Birth by psychoprophylaxis

When I was 4 years and 5 months old, my younger sister (then 1 year and 11 months) and I stayed for three weeks with our grandparents while our mother was in hospital and recovering. They were inveterate letter-writers and our mother kept (?many ?most ?all) of their letters from all times, and all of the letters from that time. Some years ago she photocopied the ones from that time and gave them to me in a plastic folder. I knew I had it, but found it while tidying up recently and have been reading them. There are comments relevant to first language acquisityion and use, but my first extract is about something not related to me.

In one of his letters, my grandfather suddenly broke off talking about my mother’s health and my sister’s and my doings to talk about a birth notice my grandmother had seen in the Melbourne newspaper. After the obvious details of names, place and date was ‘Birth by psychoprophylaxis’. He commented ‘It is the first time we have seen the final word in a notice’.

Continue reading

fraud detection checks

I got a routine email from a state government department. The email program helpfully told me ‘This sender failed our fraud detection checks and may not be who they appear to be’.

Either the state government department or the email program needs to lift their game.


Today’s headline ambiguity is brought to you by the letter S. S has three major roles in English – marking plural nouns (the intended reading of this headline), 3rd person present simple verbs (the unintended reading of this headline) and (with an apostrophe) possession.

The intended reading is a noun phrase with a noun phrase modifier and a plural noun. The unintended reading is a clause with a noun phrase and a verb. The unintended reading gains strength by being standard English, while the intended reading is acceptable headlinese but not standard English. In standard English, we would have to talk about ‘Cardinal Pell’s charges’ (that is, the charges against him, not belonging to him).

Either way, the ambiguity continues because charge has multiple meanings both as a noun and a verb.

(Note: I am not commenting on the justice or injustice of the charges, or on His Eminence’s innocence or guilt. I am commenting on the linguistic ambiguity of the headline.)

prepositional phrases: order and attachment

Prepositional phrases often provide information about where or when, or about conceptual relationships. Two problems often arise: the order when multiple prepositional phrases are used together, and deciding which other element(s) in the sentence this/these prepositional phrase(s) modify/ies.

Regarding the first, a student wrote:

‘I with my friends went to a steak restaurant at my birthday in [country]’.

Continue reading


This afternoon in the office, a colleague offered me a Preserved Wife Plum. Gastronomically, they are small, dry, hard and flavoured, with the pit still inside. Linguistically, they are anyone’s guess. The three Chinese speakers sharing my office couldn’t tell me what the name meant. I don’t know whether it is meant to be [preserved (wife plum)] (whatever a wife plum is) or [(preserved wife) plum] (whatever a preserved wife is – it’s probably better not to ask). I thought that perhaps it was a misprint for ‘wine’, but if it was, surely one of the Chinese speakers could have figured that out from the Chinese characters.

The internet shows that the product exists, but doesn’t explain the name. The blogger gentlemanfarmer tells of his encounter with them, describing them as ‘Dried and salty and sweet and a little plummy’. He writes: ‘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.”’ The red rectangle on the packet I saw is all in Chinese. In a reply to a comment, he also speculates that it is a typo for ‘wine’.

The other most informative result is from the blogger Peverelli on the blog chinafoodingredients. S/he writesHuamei, dried and preserved plums, has been a favourite snack of Chinese, in particular ladies, for ages’. Possibly, then, they are ‘preserved plums for wives’. ‘The traditional huamei were basically dried and salted plums, scented with licorice and sometimes other ingredients like: lemon juice, aniseed, cloves or cinnamon.’


[update 13 July: the esteemed Victor Mair of the University of Pennsylvania posted about Preserved Vegetable-Students on Language Log. I took the opportunity to ask about Preserved Wife Plums and he replied with a very detailed post.]

Ummm …

On two different occasions since I got back from Korea I have met two different elderly women whose respective husbands were ailing when I went away. How do I inquire about their life and health?

Is [Fred] (still) alive?
Is [Fred] dead?
Has [Fred] died?
Did [Fred] die?
How is [Fred] (these days)?

I said something like ‘I haven’t heard anything/any news about Fred recently’ (awkward pause), and  each woman told me that her husband had died, one while I was in Korea and one since I got back. I knew each couple through a different organisation, and it’s possible that the deaths were announced on those organisations’ social media. If so, I missed them. The older I get, the more often this is likely to happen.

It must also be awkward for a widow or widower, too. Do they say ‘Oh, did you know that [Fred] died?’? If so, for how long?

I’m honoured to have known those two men, and to know those two women. Joe and John – Rest eternal rest grant them, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine on them.