25 May 2006

a fpoonful of mɪ:

Here's two tidbits of phonological curiosity heard recently on TV airwaves:

Wendy's has advertised its Frosty as a soquid, and one of the actors in the ad suggests it would taste better with a fpoon; i.e. "frosted spoon". Both words illustrate a love affair between would-be word coiners and blending, but fpoon is also notable for its initial [fp-] cluster, not otherwise seen in English. Google searches on "soquid and fpoon" hit about 10,000 pages; on many of them the words are already used as pseudonyms in MySpace and the like, while on others, bloggers and posters either celebrate or denounce them. Fpoon alone yields 20,000 ghits, and seems to predate the Wendy's commercial. In fact, it appears to also be a blend of fork + spoon, an inversion of the known blend spork (spoon + fork). Whatever its composition, it stands out because of its odd cluster (which you could call phonologically impossible, but given the ease with which the actor produced it, and its pre-commercial diffusion, you could also call it an accidental gap).

The second oddity is from Stephen Colbert's rendering of MI III, the abbreviated title of the recently released Mission Impossible 3. Colbert calls it [mɪ:], with a lax vowel in an open monosyllable (i.e. like mid but with no d). Like the initial [fp-] cluster, this is something English phonology doesn't normally allow, and thus stands out in a similar way. The audience laughter that followed supports this, but it's difficult to tease out whether what they found funny was (a) Colbert playing dumb and pretending not to know that MI III is an abbreviation (b) the violation of their own intuitions regarding lax vowels in open monosyllables or (c) both.

20 May 2006

til subjunctive do them get

I really don't mean for this to sound prescriptive, but I have to comment on it somehow. Flipping through a magazine, I came across a full page ad for an upcoming episode of CSI: Miami. Very dramatic, with David Caruso glaring out you out of one corner, and a blurry image of what appears to be someone important being dragged by paramedics towards the sliding side door of an ambulance. Wait, is that possible? And at the top, in intimidating sans-serif capital letters, is a nifty catch phrase: Til Death do they part. Uh, is that possible too?

OK, here's why I'm not complaining. Traditional wedding vows contain a few phrases that are archaic in various ways, like With this ring I thee wed. This one's archaic because of its use of the old second-person singular object pronoun and its placement of this object pronoun before the verb. At least as archaic is another phrase, Til death do us part. Again, there is an object pronoun before the main verb, but in this case, do shows up, in what appears to be a subjunctive. Wedding vows being as ritualistic as they are, I am not surprised that these phrases aren't parsed like non-ritualistic language. I also believe most of us know what both these phrases mean and can paraphrase them, but probably will stumble over novel productions with a parallel structure, like With this hose he it watered and Til syntax do me bore.

Again, I'm not complaining. Weird, memorized old structures. Also, subjunctives. We don't really use many subjunctives at all, probably because they look like indicatives. In the present tense, subjunctives take no overt agreement, so they only look different in 3rd person singular for all verbs except be, whose subjunctive is invariantly be and thus distinct from all its present indicatives (am, are, is). I'll bet very few people use any present subjunctives productively other than in memorized constructions. One notable example is the shed in God shed his grace on thee, discussed a while back by Geoff Pullum on Language Log. Another is the use of be in learned-sounding phrases like Be that as it may, So be it, and in listing options like I'll drink any cola, be it coke, or pepsi, or RC. Oh, and the b in goodbye (< God be with you). And the example that started this, til death do us part, where do takes no 3rd person agreement - an indicative would be death does us part.

On the other hand, some people do use past subjunctives, like invariant were, as in if I were there, I would have said something or Were I to do it again, I would have been more careful. Note the inversion in the second example, which also shows up with past subjunctive had, as in Had I known better, I wouldn't have stayed so long. But again, look how the subjunctives look like indicatives.

The functions of subjunctives are more typically carried out with auxiliaries, like May your birthday be bright, Let there be light, and Let it be known, or with conditional markers, like if or whether, as in the prescriptively frowned-upon If I was ... construction.

Anyway, we have other ways of expressing what subjunctives express, in past tense and especially in present tense. So the fact that the do in Til death do us part is subjunctive is no doubt not obvious to fluent English speakers. Neither, evidently, is the fact that the subject in this SOV phrase is death.

Add to this the fact that, though we don't know how to parse this phrase, we know vaguely what it means: "we'll be together til one of us dies". So it's really easy to think that us (despite its object form) is the subject of the sentence - and hey, it also precedes the main verb. To complete the puzzle, it's also easy to parse do as an auxiliary that agrees with us, since death do looks weird as a subject-verb combo. Just like Ray Charles parsed shed as a past indicative, and made it emphatic by embellishing it to done shed.

