All posts by richard

The End Loser

Mark Liberman of Language Log posted the other day about ‘Game Over‘ being used in the Cairo protests. He states:

For those without a classical education, Wikipedia explains that

Game Over is a traditional message in video games which usually signals the game has ended with a negative outcome. Notably used first in pinball machines and, later, arcade games, it has since been adopted widely and is now commonly associated with video games in general.

I guess I must have a classical education, because I didn’t see ‘Game Over’ as being all the novel. However, if it is, then surely the following picture from Malta of protesters outside the Libyan embassy is also interesting.

I got this off of Al Jazeera’s live blog covering the protests. What is most interesting isn’t the ‘Game Over’ sign, for me, but the two next to it – ‘The End Loser’ and ‘ You’re Fired’. The first may very well be a reinterpretation of ‘Game Over’ – it’s certainly from the same origin of video game usage. ‘You’re Fired’ probably started with the TV show the Apprentice, with Donald Trumps signature catch phrase told to participants who had failed in their tasks.

I would pay money to see Trump say this to Gadaffi.


@EusaSocieties, the twitter account run by Liz Rawlings and some of the other sabbatical officers, referred @LangSoc (our twitter) to an article on the BBC News magazine about the word OK. The BBC news occasionally has some interesting language-related articles that I would suggest looking up, if you ever see them.

More interesting though is that Daniel Beaver read the article, as well, and blogged about it at Language Log. If you don’t know about LL yet, I don’t know where you’ve been; we were lucky enough to have Geoff Pullum, one of the main writers, give a talk about it as our inaugural Soap Vox lecture. The blog about OK is pretty good – he goes into some of the errors in the BBC News article. A lot of what LL does is call out reporters who aren’t linguists for their (often unintentional) errors. Go read it to see what I mean.

My friend Matthias also blogged about it on Saivus; specifically he looked at the possible Native American origin of the word. This sort of thing is happening all of the time – one input is put into the linguistics blogging machine and passed around from blog to various blog like a hot potato, or more accurately like a hot meme. Of course, this may only be noticeable to someone who follows around 50~ language blogs (like me.) I wouldn’t really suggest it, as you spend far too much time online. On the other hand, I now know more about OK than I ever really needed to know. Looking forward to my next cocktail party.


I was sitting reading some Calvin and Hobbes on a study break when I identified a new eggcorn I have. I’ve talked about these before here. It’s when you think a word is spelled a different way than it actually is, based on how you hear or pronounce it. Here, Calvin was talking to Hobbes about not needing to do a book report because the end of the world was nigh (a wish some of us probably share at times). He says that his justification is Haley’s Comet (right), which is ‘a harbinger of doom’. Looking at that word, I realised that since I first saw it in print  (probably in this exact comic when I was 12), I’ve always been inserting an «r» into the word. What I’ve always assumed it would sound like harbringer, based on the word bring, as it always brings news. I assumed that har- was a bound base without individual meaning, like cranberry, mentioned here. I’ve always assumed that har would potentially mean something like ‘bad news’. I was wrong.

I can’t recall ever having heard this word spoken – so this was an entirely mental misreading, which is something that is a bit different than a normal eggcorn. Since I’ve never heard it, but misanalysed it every time I’ve read it, and since ‘eggcorn’ was invented by our very own Geoff Pullum, I think I can be justified in naming this new type of mishearing a harbringer. You heard it here first, kids – tell all your friends. All textual-only eggcorns are now harbringers. It would be cool if this caught on.

Since I wanted to know what the actual etymology was, I looked it up.

It looks like harbinger has meant a few things. For one, it means a small flower in the carrot family, the Erigenia bulbosa, which is one fo the first bloomers in North America. This comes from the most common definition, that of “One that goes before and announces the approach of some one; a forerunner. Mostly in transf. and fig. senses, and in literary language.” This is what Haley’s comet is purported to be.

