Linguistic diary

This was a page for tiny things I notice from day to day about language.  Kind of a public notepad.  It demonstrates how a linguist is constantly looking at (listening to) the world with a particular kind of keen attention.  Feel free to comment! However, I’ve now shifted these kinds of musings to social media 🙂

— David Douglas ROBERTSON, PhD


tibia fibia

Tibia & fibia: one of these is a mistake.  Rarely in writing (30,000 Google hits) but often in speaking (actress Elizabeth Banks on NPR’s “Fresh Air” today, among many examples I’ve witnessed), “fibula” mutates in the mouth.  Excellent reasons exist: American English speakers tend to say the names of this pair of already similar-sounding lower-leg bone names in just this order, which (let’s say) primes the mind for any change that makes them resemble one another even more.  And the sonic similarities are already strong, even when you say these words right.  You’ve got your initial-syllable stress, which is a rhyme on “ib”.  You’ve got your second syllable with what a linguist might call a front-high semivowel “y” sound.  And that leads to the identical final unstressed schwa vowel.  It’s cognitively peanuts to go ahead and turn the words into exact rhymes of each other.  While you’re Googling to check my claims, I hope you’ll take 5 seconds more to see that people also tilt things the other way around, writing and saying “tibula and fibula”.  (There’s also “tibula and fibia”, a surefire way to get under the skin of your most prickly word-police friend!)


they self-activated it

They self-activated it!


Heard on a radio talk show: “They self-activated it.”  A fine gem of linguistic change!  Time was, an English-speaker could only use “self-” reflexively, so that the verb acted like an intransitive.  No (other) direct object was permissible, since the doer and the object of the action were the same.

Today’s jewel shows “self” as let’s say an oblique argument, more or less the same as “by themselves”.  That leaves room in the clause for a direct object “it” to come in.  I’m kind of proud to have self-noticed this 😉

Bonus: this may be a sort of Googlewhack: I haven’t managed to find any examples of this particular structure online yet.  (The results are all occurrences of “…self-activated, it…” and “self-activated.  It…”



Tunisia is evidently an unfamiliar country to Americans.  Serious jazz fans will know Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia”, a name that’s customarily pronounced [tu’niʒə] in their circles.  But you won’t hear the place discussed much outside of that context.  So I can’t be stunned that an NPR newsreader today, kind of haltingly I thought, referred to [tu’niziə].  But that [z] is a pronunciation that I strongly associate with British English, as I’ve heard it many a time on the BBC.  What was most noteworthy to me was that my American newscaster went on to refer to something associated with the land of Tunis as [tu’niʒən], the American pronunciation of the adjective.  Maybe she’s Canadian; that could account for such a blend of dialect influences!



Fibulator: there aren’t a ton of Google hits for this, but that isn’t surprising for a common colloquial pronunciation of ‘defibrillator’.  Many English speakers run into this word more often in rare visits to the emergency room than in their reading.  What interests me most is that I hear it used here in Spokane without the prefix de-, giving an extra-folksy feel.

I find several times more hits for defibulator, although that variant is rare in writing too.  There is a reprehensible website named that looks tailored to fleece somebody ignorant out of their money.




You can also find the derived forms ‘fibulation’ and ‘defibulation’ online.  Most often it’s coming from regular people asking doctors questions.

What’s sort of disturbing for the overeducated about hearing such words is the existence of an actual root fibul-, used in an actual word ‘infibulation’.  It refers to the disturbing practice of so-called female circumcision.  Enough said.


ymca showers

From memory I can tell you the relevant part of a sign in the YMCA men’s showers.  Yes, linguistic data can be found everywhere.  “Stalls with benches must be given priority to” those with special physical needs.  This is such an interesting construction!  Torturous, to my ear, a little bit.

The difficulty lies in a competition between two things wanting to be the direct object of “given” — “stalls” and “priority” — and specifically in the “stalls” trying to be both a direct object (which is given to those in need) and an indirect object (the recipient of priority).  Ouch, my head hurts already…

The conflict could have been resolved, albeit comically, through syllepsis: “Stalls with benches, and priority, must (both) be given to” the people described.

