Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Polite Pinkerton Agents of Education Reform

September 11, 2012 Leave a comment

Pinkerton agents escorting strikebreakers, Buchtel, Ohio, 1884

It has become popular to blame teachers and their unions for the failures of our urban public schools, and to propose solutions that amount to privatizing the schools. The horrors of socialism; the wonders of capitalism. There’s no problem too big for the market to solve. Health care. Social security. Education. Just let the invisible hand of the free market do its magic.

As a counterpoint, we can turn to the series of articles Diane Ravitch has been writing for The New York Review of Books recently. I quoted from one in a post last May. Here’s a passage from another.

The current reform movement in education has embraced Teach for America and privately managed charter schools as remedies for the nation’s schools. But this combination is unlikely to succeed because one alienates career educators and the other destabilizes our public education system. It is hard to imagine improving the schools without the support and trust of the people who work in them every day.


The problems of American education are not unsolvable, but the remedies must be rooted in reality. Schools are crucial institutions in our society and teachers can make a huge difference in changing children’s lives, but schools and teachers alone cannot cure the ills of an unequal and stratified society. Every testing program—whether the SAT, the ACT, or state and national tests—demonstrates that low scores are strongly correlated to poverty. On the SAT, for example, students from the most affluent families have the highest scores, and children from the poorest families have the lowest scores. Children need better schools, and they also need health clinics, high-quality early childhood education, arts programs, after-school activities, safe neighborhoods, and basic economic security. To the extent that we reduce poverty, we will improve student achievement.

A few weeks ago, I spent most of a day at a small conference of science teachers and science educators from around the state. When I speak of science teachers, I don’t mean just secondary science teachers. Elementary teachers, after all, teach science, and may be the most important teachers of science, since they have the responsibility of introducing our youngest students to the subject as an exciting way to think, do, discover.

By the end of the day, I was in awe of these teachers’ commitment, creativity, and energy in the face of the daily difficulties imposed by an underfunded system. Several were elementary teachers here in Seattle. One was told she couldn’t use water this summer on the school garden she had set up. Another — who had no experience teaching science when he was hired a couple of decades ago as the ESL instructor at a high school in a small community in the eastern part of the state — learned on arrival that he was to teach his non-English-speaking students science as well as English and other subjects. (And, of course, it was suggested to him that these would be low-performing students.) With help from professional science educators here at the university, he was soon teaching such a successful course that the native-English-speaking students wanted to get in.

I know. Anecdotes aren’t worth much. We need test scores and all that. I simply want to point out that I’ve encountered many wonderful teachers who deserve all the support we can give them, plus our respect.

Which brings me to Rebecca Mead’s commentary at The New Yorker blog today on the Chicago school teachers’ strike, from which I’ve stolen the title of this post. Perhaps I should explain that the Pinkerton agency got its start in the 1850s. By the end of the century, its agents had become synonymous with union-busting. I close with an excerpt:

Not long ago, I ran into someone I’d not seen for a while, who moves in moneyed circles in New York. We started chatting about the usual things—kids, schools—and she told me she’d been consumed lately with political work, raising money for candidates nationwide who were committed to breaking teachers’ unions. She said this with the same kind of social enthusiasm with which she might have recommended a new Zumba class, or passed on the name of a place to get really great birthday cakes.


One problem with Chicago’s schools—like schools in urban centers all over this country—is that their constituents, the students, suffer from the usual hindrances of poverty: having no place at home to study; having no support at home for studying; sometimes having no home at all. Another problem is that talk of breaking teachers’ unions has become common parlance among the kind of people whose kids do not live below the poverty line, polite Pinkerton agents of education reform, circling at cocktail parties. No doubt there are some lousy teachers in Chicago, as there are everywhere. But blaming teachers for the failure of schools is like blaming doctors for the diseases they are seeking to treat.

Categories: Education, Labor, Language

Fun With Words

March 12, 2012 Leave a comment

I can’t resist posting Tom Tomorrow’s new cartoon (above) at Daily Kos as a follow up to my post last night on Eric Holder’s speech at Northwestern a week ago. In my post, I quoted from Scott Horton’s analysis of the speech , including comments on Holder’s use of the word ‘assassination’. Since assassinations are illegal, and the whole point of Holder’s speech was to explain why US actions are legal, he took care to point out that when the US assassinates people, we call it something else.