This definition came from the more archaic office of “One sent on before to purvey lodgings for an army, a royal train, etc.; a purveyor of lodgings; in pl., an advance company of an army sent to prepare a camping-ground; a pioneer who prepares the way.” One can imagine how this could be semantically shifted to merely mean a herald. This older definition, in turn comes from an older one, meaning a host or entertainer, or more specifically one who provides lodging. This goes back as far as Old High German, from the word heriberga lit. ‘shelter for an army’. This was a compound from hariheri, host, army  and -berga (= OE. -ber{asg}-beor{asg}) protection, shelter, from bergan to protect. (As always, these come from the OED.)

So there you have it. The etymology. Hopefully, in fifty years time, ‘harbringer’ will also be a word, meaning ‘a textual-only or internal version of an eggcorn.’

On Dissertation Advisors

For all of your fourth and third years out there (as well as all MSc or PhD students), your dissertation is one of the most important parts of your undergraduate degrees. It may very well steer your future career in a certain direction, and can result in you getting or not getting that appointment at another university or with that funding body. The supervisor is an integral part of the process of writing it up, and I often felt as if the relationship between me and my supervisor was a bit ambiguous. (For the record, he is a good supervisor.)

So, this article in Nature was a really good read. I highly suggest it to all of you.

To Boyfriend?

In case none of you knew, I am a nerd. Sadly, this stretches not only to blogging too much, but also to reading Japanese manga. I was reading Megatokyo today when I ran across an interesting construction. Megatokyo is a comic written  in the style of japanese comics (although the reading pattern goes from left to right like english comics). I’m not sure it’s technically a manga, as the writer is American and not a native speaker of Japanese (although I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t fluent by this point.) I won’t bore you with the plot – it’s barely progressed in the 8 years I’ve been reading it – but just take a look at Panel 2 here.

You may have noticed it there – “There will be no authorization to boyfriend my daughter.” It’s in « » marks, which means that this is translated from Japanese. However, as Fred Gallagher, the author, doesn’t give us the Japanese translations, it is much more likely that this was written with English grammar in mind. I find this really interesting because ‘to boyfriend’ is not a normal verb. It doesn’t show up in the OED, although that doesn’t mean much. Obviously ‘boyfriend’ is a noun, and so it’s use here is assumedly part of the sort of construction where a noun becomes a change-of-state verb (I think.) I may not be well-rehearsed enough in my sublexical semantics to post the exact details – if you’re a native speaker of english, you understand the sentence, anyway. You probably even understand the sentence when ‘given’ is dropped, as it is here.

What I wanted to point out is that the use of English informal constructions, like this one (which wouldn’t make it past a copy-editor for a newspaper, for instance), makes it sound like the dad is speaking here in English poorly, instead of the main intended effect of making him sound irate, although that comes off too. Another thing I’d like to point out is that I’m not sure one can do this in Japanese. I’d be very interested if any of you readers are actually Japanese – is it possible to make a noun into a verb like this?  If not, this is a pretty loose ‘translation’.

I realise in retrospect that this post can probably be summed up by the phrase ‘huh. weird.‘ Maybe someone else can help make more sense of it in the comments section.

Case on/in Point

A few months ago I ran across the phrase ‘case on point’ somewhere, written. This is called an eggcorn, where someone has misheard a phrase or word and misanalysed how it is spelled – like eggcorn, which is how some spell acorn. I’ve talked about these before here – the phrase was invented by Pullum over on Language Log. And I’ve actually written about this one before here.

I thought I’d add that since that post, ngrams came out. The google distribution wasn’t that different for case in versus case on point. However, as far as published works go, they’re not even remotely comparable. I guess this is what editors are for.

See the blue line? Yeah. Case on point.

How I Blog

Hey. If you’re reading this, go you. If you’re from Edinburgh University and are in LangSoc – this is for you. Did you know that you can join this blog and write whatever you want on it relating to language? Well, you know now. This post is basically my explanation as to why I blog, how I do it, and why you should. I highly suggest reading it all the way through. Full disclosure: I wrote it, so I’m naturally biased in this respect.


