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Roughly equal to 50 brownie points
Wednesday, June 4, 2008   10:34 AM

A friend of mine asked me for a "solid" last night, which I quickly brushed off as a rather small favor, easily done.

This slang sense of solid goes back at least to the '70s. However — perhaps this is just my own personal idiolect, but I'm somewhat surprised to find that almost no definition of solid mentions that it's necessarily a substantial favor.

You could say, "Would you do me a favor and pass the mustard," but you would never call that a solid. At least I wouldn't. It would cheapen the solid.

(Obligatory Simpsons linguistic tie-in: at the end of "Bonfire of the Manatees," Homer says he can take a few days off work because "I've got a friend who owes me a solid." The next scene — wherein a manatee poses as Homer — is priceless.)

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Probably of no great interest to you, but I've never heard 'solid' to mean 'favour' (of any description) in my life. Has it crossed the Atlantic? Dunno. But it hasn't reached me. Must have missed that Simpsons episode...

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Domeball fever: can you catch it?
Wednesday, April 2, 2008   3:48 PM

Watching the Twins on Monday (we do NOT speak of yesterday's game), I was introduced to the term domeball, which I've also seen written as Domeball, dome ball, and even (!) 'domeball.

This seems to have at least two relevant senses. First and foremost: "baseball as played at the Metrodome." Example:

If you're a baseball purist and just can't endure domeball, parlorball, studioball, or whatever you want to call that strange game played indoors on a carpet, then head outdoors to Saint Paul's Midway Stadium. [cite]

(I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that this sense is applied to baseball games at other domed stadiums.)

The second sense is the one I intially encountered: "a fly ball that is hard to see because the ceiling and the baseball look too similar." This sense seems to be less common in print, but here's an example:

Inside-the-park homer, my ass. Anyone who knows a thing about the game knows it was a single and three base error. This was not a domeball like that over Milton Bradley's head Tuesday; it was a fielding error, plain and simple. [cite]

I also found a Star Tribune article with some interesting Twins factoids. I remember hearing before about the Baggie, our version of the Green Monster, but I hadn't realized that nowadays the Twins play on FieldTurf, not AstroTurf.

(Or Astroturf, as that Trib article would have it. Maybe some stubborn copy editor is still fighting the good fight against internal caps?)

I plan to watch a lot of baseball this season, so here's hoping that I run into some other interesting lingo. Double-Tongued Word Wrestler has already assembled a nice collection of somewhat obscure baseball terms.

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I'd have figured "domeball" for the sport and "dome ball" for the hit/fielding opportunity.

Or is that too obscure a mechanism for readers to get?

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Beer geeks tweak promospeak
Tuesday, February 5, 2008   4:47 PM

While trying to bone up on my beer knowledge before the big beer festival this weekend, I heard the term cross drinker ridiculed on an old Craft Beer Radio podcast.

With a little investigation I was able to find the promotional copy they were commenting on:

Cross Drinking Without Social Stigma

What's hot in wine? Beer! Cross-drinking wine experts dare to declare that America's craft beers change the way wine drinkers think about malt beverages. Join this panel of talented tasters as they chuck their corks for brown-bottle fare and tell all about this latest beverage trend. Along the way, you'll get a first-hand glimpse into the palates and preferences of three of the food worlds' most savvy cross drinkers.

Cross drinking, cross drinker... after you filter out all the bad search results, these terms hardly appear at all on the Internet. I was able to find only one other cite for this sense, in a September 2002 user review at

Just as rare is another, slightly older sense of cross-drinking: "to drink a certain variety of wine with a food traditionally paired with a different variety."

Both senses seem fairly transparent in context, and somewhat useful as jargon, so I'm a bit surprised that neither has caught on.

Perhaps the signified in both cases is too uncommon to warrant a signifier? Alternately — if not for the guffaws of those beer cognesceti — I could even believe that one or both of these terms was in common usage but had somehow eluded Google's myriad tentacles.

