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Q. Pheevr
16 Maj 2009 @ 21:31

Here (scanned from the Toronto Star) is a frame from a TV ad by the Conservative Party, which attacks the Liberal Party leader, Michael Ignatieff, for running attack ads: (Note in particular the inset showing part of a Liberal ad with an image of the Conservative Party leader, Stephen Harper.) This is an example of:

cognitive dissonance
why voter turnout is so low in Canadian federal elections
Q. Pheevr

A few of you may recall from a couple of weeks ago a certain brouhaha, a bit of a to-do, about how Amazon.com suddenly failed to display various works related to lesbians and gays in search results. One of the big questions, of course, was whether it would be plausible as well as charitable to attribute this "glitch" to incompetence rather than malice (albeit incompetence nudged in one particular direction by general societal levels of homophobia).

I have no original ideas to contribute to the debate, but I thought I'd share, belatedly, one piece of circumstantial evidence that may or may not reflect on the plausibility of the incompetence hypothesis. I was recently searching on Amazon for P. G. Wodehouse's memoir Over Seventy, which, alas, appears to be out of print. Amazon does have a page for Over Seventy, with links to people selling used copies starting from usd$202.76 (too rich for my blood). In order to help its customers find what they are looking for, Amazon invites browsers to supply products with informative tags. No one has yet tagged Over Seventy, but that's okay, because Amazon's software has helpfully come up with some speculation under the heading "Suggested Tags from Similar Products." Here are some of the tags it thinks may apply to this work of autobiography by the creator of Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves:

  • dystopia
  • african literature
  • post-apocalyptic
  • chick lit

I am not sure who is more likely to be disappointed here, aficionados of Wodehouse or fans of dystopian post-apocalyptic African chick-lit.

Q. Pheevr
05 April 2009 @ 18:06

"Abhorrent" is the word that President Barack Obama used to describe the new Afghan law that denies women certain extremely basic rights, such as the right to leave their houses on a whim, or the right to decline to have sex with their husbands. This law would, in effect, place all Afghan women under a particularly malign form of house arrest in which their captors would be permitted to rape them with impunity.

I have to agree with Obama here; abhorrent is definitely the word for it. And while we're on the subject of abhorrent laws, it is perhaps worth noting that in many states in Obama's own country, spousal rape has been outlawed only quite recently—1993 in the case of North Carolina, to take one example. Even now that spousal rape is illegal throughout the United States, it is still the case in many states that a woman who has been sexually assaulted by her husband has less recourse to legal protection than one who has been assaulted by a stranger. In some cases, the period during which such an assault can be reported is shorter; in some, a narrower range of unwanted sexual contact is prohibited; in some, the standard for demonstrating that force was used is stricter.

I think that this, too, is abhorrent. I suppose the idea behind these laws is that a husband has some cause to expect that his wife will consent to have sex with him—but then surely a wife has some right to expect that her husband will not assault her, and isn't this a rather more important right? And, of course, these laws are different from the Afghan law in their gender-neutral reference to spouses—in general, they give a wife just as much latitude to sexually assault her husband as they give him to assault her. But this is not, I think, the sort of equality that does anyone any good.

Abhorrent is the only word for it. I hope that with all the moral outrage going around, there's enough there to fix more than just the Afghan law.

Q. Pheevr
01 April 2009 @ 15:46

It is an ancient and noble tradition, among certain newspapers, to mark the first day of April by sneaking a fanciful work of fiction into their otherwise reliable pages. One of my favourite examples of the genre is the Guardian's classic 1977 article on the island nation of San Seriffe (comprising the islands of Upper and Lower Caisse, and ruled by the dictatorial General Pica).

But what do you do if you're in the satire business, and such spoof articles are your regular stock in trade? Well, if you're The Onion, what you do is put together an April Fool's Day issue that consists entirely of sober, factual reporting about the real events of the day. It's quite impressive, really—not just as a brilliant meta-prank, but as actual journalism. If The Onion did this every day, we wouldn't need the New York Times.

Nuværende humør: impressedimpressed
Q. Pheevr
26 Marts 2009 @ 10:45

Farhad Manjoo, reviewing some new Web browsers in the New York Times, has the following to say about the latest version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer:

It's speedy, it seems inured to crashes, and not only does it match its rivals' features — in some cases, I.E. beats them.

I suppose it would be inured to crashes by now; the question is, should the user adopt the same attitude? Or might the user, perhaps, be justified in having somewhat higher expectations?

The online Times, by the way, has a handy new feature that allows one to look up any word that appears in it; selecting a word brings up a little question mark icon that, when clicked, opens the American Hertitage Dictionary's definition. Here's what you get when you look up inure:

To habituate to something undesirable, especially by prolonged subjection; accustom: "Though the food became no more palatable, he soon became sufficiently inured to it" (John Barth).
Nuværende humør: amusedamused
Q. Pheevr
20 December 2008 @ 21:52

Since I intend to get on a plane tomorrow, I thought I'd see what my daily newspaper (online edition) had to say about what the weather has in store for us, which turned out to include the following sentence:

There are just 11 days left in 2008, but the most precipitous year on record is far from over.

I'm not sure I would—or could—have used "most precipitous" to mean 'having the most precipitation'; on the other hand, I can't think of a good concise alternative, either. ("Wettest" springs to mind, but that might be taken as referring only to rain, rather than to rain and snow and sleet and hail and whatever else has been dropping out of the sky on us over the last twelve months.)

Update: They've changed "most precipitous" to "soggiest."

