Response to Pullum on slurs

2017-07-20 10:45 pm
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Posted by Barbara Partee

This is a guest post by Robert Henderson, Peter Klecha, and Eric McCready in response to Geoff Pullum's post of July 10. My only role was offering in advance to post a reply if the authors would like me to. I'm a good friend of Geoff Pullum and a friend of the authors. What follows is theirs.

We were quite surprised to read the LL post by Geoff Pullum of July 10. In this post, GP discussed the suspension of Tory MP Anne Marie Morris for using the phrase “n****r in the woodpile” at an event held at the East India Club. After her use of this phrase was recorded and publicized, she was suspended by the Tories for what the Financial Times described as a racist remark. According to GP, this punishment was excessive, as the remark in question was not racist; he proceeds “reluctantly” to defend Ms. Morris, as the idiom in question was merely “silly.” While we offer no comment on the appropriateness of the specific punishment Ms. Morris received, we do find this characterization problematic on both moral and empirical grounds, together with many other commentators on social media, and we want to suggest that the author should have been (much) more careful when dealing with such an important topic.

What counts as a racist remark? The range of possibilities is broad, from direct attributions of racial slurs to covert dog-whistles, and it’s ultimately not for us as white individuals, or for anybody outside of the oppressed group in question, to declare exactly what is or is not a racist act. However, it does seem clear to us that the category of racist statements isn’t limited to saying things like “X is a [slur].” Thus GP’s claim that the MP’s statement doesn’t count as a racist remark because she didn't call anyone by the slur is off the mark. Utterances which are judged to be racist remarks even include saying positive things about non-people, e.g., "I love [slur] food!" This fact shows that GP’s definition of racist remarks is far too narrow.

Once we allow racist remarks to include more than predicating a slur of an individual, the ground for defending Morris's remark shrinks substantially. The only such defense is to argue that the appearance of the n-word in an idiom is enough to neutralize its racist meaning component. GP tries this route, but here the post runs into empirical problems given well-known facts about slurs. There is a consensus in the semantic/pragmatic and philosophical literature on the topic that slurs aggressively attach to the speaker, committing them to a racist attitude even in embedded contexts. Consider embedded slurs; imagine Ron Weasley says “Draco thought that Harry was a mudblood”, where attributing the thought to Draco isn’t enough to absolve Ron of expressing the attitudes associated with the slur. Indeed, even mentioning slurs is fraught territory, which is why the authors of most papers on these issues are careful to distance themselves from the content expressed. While we aren’t aware of work on slurs in noncompositional idioms in particular, a moment’s thought is enough to show that just putting a potentially offensive word into an idiom doesn’t defuse it; we would feel uncomfortable saying “the shit hit the fan” in formal situations, for example, although here “shit” lacks its literal meaning. Thus we should expect that the slurring meaning of the n-word survives in the idiom.

Slurs are generally words which have a history of being used to inflict serious emotional distress. Setting aside how it is that they come to do that in first place (which surely must have something to do with both their literal meaning and with their issuers’ hateful intent), they come to have a perverse second effect, as we understand it: they viscerally remind their victims of the hurt they have experienced due to prior use of the word, as summed up by the Langston Hughes quotation excerpted by Geoffrey Nunberg’s post, or by Ice Cube in his recent discussion with Bill Maher: “When I hear a white person say it, it feel like that knife stabbing you, even if they don’t mean to.” And importantly, what we have read and heard from people who have been victimized by these words suggests that any depiction can be such a reminder, whether it is use, mention, quotation, or even just phonetic overlap, as in the very obvious case of an idiom containing a slur, or less obvious cases like similar-sounding but historically unrelated words.

As an analogy, consider someone who has been the victim of repeated axe-violence — someone who has been attacked with axes over and over again over the course of their life, and has been threatened with such attacks even more often. If such a person were to come into contact with even just a depiction of an axe or axe-violence, it would be responsible to assume that the person may well become upset, and maybe even re-traumatized. And importantly, this is independent of anyone’s intent — it wouldn’t matter if I showed such a depiction to such a person with the virtuous intent of wanting to rob these depictions of their power to hurt the victim, for example — it would still very likely cause pain. There would be no reason to expect that that pain would be in any way a function of the depicter’s intent.

Likewise, any depiction of a slur creates the risk of causing hurt to those people who have been historically victimized by the slur, regardless of speaker intent. In this way, the slurring effect of a slur is more like Grice’s (1957) natural meaning than his non-natural (communicative) meaning; it is something the hearer derives from the utterance independent of grammatical convention or of their recognition of the speaker’s intent. See also this discussion of research on the physiological effects “mere words” can have.

These considerations defuse the central claim of GP's linguistic defense of Morris's remark, namely that the meaning of the idiom is "a hitherto concealed unpleasant surprise". Instead, racial slurs are terms that both predicate racial categories of people, and also denigrate those categories (technically, they are “mixed content bearers”). The idiom thus means "a hitherto concealed unpleasant surprise" while at the same time committing the speaker to a racist attitude. It is this second component that we expect to attach to the speaker, even in idiom. That this is the case is also shown by the fact that people have to keep apologizing for using the phrase. In fact, the fact that the MP was suspended and the reporting of the suspension makes use of the term “racist remark” is itself evidence that people naturally get the racist interpretation.

We think that GP's defense of Morris is not tenable on linguistic grounds, but there is a second aspect of the post in question that we find disturbing and important to address. Throughout the post, GP repeatedly mentions the n-word in its uncensored form. In a follow-up to the original post, he says that his refusal to censor is a strategy to avoid giving that word its power. If you take the standard linguistic analysis of slurs, though, the word’s power does not come from mere taboo (i.e., a social prohibition on using or mentioning the word as we see with expletives like "shit"). The word literally has as part of its semantic content an expression of racial hate, and its history has made that content unavoidably salient. It is that content, and that history, that gives this word (and other slurs) its power over and above other taboo expressions. It is for this reason that the word is literally unutterable for many people, and why we (who are white, not a part of the group that is victimized by the word in question) avoid it here.

Yes, even here on Language Log. There seems to be an unfortunate attitude — even among those whose views on slurs are otherwise similar to our own — that we as linguists are somehow exceptions to the facts surrounding slurs discussed in this post. In Geoffrey Nunberg’s otherwise commendable post on July 13, for example, he continues to mention the slur (quite abundantly), despite acknowledging the hurt it can cause. We think this is a mistake. We are not special; our community includes members of oppressed groups (though not nearly enough of them), and the rest of us ought to respect and show courtesy to them.

The sad fact is that linguistics as an academic field has severe diversity issues. These problems are not helped by the strategy above, which, while in the abstract might have its merits, in practice is only hurtful, and only serves as a barrier to those who might find its use painful or insensitive. Certainly, the taboo-ignoring strategy exemplified by GP’s original post is not going to be helpful in solving the problems our field has with lack of diversity. These problems are further evidenced by the fact, mentioned above, that we, the authors, are white, so we cannot directly understand what it feels like to be affected by the slur under discussion. Writing this post discomforts us in light of this fact, but we feel that we have a responsibility to try to further this discussion, and acknowledge that our understanding of the actual harm that comes from the n-word is indirect. For all of us who are not targeted by particular slurs, understanding can only really come from listening to those who have been harmed by them. We strongly encourage everyone to do so.

We want finally to emphasize that it’s not our intention to hang GP from the nearest flagpole, or to implicate in any way that he is himself a racist. We mention this only because some people we have talked about this issue with felt the need to defend him on this count. It hadn’t even entered our minds; we know that language behaviors are deeply ingrained and don’t always reflect our values. Indeed, one of the main points of this note is that speaker intention is not always relevant to these matters. (What’s more, we don’t even believe that debating which individual people may or may not be “racists in their heart of hearts” is a productive way to take on racism.) We are, in fact, fans of GP’s; but we are not fans of this post, for the reasons above.

We are grateful for helpful comments on this note by Carissa Ábrego-collier, Chris Davis, Mitcho Erlewine, Julia Goldsmith-Pinkham, Prerna Nadathur, and Betsy Pillion.

Oral Exam

2017-07-19 01:04 pm
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Posted by <a rel="author" href="/users/nverland/pseuds/nverland">nverland</a>


A trip to the dentist and a new take on oral care
Originally posted to LiveJournal 11/2008

Words: 2241, Chapters: 1/1, Language: English


2017-07-17 12:26 am
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Posted by <a rel="author" href="/users/tauriel777/pseuds/tauriel777">tauriel777</a>


Just another smutty story from the Hobbit set........they tell everyone they are rehearsing together, but funny enough, their one scene together is already done........

Words: 4301, Chapters: 1/1, Language: English

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Posted by aelarsen

I swear I’m not intending to do an episode-by-episode breakdown of Fall of Eagles. It’s just worked out that way, because after looking at the first three posts, I’m going to discuss the fourth episode, “Requiem for a Crown Prince,” which deals with the Mayerling Incident.


Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria-Hungary

When last we left Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary, they had gotten themselves into a marriage that left Elisabeth rather unhappy. They had three daughters and one son, Rudolph, who thereby became the heir to the throne. Rudolph was quite different from his rather cold, conservative father. He was very interested in natural science and ornithology. Politically he was a Liberal, and so got along rather poorly with his father, but made him closer to his mother (so that he was sort of the opposite of his cousin Wilhelm II of Germany). Rudolph also had quite the eye for ladies, and had a string of mistresses and brief affairs with prostitutes, both before and after he married Princess Stephanie of Belgium, a very conservative woman.