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Apples and oranges and pears, oh my
Monday, December 17, 2007   5:59 PM

I've been convalescing for the past few days (on vicodin — though I couldn't appreciate the generification at the time), so I'm just now catching up on my podcasts.

Today on the BBC (i.e. last week for you) I heard the following exchange:

BBC: If someone in the Army drinks so much alcohol that they are incoherent, which I'm sure happens, what happens to them?

Government guy: Well, first of all, of course, alcohol is a legal drug, therefore you are comparing apples with pears.

I hadn't encountered the idiom comparing apples with pears before, but a quick Google search shows that it isn't new. Moreover, Wikipedia claims that the "Danish, Dutch, German, Spanish, Swedish, Czech, Romanian, Luxembourgish and Turkish" expressions all involve pears.

The delightful Asperger Dictionary of Everyday Expressions explains apples and pears thusly:

Describes an unfair comparison because what are being considered are too fundamentally different for the comparison to make sense. Thus, comparing apples and pears is a foolish thing — they taste different and which one tastes nicer is a matter of personal opinion, not objective fact.

I found it odd that the apples and oranges entry refers you to apples and pears, rather than vice-versa, so I was relieved to discover that the more familiar comparing apples and oranges is indeed much, much more common. I'm not in an episode of Sliders after all.

Textbook definitions aside, there's obviously plenty of connotative difference between apples and oranges and apples and pears — from the way this guy said it, you got the impression that a comparison with pears would beyond inadvisable. And even if some or all of us would still prefer to use the hoarier oranges version, there's no denying that for an English-speaker, the pears version is far fresher.

(And we could do better — no need here to get into the snowclone comparing apples and X.)

Unfortunately, their very novelty tends to make fresh-sounding idioms vulnerable to overexploitation, an idiomatic Tragedy of the Commons. Remember when bleeding edge was the hip new version of cutting edge?

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I had never heard "apple and pears"--thanks for the update!

I would never use "apples and pears," because apples and pears are actually quite a bit alike.

They have cores w/ multiple seeds. Their peels are a similar thickness. Their flesh has a similar consistency. Even the tastes are more alike than they are different.

In fact, there is a pear that tastes a LOT like an apple.

Compared with either apples or pears, oranges have vastly different structures to their seeds, their peels are different, and their flesh is hugely different, both in consistency and taste.

posted by Anonymous TootsNYC at December 18, 2007 1:23 PM  

I think apples, oranges and pears are all too similar. We need a new expression, 'apples and condolences' perhaps...

Presumably you guys could work that into the house styleguide and act like all the writers who use "apples and oranges" should know they're wrong.

I'm toying with the idea of using a random noun in the "oranges" slot in my own writing, but I doubt that I use this expression more often than once every few years.

But, of course, "apples and pears" rolls naturally off the English tongue; it's cockney rhyming slang for "stairs".

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Wundergrammar: "Brand strong"
Tuesday, November 27, 2007   4:26 PM

This just in from one of our clients: the description copy for their new promotional notecards. The client in question is one of the biggest realty companies in America.

This striking, brand strong card is great for quick, friendly communication. 5 1/2" x 4 1/4" folded. Envelopes included.

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Redneck radar love
Monday, November 5, 2007   11:43 PM

We made it up north this weekend in record time, thanks to what my brother and his friends call redneck radar, i.e. relying on the even faster drivers ahead of you to reveal where police are located.

My brother claims that the other speeders are supposed to be the rednecks here. If that's true, his formulation would be atypical of redneck terms, which usually refer to the crass or low-tech improvisations of purported rednecks.

I'd thought that the redneck limo was the most famous example of this formulation, but it seems that the beach along Florida's panhandle is well known as the Redneck Riviera.

I could google any number of redneck words and probably come up with results, but I can't think of any other terms off the top of my head — most Minnesotans would probably file our local "rednecks" under white trash, so it's not a word I hear very often.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007   10:57 AM

I can't speak to the accuracy of the skater slang in Skate, but the word gnarly proved to be even more interesting than I suspected.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word gnarled initially appeared only in Shakespeare ("Merciful heaven! / Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt / Split'st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak / Than the soft myrtle"), likely as a variant spelling of the earlier knarled.

