Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Just an observation, with the possibility for someone to tell me if there's a general rule at work here. If you have a new verb that ends in -er, how do you form the past tense?

Cases in point.

  • The noun (trademark, actually) Taser has begotten the verb to taser. (In fact, the derived verb is more frequently spelled to tazer, a trend; see below.) When Andrew Meyer was subdued at U Florida (#) recently, the cops used a Taser. Was Meyer tased or tasered? Google currently shows a combined 232,000 hits for tasered/tazered, a combined 494,000 for tased/tazed.

  • People use the web site to record their, um, quotidian activities. When you've done so, have you twittered or twitted? It's not possible (or not easy, there's the rub) to use Google to find instances specific to Twitter, because the verbs already exist with other meanings. However, you can find examples of both forms that refer specifically to ... here's a twittered (the writer also tentatively tried out tweeted); here's twitted.

  • On a more established front, we get 35,000 hits for lasered/lazed +eyes and 69,000 hits for lased/lazed +eyes.

Based on the two quantitative measures, more people seem to think that the inflectable stem does not include the trailing -er. Is this because -er is already understood as a particle, namely to make a comparative form for the adjective? Do we have verbs in English whose infinitive form ends in a removable -er suffix? I can't think of any after several concentrated moments of thought.

Anyway, something to contemplate.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Not on board with that

Eruption today at work about the term to onboard. This is a term that seems to be jargon-y in the world of human resources (HR). It's used like this, courtesy of the site:
In the talent management universe, the new employee orientation and mainstreaming process is known as "employee onboarding."
The discussion started off with a rather naive question about whether it's onboarding, on-boarding, or on boarding. (I can't think of any kind of valid case for that last one.) If you hang around with editors, you might be able to imagine what sort of reaction this engendered. Did people say "it might not be advisable to use this term, as it might not be generally understood"? Well, some did. But it also engendered a good selection of comments about how "grotesque" and "ungrammatical" it is.

For the record, Google gets ~275,000 hits right now for onboarding.

I suppose that the "grotesque" can be attributed to personal preference (like I care what you think about this word), but the tainting with "ungrammatical" did get a few timid queries about how that should be so. Reply:

It's a bit like saying "I've been Christmasing" -- it's turning a noun into a verb that isn't used as a verb.

This doesn't sound analogous to me. And I don't get the "verb that isn't used as a verb" part. Creating a new verb from a noun (or from anything) that "isn't used as a verb" is sort of how it gets to be a verb in the first place, no? Perhaps I'm missing something.

In any event, no one involved in the discussion has drawn the parallel yet between onboarding and offshoring (5.4 million hits) or downsizing (7.2 million hits).

I'm sure that for all the scorn heaped on poor ol' onboarding today, the term will have the last laugh. In 10 years' time, if that, no one will blink an eye, sez me.

Update My colleague David, who has a way with versification, has allowed me to post the following, which he wrote in response to the whole debate:

In my office sedate was I basking
When on mail came an innocent asking
E-mail streams I'm now fording
On the use of "onboarding"
And "grotesque!" neologists totasking*

*If bringing someone on board is "onboarding," then taking someone to task must be "totasking."

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Gasmic Consciousness

A secondary but, uh, obvious definition for orgasm is "intense or unrestrained excitement". Where does that meaning reside in the word? Looks like it's in -gasm, which true to form in English, has no etymological validity.[1] But we don't care. You can add -gasm/-gasmic to lots of things (anything?) and express your intense or unrestrained excitement about that thing.

I ran across this in a blog:
What is a foodgasm, you might ask? Well, as the name might indicate, that's when the food that you're eating is so good, it's practically orgasmic. Your toes curl up, your breath gets shallow. You may start to moan a little. Anyone who's ever had a foodgasm before knows what I'm talking about; anyone who hasn't, well, I'm sorry.
Google currently gets around 29,000 hits for foodgasm. Flikr has a Foodgasm photo pool, for the more visually inclined.

I looked for *gasm in Google Groups (need that stem search) and found a selection, although not so many that were being used as real words. But I did find some.

Some uses stay close to the idea of physical sensation:
  • toe-gasm (adults only for this link)
  • The aforementioned foodgasm.
Others are metaphorical:
  • war-gasm, a term that is somewhat disturbing, although I suspect many people know exactly what it means.
  • art-gasm.
  • joe-gasm, which I was amused at -- noted by a collector of old GI Joe dolls upon encountering a specimen.
Hmm, I guess foodgasm could fit into the second category.

Some people amuse themselves by inventing (tho not actually using) variations on this idea, which is referred to by some as the Gasm game:
  • Sex in a warehouse: store-gasm
  • Sex with a Norse god: Thor-gasm
  • Sex with Marines: corps-gasm
  • Mushroom sex: spore-gasm
... as examples from a very long list.

Anyway, that's the idea. What other terms are in real use that follow this pattern?


[1] I actually got to wondering about the -asm suffix. From the two examples I can think of (orgasm, phantasm) I can't deduce a meaning. Need someone who knows Greek, I think. Any thots?

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.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Assessing calibration

Finding neologistical goodness in corporate-speak is, admittedly, like taking candy from fish in a barrel of monkeys. But we don't hold ourselves to high standards in this blog.