Crown Prince Rudolph

It was not a happy marriage. After having a daughter, Elisabeth, Rudolph reportedly passed his wife the gonorrhea he had acquired from prostitutes, rendering her infertile. The couple became quite cold to each other and both took other partners. Viennese  society in this period has been characterized as frivolous and dissipated, as the Austrian nobility sought to distract themselves from the humiliation that Bismarck and the Prussian army had inflicted on them at the battle of Sadowa, and there was considerable social room for the Crown Prince to dally with women. Minor Austrian nobles frequently paraded their young daughters through society, hoping to snag husbands who could elevate the family’s fortunes.

One such young woman was Baroness Marie Vetsera (usually referred to as Mary). She was a 17-year old girl whose mother Helene was grooming her to find a husband in upper society. Mary was reportedly a striking young woman noted for her dark eyes, her profile, and her elegant neck, as well as her self-confidence. Rudolph began a relationship with her that lasted either 3 months (assuming it began in Nov of 1888, as most accounts seem to think, although some say it lasted about 3 years). She seems to have imaged that the unhappy Rudolph would divorce Stephanie and marry her, despite several people making it clear to her that the pope would never permit the divorce. Her mother wanted her to move on to find a more suitable prospect, but she resisted, perhaps because she resented her mother’s intention to pimp her out for an advantageous marriage. Rudolph for his part was not deeply smitten with her, since he was simultaneously carrying on a relationship with a Viennese actress, Mizzi Kaspar.


Baroness Mary Vetsera

Rudolph appears to have been a rather unhappy man, perhaps even mentally ill. He was taking a good deal of morphine for medical problems and dealing with the effects of gonorrhea and perhaps alcoholism as well. About three months before meeting Mary Vetsera, he asked Mizzi to join him in a suicide pact. She turned down the offer and actually reported it to the police, but they ignored it. He also quarreled with his father about his relationship with Mary, as well as politics.

The Mayerling Incident

On the 29th of January, 1891, Rudolph and Mary traveled to his hunting lodge at Mayerling. The next morning, Rudolph’s valet, Loschek tried to wake him, but found the door to his room locked. When he and the count’s hunting companion, Count Hoyos, finally chopped the door down with an axe, they found two bodies. Rudolph was sitting motionless beside the bed, bleeding from the mouth. Mary was found lying on the bed, cold and motionless, and appeared to have been dead longer than Rudolph. Loschek mistakenly assumed from the blood on Rudolph’s mouth that he had drunk strychnine, an assumption that caused much confusion later on.

Hoyos caught the next train to Vienna. It was decided, based on court protocol, that only the Empress could tell the Emperor what had happened. This required them to interrupt the Empress’ Greek lesson, which proved challenging because they did not want to tell her why they needed to speak with her and she did not want to be distracted from the lesson. Eventually, though, the Empress received the news and broke down weeping. The Emperor was summoned, but had to wait until the Empress could compose herself, while the rest of the court, who mostly already knew the news, had to try not to cry. When Empress Elisabeth finally told him what had happened, he was deeply affected; some say the news broke him permanently.


The lodge at Mayerling

The Austrian Prime Minister, Eduard Taaffe, issued a statement that Rudolph had died of an “aneurism of the heart.” The court, following Loschek, initially thought that Mary had poisoned Rudolph; even her mother Helene believed that. The next day, a doctor finally examined the bodies and declared that Mary had been shot in the temple and Rudolph had also been shot. It appeared that Rudolph had shot Mary and then, several hours later, shot himself.

Complicating all of this was the decision to smuggle Mary’s corpse out of Mayerling. In an attempt to avoid the press, the body was dressed in clothing and seated (very awkwardly, because rigor mortis had set in) between two men in a carriage. It was taken to a nearby graveyard and hastily buried.

Franz Joseph ordered an investigation by the police, but then quickly pressured them to close it and ordered Taaffe to hide the results. It seemed clear that Rudolph had committed suicide, and by Catholic Church law, suicides could not be buried in consecrated ground, which meant he could not be buried in the Imperial Crypt. Eventually, though, the Vatican issued a dispensation declaring that Rudolph had been in a state of mental imbalance, which meant that he could be buried in the Imperial Crypt.


A newspaper illustration purporting to show Rudolph’s deathbed

Since 1889, all sorts of wild speculation has circulated about what really happened. Had Mary bled to death after a botched abortion? Had her uncles broken into Mayerling and killed him in a drunken brawl? Did he kill her in a drug-fueled rage? Were they murdered by assassins, such as Hungarian Nationalists? Had Franz Joseph orchestrated the murder after his son refused to break up with Mary? Had a Freemason vow forced Rudolph to commit suicide?

Although the full story cannot be easily reconstructed, new evidence turned up in the 20th century. After WWII, Soviet troops broken into Mary’s grave, hoping to loot it of jewels. In 1959, a young local physician, prompted by the Vetsera family, conducted an investigation into Mary’s body and found no evidence of a bullet hole in her remains. He proposed that she had died in a botched abortion. In 1989, the last Austrian Empress, Zita, claimed that the couple had been murdered because Rudolph refused to support a French plan to depose Franz Joseph in favor of the more Liberal (and potentially pro-French) Rudolph. But she offered no evidence, Given that she was born three years after the Mayerling Incident, she cannot have had any first-hand knowledge of the events.

Then in 1991, a man obsessed with the story actually stole Vetsera’s remains and kept them for two years before being discovered. He paid for a forensic examination, which found inconclusive evidence that Mary might have been hit on the head several times, raising the spectre that a deranged Rudolph might have violently assaulted her because she refused to die with him, or that assailants had somehow broken in and attacked the couple. A report from the time of the police investigation also surfaced indicating that all six bullets in the gun had been fired, and that the gun did not belong to Rudolph. Presumably Rudolph could not have shot himself six times. However, theories that a killer had murdered the couple probably would have been preferable to admitting that the Rudolph had gone mad and shot his mistress and then himself. So it is unlikely that the Emperor orchestrated a cover-up with the humiliating story that Rudolph had become deranged.


Mary Vetsera’s frequently-opened grave

Then just two years ago, crucial evidence turned up. An Austrian bank discovered a deposit box unused since 1926 which turned out to contain a leather folio containing three suicide letters written by Mary the night of her death. Although it is not possible to determine who deposited the letters, the Austrian National Library authenticated the letters. Rudolph himself left behind no fewer than six suicide letters, all but one of which he wrote before departing for Mayerling. Thus it appears that the couple intended to commit suicide, although exactly how it happened is not clear.

What Rudolph’s motives were for his suicide are unclear. The letters he wrote all emphasize that his honor was at stake in some way. He was profoundly in debt; he owed one member of the court a sum equal to a quarter of his entire estate. He also seems to have gotten deeply entangled in a plot by Hungarian Nationalists to make him King of Hungary; the Nationalist Istvan Karolyi may have been trying to blackmail him in some fashion. He does not seem to have killed himself because he loved Mary and was unable to wed her; he spent his last night in Vienna with Mizzi. Instead, he seems to have needed someone else to help him go through with the deed; at one point he asked a male secretary to join him.

What Impact Did Rudolph’s Death Have?

What If is a great historical game, although by definition counter-factual scenarios are impossible to prove. Rudolph’s office of Crown Prince and heir passed to Joseph’s younger brother Karl Ludwig, who is often incorrectly reported to have abdicated immediately in favor of his son, Franz Ferdinand; in fact, he held the title until his death in 1896, when his son became the heir. Franz Ferdinand, of course, was famously assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914, triggering the Great War that ultimately pulled down the three empires that Fall of Eagles focuses on. So, as many people have pointed out, if Rudolph had not killed himself, Franz Ferdinand would never have become the Crown Prince and the assassination at Sarajevo would not have happened, and thus the Great War would not have happened.


Franz Ferdinand and his wife shortly before the assassination

That’s true, but also wrong. There is no way to know whether Rudolph might have decided to go to Sarajevo in 1914 and been shot there instead of Franz Ferdinand. Perhaps Rudolph might have gotten assassinated somewhere else. Or more likely, something else might have sparked the Great War. Franz Ferdinand’s murder was the spark that triggered the war but it was hardly the cause of the whole conflagration.

Franz Joseph held onto his office of Empire for 68 years, a remarkably long reign. He got along poorly with Franz Ferdinand, who insisted on marrying a woman of the low nobility; the emperor considered her inappropriate because she had no royal blood. Although he finally relented, he insisted that the children of the marriage be excluded from the line of succession. The two men clashed repeatedly on political issues. Although both were hostile to Hungarian Nationalism, Franz Ferdinand wanted to grant greater autonomy to other ethnic minorities, and felt that Austria should act more boldly on the European stage. So it’s been suggested that Franz Joseph held onto his crown for so long because he did not want to pass it on to Franz Ferdinand. If Rudolph had been alive, perhaps Franz Joseph would have abdicated, in which case a much more Liberal man would have taken charge of the Empire and might have guided it in a direction that would have prevented the Great War.

Or maybe the fact that Rudolph was far more Liberal than his father meant that Franz Joseph would never have abdicated under any circumstances. Like Frederick III of Germany, he had been excluded from any role in government by his father and the Prime Minister. The idea that Franz Joseph would have abdicated in favor of his son seems implausible to me.

In the long run, it’s impossible to say whether Rudolph’s suicide truly matters in the lead-up to the Great War or not. Given that a quarter century passed between his death and the events at Sarajevo, I’m inclined to think that it is a mistake to see his suicide as being a cause of the War.

Requiem for a Crown Prince”

The episode differs from others in the series by having a first-person narrator (Prime Minister Count Taaffe, played by Emrys James) and by the scenes being time-stamped, presumably to help the audience keep track of the complex events.

After a brief introduction, the story starts with Loschek (Michael Sheard) being unable to get into Rudolph’s room. After discovering what appears to be a suicide note written by Mary on a bowl outside his room, Prince Philip of Coburg (Anthony Newland) shows up because Helene Vetsera has gotten the police to declare her daughter missing, so that everyone is searching for her and there are suspicions she is at Mayerling. They chop down the door but barely go in, and initially suspect that the Crown Prince has overdosed on morphia. Hoyos is dispatched to Vienna to inform the emperor while the other man stays to guard the body.

