June 23, 2011

Euphemistic parallelism . . .

…to coin a term. It denotes how parallelism can be used in structuring phrases to make one very bitter phrase seem as sweet as another phrase, which the bitter phrase parallels.

It's the parallelism inherent in the general names for the two major kinds of retirement plans offered to employees by American employers. The two kinds of plans are 1) the "defined benefit plan," which you can think of as the traditional pension which pays to the retiree a set amount each month from retirement until death; and 2) the "defined contribution plan," typically a 401(k) plan, where employee and employer pay a set amount each month into an investment or savings plan--and how much the retiree receives depends on the value of that account at the time of retirement and after.

"Defined benefit plans" have become much less common, because a retiree is entitled to the money regardless of the pension plan's or employer's ability to keep paying. Think of how defined benefits plans are bankrupting the government of California. But they usually provide constant, reliable income and are therefore good for the retiree. On the other hand, the value to a retiree of the "defined contribution plan" is based on the value of the assets the plan purchased with the contributed funds. So, if the contributions into a defined contribution plan were used to buy Enron stock, or any American stock at all leading up to the 2007 crash, the retiree could get MUCH less than he had been counting on.

The parallel structures of the phrases "defined benefit plan" and "defined contribution plan" make them sound like two sides of the same coin, and like two more-or-less-equal alternatives. But to a retiree, the defined contribution plan is a lot more risky, and all he can be certain of is the amount of today's income he is paying in before he retires. The recent stock market catastrophe has painfully shown that the amount of money paid out after retirement is not certain at all. So that kind of plan needs to be described euphemistically. Hence, the use of euphemistic parallelism.

Can you think of other examples of euphemistic parallelism?

June 22, 2011

Newfoundland English

Americans recognize that Canadians pronounce their vowels differently, a phenomenon called "Canadian raising." There's more to Canadian English.  In Newfoundland, the easternmost place in the U.S. and Canada, a strange, sing-song and sonorous version of English can be found.  The CBC news magazine-radio show "As It Happens" recently interviewed a "Newfie," who apparently lives in Labrador on the mainland, just north of the island of Newfoundland.  (The province is called Newfoundland and Labrador.)  You can listen to him at their website, starting at the 1:00 mark.

Here's a gem from the online Dictionary of Newfoundland English (2d ed. 1990):
unknown … Of a person, odd, strange, slightly deranged.
… There was a woman down to Gaultois who was a little unknown; she would steep tea but instead of drinking [it] she would throw away the tea and eat the tea leaves.1

I have observed that Americans pronounce "Newfoundland" something like /NOOF-in-lind/.   I was amazed to discover that Canadian broadcasters say /noof-ind-LAND/. 

Labrador and Newfoundland are linguistically interesting for at least one more reason.  As the North America area (notwithstanding Greenland) nearest to Europe, they received European travelers first (an 11th-century Viking settlement may be visited at the eastern tip of Labrador.)  Mark Kishlansky, A Basque History of the World (2001), discusses how Basque fishermen arrived there early (maybe even before Columbus's voyages) and how some Basque vocabulary may have been adopted by local Indians.

1. The dictionary points out that this usage is known from south Lancaster in England, too, citing Joseph Wright, English Dialect Dictionary (1898-1905, repr. 1965).

June 10, 2011


… is a neologism based on "whitewashing," to superficially cover over a problem to approve appearances--without solving the problem.  "Whitewashing" is a metaphor based on coating a house or a fence, as in the beginning of the novel Tom Sawyer, with whitewash (which is not paint, but a mixture including water and lime or chalk).

Greenwashing (apparently coined in the 1980s)1 is a company's attempt to cover for poor environmental practices with minor changes to its business or with a marketing campaign.   My favorite example is the BP logo:

A green sun for a company that primarily deals in oil, and has spewed many millions of barrels of it into the Gulf of Mexico.  BP says that the logo "symbolises a number of things--from the living, organic form of a sunflower to the greatest source of energy...the sun itself."  But it's clearly an attempt to capitalize on customers' interest in environmentally-friendliness, just by changing a picture.

My favorite example of a company that appears NOT TO engage in greenwashing is the Sherwin Williams paint concern:

1. My cursory search for the earliest use of "greenwashing" led to a Time article from 1985, where it means "money laundering."

June 9, 2011

Historic vs. historical

After the major blackout across the northeastern United States in 2003, which shut down New York City and areas from Ontario and Ohio to New Jersey, I remember the Chinese factories rushed to produce t-shirts that read, "I SURVIVED HISTORICAL NEW YORK BLACKOUT."  I wanted to get one of these, not because I lived through the blackout--I was 90 miles away in Philadelphia, just south of the blackout area--but because of its crazy corruption of English. 

The shirt really meant to say "the historic New York blackout."  "Historical" generally describes anything having the quality of history--the historical borders of the German Empire; historical population statistics.  Things that are historical have come and gone.  "Historic," however, refers to a special, even epoch-making quality: the historic election of Ronald Reagan or of Barack Obama.  See, for instance, the entry in Eric Partridge, Usage and Abusage (rev. ed. 1994). 

I'd call a classic car an "historic car," but not an "historical one."  You care about the car (if you care) because it's old and special.  New York State makes the error on its license plates.

June 1, 2011

Not so humerus

Margaret suggested to me that the point of one's elbow is called the "funny bone" because it's near the end of the upper-arm bone, the humerus. "Humorous" … "funny bone" …

The pun is thought-provoking as an etymology. I happen to think it's a coincidence: First, most people don't know the Latin name humerus, leaving few who would be eager to propagate the pun. Second, there is a regional American term "crazy bone," meaning "funny bone"; "crazy bone" obviously developed without being based on a pun; if "crazy" could be used without needing a pun, why couldn't "funny?"

If I'm right and Margaret is not, her etymology might be what's called a false etymology. If you think false etymologies are interesting, also look at the Wikipedia article on the distinct phenomenon of folk etymology.

By the way, the scientific term for the funny bone is apparently "olecranon."