Non Sequitur on Usage

English usage continues to be a very popular theme in newspaper comics. In the old days, it was all about banana-peel slips; now it’s linguistic slips.




This is a very good analysis by Columbia linguist John McWhorter of Trump’s unusual ways of speaking in public.

What Trump’s Speech Says About His Mental Fitness


A Mixed Bag of Bombs

In his State of the Union address last week the president said he wants to build more and better bombs in response to Kim Jung Un continually threatening to drop bombs on us
Sane  people know both sides are engaging in crazy talk. Specifically, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has announced its “Doomsday Clock” now reads at two minutes to midnight.
But belligerent bullies in high office are not the only threat we’ve faced lately. It turns out that the erroneous January 13th Hawaiian missile attack alert was not caused by an employee mistakenly pressing the wrong button, as was initially reported. Instead, he received an alert message which contained the scary wording “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
He was supposed to notice that this was preceded by the word “exercise” repeated three times, but understandably he overlooked that when he read “this is not a drill”—a phrase that had never been included in earlier practice exercises. He pushed the button he thought he was supposed to.
And what about that long delay before the Hawaiian governor retweeted the reassuring message that there was no missile threat? Turns out he was having a hard time figuring out his Twitter password—you know, that thing that’s supposed to provide security?
So we’re faced with two kinds of nuclear war threats: crazy and stupid.
As I’ve noted before, the prospect of nuclear war is almost unbearably difficult to think about, and Americans have engaged in all kinds of maneuvers to avoid seriously confronting it. Sometimes it can only be entertained in satire, as in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 anti-bomb satire Doctor Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Unfortunately the film did not stimulate any widespread agitation against the nuclear threat, partly I think because it made nuclear catastrophe seem inevitable.
We’re dealing with language here, so I thought I’d focus for a bit on the word “bomb” itself. Note that the film title uses the phrase “The Bomb” to mean specifically not only nuclear weapons, but the explosion of nuclear weapons—a usage common in the previous decade.
Famously, Tom Lehrer had used the phrase earlier in his classic satirical song “We Will All Go Together When We Go.”
All that said, “bomb” has a host of other meanings. I started musing on this subject when I heard a commentary on Trump’s attempt to impose high tariffs on Canada’s Bombardier aircraft, in defense of Boeing Corporation. I used to fly on Bombardiers fairly often, and always wondered why a civilian aircraft would be named after the air combat officer responsible for actually dropping bombs.
Turns out “Bombardier” was the name of the founder of the aircraft company, a Francophone Quebecois whose most famous invention was the snowmobile—in which you could go bombing along a slippery winter trail. The family name is in fact derived from an old French expression for a good (bon) guy.
So, friendly—not hostile.
Then my mind wandered to the old-fashioned slang expression “blonde bombshell,” used to label a sexy woman, and realized that a movie starring a bombshell could itself be a “bomb” (flop).
Of course 90s slang gave “bomb” a positive sense, usually rendered as “da bomb” as in the enthusiastic expression “you da bomb!”
A bombshell can also be a surprise. Time bombs can threaten nasty future surprises. The phrase “ticking bomb” has the same meaning.
Reckless politicians are often called “bomb throwers.” In their threatening speeches they may indulge in “bombast,” but it turns out this is a word for a kind of cotton-wool stuffing, and signifies a sort of rhetorical padding: “inflated or turgid language; high-sounding language on a trivial or commonplace subject; ‘fustian’; ‘tall talk’” [Oxford English Dictionary].
I thought of a couple of culinary uses with savory connotations: the French globular dessert called a bombe and the “Lancashire Bomb” made by Shorrocks Cheese which comes as a ball of cheese coated in black wax with a protruding “fuse.” It seems designed to resemble the cartoon bombs traditionally associated with crazed terrorists.
Certain illicit drugs have been called “bombs.” Oddly enough, the Cassell Dictionary of Slang notes that “bomb” has been also used to mean both “a dilapidated, run-down old car” and its opposite: “a fast car.”
But these are mere distractions. Meanwhile, we’re stuck with a president who seems enamored of both feminine bombshells and literal bombs, and who engages in rhetorical bomb-throwing of the most dangerous sort.
If only “bombs away!” meant “get away from those damned bombs!”


Literally Incredible

Recently I heard a piece on NPR about a New York bar owner who posted this message on a sign:





I haven’t kept up with the Kardashians, but I gather from doing a quick Google search that they are especially fond of using “literally” in its self-contradictory figurative sense.

But the problem with the protests against this untraditional usage is that the word is now used overwhelmingly in its non-literal sense. Here’s a well-researched comment on the Merriam-Webster site:

Did We Change the Definition of 'Literally'?

