In a Shambles

March 1, 2009

The investor Warren Buffett is famous for his financial acumen, but this astuteness does not seem to extend to his command of English phraseology. In this respect, his omission of the indefinite article from the phrase in a shambles repeats a ubiquitous error, as in the following excerpt from Mr. Buffet’s recent letter to his company’s shareholders:

“We’re certain, for example, that the economy will be in shambles throughout 2009 –and, for that matter, probably well beyond – but that conclusion does not tell us whether the stock market will rise or fall [emphasis added].” Warren E. Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway Inc.: Shareholder Letters, 2008 (February 27, 2009, p. 4).

It is instructive to be made aware of the origin of the phrase in question. Here is the relevant entry in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2004):

pl. n. (used with a sing. verb)
a. A scene or condition of complete disorder or ruin: “The economy was in a shambles” (W. Bruce Lincoln).
b. Great clutter or jumble; a total mess: made dinner and left the kitchen a shambles.
a. A place or scene of bloodshed or carnage.
b. A scene or condition of great devastation.
3. A slaughterhouse.
4. Archaic A meat market or butcher shop.
[From Middle English shamel, shambil, place where meat is butchered and sold, from Old English sceamol, table, from Latin scabillum, scamillum, diminutive of scamnum, bench, stool.]
Word History: A place or situation referred to as a shambles is usually a mess, but it is no longer always the bloody mess it once was. The history of the word begins innocently enough with the Latin word scamnum, “a stool or bench serving as a seat, step, or support for the feet, for example.” The diminutive scamillum, “low stool,” was borrowed by speakers of Old English as sceamol, “stool, bench, table.” Old English sceamol became Middle English shamel, which developed the specific sense in the singular and plural of “a place where meat is butchered and sold.” The Middle English compound shamelhouse meant “slaughterhouse,” a sense that the plural shambles developed (first recorded in 1548) along with the figurative sense “a place or scene of bloodshed” (first recorded in 1593). Our current, more generalized meaning, “a scene or condition of disorder,” is first recorded in 1926 [emphasis added].

Considering the existence of phrases like in disarray and in decline––NB the abstract substantives!––it is clear that the myriad speakers (and writers) who drop the article from in a shambles are simply allowing the analogy of such phrases to hold sway over the entire class of phrases denoting the condition, including ones involving the figurative use of a concrete substantive where the indefinite article is de rigueur. But the innovation remains an error nonetheless. Catachresis? Yes. Imperfect learning? Yes, of course.



February 5, 2009

As a pendant to the last post (“Imperfect Learning”), this one will emphasize the failure of thought involved in the error called CATACHRESIS, a term usually reserved for rhetoric rather than grammar. Thus the one-volume American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language gives an abbreviated definition, as follows: 1. The misapplication of a word or phrase, as the use of blatant to mean “flagrant.” 2. The use of a strained figure of speech, such as a mixed metaphor.
A much more informative definition is displayed in that nonpareil multivolume lexicographic source, The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (vol. 1, p. 853): 1. In rhet.: (a) A figure by which a word is used to designate an object, idea, or act to which it can be applied only by an exceptional or undue extension of its proper sphere of meaning: as, to stone (pelt) a person with bricks; a palatable tone; to display one’s horsemanship in riding a mule; to drink from a horn of ivory. Catachresis differs from metaphor in that it does not replace one word with another properly belonging to a different act or object, but extends the use of a word in order to apply it to something for which the language supplies no separate word. (b) A violent or inconsistent metaphor: as, to bend the knee of one’s heart; to take arms against a sea of troubles. (c) In general, a violent or forced use of a word.––. In philol., the employment of a word under a false form through misapprehension in regard to its origin: thus, causeway and crawfish or crayfish have their forms by catachresis [emphasis added].
It is this last definition that characterizes a grammatical error in the strict sense. Two such flagrant mistakes that can be heard constantly are the misuse of the phrase “beg the question” (cf. petitio principii, i.e., circular reasoning, circular argument, begging the question; in general, the fallacy of assuming as a premiss a statement which has the same meaning as the conclusion.), when the speaker wishes simply to say “raise the question;” and “vicious cycle” for “vicious circle” (circulus vitiōsus, i.e., a circular or flawed argument).