The emphasis in the episode is split between efforts to deal with the crisis and Empress Elisabeth’s response. Dramatically, the heart of the episode is Rachel Gurney as Elisabeth, who alternates between grief and fury, excoriating Helene Vetsera (Irene Hamilton) for parading her daughter before Rudolph. The empress accuses Helene of having seduced Rudolph years ago and then when Rudolph tired of her, of offering him her daughter instead. Helene is simultaneously grief-stricken and struggling to preserve her family’s prospects at court. The empress weaves a story that Mary poisoned Rudolph after he told her that he could not divorce his wife. But Crown Princess Stephanie immediately concludes that it was a suicide pact, since Rudolph had asked her to die with him the previous year.


Gurney as Elisabeth

The episode emphasizes that the court’s reaction was a mixture of incompetence and cover-up. Hoyos initially tells the empress that Mary Vetsera poisoned Rudolph. The empress however declares that heart failure will be the cover story. When Dr Widerhofer (Kenneth Benda) explains to Prince Philip at Mayerling that Mary must have died first and that Rudolph died from a bullet to the head, Philip immediately tries to twist the evidence to implicate Mary. But Widerhofer insists that Mary died hours before Rudolph. He suggests temporary insanity as a possible excuse.

Back in Vienna, the police get news that there was a hunting accident at Mayerling, but Taaffe says it was poison. He says that the police need to find a way to get Mary’s corpse away from Mayerling without scandal. The police commissioner (Frank Wylie) tries to take charge of the crime scene, but Prince Philip insists that the lodge is imperial ground and outside police jurisdiction. An official of the criminal court shows up to investigate, as does Count Stookau, Helene’s brother, who discovers from a servant that Rudolph died by gunshot, not poison. So he concludes that Rudolph shot Mary, and demands her body.

By this point, Rudolph’s suicide letters have been found, entirely exploding the original story, but the royal family remains unaware. It’s only when Widerhofer tells the emperor that Rudolph shot himself that they discover the truth. It comes out that Rudolph left his money to Mizzi Kaspar, and the empress begins to think that her son might have murdered the unsuspecting Mary.

The police commissioner tries to get a local abbot to take Mary’s body, telling him that she committed suicide on her own on the grounds of the Mayerling estate. But the abbot refuses to receive the body if she killed herself, eventually agreeing to perform a service. The body is given over to Mary’s uncles, who have trouble getting the body to sit in a carriage because of rigor mortis. The police commissioner callously orders Loschek to fetch an axe, presumably to chop off Mary’s legs, but the furious uncles intervene. Stookau threatens to go to the reporters waiting outside the gates to tell them the truth, even if the police try to shoot him, at which point they are allowed to sit beside the corpse in the carriage and hold it up. Helene is forbidden to attend the burial.


Emrys as Taaffe

The episode ends with Taaffe’s thoughts about the situation. He says that Rudolph’s bad character had already destroyed the Liberal cause in Austria. The show takes the viewpoint that Rudolph’s suicide ensured the continuation of Conservatism in Austrian politics and suggests that Franz Joseph might have considered abdicating in favor of his son, but now felt it was his duty to continue on despite his age. He adds that Empress Elisabeth was murdered a decade later by an Italian anarchist just as Franz Joseph was preparing for the 50 year jubilee for his reign.

I am inclined to call this the best episode of the series. The story holds together both as a human drama and as a look inside a political crisis.  To my mind, Rachel Gurney’s scenes are the best in the whole series, conveying a complex mix of grief, anger, the search of an explanation, and decades of court etiquette that constrain her. The barely-contained fury with which she treats Helene Vetsera is simultanously cruel and sympathizable. If you only watch one episode of this series, “Requiem for a Crown Prince” would be a good choice.

This review was made possible by a reader who made a generous donation to my Paypal account and requested I review this series. If you have something you’d like me to review, make a donation and tell me what you’d like me to watch.

Want to Know More? 

Fall of Eagles is available on Youtube. The series is available through Amazon, but if you decide to buy it, make sure you’re getting a format that will play on your DVD player; some versions only play British and European formats.

If you would like to know more about the Mayerling Incident, Greg King and Penny Wilson have written Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Hapsburgs. I haven’t read the book, and the authors are popuar rather than professional historians, but they do seem to have done some serious research for the book.

Rescued debate

2017-07-20 12:40 pm
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Posted by Mark Liberman

Yesterday Sharon Klein wrote to ask about the 2010 debate on Language and Thought hosted by The Economist:

Some colleagues in other departments (notably in philosophy) have been asking to talk about the hypothesis, linguistic relativism, and the actual research around the issues. While I can (and have begun to) collect relevant papers for a casual reading group (a good way to reach out…), I remembered that the debate provided a very helpful clearinghouse for the discussion that had developed in this area.

But she found that the Economist's intro page on this debate  leads only to an debate archive site that doesn't include this one; and the links in old LLOG posts are now redirected to the same unhelpful location.

A source at the magazine explained:

We vastly over-designed the debate platform (and over-thought it generally, in various ways), and when we stopped running the debates that way, we stopped running that bit of the website. The old debates are now unavailable online.

A bit of poking around at the Internet Archive turned up a copy:

Opening statements (with Derek Bickerton as "Featured guest")

Rebuttal statements (with Dan Slobin as "Featured guest")

Closing statements (with Lila Gleitman as "Featured guest")

As I noted at the time ("Shellacked by Boroditsky", 12/22/2010), the voting audience overwhelmingly supported Lera Boroditsky's argument that "the language we speak shapes how we think".

I've always been fond of Lane Greene's assessment:

If I had to sum up in plain English my conclusion would be not "language shapes thought" (much less "language restricts thought"), but probably "language nudges thought" (in certain circumstances).

Lane's final zinger in that comment:

What if silly Whorfian thinking were something we were innately prone to? Wouldn't that just blow [Lera Boroditsky's] and Steven Pinker's minds at the same time?

Or, as Lila Gleitman likes to put it, less speculatively, "Empiricism is innate".

See also "Never mind the conclusions, what's the evidence?", 8/30/2010 , and if you have a robust appetite for quasi-Whorfian explorations, the whole "'No word for X' archive".

There's a relevant (Whorf-skeptical) review article by Lila Gleitman and Anna Papafragou in the Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Psychology, "Relations Between Language and Thought" (preprint here). And for a deep dive into language and space, see Peggy Li et al., "Spatial Reasoning in Tenejapan Mayans", Cognition 2011.



Helpful Google

2017-07-17 10:44 pm
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Posted by Mark Liberman

The marvels of modern natural language processing:

Michael Glazer, who sent in the example, wonders whether Google Translate has overdosed on old Boris and Natasha segments from Rocky and Bullwinkle:

But it seems that the Google speech synthesis systems are not in on the fun, because if I accept Helpful Google's suggestion that I might mean "I vud be grateful if jou vould čonfirm rečeipt of this email so that I čan be sure that is has reačed jou", and then use the synthesize button, what come out sounds less like Boris Badenov and more like a bad reconstruction of proto-indo-european:


2017-07-17 01:56 pm
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Posted by <a rel="author" href="/users/FeatherQuill/pseuds/FeatherQuill">FeatherQuill</a>


It´s a quiet life they have.
A domestic One, you could say. They came a long way and sometimes it´s okay to think about it.

Words: 1085, Chapters: 1/1, Language: English

Coming Full Circle

2017-07-16 08:33 pm
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Posted by <a rel="author" href="/users/Ink_Gypsy/pseuds/Ink_Gypsy">Ink_Gypsy</a>


The Kaufmanns bring their grandson into the Lucky Clover to celebrate his birthday, and Sean and Elijah make it a special occasion.

Words: 362, Chapters: 1/1, Language: English

Series: Part 17 of Lucky Clover Diner Universe

The Trip

2017-07-16 02:06 pm
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Posted by <a rel="author" href="/users/nverland/pseuds/nverland">nverland</a>


A short distraction on the road to Idaho
Originally posted at Livejournal 4/2005

Words: 585, Chapters: 1/1, Language: English


2017-07-14 05:46 pm
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Posted by <a rel="author" href="/users/nverland/pseuds/nverland">nverland</a>


A unexpected visit from a missing lover
Originally posted to LiveJournal 3/2008

Words: 841, Chapters: 1/1, Language: English

Dream Lover

2017-07-12 11:58 am
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Posted by <a rel="author" href="/users/nverland/pseuds/nverland">nverland</a>


Sweet dreams are made of this
Originally posted to LiveJournal 9/2005

Words: 1170, Chapters: 1/1, Language: English

No More

2017-07-11 09:42 am
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Posted by <a rel="author" href="/users/nverland/pseuds/nverland">nverland</a>


Being apart, and jealous, can lead to terrible things.
This does not have a happy ending.
Trigger Warnings-Accident, death, suicide
Originally posted at LiveJournal 8/2005

Words: 1276, Chapters: 1/1, Language: English

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Posted by <a rel="author" href="/users/afra_schatz/pseuds/afra_schatz">afra_schatz</a>, <a rel="author" href="/users/noalinnea/pseuds/noalinnea">noalinnea</a>

by ,

This takes place in afra_schatz's boarding school AU- a series with one ficlet a day posted about daily life and its ups and downs at Jackson College, a boarding school in Yorkshire, where most of the LotR-cast happen to be teachers. Orlando is one of them. One night, he makes out with a tall, dark-haired stranger at the pub. And guess who the stranger turns out to be?