Is it ever okay to use literally to mean "figuratively"?

F. Scott Fitzgerald did it (“He literally glowed”). So did James Joyce (“Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet”), W. M. Thackeray (“I literally blazed with wit”), Charlotte Brontë (“she took me to herself, and proceeded literally to suffocate me with her unrestrained spirits”) and others of their ilk.


"I literally blazed with wit." William Makepeace Thackeray, Punch, 30 Oct. 1847. The figurative use of 'literally' may be annoying, but it is nothing new.

But the fact that Charles Dickens used literally in a figurative sense ("'Lift him out,' said Squeers, after he had literally feasted his eyes, in silence, upon the culprit") doesn't stop readers from complaining about our definition. We define literally in two senses:

1) in a literal sense or manner : actually

2) in effect : virtually

Some of our readers are not happy about this. Here are a few of the comments left at this entry:

Definition 2: the dictionary is literally wrong.

This is literally the stupidest thing I've ever read. 

I literally can't even.

Some people choose not to leave such comments on our site (perhaps they do not wish to hurt our feelings), but still want to make their displeasure clear. These people comment on other forums, as in this sample taken from a recent comment thread on dailykos.com:

Considering that Merriam-Webster has redefined “literally” to mean “figuratively,” I’m going with literally.

Our poor language, I’m figuratively about to hurl.

Agreed! How you you [sic] agree to accept (I’m looking at you craven dictionary editors!) a word that means the exact opposite? It’s unfathomably stupid.

Never trust anything but the OED...

It's fine to trust the OED, but you might want to check their definition first:

literally, adv. 1c. colloq. Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: "virtually, as good as"; (also) "completely, utterly, absolutely." 

Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition, Sept. 2011

Aaargh! That doesn’t seem very literal at all! The dark forces of "figurative-literalism" must have gotten to them, perhaps by blackmailing the editors. Let’s look at how some other current dictionaries define this word.

literally, adv. … 3.b. Used as an intensive before a figurative expression. 

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th edition, 2016

literally, adverb … 2. (intensifier) ⇒ there were literally thousands of people 

Collins English Dictionary

Literally every modern dictionary includes a definition for the metaphoric or intensifying sense of the word literally. Why do we hate the English language so?

We don’t.

There is no plot by dictionary-makers to destroy our language. There is not even a plot to loosen our language's morals and corrupt it a bit. There is, however, a strong impulse among lexicographers to catalog the language as it is used, and there is a considerable body of evidence indicating that literally has been used in this fashion for a very long time. All of the dictionaries listed above also provide usage notes with the definition of literally, indicating that this sense is widely frowned upon. We include a note as well, which reads as follows:

Since some people take sense 2 to be the opposite of sense 1, it has been frequently criticized as a misuse. Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.

If this sense of literally is bothersome, you needn’t use it. If you dislike hearing other people use it, you may continue to be upset. If you would like to broaden your complaint slightly, and insist that the original meaning of literal is the only proper one, go right ahead (although, before committing to this, you should be aware that this will restrict you to using literal when you mean “of, relating to, or expressed in letters”).

The use of literally in a fashion that is hyperbolic or metaphoric is not new—evidence of this use dates back to 1769. Its inclusion in a dictionary isn't new either; the entry for literally in our 1909 unabridged dictionary states that the word is “often used hyperbolically; as, he literally flew.” We (and all the other “craven dictionary editors”) have included this definition for a very simple reason: a lot of people use it this way, and our entries are based on evidence of use. Furthermore, the fact that so many people are writing angry letters serves as a sort of secondhand evidence, as they would hardly be complaining about this usage if it had not become common.

We understand that many have chosen this particular issue as the one about which they choose to draw a line in the sand, on the grounds that a word should not mean one thing and its opposite (a fairly common thing in English). But a living language is a language that is always changing; this change may be lovely, and it may be ugly. As lexicographers we are in the business of defining language, rather than judging it.

I generally agree with this essay, except that it focuses primarily on readers who object to the usage. Like many warnings by lexicographers and linguists, it frames language change as an inevitable fact rather than as a two-sided process, a struggle between innovation and resistance.

My own entry focuses on those who might appreciate being warned that many do object to this self-contradictory definition:

Like “incredible,” “literally” has been so overused as a sort of vague intensifier that it is in danger of losing its literal meaning. It should be used to distinguish between a figurative and a literal meaning of a phrase. It should not be used as a synonym for “actually” or “really.” Don’t say of someone that he “literally blew up” unless he swallowed a stick of dynamite.

