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 · Language

Modern Corporate English · “The client’s ask is simple,” he said, “but I’m not convicted that’s a good criteria; anyhow, there are important learnings for us.” How much of that do you hate? Whatever; living languages don’t care what you think ...
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Content-free · I’m thinking about successful new communication channels, and how we talk about what’s in them. On Twitter, we say tweets. In the blogosphere and on Facebook, posts; also rants, reviews, and flames. Facebook has likes and now everything has links ...
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The Oxford English Dictionary · The OED means a whole lot to me; professionally, I owe it everything. My work on it was 26 (!) years ago, but then this spring I got an invitation to their Symposium, which happened last week, and there was only one possible answer. I’m profoundly grateful they asked, and would do it again in a flash. This entry, like the OED, is extreme in length and prone to rambling; but, I hope, also like the dictionary in that it might provide pleasure to people who like words for their own sake ...
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Xly · Here’s an assertion: “Women aren’t interested in coding jobs.” It’s both obviously true (look at the numbers) and horribly misleading, because lots of women are interested and get great jobs in my profession. This piece isn’t about women and software, it’s about how to patch English so we can talk clearly about this sort of stuff ...
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Neologofaves · I so enjoy being a citizen of the living and in fact sweaty smelly and horny English language. Here are some favorite neologisms of my adult years ...
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Left-Handed · The other night I couldn’t sleep and my brain for some reason stumbled on the notion of phrases you can touch-type using just your left hand. Then I really couldn’t sleep.
[Update: It’s getting pretty weird in the comments.]
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That Word · Our son, now aged nine, still enjoys a bedtime story, and I enjoy reading them. He’s perfectly literate but his reading-for-pleasure repertoire is along the lines of Harry Potter, Asterix, and Garfield. So I aim higher: Tolkien, Homer, Le Guin. Recently we started on Huckleberry Finn ...
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Donkeyists · I have always been sweet on donkeys. I’ve published some fetching donkey photographs in this space, and have visited the Donkey Sanctuary in Devon on three separate occasions. Herewith a donkey-centric book review, travel recommendation, and French word that needs a better English translation ...
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As a bit of an i18n geek... · Thus writes James Clark, who’s actually one of the world’s supreme i18n geeks. I18n is short for internationalization; see, there are 18 letters between the ‘i’ and the ‘n’. And you can call me T1m. Anyhow, his essay is fascinating if you care about languages or names, and contains the following remarkable sentence: “For example, another of my employees has a name that sounds like the second syllable of the word ‘apple’, but with the ‘l’ changed to a ‘n’, and pronounced in an emphatic (falling) tone.” I hope that brightens up your Friday.
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The Tower · I was talking with an old friend about lots of things including the Internet and the conversation wandered somehow to the Old Testament. She asked “Maybe the Net is like the tower of Babel?” It’s not that strained an analogy; what we’re trying to build does partake of large-scale hubris. “But that story had an unhappy ending” I replied. And indeed, were a vengeful hand, divine or otherwise, to intervene, to confuse our language so we could not understand each other, that would be disastrous at the scale of Babel. I don’t think we’re trying to restore the pre-Tower state though: Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. Trying just to lower conversational friction and barriers to entry for everyone in the world, that’s hubris enough.
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Single Dad · Lauren and the baby girl have been away in Oxford nine days, and the house unaccustomedly quiet. The boy and I are getting along OK in the eerie space and emptiness. This afternoon, he asked if he could go for a sleep-over at Samuel’s house, and I couldn’t see a reason to say no. When I packed him off with pajamas and a book and a “stuffie” (what the kids call stuffed-animal toys these days) suddenly I realized that wow, I was alone. I could play the oddest music as loud as I wanted. I could have a wild party that ran till tomorrow. I could practice my drumming. I could, well... I dunno. What I really wanted was my family back. Then in the late northern dusk, the phone rang and it was Samuel’s mom: “We have a homesick boy here”. So I went and brought him home, and sympathized, and helped him get settled when he couldn’t sleep. And was glad to have him back under my roof.
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The Number of the Rose · The title refers obviously to the Umberto Eco work which anyone who cares about knowledge and its preservation ought to read if only for fun; but the picture refers only to itself. With exegesis from Larry Wall. [Oh, my; give this audience a chance to indulge in linguistic pedantry and, well, you don’t have to ask twice. If you like this kind of stuff, don’t miss the comments.] ...
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Tab Sweep · Perhaps a little more all-over-the-map even than is usual: GPLv3 clarity, Functional Pearls, raina bird-writer, Java credits, framework programmers, and hacking my Canon ...
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Oh My Goodness Gracious · In a recent piece on the new Project Blackbox, I used some coarse language, in an idiomatic way, not giving it much thought. The consequences were surprising ...
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Online Picture Dictionary · Our son is in French Immersion school, and lots of times there are words in his storybooks that don’t appear in my workable-but-limited French vocabulary. One time I’d misplaced the Larousse, but I thought for a second and realised I wasn’t stuck. I went and typed it into the nearest online image search, and there I was. So next time you find you don’t know what a sauterelle or a citrouille is, look no further.
 