Basically, I’ve noticed over the past semester that I am by far and away the main person writing on this here blog. Admin and Langsoc together have 17 posts, most of which I’ve made. There are four posts from four other people. And then there are 45 blog posts from me. I kind of think we should move away from that ratio. Not because I’m tired of blogging – this is only one of seven blogs I write on – but because I think that you guys can benefit from this. Every now and again, people comment on my blog posts, and I learn more. The lice/louse post I made a few days ago, when checked over by someone reliable, turned out to be a misunderstand that I had had – and so I edited it, and learned what I should have learned in class. And it’s damn fun, writing these.

In order to help you guys understand the process that I go through, I decided to just give you a glimpse of my notes to myself this week. I sprinkle my class notes with hashtags, which is my own short-hand for ‘read me later’. Sometimes, I go through my notes, find these, and try and think over them, or look up information I hadn’t, or do tasks I forgot to do. I went to over twenty hours of lectures this week (yes, I am a nerd.) So I have quite a few of these notes. I’ve compiled them here for you guys to see, and I’ve gone through, in color, and shown my process for each one. I’ve taken out some – stuff like ‘pick up camera’ and ‘download this amazing journal article you won’t read now’ (I tend to download around 20-40 articles per week. I skim most of them, but a lot get left aside. (For all of those who didn’t know, I’m a massive workaholic, so don’t feel bad if you don’t download articles for fun. You probably have a life.)) But here they are, otherwise in full. The notes are in bold – my notes from right now are not.


Cranberries – cran-berry free vs. bound morpheme. but cran can have it’s own meaning, as in cranapple, crantastic. And isn’t cran from crannog?

You can see here that this is short hand. If you’re ever in class and a random thought comes to you, don’t lose it! Write it down. You’ll be thankful later. You can see here that I’ve tried to figure out how cranberry might not be a good example a bound morpheme that has lost all semantic notion on its own. Someone else in class later raised the cranapple example, as well. Crantastic isn’t just my invention. Just now, I thought it might have been  – but a quick search for the word on google comes up with 11,000 results. That’s a lot. What’s important is that cran can never be on its own as a free morpheme, however. I only realised this later. And now you know, too.

As for the etymology, the OED is available as an online resource through the library. Here is the etyma for cranberry:

A name of comparatively recent appearance in English; entirely unknown to the herbalists of 16-17th c., who knew the plant and fruit as marsh-whorts, fen-whorts, fen-berries, marsh-berries, moss-berries. Several varieties of the name occur in continental languages, as G. kranichbeere, kranbeere, LG. krônbere, krones- or kronsbere, krônsbär, kranebere (all meaning crane-berry); cf. also Sw. tranbär, Da. tranebær, f. trana, trane, crane.

There’s more to do with the use of it in Britain, but I’m American and don’t care that much. What I did care about was my folk-etymology of cranberry as being a portmanteau of crannog and berry. I was wrong. It’s from crane. Cooool! (For the record, I love anything to do with bogs. I’m not sure why. That’s probably why I noted this. For more, see this.) This kind of note is pretty much what I write about here.


baby-talk isn’t just a raise of pitch. It’s simpler syntactic structures: now, what about semantic structure of words in the adults mind? Is cactuses really the same as cactus?

Here I was just wondering aloud in writing whether cactuses really is the same semantically as cacti. I’m not sure it is. I think that when we use either form, we mentally associate them with their user groups, which causes us to view them differently. How would I test this, though? Anyone have any ideas? This is the kind of thought that never makes it to this blog.


go-went, good-well suppletion. Related?

