Sciencing

I previously mentioned the Youtube channel It’s okay to be smart by Joe Hanson, which presents bite-sized chunks of general science, specifically his catch-phrase “Stay curious”. Another catch-phrase is “[Name/pronoun] did a science”.

In the movie The Martian (but not the novel, which I recently bought, partly to research this), astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is stranded on Mars after his crewmates think that was killed during an emergency evacuation. He survives (obviously), then records a video outlining what he must do to survive, partly to clarify his own thoughts and partly for any future mission which might find him (dead). He concludes: “In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m faced with only one option: I’m going to have to science the shit out of this”.

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An awful lot of words

(Or a lot of awful words.)

While I was writing a recent post, I started thinking about the following words (and there are more similar):

awe (n) – awe (v) – awesome / awful (adj)
dread – dread (v) – ?dreadsome / dreadful (adj)
fear (n) – fear (v) – fearsome / fearful / afraid (adj)
fright (n) – fright / frighten (v) – ?frightsome / frightful / frightening / frightened (adj)
terror (n) – terrify (v) – terrible / terrifying / terrified / terrific (adj)

The questions which arise are ‘Who does what to whom?’/‘Who feels that way?’ and ‘Is this a good thing or a bad thing?’. Awesome is good, but awful is now almost always bad. Originally, we were full of awe, but there are references to God being awful. The most common uses of awful now are in the noun phrases an awful lot and an awful thing. An awful lot and an awful thing aren’t full of awe, and probably we aren’t, either. 

This is even more so when these words are used as adverbs:

It was awesome/awful of you to do that v It was awesomely/awfully kind of you to do that.
It was dreadful of you to do that v It was dreadfully kind of you to do that. 
It was fearful of you to do that v It was fearfully kind of you to do that. 
It was frightful/frightening of you to do that v It was frightfully/frighteningly kind of you to do that. 
It was terrible/terrifying/terrific of you to do that v It was terribly/terrifyingly/terrifically kind of you to do that. 

This process is called semantic bleaching, or “the reduction of a word’s intensity”, which is really very common, as Merriam-Webster explains.

(By the way, dreadsome and frightsome are in dictionaries, but are obviously very rare. If I was writing a historical fantasy novel, I would have a character nick-named Dreadsome.)

(I seem to remember a cartoon in which a primary school teacher says to a student something like “There are two words I will not tolerate in this classroom. One is cool and the other is groovy.” The student replies “Cool! What are they?” I can’t find that, but there is definitely one of a father saying to two children “There are some words I will not tolerate in this house – and ‘awesome’ is one of them”. There’s nothing wrong with awesome – it’s just overused.) [Edit: it may have been swell and lousy – see the comments below.]

Signs of ambiguity

Youtube more-or-less randomly showed me two ads with similar taglines: 

We’re built for growing businesses.

and:

Your business matters.

Ambiguity in English arises for a number of reasons. One is that a gerund-particle (like growing) can be used in a noun-type way (We’re built for the purpose of growing businesses), or an adjective-type way (We’re built for businesses which happen to be growing). In this case, the ambiguity is small, and probably deliberate. 

Compare Moving pianos can be dangerous (which can have both interpretations), Tuning pianos can be dangerous (which can only have the noun-type meaning) and Falling pianos can be dangerous (which can only have the adjective-type meaning). Note that the ambiguity can be resolved by using a different verb tense: Moving pianos is dangerous (gerund) v Moving pianos are dangerous (participle).

Another reason for ambiguity is that many words ending with –s (like matters) can be a plural noun or a 3rd person present simple verb. In this case, the full stop probably forces the verb interpretation. Even without the full stop, most people would find the verb interpretation, which creates a complete sentence, in preference to the noun interpretation, which creates a noun phrase: compare Your business matters are important to us

Last weekend we went for a drive in the Blue Mountains. I saw a sign saying Falling rocks, and thought that it probably doesn’t, especially from the height of the cliffs there. Another sign said Slow buses, in which slow might be an adjective or an imperative verb. In this case, most people would find the incomplete adj + noun interpretation. In the imperative verb + noun interpretation, there are further options if you are the bus driver, a super-hero or a pedestrian. 