Writing and Speaking · Right now I’m working on my ApacheCon keynote. I decided not to use slides; actually, that’s not quite true, I have exactly four slides, which contain, in aggregate, five words. (I will, however, have props). This means that I pretty well have to write out the whole speech. I’m doing it here in ongoing as a blog entry, simply because I’ve got a highly-tuned writing environment where I can go fast. I’m not going to hit the “publish” button because unlike some people, I don’t have the courage to show the world half-baked works-in-progress, and anyhow, it contains a real actual Product Announcement. What’s interesting is that as I go back and forth editing the text, I’m conscious that these are words to be spoken, rather than read off the screen, and it makes a big difference. Among other things, it means that when I’m finished, if I decide to publish it here, I’m going to have to go back and do a major re-write, because while I hope it sounds natural coming off the stage, it sure doesn’t read like anything I’d write.
 
Tom Cheek · Ah, Tom died. Baseball broadcasts on radio are one of the few preserves of English oral poetry (The right-hander winds, works, deals... inside!) and Tom will go on those poets’ honour roll. Astoundingly, he called 4,306 consecutive games over 27 seasons without missing one. During the Blue Jays’ double-World-Series run in the early Nineties I was a serious enough fan that when I was watching the games on TV, I’d turn off the sound and listen to Tom and Jerry on the radio. Tom’s finest hour, they say, was Joe Carter’s game-six walk-off homer in ’93, but for the real fans, I think the day in ’92 when Alomar blew up Eckersley was a sweeter triumph; I remember the announcers’ visceral cry of joy like it was yesterday. We’ll miss ya.
 
Zlatorog · It’s funny, that’s all. Everywhere you go in Kapor-Capodistria, the beer is Zlatorog. We were sitting around and I did a little survey around the table and, sure enough, Anglophones, to a one, think that name is funny. The rest of the Eurotypes looked puzzled. I put on a melodrama-narrator’s voice and said “The Vogon generalissimo Zlatorog extruded a slimy appendage and curled it around our heroine’s shuddering curves...” but that didn’t seem to help. I have a picture of Zlatorog and Danese Cooper, itinerant Open Source Diva ...
 
The Important Things in Life · To essays about Storms and Politics and Love and Death I say “Bah!”; having enjoyed this masterful FT piece by Trevor Butterworth, I feel that a great weight has lifted from my shoulders, and that the semicolons which always litter my first drafts are, well, OK; stand by to see a lot more here.
 
