Tag Archives: language

Turn-of-phrase inflation.

The etymology of “the whole nine yards” is a total mystery. Anybody who tells you that they know its origin is either lying or unknowingly parroting an urban legend. The number of feet of fabric required to make a suit? Number of cubic yards of soil removed to dig a grave? Number of cubic yards of cement that fits in a mixer? The length of a WWII-era ammunition belt? Nope, none of those are it. The earliest known use of the phrase was in 1962, but now there’s been a trio of new discoveries from 1921 and 1912. Why weren’t they found before? Because the phrase was “the whole six yards.” The number was inflated over the years, much as “cloud seven” became “cloud eight” and is now “cloud nine.” The origin of the phrase is still unknown, but one potentially important clue is found in the pair of 1912 uses—both were in Kentucky. 

Michigan representative barred from speaking on the floor for saying “vagina.”

This should sound familiar to those who followed the debate in the Virginia General Assembly over forcible vaginal probes. Republicans are deeply uncomfortable with the word “vagina,” and once Democratic legislators started tossing that word around, Republicans basically gave up the debate. So go for it, elected Democrats—vagina vagina vagina. If you can’t say it, you shouldn’t be allowed to regulate it. 

Links for November 23rd

  • New York Times: Who’s on the Line? Increasingly, Caller ID Is Duped
    Telemarketers are faking Caller ID information with apparent impunity, so that people believe that the IRS or the FBI is calling. (Just like spam!) The FTC has just filed their first complaint against a company for doing that. The FCC wouldn't comment as to what they're doing about it.
  • Wikipedia: List of nicknames of United States presidents
    John Tyler, Rutherford B. Hayes, Warren G. Harding, and Richard Nixon are the only former U.S. presidents who did not have a (non-derisory) nickname as president. ("Tricky Dick," for instance, doesn't make the cut.) President Obama does not yet have a nickname and, given how unusual his name is, I suspect he won't get one. The heyday of nicknames was the early 20th century, when a few popular given names reigned supreme—when three friends are all named "Michael," nicknaming is inevitable. The most popular names today are far less common than a century ago, making nicknames linguistically unnecessary.
  • The Atlantic: What If the Law Required Campaign Contributions to Be Kept Secret?
    If the process of collecting, tallying, and refunding campaign contributions was turned over to a blind trust, the effect on politics could be quite positive. Lawrence Lessig argues that it would become implausible to buy influence.

Links for November 11th

  • Double-Tongued Dictionary: hoghouse
    "Connotating legislation that has been stripped of its original provisions and amended to accomplish a different purpose." This is a useful word.
  • Office of Government Ethics: Executive Agency Ethics Pledge Waivers
    These are the presidential appointees who were given waivers to exempt them from one or more ethics regulations, along with copies of the relevant documents that explain the circumstances warranting their exemption from ethics standards.
  • Bulk Homeopathy
    Save money by buying in bulk. They ought to dehydrate it, to save on shipping. Just add water!

Links for October 20th

  • Planet Money: What If We Paid Off The Debt?
    Back in the good old days—before President George W. Bush, before fighting two wars, before September 11th, before a huge tax cut paid for with debt—it looked very much like the entire debt would be paid off by 2012. In producing the final Economic Report of the President, a researcher looked into what would happen when that happened. As it turned out, it would be terrible. Treasury bonds make the investment world go 'round. No debt, no t-bonds. The conclusion of the never-published report was that it was important to maintain some debt in order to maintain treasury bonds.
  • The New York World: Women ride in back on sex-segregated Brooklyn bus line
    A Brooklyn bus—part of the city's public bus line—is franchised to a private company, though generally indistinguishable from any other city bus, intended to serve the Hasidic community in Williamsburg and Borough Park. It's the bus line's rule that women have to sit in the back of the bus. You can see how this story progresses. The issue of religious freedom vs. civil rights vs. free enterprise isn't wholly open-and-shut but, as a rule, anybody making an argument that a certain class of people should have to sit in the back of the bus automatically loses the debate.
  • American Geophysical Union: Words matter
    This vocabulary guide accompanies an article ("Communicating the Science of Climate Change") in the October issue of Physics Today, explaining to research scientists that some of the words that they use to communicate among themselves simply confuse the public. "Manipulation" of data means simply to process it, but the public thinks it means to tamper with it. A "scheme" is just a plan, but that's perceived as being illicit. A "theory" is the basic unit of scientific knowledge, but people think a theory is different from a fact. These are important, as has been observed with natural selection ("evolution is just a theory!") and global climate change ("those hacked e-mails said that were manipulating the data!").

