The Last Straw Revisited

July 7, 2022

In an earlier post on this blog (from 2009), Y-H-B pointed out the increasing tendency in English speech and writing on both sides of the Atlantic to mistakenly substitute the word “final” for the the traditional and normative “last” in the phrase “the last straw.” This speech error has penetrated even scholarly writing, as I witnessed today in rereading a book on Tchaikovsky by a British author, John Suchet, who uses “final” instead of the traditional “last” more than once.
This mistake is an illustration not only of hypertrophy (v. my earler post) but of lack of historical knowledge. The complete phrase is “the straw that broke the camel’s back” which comes from an old Arab fable.


‘Around’ as an All-Purpose Preposition

June 29, 2022

In the last decade (or longer) the preposition around has come to serve in media language as an all-purpose word instead of words and phrases such as “with regard to,“ “concerning,” and “regarding.” The object of around  can be any word or phrase, which makes this preposition ubiquitous. Why it has taken English so long in its history to elevate around to all-purpose utility is just one of those ever-lurking mysteries of language use.


Language in the Context of Interpretation and Cognition

April 30, 2022

Since this blog deals mainly with facts of current American speech, Y-H-B has refrained from expatiating on theoretical matters. However, recently the opportunity for me to teach a course on theory at a Vermont institution (nomina sunt odiosa) has loomed on the horizon (hopefully, despite the rampant ageism that has presented an insuperable barrier to my resuming my college teraching career). I will, therefore, share with readers a course description that will give them an idea of what the thinking behind this blog has been, as follows.


            This course is inspired by the life and work of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), widely acknowledged as an American Renaissance man, our country’s greatest thinker, and the only native son who ranks among the world’s great philosophers. It is distinguished by its interdisciplinary scope and its orientation towards Peirce’s theory of signs (what he called the semeiotic, following Locke), which offers the hope that it may reveal and also foster links of method and of aim among the “three worlds”––the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities (including here the academic disciplines, criticism, and the creative arts). Peirce’s whole philosophy, of which his theory of signs is the centerpiece, is an immense synthesis of the key ideas of modern science with the classical logical paradigm that traces its origins from Aristotle through the Stoics, Locke, and Kant. Peirce’s great achievement is the addition of the theory of interpretation. The course’s significance, therefore, derives in part from its focus on interpretation as the key to understanding the foundations of the separate disciplines.
The purpose of the course is to introduce students to a common language that has the power to underwrite modern interdisciplinary studies––in this century and beyond. Peirce’s theory of interpretation, which is at the heart of his semeiotic, treats ideas as integral to the “reality” of human experience, whether the data are derived from observation of the natural world, the earth and the heavens, or people and societies.
Science adds to our knowledge, advancing from the known to the unknown, by a coordinate use of both abductive (hypothetical) and inductive inference, both by the recognition of similarities and the shock of contrast and opposition. Peirce’s conception of the interpretant as a law or rule, invariably instantiated in individual signs, is his most radical advance and provides a systematic understanding of the way this coordination does its work.
The course will draw upon various theoretical and methodological perspectives: the study of behavior and of the structural generalities that bind individuals and groups typologically and historically; the study of ideology or of a culture’s representation of itself in its visual and verbal forms; and the study of the articulation of meaning, wherever it might be situated, whether in scientific analysis or in humanistic discourse. Each of these approaches and emphases offers important insights into the role of interpretation in defining the foundations of the various disciplines in their interconnections.
The centrality of interpretation will be brought out by pursuing three themes, which have been chosen to give students of diverse backgrounds and interests a feeling for the kind of synthesis that a coherent interdisciplinary perspective can provide. The themes, in order of presentation during the semester’s work, together with their associated issues, are as follows:

1. SIGNS AND COGNITION. Peirce conceived of his semeiotic as a theory of cognition (following Plato and Locke). What research program will enable sign theory and cognitive science to join hands successfully with the natural sciences? Like many other philosophers and scientists, Peirce was fascinated by the morphology of the natural world. How can modern cognitive science, particularly linguistics, implement Peirce’s understanding that the natural world’s diversity and complexity cannot be explained merely by reference to physical, mechanical, or thermodynamic forces? What is the role of interpretation and the structure of thought in relation to the various disciplines? How can Peirce’s sign theory and his concept of final causation be understood as congruent with contemporary notions in evolutionary biology such as genetic program? Peirce’s theory proposes general answers to some of the questions enumerated above, specifically in alignment with his pragmatist conception of meaning and reality.

