Thursday, December 29, 2005

Socially speaking

Every field has its jargon, and occasionally some of it leaks out from the audience of insiders into the world at large. I'm not sure when exactly I first noticed, but starting a couple of years ago, it seemed that everyone who had cause to ask for your social security number -- such as when you called your bank on the phone -- referred to it as your "social." "Can I have the last four digits of your social?" they'll ask.

The first time I heard it, I thought it was a small slip-up, that bank people use the term "social" among themselves and the rep had used it inadvertently when talking to me. But overnight, it seemed, everyone was using this foreshortened version with the public at large; I can't recall the last time someone asked me for my "social security number" by that name.

Obviously, it's not a term that's difficult to grasp. Still, I wonder how many times the customer service person is asked "My what?". And of course I wonder whether the public at large will use the term outside of the context of banks and credit card companies and those who traffic in "socials" every day.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005


Here's a bit of self-conscious word invention, courtesy of a page on the so-clever-we're-almost-too-cute Web site:
Flickr labs have been hard at work creating a way to show you some of the most awesome photos on Flickr.

We like to call it interestingness.

Explore the gorgeousity by choosing a point in time...
Free extra bonus new word included at no charge to you.

(On an entirely extra-linguistic note, I personally find the use of we and especially we like to think or we call it in advertisements kinda oily. But that's just an opinion, not a usage observation.)

I will say that at this exact point in time -- it's early today, perhaps -- I can't think of an existing noun that would substitute for interestingness in place. One would have to recast using interest as an adjective, wouldn't one?

I'll also throw in that the word labs in this kind of context seems to me to be ambidextrous with respect to number. I think we could say either Flickr labs has been hard at work or Flickr labs have been hard at work. In British English, at least, the plural would be preferred always. We Americans often like to think of collective nouns as singularities. Is labs a collective noun? You decide.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

think, thank, thunk

It's well known that the tendency over the history of English has been to simplify its verbal conjugation system, specifically by reducing the number of verb forms. As illustration, I have here to hand the book 501 Spanish Verbs, and if I open a page at random -- let's say I am interested in necesitar, "to need", a perfectly normal verb -- I can count 43 distinct verb forms inflected for person, number, and tense. And that's not counting compounds like he necesitado, "I have needed."

In English, we have:
need (I, you, we, they)
needs (he, she, it)


needed (all persons), also functions as participle

I count four forms -- two present, one for past (including participle), one for progressive. Did I forget any?

Even gnarly verbs in English don't have that many forms. An irregular verb like eat has only one additional form: eat; eats; eating; ate; eaten. A wackier verb, still pretty simple: think; thinks; thinking; thought. Still only four. Another: ring; rings; ringing; rang; rung. The star irregular verb is, as usual, to be, which has these: be; am; are; is; being; was; were; been.[1]

For further comparison, I just totted up some German verbs, and unless I am missing some forms (I wouldn't be surprised), it looks like in German, most verbs have about 11 forms. Rather more than our four or five, but still way simpler than latinate languages.

(Incidentally, if you're wondering how we can get by with such greatly simplified verb forms in English, it's because we have effectively excised the semantic component represented by a verbal inflection and transferred it to another word, such as a pronoun. Thus Spanish amo is I love, amas is you love -- they like inflection, we like not-inflection and pronouns. Spanish has pronouns, of course, but they're often optional. Our habit of preferring to use separate words instead of inflecting verbs -- which is to say, the tendency of English toward being an analytic language -- applies also to verbal tenses and moods. As in German, many of our past and all of our future verbal forms involve auxiliary verbs. Ditto subjunctive -- If he would have come, ...)

And the point of this is? Well, I was talking to a 12-year-old the other day, and the topic of swimming came up, and when the phrase have swum was floated (haha), my interlocutor did not believe that swum was a word. "I have swam," she insisted was the correct form. This was all the more surprising to me because this is an extremely well-read girl who regularly tackles texts several grade levels above her age. Yet she has as yet not learned the "correct" participial form for a verb that is by no means obscure.