Today we drove in another direction. We visited a business which proclaimed Growing since 1919. Especially apt for an orchard/nursery/garden supplies business. One of the banners in the outdoor furnishing section stated Dark matters, which I couldn’t quite figure either way.  

I slept (or sleeped) and dreamt (or dreamed)

Some time ago I posted about the alternation between leaned and leant, dream and dreamt etc. I said that I had more-or-less decided to use leaned and dreamed, mostly because they are clearer for second-language listeners to understand, but then I quite naturally used leant when talking to one second-language listener. 

My work team has been working from home (mostly full-time but at least part-time) for almost two years. Alongside work-related emails, we send social/personal ones. One of my colleagues is studying psychology and is particularly interested in dreams. I can’t remember enough of most of my dreams, but occasionally one will persist after I wake up. A few days ago I sent an email with a brief description of my dream, starting “I dreamed …”. Another colleague picked me up this, so I explained the alternation and my decision, with a link to my blog post. She commented that the song from Les Misérables really couldn’t be I dreamt a dream. (With a side thought about the alternation between I dreamed/dreamt a dream and I dreamed/dreamt, and also I had a dream.) 

Along the way, because of its connection with dream, I also thought about sleep, which has the strong irregular form slept. But sleep now means something like to place a computer into a power saving mode. We can sleep a computer, and sleeping a computer is also common, but do we say I slept my computer or I sleeped a computer? At the moment, the usage isn’t common enough to be sure. There are a handful of results for I slept my computer and one for I sleeped my computer. Most people avoid the problem by putting their computer into sleep mode. Compare Stephen Pinker’s example of The batter flied out to centre (<my Australian-set auto-correct changed center to centre), not The batter flew out to centre. Because of my almost zero experience of baseball, I don’t have to worry about that, though.

Despite what I wrote in the title to this post, I definitely slept, but I may have dreamt or dreamed.

Strongness

The hymn Just as I am, without one plea (Charlotte Elliott) (or at least some versions of it) contains the verse

Just as I am – of that free love
The breadth, length, depth, and height to prove,
Here for a season, then above,
O Lamb of God, I come!

Breadth, length and depth, as well as width, are a small group of words in which the noun is formed from the adjective by changing the vowel and adding -th, which was obviously a standard procedure at one stage in the history of English. Height doesn’t quite fit, but heighth is a “chiefly dialectal” alternative. To these we might also add strong > strength. Alongside the noun is another formed by adding –ness to the adjective, and we can also add a verb ending with –en:  

broad – breadth/broadness – broaden
long – length/longness – lengthen
deep – depth/deepness – deepen
high – height/highness – heighten 
wide – width/wideness – widen 
strong – strength/strongness – strengthen 

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intercess

Our church has been running Sunday and weekday services online for some time. Last week, one prayer leader introduced the prayers with a formula something like “For the world/particular people, we intercess”. I really shouldn’t be thinking about linguistics when I really should be praying, but obviously intercess piqued my interest. 

Without doubt, intercede is the ‘correct’ word here, but intercess is clear and makes perfect sense. It’s in Wiktionary, but not any other dictionary I searched. A general Google search takes me to intercede, intercession or intercessor, but using “intercess” in quotation marks finds a scattering of uses in the relevant sense. Also, Google Ngrams shows a flat line rather than ‘no results’, meaning some use, but close to zero compared with intercede. Pages for Mac changes intercess to internees and intercessing to interceding and red-underlines then when I change them back.  

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Too many choices

swim    have a swim    go for a swim    go swimming     go to swim

In recent post, I discussed V and have a N, specifically argue and have an argument. In a comment, I added go for a swim. Later, I also thought of go swimming and go to swim.

In general, the first four seem to be interchangeable, but the last may have a different nuance.

I swam    I had a swim    I went for a swim    I went swimming    I went to swim 

The first four entail that I did actually swim. The last doesn’t (automatically): I went (somewhere) with the intention of swimming. In fact, the third might also mean that I didn’t swim. I can think of a difference between We went-for-a-swim and We went (to the beach) for a swim(, but it was closed because of coronavirus restrictions). 

