Monday, March 28, 2011

Highly Irregular

Many—too many, if you ask me—verbs form their past tenses irregularly. Instead of adding –ed, like a nice, well-behaved regular verb with slicked-back hair, neatly pressed clothes, and shined shoes, these irregular verbs go their own unruly way, heedless of good manners, doing whatever they like, perversely forming highly improper past tenses and indecent past participles.

Why can’t the past tense of is be ised instead of was, were and been? Why not writed instead of wrote and written, or doed instead of did and done? Well, that’s not for me to say; I have no authority over these out-of-control verbs. I can only lament their reprehensible conduct.

Take sink, for example. Sink wasn’t happy with the idea of forming a past tense by adding –ed, like normal verbs, so instead of plain old sinked she insisted on sank as the past tense and sunk as the past participle. Now look what’s happened: people are getting tired of sank, so they just use sunk for anything in the past. Not only has the ship sunk—it sunk yesterday!

The same is true of some of sink’s pals, like sting and sling, and will soon be true of stink, shrink, sing and spring as well. Stang and slang have long since been replaced by stung and slung, and stunk, shrunk, sung, and sprung are sneaking in surreptitiously by way of the back door even as we speak, spoke, and have spoken.

For example, the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as Merriam-Webster's New International 2nd edition, list sprung as an alternate past tense to sprang, with no indication that it is sub-standard. Both of these reliable lexicons also list other vowel-shifting verbs such as sung and, yes, even sunk, as acceptable alternative past tenses.

Good old spank, though, follows the rules: spank, spanked, have spanked. Hurrah!

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is also irregular, at least on some occasions. He deals with it by trying to be a regular guy.

I have a gong
That I ring, and I rang, and I’ve rung,
I know a song
That I sing, and I sang, and I’ve sung,
So why is it wrong
If I bring, and I brang, and I’ve brung?

I sail a ship
That I sink, and I sank, and I’ve sunk.
I like a nip,
So I drink, and I drank, then I’m drunk.
I need a quip--
So I think, and I thank, and I’ve thunk.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Having it Both Ways

English has as number of words, variously called contradictanyms, auto-antonyms, antagonyms, and Janus words, which can mean both one thing and its opposite.  For example, qualified can mean both “competent” and “limited”—as in “Although qualified for the job, he was only a qualified success.” (Janus was the Roman god of beginnings and endings, who looked in two directions.)

There are various reasons that such words occur—development of similar words from different roots (such as cleave, meaning “to adhere” from Old English clifian and "to separate" from Old English cleofan), change of meaning in a word over time (critical, meaning both "vital" and "censorious"), application of an existing word to a new meaning (screen, meaning "to hide from view" and also "to show [a film]"), and plain old ignorance (using literally to mean "virtually" instead of "actually").

However they come about, contradictanyms can make for confusion if you don’t read carefully.  Consider the following sentences;

            Bolt the door or the prisoner will bolt.

            His critical comments were critical to our success.

            Stars are out when the lights are out.

            There was an unfortunate oversight in her oversight of the work.

            He tried to move fast, but he was stuck fast.

            One man was left, but he left.

            If the lights goes off, the alarm goes off.

            I’m in a fix and have no fix for it.

            I’d like to rent your car.  Will you rent it?

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is something of a contradictanym himself; he thinks what he writes is poetry, but it’s actually the opposite, to wit:

            I shot an arrow into the air,
            It fell to earth I knew not where.
            A man rushed up and yelled at me:
            “You fool—you shot me in the knee!”

Monday, March 14, 2011

Spilling the Beans

Eat your green beans, our parents always told us. Also known as string beans or snap beans, and in England as runner beans, they can be beans of almost any variety together with their unripe pods. “String beans,” so-called because of the fibrous quality of the pods, were referred to as early as 1754, “snap beans” (from the sound made when they are broken in pieces for cooking) in 1770, “green beans” in 1842, and “runner beans” (high-climbing scarlet runners) not until 1882.  At least that’s what Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary would have us believe.

Stringless beans (and we’re all grateful for them) were developed in 1894 in Le Roy, New York, by Calvin Keeney, who is forever enshrined in posterity’s memory (well, someone’s memory) as “The Father of the Stringless Bean.”

The French term haricots verts (“green beans”) usually refers to a longer, thinner bean than the typical American kind. These beans provided the name for the rowdy Cajun musical genre known as zydeco.  One of the earliest numbers in that up-tempo, accordion-based style was called “Les haricots sont pas salés,” which means “The beans aren’t salty”—implying the singer was too poor to afford salt pork to cook with his beans.  Zydeco is a corruption of les haricots, as pronounced in Cajun French.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou knows what it is to have no salt for his beans.  It’s rough, as he tells us in these lines:

            The green beans have no grain of salt,
            The lox has not one caper,
            The whisky isn’t single-malt,
            The food has lost its sapor.

            The artichokes lack Hollandaise,
            The champagne has no bubbles,
            The steak’s bereft of Bordelaise,
            Such culinary troubles!

            The pâté de foie gras’s not fat,
            The truffles aren’t mature,
            The lobster tastes a lot like sprat—
            It’s awful being poor!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Word Imperfect

Ben Zimmer, who followed William Safire as author of On Language, a now defunct weekly column in The New York Times Magazine, reported the case of a young woman who received a text message from her father that said: “Your mom and I are going to divorce next month.”

When she called her father in alarm, he told her, “I wrote Disney, and the phone changed it to divorce.  We’re going to Disneyworld!”

The auto-correction feature that you find on most smartphones—and the officious Microsoft Word spell-check—can cause you to say some peculiar things if you’re not careful.  This phenomenon is known in the trade as the “Cupertino Effect” as a result of an error made frequently by the first Word spell-check in 1997.  It refused to recognize the word cooperation unless it was hyphenated as co-operation.  It substituted Cupertino instead—no small irony, since Cupertino, California, is the headquarters of Microsoft’s arch-rival, Apple.

The Times has reported numerous howlers created by technology run amok.  “Sorry to hear about your feces” was intended to be “Sorry to hear about your fever.”  An invitation to “boardgame night” became an invitation to “bisexual night.”

Microsoft’s 2007 Office spell-checker (perhaps programmed by a Republican) didn’t contain Obama—and unfortunately recommended that it be changed in every case to Osama.  

Microsoft Word has insisted to me that The Great Gatsby should be The Great Gutsy, Aubrey Beardsley is really Aubrey Birdseye, John Van Druten is better known as John Van Duration, and Shakespeare intended to name his play Ethel rather than Othello.

You can probably figure out what was meant by these mistaken changes of what the texter intended:

            I’m exhausted from helping my dad clean his condom.

            I’m so thirsty—I had way too much sodomy last night.

            Why does our dorm smell like incest?

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has little patience with being told to change his spelling; he figures he can make enough mistakes himself without any help.

            A poet with verbal agility
            Penned odes filled with grace and nobility.
            Thanks to Microsoft’s failure,
            He extolled genitalia,
            When the word that he meant was gentility.