Une espionne de la CIA? · Good heavens, for people who enjoy political theatre, this American Rove/Plame thing looks like it’ll be a long-running standing-room-only smash hit. The battle lines couldn’t be starker; consider The Big Lie About Valerie Plame vs. Karl Rove, Whistleblower. If what you want is amusing polemics, the right-wingers seem to be generally lying pretty low, so you have to look left, where indeed a few of the livelier columnists have their teeth sunk gleefully deep into Administration flesh. For example, drop by Billmon and savor the flavor. Believe it or not, I do have an original angle; a week back, when the story first broke, Libération ran a story entitled Karl Rove: Le conseiller de Bush est-il l’homme qui a révélé l’identité d’une espionne de la CIA? and I just wanted to say how much I love that word espionne, there’s nothing in English that feels remotely the same.
 
Aw, Shucks · Calling all engineers (and scientists and military officers, although I suspect there are fewer of those in the ongoing readership): hop on over and check out Dervala’s kind words about your communications skills. Some say we’re inarticulate... bah! Also she’s loaded up her piece with pointers to useful writing-related stuff.
 
No Solution · Our company visuals are being redesigned, see Martin Hardee’s write-up; looks good. But as a side-effect, I looked at our front page and it still contains four instances of that vile word “solution”, plus more in the menus, plus it infests the rest of the site like aphids on a rose-bush. Bah. Dear world, take it from me: at Sun we sell actual real computers and networks and consulting and infrastructure services and software subscriptions; you can safely ignore the marketing-speak. It’s not just us; here’s a quick high-tech home-page “solution” survey, ongoing is all about quantitative research: CA leads the pack with 9, SAP trailing with 7. BEA has 3, IBM, Microsoft, Novell, and Oracle all have 2, Adobe, well it’s hard to tell, 1½ visible but lots more hiding in pop-ups and so on. Intel, Cisco, and HP have but one. Consumer plays like Yahoo and Google are happily “solution”-free. [Update: And I thought they were so clueful! It turns out that, depending where you’re coming from, some versions of Google’s front page have a link to “Business Solutions”; thanks for the pointer to Will Fitzgerald.]
 
Inverting Sentences · I was reading the O’Reilly JXTA book and encountered this: A propagate pipe connects one output pipe to multiple input pipes. “OK,” I thought, “things get put into multiple pipes and they get multiplexed together and come out of one pipe.” In fact, a few sentences later, I realized I had it exactly backward: you output into one pipe and it gets copied into multiple pipes and others can get input from them. I think you can read that sentence either way without much strain. Ain’t language wonderful?
 
The Wrath of Heaven · May it visit laryngitis, halitosis and a severe stutter on those vendors who describe disk drives, network routers, printers, computers, or pretty well anything that contains silicon and plugs in, as “solutions”. A disk drive is not a solution dammit, it’s a disk drive. This is so freaking retarded, can there be a living human being who believes anyone will be more willing to drop the $450 on their box because it’s described as a “storage solution”? Bah.
 
47 Ways To Say “Broken” ·  Ballsed up. Banjaxed. Blown up. Bollixed. Borked. Bricked. Broked. Buggered (up). Bunged. Busted. Busticated. Casters-up mode. Clapped out. Crapped out. Cocked up. DOA. Done in. Down. Frapped out. Fried. Fucked (up). Fubar. Garfed. Gone pear-shaped. Goobered. Gronked. Horked. Hosed. Kaput. Knackered. NFG. Off the rails. On the blink. On the fritz. Pooched. Roached. Screwed. Shagged. Shot. Snafu. Stuffed. Tits up. Toast. U/S. Wedged. Wonky. Zorched. Note once again the vitality of English, with contributions from engineering and military jargon interbreeding organically, and in one case cheerful borrowing from our German cousins. I’d prefer not to dwell on the logical inference that engineers regard any system that’s actually working as a temporary anomaly. [Update: This was published in August 2004, but just now I ran across a dusty, neglected email folder labeled “words for broken” with late suggestions. This fragment is now closed, further suggestions will be rudely ignored.] ...
 