Words: 26127, Chapters: 6/?, Language: English

Series: Part 4 of boarding school au

Ordinary Americans

2017-07-07 11:55 am
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Posted by <a rel="author" href="/users/Ink_Gypsy/pseuds/Ink_Gypsy">Ink_Gypsy</a>


Sean shares his views on patriotism with Elijah on the Fourth of July

Words: 481, Chapters: 1/1, Language: English

Series: Part 16 of Lucky Clover Diner Universe

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Posted by Victor Mair

Two gems from Chris Brannick via Facebook (the first is from the site of the Immortality Pills in Guangzhou and the second is from the Langham Place Hotel, also in Guangzhou):


yánjìn xiédài 严禁携带 ("it is forbidden to carry")

wéijìn wùpǐn 违禁物品 ("prohibited items")


xǐngshén zhī xuǎn 醒神之选 ("wake up selection")

dāndiǎn zǎocān 单点早餐 ("à la carte breakfast")

In making effective translations, one must not only not slavishly follow dictionaries and machine translators, one must also exercise common sense.  Unfortunately, that means one must have a good command both of the language from which one is translating and of the language into which one is translating — a combination that requires extensive training in both languages.

Annals of poor translation

2017-07-17 05:12 am
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Posted by Victor Mair

Below are two pages from the instruction book for a small point and shoot digital camera (the original in Chinese and the corresponding page translated into English). As you can see, the language display has a couple of strange choices.

jiǎn Zhōng 简中 ("simplified Chinese [characters]")

fán Zhōng 繁中 ("traditional Chinese [characters]") — fán 繁 literally means "complex; complicated; numerous", referring to the number of strokes compared to the simplified characters

For the first, the instruction manual follows Google Translate in giving "Jane", roughly approximating the sound of jiǎn 简.  For the second, it give "numerous", whereas Google Translate gives "traditional".

It's ironic that the manual messes up only the Chinese when that is the language of the original text, and handles all the other languages correctly.

[Thanks to Rob Perez]

Serious earworm infection

2017-07-17 02:32 am
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Posted by Victor Mair

I had heard "Let Me Love You" by D J Snake featuring Justin Bieber many times on the radio and was intrigued by several things:

1. Who / what is D J Snake?

2. In what way is the super famous Biebs "featured" on a record by a D J named Snake?  In other words, what was the nature of their collaboration?

3. Above all, who was making that manic, beyond yodeling sound in the background (was it Biebs? D J Snake? somebody else? a machine / instrument?), and how were they making it?

So I went looking for a music video in hopes that I might be enlightened.

Yesterday, by chance, instead of one of the various three and a half minutes or shorter versions, I watched this 9'20" video first:

"LET ME LOVE YOU" – DJ Snake ft Justin Bieber Dance

The combination of repetitive musical phrases and frenetic dance moves caused these words and the associated notes to become lodged in my brain:

Don't you give up, nah-nah-nah / I won't give up, nah-nah-nah / Let me love you / Let me love you….

For the next three hours, though I tried to do some earnest work, I couldn't get that song out of my mind.

Fortunately, I did fall asleep and didn't hear the music in my dreams (I'm one of those people who almost never dream, or perhaps I should say that I'm seldom aware that I dream), but I woke up the next morning and the worm was right there in my ear!

Those who have experienced earworms, especially of banal phrases / tunes will know how annoying, almost maddening, they can be.

When it gets really bad, the only first aid I can use to cope with them is to strive very hard to shift to another musical phrase.  Unfortunately, then I'm usually stuck with a replacement earworm that goes on an endless repeat loop of its own, or the two phrases get jumbled and alternate with each other.  As a last resort, the only solution I know of is to engage in vigorous physical activity (running, basketball, exercise, etc.).  One can only hope that, after the energetic physical activity is over, the earworm will not return.

A couple of earlier posts:

"Earworms and white bears" (9/1/13)

"Musical maggots" (9/5/13)

One commenter informed us that "Absurd Macaronic Earworm" is the name of his band's debut album.  They could only hope that would be true.

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Posted by Barbara Partee

Paul Kay offered the following item for discussion around the water cooler at Language Log central:

Here's an excerpt from the initial email from Rob Goldstone to Donald Trump, Jr.:

​"This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its  government’s support for Mr. Trump – helped along by Aras and Emin."​

Is it worth noting the use of the possessive determiner​? I guess it's generally accepted that possessive determiners involve  some kind of existence presupposition, though I'm aware that there's a lot more to that subject than I know. In the current instance, the presupposition would be that there is in fact Russian government support for Trump. …

Paul continues:

“Why this presupposition might be interesting is that Goldstone seems to be taking it for granted that Trump Jr. is aware of Russia's (active) support and Trump Jr.'s lack of objection to this apparent assumption on Goldstone's part suggests that he (Trump Jr.) finds nothing untoward in Goldstone's tacit assumption. Would the existence of tacit agreement between G and T that cooperation exists between the campaign and the Russian government constitute evidence that there is in fact cooperation between the campaign and the Russian government?”

Those of us who were by the water cooler agree that Paul is right about the presupposition. One has to be careful, because in some contexts, like "I want to see proof/evidence of your love", there is not a presupposition of the existence of love. The lack of presupposition is even stronger in examples like "I haven't seen any evidence of their involvement in the affair." "There's no evidence of his support for such measures." But those are contexts that actively question or deny the relevant existence claim; such contexts can cancel the presupposition of existence.

But the given context, which we can simplify to "This is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump", contains nothing that would conflict with the presupposition of the existence of support for Mr. Trump by Russia and its government, so the presupposition survives.

The fact that the existence of such support is presupposed and not asserted is of particular interest, as Paul notes, because it’s thereby presented as old, familiar information; Goldstone is not informing Trump Jr about the support, but assuming that that’s shared information both already have. What’s new is what preceded that sentence — news of an offer to provide documents which “would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”

As Paul notes, Donald Trump Jr.’s lack of objection or reaction to that presupposition supports the impression that the existence of Russian government support is shared knowledge: there seems to be tacit agreement between Goldstone and Trump that the Russian government is supporting Mr. Trump. Of course that doesn’t follow absolutely; it’s always possible to be surprised someone’s presupposition but simply “accommodate” it, add it silently to the “common ground” without expressing your surprise. But at the very least, as Kai von Fintel notes, the presupposition is being accepted as unremarkable, even if not actually already taken for granted. The net result is still tacit agreement about the Russian support.

Paul wonders if that tacit agreement on the occasion of setting up a meeting would constitute evidence of cooperation between the campaign and the Russian government. But I’m just a linguist, so while I’m prepared to argue for the presupposition, I’ll stop with that and let the legal experts take it from there.

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Posted by Mark Liberman

I've spent the past couple of days at the "Belt and Road Forum for Language Resources", organized by the "Beijing Advanced Innovation Center for Language Resources". There are other recently-founded Beijing Advanced Innovation Centers for "Future Education", "Genomics", "Soft Matter Science and Engineering", "Intelligent Robots and Systems", "Big Data and Brain Computing", "Future Visual Entertainment", and no doubt many others.

As for the "Belt and Road Forum" part, this is part of the "Belt and Road Initiative" (discussion e.g. here), which Christine Lagarde said "is about connecting cultures, communities, economies, and people, and about adding new economic flavors by creating infrastructure projects that are based on 21st-century expertise and governance standards". The "Belt" seems to be a set of land-based transportation projects, while the "Road" is the "Maritime Silkroad", all centered on China as illustrated here:

One thing that puzzled me about this workshop was its thematic image of an artistically pixelated globe  centered over the North Atlantic, roughly at the latitude of Philadelphia.

Here's an example from the cover of the Center's brochure:

And another from the backdrop on the stage in the auditorium:

Dialect maps get surreal

2017-07-15 03:57 am
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Posted by Ben Zimmer

Everybody seems to enjoy sharing dialect maps displaying the boundaries of different American regionalisms. So it was only a matter of time before this enticing form of data visualization got satirized. On Twitter, Josh Cagan takes it in an absurdist direction.

Some background. As I detailed here back in 2013 ("About those dialect maps making the rounds…"), we had a burst of dialect-mania when Josh Katz, then a PhD student in statistics at North Carolina State University, created heat-map visualizations of regional variants. Katz originally based his maps on data collected in the early aughts as part of the Harvard Dialect Survey, conducted online by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder. Using Vaux and Golder's questionnaire, Katz created his own online survey, ultimately collecting about 350,000 unique responses, and displayed the results using the data analysis software RStudio. (See: "Beyond 'Soda, Pop, or Coke': Regional Dialect Variation in the Continental US.")

Katz's heat maps first went viral in June 2013 when Walt Hickey reproduced them for Business Insider. (The BI article currently registers nearly 43 million views.) Katz went on to create a wildly popular dialect quiz for the New York Times, which turned into an even bigger viral sensation at the end of 2013. After an internship at the Times, Katz joined the paper's analytic journalism team, creating data visualizations for The Upshot. He also turned his heat maps into a book, published last year under the title Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk. (Full disclosure: I appeared with Katz at a book launch event.)

The latest flurry of interest in dialect maps is due to a piece that Katz created for the Reader's Digest site with some of the maps from his book: "Say These 9 Words, and We’ll Tell You Where You Grew Up." Those maps have been making the rounds on social media over the past week — sometimes with astonished reactions, such as this one from Elizabeth Minkel.

As for Cagan's spoof, he repurposed Katz's map for soda vs. pop vs. coke.

The nonsensical replacements in Cagan's map are reminiscent of a new strain of gibberish that's been popping up online, in which fast food logos get transmogrified.

The source of such twisted logos is Reddit, specifically the subreddit /r/sbubby. (See Know Your Meme for more background.) I wonder, can you get arpleparple at Applebapple's?

Fall of Eagles: Wilhelm II

2017-07-14 02:20 pm
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Posted by aelarsen

In the BBC miniseries Fall of Eagles, Kaiser Wilhelm II looms large, and is probably the closest thing it has to a main character, figuring at some point in the stories of both Austria and Russia as well as Germany. So let’s look at him briefly.


