"Language is the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations."
  - Edward Sapir


If you called me a language amateur, I'd be honored, for "amateur" from one of English's ancestor languages, Latin ("amo, amare") means:
   "someone who pursues an activity or avocation for the love of it".

I love language, and the pleasure  of sharing my love of language is a labor of love.

Twitter Reverie
I hope U dont h8 me 4 this, but I want 2 talk about how words can get compressed sometimes in response to constraints imposed by factors such as the max length behavior of Twitter. This emphasis on economy of every typed character has produced the type of shorthand that drives some purists batty, but to me its just a flavor of a rich language (hmm, batty, batter, rich?)

Of course, over-reliance on this could become un10able, and if it persists, could become (dare I? Of course) un11able

(It's not just Twitter of course, as the shortening of words has been going on for a while now, but I'm active there a lot)

Notes on American English can be found on our sister page.

Given the way language is changing, I wonder how many people spell that last, saddest sacrament "XTreme Unction", or "X-Stream Unction". (Now that those phrases are out there in cyberspace, I wonder how long until some band adopts one of the names; you're WELcome.)

History of the Ampersand

Do you know the historical reference that many people are unknowingly making when they say they will "punch in" some information on their computers? Think back to the original computers, and the Hollerith card, originally used to help automate the US census in 1880. These cards were the primitive yet effective early means by which information was stored, sorted, collated and ultimately 'read' into computers. The 80-column card used as a standard had alpha-numeric and basic punctuation representation. To encode information on the cards a 'key punch' machine was used, hence 'punch it in'. This calls to mind the story of why railroad tracks were a certain width, namely that they ultimately echoed the width of wagon tracks through the wilderness, which themselves echoed the optimal path through wilderness that animals had set as they traversed the landscape, perhaps a bit apocryphal, but nonetheless similar.

Want to test your grasp of grammar?
This site has a good interactive test, with feedback. Thanks to Laurie Hosken for the tip.

The Apostrophe
The proper use of this punctuation mark can confound. This site helps.

The Third World does not exist anymore
(At least not if you understand the Cold War derivation of the term.) At the time of the Cold War, the 'First World' was the 'Free World', or developed capitalist/quasi-capitalist societies. Associations such as NATO, the G7 (now the G20), the OECD, Common Market (later the EU) and others reinforced commonalities among these 'Western' societies, plus some other countries like Japan, Taiwan (considered a separate country for a while, also closely tied to the Cold War), South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

The term 'Third World' hearkens back, however, to a time when the world was largely divided into two hostile, very well-defined blocs as underscored by membership in opposing military alliances (NATO and Warsaw Pact), and the 'rest of the world'.

Counterpoised to the 'First World' at the time was the so-called 'Second World', of the Socialist/Communist bloc, following a significantly different track for development of societies and economies. The Warsaw Pact and COMECON were military and economic alliances that mirrored those of the 'West/First World'.

So, what was the 'Third World'?  Well, pretty much every other country on Earth. Most certainly the term included the 'undeveloped'/'developing'/'less developed' countries of the Caribbean, Asia, Africa and Latin America; since Europe was divided into opposing blocs (NATO vs. Warsaw Pact), poor countries such as Albania were not counted in the Third World during the Cold War, but after the dissolution of the Soviet empire, became candidates for it. Third World countries were battlegrounds for the two heavily armed blocs, where proxy wars, toppling of hostile regimes, and competition for hearts and minds raged for decades. Think of the countries of Angola, Congo/Zaire, Mauretania, Iran, Chile, Indonesia, Nicaragua and sadly many others.

The Third World was not by any means powerless vis-a-vis the other blocs, mainly through adroit playing off of one side against the other. It was a very stable game for many decades, due to geostrategic deadlock with MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), so understanding the crucial vested attitudes and interests of each bloc was a given. There was a grouping of nations that assumed its own presence on the world stage. The Non-Aligned movement, spearheaded by Kwame Nkrumah, Gamel Abdel-Nasser, Jawarhalal Nehru, Sukarno, Josip Broz Tito and others, was an attempt to band together to speak with one voice to the First World and Second World. The disparity in power, however, was apparent at least at the time. Once the Cold War ended, the distinctions between 'First' and 'Second' worlds were no longer appropriate, but the term 'Third World' persisted, while the 'First' and 'Second' Worlds disappeared (at least as operative and descriptive terms.)

The end of the Cold War brought such a surge of optimism and relief (at the time) because many thought that all the money wasted on arms and subversion would be dedicated to development, and lots of it was, but the 'Peace Dividend' and Frances Fukuyama's 'End of History' did not quite materialize.

