July 30, 2011

Natty and tatty

For the poetically inclined, here's a rhyming doublet I have been thinking about.  The contrast between "natty" and "tatty" is interesting.  According to Webster's Third New International Dictionary and others, "natty" means "trimly neat and tidy, smart," well-put-together, and typically refers to clothing or some room.  I don't really have any cites to hand, but the word seems British to me, and in British writing "nattily dressed" is almost a cliche.  It's not the direct opposite of "tatty," which I saw in the last New York Times Book Review.  Tatty can mean poorly maintained, but more often refers to the cheapness of the material of which the tatty item is constructed.   "'Even the jabiru storks,' he notes, 'seemed to belong to a long-lost age. They’d all stand around in their tatty coachman’s livery, stabbing at the frogs and then tossing them back like shots of gin'" (John Gimlette, Wild Coast, quoted in Liesl Schillinger, "Travels North of the Amazon," New York Times Book Review p. 17, July 24, 2011).

July 27, 2011

Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Day

The OED sends a word to subscribers each day for free.  It's useful and fun--without even asking, I found out that "jarhead" meant a mule, and then any member of the U.S. Army, before it came to mean a member of the U.S. Marine Corps. Subscribe here to Word of the Day.

Some recent favorites:

Dogpatch, n. … Etymology: Dogpatch, the name of an impoverished rural community in the comic strip Li'l Abner by ‘Al Capp’ (Alfred Gerald Caplin, 1909–79) … U.S. … (The type of) an unsophisticated, impoverished rural community.

1976 N.Y. Times 11 Feb. 1/5 Many Northerners used to think of the states below the 37th parallel as a vast Dogpatch fit only for the nation's amusement and contempt.

ipsative, adj. … Etymology: classical Latin ipse ipse pron. + -ative suffix, after normative adj. … Psychol. … Designating or involving a measurement or scale calculated relative to a person's own performance or responses, rather than those of others.

Mother's Day, n.

2. U.S. slang (chiefly in African-American usage). The day on which a person (usually a woman) receives money, esp. unearned money such as a welfare payment.

1979 Los Angeles Times 18 Nov. II. 1 Mother's day..is when Social Security, veterans' pension and disability and welfare checks are delivered. 1991 Economist (Nexis) 30 Mar. 17 On Chicago's south side the day the monthly cheque arrives is nicknamed ‘mother's day’, because that is the day when absent sons and husbands turn up.

July 26, 2011

Tom Coburn's plurals problem

Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn was unflatteringly quoted in this Sunday's New York Times. He seems deeply affected by the lack of a gender-neutral third-person pronoun in English. "There isn't a senator or a member of the House that at some time doesn't get a little too full of themselves."

"A senator or a member" should guarantee "full of himself," "full of herself" or "full of him- or herself" in that last clause. However, English doesn't afford an epicene plural pronoun that would succinctly convey both sexes, and so speakers and writers use "they" or "their" even when one person is meant; Coburn knows "themself" is not a word; so he gets stuck using "themselves."

Coburn's problem gets worse.  "'The No. 1 thing people should do in Congress is stay true to their heart,' Mr. Coburn said." That should be "hearts"; but the senator is so accustomed to using "their" as a singular pronoun that he forgets the subject of his sentence was plural.

The article referred to is Jennifer Steinhauer, "A Rock-Solid Conservative Who's Willing to Bend," New York Times, July 24, 2011, p. 15.

July 20, 2011

Foreign words for foreign places

It's interesting that languages often have their own names for foreign places. They can be well-known substitutes for the native original--English "Germany" and French "Allemagne" mean "Deutschland." They can be obscure--English "Leghorn" for Italian "Livorno." The pairs can be quite similar--"Belgium" for "Belgique"; French "Londre" and Spanish "Londres" for "London"; or far off from each other--the old "Pressburg" in English and German for the local "Bratislava." I'd like to compile a list of these; any suggestions?

My favorite came to my attention during the 2006 World Cup--the Ivory Coast, officially Côte d'Ivoire, was called on German television Elfenbeinküste. The players were referred to in sports advertising as "Elefanten," the elephants. This is a knowing pun. "Elfenbein" for ivory is shortened from "Elefantbein," elephant bone, according to the classic dictionary written by the brothers Grimm.

If Germans might call the people "Elefanten," Americans are supposed to say "Ivoirian"; how you pronounce that is anyone's guess!