The show devotes its second and third episodes, “The English Princess” and “the Honest Broker”, to the lives of Frederick III (Denis Lill) and his wife Victoria (Gemma Jones). They get along poorly with Frederick’s father Wilhelm I (Maurice Denham), who dislikes the couple’s Liberal political views, which contrast sharply with Wilhelm’s Conservatism. Bismarck (Curt Jürgens) convinces Wilhelm to exclude Frederick from all function in government in the second episode, and then in the third episode invites the young Wilhelm II (Barry Foster) to attend the Foreign Office. Frederick finds this insulting, but his son cannot understand why. The third episode focuses on Frederick’s growing incapacity due to his cancer of the larynx. Wilhelm I’s long life (he died at age 90), combined with Frederick’s cancer, meant that when Frederick finally became emperor in 1888, he only reigned for 99 days, during which his cancer left him almost speechless, and his long exclusion from government meant that he left almost no chance to shape government before it passed into the hands of Wilhelm II, who like his grandfather was essentially a Conservative.

The series emphasizes the poor relationship Frederick and Victoria had with their son. When his grandfather dies, he tentatively talks to Bismarck about a supposed law that says that a man who cannot speak cannot reign, but Bismarck slaps him down. When told that his father is dying, he suspects a plot by his mother. When Frederick dies a few hours later, Wilhelm enters the royal apartments with soldiers and tries to confiscate all of his father’s papers, a concern more important to him than paying his respects to his father. She laments that she feels like the ship of the nation is sinking at sea with all its hopes, and he contemptuously orders her to “go to your room!” This attempt to seize his parents’ papers did in fact happen, but Frederick and Victoria had already sent all of their papers to Windsor Castle the previous year.


Kaiser Wilhelm II

The series presents Wilhelm in almost entirely negative terms. He is vain, self-important, militaristic, foolish, and basically incapable of appreciating anyone else’s needs. He seems to just disrespect his parents for no particular reason, other than one line in which he angrily says she had no tenderness for him as a child.

This depiction is probably unfair to Wilhelm in some respects. Far from the cold relationship with his father the series offers, Wilhelm had great respect for his father, regarding him as a hero of the German Unification. It was his relationship with his mother that was poor. When she went into labor while carrying him, complications resulted in Wilhelm’s left arm being damaged. It never healed, so his arm was crippled his whole life.


Empress Victoria of Germany

This was a difficult issue between mother and son. Both of them blamed her for the injury, and Victoria seems to have considered his handicap an embarrassment. Victoria insisted that Wilhelm learn to ride at a very young age, even though his bad arm made this difficult, and when he fell off, as he did frequently, he was forced to get back on, even when he was crying not to. Later he wrote longingly to her of his desire for her affection, but instead she coldly corrected his grammar. So Wilhelm came to view his mother as harsh and domineering, and consequently he resisted her attempts to give him an more Liberal English-style education, and in later life he came to view his father as having been somewhat emasculated by his mother. So the poor relationship came from both sides, not simply from Wilhelm.

The series provides only hints of this dynamic. In the second episode, the young Wilhelm is shown struggling to learn to ride in one scene, but it’s not clear that his mother was demanding it. That and his comment that she had no tenderness for him (a comment that comes while he is treating her remarkably poorly) are the only hints that there was a more complex dynamic at work, and it’s clear that the series takes Victoria’s side at Wilhelm’s expense. So rather than trying to understand the man, the series simply wants to show why he was such a problematic ruler.


Gemma Jones as the widowed Victoria

The show perhaps betrays a distinctly British view of German history. Bismarck treats Frederick and Victoria poorly and forces them into an isolated position because he wants more power than Frederick’s Liberalism will allow him. He encourages young Wilhelm’s aspirations as a way to remain in power, even though he privately disdains Wilhelm. So he supports Wilhelm against his parents. Then, at the end of the episode, the young Kaiser Wilhelm turns on Bismarck, whom he considers old-fashioned and not aggressive enough in his foreign policy. Bismarck throws one of his tantrums, which had always previously gotten him way with Wilhelm I, only to discover that it weakens his position with the young kaiser even further. Bismarck goes to the Dowager Empress Victoria seeking her help, but she points out that he’s already destroyed her political influence, so she cannot help him. So the show traces the slow growth of Conservatism, the emperor’s dominance of the government, and German aggression through the inability of Frederick and Victoria to influence the political events around them and through Bismarck’s toxic influence on Wilhelm II. If only, the show suggests, Victoria had been allowed more influence, then maybe the Great War would never have happened.

Later episodes continue this portrait of Wilhelm. He insists on commissioning bad allegorical paintings and sending them to his cousin Nicholas II of Russia, even though Nicholas doesn’t particularly want them. He thinks poorly of his relations but imagines that they respect him a great deal. He sees himself as a master statesman, despite being almost totally out of touch with popular opinion and having rather unrealistic ideas of renewing the League of the Three Emperors. None of this is untrue, but the show makes no effort to show any of Wilhelm’s more positive traits such as his intelligence, his preference for modernism over tradition, and his support for science. Contrary to his current reputation as a hawk, in 1913, the New York Times was celebrating him as one of the most important peacemakers of the previous quarter-century. Nor does the series really explore the idea that his crippled arm might have psychologically led him to embrace militarism as a way to compensate for his lack of traditional manliness. Wilhelm was a profoundly erratic and inconsistent man in some ways, but he was probably not quite the boob the series presents him as.

This review was made possible by a reader who made a generous donation to my Paypal account and requested I review this series. If you have something you’d like me to review, make a donation and tell me what you’d like me to watch.

Want to Know More? 

Fall of Eagles is available on Youtube. The series is available through Amazon, but if you decide to buy it, make sure you’re getting a format that will play on your DVD player; some versions only play British and European formats. If you’d like to know more about Wilhelm II, John CG Röhl’s Kaiser Wilhelm II: A Concise Life is a condensed version of Röhl’s prize-winning three-volume biography of the man and would be a good short (262 pages) introduction to him.

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Posted by Victor Mair

[This is a follow up to "Preserved wife plum" (7/12/17), after which there ensued a vigorous and enlightening discussion on the terminology for plums, apricots, pastries, and so forth.]

My wife was born in Shandong in 1936, but fled from the Japanese with her family to Sichuan before she was one year old, and she spent the next eleven years of her life in Sichuan, before fleeing once again with her family, this time from the Chinese Communists, to Taiwan.

One of the last things Li-ching did before passing away in 2010 was write her childhood memoirs in Hanyu Pinyin (see here, here [three items], and here).  At this moment, I do not recall if she mentioned it in her memoirs, but one of her fondest recollections of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan where she and her family lived (it was also the wartime capital of the Republic of China — now on Taiwan) was the làméi 臘梅 / 腊梅 (Chimonanthus fragrans / praecox).  In English, the làméi 臘梅 is referred to as wintersweet, Japanese allspice (despite the attractive name, it is not edible), calyx canthus, and mistakenly — but still quite commonly — as "wax plum" (look it up on Google Images under this name for pretty pictures of the blossoms).   In Japanese this plant is called rōbai 蝋梅, although it used to be written 臘梅 and 蠟梅 (nowadays it is normally written in kana alone:  ろうばい · ロウバイ).

It would take me too far afield to get into the thorny relationships among 臘, 腊, 蝋, 蠟, and 蜡, but if someone else wants to attempt it, they're more than welcome.  On the Chinese side, là 臘 / 腊, refers to the twelfth month (year-end) sacrifice, or more generally to wintertime.  Pronounced xī, this same character means "dried meat", but the term 臘肉 / 腊肉, which refers to cured meat made during the last month of the year, is pronounced làròu.  (I clearly remember walking around the campus of Sichuan University in winter and seeing the làròu 臘肉 / 腊肉 hanging from the windows and balconies of people's flats as it cured.)  On the other hand, là 蠟 / 蜡 means "wax".  I leave it to others to sort out the relevant kanji.

Judging from its scientific classification, the làméi 臘梅 is completely unrelated to the Prunus genus, which includes plums, cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots and almonds.  This is proof that Sino-Japanese méi / kun ume, on bai 梅 spans across more than one genus.

Back to Sichuan.  I used to go there frequently in the late 80s and 90s to work on a massive dictionary of Middle Vernacular Sinitic with Zhu Qingzhi, who was teaching at Sichuan university in those years (we're still working on it, and hope to finish within two years).  One winter, my wife said to me, "Victor, if you see any làméi, please bring some back for me."

I knew how much Li-ching loved làméi, so I kept my eyes open for it as I walked through Chengdu in the gray, dreary cold.  One day, I saw some branches of blossoming làméi hanging over a courtyard wall, so I broke off a small sprig that extended far out into the alleyway (I knew how much it would mean to Li-ching).  Because the làméi is so delicate, yet flowers in the dead of winter on leafless branches, it has tremendous symbolic significance for those who struggle in adversity.

Fortunately, I managed to preserve that sprig with all of its petals intact.  When I delivered it to Li-ching, she was ecstatic, since she hadn't seen, held, and smelled làméi for more than half a century by that point.

The other greatest gift that I gave to Li-ching was a sprig of plum blossoms, the kind that julie lee wrote about in this comment, perfectly encased in a block of clear plastic, acrylic, I believe.  By chance, I found it in a small arts and crafts shop in Kyoto.  I do not know how the craftsman who made that work of art did it, but there are no bubbles or other imperfections in the block, and every tiny petal, stamen, and pistil retains its original shape, as fresh as the day when that block was created.

Because they are both called méi 梅 in Chinese, even though they are not in the same genus, the two gifts that I gave to Li-ching were intimately linked in her mind.

