Language

So Boy gave me the finger

Then he asked, “What does this mean?”

And I told him, “It’s like saying a swear word.”

He thought about this. “You mean like when you say, ‘I swear I don’t know the answer’?”

So I explained that, no, a swear word is a very bad word that you shouldn’t ever say. Does he know any swear words?  He shakes his head. Does he know the F word?  Or the S word?  Shake of the head; shake of the head.

Then his face brightened. “Oh, I know the S word!  I’m not going to say it, though, because you shouldn’t say it ever.”  I smiled and nodded in agreement and approval, and then he adds, “Unless you’re talking about a Dalek.”  I kept smiling and nodding for a moment until what he said penetrated, but then before I could ask what he meant, he ploughed on.  “One kid thought I said the S word, but I didn’t, I said soccer.

“Ah,” I said.  “Okay.”

“I would never use the S word, unless I was using itfor real, you know?  Like, for what it’s really used for.  Like if you’re talking about a Dalek.”

You guys.  He thought the S word is sucker.

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Because girls aren’t people

When Girl and I pick Boy up from the school bus every afternoon, we typically go to the park for half an hour.  The other day we got there and found a couple of mothers with three kids between them, a year or two younger than Boy.  Boy immediately picked out the girl in the group, as is his wont, and the two of them started playing together, gathering up all the acorns that have been falling from the tree overhanging the park and stuffing their pockets full of them.

After the other kids had left and we were alone at the playground, Boy idly asked me as he played, “Dad, do you think schools can climb up high on the playground like I do?”

“Do I think what can climb up high?”

“Girls,” he repeated.  “Like the girl that had all the nuts.  Do you think girls can climb up high on the playground like I do?”

“Um.  Sure.”

“How do they get down again?”

“… The same way you get down, I’d expect.”

“Down the slide?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Sure.”

“But Dad!  Girls can’t use the slide!”

“Why not?”

“Because girls aren’t people!

I was horrified.  “They most certainly are.”

He looked at me like I’m a complete tool.  “No they’re not, Dad!”  Such an idea would just be silly.

Yeah.  He wasn’t saying girls.  He was saying skirls.  As in, his tongue was having an impossible time wrapping itself around squirrels.

You know, like a squirrel that gathers nuts.

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And the space shuttle? That was mine.

Twitter screencap

I first heard the word internet on an episode of seaQuest DSV.

I remember this because I had actually recently made up the word internet for a science fiction story I was writing. To name an international network, I’d combined international and network. How original am I.

(Actually, I have a feeling I’d combined interplanetary and network or interstellar and network.)

And my reaction to the word’s use on seaQuest was to think, Damn. Now I can’t use that word, because now it’s a seaQuest word. Everyone’s going to think I stole it from seaQuest.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

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If you don’t see a YouTube video above this text, check out the original post to see it.

Say what you mean, and mean what you say

Christopher LloydIt’s a habit of mine that when I encounter a misused word or misleadingly incorrect punctuation, I pretend to myself that the person actually meant what they said or wrote. So, for instance, when the receptionist tells me the doctor will be with me momentarily, I pretend she actually meant momentarily (“for a moment”), and that I’ll be shown back to an examining room where the doctor will shake my hand, say hello, and then depart, ending the appointment.

Christopher Lloyd is coming to DragonCon this year. And I refer you to the last line of his bio:

Lloyd won an Independent Spirit Award for his chilly depiction as a soulless murderer in Twenty Bucks.

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Compoundwords

As you can tell from the Words that Boggled Word portion of my writing progress reports, I am much, much quicker to compound words than the English language is–at least, the English language as represented by the spell-check dictionaries for Microsoft Word or OpenOffice Writer. I want to write about plantlife and knifeblades and pocketwatches, but the dictionaries insist that they’re plant life and knife blades and pocket watches.

I don’t do this haphazardly–when I compound words, it’s because I think they should be compounded. There are two things I look for when I do it.

The first is which word we emphasise. One of the things I picked up in my Intro to Linguistics class–before I had to drop the class because my new girlfriend was sucking up all my waking hours–was that as long as we think of a two-word phrase as two separate words, we stress the second word. Once the stress shifts to the first word, it has shifted to being one word in our heads, even if we’re still spelling it as two.

“What coat do you want? Oh, get me my yellow jacket.”
“Who won the ACC Championship this year? I think it was the Georgia Tech Yellowjackets.”

Once we’ve made the mental jump to thinking of the two words as one, the second change can happen–we can divorce the new compound’s meaning from the meaning of its constituent words. Trench coat is a phrase that’s in everyone’s vocabulary, but no one says the trench part of trench coat and thinks of the trenches of the First World War. We all know exactly what a trench coat is, but none of us thinks of it specifically as, “a coat designed for soldiers fighting in the trenches on the Western Front”.

Similarly, while we might still think of a pocket watch as a watch that we happen to keep in our pocket, it has a specific meaning independent of the pocket. I can’t simply keep my wristwatch in my pocket and have it called a “pocket watch”. But on the other hand, if I were to talk a wall clock and attach a cover and a fob to it, people would look at it and ask, “Why do you have a giant pocket watch on your wall?”–they’d still think of it as a “pocket watch” even though it would be impossible to carry in a pocket.

It’s my opinion that once a phrase has undergone both those changes, it should definitely be written as one word–because it is one word, divorced from its component parts. But personally, I also think words that have only undergone the first change, have had their emphasis shifted to the first word even without the new word’s meaning becoming independent. Knifeblade. Cornrow. Watchfire. These are all words to me. If I were writing nonfiction, I’d probably defer to the dictionary and not compound them before the English language seemed ready for me to do so. But as long as I’m writing fiction, they’ll all be showing up as one word.

