Tags: linguistics




I like words. I like the way they can be tethered together to produce a satisfying sentence.

Jessica likes words even more than I do (that’s why her website is called “wordridden”). She studied linguistics and she’s a translator by trade—German into English. Have a read of her post about translating Victor Klemperer to get an inkling of how much thought and care she puts into it.

Given the depth of enquiry required for a good translation, I was particularly pleased to read this remark by John Le Carré:

No wonder then that the most conscientious editors of my novels are not those for whom English is their first language, but the foreign translators who bring their relentless eye to the tautological phrase or factual inaccuracy – of which there are far too many. My German translator is particularly infuriating.

That’s from an article called Why we should learn German, but it’s really about why we should strive for clarity in our use of language:

Clear language — lucid, rational language — to a man at war with both truth and reason, is an existential threat. Clear language to such a man is a direct assault on his obfuscations, contradictions and lies. To him, it is the voice of the enemy. To him, it is fake news. Because he knows, if only intuitively, what we know to our cost: that without clear language, there is no standard of truth.

It reminds me of one of my favourite Orwell essays, Politics and the English Language:

Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

But however much I agree with Le Carré’s reprise of Orwell’s call for clarity, I was brought up short by this:

Every time I hear a British politician utter the fatal words, “Let me be very clear”, these days I reach for my revolver.

Le Carré’s text was part of a speech given in Berlin, where everyone would get the reference to the infamous Nazi quote—Wenn ich Kultur höre … entsichere ich meinen Browning—and I’m sure it was meant with a sly wink. But words matter.

Words are powerful. Words can be love and comfort — and words can be weapons.


So Anand Giridharadas has written a piece about the word so, tracing its ascendency as a sentence-opener to Silicon Valley:

And “so” suggested a kind of thinking that appealed to problem-solving types: conversation as a logical, unidirectional process, proceeding much in the way of software code — if this, then that.

This logical tinge to “so” has followed it out of software. Starting a sentence with “so” uses the whiff of logic to relay authority. Where “well” vacillates, “so” declaims.

It declaims. That’s the reason Seamus Heaney chose it as the translation for the opening word of Beowulf:

Conventional renderings of hwæt, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with ‘lo’, ‘hark’, ‘behold’, ‘attend’ and — more colloquially — ‘listen’ being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullion-speak, the particle ‘so’ came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom ‘so’ operates as an expression that obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.

Listen for yourself:

Beowulf on Huffduffer

Funny how?

There’s something about watching videos of unnecessary censorship—particularly of the Sesame Street variety—that cracks me up. Not content with simply finding them funny, I wanted to figure out why they tickle my funny bone so. It turns out that Matt has already figured it out, although he was referring to Nathan Barley:

It’s not funny because it’s rude, it’s funny because it looks like it’s funny because it’s rude.

That’s it! At first glance, it may seem over-complicated. After all, aren’t those videos of unnecessary censorship funny because they look like they’re rude? But no, they are funny because they look like they are funny because they are rude. That’s an important distinction.

Matt repurposes this sentence construction in an excellent post about the reports of the death of privacy being greatly exaggerated. He points out the huge danger in confusing the fact that technologies can be used to destroy privacy with the assumption that those technologies therefore will destroy privacy. If we fall into the trap of making that assumption then it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy:

It’s not the end of privacy because of these new visibilities, but it may be the end of privacy because it looks like the end of privacy because of these new visibilities.

Here’s another example. A snapshot on Flickr of the TripLog iPhone app interface initially drew nought but scorn from designers deriding how complicated—and therefore, frustrating—it looked. But following a comment from the app’s designer and a subsequent analysis on the 37 Signals blog, things weren’t quite so straightforward. The initial criticism assumed that the app would be frustrating to use because it looks complicated but really…

It’s not frustrating because it’s complicated, it’s frustrating because it looks like it’s frustrating because it’s complicated.

Could it be that Matt has created a snowclone?

It’s not X because it’s Y, it’s X because it looks like it’s X because it’s Y.

Maybe I’ll add it to the queue and see what Erin thinks.


Stop what you’re doing and watch this utterly charming and beguiling video entitled Wordmaking: What it take to succeed in hacking English and invent a new word. It’s a presentation by as part of the TechTalks series at Google.

How is it that I had never come across the term before?* I asked Jessica this rhetorical question and the next thing you know, I’m learning all about . Clearly I need to improve my linguistic knowledge.

On a tangentially related note, I’ve discovered kindred spirits out there in blogland, to whit:

Ever notice hand-written signs with letters in all-caps, except for the letter L? It looks like an uppercase i … WHY DO PEOPlE WRITE lIKE THIS?

*Update: Edward O’Connor points me to his wife’s blog, The Snowclone Database.