How would you reword this sign?  On reflection, I was surprised how hard it is to edit such a sentence!

Lest you think this is a very rare occurrence, here’s a separate sighting of the same construction in the wild:

So, proper care and upkeep must be given priority to the garage floor coating…


2 bits 4 bits 6 bits a dollar

A mass-market book by a linguist!  Dan Jurafsky’s “The Language of Food: A Linguist Looks at the Menu” (New York: W.W. Norton).  The author serves up all kinds of cocktail party-ready tidbits about how we talk about food — both in real time and historically.  Fun as far as it goes, and substantial enough.  The thing that moved me to write a note on this blog page is really a two-bit mistake of Jurafsky’s (and of his editor’s).  On page 12 he digresses about “two-bit words”, to which he applies a potentially authoritative-sounding definition, “long multisyllabic words with 11 or 12 words or more”.  He remembers his dad as having used “two bits” as meaning “50 cents”, and repeats this valuation on page 14 with reference to prices of restaurant food.  Readers of this blog may have already seen me talk about “bit” in connection with Chinook Jargon, where it most often means a dime in practice.  But you need only have been to an American school sporting event to deduce a bit’s worth in English from the timeless cheer, “2 bits, 4 bits, 6 bits, a dollar / all for [insert athlete’s or team’s name], stand up and holler!” Do the math.  If there are 8 of these in a buck, a bit = 12.5 cents and two bits = 25 cents.  Public service announcement accomplished!


fourth gen farmer

“She’s a fourth-gen wheat farmer” (heard on the morning news, Spokane Public Radio, in a report by Anna King): This really struck my ear because I’m used to the referent of this spoken attributive abbreviation for ‘generation’ being a technology, not a person.  In a brief check around the web, I found this phrase used as a nominalized adjective: “John is not the only fourth-gen in the business. His brother Martin works on marketing, while their sister Loretta is president.” I also found additional uses as an attributive, like “He’s a first-gen farmer who met his fourth-gen farmer-bride online…”  It appears not to be a widespread construction as yet, in fact a rare one, but it’s interesting to watch its spread into new semantic fields.


labiodental nasal

The ever-popular “linguist’s introspection” (oh no!): I’ve been noticing the quirky articulation of my native English-language when it’s immediately following an alveolar sibilant or z sound.  Immediately following the stressed syllable, to be precise.  For example, in my daughter Esme’s name, and in the word ‘cosmic’.  The takes an alveolar (front-of-mouth) component in its articulation.  I don’t specialize in phonetics, and I suspect some of the phoneticians like John Esling or Tom Magnuson in my old department at UVic could shed some light on this.  To my now-attuned (obsessed?) ear, such a word sounds exactly intermediate between [kázmik] and [káznik].  I wonder how perceptible this intermediate sound is to hearers besides me.  Probably not very!  That’s the case, I suspect, with other coarticulated consonant segments like the ‘labiodental nasal’ ɱ.


place worth going

“There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.”  Not *”going to.”  Because preposition stranding?  (I’ve taught college-level grammar and usage. Hire a linguist!)  A marginally odd-sounding construction to my mind; how about yours?


thrift or treat

Two entertaining misapprehensions in a single day!  This for a linguist defines fun!  First I saw a Value Village promotion for Halloween that looked like “Thrift or Threat”.  (Really “Thrift or Treat”, of course. Which is less fun.)  Then a hefty individual portion at the grocery store’s bakery labeled, I thought “Carb slice”.  (Actually the near synonym “cake slice”.)  Ha! Interesting what the brain perceives at the first broad take.


perfecto para freír y ebullición

A product in a retail store is advertised on its bilingual package as “perfecto para freír y ebullición”.  My Spanish isn’t of the best, but doesn’t this come across like “perfect for frying [a verb] and a boil [the noun]”?  A phrase that goes somewhere unexpected, kind of like a crash blossom, involving clashing parts of speech.  See “Have a nice day and fried rice!”

I admit I’m not sure of the uber-specialized word that most precisely captures what’s going on in these cases.  It’s very similar to a zeugma/syllepsis, where one word/phrase is used in two strikingly different ways–example: “You are free to execute your laws and your citizens as you see fit.” (William Riker, Star Trek: The Next Generation).