Which is not quite obsolete nowadays. Editors could conceivably find themselves replacing an intentional use of the original spelling with what was once a non-standard spelling variant. Following common usage here is the obvious choice — too many people would think knarled was an error, not that language is a democracy oh-no — but if you care about "correctness" you should feel a bit conflicted. Along similar lines, I used to wonder what I would do if someone wrote curry Fauvel instead of curry favor.

(Obviously: remove the reference to an obscure poem from 1310. I'm here to represent the readers, after all.)

Both gnarled and knarled meant something like "knotty or misshapen."

So Shakespeare's gnarled goes unnoticed until the 19th century, when the poets of the day bring it back into currency. It's around that same time that people start using the backformation gnarl, meaning either "a protruding knot on a tree" or "to contort, twist."

A decade or so later they then make a new adjective, gnarly, out of that word. So gnarly goes back way back to 1829.

In the 1970s, surfers started using gnarly to describe dangerous waves (presumably they were quite twisty?), and by the 1980s it had been adopted into teen slang as a word for both "excellent" and "disgusting."

It's the "excellent" sense that seems to have won out. Although my guess is that, with the possible exception of some speakers on the West Coast, gnarly is used by most people today with at least a twist of irony.

(Bonus videogame tie-in: in Super Mario World, each level in the secret Special Zone took its name from surfer slang. In order: Gnarly, Tubular, Way Cool, Awesome, Groovy, Mondo, Outrageous, and Funky. It felt like I spent weeks trying to beat Tubular.)

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Ah, yes... the... "hubba"...
Tuesday, October 16, 2007   3:22 PM

Frustrated by my own inability to perform a "nollie 360 flip to grind" and then "ride the hubba," I went web-crawling to the IGN Skate guide, which had this to say:

Paul Rodriguez's infamous challenge has a lot of players scratching their heads, but we suspect the problem has to do more with linguistics than anything else. If words like "hubba" are not in your lexicon, fear not. If anything, you should be proud, because it's just a silly name for the short, concrete wall that lines the stairs in this challenge.

I'd guessed at that meaning, but — as with my skater brother's impenetrable observation that I couldn't "nollie" a.k.a. "nose-ollie" if I was riding "switch" — some translation certainly helped matters.

The word hubba doesn't show up on this basic skateboard terminology list, but according to the kids at the Skateboard Dictonary [sic] forum, it has an interesting derivation.

What follows is the honest-to-Internet truth:

Reno_Rotary- A hubba is a ledge going down some stairs. I think they're names for the same thing, I don't think there's a definite difference between the two.

I think the name or nik-name hubba came from a famous spot in San Fransisco, the [Hubba Hideout]. Its just a ledge thats hidden back a little. Hubba was originally a slang term for crack [in that sense, from the exclamation hubba-hubba, it's been dated to 1988], or crackhead, and [Hubba Hideout] was originally an area where people used crack in public without being seen. Eventually hubba came to be slang for ledge. Who knows for sure though.

(One reply notes that the Hubba Hideout "was a major place for drugs and stuff, and the cops started to kick people out and arrest people so they skate stopped [!] it." That sucks... but isn't the verb skate stop awesome?)

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check out videos and photos of the original hubba hideout skate spot in san francisco ... HERE.

posted by Anonymous Anonymous at October 27, 2007 4:45 PM  

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Please, leave the prescriptivism to the professionals
Wednesday, October 10, 2007   1:03 PM

While I feel that the reactive grammar movement provides the ideal lens through which to view language on a day-to-day basis, as an editor and proofreader I have to concede the utility of a more strenuous prescriptivist approach. When the rules being followed are consistent and reality-based, measured doses of prescriptivism can help editors, writers, teachers, and (especially? occasionally?) readers.