Haven’t we been through this before, with a president who explained that since torture is illegal and what the US does is legal, it therefore follows that when we torture people, we call it something else? And didn’t Obama and Holder object to this behavior?

Categories: Cartoons, Language, Law

Sofa King

March 3, 2012 Leave a comment

I was astonished to learn from Geoff Pullum at Language Log on Thursday about this news story:

A slogan used by a furniture store for nearly a decade has been branded offensive by an advertising watchdog.

The Northampton-based firm uses its own name in ads and on vehicles to claim its prices are “Sofa King Low”.

Police investigated complaints in 2004 and no action was thought necessary, but the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) received more complaints.

After further criticism over a regional newspaper ad the ASA has served a ban as the words could be “offensive”.

Three readers of the Northampton Herald and Post claimed the catchphrase was “offensive and unsuitable for general display”.

The ASA upheld their objections because the phrase could have been interpreted as a derivative of a swear word.

“Consumer research had found this to be a word so likely to offend that it should not be used in ads at all, even when it was relevant to the name of a product,” the watchdog said.

“Because of that, we concluded that the slogan was likely to cause serious or widespread offence.”

Perhaps you’re already familiar with the underlying Sofa King pun. It was the premise, for instance, of a Saturday Night Live skit in April 2007 (which I can only link to on hulu, not embed), prompting a Language Log post at the time by Eric Bakovic.

Sophomoric humor, for sure, but ban-worthy? As Pullum points out, why is Sofa King to be banned while French Connection United Kingdom markets t-shirts featuring its acronym? Quoting Pullum again, this is “sofa king stupid.”

Categories: Advertising, Language

Eskimo Perception

December 23, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m a huge fan of the Language Log blog and its co-founders, the linguists Mark Liberman at Penn and Geoff Pullum at Edinburgh. Pullum has spent two decades in fierce combat with the myth that Eskimos have twenty-three words (or is it two hundred? or two thousand?) for snow. (See his 1991 essay The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, which follows up on the 1986 work of Linda Martin.) I made brief reference to this in a post three Julys ago on linguistic fact checking, or the lack thereof.

Two Sunday nights ago, I was reading some of the next day’s NYT online when I clicked on the Monday book review and stumbled on the astonishing opening by Emma Brockes to her review of Alan Hollinghurst’s latest novel:

“The Stranger’s Child,” Alan Hollinghurst’s fifth novel, opens on a scene in Harrow and Wealdstone, a suburb north of London chosen by the author to represent the middle ground, that is the space between the upper and lower orders — or rather, this being England in 1913, between the orders of lower upper middle and upper upper middle.

As Eskimos do with snow, the English see gradations of social inadequacy invisible to the rest of the world; Mr. Hollinghurst separates them with a very sharp knife.

Wow! Eskimos have not just a multitude of snow words, but also gradations of snow perceptiveness invisible to the rest of the world.

The thing about those words is, any language has every bit as large a snow vocabulary as the Eskimos. Slippery snow. Grainy snow. Powdery snow. Oh, those aren’t words? Okay, how about slippery-snow, grainy-snow, powdery-snow? The oft-repeated claim is inane. But read Pullum for that.

Speaking of which, I wasted no time sending the latest example of Eskimo snow inanity on to Professor Pullum. A day later, in his characteristic style, he pounced.

If Emma Brockes were one of the sharper knives in the journalistic cutlery drawer she might have avoided becoming the 4,285th writer since the 21st century began who has used in print some variant of the original snowclone. (I didn’t count to get that figure of 4,285, I just chose a number at random. Why the hell not? People make up the number of words for snow found in Eskimoan languages that they know absolutely nothing about. I might as well just make stuff up like everybody else.)

I notice that Brockes’ version of the familiar Eskimological claim deals in visual cognition rather than linguistics (though the two are closely intertwined). The usual citation of a surprisingly large (and randomly chosen) number of snow words is absent; instead she actually claims to know about Arctic nomads’ perceptions of gradations that non-Eskimos cannot see. Where does she get this fascinating fact about perceiving the imperceptible?

Apparently, from credulous acceptance of an urban myth that goes back to the writings of an amateur linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf.

Pullum goes on at length, all worth reading, concluding with a blast at the NYT.