Clumbersome: A union official in Tennessee, connected with the recent failed organizing vote at a VW plant, was heard on the radio this morning referring to one of his group’s options for action as “clumbersome”.  Because he had a definite Tennessee accent, I immediately wondered if this is a dialect word.  Googling doesn’t really show that.  Yet it’s a common enough blend of “clumsy/cumbersome” in websites on both sides of the Atlantic.  A word on the rise?  Maybe in the near future we’ll hear “clumbersome” routinely, as we have come in the last decade to hear almost exclusively “hone in on” instead of the previously correct “home in on”.


Eboli virus 1

“Ebola” [ìbólə]: American English speakers tend to say the name of this disease with a distinct secondary stress on the “E”.  Makes me hear it written this way (yes, I am as nerdily synesthetic as that): “E-bola”.  This opens the door to semantic contamination with another disease-causing organism that lots of regular folks know of and talk about: E coli.  Matter of fact, I sometimes hear people say “E-boli” [ìbólaj].  here’s a link to someone spelling it Eboli.  Boom, there it is!


forward slash

“Forward slash”: when you hear this from someone reading a website address, as in announcements on the radio, do you think “Thank gosh! They saved me the misery of accidentally typing a backslash!”? It amounts to a hypercorrection. Technically it’s true that you need to type the forward-leaning, not the backsliding, version of a slash mark (virgule) in most cases. But who the heck, other than those who work with company-internal computer systems, is even aware of the backslash’s existence?


still yet to come

Redundancy, or in other words saying the same thing twice, with identical function, in a speech unit: “The worst may still be yet to come” was heard from a reporter on NPR’s Morning Edition today.  Technically bad form.

But it’s interesting to realize that if you change the function of one member of this pair, say by negating it, everything’s copacetic.  (At least, it is in my idiolect, which is the scoundrel’s linguist’s last refuge.)  “She still hasn’t told me yet” works not only fine but dandy as well for me.


peanut butter scrounge

Googlewhacking: I bet you dollars to donuts that you’ve never heard the phrase, in high currency in my childhood neighborhood, “peanut butter scrounge”.  It’s an insult.  All the more delicious for its localism.  Rough synonym: “adjusto”. 🙂

Did you have any unique “neighborhood words” when you were younger?


n to l shift

It just occurred to me that the Spanish word “alma” meaning “spirit, soul” ought to have its etymology in the Latin “anima”. Wiktionary agrees. What’s interesting me at the moment is noticing that fleeting example of an n > l shift.  As a Pacific Northwest linguist, I’m more familiar with the Stó:lō (Upriver Halkomelem, Salish family) version of this, which is pretty much across the board and pretty recent, seeing as how contact-era recordings of that language are full of n‘s.  Across the PNW, in fact, it’s not at all rare to find nl variation, whether in the Aboriginal languages or in the Chinook Jargon.  Acoustically I’ve perceived something similar in sources as diverse as Mandarin Chinese-speaking learners of English and my currently 4-year-old daughter, from both of whom I’ve heard what sounds like “life” for <knife>.

I’ve heard rumors 🙂 among linguists that place of articulation tends to be unstable for nasals.  For example, Klallam (Salish family) saw its bilabial m‘s become velar ng‘s as in “ping-pong”.  And indeterminacy between velar and alveolar/dental place in word-final nasals seems to me common, e.g. in Mongolian (Altaic family) and Chamorro (Austronesian family).

So maybe n is so variable in its realization that it verges into lateral (l-like), non-nasal territory.  Compare the tendency, more or less unique to the PNW, for all the nasals in a language to become the corresponding oral stops–so that Lushootseed and Twana (Salish family), Chemakum (Chimakuan family) and Ditidaht (Wakashan family) all have /b d/ instead of /m n/.  There’s also the interesting lack of an l sound, but presence of n, in Nuu-chah-nulth (Wakashan family) and Tlingit (Na-Dene-Yeniseian family, if that’s the proper latest name)–and the lack of m but presence of w in Tlingit and in Tillamook (Salish family).


high hat

I learned a new phrase yesterday: “high hat” meaning, clearly in the context, a top hat.  Huh!  I’d only known the term to refer to part of a drum set, the pedal-controlled gadget that clanks two cymbals together.


have atrophie or are atrophying

“…have atrophied, or [are?] àtrophýing…”: Mark Mazzetti, NY Times national security correspondent, on NPR’s “Morning Edition”. The present-day English language is associated with a metalinguistic culture of consciously manipulating words, in ways unknown to other languages’ usage habits.

