover, that is what the famous retort––”Elementary, my dear Watson,” by which we all know Sherlock but which he never actually utters in any of the Holmesian canon––refers to, which is his power of making correct inferences or educated guesses from seemingly unconnected pieces of evidence.

But the word “deduction” as used by Conan Doyle and all other writers before and after is actually a misnomer. The correct name for the type of reasoning at stake is “abduction,” and the distinction is far from trivial. The name was coined in 1867 by the greatest intellect the Americas have ever produced, the philosopher-scientist Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), whose work in logic alone places him in the same rank as Aristotle and Leibniz.

Deduction, induction, and abduction are the three fundamental modes of reasoning that constitute the traditional syllogism of logic. Deduction proceeds from correct premisses and valid cases to reach unassailable conclusions. Thus if “All men are mortal” (premiss) and “Socrates is a man” (case), then the deduced conclusion “Socrates is mortal” follows without fail. Induction, by contrast, tests the law (premiss) by applying extant cases to it. Hence, if “Socrates is mortal” is a valid conclusion and “Socrates is a man” a valid case, then the law “All men are mortal” is valid by induction.

But––crucially––stating that something is the case is the only mode of reasoning that is fallible, since it is invariably subject to further testing, wherein its validity may or may not be borne out. Knowing that (1) all men are mortal and that (2) Socrates is mortal does not prove that (3) Socrates is a man because Socrates may turn out to be a horse or an inanimate object and not a man at all. We may guess wrong despite the evidence, although as Peirce argued, we have a propensity to guess right, otherwise we wouldn’t have survived as a species. Using Peirce’s word in its verbal form, we all have the power to abduce the truth from (typically scant) evidence. In this respect, Sherlock Holmes is only a superlatively talented exemplar of homo abducans.

All new knowledge, therefore, comes about exclusively through abduction, which is the technical logical term synonymous with the more familiar “hypothesis.” All advances in science begin as hypotheses (abductive inferences) that are borne out upon (repeated) testing. Here is how Peirce put it to the audience of his lectures on pragmatism at Harvard in 1903: “The surprising fact, C, is observed; But if A were true, C would be a matter of course. Hence, there is reason to suspect that A is true.” The verb “suspect” is particularly apt in the context of Holmes’s powers of detection. This word describes the action of the educated guess. Equally apt, accordingly, is the phrase “matter of course”. This is implicit in the opening adjective of the factitious phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson.” QED.

Peirce was so great a thinker that no university could find a place for him during his lifetime. He suffered terribly at the end, living on the charity of his friend William James and taking morphine for the trigeminal neuralgia and cancer that ultimately killed him. But just like Sherlock Holmes, who palliated his boredom with violin-playing and cocaine, Peirce will live forever in history and in our imaginations as an icon of that uniquely human cognitive capacity, abduction, to which he gave a name and Holmes embodied ne plus ultra.


The Case of the Missing Postposition (“Thanks for having me.”)

December 20, 2013

The English verb to have is, along with be and do, the most multifarious member of its class, with a great variation of senses and uses, including that of an auxiliary. An extended case is the use of have with postpositions. For example, to have on means ‘to puzzle or deceive intentionally; to chaff, tease; to hoax’.

The interference from this last construction’s meaning may be partly responsible for the all-but-ubiquitous contemporary use of have without the postposition on––i. e., “Thanks for having me”––in the response of interviewees to a radio or television interviewer’s expression of thanks as an opening gambit in such media conversations. But this form of the response is actually the result of a further grammatical contamination from the meaning of have without a postposition in the usage that is shorthand for invite or entertain. From the beginning of radio as a medium of communication, the postposition has been de rigueur in denoting appearance on a program. One can still hear careful speakers saying “Thanks for having me on,” although this correct usage is lamentably receding into oblivion under the onslaught of the erroneously conflated one.


A Heraclitean Gloss on the Nature of Speech

December 17, 2013

The Heraclitean fragment cited in the previous post lends itself to a further explication as it bears on the nature of speech, as follows.

When Heraclitus says of palintropos harmoniē that it is “like that of the bow and lyre,” one can take it as a description of physical events that apply to these two “instruments” with respect to the movement of a string in each case: the string returns to a state of rest after being drawn or plucked, and harmony is thereby reestablished. Although this explanation is not countermanded by any other and does not itself contradict any figuratively oriented one, still the fragment might be more generally explicated by referring it to the cultural circumstances of a poetic competition. It would, in other words, represent a Heraclitean figuration of the polyphonic nature of speech—and, by extension, of men and the world—all of which are in their essence defined by a form of conflict that requires an ultimate resolution. If one were to say that Heraclitus is the first great master of artistic prose, then he might also be called the first polyphonic author.

For modern readers (let alone for Heraclitus) the word palintropos could allude to the figurative meaning of bow and lyre in virtue of its use of –tropos (‘turning’) to configure tropes or metaphors. “A thing at variance with itself” would be a particularly apt and profound way of describing the ontology of a trope, in which the opposition of figural and literal meaning must simultaneously be present and resolved. A text of this sort––no matter how fragmentary––requires the same approach.


Harmony, Linguistic and Musical

December 15, 2013

My hero, Charles Peirce, rightly says that logic exists in the service of ethics, and ethics in the service of aesthetics. Following this triadic characterization of the foundations of knowledge, both language and music, in order to be good and beautiful, must be underpinned by well-formedness, alias logic. Thus even a child’s grammatically and lexically well-formed utterance is to be deemed superior to an adult’s cacoglossic one, just as the harmonically grammatical commercial jingle always puts the typically cacophonic piece of contemporary classical music to shame. In this matter, my favorite pre-Socratic philosopher, Heraclitus “The Obscure” (of “No man ever steps in the same river twice” fame), has something pertinent to say.