Norbert! · That would be our Norbert Lindenberg, whose blog is about internationalization and is called “World Views” and is excellent. A couple of days ago he showed where we need to be better world-citizens in our customer-facing internal tools, and today he follows up with an absolute slam-dunk demonstration of why you’d be nuts not to do the right thing. His chart is superb; you can bet I’m going to be using it to help get the message across, down the road. Oh, and the meta-message: when you empower your people to speak out, someone who’s smart and courageous and has initiative, like Norbert, can step up and exercise leadership.
 
The Decline of Script · I think the fine art of handwriting is about done for ...
 
Politocolinguistic Militancy · Scanning the BBC news before breakfast, I read that U.S.-Pakistan relations are improving, and that this “coincided with an army offensive against suspected militants that officials say has left 17 dead.” I am doubly-irritated; first, at the current usage of the word “militant” (chiefly by the governments of the U.S. and its allies) meaning “someone whom it’s OK to kill” (or in this case, whom it’s OK to kill on suspicion). A militant is someone who is taking up arms in support of a cause: historical examples would include George Washington, Charles de Gaulle, and Simón Bolívar. Militants, historically speaking, are sometimes considered admirable people; particularly when up in arms against corrupt, oppressive, military dictatorships. Like, for example, the government of Pakistan. Which isn’t to say that everyone fighting against General Musharraf is a fine person. But when the Americans or Israelis or Saudis or whoever equate “militant” with “license to kill”, that’s offensive on a bunch of levels. And as for being on good terms with the current Pakistani regime... America has historically got very poor results from propping up enemy-of-our-enemies dictators, but keeps trying. Follow the link and look at the picture, which kind of says it all, for me.
 
WWWW and Poo Poo · I’d like, in a high-toned kind of way, to recommend the excellent World Wide Words website and feed (I used four W’s because the “Web” is assumed present), which, for those who care about language in a scholarly way or are just looking for etymological belly-laughs (origin of “skivvies” anyone?) can’t be beat. Descending a couple of levels, I can’t help but note, in my capacity as occasional playground supervisor, that in the decades since I was in kindergarten, the childhood taunt “Na-na-na-na-na” has morphed into “Na-na-na-poo-poo.” This is clearly an improvement, incorporating both vowel variation and scatological implication. My congratulations to whichever younger generation innovated while I wasn’t listening.
 
60th IETF Notes · Herewith a newbie’s first impressions from a couple of days in the IETF maelstrom ...
 
Poetry, Go, Kerry · I love live sports (which is to say, ritualized conflict) and I love language, so how could I not love the political arena? Herewith some notes provoked by the just-ended and much-blogged Democratic National Convention ...
 
Spasms · A Japanese friend of many years has changed his email address and explains why: I had to do this change to avoid tens of hundreds of spasms and unsolicited emails I receive every day. Couldn’t have said it better myself.
 
Get Up, Stand Up · I was at a conference near Washington recently, attended by a sampling of geeks from across the intelligence community; every three-letter agency you’ve ever heard of plus lots of military and some law enforcement. They were talking about deploying computer applications and, one after another, described about how they would “stand up” the document repository or the search engine or the message router or whatever. Over the years I’ve heard a lot of people talking about working on a lot of application deployments, but this usage is new to me. I wonder if it’s a defense/intelligence thing, or something that’s out there in the corporate world too, these days? It works well in conversation, so I think it may spread.
 
Imbroglio Polyglotte · This, from Libération, is about the practicalities of dealing with the languages of the European Union, now twenty in number. If you can read French it’s well worth a visit. Its charms include the finding that more languages available means, in fact, fewer used; characters named Patrick Twidle and Berit Tecäär; and the wonderful quote “On n'a pas parlé. Alors, en fin de repas, on a dansé...” I wouldn’t know how to say that in English, we have to limp along without on. Know any Slovenian-Portuguese translators?
 
Weblogueur · This popped up in the Libération RSS feed: Le Net épie l'éthique de la presse: Un journaliste faussaire du «Chicago Tribune» démasqué par un weblogueur. Dig that last word.
 