However, unless your primary role in a given situation is to improve someone's writing or speech (or if you're with the rare sort of person who'd actually want you to correct them), you should reserve your helpful suggestions for the truly WTF. Prescriptivism can do a lot of damage when it gets out into the wild.

There are a lot of reasons to dislike mainstream, non-professional prescriptivism — the attitude many (probably most) educated American have towards language. It's vaguely classist. Its rules often have little basis in reality, especially when amateurs get involved. And then there's the absurdity of those prescriptivists who use their arbitrary set of rules as a general intelligence test.

(In defense of amateur prescriptists everywhere, I should point out that widespread belief in bogus rules like "you can't end a sentence with a preposition" and the appeals to the "one correct definition" or "the one correct pronunciation" are the result of a systematic failure to teach people how language actually works. This caveat was brought to you by Language Log.)

One problem with everyday prescriptivism that I don't think has been given enough attention is the way it paves over the charming quirks which make up our dialects and idiolects.

The prescriptivist mindset is widely assumed to be the default stance of anyone who's commenting on language, and so bringing attention to the fact that someone is talking or writing differently is automatically interpreted as a criticism.

Most people are self-conscious about how they express themselves, and most of the time they don't want how they speak or write to distract from what they're trying to say. A friend of mine came to college saying "abzurd" and "salza," but this derailed so many conversations that he started using the more standard, ho-hum pronunciations.

I'm friends with a Minnesotan who uses the /hw-/ cluster, and another who doubles words for emphasis (e.g. multiple multiple). And a lot of people I know have an overfondness for a handful of particular words.

I don't — can't — say anything about these wonderful peculiarities, because there's so much prescriptivism in the air. There's just no way to know beforehand whether or not these quirks are too delicate for sustained attention.

Not all language variety is good (I don't like Rachael Ray's idiolect, and I find a coworker's variant pronunciation of rhetoric really grating), but the boundaries of what we could say — without a loss in understanding, without prompting a double-take — are constrained by what mainstream prescriptivism says we should say.

However much it may inflate the exceptionalist egos of those devoted to its more obscure rules, however incoherent its dictates, however hypocritical its proponents, the primary goal of mainstream prescriptivism is still conformity.

Not with the largely invisible rules that dictate how the English language actually works, but rather with the prescriptivist: how he already writes, and how he already speaks.

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Whence wop?
Wednesday, September 12, 2007   2:40 PM

After quite a bit of searching, I can find neither a definitive spelling for wop or WOP or whop, nor a clue as to its etymology.

I'm not talking about wop, a vulgar term for Italians that (despite the insistence of ignorant folk etymologists who claim it stands for "WithOut Papers") probably comes from either the Italian guappo or the Spanish guapo, both of which mean something like "dandy."

I'm not sure if they say this outside the Midwest, but around here wop is a drink made by soaking fruit in hard liquor overnight. Here's a recipe.

(Though the slur wop may be the source of red wop, a term for cheap wine, I don't think there's any relation to the Midwestern wop.)

For the record, wop wap is the most common spelling.

And I'm pretty sure it's not supposed to be WOP. As the WithOut Papers folk etymology shows, acronym etymologies are usually suspect (and again, when editing, all etymologies should be suspect). So while I have no evidence to counter instances of WOP, like the one you see in this Ripon College drugs and alcohol policy, it's just not a likely etymology.

And what would WOP even stand for there? Feel free to phrase your guesses as statements of fact: let a thousand backronyms bloom!

The popular etymology has it that wop comes from whopatooli, via clipping. My coworker of donkey fame says it comes from whopatoo, but I'm starting to suspect that she's done all her drinking on another planet.

For the not-a-word crowd, there's a definition of whopatooli at Is that good enough?

\whop-a-two-lee\ Noun: 1. A punch-like alcoholic beverage whose ingredients include beer, rum, vodka, Kool Aid, 7-Up, ginger ale, and chunks of fruit. 2. A collection of loosely related items. See also: Gallimaufry, Hodgepodge.

Unfortunately, I can't find an origin for whopatooli or any proof of this wop origin theory beyond Internet assertions.