Because the now more common meaning is exactly the opposite of its original meaning, “literally” especially raises hackles among teachers, editors, and barkeeps alike.

Note that a secondary objection is that the word is extremely overused. That’s a different issue from it’s being used illogically.

“Literally” is meant to have an intensifying effect, but its overuse has rendered it toothless as well as being annoying to a great many people who prefer the original meaning. It seems likely that the majority of people are quite unaware of its literal meaning.

Note that I compare “literally” to “incredible.”  “Incredible” literally means “impossible to believe,” or “false.” But its most common use now is as a synonym for “remarkable,” “amazing”—almost the opposite.

But here the usage is a little more logical, a matter of exaggeration rather than absolute contradiction.

It makes perfect sense to say “He was almost incredibly generous.” But we don’t usually say that. Instead we say “He was incredibly generous,” meaning “extremely.” The logic behind this usage is that he is so generous that it is difficult (almost impossible) to believe. “Unbelievable” is used in the same way, meaning “hard to believe.”

But these popular uses are being endangered by our president, who utters obvious falsehoods labeling them “incredible” and “unbelievable” in a way that forces many listeners to remember the literal meaning of the words.

(If you dig back into the word’s history “fabulous” has a similar problem. It originally meant “as in a fable or a fairy tale,” “wildly exaggerated,” etc.)

Many of us take some satisfaction when we hear the president described as doing a fabulous job, saying he has attracted incredible audiences and been unbelievably successful.

All true—literally.

See also my entry on intensifiers.


Wowing Donald Duck in Italian

One of my hobbies is collecting foreign-language comics featuring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck. These are not translations from English, but are written and published in a variety of European languages, especially Italian. Although such comics are widely retranslated and published throughout Europe, Latin America and in many other places, these characters are far more popular abroad than in the US, and only rarely are these stories translated into English.

Action comic readers are familiar with interjections and sound effects like “ugh,” “oof” “pow.” Italian Disney comic writers seem to love this sort of thing, and often include such words and sounds more or less directly borrowed from English. Since Italian is a flowing language in which words usually end in vowel sounds, the punchiness of English slang creates a powerful contrast with the surrounding vocabulary in comic strip dialogue. 

Writer Carlo Panero seems to be particularly taken by this sort of thing judging by “Paperino e il Popolo del Sole” (”Donald Duck and the People of the Sun” in Topolino issue no. 3,094, published in 2015. (“Topolino” is what Italians call Mickey Mouse.) 

Some of these are merely respellings to follow Italian patterns, like uao  for “wow” but others like burp, groan, and plop are taken directly over from English without modification, which suggests a widespread knowledge of American comic-speak.

I imagine the effect is to impart a strong American tone to the dialogue, though if Italian readers think English speakers say things like  sbonk, sgrunt, and sgurgle they are mistaken. There are plenty of English words beginning in SK- or SC- but none beginning in SB- or SG-. Sgrunt is especially common in Italian Disney comics.

But I also imagine Italian readers think these American-sounding words are funny.

Here’s an alphabetical list of all such words and sounds occurring in this single thirty-page story with translations or explanations following in parentheses. 

All I can say is “Wow!”

aaah (aaah)
ah ah ah (ha ha ha)
argh (argh, arrgh)
bla, bla, bla (bla bla bla)
burp (burp)
eh, eh (heh heh)
eh? (huh?)
gasp (gasp)
glab (gulp)
glom (gulp)
glu, glu, glu (glug, glug, glug)
glub (exclamation made when feeling dizzy)
groan (groan)
grumpf (grr)
gulp (gulp)
mumble (mumble)
plop (plop)
sbonk (bam)
sgrunt (grunt)
sgurgle (gulp?)
sob (sob)
slurp (slurp)
tsk (tsk, tisk)
uack (ducklike quacking sound of amazement, usually rendered “waak” in English)
uao (wow)
uhm (um)
urgh (oof—sound made while living heavy weight)
urgle (sound of astonishment)
yawn (yawn)

If you’d like to sample European Disney comics in English, check out IDW, which regularly publishes selected stories originally written in Italian, Dutch, Finnish, Danish, and several other languages.


A Metaphor Worth Its Weight in Salt

A woman being interviewed on NPR today said that any HR officer “worth his weight in salt” would take claims of sexual harassment seriously.

People often confuse the expression “worth his/her salt” with the superficially similar “worth his/her weight in gold.”

The first derives from the tradition of Roman soldiers sometimes being paid in salt. A fairly minimal standard of praise.

The second is much more extravagant way of praising someone as truly exceptional.

You’d taste pretty bad if you were seasoned with your weight in salt.