Two Laws of Explanation · There’s been a lot of buzz recently around Edge.org’s assemblage of “Laws” proposed by Interesting People. Nobody asked me for one, but lately I’ve been doing some consulting for Dick Hardt’s stealth startup Sxip Networks while I look for a gig and it refreshed my appreciation of maybe the most important lesson I’ve learned over the last couple of decades, maybe enough to pump it up and claim it’s a Law, in fact two: Herewith the Two Laws of Explanation ...
 
Newsfeeds and Language Learning · I have no gift for foreign languages but due to having grown up overseas can limp along in bad French. I usually get to France once every year or two and after a few days find that I am limping faster. I just realised that Libération, the newspaper I read while in France, has an RSS feed, so I subscribed and now I’m reading a few hundred words a day en Français (with occasional help from either this French-English dictionary or this one). Why is Libération my paper of choice? Among other things, because it’s a tabloid and easy to carry; if you walk into a café or restaurant or store in France with a copy of Libération stuffed under your arm, the locals will instantly assume you’re not a gringo and you’ll probably get treated a lot better. Try it, it works.
 
To Read · The English verb to Read is unsatisfactory, in that its past participle is indistinguishable from many present-tense conjugations. When I say “I read that the Foreign Minister stated...” it is unclear whether I read it last May or whether having now read it I am about to react. This arises because in composing a brief email on an emotionally-charged subject—Israel/Palestine—I became aware that when I wrote “I read” it was totally unclear whether I had read or do read, and this kind of subtlety really matters in this kind of territory. I propose that we distinguish the past participle of read by adding an extra ‘d’ so when I write “readd” it’s pronounced “red” and everyone knows what I mean.
 
Moveable Text · NetNewsWire has a feature where it will show you the differences on successive revisions of a story, which is interesting, sometimes amusing, and probably too embarrassing for publishers to live with. Herewith a couple of surprising examples and a war story with a funny look inside Microsoft ...
 
Nasty Neologisms · A couple of new usages have come across my radar, both from the wrong side of the English-language tracks. Many have said that English is, relative to other languages, poorly-supplied with obscenities and imprecations. So let’s welcome a couple that have arrived in the last decade, and they’re not just standalone words, they have combinatorial potential, which is even better. Herewith a survey of new usages based around the Old English root ass, and a look at what is as far as I can tell a relatively new base form, frick ...
 
A Working Bit Bucket · On a non-technical errand today, I ran across a working bit bucket. I’m not kidding and I have the picture to prove it, check it out. Which leads to a linguistic conundrum and yet another (mercifully short) sermon on standards ...
 
Alleys and Lanes and Their People · Here in the Western part of Canada, the blocks in residential neighbourhoods are laid out with a lane between each two streets. From whence notes on words’ semantic spread, and on those losing the fight against their cities ...
 
Mish-Mish · Mish-mish is Arabic (colloquial Lebanese Arabic, anyhow) for apricot. When I was a kid there, it was also the expression for what health food stores here call “apricot leather” (illustrated below). It also has an amusing second meaning having to do with a distant tomorrow ...
 
Emoji · We Anglophones enjoy a living language but are stuck with a long-dead character set; are 26 letters really enough to last from now to the end of English? Others are more fortunate; Asians not only have more characters but get new ones. The brand-new Release 4.0 of Unicode defines 96,513 characters, of which the vast majority are Asian. This note is provoked by the Emoji phenomenon, worth a look in its own right, but the issues of languages and characters and their growth are big ones ...
 
On Being Wrong · What happened was, I wrote a small essay on the usage “What happened was...”, opining that it was American and had been dragged into the mainstream by Elmore Leonard. Was I ever wrong (also, a side-trip into Cornish comedy) ...
 
What Happened Was... · I was just watching the BBC TV stream (had to use a Windows box, my Mac can't get it). In a live broadcast from the outskirts of Basra, their correspondent Hilary Andersson in her hard-edged (for the Beeb) North England voice said: “What happened was, ...” Beautiful; pure American, dragged into the mainstream, as near as I can tell, by Elmore Leonard ...
 
