Saturday, April 30, 2005

Caveat Translator

Darrin Matter makes this confession in the latest Chimes about a recent Spanish assignment:

This was a tough reading. ... Half of the words were ones we’d never seen before, and contrary to what our professor would say, understanding all of them was essential to understanding the story. Needless to say, I needed some help … an online Spanish translator.



Posted by Nathan Bierma on 04/30 at 12:17 PM
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Thursday, April 28, 2005

On Language 4/27: Q&A’s about teeth, guts, and Kleenex

Sink your teeth into this: Phrase remains elusive
Chicago Tribune, April 27, 2005
By Nathan Bierma

As for “by the skin of one’s teeth,” it’s no urban legend that the phrase originated in the Bible, but its meaning is uncertain. The phrase is first cited in the Geneva Bible of the 16th Century, which translated Job 19:20 from Hebrew as “I have escaped with the skin of my teeth.”

Despite the odd imagery, the phrase caught on as an idiom. Biblical commentators speculate that the phrase either refers to the gums, or that it means “nothing,” because skin does not exist on teeth.


Posted by Nathan Bierma on 04/28 at 11:37 AM
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Monday, April 25, 2005

Great Moments in Pledge Drive Grammar

Language Log has been keeping an eye on some of the syntactically challenged statements of those brilliant pledge drive hosts on public radio. Here‘s the latest:

We know you’ve been thinking about becoming a member off and on during our pledge drive. This morning, we want you to think about it on.

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 04/25 at 11:54 AM
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Jon Stewart, Cardinal Arinze, and Latin grammar

The weblog sauvage noble dissects a dissection of a supposed attack ad in the Vatican, as imagined by The Daily Show:

Regarding the The Daily Show invective put in the mouth of Cardinal Arinze against Cardinal Ratzinger, Clint writes:

Here is what I understood the text to be:

Cardinal Ratzinger dicit amat magna mater ecclesia. Sed qui veritas est? Eram prognatus in Germania. Ut eram Martin Luther. Validus ecclesia est alius reformation superstes per a sausage-eating bastard? Ego Cardinal Arinze, et ego probatus is nuntius.

Roughly translated:

Cardinal Ratzinger says the great mother Church loves. But who is the truth? I was born(?) in Germany. As I am Martin Luther. The church is strong surviving the reformation by a sausage-eating bastard? I Cardinal Arinze, and I this message having been approved.

[...] Here’s what it should have said:


Posted by Nathan Bierma on 04/25 at 09:07 AM
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Saturday, April 23, 2005

On Language 4/20: Filming ‘The Interpreter’

Interpreters, translators play vital but different roles
Chicago Tribune, April 20, 2005
By Nathan Bierma

Before you make a movie called “The Interpreter,” you have to get one thing straight. An interpreter is not the same as a translator.

That’s what the makers of “The Interpreter,” which opens Friday, learned as they made the first movie filmed at the United Nations in New York.

“After they understood the difference between interpreters and translators, they stopped calling us translators,” says Brigitte Andreassier-Pearl, the UN’s chief of Interpretation Services, who consulted with director Sidney Pollack and actress Nicole Kidman in the making of “The Interpreter.”

Interpreters are in charge of interpreting spoken communication as it happens on the UN floor. Translators work with written documents, under far less time pressure. ...

Kidman, cast as a UN interpreter who accidentally overhears a secret threat on an African president’s life, had her definitions down when she arrived at UN headquarters to observe interpreters at work. She spent a morning in the glass booth of the Security Council, studying the interpreters and asking them questions. Then she sat down to interview Andreassier-Pearl, a French native with a PhD in French literature who has worked at the UN for 34 years.


Posted by Nathan Bierma on 04/23 at 11:08 AM
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Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Michelangelo the Inimitable?

Cambridge U PressA linguistic footnote from the new book Benvenuto Cellini: Sculptor, Goldsmith, Writer, in a chapter provocatively entitled “Cellini, Michelangelo, and the Myth of Inimitability”:

Acknowledged as the greatest living artist by his contemporaries, Michelangelo has continued to exert a powerful, even mythic, presence in the history of art. Part of the Michelangelo legend has been tied to a quality first introduced into his legacy by his biographer Ascanio Condivi: his inimitability.* Not to be outdone, Giorgio Vasari, whose biography of the artist in his original Vite of 1550 was criticized by Michelangelo himself, incorporated into his second edition of Vite an echo of Condivi, as he arguest that Michelangelo could not be copied in either painting or sculpture: “le cose sue ... son quasi inimmitabili.”

* The footnote reads:

Condivi thus uses the word inimitabili for the first time in Italian as it pertains to a single individual. The first recorded use of the word is that of Leonardo da Vinci, who applied it to the study of painting.

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 04/12 at 07:34 PM
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Adventures in Diagramming

An ambitious English 101 student of mine took me up on a challenge to diagram the following sentence, which appeared, comma-less, in a Calvin basketball game program.

Calvin heads into tonight’s game looking to build on the momentum of a 97-93 victory at Kalamazoo Saturday in which senior Ricky Shilts was one of five Calvin players to notch double-digits in scoring as he had 20 points followed by seniors Dan Aultman and Brad Sall with 18 points apiece followed by Josh Meckes with 12 points and Joel Hoekstra with 10 points.

Here’s her noble effort.

Speaking of diagramming ...