Even if it reduces my word count. Er, wordcount.

Anglophone privilege

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that immigration is an issue I care a lot about. Most of the public debate about immigration in America gets me pretty angry, since it generally seems to comprise a whole lot of blame and ignorance directed at a minority powerless to defend themselves.

What is a bit more surprising, perhaps, is that I still care just as much once the immigration conversation zeroes in on language. After all, it’s easy to dismiss my interest in immigration as self-interest–I am an immigrant. But when it comes to languages, self-interest isn’t part of the deal; I emigrated from one English-speaking country and immigrated to another. I didn’t have to learn a new language at all (besides reducing my vocabulary somewhat, of course).*

But my hackles go up instantly whenever I hear people complaining about the increasing prevalence of Spanish (because it’s always Spanish) in American life. Always, always, it contains some variation of the sentiment, “If I moved to Germany, I’d definitely make some effort to learn German!”

There are two assumptions that always underlie people’s complaints about this, and they both infuriate me. The first is the implication that immigrants are simply choosing not to learn English–that it is, fundamentally, a function of laziness or apathy. Not that they can’t learn a foreign language, whether because of a lack of aptitude or money or time or competent teachers.

The second is the exceptionally First World picture of how migration works–that’s not migration so much as moving house, only with passports added. You pack up all your stuff and head off with your wife and kids to a nice, comfortable house Somewhere Else and immerse yourself in a new culture. That the penniless economic migrants or political refugees who have gathered in this country from Mexico, the Caribbean, South America, Africa, Asia, are simply living out their own versions of A Year in Provence. You cannot say the things these people say and not have that picture of migration in your head.

This is privilege at work, pure and simple. People are living much harder lives than you or me, purely because of where they were born, and they have done a very hard thing that neither you nor I have ever done–left behind their entire lives, frequently including their families, and migrated to a foreign, alien place to try and improve their lot. (I didn’t do it because my parents did–I simply came with them.) And their lives are made all the harder because they cannot readily communicate with the people around them, cannot ask for help, cannot explain what is wrong, cannot be hired for any number of jobs (you know, the jobs that actually pay a living wage and have prospects of advancement) because they can’t master the language.

And we’re complaining, not because their failure to learn English actually presents us with any real hardship, but because the presence of advertisements in Spanish or the phrase “For English, press one” prevents us from simply ignoring this large population of the unprivileged who surround us.

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*That means using fewer words.**

**Bazinga.

Wordle Wednesday

Wordle

For no especial reason, a Wordle of the first 12,599 words of Shanghai.

Shanghai
Words last two days: 2274
Words total: 12,599

Time spent writing: 1pm-6pm; noon-8pm.
Reason for stopping: Quota; Paul’s bedtime
Darling: She did not show any reaction to my scrutiny; it occurred to me she was probably thoroughly used to being looked at by men.
Words that boggled Word: émigrés
New words today: poise, revolver, jade

Identity manoeuvres

When my friends talk about to people who don’t know me (which they apparently do with unsettling frequency), they usually describe me, amongst other things (I assume), as British. I describe myself to others as British.

But of course, I’m not British. Or not just British, anyway. Not even mostly British. I’m mostly American. I’ve lived in the United States since 1987. And when I go to England, I’m not really British for most purposes; I’m much more considered American. I suppose if I travelled outside the United States and the EU, I’d be some weird Anglo-American hybrid. Canadian, I guess.

That British part of me is very important to me, and it’s a part I’m at pains to preserve. It would be very easy to lose touch with it, living in northern Virginia and not really having any contact with any Britons other than my parents, so I have to make sure that I go to the effort necessary to keep those elements of Britain that are important to me or that I like a lot in my life.

For the most part, Britain and America can coexist perfectly happily in my life; so long as the British is there, I don’t worry that the American being there too is somehow going to edge it out. I love barbecue; eating barbecue doesn’t somehow stop me drinking Ribena. I’m a big fan of American football; that doesn’t stop me also loving proper football. And if I have a son who thinks the sport the Florida Gators play is called “soccer”, and who throws his hands above his head whenever Manchester United score and shouts, “Touchdown!”? Well, them’s the breaks.

Sometimes, though, I don’t get that luxury. There are times when I don’t get to have both; I have to choose. In such instances, unless I have a marked preference for the American, I’ll almost always choose the British one. The best example of this is probably the area of language. Probably most people who read this blog have noticed words like humour, theatre (when I’m talking about a place where plays are performed, of course; a place where movies are shown is a cinema), learnt, alphabetise and aluminium. I don’t use these words because I think British English is any better than American English*; I use them because it’s a way of keeping touch with where I’m from.

The irony, of course, is that nowadays my spelling is probably much more “British” than you’ll find in Britain, since the Internet age has led to the merger of a great many of the old differences in our common language.

Anyway, I’m not sure where I go from here, so I guess I’ll just sign off. Cheerio.

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*You ever want to poke the bear, you should see how friggin’ annoyed I get when people claim that British English is somehow older than American English (as a way of claiming precedence for British English).

Wikipedia quote of the day

From the article on the Led Zeppelin song “Achilles Last Stand“:

The line, “Below the streets that steam and hiss/The devil is in his hole” refers to a Victorian tourist attraction the band visited whilst in Saint Mary, Jersey. Named “Devil’s Hole”, it featured a statue of a devil, in a hole.

I think what really makes the quote for me is the comma following devil.

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And another

And the first draft of Inheritance:

Inheritance wordle

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