The trail prettymuch stops cold there, although my older coworkers have confirmed that both terms have been in use for at least 25-30 years. Neither word appears in this sense in any of the dictionaries I looked at, though I'm holding out hope for Cassell's Dictionary of Slang.

An alternative theory might tie the notoriously alcohol-filled wop to whop, an old verb meaning "to strike with a heavy blow."

The fact that the origin of this regional, but nonetheless fairly common term is so opaque makes me really appreciate the lexigraphical footwork that must have been required to trace a term like 420, with which wop probably shares the same underground, teen-to-twentysomething roots.

[Update: 9/13]

According to Joan Hall at the Dictionary of American Regional English:

Wish I could help on the etymology, but we're as much at a loss as you are. Our earliest citations (from early 1980s) are for "wapatuli" and similar variants; I suspect that the "wap," "whop," and "wop" variants are clippings from the longer forms. The term (in many forms) seems to have spread widely, but I agree with you that it does seem to have been Upper Midwest in origin.

At the very least, this points me to a bunch of new spellings, and it does help verify the clipping etymology — but with only the Internet as a corpus, I don't expect to succeed where the pros have failed. Anyone with some insight on the origin of wapatuli is encouraged to comment.

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Donkeys and ponies
Friday, September 7, 2007   10:25 AM

One of my coworkers insists that she and her friends call a 1.75 liter bottle of hard liquor a donkey. She claims that she's been doing this for more than 20 years, but she doesn't have an explanation, and none of the other Minnesotans in the office has ever heard this usage.

(I say either one-point-seven-five or handle — yes, yes, even when there's no handle. Some people apparently say jug.)

Does anyone else say donkey? The Double-Tongued Word Wrestler came up blank, and all I learned from the Urban Dictionary was how disgusting the Internet is. However, after much too much googling, I found a single (apparent) corroboration on a message board:

but remember, no party is the same without me. NEVAR!~~

new years party, Im bringing a donkey bottle of cuervo. [cite]

The other commenters seem to be from the Houston area, which only deepens the mystery.

I had more luck with pony, which my mom used this past weekend to describe those stubby little bottles of beer. (Not to be confused with pony keg, which was my initial interpretation. Now that would have been a much more interesting story.)

Foodgoat has a great roundup of the many alcohol-related meanings of pony.

This sense of the term apparently comes from the old 7 oz. Rolling Rock bottles, which had a picture of a pony on the label:

There are many imitators, and as far as I can tell no brewery, Rolling Rock included, is too keen to take the credit for inventing the pony bottle.

Incidentally, Rolling Rock is also somewhat famous for printing a mysterious 33 on the bottles. I'm reminded of the similarly mysterious journalistic 30.

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Big Fish
Tuesday, September 4, 2007   12:48 PM

So I went up north this weekend (read: somewhere north of St. Cloud). The main event was probably the three hours I spent fishing with the family.

I don't fish very often at all, but my brother fishes constantly and is by all accounts an expert. His unselfconscious use of U.S. fisherman's slang is fascinating. Did you know that the American fishermen have over 500 words for lure?

Two words stood out. When my mom caught a large sunfish, my brother said, "Wow, that's a toad." An In-Fisherman search confirms that while this isn't too common in print, he's not the only one to use the term:

The toad jumped out of the water and thrashed back and forth, trying to throw the lure. Then my pole bent almost double as the brute raced into the thick submerged vegetation and broke off. [cite]

For obvious reasons, fishermen seem to have a lot of synonyms for big. My brother later referred to a walleye as a horse (and not a toad, because the body shape is different). Here's another example:

Of all the places to make that first cast at 12:01 a.m. on opening day, the shallow humps west of Kunz Island on Washburn County's Long Lake may be the best place to tie into a real horse in Wisconsin's northcountry. [cite]

There's also another, far more common sense of horse that isn't restricted to fishermen, but was new to me: "To haul or hoist energetically."