Imperfect Learning

January 7, 2009

Unlike the genetic code, language is a learned code, and in this arena of human activity, as in all other human endeavor, errare humanum est. Error, moreover, is exclusively within the human realm, having no direct counterpart in nature despite having a natural history. Part of that history, when it comes to language, as with all social codes, is imperfect learning.
Children routinely make mistakes when learning their native language, and the degree to which their mistakes are rooted out by parents and other adults (and older children) in part determines the lineaments of linguistic change. Adult native speakers with the requisite amount of education can be reckoned to have a more or less complete command of their language, the range of completeness varying with factors such as book learning or technical knowledge, by which syntax–– and particularly vocabulary–– can continue to be expanded over the span of one’s entire life.
But even adult speakers make mistakes that are the product of imperfect learning. This is evident to anyone who makes a special point of observing how people speak (and write).
The opportunity to observe imperfect learning has been considerably expanded by modern media. One hears many voices on the radio using English either as a native language or a lingua franca, and one need not listen long before hearing a mistake.
Frank Deford, whose commentaries on sports are heard weekly on National Public Radio, is described as a writer with many books and essays to his credit. Nevertheless, in commenting on college football (“Morning Edition,” KPCC 89.3, Pasadena, Jan. 7, 2009) he uttered the solecism “strange duck” instead of “odd duck;” (odd is apt here not simply because it is the traditional epithet but because of the repeated [d] that led to these two words being juxtaposed in the set phrase odd duck). One cannot blithely ascribe this error to a writer’s penchant for creative idiosyncrasy: it’s a mistake tout court.
Foreigners who resort to English as a lingua franca, no matter how fluent, are especially prone to mistakes that arise from imperfect learning. Thus the Israeli novelist Amos Oz, whose thick accent belies a near-perfect command of English syntax and vocabulary, when interviewed on National Public Radio (“Morning Edition,” KPCC 89.3, Pasadena, Jan. 7, 2009) used the solecism “uprise” (obviously but nonetheless erroneously back-formed from the noun uprising) as if it were a verb of English. Such instances of imperfect learning can even encompass the most hackneyed items: Mr. Oz also changed at the end of the day to “in the end of the day.” Interestingly, he closed his side of the interview by demonstrating a tacit solidarity with contemporary American English grammar by uttering the erroneous “Thanks for having me,” i. e. omitting the postposition on––a linguistic phenomenon that has reached near ubiquity in the cloyingly unctuous etiquette of radio interviewees.


Fatuous Bookishness (“That said,” etc.)

December 8, 2008

With the global rise of literacy and the spread of mass communication in the modern period has come the well-known phenomenon of what might be called the “bookification” of spoken language. What is meant by this is the migration of bookish expressions from the written domicile they previously inhabited exclusively into the sphere of spoken language.

In American English a relatively recent example of this phenomenon is the penetration into public speech of the written-language expressions “that (being) said” and “having said that” as sentence-introductory clauses. Instead of sticking with the tried-and-true, stylistically neutral “nevertheless,” “all the same,” and “at the same time” to qualify what they had just said, persons who speak publicly (but not only) frequently resort to these rebarbative expressions involving the past passive participle “said” in what can be evaluated as an unconscious (?) bid to sound more authoritative or well-informed. This is yet another instance of the widespread and powerful influence of media language on changes in the stylistic norms defining the boundaries between written and oral speech. The cumulative result of such changes is a general growth in the pretentiousness and fatuousness of spoken discourse––evaluated, moreover, as being stylistically neutral––where plain-spokenness would have been normative heretofore. Ultimately, such changes can only serve to undermine the truth-seeking impulse of the human animal in its linguistic aspect.


Pleonastically Extruded Adjectives

October 16, 2008

Adjectival phrases like small handful and young kid keep being uttered and written in contemporary American English, evidently without their producers being aware of the fact that they are pleonastic, i.e. the adjective is redundant: the meaning of the adjective is already contained in the semantic makeup of the noun it modifies. Handful, meaning ‘the amount that can fit in one’s hand’, is ‘small’ by definition. Likewise, kid, whether the referent is the young of a goat (its original sense) or of a human being, is just that: ‘young’.
Why “extruded?” Because the meaning of the adjective is already included in that of the noun it modifies but is linearized as a word that is an excrescence.
These constructions are further evidence––if one needed any––of the fact that American speech is teeming with pleonasms (redundancies, tautologies) of all sorts (fresh example: “Through the debate, he [Obama] was reassuring and self-composed.” David Brooks, “Thinking About Obama,” The New York Times, October 17, 2008, A27). Some have become so firmly ensconced in the language––like safe haven, prior experience, and advance planning––that we use them without giving them a second thought. But they are pleonastic nonetheless.
This sort of grammatical and lexical hypertrophy (a word used here advisedly, with allusion to its medical sense) is to be rooted out not just because of its stylistic demerits but because it is a manifestation of something ultimately much more important: it is a FAILURE OF THOUGHT. (More about this in future posts.)