One of Heraclitus’ most famously enigmatic fragments goes like this:

Οὐ ξυνίασι ὅκως διαφερόμενον ἑωυτῷ ὁμολογέει·
παλίντροπος ἁρμονίη ὅκωσπερ τόξου καὶ λύρης.

Ou xyniasin hokōs diaferomenon heoutoi homologeei palintropos harmoniē hokōsper toxou kai lyres.     

(“They do not comprehend how a thing agrees at variance with itself [literally how being brought apart it is brought together with itself]; it is an attunement turning back on itself, like that of the bow and the lyre.”)

This fragment is typical of Heraclitus’ forma mentis in that it begins with a negation (“They do not comprehend”) that seems to be a polemical retort to and denial of some prior position held by others. This immediately engages dialogism as a constitutive principle of the form of Heraclitus’ utterance. Leaving aside the phrase “at variance with itself” for the moment, what is crucial to the interpretation of the whole fragment is the combination palintropos harmoniē (backward-turning structure [attunement/connection]). The original sense of harmoniē seems to have been joining or fitting together, and that is the way it is used by Homer and Herodotus among others in the context of carpentry or shipbuilding. But harmoniē also has from the beginning a figurative meaning—“agreements” or “compacts” between hostile men (as in the Iliad)—from which it can move to the connotation of reconciliation (personified, for instance, as the child of Ares and Aphrodite in Hesiod’s Theogony). Finally, harmoniē occurs in the familiar musical sense of the “fitting together” of different strings to produce the desired scale or key.

It is in this final sense that speaking harmoniously is accordingly a matter of fitting together the bow and the lyre. But in order to be aesthetically pleasing, language use must be undergirded by both ethics and logic. This is where Heraclitus joins hands with Peirce.


Emphasis in Spoken English and Its Abuse

December 14, 2013

Every language has ways of emphasizing all or parts of utterances, either by altering the phonological makeup of words (phonological emphasis) or by inserting or repeating words (lexical emphasis). In English the most common mode of emphasis is (1) lengthening stressed vowels or adding stress where it is otherwise absent (hypermetrical stress); and (2) lengthening stressed or unstressed vowels or both. This can be observed in items like /pəˈliːz/(sometimes written puhleeze) for please, i. e., pronounced with an epenthetic (inserted) semi-stressed schwa vowel between the initial consonants and an extra-long stressed vowel on what is now the second syllable. Any word that denotes the extreme grade of anything, typically an adjective, can be emphasized by pronouncing the stressed vowel with greater length, as in way (meaning ‘very’), huge, enormous, etc. The intonational contour of that part of the utterance that contains the emphasized element will vary accordingly, i. e., with a greater rise and fall than usual.

Lexical emphasis takes place when a word typically meaning the high or ultimate degree of anything so qualified is inserted, e. g., very, huge, utter, terrific, and nowadays the ubiquitous absolute(ly). This latter, particularly in its adverbial form, has come to be practically a verbal tic in some speakers of American English, to the point where it stands as a routine substitute for the plain affirmative yes. This has the unwelcome effect of producing the impression that the utterer has no means of distinguishing assertion from emphasis, which in the final analysis is a failure of thought and thus reflects negatively on the intelligence of the speaker.


Words Qualified and Contrasted

December 12, 2013

Every culture regards words as special things, and languages often reflect this view by qualifying them through the affixation of adjectives; or by contrasting them with non-verbal realia, typically animals. Thus in English we have winged words, fighting words, leaden words, etc., etc.

One feature of the spoken word from the perspective of folk wisdom and the traditional agrarian milieu in which proverbs and sayings arise is the irretrievability of words once uttered. Thus in Russian one says: Слово не воробей, вылетит (выпустишь)—не поймаешь (slovo ne vorobej, vyletit/vypustish’-––ne pojmaesh’), literally: ‘a word is not a sparrow; if it flies out/if you release it, you won’t catch it’; or in Japanese (courtesy of Jacobus Primus): ばず (shi mo shita ni oyobazu, which goes back to Confucius’ Analects)––literally: ‘even a four-horse team/carriage is not the equal of/cannot catch up with a tongue’. Ergo: Watch what you say!


Statistical Norms of Speech Production

While it is undoubtedly true that every speaker of a language possesses unique traits of speech production that constitute what is called an idiolect, it is nonetheless also true that native speakers of any language adhere to certain statistical norms in producing speech that are characteristic of that language. These norms are what make it possible for speakers to identify linguistic tokens of a given language as authentically English, German, Russian, etc., although they may not be able to state what these norms are. It is also what enables speakers to make correct judgments about speech that deviates from authentic instances of native speech.

The intuitive grasp of statistical norms of speech production is illustrated by the following occurrence on the streets of New York, where over eight hundred languages are purportedly spoken at the present time. YHB was walking west on East 71st Street in Manhattan a few yards behind a woman pushing a stroller, close enough to hear her speaking on a cell phone without being able to tell what she was saying. To a native speaker of Russian able only to recognize the intonation and the general phonetic profile of speech being produced “into the air,” it was still possible to make an educated guess that the woman with the stroller was speaking Russian. This guess was indeed confirmed when the distance between speaker and hearer became narrow enough for the language to be recognized.

In the same way, every person with a sufficient command of a language (and not just native speakers) can identify a foreign accent, although the ability to “place” the accent varies with individual linguistic acuity and experience. Some foreign accents are so common and so broad as to be routinely identifiable without difficulty. These are the accents that commonly lend themselves to mimicry and to theatrical imitation for comic or parodic effect.