On the Goodness of Unicode · Quite a few software professionals have learned that they need to worry about internationalizing software, and some of those have learned how to go about doing it. For those getting started, herewith a brief introduction to Unicode, the one technology that you have to get comfortable with if you're going to do a good job as a software citizen of the world ...
 
The Phaistos Disk · In an argument the other day I said “Give up, it's like the Phaistos Disk, you'll never figure it out.” I got blank stares, and realized that not everyone knows about this beautiful, unique and mysterious object. Here's a picture ...
 
Wow, *new* Punctuation! · It can't be that often that our language acquires an entirely new punctuation idiom, but over the past decade, the practice of highlighting *important* words with asterisks has come in under the radar and is now ubiquitous. Frankly, I think emoticons will have no more longevity than CB Radio or the Zero Option or any other short-lived cultural flourish, but the stars work so well visually that I'm betting they stick. In fact, when recent versions of Mozilla's email client started to embolden words thus framed, I didn't even notice for a while, than I laughed out loud when I did. But that's nothing ...
 
Traction · I spent the afternoon in a meeting of the advisory board of Make Technology, on which I serve. They do what they call “Standards Based Automation”; their product lets you write down most of your semantics and data model in a bunch of XML Schemas and XSLT and so on, then generate mountains of Java code to do all the plumbing for whatever your app server is - if you've got a big Java development project in the works you could do worse than call them. Anyhow, we were talking about how they've been doing in recent months and the CEO said “We're really getting traction with this stuff”. Boy, I've been hearing that word a lot recently ...
 
Fundoshi · OK, I know I said I wasn't going to point at ephemera. This one courtesy of my brother. Japanese traditional underwear. That step six looks risky.
 
The Faces of Asian Women · This may sound nuts, but I think people's faces reflect the language they speak. Perhaps because of my Pacific Rim base, I find this particularly obvious in the faces of Asian women. A huge number of the people here in Vancouver are of Chinese extraction, resident for periods anywhere between four generations and a few weeks. Being a normally male sort of person, I'm given to looking closely at women's faces. And quite often, when I look, I can tell instantly "she speaks generic North American English" or "she's a recent immigrant and has a heavy accent." ...
 
Diss · I first heard someone use "diss" sometime in the mid-nineties, which probably means that it entered the vernacular a few years before that. I have the vague idea that it come out of Black American parlance as a shortening of "disrespect", but I've never seen this looked into seriously. It's a good, useful, word, and what's surprising is the hole in the language that we didn't know was there until it was filled ...
 
Loquacious and Lackluster · Today, in a presentation at Fort Monroe, Dr. Geoffrey Malafsky, a science consultant for the Navy, used both of these words in a presentation on Knowledge Management (no, I don't know what KM is either). I'm not sure I've ever heard either of these words in spoken use before, but they both worked well, and I bet I find myself using them.
 
No, I Don't Need To · There has been a really irritating spread, into (mostly the spoken) language, of the use of the verbal phrase "to need to". This is most commonly found in the mouths of minor officials or bullying diplomats, as in "You need to remove all the keys and change from your pockets" or "Saddam needs to stop hiding his weapons." ...
 
Wife-Beater · There is a variety of sleeveless T-shirt that is called a singlet Down Under (maybe in Britain too?), and a muscle-shirt (mostly on males) or tank-top (mostly on females) here in the New World. It's a little-known fact that a black singlet is a culturally important signifier of New Zealand-ness. Google suggests that on these shores, a singlet is what wrestlers wear ...
 
Writing and Programming · ongoing is a project simultaneously in writing and programming; I write the entries and in parallel fiddle with the software that publishes it. This is a pretty involving experience and there aren't that many of us in the world who get to enjoy it ...
 
Bah! · It's nice to be a native speaker of a living language; if you keep your eyes open you can watch usages get born, flourish, and die; or sometimes find a permanent foothold in the population ...
 
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