P. S., January 2010: This particular failure of thought is proliferating exponentially; cf. an example heard from an otherwise good writer, Sidney Blumenthal: “external trappings” (interviewed by Guy Raz, “All Things Considered,” NPR, Jan. 24, 2010, KPCC-FM).

It’s Chinese to Me

Many languages have a phrase corresponding to It’s Greek to me to signify that something is incomprehensible or makes no sense to the utterer/writer. The English version may have started in the Middle Ages as a translation of the Latin phrase, Graecum est, non legitur ‘It’s Greek, [hence] not readable’, at a time when knowledge of Greek among scribes was on the wane.
When it comes to other languages (Arabic, French, Hebrew, Russian, among others) however, it is Chinese that is most commonly  referred to, and what is meant specifically is the writing system rather than the spoken language. This is confirmed by the Japanese version, sanbun kanbun ‘gibberish’,” where the literal meaning of the two components is ‘prose’ (sanbun) + ‘Chinese script’ (kanbun). Russian kitajskaja gramota (китайская грамота) ‘Chinese charter/alphabet’ also makes explicit reference to the script.
All the Slavic languages have in fact incorporated what can be interpreted as the ultimate degree of unintelligibility of speech by likening the speakers of one foreign language in particular––German––to those who cannot speak at all, namely mutes: R nemeckij [jazyk] (немецкий язык) ‘German [language]’, etc., takes its formal and semantic designation from the Common Slavic adjectival base nem– ‘mute’.
In English, when we want to single out speech or writing as crabbed, miscegenated, or full of incomprehensible words––and, therefore, evaluated as a degraded form of language–– we typically resort to words like jargon, lingo, pidgin, patois, and argot; or to compounds utilizing the suffix –ese, as in bureaucratese, legalese, etc.––doubtless derived from an extension of the suffix in Chinese.
Speaking of jargon (which is probably of French––at any rate, of Romance––provenience), it is interesting to note that in pre-revolutionary Russian (the language of my parents), the word жаргóн also was in common use to mean Yiddish, specifically by Jews themselves. Speakers of Yiddish evidently felt no pejorative taint in resorting to a label in Russian that reflects their rich mother tongue’s hybrid (German, Hebrew, Slavic) grammatico-lexical makeup.


The “Pin/Pen Merger”: An Example of Neutralization

October 15, 2008

One of the most recognizable traits of American speech in the South and Southwest is the so-called “pin/pen merger,” a shorthand phrase meant to designate the non-distinction of the front vowels /i/ and /e/ before the nasal consonants /m, n, ŋ/. The vowel that appears in this position is identified with the realization of the high front vowel in pin, whim, and sing. Speakers who have this trait do not distinguish between the pronunciation not only of minimal pairs like pin and pen or fin and fen but of any word that has a front vowel before a nasal consonant (whatever the spelling), so that one hears m[ɪ]mber for Standard American English m[ɛ]mber, m[ɪ]ntality for SAE m[ɛ]ntality, etc.
People who have this trait need not be speaking in an identifiable dialect. In fact, it may be the only remnant of a regionalism in what is otherwise SAE speech. For instance, just this morning I heard three announcers/reporters on NPR (Renée Montagne, Deborah Byrd, Richard Harris) who display this trait but are otherwise speakers of the standard.
Thus, despite the constant migration of people from place to place over their lifetimes, the impact of education and the media typically results in an American standard that is largely free of dialectal or regional traits––with the prominent exception of this one, which is properly to be labeled a NEUTRALIZATION. A neutralization is the reduction (G Aufhebung) of an opposition to one of its two terms. Technically, one speaks here of the realization of an opposition in a position of neutralization (= context). Typically, an opposition that is neutralized in a certain context is realized as (identified with) one of its two terms––to the exclusion of the other, but also of any third term: tertium non datur (there is no third term).
Despite the familiarity of the “pin/pen merger” to linguists as a fact of dialect geography, its status and attendant meaning specifically as a neutralization have not become part of language lore. Neutralizations throughout grammar (i.e. not only in phonology) have an interesting sign function. In positions of neutralization it is normal for the realization of the opposition to be identified with the unmarked (generic) term. Thus, for instance, when the sex of the referent is immaterial one finds words of the unmarked masculine gender referring to both sexes (“Man is an animal.”). In the case of the two front vowels in question, /ɪ/ as a high vowel is unmarked vis-à-vis the marked non-high /ɛ/ in the opposition high/non-high. Hence this phonological case conforms in sign function to the general principle that it is the unmarked member of the opposition that appears as the representative of the opposition in a position of neutralization.
In language, the sign function of neutralization is unitary––whatever the concrete realization depending on context, to which it is uniformly sensitive. Neutralization is a fundamental means by which both users (initially, qua learners) and analysts––unconsciously in the first case, consciously in the second––are provided with the material evidence that linguistic variation is not haphazard but structurally coherent, where coherence is measured by the systematic, patterned cooccurrence of units and contexts in tandem.