2. THE ANALOGY BETWEEN GRAMMAR AND NATURE. The course will raise questions about language as a foundational metaphor, an issue that goes back beyond Aristotle to prehistory and is to be found in almost all cultures. Should one attempt to analyze the language of nature like the human body, or the human psyche, “grammatically?” Which aspects of nature are (so to speak) its nouns, verbs, and adjectives? What is its syntax? Pursuing the analogy between grammar and nature in the spirit of such queries will necessarily involve confronting various disciplinary paradigms in their conceptual foundations. The semeiotic approach in Peirce’s sense takes anything whatever, including inorganic matter, as potentially significant: anything is capable of signifying if taken to be a sign, i.e., capable of “causing” an interpretation.

3. HISTORICAL EXPLANATION IN THE HUMANITIES AND THE SCIENCES. Since historical explanation is the mode of explanation in all disciplines where the agent’s purpose is central, what kind of logic do we need in order to deal with historical and evolutionary change as well as action? To what extent is the idea underpinning historical method, that a good description constitutes an explanation, applicable to the language-oriented disciplines? What is the relationship between synchronic and diachronic explanation? Can any given state of affairs (the “synchronic slice”) be explained with a more exact understanding of its causality by its evolution? Historical inquiry can be called a “science” in the measure that it utilizes rules of appropriateness grounded in schemas of practical inference. Do these schemas provide an objective framework for the explanatory practice of historians as well as all who utilize (retrospective) interpretation, like biologists and linguists? Peirce’s entire philosophy is based on a profound understanding of the role of history and evolutionary growth in the structure of knowledge. His theory of final causation is coordinated with the theory of signs in an organic way.

The major objectives and emphases of this course can be characterized by considering the “eccentric” position peculiar to human beings and the “third world” (in Karl Popper’s terminology) which expresses our eccentricity. Peirce’s conception of man as a sign, and of the universe as a semeiotic universe, is perhaps the deepest, most fertile, most imaginative, and most practically applicable form of this fundamental matrix of the human universe. Our bodies make us members of the physical world, permeated by forces and energies, events and interactions. Our psyche is a center, a perspective of feelings, emotions, and efforts, tendencies, dreams, by which the world of bodies is captured, tasted, chewed, swallowed, digested, or spewed back in disgust or enjoyment. Our eccentricity lies in the third world, the world of dialogue between the external and the internal worlds–what Peirce (early in his career) called the “Tuistical” ( and (later) the Semeiotic World.
Although Peirce was a mathematician, logician, and scientist, his semeiotic recognizes the importance of feeling, emotion, sensation, sentiment, action. Put another way, the semeiotic offers us not only a way to understand science as a human enterprise, it also offers an approach to literature and the arts, to religion, to society, to the whole of the third world that lies between the private incommunicable interior and the vast spaces of the exterior universe.


Comment by Robert Rothstein on Last Post

April 23, 2022

As the author in the last century of a term paper for Roman Jaokobson on “Paronomasia in the Igor’ Tale, I was happy to see your most recent blogpost. Moreover one of my physical therapist’s favorite expressions is “Let’s get movin’ and groovin’. This coincidence led me to refer to the source of all wisdom, viz. Wikipedia, where I learned thatDuane Eddy’s first single (Moovin’ ‘N’ Groovin’) was a tune that he wrote with Lee Hazlewood, an Arizona disc jockey whom the guitarist had met while hanging out at a radio station as a teenager. Eddy and Hazlewood would go on to collaborate on a string of hit instrumental hits, including “Peter Gunn Theme,” “Boss Guitar” and “Rebel Rouser.”
Some music scholars cite this as the first true example of Surf music, partly because The Beach Boys borrowed the opening riff for their tune “Surfin’ Safari.” “Yeah, they used it,” Eddy told Spinner with shrugs and a chuckle, “and I never cared. That’s just music, sharing little bits of melody and all, no big deal. You know, Bobby Darin asked me about using the title, Moovin’ ‘N’ Groovin’, in his song ‘Splish Splash.’ No problem, I told him.”