One of these techniques used by speakers is contrasting two or more inflected forms of a word by (A) reassigning the primary word stress to an affix in one form, usually not the first one uttered.  Most often it’s a word-final suffix that takes on the stress.  This is done even if that seems technically impossible, as with a vowelless affix like the plural “-s”.

Stress then (B) lands on the adjoining vowel. For example I’ve heard the contrast made between say one pizza and many “pizzás”.

So, what’s interesting to me about today’s example is its extension of this stress-the-syllable-before-the-suffix principle (B). The rule is being overapplied, since the suffix “-ing” already has a vowel and is therefore stressable.

I’m curious how long we’ve been doing the more general process (A), and with which affixes.  Arlo Guthrie’s 1960s epic song “Alice’s Restaurant” has something like it, with its “you get injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and selected” but that’s a red herring.  Realistically I’d guess we could discover real examples as far back as say 1925, maybe with prefixes like “de-” and “re-“, or suffixes like agent “-er” and patient “-ee”.  (The latter’s productive use is known to be of pretty recent vintage.)

Whatever the age of (A), I’d wager that (B) entered our repertoire really recently.  Probably relatively few folks use this generalized version of the rule yet.  Hmm!


illegal immigrants

Illegal immigrants: heard today on NPR’s On the Media — an objection by AP Style Manual folks to using the term “illegal immigrants”.  Their notion is that ‘illegal’ is an inappropriate adjective to modify the noun ‘immigrants’.   “Actions are illegal, not people.”  I found that my reaction was similar: not all nouns are created equal.  What you’ve particularly got here in ‘immigrants’ is a deverbal agentive nominalization from ‘to immigrate’.  (Translation: a verb has been turned into a noun form.)  Therefore this ‘illegal’ is instead the concomitant transformation of adverbial ‘illegal(ly)’ into the form of an adjective.  This begs the question of what noun phrase will be used instead of ‘illegal immigrants’…


pro life state since at least territorial days

North Dakota has been a pro-life state since at least territorial days.
— North Dakota state representative Bette Grande on NPR’s “On Point”

There are at least two problems with this claim!


A research project yet to be done by linguists: what makes a “citation form” across languages?  The start of an answer: it varies from language to language.  I don’t just mean the form that’s handiest for linguists to be able to predict all the possible forms of a word.  (See Wikipedia about “lemma“.)  I’m thinking of the form a native speaker of a language will say to you when you ask, “How do you say X?”  Maybe I should refer to it as “elicitation form”.   In Arabic it may be the 3rd-person masculine singular present tense.  In Kwak’wala it may be the 3rd-person form in -a.  In Latin it appears to have been the 1st-person singular present tense.  In creolized Chinook Jargon it seems to be the stem without aspectual morphology or person marking.  In present-day English it’s a bare stem, usually not an infinitive like “to do”.  What do all these have functionally in common as citation strategies?


I posted this to the ADS-L (American Dialect Society) listserv today:

The New York Times obituary of psychologist Dr. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema contains this sentence:

“Her studies, first in children and later in adults, exposed one of the most deceptively upsetting of these patterns: rumination, the natural instinct to dwell on the sources of problems rather than their possible solutions.”

This negative-toned sense of “ruminate” seems to be a term of art. It’s mentioned a few more times in the obituary, and I’ve heard from another person who had psychological training.

A conversation with someone younger (31) than me (47) about this obit unexpectedly showed that my collocutor was amazed that I was surprised “ruminate” would default to a negative sense. For me, the word has always had pretty neutral connotations. (Unlike its native English synonym, “chew one’s cud”, which can be used insultingly.)