This seems like evidence to me that the drive in English to reduce verb forms continues, albeit somewhat checked among those who have formally studied the language. Non-standard English has all sorts of examples where, as with our swim example, the simple past has taken over the participle and further reduced the number of forms -- I have went, I have ate, etc.[2]

It is of course in the vulgate where continued change will manifest, and one therefore is not surprised that speakers of non-standard English are in the vanguard of evolution. But when people who for the most part speak standard English are confused about things like the form of a participle, further evolution in English is snoofling around at the door.[3]

Lest any of us get to feelin' too smug, though, consider that even us speakers of more perfect English can find ourselves unsure of forms, at least till we run to our beloved reference works for rulings. Which is it, dragged or drug? Sneaked or snuck? And as noted here before, there's that perplexing to dive -- I dive, I dove, I have ___________ ? It will be the rare folk among us who can confidently roll out every form of every verb in English, and especially, who can do it based on instinct alone. The fact is that we "know" the correct forms of such verbs only because various "authorities" have made a decision for us and we have studied their rulings.

[1] It doesn't take advanced linguistics study to guess that the forms of to be are probably not tortured inflections of a single base verb; instead, our current forms are the result of smooshing together several verbs into a single to be.

[2] Sometimes the participle wins: I seen him.

[3] At this point, even among educated people it's hard to find someone who can explain the difference -- or heck, even bothers to distinguish -- lie and lay.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


In a recent article in the New Yorker ("Hogs Wild"), Ian Frazier writes about an urban-legendish monster boar that was shot, photographed, and shortly thereafter buried. The lack of concrete evidence inspired descriptions of an ever-bigger pig until it came to be known as ... tada! ... Hogzilla. (The boar did prove to exist, and did indeed prove to have been huge, though not quite up to the size of legend.)

The suffix -zilla is another one of those morphemes that falls out of reparsing an existing word. The meaning seems to be "monster." So Hogzilla is a monster hog. Something like truck-zilla would be a monster truck. Here are some examples I found using Our Friend Google:

Presumably there are more to be found.

Update 28 Jan 2006 I just thought of another: bridezilla, which per Paul McFedries is "a bride-to-be who, while planning her wedding, becomes exceptionally selfish, greedy, and obnoxious." That is, a bride-monster.

The suffix -zilla is handy, because as far as I know, we don't have a particle in English that we can add to a word to create "big version of." We have diminutives -- dog, doggy -- but no, uh, what? increasative. (Actually, it's called an augmentative.) In Spanish, there are a handful of augmentatives, such as -on and -ota, to name two. Una caja is a box; un cajón is a big box, etc. (For the curious, more on Spanish augmentatives to be found here.) Of course, -zilla isn't just "big version of"; it's "unprecedently enormous version of": the monster version.

And whence this term, anyway? I can't say definitively, but a very good bet is that it began with the movie Godzilla. That's in itself a slightly strange word, an Anglicization of the Japanese word Gojira, with an extra -d-. (One etymology posited here.) Given that Godzilla is an unprecedently enormous lizard, it's not a stretch to break the name on boundaries that make sense in English (god+zilla) and reuse the suffix-like part.

A note on Mozilla, the umbrella name for the browser foundation. The foundation uses a lizard as its mascot, but according to some purported diary entries from Jamie Zawinski, the name's originator, the name came first as a portmanteau of something like Mosaic+killer, Mosaic being the browser guts on which many a commercial browser was originally based. And in an interesting twist, some uses of -zilla do not directly mean "huge"; they instead echo the Mozilla name and suggest some affinity with that browser or its community, such as Bugzilla and podzilla.

Monday, December 12, 2005

I'm your Julie

I've only noted recently something that's probably apparent to many people, namely the use of the term cruise director to mean, generically, organizer. I'm late to the game here because I was not a watcher of the TV series "Love Boat," which seems pretty clearly to be the source of this. Here are a couple of examples from recent emails in my Inbox:
I got an appointment on the schedule for a good-bye shindig on Friday, but I am not the greatest cruise director for these sorts of things, so I could use planning and implementation help from the more socially inclined among you.
I'll ask XXXX next week if I can make a brief announcement after class to see if we can sign up more people, but if you know of or have met other people you'd think would be good additions, let me know

aka Julie the Cruise Director
It's always interesting to see if a term that has a specific cultural context -- here, a TV show -- can make it out into the lexicon without its context. IOW, whether people who don't know the original context will pick the term up anyway. So far, people I know who use the term all explicitly understand that they're referring to a TV character. (At least, as far as I know.) Anyone have further info on this?

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Whence weblog?

Elmer Masters uses Google Groups to dig through old Usenet (?) postings to see if he can find the first appearance of the term weblog. Per his research, "web log" appeared for the first time on February 19, 1997* on a page maintained by the Cyberspace Snow and Avalance Center. He links to other early examples as well.