A casual unsupported assertion about Inuit people perceiving distinctions to the rest of us are blind? That won’t cause any trouble at the New York Times (which has published several different figures for the number of snow words in “Eskimo”, and has ignored the letters of correction that have been sent). Don’t worry about it: it’s only language and cognition we’re talking about — just make stuff up.

I’ll say this, though. We Pacific Northwesterners perceive gradations of gray invisible to the rest of you. Dark? Rain? Give us more, so we can make our perceptive skills still more powerful.

Categories: Journalism, Language, Stupidity

Passive Voice

November 8, 2011 Leave a comment

I am a regular reader of Language Log, and have written often about posts there. Last December, I wrote my own post about a language usage issue, inspired by a WSJ article that bugged me so much I wrote to Language Log co-founder Geoff Pullum about it. To my surprise, he responded to my note by building his own post around the WSJ article.

Today, once again, I am the source of a Pullum post. An on-going Pullum theme is the never-ending warnings by supposed language authorities to avoid “passive voice.” Invariably, he points out that the warnings come in articles in which the authors (a) use the passive themselves, and (b) mis-identify its occurrences in the examples they provide. Having stumbled on such a piece at the Harper’s blog over a week ago, I brought it to Pullum’s attention, and he has now done a better job than I can at dissecting its inanity. Have a look.

My own pet peeve regarding passive voice is Microsoft’s insistence on warning me whenever I use it while writing a Word document. Word’s presumption that it can write better than I can is a continuing annoyance. But specifically, can anyone possibly believe that every use of passive voice is a stylistic error in need of editing? Really? Stick to the layout. Let me do the writing. (Mind you, I only use Word for documents to be shared with others who insist on using Word. For myself, I never use it.)

Categories: Language, Writing

Sentence of the Week

August 28, 2011 Leave a comment

I know language changes, and I know that when it does, I’m one of the last to know. I try not to be surprised when I discover that it has. But boy, this sure caught be my surprise yesterday.

Background first. Local football hero Jake Locker was selected eighth overall in the NFL draft last April by the Tennessee Titans, the second quarterback selected. A year earlier, had he chosen to declare for the draft with a season of college eligibility remaining, there was talk that he might have been the first pick of the draft. But an injury-marred senior season in which weaknesses in his passing game were brought to light dropped his stock. For a while, talk was that he would be a second-round pick. Then, in the various combines and individual team workouts that players participate in to show off their talents, his stock rose again and the best guess was that he might be a late first-round selection. None of the major draft prognosticators figured him for the second quarterback of the draft. But Tennessee did, and that’s what matters.

None of this is really to the point, except as explanation of why I would bother looking at an article posted online at Sports Illustrated yesterday about Locker’s situation. In it, Chris Burke raised the issue of how much playing time Locker will get this season in the context of the continuing holdout of the Titans’ great running back Chris Johnson. Just a few weeks ago, after the new NFL collective bargaining agreement was approved the Titans picked up long-time Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, presumably with the plan of starting him and allowing Locker to learn from him. As Burke explains:

The Titans did go out and sign veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck to start for them as Locker eases his way into the NFL. But should Locker’s status on the depth chart be tied to Johnson’s holdout?

Without Johnson, an average Tennessee team becomes a mediocre one. If picking Locker didn’t set off a full-scale rebuilding plan, losing Johnson may.

Finally, I get to the point of this post. See the bolded sentence? Has it come to this? Is mediocre now a synonym for bad? Is it?

I didn’t know. I was still under the impression that ‘mediocre’, as its very root suggests, is in the middle. Median. Average. Yes, sure, median and average are different, but forget the mathematical details. The point is, there’s nothing bad about being average. We can’t all be above average, Lake Wobegon notwithstanding. And if you’re mediocre, you’re not above average, but you’re not below either. You’re just, you know, average. That’s the meaning of the word. Isn’t it?

Oh well. I won’t fight it. Live and learn.

Categories: Language


July 14, 2011 Leave a comment

This has made the rounds today, so you’ve probably seen it, the clip in which Michele Bachmann demonstrates the meaning of chutzpah by totally mispronouncing the word in accusing Obama of it. Is this interesting? Can anything still be interesting that shows how outrageous Bachmann is, or how outrageous any number of fellow Republican leaders and presidential candidates are? Maybe not.