I only have 10 English dictionaries, but none of them shows a negative sense for “ruminate”. The Corpus of Historical American English 1810-2009 (COHA) online shows many examples; they range from “ruminate with pleasure” to neutral “ruminating” while relaxing after dinner to “ruminating” upon disasters. This breadth of use suggests the fundamentally neutral sense of the word to me.

Is the negative-toned use a newer one? Is it attributable to Dr. Nolen-Hoeksema’s work?

Here’s Laurence Horn’s reply on that discussion list:

OED, s.v. "ruminate", 2c:

Psychiatry. To have obsessive thoughts. See rumination n. 1c.

1966   Psychiatric Q. 40 479   The patient began to ruminate psychotically.
1990   M. Shepherd Conceptual Issues in Psychol. Med. iii. 130   He admitted that he was unable to prevent himself from ruminating on past events though he realized that he was distressing himself.
2005   M. Mathews et al. Psychiatry iii. 63   The patient has been ruminating about suicide and guilt feelings.

rumination, 1c:

Psychiatry. Obsessive repetition of the same thoughts to a degree which interferes with normal psychological functioning. Also: an instance of this.

1922   Amer. Jrnl. Psychiatry Jan. 326   We also find the ‘mental rumination’ which I have described as existing in cases of psychasthenia.
1942   Jrnl. Nerv. & Mental Dis. 95 121   Keeping people busy and occupied was one of the best ways of preventing mental breakdown after facing tragedy,..thus avoiding a period of rumination which may precede a remote psychological reaction.
1968   Brit. Jrnl. Psychiatry 114 831/1   Those making up the second vector [of obsessional personalities] were indecisiveness and definite symptoms of neurosis, such as anxiety, phobias, obsessions, and ruminations.
2010   N.Y. Times Mag. 28 Feb. 40/2   Psychiatry has come to see rumination as a dangerous mental habit, because it leads people to fixate on their flaws and problems, thus extending their negative moods.

So yes, it appears to be a term of art, and quite a bit older than my late colleague SN-H.



“Nuts and bolts”–we always say it in that order, but don’t we need the bolts first?!


“Blood and treasure” — more diplo-wonk slang that’s crept into the media.  Also heard is “life and treasure”!


“Illegal” is often pronounced as “e-legal”.  It’s joined an e-lite corps of American English words that we’re so e-mersed in that we don’t e-mediately notice how we’ve changed the way they’re e-nunciated..


On the ground has been becoming such a cliché for several years now.  It’s got an affected Olympian wisdom about it, like its frequent partner, “at the end of the day”.  I’ve always taken it as diplomat-speak in its origin (“facts on the ground”).  Maybe I first heard it from my kin who was in the State Department?  That association may be why it seems to me that “on the ground” is always in a foreign country–and usually in the Third World.  A radio news story this morning about elephant poaching in Africa used this phrase.


Overheard from an older middle-aged fella at the gym, who was talking about showing his grandson how to use a snowblower: “It isn’t brain science.”  On the episode of NPR’s “A Way with Words” I listened to yesterday, they happened to mention mixed metaphors including the logical counterpart of this one, “rocket surgery”.  🙂


The only word in my French dictionary–which usefully spells out the phonetic pronunciations of things–that apparently really has no vowel: <chut> ‘hush!’.  It’s said [ʃ:t].  Kudos to Cassell’s for including interjections.  They jazz up your picture of a language!


A pronunciation of <gnocchi> as “NO-chee”.  Granted, it’s an infrequently used word and this way of saying it makes tremendous sense given the spelling.


Second-person plural “youse” in First Nations English?  Do you hear it too?  I need to re-watch this video, paying attention to 0:54.


Does anybody else from northwest Montana and/or of Welsh ancestry say “partridge” for “quail”?

The Christmas song  “Sleighride”, at least in a version I heard on the radio, rhymes <jingling> [JING-ga-ling] with <ring-ting-ting-a-ling>. Slant rhymes: how rock ‘n’ roll!

“Honor farm”…is this old slang for a sort of gilded cage?!  It seems to be used of a few existing minimum-security prisons.

How do you spell the present participle form of “to improv” (to improvise)? <Improving>? Do you see any potential problem with that?  I detect yet another hole in English spelling.