With mono line, chances are you aren't going to be able to horse the fish out of the weeds and tules. [cite]

(Imagine the opportunities for journalists covering fishing contests! "Dark horse horses horse!" And this when his boat only had a 10-horse engine.)

I'm probably too used to hearing fishermen speak fishermen-speak, but it seems to me that the vocabulary here isn't quite like the jargon of other specialist groups.

There are still plenty of specialist terms, of course, but since these people are enthusiasts and storytellers, there's also an amorphous secondary lexicon, concerned with variety instead of precision.

I'd love to read a good essay on U.S. fisherman slang, if anyone has found one. In the meantime, there's also my post on the plurals of Minnesota fish.

(I was skunked, by the way: some bites but nothing in the boat. In my dialect this fishing-related sense is always passivized and intransitive.)

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On Onboarding
Monday, August 13, 2007   8:29 AM

Oh, corporate-speak! I've gotten used to using dialogue as a verb, and employees here also have the usual, predictable tendency to verb software names... but I got an email from H.R. last week with the word onboarding and I did a double-take.

If you found this page with a query like "Is onboarding a word?" then yes, Virginia, it's a word. The earliest cite I could find was a July 1995 "personal communication" quoted in Joseph Donald Novak's 1998 book Learning, Creating, and Using Knowledge: "I think this would have a real value for onboarding new hires."

But what is onboarding? According to Random Wikipedia Guy:

Onboarding is the process of interviewing, hiring, orienting and successfully integrating new hires into the organization's culture.

Though I suspect that the definition at Systematic HR is closer to the mark:

So what is onboarding? First of all, it's one of these annoying buzz words we have in HR these days. It is an important one though, and the practice has initiated all sorts of new tactics for recruiting and retention. Onboarding is the process of integrating employees into their new work environment.

I appreciate the candor, in any case. The important difference between onboarding and other terms like hiring and orientation seems to be that it covers a longer part of the process. Look what I find when I cast my net out into the Googlesphere:

Timing: In my opinion, onboarding begins with the offer letter.
Onboarding begins before the first contact with a candidate and evolves through the five stages leading up to and following the first contact, offer, acceptance and start day.
Actually, onboarding can begin as early as during recruitment by giving clear expectations of the job.
Onboarding begins with the first interview and will continue long after the 1 or 2 day induction.
Onboarding begins the moment the candidate first connects. with the company.
Onboarding begins with the recruitment process,. which is the employee's first interaction with the firm.

However fascinated I am by corporate-speak, I'm not so much appreciating a piece of fine art as I am poking a squishy black thing with a stick. I note with some trepidation that you can also onboard someone.

Well, that's all for me. What's today's corporate-speak lesson, Harry?

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Ask vs. Asked
Wednesday, June 20, 2007   8:59 AM

Back in the trenches, editing mystery shopper reports on the side. It's respectable fun if you've got a real job too.

One issue I find myself dealing with quite often is ask/asked confusion.

Through the magic of state-coded writer I.D.s, I can even tell you that it's writers from Mississippi and Alabama who seem to have the most trouble with this. Many of them use ask as the past tense version with remarkable consistency, so I'm fairly sure they aren't just making thousands of unintentional mistakes.

This problem is so common that our company actually has a standard coaching note for it:

Please note that when using the word 'ASK' in the past tense, the proper spelling is 'ASKED'. Ex: She asked me if I was finding what I needed.

That's how you write a coaching note when differing correctness conditions seem impossible to you. Here's my reactive grammar remix:

Please note that when using the word 'ASK' in the past tense, the [company] stylebook prefers the form 'ASKED'. Ex: She asked me if I was finding what I needed.

Note to would-be linguists: an electronic archive of hundreds of thousands of state-coded mystery shopper reports, like, say, the one my company has, would probably make a kickass corpus.

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Regionalism of the day: what all
Wednesday, June 13, 2007   1:10 PM

Another dispatch from the trenches. A Tennessean wrote:

I asked, "What all kinds of seafood do you have?"

A quick Google search turns up similar Tennessee-related usages. I find this use of what all, apparently predominantly Southern, quite charming.