A few years back, I wasted a lot of time writing posts about Palin. I have made it a point since the 2008 election not to waste blog time on her and her ilk. (Instead, of course, I attack Obama, who is at least sane. And intelligent. He just has this nasty habit of doing all the things he said he would bring to an end and giving the finger to his erstwhile supporters.) But for some reason, this video pushed me over the edge. It made me wonder if she has ever met a Jew besides an ultra-orthodox right-winger or AIPAC leader.

Well, here’s something I just found, from two Marches ago, the first link to show up in a google search on “bachmann jews”. It has the following quote of Bachmann:

I have been a long time supporter of Israel. The first time I went to Israel was the day I graduated from high school. I spent a summer working on Kibbutz Be’eri near Beer Sheva in 1974. I’ve been 4 times in Israel – 3 times as a Member of Congress. I loved Israel – from the moment I first landed.

As a young girl from Anoka, I was shocked at the level of security in Israel.

We worked on the kibbutz from 4 am to noon. We were always accompanied by soldiers with machine guns. While we were working, the soldiers were walking around looking for land mines. I really learned a lot in Israel.

I was delighted to go back as a Member of Congress, and see all the changes. To see how it has developed – it is nothing short of a miracle! To see a rose bloom in the desert. In 60 years, Israel has achieved first world, or nearly first world, status.

I am honored to be in a position where I can help Israel. I have a tremendous love for Israel, and great admiration for the Israeli people. I am a Christian, but I consider my heritage Jewish, because it is the foundation, the roots of my faith as a Christian.

How about that? She considers herself Jewish. It’s great to see these right-wing Christianists embrace Jewish heritage and culture while having the most narrow, simplistic view of what it is. They love appropriating our holidays. I bet she hosted a Seder this year, one in which the Haggadah was re-interpreted from a Christian perspective. Such respect for our traditions. How about respecting our language? If you can’t pronounce the word, leave it alone.

Categories: Language, Politics

One with Everything

June 15, 2011 Leave a comment

I saw the video above first thing this morning and intended to write a post around it, but by now I’m a little late. The video has been picked up on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, and I suppose on just about every other major aggregating site in the English-speaking world by now. So you’ve probably seen it already. But in case you haven’t, click on the play button above to watch host Karl Stefanovic of Australia’s Today show tell the Dalai Lama a joke. Stefanovic’s willingness to make a complete fool of himself is adorable.

I initially stumbled on the video in a Language Log post by linguist Geoffrey Pullum, who uses it as an opportunity to reflect on the nature of humor:

Stefanovic is surely not the only person who has discovered to his cost how easy it is to underestimate the quantity of cultural and linguistic background needed if you are to reliably get the jokes that people tell. For this one, (i) you must have encountered the Buddhist idea of merging or unifying with the universe, expressed using the idiom become one with (which in other contexts is not common); and (ii) you must have encountered pizza in the American style, with loads of different topping choices, ordered using a preposition phrase headed by with (as in with pepperoni and mushroom); and (iii) you must have been in a pizzeria that has as one of the choices on its menu the indecisive glutton’s non-choice consisting of a megacombo of all available toppings (by no means all pizza restaurants give you that option), so that everything is a possible topping choice.

When you put it that way, no wonder the Dalai Lama was so clueless. As Pullum concludes, “it’s a wonder most jokes don’t [die a quietly horrible public death], considering the complex web of previously encountered phrases and cultural references that jokes typically rely on.”

Sentence of the Week, 7

June 8, 2011 Leave a comment

My favorite source of sentences of the week has been the NYT’s weekly Vows column, which is so good at glorifying the mundane. (See this post for example.) Yesterday, the glorifying was being performed on the NYT sports pages, where Richard Sandomir and Ken Belson’s puff piece on hedge fund manager and potential Mets buyer David Einhorn appeared. Sandomir is usually a hard-nosed writer on the business of sports and sports broadcasting. Yesterday he adopted a breezier, less critical style.

The background, as you may know, is that Mets principal owner Fred Wilpon has become ensnared in the Bernie Madoff scandal. He is being sued for a billion dollars by Irving Picard, the trustee for the victims of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, and has been under pressure to sell some of his stake in the Mets to prepare for a settlement. (See Jeffrey Toobin’s recent New Yorker article for details.) Einhorn has stepped in and offered to buy one-third of the team for $200 million.

What’s my choice for sentence of the week? It’s hard. Here, have a look at this passage from yesterday’s Sandomir-Benson article and see what you think.