Here I was wondering if the fact that both of these words have original and suppleted words that were similar, and if this is coincidence. I could n-gram on google to find out, but I believe the suppletion happened before the 1700s, and Google’s books would not help me, then. Maybe we have a predisposition towards suppleting forms based on sound patterning? Thoughts? This is another of those thoughts that wouldn’t make it here unless I found something interesting later.


lice-infested: lice -> when is the learning age for this? I expect it to be late. It was 15? for me. How about historically? N-gram it!
I think this is a case of evolution of a collective noun.
Ok, the louse/lice may not matter historically – what matters is our grammars, based on our semantic experience, which in the modern era doesn’t call for louse! Think about the Swadesh list….!


This was my thought process for the previous post I made. The HA! I wrote because I n-grammed it – in class. Not having anyone to share my initial glee with, I just wrote. If anything like this ever happens to you, please write about it! There are people out there who care. James Wintz, a PhD student who invited me to write on his blog at replicated typo (where I just wrote a post on prairie dog communication, if that’s your thing), saw this and retweeted it later. So there must have been something interesting in it. And, as I mentioned before, I learned early on – from Heinz, actually – that my initial assumptions had been wrong. I had misheard him. What does this mean? That this blog can help you learn shit. And that shit is real.


German is underlying a verb-final language, but statistically this isn’t the case. How does WALS account for this?

I was shocked today to learn that not everyone knows about WALS – even those doing their dissertations in cross-linguistic typologic features. The World Atlas of Language Structures is one of the best databases on the web. Bookmark it. It knows everything about every language, and can point you to where you can get more information if you need it. In this case, it isn’t helpful, sadly – the syntax portion hasn’t been updated since 1969, which is pretty near when Chomsky came out with the generative framework that I am working with in Current Issues in Syntax which says that German is underlyingly verb-final. I’m starting to think that GG is shite. Thoughts? (If you made it this far.)


Consult Corbett on dev. vs. inf.

Corbett wrote the best books on Agreement and Gender around. He’s a pretty good morphologist. I was going to look him up, because I particularly like agreement phenomenon and wanted to know if there’s any weird things happening with derivational morphology and agreement. Unfortunately, he’s at home right now, and I’m in the lab. I’ll look this up later and make a blog post. Probably. Literally, this sort of thought can be useful. Not just to yourself – to your peers who read these things.


does dev. vs. inf. differ cross-linguistically?

I don’t know. I suspect it does. I wish I had gone to the Linguistic Circle this week, which was on syntactic categories. There was a great paper I read on Riau Indonesian that suggested that it may not have the categories we expect, at all, but that the documentation linguists drew them in based on their own research.  This is the sort of thing that I generally turn into an essay, not a blog post. Not that they make much of a difference these days.


Research blog on airsacs in primates. What about Alex and diaphragm control? Paper topic – loss of air sacs and decrease in auditory range.

This is, metabloglistically, a reminder to myself to write a paper on air sacs in primates. Most of us have them – but humans don’t. Bart de Boer gave a brilliant talk on this last week in the Soap Vox Lectures, which I hope you saw. If you didn’t, check in at replicated typo now and again, because I’ll probably blog about it at some point.

As for Alex, my flatmate – well, he used to play wind instruments pretty awesomely. Because of this, he can make himself look extremely pregnant just through breathing in (although I’m not sure it is actually a causal relationship, that.) I was wondering if this was an airsac of sorts. I’ll have to research it. I do that by going on Google and typing in things like ‘diaphragm control’ normally.


And that’s it. I hope, through reading this, you saw how a few paragraphs could be strung out from a single jotted note in class. The process of writing about the smallest things really does make you consider a lot more than you would expect. My grades have gone up a full grade letter since I started blogging on a regular basis. I don’t believe this is because I’ve become a better studier. I think this is because I’ve learned that the way I learn is by knowing everything and then distilling down what I know through small little analyses of the data. Blogging is the perfect studying tool, for me. It also keeps me interested. Anyone who hangs out with me must have noticed that I never shut off the curious linguist. Why the hell would I? Language is really, really interesting. If you feel the same way, talk about it here! This is your space guys.