Wine Words
One nice thing about wine talk for a guy is that you can say "Look at the legs on that one!" and simply be talking about how long it takes the stuff to run down the side of a glass. What I sometimes find amusing, though, is the occasionally pretentious (and preposterous) short phrases used to describe a wine, such as:

  "Smoky, yet smooth"
  "Mature, yet precocious"
  "Insouciant, yet ...
  "Bouncy, yet ...
  "Vibrant, yet ... 

and so on. The pattern is "[one quality] YET [another, contrasting one]"; you've undoubtedly seen them. In the spirit of the 'Merde' section of Language, I want to offer some equivalent joky examples of this wine talk. Here are some:

  "Pretentious, yet tawdry"
  "Smoky, yet smoke-damaged and uninsured"
  "Young, yet immature"
  "Luxurious, yet declassé"
  "Fruity, yet homophobic"
  "Earthy, yet rapidly being submerged due to its location near the shoreline"
  "Full-bodied, yet suffering from body image problems"
  "Honey-flavored, yet ultimately doomed by Colony Collapse Disorder"

Asian 'approaches' to English
To be sure, there are many extremely proficient speakers and spellers of English in Asia, but there are enough sign and label writers with less-than-perfect mastery of this difficult language to inspire and populate this entertaining web site. The term 'approach' in this case means to 'gingerly come close to', as I think you might agree after reading some of these offerings.

Language and Dyslexia
Dyslexics have problems reading and spelling correctly, and therefore often lack the facility with our language that can make one successful. Dyslexics can still excel, but it is incumbent on all of us to understand this condition. Misdiagnosis of dyslexics in childhood as 'slow' is still common, and all the more sad in light of current understanding of this unusual condition.

'Leet' Speak

Logic and Language - Potent Combination, not always used
Good prose (flowery, austere, impassioned) can be aesthetically pleasing in its own right; couple a workmanlike wielding of prose with a logical argument, and you've really got something. However, the two do not always go together. One of the formative academic experiences of this author's school years was a course in Logic, using a book by Irving Copi. From this course, I was introduced to common logic errors which detract from and usually defeat the merits of the actual argument being propounded. Let's look at one of them now:
  Argumentum ad Hominem - 'Argument to the man' in Latin. This error chooses to attack the character of the opponent, rather than the message. This is so widespread today, and it is off-putting to many viewers, readers and listeners, and likely one of the many drivers toward dissatisfaction with the current Congress (11% approval rating, by one measure), in addition to a Presidency which has seen the height of its power. With the market success of antagonistic programming of the 'Crossfire' type shows, we have been subjected to rapid-fire, hyperbolic, caustic interchanges between two people hand-picked to represent opposing viewpoints in an 'entertaining' (groan) fashion. When the networks made their news operations profit (and therefore loss) centers, they changed the nature of the news. Rather than treating them as they did in the early days as discharging the public trust, they are using OUR airwaves for profit-related purposes - see 'airwave auction' if you don't get the ownership issue. This style of show is not necessarily a problem, and contentiousness can be contained, as in the McGloughlin Group, but contentiousness is not itself the problem. What also characterizes a lot of TV and radio discourse now is shouting matches, the absence of 'moderation' from the show's host, and presentations about either the subject personage of the 'debate' or the opposing presenter sharing the airspace with you.

What often happens in such exchanges is that one or more participants in the discussion fail to (or choose to) address the actual points that their opponent is propounding, and take the easy way out by attacking their motives, dredging up 'dirt' from their past, and similar personal assaults. This is not new:

He does not seem to know what an argument is. He never uses arguments himself. He never troubles himself to answer the arguments of an opponent. . . It has never occurred to him . . . that when an objection is raised, it ought to be met with something more convincing than "scoundrel" or "blockhead."

   LORD MACAULAY , "Essay on Southey's Colloquies"

I would offer a rule of thumb for appropriate response to this common ploy, namely to discount heavily the arguments of such speakers, if it were not for the fact that often both sides use this. The ad Hominem attack is corrosive of civil civic discourse (notice how the two have the same Latin root). It is lazy, not intellectually rigorous. Let's STOP IT, and, more likely, let's be ready to CALL people on it, when they resort to it. They may not be aware of what they are doing; they may truly be ignorant of this concept.

Fallacy of Composition (Coming next)

Political Pollution
To most people, I suppose, language is the necessary means by which we accomplish our aims, and we try to get our message across as clearly as possible. Since time immemorial, however, and especially in the past several decades, language has been wielded by our political class and their milieu as a tool for besting their opponents, fragmenting coalitions, consolidating their base using 'hot button' issues, and other trends.

It is understandable that the politicians use this formidable tool, but the truth suffers, usually through incomplete information; remember, there are specialists in language and social sciences who choose words very carefully, to be sure, but not (as here) to clarify, rather often to obfuscate and/or enrage. Here are some remedies to this chronic malady:

   Fact Check
   Spinsanity (now just an archive version, but a good amount of content)
   Columbia Journalism Review