Not known at this time is when the word blog evolved from web[ ]log.

* My 40th birthday.

Via Dave Winer.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Competitive commenting

We've had a go at pre- before, but it amuses me, so I keep a lookout for it. This was a comment left in a blog, which was aimed at the blog's author:

(By the way, you totally pre-commented me at DLB re Hercules' grammar.)

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Hello! You've been greeted.

A new way to use "to greet" as found in a catalog of greeting cards:
Are the holiday cards greeted?
Yes and No! The holiday cards come greeted with the words "Happy Holidays" or they can be ungreeted, please specify when ordering.
The un- prefix does not exist, AFAIK, in the transitive version (I greet you!, but no I ungreet you!).

It does represent economy -- the more traditional way would be something like "come with preprinted greetings" or the like; greeted surely is a lot shorter.

So, this usage is passive (the cards are greeted), which implies a differently transitive verb to greet meaning "to add a greeting to," right? I wonder if the folks at this company sit around at meetings and say things like Should we greet these cards? We should subpoena their emails.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Warriors and puppet masters

File under "and why not use the existing term?" I found this today in a Wikipedia entry:
The Bogdanov Affair article has been plagued by vicious POV warrioring from a number of sides, including IPs belonging to Igor Bogdanov, the subject of the article.
Aside from being hard to pronounce, it seems that the term "fighting" would be appropriate. So why does the author use "warrioring"? Because it appears to derive from a noun "POV warrior," which (heh) Wikipedia helpfully defines as "someone whose writings consistently lack a Neutral point of view." Another Wikipedia entry uses the term in a similar way:
In short, I object to RoB's knee-jerk reverting of any change I make to the article, without any consideration for process (explaining his edits, responding to my explanations). Moreover, I object to his knee-jerk POV warrioring, refusing to accept views other than his own.
So within the Wikipedia community, this seems to be established. The verb is just a, uh, bonus.

As for turning "xxxx warrior" into a verb, we can find other examples:
  • An Amazon reviewer (of PlayStation) who signs himself "warrioring."
  • A clear example where "weekend warrior" (not completely defined) is converted to "warrioring."
  • A straightfoward example from a page that addresses machismo: "Macho posturing is a hangover from hand-to-hand combat times when tribal societies were in need of fierce warriors to survive. Now that women fly combat planes, warrioring no longer suffices as a sufficient proof of masculinity." [Note: site is perhaps not work-safe. -- M]
  • Ditto: "Warrioring is a necessary evil, like chemotherapy against cancer - not the kind of remedy I like to celebrate - we should use it sadly, only when necessary. Think of all the greatest atrocities in our history, like the holocaust - they were all committed by warriors. Warrioring is how we evolved as societies."
Etc. Google lists a paltry 486 cites for "warrioring" right now, which I take as weak support for making "warrior" into a verb.

BTW, the original Wikipedia entry also introduced me to a term I hadn't heard before: a "sock puppet," which they define as "an additional account created by an existing member of an Internet community. This account allows them to pose as a completely different user, sometimes to manufacture the illusion of support in a vote or argument." I generally suspect that overly enthusiastic reviews on Amazon and are put there by sock puppets. But then, I'm a skeptic.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Your feeback[[']s] welcome

This appeared in an email at work recently:
- One specific feedback we’ve received from our customers is that they would like to ...
I found this just a very tiny slightly small bit odd. Feedback is, in my experience, a collective noun. Granted, the standard means to indicate an individuum from the collective is the unsatisfactory "a piece of feedback," which is not only bland, but which doesn't even work -- you can have a piece of cake, but what the heck would a piece of feedback look like, anyway? Haha.

I sent this around for commentary, and one of my co-editors made this astute observation:
"Feedback" as a collective noun seems analogous to "e-mail": "One e-mail I received said..." I'm probably the only one on the planet who doesn't refer to individual e-mail messages as "e-mails." Let's see how long it is until you find "Many feedbacks we've received..." :^)
I had a fight once with someone (in email) about the use of email to mean "piece of email," and about the inevitableness of that usage and moreover its lack of ambiguity in everyday speech. (The counter-argument was that you would never refer to a letter as "a mail." FWIW, our in-house style guide insists on both the hy-phen ("e-mail") and on referring to "e-mail messages.")

The fact that people don't refer to feedbacks suggests that even if the analogy to "e-mail" has some merit, the word feedback has not yet fully made the leap to count noun. So keep your ears (and email eyes) open, folks.