This leads me to a brief conclusion on the terminology for "wine" in Chinese.  We've discussed this many times on Language Log before (e.g., here, here, and here).  Suffice it to say for the moment that technically jiǔ 酒 is not "wine", but more akin to "brew" or "beer".  Countless poems have been written about drinking jiǔ 酒 and appreciating méi 梅, and these terms are almost always translated as "wine" and "plum", though technically those translations may not be correct in many cases.  Despite the title of this post, it is not my intention to embark on a campaign to change our customary renderings of jiǔ 酒 and méi 梅, except when it would clearly make more sense to do otherwise.  However, when it comes to fāngyán 方言, we really do need to stop using the mistranslation of that term as an excuse to call Cantonese, Taiwanese, etc. "dialects" (of what?  Mandarin?), when clearly they are bona fide languages.

Gone Fishin'

2017-07-14 12:00 am
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Posted by Susan Holloway Scott

It's the middle of July, and we feel a bit of fishin' is in order. 

Loretta is continuing on her Grand Tour abroad, and Susan is heading off to the 18thc and Colonial Williamsburg. Seems like as good a time as any to take a short break from blogging and general social media-ing. Look for us to return later this month. 

Enjoy your summer!

Elegant Ladies Fishing by Georges-Jules-Victor Clarin, c1900. Image via Sotheby's.

Polysemous Pejoratives

2017-07-14 02:06 am
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Posted by Geoff Nunberg

Geoff Pullum suggests that the flap over an MP’s use of nigger in the woodpile is overdone:

Anne Marie Morris, the very successful Conservative MP for Newton Abbot in the southwestern county of Devon, did not call anyone a nigger.…
Ms. Morris used a fixed phrase with its idiomatic meaning, and it contained a word which, used in other contexts, can be a decidedly offensive way of denoting a person of negroid racial type, or an outright insult or slur. Using such a slur — referring to a black person as a nigger — really would be a racist act. But one ill-advised use of an old idiom containing the word, in a context where absolutely no reference to race was involved, is not.

Oh, dear. As usual, Geoff's logic is impeccable, but in this case it's led him terribly astray.

As it happens, I addressed this very question in a report I wrote on behalf of the petitioners who asked the Trademark Board to cancel the mark of the Washington Redskins on the grounds that it violated the Lanham Act’s disparagement clause. The team argued, among other things, that “the fact that the term ‘redskin,’ used in singular, lower case form, references an ethnic group does not automatically render it disparaging when employed as a proper noun in the context of sports.” The idea here is that the connotations of a pejorative word do not persist when it acquires a transferred meaning—as the team’s lead attorney put it, “It’s what our word means.” In fact, they added, the use of the name as team name has only positive associations.

I responded, in part:

Nigger has distinct denotations when it is used for a black person, a shade of dark brown, or in phrases like nigger chaser, nigger fish, or niggertoe (a Brazil nut), and in phrases like nigger in the woodpile. All of those expressions are “different words” from the slurring ethnonym nigger from which they are derived, but each of them necessarily inherits its disparaging connotations. The OED now labels all of them as "derogatory" or "offensive." On consideration, it’s obvious why these connotations should persist when an expression acquires a transferred meaning—for more-or-less the same reason the connotations of fuck persist when it's incorporated in fuckwad. The power of a slur is derived from its history of use, a point that Langston Hughes made powerfully in a passage from his 1940 memoir The Big Sea:

The word nigger sums up for us who are colored all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America the slave-beatings of yesterday, the lynchings of today, the Jim Crow cars…the restaurants where you may not eat, the jobs you may not have, the unions you cannot join. The word nigger in the mouths of little white boys at school, the word nigger in the mouth of the foreman at the job, the word nigger across the whole face of America! Nigger! Nigger!

When one uses a slur like nigger, that is, one is "making linguistic community with a history of speakers,” as Judith Butler puts it. One speaks with their voice and evokes their attitudes toward the target, which is why the force of the word itself trumps the speaker’s individual beliefs or intentions. Whoever it was who decided to name a color nigger brown or to call a slingshot a nigger shooter could only have been someone who already used the word to denote black people and who presumed that that usage was common in his community. (Someone who was diffident about using the word in its literal meaning would hardly be comfortable using it metaphorically.) To continue to use those expressions, accordingly, is to set oneself in the line of those who have used the term as a racial slur in the past. Slurs keep their force even when they’re detached from their original reference. That’s why, in 1967, the US Board on Geographic Names removed Nigger from 167 place names. People may have formed agreeable associations in the past around a place called Nigger Beach, or a company called Nigger Lake Holidays, but they don’t redeem the word.

Tony Thorne says that, as late as the 1960s, it was possible to use the expression nigger in the woodpile “without having a conscious racist intention,” and Geoff argues that Morris’s utterance was not a racist act. That depends on what a "racist act" comes down to. It’s fair to assume that she didn’t utter the phrase with any deliberate intention of manifesting her contempt for blacks. But intention or no, anyone who uses any expression containing the word nigger in this day and age is culpably obtuse—all the more since nigger, more than other slurs, has become so phonetically toxic that people are reluctant even to mention it, in the philosophical sense, at least in speech. “Racially insensitive” doesn’t begin to say it.

It's that same obtuseness, I’d argue, that makes the Washington NFL team’s use of redskin objectionable, despite the insistence of the owners and many fans that they intend only to show “reverence toward the proud legacy and traditions of Native Americans” (even if the name of their team is a wholly different word). True, that word seems different from nigger, it’s only because the romanticized redskin is at a remove from the facts of history. Say “redskin” and what comes to mind is a sanitized and reassuring image of the victims of a long and brutal genocidal war, familiar from a hundred movie Westerns: the fierce, proud primitives, hopelessly outmatched by the forces of civilization, who nonetheless resisted courageously and died like me. (As Pat Buchanan put it in defending the team’s use of the name, “These were people who stood, fought and died and did not whimper.”)

In fact the most deceptive slurs aren’t the ones that express unmitigated contempt for their targets, like nigger and spic. They’re the ones that are tinged with sentimentality, condescension, pity, or exoticism, which are no less reductive or dehumanizing but are much easier to justify to ourselves. Recall the way the hipsters and hippies used spade as what Ken Kesey described as “a term of endearment.” Think of Oriental or cripple, or a male executive’s description of his secretary as “my gal.” Did that usage become sexist only when feminists pointed it out? Was it sexist only to women who objected to it? That's the thing about obtuseness, you can look deep in your heart and come up clean.

[Note: Just to anticipate a potential red herring, the recent Supreme Court decision invalidating the relevant clause of the Lanham Act didn't bear on the Redskins' claim that their name was not disparaging. The Court simply said that disparagement wasn't grounds for denying registration of a mark. The most recent judicial determination in this matter was that of the Court of Appeals, which upheld the petitioners' case.]

Tao and Taoism

2017-07-13 01:29 pm
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Posted by Victor Mair

Yesterday's NYT has an article by Javier C. Hernández titled "China’s Religious Revival Fuels Environmental Activism" (7/12/17).  It's a long article, filled with a lot of New Age, ecological phraseology that is uncharacteristic of the usual political, military, and economic discourse of the antireligious PRC.  I was drifting along, not paying too much attention to the details of what it said, but this short paragraph — quoting a Taoist monk named Xuan Jing — caught me up short:

As he sipped tea, he jotted down Taoist teachings: “Humans follow the earth, the earth follows heaven, heaven follows Taoism, Taoism follows nature.”

How could that be?  "Heaven follows Taoism" — that doesn't make sense.  If anything, Taoism should follow Heaven.

I read the paragraph again, but it still didn't compute.

So I clicked on the Chinese version of the article, where the offending paragraph reads thus:

Tā yībiān pǐn chá, yībiān xiě xià dàojiā jiàoyì: “Rén fǎ dì, dì fǎ tiān, tiān fǎ dào, dào fǎ zìrán.”


As he tasted his tea, he wrote down Taoist teachings:  "Humans model themselves on Earth, Earth models itself on Heaven, Heaven models itself on the Way, and the Way models itself on Nature."

If you want some chuckles to start your day, check out what Google Translate, Baidu Fanyi, and Microsoft Translator do with this.  But one shouldn't really blame them overmuch, since what the Taoist writes isn't Mandarin, but a kind of Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese.

[h.t. Bill Holmes]

[syndicated profile] 2nerdyhistorygirls_feed

Posted by Susan Holloway Scott

Susan reporting,

An 18thc mantua-maker (dressmaker) seldom shared the "art and mysteries" of her trade with her customers. It was hard-earned knowledge and skill, gained through an apprenticeship that might have lasted seven years, and it also benefited the business to keep a bit of alluring, magical mystery to her fashionable creations.

For the last five years, Sarah Woodyard, journey-woman in the mantua-making trade, Margaret Hunter Shop at Colonial Williamsburg (shown here in the floral short gown), has been studying different theories of cutting out 18thc gowns - the most important part of the "art and mystery" of dressmaking - and has agreed to share some of her research here.

There was, of course, no single way of cutting out an 18thc gown. Various mantua-makers would have devised methods that worked best for them, and even at the Margaret Hunter Shop, each mantua-maker has a favorite technique. However, Sarah's study of extant garments made her realize the importance of the linen linings in construction and fittings and, in best 18thc style, led her to develop her own favorite method. The technique is simple. Using linen, a less expensive fabric, the lining is cut out and used to establish the fit of the bodice and to "build' the outer garment on top of the lining. The lining becomes both the guide for the creation the gown, and the base for its structure. Not only would this method preserve the more costly outer fabric from being damaged by a slap-dash cutting mistake, but it was also an easier way to control the large amounts of fabric that created the volume of a sack or common gown.