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Another look at Borrow vs. Lend
Tuesday, June 5, 2007   8:46 AM

One "correction" that always presses my cider is the enforcement of the borrow vs. lend distinction in spoken English.

In edited English: no, it's not allowed. The rules are irrational, but that's the game.

However, only very rarely in spoken English does the use of borrow to mean "to give someone something temporarily" create any actual confusion.

Mainly this is because it's clear from the context, but equally important is the fact that, for native speakers of English, certainly here in the Midwest if not elsewhere, the distinction between giving and receiving is never lost.

You borrowed a toothbrush.
You borrowed out a toothbrush.
You borrowed someone a toothbrush.
While I should note that for me, *You borrowed a toothbrush to him is still ungrammatical, the last two forms aren't. And unlike the first sentence, they clearly signal that you is not the one getting the toothbrush, either through the use of a preposition to change the meaning of the verb, or with a good old fashioned indirect object.

(I'm waiting for the day, a hundred years hence, when some schoolteacher chides a student with "You borrowed whom a toothbrush?")

What is usually the most convincing prescriptivist objection — that expanding the usage of one word will result in a useful distinction being lost — doesn't hold here, thanks to our good friend syntax.

Yet there will always be people out there who get annoyed at this use of borrow (my friend from New Jersey hateses its), even though they know deep down, in their Wernicke's area of Wernicke's areas, exactly what you mean.

The most they have is an aesthetic objection to what is an increasingly common usage.

They can safely be ignored.

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One Fish, Two Fish
Monday, June 4, 2007   9:56 AM

A few weeks ago I called my brother, an avid fisherman, to ask about fish plurals. For his sake, it was probably good that he didn't have time to talk.

(I always use the phrase "avid fisherman" to describe my brother. A few years ago I was mildly obsessed with finding simple descriptive phrases for everyone I knew: it's nice to have a two-second personality summary on hand when you're telling a story.)

My curiosity had been piqued by a show on piranhas, but being from Minnesota, I kept thinking about our native fish.

First, a note on plurals. As Arnold Zwicky points out, English has singular count nouns (an egg), singular mass nouns (the bread, the rice), and plural count nouns (the eggs).

Fish lexemes have access to all of these forms, and if you're referring to a fish type within the scientific classification system there is an additional plural (technically, it's probably a different lexeme) that is apparently always formed by adding -s or -es. In my dialect, this is the only time you'll hear basses.

(Other people will have different versions of these forms, due to their crazy correctness conditions. For example, Californian fisherman Jed Welsch writes in the L.A. Press Telegram: "Those aboard The Big Game caught eight yellowtails and 100 calico basses.")

Here are the rules for Minnesotan fish: the singular count and mass forms of fish lexemes are always identical: I caught a bluegill, would you like some sunny, let's go fishing for crappie, etc. Likewise, most of the plurals of Minnesotan fish are straightforward: add an -s or -es.

The American Fisheries Society styleguide matches my choices on this topic. Except for minnow. We say minnows. But the AFS styleguide notwithstanding, I don't know who wouldn't.

What's really interesting is that, even where we use the uninflected version of the original fish name, Minnesotans' plural formation tends towards the standard method, to the point of creating new words. The lexeme pike is uninflected in the plural, so we took Northern pike and made northerns. Muskellunge was also uninflected, but we call them muskies. In my experience both of the standard pluralization forms are highly preferred.

C.f. jumbos for jumbo perch, rainbows for rainbow trout, and smallmouths and largemouths for the two major sport varieties of bass. Only carp seems to have no access to a standard plural form, but as it's generally considered neither a sport fish nor bait, carp occurs at a much lower frequency than these others.

I'm also amused by the widespread usage of wally/wallys (or walleys/walleys) for walleye/walleyes. This plural is pretty flexible: I think most of us would have no problem — certainly no WTF problem — with I caught three walleye. I think I say walleyes, but many Minnesotans don't inflect the plural unless they're using the jocular version of the name.

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