Paronomasia in Everyday American Speech

April 22, 2022

Expatiating on a topic that has been broached here before, this morning Y-H-B was waiting to have his car serviced when the advisor came up to me and said: “Your repair is movin’ and groovin’.” It is clear that by using a phrase from common parlance influenced by the whole rap and hip-hop culture we are all assaulted by daily, the advisor wanted to emphasize to me that my car would soon be finished.

All paronomasia is a form of repetition––in this case that of sound. The most prominent species of paronomasia is, of course, rhyme, which is utilized not only in poetry but in ordinary discourse and in advertising. The effect of repetition, whether it occurs in speech, in fashion, or in other forms of behavior, always adds emphasis to what is being expressed. That is also repetition’s functional core.


The Aesthetics of Speech and Speaking

March 29, 2022

On speaking to a lady serving Y-H-B in a local grocery store this morning, I was struck by the beauty of her voice, which was deep without being mannish and well modulated. This contrasted with her appearance, which was not particularly pleasing aesthetically (without being ugly by any means). This reminded me that speaking involves––whatever  else it may be––the voice of the speaker, with varying features normally depending on sex, age, and physical size, including that of the larynx.

Speech is necessarily delivered in a normal speaking voice, which has characteristics of tone, quality, and loudness. The impression a speaker makes on a hearer is thus dependent to a certain degree on these characteristics. Not all speakers are equally aware of the impression their speaking voices make on interlocutors. In most situations this does not have a direct bearing on the content of what is being spoken, but there is no doubt that one’s overall evaluation by others of one’s character is qualitatively dependent in part on one’s speaking voice.


Ukraine Yet Again

March 6, 2022

Because Ukraine is back in the news yet again, one keeps hearing the dialectal pronunciation of the word, with stress on the initial vowel, rather than the standard pronunciation on the final. For instance, the current Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, who has degrees from Harvard and Columbia, consistently mispronounces this word. In view of the word’s current prominence in the media, here is a slightly edited repetition of the post on September 29, 2019:

The word “Ukraine” has been uttered ad nauseam in all the media reports on the Russian invasion of that country. More often than not, the various reporters and hosts cannot seem to decide which vowel gets the stress in this word, to the point where both initial and final stress can occur in the same sentence. Little do the utterers of the word realize that the variant with initial stress is non-standard, even dialectal. It follows the pattern established by such items as guitar and insurance in Southern American English.

In this era of universal media saturation, one cannot but be gobsmacked by the fact that speakers of Standard American English falter when it comes to uttering Ukraine. What homunculus possesses them to mispronounce it thus [NOT “thusly”!]?




A New Article by Y-H-B

February 25, 2022

Readers of this blog can now examine the newest article by Y-H-B, ““Language as Semiosis: A Neo-Structuralist Perspective in the Light of Pragmaticism,” Chinese Semiotic Studies, 18 (2022), 131-146. It can be accessed by clicking on the link “PDFs of Papers by Michael Shapiro” under the title “Semiosis.” Cf. also the comment  (in a recent email to the author) by Vincent Colapietro, one of the world’s leading Peirce scholars (and a friend of long-standing), to wit: This is a very important essay, a distillation of years of intensely focused thought, but more than this a deepening of some of your most important insights into the nature of language and, more generally, of symbols. In sum, bravo!”


The Emotive Value of Yiddish

February 20, 2022

As has been characterized several times on this blog, Yiddish words and phrases as used in (American) English have a distinct role to play in uttertances with an emotive tinge. This aspect of lexicology and phraseology was brought to the fore of Y-H-B’s consciousness recently when he remembered that as an octogenarian he was approaching the status of an “alter kaker,” alias an “old geezer.” The difference between these two phrases is purely emotive to those speakers of American English who know both, and the nub of the difference is in the word kaker, which literally means ‘shit(-ter)’. The presence of the Yiddish profane verb root gives the phrase a pointedness that the translation lacks. Sic transit gloria mundi!


ADDENDUM: A better English equivalent for the Yiddish would be “old fart.”

Proposing a Neologism (= new word): Covidaceous

February 9, 2022

Even though the word ‘covid’ is a dephrasal abbreviation (< ‘coronovirus disease’), an appropriate derived adjective can and should be proposed, viz. ‘covidaceous’, on the model of arenaceous ‘resembling, made of, or containing sand or sandy particles’.
I hereby launch covidaceous for general use.