Nuværende humør: gloomyprecipitous?
Q. Pheevr
04 November 2008 @ 23:04

I've been listening to CBC Radio 1 and watching the returns on the New York Times' Web site. The radio just said that Obama is now officially believed to have won, and played some audio of cheering crowds in Chicago... and then as I listened, I realized that not all the cheers were coming from the radio. People are cheering in the streets here in Toronto.

Q. Pheevr
04 November 2008 @ 16:03

If you are a citizen of the United States of America, you have a little time left to...


Me, I mailed in my absentee ballot on October 14—the same day as the Canadian federal election. This time around, I voted with a great deal of hope and enthusiasm, especially compared to the grim determination of four years ago. This time, I think my vote will make a difference: the race is close in the state where my ballot will be counted. This time, I think my candidate has a better chance of winning. (The Comic Strip of Record has already called the election in his favour.) This time, my candidate is actually... inspiring. Barack Obama is not just the better choice; he's a really good choice. He's smart and thoughtful and principled. He both gives and commands respect. He will remind people in the United States that their government works for them, and he will remind people in other countries that the United States can be a good ally. He is part of the fulfillment of the dream of the civil rights movement. I know he won't be perfect, and he'll probably do a few things I won't agree with, but I think he's the best presidential candidate I've ever voted for, and I really hope he wins.

Q. Pheevr
14 Oktober 2008 @ 08:54

If you're Canadian, this would be a good time to…


Q. Pheevr
12 Oktober 2008 @ 12:32

A message with the following subject line showed up in two of my inboxen this morning:

FELICITATION VOUS AVEZ GAGNE LA SOMME DE 150.000 EURO (ceci n'est pas un spam)

Now, I would really prefer it if René Magritte would stop sending me this kind of message altogether. L'Office québécois de la langue française, on the other hand, would simply like him to use their 1997 coinage pourriel instead of the English spam. Pourriel has the distinction of being a blend (mot-valise, or portmanteau word, sensu Dumpty) formed from another blend: pourriel is a blend of poubelle and courriel, the latter being itself a contracted form of courrier électronique. The OQLF further instructs us, in the relevant entries in the Grand dictionnaire terminologique, that courriel, unlike électronique, is to be spelled with no acute accent on the e (because French words just aren't supposed to end in -iél, you see), and that the source of pourriel is poubelle, not pourri or pourriture, "comme certains le laissent croire." Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Q. Pheevr
15 September 2008 @ 21:31

A newsreader on CBC Radio One has just seen fit to reassure us that, despite today's worrisome financial developments in the States, things look rather better "north of the forty-ninth parallel." This is not terribly comforting if you consider that the TSX is somewhere around 43º, and the Bourse de Montréal circa 45º.

Q. Pheevr

The world has come a long way in the past third of a century or so. In 1975, Robin Lakoff's book Language and Women's Place had the following to say about widows and widowers:

Surely a bereaved husband and a bereaved wife are equivalent: they have both undergone the loss of a mate. But in fact, linguistically at any rate, this is not true. It is true that we have two words, widow and widower; but here again, widow is far commoner in use. Widows, not widowers, have their particular roles in folklore and tradition, and mourning behavior of particular sorts seems to be expected more strongly, and for a longer time, of a widow than of a widower. But there is more than this, as evidenced by the following:

    1. Mary is John's widow.
    2. *John is Mary's widower.

Like mistress, widow commonly occurs with a possessive preceding it, the name of the woman's late husband. Though he is dead, she is still defined by her relationship to him. But the bereaved husband is no longer defined in terms of his wife. While she is alive, he is sometimes defined as Mary's husband (though less often, probably, than she is as "John's wife"). But once she is gone, her function for him is over, linguistically speaking anyway.

As of this morning (at the latest), this is no longer true. Here is today's New York Times reporting on yesterday's election in Pakistan:

Bhutto’s Widower, Viewed as Ally by U.S., Wins the Pakistani Presidency Handily

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who has little experience in governing, was elected president of Pakistan on Saturday by a wide margin.

We talk about "sexist language," but, as Lakoff's book made clear, it's not really the language that is at fault. The sexist asymmetries in our language merely reflect, and to some extent reinforce, the sexism that is present in our society. (The words governor and governess, for example, were once about as parallel semantically as they are morphologically; that they have drifted apart is merely a reflection of the fact that society generally assigned men to govern states, and women to govern children. This pair, I think, is unlikely to swing back into sync; Sarah Palin is not the governess of Alaska.)

Zardari is described as "Bhutto's widower" for the same reason that so many women over the centuries have been described as somebody's widow: because the deceased spouse is more prominent in the speaker's mind than the surviving one. All it took to make the construction in Lakoff's (24b) grammatical was the remarkable career of Benazir Bhutto. If we want to change the language, all we have to do is change the world.

Q. Pheevr
15 August 2008 @ 15:00

Sherry Stern, writing in the Los Angeles Times, and reprinted in my morning paper, tells us:

The creator of the popular comic strip For Better or for Worse has had a change of heart — literally and figuratively — and won't be retiring after all.

As it turns out, "literally and figuratively" seems to mean something more like "in two slightly different figurative senses"; Johnston's decision not to retire was prompted by a change in her personal life, not by a heart transplant. Now, I have, in a previous post, sketched a possible defence for the use of the word literally as a mere intensifier (not that I would ever use it that way myself, mind you). However, I don't think you can get away with using this bleached sense of literally if you are also conjoining (and contrasting) it with figuratively.

In any case, I don't think the intensifying meaning of literally was what Stern had in mind. The idea seems to be that Johnston had a change of heart (in the ordinary idiomatic sense of the phrase) about retiring after undergoing a change in a matter of the heart (in another conventional figurative sense of heart), namely the end of her marriage. But it's not at all obvious to me which one Stern thought of as literal.