Saturday, May 26, 2007

natty = naughty

John McIntyre, assistant managing editor of the Baltimore Sun, ran slightly afoul of the evolving definition of a word that, as far as he knew, was just fine. He recounts:

An article came to the copy desk with a phrase about nattily
people. And a couple of copy editors came to me wanting to change it to smartly dressed. Why? I asked. Natty is a perfectly innocuous word, usually applied, with some condescension, to people who wear bow ties.

No, they said; it means gross and dirty. Huh? I shrewdly asked.

And indeed, it seems that natty is a term that means different things to different generations. McIntyre was invited to visit, where among the many (different) defintinions, he found this:

Something gross, low-class or unclean. Originally meaning neat in apperance, the word natty ironically became its an antonym for itself over time, thanks in large part to its adoption by Rastafarian slang.

McIntyre is editing for a wide audience. Maybe a lot of people still recognize natty as having mostly positive connotations, but if the term is evolving and some people -- indeed, of some of the paper's younger editors -- react negatively to the term, then ok. He changed it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

You have the right to change roles

Something from Seth: mirandize. (cite) In case it's not obvious, this is an eponymous verb form of Miranda warning (apparently; everyone says Miranda rights), whereby suspects under arrest are apprised that actions they take after the arrest (like, say, confess) can be used as evidence. (The Wikipedia article, in fact, mentions the term mirandize, although they cap it, editors that they are.[1])

It's hardly surprising that Miranda warning made an easy transition to the foreshortened noun mirandas (or Mirandas). Google turns up 34 hits for their mirandas, which are split up between references to Miranda rights, The Tempest, and Star Trek.

From there, heck, it's not a big leap to verbize the word -- Google currently has about 13,000 hits for mirandize. Anu Garg has a cite from 2004. All three big dictionaries list the word, although none of them (online, anyway) have a first cite date.

Miranda rights were established by the Supreme Court on the basis of the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which grants, among other things, that no person "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." This has led to the phrase take the Fifth or plead the Fifth, which is used in a technical sense (I believe) to mean that you refuse to answer a question on the grounds that it could be self-incriminatory. The law does not interpret this as a statement of guilt, but in common parlance that's just what it means:

Q: Did you take the last of the cookies?
A: I plead the Fifth.

ie, yes.

Here, the Fifth looks and acts like a noun. It requires some extra-syntactical knowledge to understand that this is, nominally at least, an elided form of the Fifth Amendment. Does everyone who utters the phrase understand that? The answer to that question might determine whether we can consider Fifth in the Fifth as a noun or adjective. We could experiment by applying various declensions and see what works. First, let's see if it can follow some noun rules:

"What did the witness do?"
"There were three Fifths."

I can see it. How about adjective? Many adjectives have comparative and superlative forms:

"And what about the last witness?"
"He was the Fifthest of all."

A stretch, but not impossible. So, Fifth here can, assuming you buy my analysis, be biPoSer.

As an aside, it's unlikely that most people know of these things from first-hand experience (probably a good thing). We can probably credit TV with bringing Miranda and the Fifth into common discourse. It can't be a bad thing for common phrases to remind us of some of the founding principles of US law, and indeed, English common law.[2]

[1] Eric Lippert wrote a musative blog entry that raised the question of when eponymous words are capped and when they are not. His conclusion: this is English, don't expect consistency.

[2] Another Fifth Amendment-ish right that's gotten some exposure recently is habeas corpus. It's somewhat interesting that a phrase that's in subjunctive in Latin can become a noun in English. Somewhat.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Do the French have a word for it?

If you start companies not for profit or vision, but to "fulfill a desire to improve the world," what are you? A nontrepeneur. I can't quite get whether Nick Douglas actually coined the word or whether it's been around ... Google currently gets 376 hits, very many of which pertain to the article just linked.

This is another slice-n-dice job (aka cran-morph or "cranberry morpheme"). To belabor this a bit, the opening morpheme, as it were, of entrepreneur is entre- . (We actually know the word entrepreneur in English via the closely related enterprise.) A slightly facile etymology for entrepreneur is given as entre- "between" + prendre "to take".

Anyways. With some reanalysis, we can chop off entre- and be left with preneur, which means ... hmm ... "business-starting person." (Does that sound right?) In effect, the entire meaning of entrepreneur shifts to this new morpheme -preneur, which we can then prefixize al gusto to qualify the meaning.

Some other examples:
It's revealing, I think, that most of these have a hyphen in them, suggesting a self-consciousness in the coinage and perhaps thinking that readers won't get the word unless they make it obvious how they're stitching together the constituent parts.

Note also that, unusually, these formations break the original word into what are etymologically its original roots. (Contrast hamburger, which went from Hamburg+er to Ham+burger). People don't carry etymology around in their heads, and there isn't currently (well, wasn't) any such word or morpheme as preneur in contemporary English, so in a narrow sense this is still a cran-morph. I would guess that the word break falls on historically accurate lines because entre- is sufficiently close to something that sounds like an English prefix to feel like a detachable piece. Which then yields preneur, and here we are.

The example of nontrepreneur is interesting because it borrows -tre- from the original word, unlike the other examples I find. But I don't think there's any subtle semantics to the construction; nontrepreneur (to me) sounds better and is more obvious than nonpreneur, which in fact has a vaguely negative connotation, what do you think?

Riffing on nontrepreneur, James Britt writes a blog entry and, along with commenters, throws out some humorous variations, like the following:
  • Salontrepreneur: Operates out of some hip, literary hangout.
  • Gonetrepreneur: Ex-founder.
  • Don Juantrepreneur: No business plan, but still charms women into providing funding.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to come up with some more of these. As always, the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.