Einhorn’s father, Stephen, a banker who specializes in mergers, and his mother, Nancy, a bookkeeper, have been active in the arts and charities. Through the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, they donate to educational, religious, medical, youth service and antibigotry causes; the trust also provided money to produce “The Bully Project,” a documentary.

Stephen Einhorn, who spent six years on the board of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, paid to overhaul its Web site so customers could pick the seats they want. “They make sure their dollars are being used well,” said Annie Jansen Jurczyk, the theater’s development director.

She added, “It puts them in a different category of donor, and they do it without any fanfare.”

David Einhorn, whose grandfather had Parkinson’s disease, is on the board of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, and the Robin Hood Foundation, which fights poverty.

“He’s modestly and quietly trying to make a difference in the world, with the simple thread of trying to help people get along, whether it’s in Jerusalem or downtown New York,” said Mary Gordon, the president of Roots of Empathy, a charity that tries to imbue children with kindness and acceptance of others.

Einhorn, who was a co-founder of the hedge fund known as Greenlight Capital when he was 27 and who declined to speak for this article, quickly built a reputation as a thoughtful and astute investor.

Tom Zucosky, the chief executive of Discovery Capital Management, remembers interviewing Einhorn in the late 1990s when his company invested in Greenlight. Einhorn’s presentations, he said, were lucid and inventive and the hallmarks of a rising star.

Zucosky said that Einhorn could read deeply into balance sheets to understand what makes companies — and teams — tick. “If you’re a hedge fund manager, you understand how to manage risk,” Zucosky said, and added: “He’s not stupid. He’s not going to flush his money down the toilet.”

My favorites are the quotes rather than the Sandomir-Benson writing itself. But they chose the quotes, so I want them to share in the credit. There are some gems. I think I have to go with this: “He’s modestly and quietly trying to make a difference in the world, with the simple thread of trying to help people get along, whether it’s in Jerusalem or downtown New York.” What would the world do without New York hedge fund managers? They aren’t just smart. And wealthy. They are generous and modest beyond compare.

As for the smartness of hedge fund managers, that would appear to be a given. And here I thought mathematicians are the smartest people in the world. I suppose the fact that we make so little money is proof that we aren’t, whereas the fact that hedge fund managers make so much is proof that they are. (Then there’s the example of Jim Simons.) I love the observation that “If you’re a hedge fund manager, you understand how to manage risk. He’s not stupid. He’s not going to flush his money down the toilet.” I’m guessing there are a few exceptions to this assertion.

Categories: Journalism, Language

Pull = Latin America

May 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, is also a regular contributor to the Language Log blog. A recurring theme in his posts is his unraveling of the possible sequence of events leading to a particularly bizarre occurrence of Chinglish, especially as found in printed English translations of Chinese on signs.

Today’s example, the first in a Mair post in some time, is as good as they come. Look closely at the sign above and you’ll see the English words Latin America on the hotel shower door.

What in the world is going on here? One big Chinese character and all those Roman letters beneath it:


All right, let’s go through this methodically. La 拉 simply means “pull,” and that is what the sign is telling the person who is about to enter the shower. If you want to get into the shower, PULL the door. Simple enough.

So how did the injunction to “Latin America” come into the picture? Some oaf who was charged with making the sign managed to find lā 拉 in their dictionary and must have been overwhelmed by the plethora of English glosses: pull, drag, draw, haul, help out, implicate, play (a stringed instrument), chat, a verbal suffix, and so forth. Bewildered, they would have spotted near the end of the entry for lā 拉 that it is also an abbreviation for Lāměi 拉美, which is in turn a short form of Lādīng měizhōu 拉丁美洲, which means “Latin America”.

Why didn’t the oaf choose the first and simplest definition, “pull”? I suppose that they thought that the English (Roman letter) part of the sign is for foreigners, so it might be smart (!!) to use the only obviously foreign definition in the dictionary: Latin America. That’s the best defense I can give on behalf of the individual who made this sign. Actually, it’s not really a defense, merely one possible explanation for this mind-boggling choice. I suppose it’s also possible that they didn’t understand any of the English glosses, and simply felt that the longest one must be the most informative.

Be sure to look at past Mair posts on Chinglish. They are always fascinating. For instance, here’s another one.

Categories: Language, Translation