Of Proofs in Puddings and Roosters in Cabbage Soup

October 2, 2008

English––as everybody knows––has a faiblesse for alliterative phrasing, but this otherwise appealing poetic ornament can also turn itself into a false friend by inducing a loss of sense. Such is the case of the degradation of the proverb, The proof of the pudding is in the eating, which is at least as old as the seventeenth century in England, perhaps older.

As was demonstrated yet again on the NPR program, “Morning Edition” (KPCC, Pasadena, 10/2/08), in a response to the co-host’s question about the impending Vice Presidential debate, the correspondent Mara Liasson (otherwise a model of good diction and of uncatachrestic speech) reduced this proverb to The proof is in the pudding, as is now commonly done (cf. my Letter to the Editor, “Sour Pudding,” Barron’s,  August 17, 1998, p. 46). The reason for this degraded version, which apparently has been around since the 1950s if not earlier, is nowhere mentioned by the several bloggers who have treated of it but is clear nonetheless: we are dealing here with the proverbial sacrifice of meaning to sound as a terminus ad quem of linguistic change.

Notice: “proof in the pudding” is utterly meaningless, even if one understands proof to have the older meaning “test,” as in The exception proves the rule. It IS perfectly understandable, of course, in the authentic version, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

This sort of counter-sensical development can be seen in other languages as well. The Russian locution popast’ kak kur vó shchi (попасть как кур во щи) ‘land in the (cabbage) soup, get into a mess’ is known to every Russian speaker in just that form but is actually a historically degenerate version of the phrase popast’ kak kur v óshchip, meaning ‘end up being plucked like a rooster’, where kur ‘cock, rooster’ is the archaic or dialectal word for Modern Russian petux, and óshchip is the suffixless deverbal noun ‘plucking [clean]’ < oshchipat’ ‘pluck [clean]’.

Notice: the meaninglessness of the contemporary form, where the final consonant [p] of óshchip has been apocopated, occasioning a metanalysis (boundary shift) and a concomitant reinterpretation (v óshchip > vó shchi) , and the preposition in vó shchi appears irregularly with the stressed full vowel [ó], is exactly parallel to the English example. Just as proofs are not to be found as ingredients of puddings, no recipe––Russian or otherwise––calls for a rooster to end up in cabbage soup, although such a bird can sensibly end up getting plucked.


Explaining ‘advocate for’

September 23, 2008

In the recent past, American English has resuscitated what had fallen into disuse in the grammatical range of the verb advocate, namely its intransitivity, with the concomitant government of the postposition for. What the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia marked as rare in 1906 has come back as the dominant syntactic profile of this verb, as in:

“It is an organization that has made a decision to cast aside its journalistic integrity and to advocate for the defeat of one candidate … and advocate for the election of another candidate,” he [a spokesman for the McCain campaign] said. (“McCain Aide Blows Gasket, Rips New York Times,” Jimmy Orr, “The Vote Blog,” The Christian Science Monitor, 9/22/08)

It is in fact this syntax that has all but displaced the traditional transitive government of the verb.

The Oxford English Dictionary entry shows that what may seem to be a contemporary innovation is actually a resuscitated archaism, witness the following attestations:

1. intr. To act as advocate, to plead for. arch.
1641 MILTON Animadv. §1 (1847) 58/2 It had been advocated and moved for by some honourable and learned gentlemen of the house. 1659 FULLER App. Inj. Innoc. (1840) 339 I wonder that the Animadvertor will advocate for their actions, so detrimental to the church. 1661 HEYLIN Ref. I. ii. 37, I will not take upon me to Advocate for the present distempers and confusions of this wretched Church. 1872 F. HALL False Philol. 75, I am not going to advocate for this sense of actual [i.e. as = present].