Raymond Chen at A Well-known Software Company identifies a word that seems to be sliding around a bit in the semantic mud: calibration. He cites the following:

I would like to get calibration on that individual from those who know him.

There is, of course, a kind-of explanation for the emergence of this usage. A much-bemoaned twice-yearly* ritual at said company is The Review, in which employees go through a self- and manager assessment based on their previously declared goals. Although the process is secretive, it is generally known that managers get together for calibration meetings in which (it is rumored) employees are judged against their goals (and, most people believe, ranked against each other). You can see how the term calibration in this context derives roughly from (as Raymond notes) "adjusting a piece of measuring equipment against a known standard."

You can also see how the term calibration, as used here, can easily float over to take up the space occupied by assessment -- they calibrate, they assess, it's all sort of part of the same big thing. And from there it's an easy step to simply start using calibrate in ever-wider contexts where assessment would still be the more common term. Although in the cite that Raymond has, calibration does seem to still refer to assessing an individual; perhaps there's a connotation of providing a ranking, or at least a numerically scaled assessment.

There are comments on Raymond's entry. One person notes (yay!) that Google returns 10K hits for get calibration; this is not a singleton usage. (FWIW, my recommendation is that you ignore the ones in which people complain about the term. Of course.)

* Formerly known as semi-annual.

Friday, March 09, 2007


When people note (or complain about) words changing parts of speech, they tend to draw examples of nouns becoming verbs (verbizing) and verbs becoming nouns (nounification, double bonus). (The discussion of why some people feel that these role changes are bad is left to another day. Or not.)

The second-tier PoS get a bit less attention, it seems to me. But I noticed a couple of examples of adjectivization recently, one of which has gotten wide attention due to its source, namely the TV show "American Idol." The adjective is pitchy, which apparently the judge Randy Jackson uses to describe contestants' performances. Some Web sites (#) use the word without quotes or definition -- I guess if you're enough into the show to be reading Web sites about it, you should know the vocabulary of the show. However, in what I assume is a rare foray into things linguistic, People magazine got on the job and got a clarification from Jackson himself about what pitchy actually means:
"You're hitting the note that could be flat or sharp," Jackson explained. "So one note could be sharp, the next note is flat. Flat meaning that the note that is hit is lower than the actual note that you (should reach) to be on key."
Some people don't like this word. It's true that its definition is not clear from the word alone, other than you know that it must have something to do with (musical) pitch.

Can you just whack a -y onto the end of a word and conjure up an adjective? Maybe. One of the blogs I read recently posted the following:

[...] someone was stabbed on the orange line a few weeks ago. An isolated incident, I’m sure. Then another stabbing happened earlier this week.

My colleague regularly rides the orange line, so I asked her about it.

Me: Why is the Orange line so stabby?

To my mind, a clever adjectivilization. Now that I'm tuned in, I'll try to find more such examples. If you find any, do let me know.


20 Apr 2007: Dilbert, "Don't get all mathy on me."

1 Nov 2007: Blog post, "[W]hen an expert says "you have to believe me 'cause I'm all experty", maintain a healthy skepticism."

19 Jan 2007 Guitar Player magazine, "It doesn’t get much more guitar-y than this."

7 April 2008 I can't believe I didn't remember this earlier. A joke ... Q: What's brown and sticky? A: A stick.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Nordstrom, his store

Many company names explicitly identify themselves as belonging to (in a grammatical sense) someone. Taking a walk down the street here, I can see:

Papa John's
Trader Joe's
Chuck E. Cheese's
Fantastic Sam's

... and others too numerous to mention. The antecedent, as it were, of the possessive is sometimes explicit (Papa John's Pizza, Schuck's Auto Parts), but is often implicit: McDonald's ?restaurant, Macy's ?department store, Trader Joe's ?emporium, Fantastic Sam's ?tonsorium, Chuck E. Cheese's ?den of prepubescent dining.

The pattern of possessive name + (implicit) emporium is so strong that people follow it even when the name does not formally include the possessive. In my youth, we often shopped at Montgomery Ward's (or just Ward's), as everyone called it, even though the official name is just plain old Montgomery Ward. Likewise, you might have a hard time convincing some people that it does not say "Nordstrom's" on the side of the building. Although not everyone believes me, true old timers in Seattle -- aka Jet City -- will still refer to the aircraft company as Boeing's. If you listen with this in mind, you'll undoubtedly hear people whacking an extra -s onto the end of local establishments in your area. (Seattle: Pagliacci['s] Pizza, and the occasional and jaw-clench-inducing Pike's Market.)

To get a phantom possessive, it appears that the name must be clearly identified as the name of a person. In Seattle, people used to shop at Frederick and Nelson's. But people don't work at Microsoft's, or shop at Wal-Mart's or Target's, or buy their clothes at Old Navy's.

If the name includes an -s, then there is widespread confusion. Just for yucks, I googled for "Sear's +store" and got around 29,000 hits. Some of these refer to stores whose actual name is Sear's (e.g. Sear's Shoe Store), but from browsing the first few pages of results, it looks like most of the mentions refer to the erstwhile Sears Roebuck. You will also find the name Marshall Fields (now Macy's) written as Marshall Field's.

All of this, really, just to ask this question: why isn't there an apostrophe in Starbucks?