So ultimately, if you write ads for CBS and you love wordplay, and you want to allude to the wedding vow phrase Til death do us part, you'll switch out the us and put in some other pronoun - but a subject pronoun. Voila, Til death do they part. The rest of us recognize the phrase, and immediately think of the paraphrase, yielding "they'll be together til one of them dies". Job's done, great ad, let's go out after work. But look at the actual phrase Til death do they part - since they is clearly the subject now, til death is an adjunct, and it maps to an intepretation of "they'll be apart til one of them dies". Maybe the other's dead already, and they'll finally be together in the afterlife.

Like I said, I'm not complaining. Not complaining that basically nobody uses present subjunctives in English. But if your job as an ad writer is to manipulate language and use wordplay, maybe you should know what you're messing with. It's like a mechanic deciding it would be funny to fill your radiator with gasoline.

Coincidentally, the magazine that had this ad was Us.

18 May 2006

super trifecta

This post is brought to you by the number 4.

Here is a curious piece of cross-sport metaphor: Joel Quenneville, current coach of the Colorado Avalanche (NHL), is quoted as follows by several writers, including Jeff Gordon of the St Louis Post Dispatch, Ray Slover of the Sporting News, Johnny Rosenstein of CBS sportsline, and an AP recap:
Look at the teams that are leading and still alive in the playoffs, from top to bottom they have quickness ... You can call it the Super Trifecta: they have size, they have speed, they have skill, and they have youth.

This metaphor begins with trifecta, a type of horse-racing bet in which the bettor chooses the top three finishers in order. OED online lists quotations for trifecta, but no definition; however, its etymology (tri + perfecta) leads you to a definition for perfecta, a bet on the placement and order of the top two finishers.

Looking for more on types of horse bets, I found this resource, which adds the following info: a superfecta is a "trifecta plus one": a bet on the placement and order of the top four finishers. A twin trifecta is a pair of trifectas: if you win a trifecta for the first race, you are eligible to use your payout to place a trifecta bet on the second. A supertrifecta is similar, except that the first bet must be a trifecta (top 3) while the second is a superfecta (top 4).

Clearly this knowledge is obscure, so any use of supertrifecta instead of superfecta is excusable in any context other than the betting window. Quenneville was invoking the "fourness" component of a superfecta bet, but pulled supertrifecta out instead. (Nice to know his knowledge of gambling is not quite so sophisticated).

But note that all this metaphor needed to be understood was a shared notion of fourness: the four crucial team qualities that Quenneville acknowledges constitute a metaphorical superfecta. But whether they constitute the top (i.e. most important) four qualities is not clear - I'm sure there are at least four others just as important (and that Quenneville also knows about).

05 May 2006

tightrope (v.)

As Jay Onrait of tsn.ca reports this morning,

How about this quote from Lebron James regarding his lay-up with less than a second left in overtime to lift his Cavs over the Wizards in Game 5 of their first round NBA Playoff series on Wednesday night: "I had enough room on the baseline, if I wore an 18 or 19 size shoe I wouldn't have made it. But I wear a 16 and was able to tightrope that baseline to get a lay-up." You can now add "tightrope that baseline" to the sports lexicon.

Well, I'm in favour of adding novel items to said lexicon, but there's more to it than that. Might be time to take stock of exactly what's in the sports lexicon.

A while back I made a core/periphery distinction among sports lexemes. Core terms are those that are intrinsic to a game - this includes (a) items used only in a sport or in metaphorical reference to that sport, e.g., scrum, and (b) specialized usages, e.g. both senses of safety in North American football, and baseline in the above quote. Periphery terms are those that mark the dialogue in and around sport, but aren't intrinsic to a game's structure, e.g. get untracked to mean "end a slump", or get off the schneid to mean "end a scoreless streak".

Also in the lexicon, I think, is a host of metaphors, many of which are better known as cliches. "We've got our backs against the wall", "It's gut check time", "we just gotta play with desperation", "this building is always tough to play in", ... . I say these are lexical because they're learned and used as full units (and used repeatedly). Further, the metaphor of "walking a tightrope" fits into this group, though James used only tightrope instead of the full phrase.

But I'm not sure that the verbing of the word is what qualifies it as a sports lexicon item. Sure, other nouns get verbed in the sport context. Quarterback, when crossed over into hockey, can act as a verb. The noun slump also has a gerundive counterpart slumping. But noun-to-verb derivation is productively available in English, and right now it's hard to determine whether such derivation is more likely in sports discourse than eslewhere - but I doubt it.

Looking back on what Ondrait wrote, I don't even think the verbal usage is what he's zeroed in on - I think it's specifically the use of the metaphorical tightrope in reference to the baseline.