As a curious sidebar to the story, the transitive meaning, which we take for granted and as needing no exemplification, was one that Benjamin Franklin found worthy of “reprobation,” as in the following OED attestation given under 3. trans.To plead or raise one’s voice in favour of; to defend or recommend publicly:

1789 FRANKLIN Lett. to N. Webster 26 Dec. Wks. 1840 X. 414 During my late  absence in France, I find that several new words have been introduced into our parliamentary language. For example I find a verb..from the substantive advocate; the gentleman who advocates or has advocated that motion..If you should happen to be of my opinion with respect to these innovations you will use your authority in reprobating them.

How to explain this resurrection of an archaic meaning? We need to examine what transitivity implies that intransitivity does not.

When a verb governs the direct object, the action of the verb is transferred directly onto the object without any mediation. Not so an intransitive verb, since there is no direct object. As a matter of fact, as in the case of advocate for, if a postposition mediates between the verb and its object, there is necessarily an ATTENUATION OF THE FORCE of the verb, such that here the act of advocating is necessarily less forceful than it is when the verb is used with its traditional transitive syntax.

Thus the contemporary intransitive syntax of advocate with the postposition for takes its place among constructions like lobby for, plump for, speak for, even search for, etc., where the activity denoted becomes generalized, hence attenuated. “Advocating for world peace” is not the same as “advocating world peace:” the first denotes one of those vague sets of actions that peace-loving people (“peaceniks” et al.) engage in; the second involves a definite commitment.

Speaking of commitment, it is interesting to note the converse directionality of the change in modern (mostly American) English that has resulted in all modern dictionaries dropping the traditional obligatory government of commit that requires the reflexive form self (commit oneself/herself/themselves, etc.). And just as in the case of advocate for, where the intransitivity connotes a weakening of the verb’s force, here the analysis is exactly parallel: the dropping of an obligatory reflexive after commit implies that the original force of the verb meaning ‘pledge/bind oneself’ has been denatured so as to mean an action that is less than binding. The new syntax in both instances is an icon of the new semantics.


Form as Part of Content (ad Antimetabole et al.)

September 22, 2008

Recent media interest in rhetorical figures (e.g. NPR’s program “On the Media,” 9/19/08) prompted by campaign speeches that exploit them has centered on antimetabole, which is (pace Janet Lapidos on, 9/12/08) a species of chiasmus, defined as any structure in which the constituents are repeated in reverse, yielding the pattern ABBA. An oft-cited example of antimetabole is Quintilian’s Non ut edam vivo, sed ut vivam edo “I do not live that I may eat, but eat that I may live” (Institutio oratoria 9.3.85). This figure is related to such others in the nomenclature as polyptoton and antanaclasis. What unites them, besides their being patterned repetitions, is the master trope, PARONOMASIA, alias the pun.
What puns in ordinary discourse do–like any paronomasia–is (inter alia) call attention to themselves by exposing a formal resemblance (including complete identity) that undergirds semantic difference. Paronomasia rises to loftier heights as the stock in trade of poetic language. In the tradition of European verse, even rhyme is a kind of paronomasia. What is important to understand in rhyme, moreover, is the fact of its functioning to establish a semantic equivalence between rhyme-fellows despite their difference in meaning. Any two words that rhyme are ipso facto likened to each other in meaning by the very fact of their form as such. As with all elements of poetic language, form thereby becomes a part of content.
This condition is important to understand in assaying the impact of rhetorical figures like antimetabole. Beyond the simple fact of their calling attention to themselves as formal entities (the so-called poetic function), they have the further effect of calling the very fixity of meaning into question (what the Russian Formalists termed ostranenie ‘making it strange’ and made the foundation of their theory of modern aesthetics). Paronomastic figures like antimetabole tend to undermine this fixity of meaning. Nowhere is this more potent than in the unmasking of clichés or fixed phrases.
When politicians maunder about “change” while resorting to figures like antimetabole–presumably because the figure recalls other (and more illustrious) politicians’ use of it (Roosevelt, Churchill)–there may be some half-conscious sense on the speechwriters’ part that weakening the fixity of meaning in this way lends rhetorical support to the message of “change.” Form thus enters content. But there is also a cost to this rhetorical strategy, and it is not just that prominent use of figures of speech tends to detract from the message by underscoring “rhetoric” at the expense of “substance.” Rather, it is that focus on the message for its own sake (the ‘how,’ alias the poetic function) always tends to abrade the validity of the referential function (the ‘what’) of the same message. Form as part of content thus poses an epistemological danger, one which Plato detected long ago when he called poets liars in the Republic.