The technique was also a time-saver for both a busy customer, and a mantua-maker determined to make the most of her sewing time. At every price point, women's clothing in the 18thc was fitted and cut on the individual body rather than on a dressmaker's form, ensuring a custom fit. By fitting just the lining on the customer, the rest of the gown could be cut and stitched without her presence until one more final fitting.

In these photographs, Sarah is shown fitting the plain linen lining for a polonaise jacket and matching petticoat on Aislinn Lewis, one of the blacksmiths at Colonial Williamsburg. This ensemble was one of Sarah's final apprenticeship projects completed to prover her skill and move up as a journey-woman. Sarah only required Aislinn for a fitting in the morning to cut the lining, and another in the afternoon for a sleeve fitting. That was all; Sarah was able to hand-sew and complete both pieces - made from pink changeable silk - in about thirty-six hours, including all the trimmings.

The same technique could be used to construct a gown for a woman unable to come in person to the mantua-maker's shop. For women who lived far from town, travel could be prohibitively difficult, and in many families the men traveled to town on business, while the women remained at home with the children.

The trade card, bottom right, for London mantua-maker M. Giles offers the same services for "Ladies residing in the Country [who] may be fitted in the exactest manner by sending with their Commands a Gown or Pair of Stays which fitts them."

As the advertisement shows, a woman could still have new clothing made by sending either an existing gown or a pair of stays to her mantua-maker. Stays were the 18thc version of a corset; no only were they, too, custom-fitted, but over time they assumed the shape of the wearer's body, and could serve as a good replica of her upper torso. Either way, the mantua-maker could use the existing garment to copy and cut a new lining as a pattern, and built a new gown from the lining out without an in-person fitting - and once again, fashion triumphed.

All photographs by Fred Blystone. Used with permission.
Trade card, 1770s, London, British Museum.

Travel agency

2017-07-12 10:03 pm
[syndicated profile] jon_carroll_prose_feed

Posted by joncarrollprose

y first exotic trip was to Nepal. It was our honeymoon, and Tracy wanted to trek in the Himalayas, and I wanted to go anywhere with Tracy. We were five weeks on the road to Everest Base Camp, including four on the uphill (we started three weeks before Lukla). My knee hurt for much of the trip, and I lost 33 pounds (ten more than were entirely necessary), and I encountered 3.5 guaranteed miraculous landscapes every single day.

When we got home, we were eager to tell our story. It included 10 days in Thailand and month in India (!). I did not realize that travel was a competitive sport.

(Already I am engaging in it. Note the apparently harmless “three weeks before Lukla,” which is competitive talk meaning “we’d been on our trek for 21 days before the airport that all you losers undoubtedly flew into to start your boutique, no worries, entirely color-coordinated trek-like experience.” The more hardships you endured, the more times you were the only Caucasians within 50 miles, the more points you get. Those are the rules of Travel, a game of risk.)

West OaklandSlides_08_007-7

the honeymooner

So someone would ask about my trip, and I’d say, “well, we flew into Kathmandu, and at the airport –“

“Oh we were in Kathmandu in 72, before the tourists, and we met this interesting monk at Swayambhu, and the next thing you know we were in that little house in Jeewanpur, praying to crows and eating second-hand lentils and then, what was it, dear?”

“The flood?”

“That’s not it.”

“The earthquake?”

“Yes, that’s it. And the goat pregnancy.”

And there goes my amusing story about suitcases and monkeys. That might be fine at family gatherings, but among the travel-obsessed, it doesn’t even make the anecdote Top 100.

It is a status thing. My friendship group of course rejects status maneuvering of any kind. We have modest cars and modest clothing and a distinct abhorrence of gaudy display.  So when we talk about cheese, or water-recycling devices, or fabrics woven by the nicest Guatemalan women — it’s just our form of gold toilets and infinity pools. Be kind to us; we’re trying to have it both ways.

Not that I stopped traveling. I’ve been to (he said modestly) all seven continents. Full moon at the Taj Mahal; dawn at Borobodur; sunset on Kauai. Walking with penguins; talking with Maharajahs; eating with French people. Tasmania and the Bungle Bungles and the temple at Karnak. Oh, I have cred. I’ve even been to Oman, which is useful to drop into a conversation at dangerous junctures.

West OaklandAntarctica (1 of 34)

Color coordinated tourists, looking the wrong way

But lately, oddly, travel has made me uncomfortable. Not Montreal, not New York, but…

Last October, we were in the Argentinian mountain town of Juyjuy (pronounced Hoo-hooey)(really). We walked around, down the wind-swept streets (this is the high desert, the altiplano) and up to the cathedral, and we saw native men and women with blankets stretched out and their handiwork on display. We politely looked around, never intending to buy. I looked at the impassive young man sitting in front of his jewelry, and I figured he harbored more than a little rage in his heart. But he wanted me to buy his stuff. This is, I believe, the dominant dynamic in most of the world. They will smile and nod and flatter, and maybe you will overpay for something, and then everyone will feel good for 38 seconds.

Being darned experienced, I had seen this before, in India and Roratonga, in Egypt and Bali and Papua New Guinea. (Yes, I’m country-dropping; old habits etc.). The locals sell colorful tokens of their culture, little resting cats in Cairo and little waving cats in China. And someone in Chicago or Edinburgh has a thingie that their children will throw away in 30 years.

You know what this dynamic feels like? Colonialism. Rich white people appropriating the climate or the topography or the culture of a nation of brown-skinned people. It’s like those people are saying: “Since you’ve fucked up our sustainable economy and pillaged our natural resources, let us service you by building hotels and restaurants and clothing stores and even the temporary bleachers at our colorful Feast of Santa Victoria, where two hundred tourists with selfie sticks follow the Holy Urn to the Inner Chancel.”

Which, among other things, screws up the tourist fantasy. You envision yourself staring sadly at Mona Lisa or strolling the streets of historic Florence or viewing the famous falls at Iguazu, and you get there and there are people! people! people! blocking your view or your way, PEOPLE just like you, cameras ready and longing for Experience. The Experience is not ideal when there’s a tour group of 22 German people talking in that beefy German way, no disrespect. You’re better off wandering the shoreline at Point Pinole.

West Oakland20100901-new_import_-0002-27

Day of the Dead. Note cameras.

Tourism for commercial purposes is as old as the Hittites. The British started the Grand Tour in the 1660s, a high-minded endeavor aimed at broadening the cultural horizons of the wealthy and insulated — and perhaps securing a suitable bride or groom. This kind of tourism is not unknown today.

So then adventurous Brits began to visit the heathen countries, perhaps because the Brits had conquered so many of them. Riding on camels was considered de rigueur. Travelers who stayed for a while were usually in the employ of the British government, gathering information which was of enormous use during World War I.

But now the goal of travel is “relaxation,” usually followed by “adventure” of the most sturdy and anodyne kind.  Zip lines in the jungle. Kite surfing in the lagoon. Cocktail cruises to Torture Island, now renamed Treasure Island. Or a three-hour bus ride to God’s Back Yard, with its colorful spiky things.

It’s amazing how universal our national approval for travel is. Some go to Orlando; some go to Paris. Even poor people travel, although not recreationally. Travel is a sign you’ve arrived. You’ve got an outside cabin on the Carnival cruise ship Valor, or that little house in Ubud behind the shed where the puppet-makers work (quietly, quietly) late into the night. And nothing goes quite as planned and you’re too hot and too homesick, and by God you will keep doing it again, no matter how harrowing the last trip was.

And, even though we are woke as all get out, we ignore the carbon footprint of our travels. I sometimes want to say, “so you’re driving a Prius and also flying to Italy, and that actually makes no sense at all.” To say nothing of what our well-shod footprints are doing to the erosion profile of our exotic destination.

We’re supposed to approve when the economy of a foreign government turns to tourism. It’s a softer use. We’re keeping them from lopping off their mountaintops or despoiling their watershed, and pointing them towards a more eco-friendly lifestyle, with lovely chemicals that will render harmless our redolent tourist poop. Yes, they can exchange their rich native culture for being a barista or a dishwasher in a shiny tourist hotel/nightclub.

Training people to be servile yet cheerful does its own kind of damage to an ecosystem.


West Oakland20111105_Kano__DSC01970195

Interesting traffic patterns: Always a plus.

And maybe we emerge from our tourist bubble and take a walk around town, or at least the parts down by the shore or in the somewhat threadbare arboretum. We might find a way to connect with locals on a person to person basis.

Here’s a revealing example of that cultural exchange:

“I just love your goat pasta.”

“Thank you, sir. Thank you. May I refill your cola glasses? How about a glass of wine? On me, sir, of course. On the home, as you say. And my wife’s special duckweed ice cream that her grandmother taught her. Please, sir. With my compliments.”

“No, no, my friend, that’s all right. And please give our best to your wife. We’re Americans, you know.”

They hate us, you know. They hate us even worse now that Trump is in power, but they hate us anyway. We’ve dominated the narrative. We’ve pushed everyone else around. We’re bullies, although of course ever so nice in person. That is, until we can’t get service at the goddamed bar.

And the more sophisticated tourist cities have found a way to confine the tourists to one area of the city. In San Francisco, it’s the northeast corner of the city where, if things got tough, we could all link arms and push them into the sea.

Besides, you know what tourists look like. The half-folded maps, the propensity for group photos in front of things, the reddened knees and the slumped shoulders, all decked out in specialty leisurewear often adorned with slogans about where their parents went and what lousy thing they brought back.

Have you ever glimpsed a tourist and thought, “God, I want to look like that.”?

No you haven’t. And yet, you know you have looked like that. You have peered at street signs wondering where the hell you were, and you have arrived at the museum on the day it is closed, and you have shared a $22 cocktail in the roof bar that looks out on the other roof bars. And I’m not even going to touch on the most humiliating thing you’ve done because that’s between you and your God, thanks to the non-disclosure agreement.