Posted by Nathan Bierma on 04/12 at 07:22 PM
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our highest ideal

From Erin’s Weird and Wonderful Word of the Day:


mastery of languages or the tongue. A nonce word used once by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “The New Testament contains not the least proof of the linguipotence of the Apostles, but the clearest proof of the contrary.”

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 04/12 at 07:18 PM
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Journalists’ strange obsession with salmon

One stray clip from the Schiavo case ... We journalists are often criticized for our lazy, formulaic word use. But who else but a journalist would be creative enough to mix a metaphor this way? Does any other group of writers make such prodigious use of the hyphenated participle? (From CNN’s obit)

Her relatives and friends never reached a consensus on whether the Florida resident would have wanted to linger for so long in what doctors called a persistent vegetative state. However, all who knew her agree the once-bashful woman would have shunned the litigation-spawned spotlight.

First, can a spotlight be spawned? Second, is litigation literally seminal? (It’s best not to think about it.) Here’s M-W:

spawn: Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French espaundre, from Old French espandre to spread out, expand, from Latin expandere
intransitive senses
1 : to deposit spawn
2 : to produce young especially in large numbers
transitive senses
1 a : to produce or deposit (eggs)—used of an aquatic animal b : to induce (fish) to spawn c : to plant with mushroom spawn
- spawn·er noun

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 04/12 at 07:11 PM
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to foot the bill

Michael Quinion this week in his excellent World Wide Words newsletter:

Q. Where and when did the phrase “to foot the bill” originate? [John Lanahan, Berlin]

A. It is an odd expression, isn’t it? It’s the kind of idiomatic
phrase that we may use regularly without any feeling that it’s in
the least odd, until somebody such as yourself asks about it.

It comes from the mildly figurative sense of “foot” that refers to
the end or bottom of something, such as the foot of a ladder. In
this case, it is a verb that - for example - might once have meant
adding a postscript to the end of a letter. But our sense refers in
particular to the totting up of a column of figures, especially in
an account ledger, and adding the result to the bottom of the


Posted by Nathan Bierma on 04/12 at 01:12 PM
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Wednesday, April 06, 2005

“On Language” 4/6: ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino’?

My Tribune column today explores the surprisingly complex issue of whether Americans of Spanish-speaking background should be called Hispanics, Latinos, or something else:

There’s no ideal solution for Americans, Benedet says. “There’s no one term that can adequately define all the peoples and the cultures. It’s really quite a problem,” she says.

“`Chicano’ is too exclusive to Mexicans. `Hispanic’ has too close a tie with colonial roots,” she says. Using “Mexican-American” or “Cuban-American,” Benedet adds, implies “you’re not a culture in your own right.”

Even “Latino”—which rose to prominence in part as an anti-imperialist alternative to “Hispanic”—does not have a spotless history, Benedet says. She notes that the French used it in their attempted conquest of Mexico in the 19th Century. And “Latino”—the Spanish equivalent of “Latin”—has strong associations with the Roman Empire and medieval Europe, where the Latin language thrived. “Latino” also is gender exclusive, although it is often used as shorthand for both males and females (who are “Latinas”).

Hispanic’ or `Latino’: What to call our largest minority? 
Chicago Tribune, April 6, 2005 Wednesday,  799 words
By Nathan Bierma
temporary link/permanent preview


Posted by Nathan Bierma on 04/06 at 05:10 PM
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Saturday, April 02, 2005

Are you doubly positive about that?

This was posted to linguine, the list-serv of the linguistics department at Northeastern Illinois University:

A linguistics professor was lecturing his class.

“In English,” he explained, “a double negative forms a positive.  In
some languages, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative.”

“However,” the professor continued, “there is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative.”

A voice from the back of the room piped up.  “Yeah, right.”

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 04/02 at 04:29 PM
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One misgiving is better than two

I’d never heard “misgiving” as a singular before this NPR segment on implanting electrodes in the brains of quadriplegics:

“This misgiving comes from the very person who created Matt Nagle’s thought machine ... ” (at 3:05 into the segment)

I thought it was what Bill Walsh calls a false singular (Walsh’s example is from a radio ad that urged listeners to “donate a school supply.”

But M-W has misgiving:

“a feeling of doubt or suspicion especially concerning a future event”

So does the OED:

A feeling of mistrust, apprehension, or loss of confidence. Freq. in pl. ...
1781 W. COWPER Convers. 770 Conscious of her crimes, she feels instead A cold misgiving, and a killing dread.

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 04/02 at 04:19 PM
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The ontology of etymology

Why not start out with a whopper: what is the relationship between a word’s form and the nature of what it names? Socrates was among the first to ponder this, according to Anatoly Liberman’s fascinating new book Word Origins and How We Know Them:

Socrates has great respect for wordsmiths and calls them lawgivers. A lawgiver suggests names that bring out the essence of the thing named. However, every word ... is not predestined to have the form we happen to know.



Posted by Nathan Bierma on 04/02 at 04:09 PM
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Justification for Existence

My “On Language” column in the Chicago Tribune covers grammar, etymology, neologisms, jargon, multilingualism, phonetics, and anything else remotely related to language and linguistics. My inspiration and preparation for this beautiful beat was my training in linguistics at Calvin College. How serendipitously splendiferous to fuse the two here!

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 04/02 at 04:05 PM
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