Do You Say Y'all? How About Yous? The Second Person Plural Won't Be Ignored!
"Screw you guys. I’m going home!"
Squat little Cartman's catchphrase, uttered in just about every other episode of Comedy Central's long-running series South Park, provides ample evidence that regional variations on the second person plural are alive and well in English. Tami Taylor’s inveterate y’all-ing, over five seasons of Friday Night Lights, offers the same, albeit more down-home, assurance. The most prescriptive accounts of Standard English, of course, advise only the use of you and you across the board, whether you’re addressing one person or one hundred, but distinctions clearly exist and, whether we realize it or not, we draw them every day.
That Study on Literary Fiction and Empathy Proves Precisely Nothing
Earlier this month, social psychologists Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd—a professor at the New School for Social Research and a Ph.D. candidate there, respectively—published a paper titled "Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind" in the journal Science. From the abstract:
Understanding others' mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies. Yet little research has investigated what fosters this skill, which is known as Theory of Mind (ToM), in adults. We present five experiments showing that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of affective ToM and cognitive ToM compared with reading nonfiction, popular fiction, or nothing at all.
In an Editor's Summary that accompanies the paper, Theory of Mind is further defined as "the human capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one's own beliefs and desires."
Turkey Legalizes the Letters Q, W, and X. Yay Alphabet!
Back in 2005, a Turkish court fined 20 Kurds 100 lira (US$74) for holding up placards at a New Year's celebration containing the letters Q and W. The use of those letters—and X as well—violated the law of Nov. 1, 1928 on Adoption and Application of Turkish Letters, the purpose of which was to change the writing system of Turkish from the Arabic-based system of the Ottomans to the Roman-based system developed under the secular, modernizing regime of Mustafa Kemal "Atatürk."
Do You Say Amongst Instead of Among? Here's Why.
In the first episode of the Showtime series Masters of Sex, William Masters is talking to a prostitute named Betty, and notes that she faked an orgasm during sex. "Is that a common practice among prostitutes?" he asks her. "It’s a common practice amongst anyone with a twat," Betty replies.
Clearly, two words contribute to the humor of Betty’s comeback, and the second is amongst. The show takes place in America in the 1950s, which is relevant because in that time and place virtually nobody said "amongst." For the last few centuries, amongst has been a distinctly British word, though even there among is more popular. In the United States, according to the Google Books database, the last time amongst was about as common as among was in 1720.
Curiously though, amongst appears to be on the upswing. To give just a couple of examples:
Journalists: Stop Passing Off a Paraphrase as a Direct Quotation
Every few weeks or so, the Nieman Foundation asks a journalist to "annotate" a story he or she has written, to provide some insight into the reportorial process and talk through some of the mechanics of building a narrative. The series is called "Storyboard," and the most recent annotation is by Gay Talese of his classic 1966 Esquire profile "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold." In it, Talese makes the following candid admission:
The reason I don’t use a tape recorder is I don’t want the tape recorder to contradict what I think is potentially a better quote. My idea of interviewing is to get as best I can out of the mouth of somebody else their best thought—the most ideal representation of what they think, not what they say.
What Happens When a Language Has No Numbers?
The Pirahã are an indigenous people, numbering around 700, living along the banks of the Maici River in the jungle of northwest Brazil. Their language, also called Pirahã, is so unusual in so many ways that it was profiled in 2007 in a 12,000-word piece in the New Yorker by John Colapinto, who wrote:
Unrelated to any other extant tongue, and based on just eight consonants and three vowels, Pirahã has one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations.
How Did @#$%&! Come to Represent Profanity?
In a 1964 article for the National Cartoonist Society, Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker coined the term grawlix, which, after a bit of evolution in its meaning, now refers to the string of typographical symbols that sometimes stands in for profanity. Anger is a fruitful comedic trope, after all, and so the quandary must have arisen for early cartoonists: How to depict that emotion without actually swearing, which is obviously inappropriate for the Funny Pages.
Can Infer Mean Imply?
Read Shakespeare's Richard III fully cover to cover and you'll find five uses of the verb infer, only one of which seems to obey the aggressively touted dictum that infer can only mean 'to take from what is being said' or 'to deduce from a premise.'
To cite just one example, in Act 3, Scene 5, Richard of Gloucester is giving talking points to his fixer Buckingham, who is to follow the mayor to Guildhall and:
There, at your meetest vantage of the time,
Infer the bastardy of Edward’s children.
Tell them how Edward put to death a citizen
Only for saying he would make his son
Heir to the Crown
One can imagine the comments-section brawl such a usage would spawn today: "Like, duh, imply the bastardy of Edward’s children. How can we trust anything this idiot says?! What this bozo has done to the language of Shakespeare is unforgivable!"
Dickheads Are More Like Buttheads Than A**holes
On a recent episode of The Sid Rosenberg Show, a sports talk radio program on WMEN in Royal Palm Beach, Fla., former New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor called former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason—with whom he's had a longstanding feud—a "dickhead." Which raises the question: Did L.T. imply that Boomer was someone whose entire being consists of the head of a dick OR someone who has a dick for a head? (Yes, these are the sorts of things that linguists care about.)
LMAO: A History
Several years ago, a self-described native Spanish speaker posted the following question on a WordReference.com language forum under the subject head "laughing one's butt off":
I think I know the meaning of this expression, but i'm not sure so could you please help me confirm it?
A minute later, "Greenie" provided a concise, though admirably comprehensive, explanation:
The idea is that you laugh so hard that your butt falls off. Of course this doesn't actually happen.
No, not actually. But it turns out that we've been figuratively verbing various parts of our bodies off since at least the 1840s, when Charles Dickens, at the very end of a letter to his close friend Thomas Mitton, apologized for his sloppiness: "I have made a great many erasures and mistakes in this short space, but I have nearly written my head off this morning and am dismally stupid."