Links for October 11th

  • CJR: The Shorter-Form Journal
    This clever analysis of Wall Street Journal article lengths over the years shows that, under Rupert Murdoch, articles have gotten quite a bit shorter.
  • The Washington Post: Five myths about voter fraud
    There are some important and interesting facts about voter fraud here. A member of the Commission on Federal Election Reform figures that requiring that voters show ID will prevent between 1,000–10,000 legitimate votes from being cast for every 1 illegitimate vote that is stopped. 25% of African Americans do not have valid photo IDs. In Wisconsin, 55% of black men do not have valid photo ID. Fraudulent voting is stunningly, stunningly rare.
  • mental_floss: 14 More Wonderful Words With No English Equivalent
    In Tagalog, "layogenic" describes somebody who is beautiful from a distance, but unattractive up close. In Thai, "greng-jai" is the feeling of not wanting to put somebody out by taking them up on an offer to do something for you. I love these.

Links for September 27th

  • Mediaite: AP Reporter Responds To Chris Hayes Panel Debate On Racism Of Droppin’ G’s From Obama Speech
    There's some fussing about how an AP reporter transcribed a quote from President Obama. In a recent speech, the president said: "Shake it off. Stop complainin’. Stop grumblin’. Stop cryin’." On one of those sunday morning shouting shows, the reporter was declared to be racist for doing so. Ridiculous. Anybody who saw or heard the president's remarks knows full well that this was a deliberately affected speaking style. To transcribe his remarks with the "g" would have whitewashed his speech while altering his remarks. This is not a matter of transcribing a dialect paternally, but instead attempting to convey his remarks accurately.
  • National Arbitration Forum: Ms. Stefani Germanotta v. oranges arecool XD
    This is a really interesting decision that resulted from an ICANN complaint that Germanotta filed against a Lady Gaga fan site, ladygaga.org, demanding that the fan turn over the domain name. Though there are a lot of facts that led to their conclusion, the mediators found in favor of the fan, finding that the site was run in good faith, there was no substantial likelihood of confusion with the official site, and that Germanotta doesn't appear to be having any trouble promoting herself.
  • Sunlight Labs: House Revamps Floor Feed
    The U.S. House has made some great changes to their legislative data service. The U.S. Senate remains in the stone age.

Links for September 8th

  • Open: Emphasis Update and Source
    The New York Times has a great feature that I'd never noticed—the ability to link to pages with specific content highlighted. It's perfect for calling attention to specific paragraphs or sentences when sharing a link with somebody. It's cleverly implemented, too.
  • Time: Why Some Languages Sound So Fast
    All languages, when spoken, have basically the same information density. If more meaning is packed into shorter words, its speakers talk more slowly. If it takes them a lot of sounds to get a concept across, they talk quickly.
  • NPR: Tracks, Equipment Left By Apollo Missions Visible In New Moon Photos
    New photos from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter provide an aerial view of the site of the Apollo 12, 14, and 17 missions. The lunar module, the abandoned lunar rover, and astronauts' tracks across the surface are all visible.

Links for July 22nd

  • Wikipedia: Flotsam and jetsam
    Floatsam is the wreckage of a ship or cargo that is floating in the water. Jetsam is any part of either that was tossed overboard deliberately.
  • Chosen
    This is a nice-looking, non-intrusive little jQuery/Prototype plugin that improves the UI of HTML select boxes. I'm not using it anywhere, but I intend to.
  • BBC News: How the apprentice gets ahead in Germany
    We've substantially lost the apprenticeship system in the United States, and I think there are a bunch of reasons why that's problematic. It turns out that system is alive and well in Germany, and it's working out very well for them.