Wednesday, October 24, 2007

And the worms ate into his brain

In his new book, Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks seems to have created a new word for those sticky songs that you can't get out of your head. In German, these things are called ohrwurms, their word for earwigs. This has come into English as earworm. Now Sacks has decided that he prefers brainworm. You can watch a video of him talking about it on the book's page on

John Terauds, writing in the Toronto Star on the weekend, used Sacks's new word, but now says via e-mail that it was a brain fart.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Smaller than small

The ETJ list is often a source of interesting questions. Recently, Peter Warner observed:

"Listening to a British presenter, I realized that his sense of little and small were different. His general order of descending relative size went roughly in this sequence:

huge, big, small, little, tiny

while my American background views little and small as basically synonymous. Speaking with him after his wonderful talk confirmed his different sense of those two words."

Peter then asks, "is this a British vs. North American English usage difference?"

If you check the British ESL dictionaries, they typically define little as meaning small and the other way round. Similarly, the Concise Oxford defines little as "small in amount, size, or degree..." There is no mention of one being less big than the other.

There are, however, other differences. Least interesting among these is that small is only an adjective (the small of your back excepted), while little exists in two flavours: adjective & determiner. More interesting is that they are both marked, but little seems to be more marked. That is, when I want to know the size of something, it's typical that I would ask you how big something is, not how small it is. In this sense, big is unmarked. Yet, it is even less common to ask how little something is, about 10 times less common in the frame "how ~ is it?'.

Because of the problems parsers have distinguishing between adjectives and determiners, it's hard to get a good corpus view of all aspects of the difference, but here's a neat one: Search for (adj) + little in the spoken section of the BNC and you get the following (the first number is raw hits, the second number is hits per million words):

1 NICE LITTLE 161 15.58
2 TINY LITTLE 36 3.48
4 POOR LITTLE 33 3.19
5 OTHER LITTLE 14 1.35
7 SILLY LITTLE 13 1.26

Try it again in the academic section and what do you get? Nothing. There are no such pairs.

Now do the same with small, this time with academic section first:

2 OTHER SMALL 20 1.30
5 UPPER SMALL 6 0.39

And in conversation? Zip.

So it would seems that small is more academic, at least in this kind of pairing.

Now, this is stretching things quite a bit, but if we consider the general prejudice that conversation is trivial while academic language is weighty, long, and substantial, there may be an argument, if only a metaphorical one, for little being smaller than small. I think I'll put it to Lynneguist over at Separated by a Common Language.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Problematising Problematic

About a month ago, Russel Smith, writing in the Globe & Mail, discussed a tendency for the meaning of technical terms, such as price point and deconstruct, to drift as the words become mainstream.

"It's inevitable that technical words and phrases will be imported into everyday language from specialized jargons. It's also inevitable that those terms will then change their meanings slightly. They usually lose some of their specificity, a bit of their subtlety, and become synonymous with some other everyday term."

I think he overstates the case here, but still, there is a case to be made. And notice how the paragraph above is simply descriptive, rather than evaluative. Perhaps his time at And Sometimes Y has relieved Smith of some of his more prescriptive tendencies, though, making it clear that he hasn't entirely shuffled off the curmudgeon's burden, he writes, "My favourite example of a corrupted technical term has to be 'deconstruct'." He explains the Derrida's use of the word like this:

"The aim of the reading was to show how the text's meaning is elusive, how it contradicts itself. It's part of a larger view of language as something essentially problematic. In other words, it hardly means an elucidation, as we use it so casually to mean now, but almost the opposite"

Still, Smith remains admirably neutral throughout. And the changes that he describes actually seem to be supported by evidence.

Ironic, then, that he is taken to task in a letter that appeared a few days later:

Posted on 08/09/07

Problematic problem

Kimberley, Ont. -- It is striking that in discussing the demotic use of jargon (Technical Terms And Mainstream Meanings - Review, Sept. 6), Russell Smith employs "problematic" in just such a manner. Having originated in the field of logic, the word means doubtful or questionable and has only recently come to be used in describing something that poses a problem. That Mr. Smith is, surprisingly for him, unaware of this history may be a problem, but it is definitely not problematic.

Here, Ferguson indulges in a number of fallacies (but they're so fine, you see):

  1. language must not change, so the older meaning is the only true meaning

  2. language always moves from the erudite to the debauched, so the technical meaning must be older

  3. whatever I think a word means is what it means

If we consult the OED, we find that it lists more than one meaning for problematic. Yes, polysemy is alive and well. We also find that the term of art from logic dates from 1610, but the more general sense is attested from 1609. From this, it would be hard to argue that one preceded the other in English. Finally, the OED disagrees with Ferguson's definition, giving the following instead:

2. Logic. Of a proposition: that asserts that a state of affairs is possible rather than actual or necessary.