Posts filed under ‘Language’

Parental Metaphors

The year I lived in Sweden the phenomenon of curlingföräldrar — curling parents — was a hot topic in the media.

To understand this expression, it helps to know that the sport of curling is much more popular in Sweden than in the U.S.  You don’t need to be an expert on the sport to get the joke, though.

If you’ve ever seen a clip of a match from the Olympics,  you can probably imagine the way the curlers scrub at the ice with their brooms, clearing a path for the stone. Curling parents are just as intent as they try to smooth the way for their precious offspring.

Ever since I heard about curling parents, I’ve lamented the fact that there was no equivalent expression in English. “Overprotective” isn’t quite the same thing, and “over-involved” isn’t nearly as vivid.

Now, thanks to my college alumni magazine, I can rest easy. The most recent issue features an article on helicopter parents — so-named presumably because of their hovering.


14 March 2007 at 23:17 1 comment

Attack of the Language Cranks

If you follow Language Log at all (and I do), you know that there’s no shortage of language mavens ready to jump on the least usage offense as evidence that the English language is going to hell, with or without handbasket.

Just yesterday, Geoff Pullum posted about software designed to identify all the adverbs in your browser window, presumably so you can go back and strip them from your prose. My favorite bit of Pullum’s post:

Strunk and White were a pair of hypocritical old grousers whose inaccurate grammar and usage edicts dated not from the last century but the one before that. Yet people not only treat them as if their words came from God and had been chiseled into granite slabs during an encounter up a mountain; they also fail to read those words to see if the old fools practice what they preach. Of course they don’t.

(Note that Pullum’s writing doesn’t seem to suffer in the slightest, despite his disdain for the self-styled usage police.)

On some level, I know that it’s not just Anglophones who are obsessed with saving their language from its speakers. Sitting on the shelf alongside my bed is a copy of linguist Fredrik Lindström’s Världens Dåligaste Språk (World’s Baddest Language), which is essentially an extended rebuttal to all the Swedes who think that the standards for Swedish are sinking ever lower and that, by the way, it’s World’s Worst Language, thank you very much.

So I don’t know why I was so surprised this morning when I stumbled on a review (from the Indian newspaper The Hindu) of a new usage manual for Telegu Telugu speakers. All the familiar prescriptivist gripes are present: standards in schools and textbooks are slipping, the media compounds the problem, etc.

6 March 2007 at 23:31 4 comments

School’s out!

At least for the next ten days.

Tonight I had my last class of the semester — finally! — and my first final in 19 years. (Well maybe 12 years, if you count that anatomy class I took during my short-lived “I think I’ll become an acupuncturist” phase.)

Despite much panic over the past few days (especially yesterday night when I found myself uncontrollably surfing the Web instead of studying), all went well. I finished within the time limit. I felt comfortable with all my answers. The test was oddly fun even.

After I turned my exam in to the TA, I felt like skipping around the quad shouting, “I’m done! I’m done.” I restrained myself, though. Such displays might well be considered unseemly at Fancypants U. – at least for forty-year-old returning students. If I were a drunken undergrad, it might be okay.

The oddest thing kept happening as I was writing the answer to the essay questions: I kept almost, not quite writing in Swedish. The same thing happened as I was writing my paper for this class (Intro. to Folklore). That was at least understandable since the paper was actually about something Swedish; it involved reading Swedish books and listening to tapes of people speaking in Swedish.

Maybe it’s just that I was reading a Swedish novel before class started — something to take my mind off the test. Whatever the reason, though, it was nice to have my other language bubbling up unbidden that way.

18 January 2007 at 23:41 2 comments

Behind Door #23: Not So Random Random Numbers

If I wait long enough, some blogger will almost inevitably write about a question I’ve long puzzled over. The fine folks at Language Log, seem almost clarivoyant in this regard.

I’ve often wondered why it is that when we pick an ostensibly random number to use in a situation where we’re estimating an exaggerated amount, we often choose the same number or variations on the same number. Yesterday Arnold Zwicky provided a pretty compelling argument for why that number is often seventeen—for American anglophones, at least.

As interesting as I find his discussion, I frequently find myself reaching for numbers starting with eight, though: eighteen, eighty, eight hundred thousand—depending on what order of magnitude I want to exaggerate. When I lived in Sweden, I noticed that Swedes use a made-up number—femtioelva—fifty-eleven.

23 December 2006 at 15:44 Leave a comment

Behind Door #13: There Oughta Be a Word…

I came home from work (and class) tonight, and couldn’t think of a single thing appealing to eat, so I fell back on my favorite stand-by food: scrambled eggs. They’re quick. They’re easy. They’re not starchy. They’re great for using up leftovers: in tonight’s case, some pesto I had made, let’s just say a while ago, and some feta cheese that was trying to become Roquefort. (I know, I know. I don’t want to hear anything from those of you who know I’m a Cordon Bleu graduate.)

Anyhow, tonight’s culinary ennui seems to be part of a larger trend. I’m just not inspired by cooking these days. I only seem to enjoy meals I eat out—like last Saturday’s dinner at the Medford Szechuan joint that’s renewed my faith in Chinese food.

As I sat down to right tonight’s virtual Advent Calendar installment, I finally figured out that there’s a name for my problem: mealaise.

13 December 2006 at 23:33 Leave a comment

Behind Door #12: Word of the Year 2007?

The fine folks at Language Log recently blogged about Merriam-Webster choosing truthiness as the Word of the Year for 2006. (This on the heels of the American Dialect Society giving top honors to truthiness in 2005.)

I’ve decided to start campaigning now for my favorite neologism for next year: de-ubiquitinate.

Before I got my current job at Fancypants U., I worked at their medical school gathering CVs and other information from professors in order to apply for various government-sponsored medical research and training grants. The first proposal I worked on was for an immunology grant. Reading the various doctors’ research descriptions was like deciphering a foreign language. Most of the chemical names (5,6-deoxyalkyl-whatchamacallit) soared over my head until I got to one CV that talked about de-ubiquitination. (OK, that really went over my head too. I still don’t know what that means. I think ubiquitin is a protein, so I’m guessing it gets removed.)

It struck me that de-ubiquitination, shorn of any immunological connotations, could prove to be quite a useful concept—especially when applied to celebrities. Tired of all the hype surrounding TomKat? Brangelina? Brittany and KFed? Never fear, let’s just de-ubiqutinate them all.

12 December 2006 at 11:52 Leave a comment

Behind Door #5: Curses Foiled Again

Thanks to the always entertaining and enlightening crew at Language Log for pointing me to this article on Quebecois curse words in today’s Washington Post. Apparently when French Canadians feel the need to swear, they most often resort to religious paraphernalia. Chalices, tabernacles and wafers all figure prominently.

It’s funny how another culture’s epithets can sound innocent or even cutesy to foreign ears. Like Quebecois cursing, Swedish cursing also takes a decidedly religious bent — although Swedes are more likely to invoke the dark side.

Shame, the devil! Devilish devil in hell! Satan!

When I first managed to translate these common Swedish swear words, all I could think was that they sounded vaguely Amish.

6 December 2006 at 0:45 1 comment

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