Monthly Archives: April 2014

Fancy language makes a song and dance of the simplest things

Participants are required initially to elevate their left legs in order that said limbs be pointed centripetally relative to the collective circular configuration. Following this, the left leg motion is to be concluded and furthermore reversed, such that the limbs are then oriented centrifugally. This oppositional pair of movements is subsequently reiterated twofold, cumulatively amounting to a tripartite succession intended to form the precursor to an omnidirectional agitation process. Upon completion, participants are to proceed forthwith to an implementation of the hokey-cokey and thereafter to the execution of a 360-degree rotation. This performative culmination constitutes the totality of the subject matter presently under examination.

‘I often wondered where they kept it’

There was a desk and a night clerk with one of those moustaches that get stuck under your finger-nail.

Degarmo lunged past the desk towards an open elevator beside which a tired old man sat on a stool waiting for a customer. The clerk snapped at Degarmo’s back like a terrier.

‘One moment, please. Whom did you wish to see?’

Degarmo spun on his heel and looked at me wonderingly. ‘Did he say “whom”?’

‘Yeah, but don’t hit him,’ I said. ‘There is such a word.’

Degarmo licked his lips. ‘I knew there was,’ he said. ‘I often wondered where they kept it.’

The Lady in the Lake, Raymond Chandler

I literally thought “contranymic” and “heterological” would be good words to use in a blog post title

John Rentoul’s latest top ten in the Independent on Sunday is words that have pairs of opposite meanings. Oddly, but delightfully, such things exist. He includes “oversight”, “sanction”, “cleave” and others.

But there’s one I’m not sure about: “literally”.

This word of course annoys a lot of people, who hear something like “I literally died laughing” and get apoplectic because it’s a figurative statement, not a literal one.

So, does “literally” sometimes means “figuratively”? John implies so, as does Stan Carey, who describes the hated usage as “an auto-antonym or contranym” – that is to say, a word with opposite meanings.

The apparent illogic of this might explain some of the hatred, although – as John shows – contranyms do happily exist in English.

At the risk of sounding like I’m playing jargon trumps, I’m going to say that non-literal “literally” isn’t contranymic: it’s heterological. Let me explain. Continue reading

Arguing over “over”

I’ve been ignoring the American civil war, even though it broke out just down the corridor from where I was sitting two weeks ago.

In short: the AP Stylebook announced a change to its guidance: “over, as well as more than, is acceptable to indicate greater numerical value”. So AP now approves of statements such as “I slept for over an hour” and will no longer insist on “I slept for more than an hour”.

According to Peter Sokolowski, who was in that very room, AP cited “overwhelming evidence” that this usage was common and commonly accepted, and said that it was “futile to fight the tide”.

War then broke out.

Apparently, this is a big thing among US logophiles. Lots of people immediately jumped up (literally and virtually) to cheer or damn the decision. Peter has more detail.

I, like my country as a whole, have always been indifferent to this “rule”. But I saw an article denouncing AP’s change and I want to respond to the sheer paucity of its arguments. It’s by Megan Hess at Mashable: Continue reading