Right. Comments welcomed. I know this was a long post. 😛 I’ll end it here.

Your Email Have Been Elected

The title was the title of a recent email I found in my spam folder. This is a new one. Luckily, since it’s ungrammatical, I can post the title here. (It’s just basic number disagreement – have for has.) Otherwise I’d be forced to laugh at the idea of my private emails being entered into a prize for millions of dollars. “Six Million Emails entered in the program were presented by ANDALUSIA VISTA S.L, in conjunction with a group of philanthropist, humanitarian organizations, and also with the help of chambers of commerce of high commission worldwide.”

O rly?

Louse- vs. Lice-Infested

This post has been edited. – Richard, 9:35am 20.01

Lately, I’ve been sitting in on English Word Formation, taught by Dr. Heinz Giegerich. When reviewing irregular plural morphology, Heinz said that the claim has been made by Kiparsky (1982) that one can say lice-infested and louse-infested, while one can never say rats-infested and always has to say rat-infested. Essentially, because the plural marker is inflectional, while compounding is a derivational process, the –s can never go inside the compound. That would raise other issues, like why we don’t get, say, nationsal instead of nationals. It’s a good and valid point, but it doesn’t work for irregularities – in this case, lice.

I immediately wondered whether this was in fact, true. I would never say louse-infested – mostly because I don’t view louse as something that can infest, as that verb needs to agree with a plural noun. However, that’s not an issue with rat-infested, as already mentioned. The problem for me is that I view lice as a collective plural. I don’t really think of louse as the same word, possibly because I didn’t learn either to any noticeable extent until I was around 10 in camp. But I would expect there to be a difference between mouse and mice-infested because of this – I would expect the former to be more common, and the second one to be illegal, as mice is never seen as a collective plural.

Luckily, we have various tools at our immediate finger tips these days. My first instinct was to N-gram this. If you didn’t know, Google recently released a word-bag that can be statistically analysed, drawn from 14% of books published (all of their repetoire). This is a huge, date-tagged resource. I searched for lice, louse first. Here is what I got.

You can see here that lice is far more common in the literature, and that louse only really appears about 1800. I mistakenly took this to be a back formation, where people applied the same ablaut pluralisation rule to lice that that saw in mice and mouse. Had I taken an extra thirty seconds, I might have looked this up on the OED online. I looked it up later by hand, but I could have just done it on the university account. Tthe internet far surpasses even things like my Anglosaxon Dictionary, which, not having an English to Old Engish function (nor a search one, at that), is almost useless here. I did find it eventually – lus is the Old English form. The OED agrees with this. So, it’s not a back-formation, but rather louse just doesn’t appear as much. I won’t speculate as to why here, although I’ll probably apologise in class next week anyway.

For the record, I also n-grammed mouse/mice. As you might expect, they have the exact same distribution in time. So, that may be a more productive form. It’s also possible that one needs to mention mouse much more than louse. I suspect this. Oddly, louse is in the Swadesh list of core vocabulary that is supposed to be in all languages, used by comparative linguists to judge relationships between languages. It’s a bit of a weird entry in there.

I also n-grammed louse- vs. lice-infested. I couldn’t use the hyphen, meaning that a sentence like the lice infested the hair might have slipped by. But, by and large, the results are interesting, anyway.

So, tes, Kiparsky is right in that you can say both of them. It’s true that lice-infested is more common, which may have some implications for how people try to regularize irregularities. I still blame this on lice being a semantically collective plural most of the time – I suspect other people, not just me, think of lice like they do rice: small, white, numerous, and edible (maybe not the last one, as homo sapiens sapiens grooming patterns do sadly differ considerably from our cousin chimps and bonobos.) For the record, you do also get mice-infested and mouse-infested, with about the same distribution.

So, Kiparsky is right, I suppose. The issue is that statistically he may not be.

Note: This was corrected from a previous version where I misunderstood the claim going on. That happens.