I was recently offered a lovely trip to Pakistan. Tracy is of course going because that’s the kind of gal she is. I mostly didn’t go because I didn’t want to go to Pakistan, but I also remember those folks with the blankets in the town square at Juyjuy. I envision myself, gray beard, baseball cap, shoes that cost four months salary for the average Argentinian worker, peering down at the beadwork and the bracelets, mute, neck-scratching, wondering idly if we’d make it to the hotel before dark — yeah, that guy. I don’t actually want to be that guy.

I can avoid being that guy by staying in a culture for a year or two, learning how to survive and prosper in a place with very different assumptions. I could shut up and try hard. But, seriously, what fun is that? Where’s the zip line, the vista point, the interpretive center? Where’s that great guide we call “Charlie” because we can’t pronounce his real name? And, by the way, where’s my fucking moment of transcendence? Do you know what airfare costs these days?

West Oaklandtj_20100909_Egypt_0055

You can have fun anywhere.

Photographs by Tracy (a lot of these pictures are badly scanned slides) Johnston

Routine maintenance and bird wrangling by Michelle Mizera




The N-word Yet Again

2017-07-12 08:55 pm
[syndicated profile] languagelog_feed

Posted by Ben Zimmer

The following is a guest post by Tony Thorne of King's College London, originally appearing on his blog. It provides an alternative view to that expressed by Geoff Pullum in his post, "Tory uses N-word… not."

On July 10 Samir Dathi tweeted: "Anne Marie Morris suspended for using N-word. Good. But why is someone who called black people 'picaninnies' our foreign secretary?"

Morris, the Conservative MP for Newton Abbot's use of the phrase 'nigger in the woodpile' provoked widespread condemnation and resulted in her suspension and an abject public apology, but the UK public and media have a very short memory. It was far from an isolated instance of this crass archaism being invoked by British politicians, as this website records.

The expression originated in the USA (Jonathon Green, aka Mister Slang, has a first citation as the name of a popular song from the 1840s) where it was usually associated with an image of a runaway slave in concealment, but it is in the UK where it has enjoyed a lengthy and unfortunate afterlife.

I can testify that the phrase was used by middle-class speakers in conversation in the UK the 1950s and 1960s. It was possible to use the n-word (not the whole phrase) in Britain up to the end of the 1950s without having a conscious racist intention. The WW2 flying ace Guy Gibson, for instance, named his beloved pet dog 'Nigger' and I can remember myself using the word in a public swimming pool in suburban London in about 1959 to point out a black child playing nearby (a rare thing in our lower middle-class neighbourhood). Even then my father rebuked me very sternly, saying "we don't say that and you mustn't use the word!"

Yasmeen Serhan reported on the MP's gaffe for American readers in The Atlantic.

Attempts were made, by Tory supporters and some linguists, to excuse the MP on the grounds that she is 60 years old and so for her generation the words in question carry little or less force. Others pointed out that inadvertent racism is nonetheless racism, but where quibbles about slurs and taboos are concerned, I think the acid test is actually to debate them in real-life environments. I have discussed the n-word and similar controversies with a range of young people and with older members of BAME communities and they are simply not acceptable. Quite apart from clumsiness and insensitivity on the part of somebody in public life, it's arguable, too, that Morrison used the expression wrongly: it doesn't mean an unanticipated or an unappreciated future eventuality, but a hidden snag. The nuances – the semantic components and assumptions embedded in the phrase are interesting and challenging to unpick – the connotations of such usages may also mutate over time. Potential confusions are illustrated by the several interpretations or misunderstandings posted on Urban Dictionary.

Finally, on a very personal note, it occurred to me that finding an escaped slave today, perhaps in the woodshed behind a prosperous suburban or rural home, is entirely possible in a Britain where traffickers and slavemasters prey on migrants, refugees and the poor and desperate. (Oh and, on the subject of the Foreign Secretary a Twitter poll resulted in this from @BrianElects: "Whether B[oris] Johnson should also be expelled for calling black people 'piccaninnies' with 'watermelon smiles': Yes: 95% No: 5%.") [As noted below, the poll is satirical.]

Preserved wife plum

2017-07-12 03:26 pm
[syndicated profile] languagelog_feed

Posted by Victor Mair

No, these are not plums consisting of preserved wives, nor are they plums made by preserved wives, nor are they anything else you are likely to think of based on the English name.

Why am I even talking about this?  How did this bizarre subject come up?

In a comment to "Vegetable students" (7/11/17), David Morris asked about the name of a Chinese snack called "Preserved Wife Plum" that a colleague offered to him.  He said that "three Chinese speaking ESL or translating teachers couldn't explain" the name.  I made some preliminary attempts to describe what this snack was like, but David and John Swindle repeated the request for an explanation of the name.

I was snared.

So I looked into "preserved wife plum" a bit more, and now I see that it is all over the internet (362,000 ghits).  Here's one description, by gentlemanfarmer, on the LiveJournal website:

Preserved Wife Plum

On the way home from work yesterday, I stopped in at an Asian grocery.  I needed a sack of rice, and I wanted to get some noodles and dumplings.  Asians are big on convenience foods, so I like to try some once in a while (dried squid, wasabi peas, etc).  I picked up a bag of rice crackers and also a package with the eye-catching name "Preserved Wife Plum."  What are these?  Well I bought them, and it is an adventure to read the package.  Lots of lost in translation stuff:  "Keep it at the cool and dry place, away from the direct sunlight," and "Protect environment – Main ourself pride."  These are from the Guangdong Farmer's Grange Food Industry Co., Ltd. and they are actually pretty tasty.  Dried and salty and sweet and a little plummy, still with the pit.  On the front of the package a green square with Chinese script and I guess the English translation, "Green Ecology Limitless Magnificence."  Also a red square with the words:  "Additional Support:  We like the new taste. We need the quality and we need the best food. Here you will find what you want. Cool fashion need Cool taste. You are the new man. How delicious can not forget special taste. Return the pure flavor.  Give you the minerable feeling."What does "minerable" mean, I wonder?They have "sodium saccharin" in the ingredient list!

Here, on the Yummy 99 website, you can buy "Farmer's Grange Preserved Wife Plum (108g)" for $1.99.  Sounds like a real bargain.

On the top left of the front of the package, it says:

"GREEN ECOLOGY LIMITLESS MAGNIFICENCE" for lǜsè shēngtài  wúxiàn huólì 绿色生态 无限活力 ("green ecology  unlimited vitality").

Top right:

méizi suānsuān 梅子酸酸 ("really sour plums")

We also learn that good ol' Farmer's Grange Preserved Wife Plum is a famous brand from Guangdong Province.  They seem to be very fond of their brand name, "Farmer's Grange" (Nóngfū shānzhuāng 农夫山庄), and have plastered it over the front of the package in English and in Chinese characters set in various fonts.

Nóngfū 农夫 straightforwardly means "farmer" (we used to sometimes translate it as "peasant", but, for ideological reasons, that rendering has fallen into disfavor during the last few decades).

Shānzhuāng 山庄 could mean "hill station; country villa; mountain lodge", but I think "grange", in the British sense of "a farm, especially the residence and outbuildings of a gentleman farmer", rather than the American sense of "an association of farmers founded in the United States in 1867", sounds appropriate in this instance.

Parts of the label are almost as overly informative as the homilies one finds on a bottle of Dr. Bronner's Castile soap.

The main thing the label tells us, though, is that the product inside is lǎopó méi 老婆梅.  The first word, lǎopó 老婆, can mean "old woman", "woman", or it can serve as a folksy, casual reference for "wife", something like "missus" or "old lady" (in the sense of "wife").  The second word is just méi 梅 ("plum").  Together, they make lǎopó méi 老婆梅 ("missus plum").

The jiǔzhì 九制 before the name lǎopó méi 老婆梅 ("missus plum") means "ninefold processed" and signifies that this product is supposedly highly refined.

I think that the key to grasping the nuances of lǎopó méi 老婆梅 ("missus plum") may be found at this website, which is dedicated to answering tough questions.  Here it is contrasted with another type of preserved plum, the qíngrén méi 情人梅 ("mistress plum").  The former, preserved lǎopó méi 老婆梅 ("missus plum"), may be characterized as tart and smart, the latter, preserved qíngrén méi 情人梅 ("mistress plum"), is described as sweet and juicy.  While the names of these two types of preserved plums are clever marketing ploys, they are indicative of the different ways in which they are prepared.  The qíngrén méi 情人梅 ("mistress plum") is soaked in a sugar solution, whereas the lǎopó méi 老婆梅 ("missus plum") is preserved with table salt, white sugar, and licorice (other flavorings may be added as well).

Due to the different techniques for preservation, the lǎopó méi 老婆梅 ("missus plum") is darker, salty, and wrinkled, whereas the qíngrén méi 情人梅 ("mistress plum") is succulent and ruddily orangish (see the comments for a discussion of "orange") with a white, powdery, cosmetic efflorescence on the more rounded, softer, nubile surface.

I hope that I have done justice to those who were eager to know, "why 'wife plum'".

[Thanks to T K Mair and Jeroen Wiedenhof]

Me So Hungry

2017-07-11 06:53 pm
[syndicated profile] languagelog_feed

Posted by Mark Seidenberg

Do Victor's posts stoke your appetite for fine foods? Feast on these:

Thematically related:

As always, a cross-linguistic perspective is required to uncover deeper generalizations:

Hmmm, not in my experience, no.

(Provenance guarantee: all images taken or clipped by me, non-Photoshopped.)

Me So Hungry

2017-07-11 06:26 pm
[syndicated profile] languagelog_feed

Posted by Mark Seidenberg

Do Victor's posts stoke your appetite for fun foods? Feast on a few more.

A translation error of a different, squickier sort?

Non-Photoshop guarantee: all images taken or clipped by me.

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