Consider also:

I swam at the Olympics    I had a swim at the Olympics    I went for a swim at the Olympics    I went swimming at the Olympics     I went to swim at the Olympics 

The first definitely means that I was a competitor. The fifth might mean that. The others probably mean that I was a casual swimmer. This difference probably has more to do with the requirements of swim at the Olympics, compare I sang at the Olympics. (True: I was in the massed choir for the opening ceremony.)

I haven’t been able to find go for a swim in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Have a swim is a light verb construction, and go swimming and go to swim are catenative verb constructions, but what is go for a swim? It has some similarities with both, and is obviously a unit of meaning by itself; compare I went for a pizza. The indexes don’t help. I looked under go, for and swim, and the grammatical index doesn’t really help unless you already know what a construction is called (and GCEL often calls things by different names than everyone else). Maybe I’ll let serendipity guide me to the correct entry.

“I’d like to argue”

In a comment to a recent post, my number one of recent times commenter Batchman mentioned Monty Python’s Argument Clinic sketch. I used this in class many times to show the inter-relationship between verbs and nouns, in this instance, first, argue and argument, and also between the verb argue and the (I’m not sure what the technical term for this is) have an argument

Many English nouns and verbs relate in one of four ways: either the noun is derived from the verb, the verb is derived from the noun, they are written the same but differ in pronunciation, or they are written and pronounced the same. In the sketch, we have at least one of the following words relating to speaking:

Noun derived from verb
argue > argument
contradict > contradiction
complain > complaint 

Same written form, different pronunciation
abuse /s/ ~ abuse /z/ 

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Abominable words

A colleague informed us that today is National Grammar Day. He also has a desk calendar of Shakespearean insults, which often turn out to be strangely appropriate to what’s going on in our team, department and company. The combination of Shakespeare and grammar reminded me of the following quotation, from Henry VI pt 2:

Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the Realme, in erecting a Grammar Schoole … thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear.

Jack Cade was the leader of a popular rebellion in 1450. Wikipedia says that this rebellion was “one of the first popular uprisings in England that used writing to voice their grievances” but Shakespeare follows Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587) and incorporates aspects of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, which “was highly anti-intellectual and anti-textual” and “ha[d] people killed because they could read”. The real-life James Fiennes, 1st Baron Saye and Sele, the Lord High Treasurer (= Shakespeare’s Lord Say) was executed for treason.

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begat

Lying awake in the middle of the night, I suddenly thought of the older, mostly biblical word beget. This was originally be + get, similar to be + come and be + have. It is irregular, originally beget, begat, begot and later beget, begot, begotten (cf get, got, gotten (for some people) and forget, forgot, forgotten). It is most famously used in the King James/Authorised version of the bible (1611), specifically in chapter 1 of the gospel according to Matthew, where “Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas [Judah] and his brethren” and so on.

This translates the Greek word ἐγέννησεν, egénnēsen, the third-person singular aorist active indicative of γεννᾰ́ω, gennáō, 1. to beget, give birth to 2. to bring forth, produce, generate. We can hardly say that Abraham gave birth to Isaac, but we could easily say that Sarah did, except that the word is almost always used in relation to men. At the other end of Matthew’s genealogy, it does not say that Mary begat Jesus, but rather that Jesus was born of Mary, using the passive voice of the same Greek verb. (Compare 1 Chron 3, where “the sons of David, which were born unto him” are listed.)

Later versions use either begot or was the father of. The Good news bible/Today’s English version avoids the problem by using “the following ancestors are listed: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah and his brothers” and so on. Other possibilities are the very un-biblical father and sire (both of which started as nouns).

Google Ngrams shows that the heyday of beget in all its forms was the 1650s, after which there was a slow decline to modern times. Surprisingly, though, there has been a rise in usage (especially of begat) since the 1980s, which I can’t find or think of any reason for. 

While researching for this post, I found a book by David Crystal titled Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language. Note that much of the language of the KJV comes from Tyndale (1526-30) and Coverdale (1535), and even the KJV’s original phraseology is in conscious imitation of the earlier style (and English had changed a lot in that almost a century.