Tuesday, September 10, 2002

SAVING MAPUDUNGUN. The bountiful and Enigmatic Mermaid points us to an article about an effort to save the Mapudungun language spoken by the Mapuche Indians of Chile by setting up a machine translation program between Mapudungun and Spanish, backed by a $5 million NSF grant. I'm all in favor of saving minority languages (assuming they're still alive), but it doesn't seem to me that machine translation is the way to do it. Wouldn't it make more sense to set up a program that would let them record (and print out as desired) texts in their language, allowing them to preserve chants, epics, recipes, ritual insults, and whatever other aspects of their culture they wanted to pass on to later generations? The ability to automatically translate into (inevitably bad) Spanish seems to me a distant second in terms of usefulness. But maybe I'm missing something.

Sunday, September 08, 2002

VERBAL CUISINE. Languagehat apologizes for persistent recent negativity; herewith a hymn of praise that should leave us all feeling better.

There are apparently people out there who don't care for Adam Gopnik, but I don't understand them. He's the main reason I keep subscribing to The New Yorker, and I think he's one of the best stylists and funniest writers around (thoughtful as well as funny, but being funny is harder than being thoughtful). I would like to bring to your attention his article "The Cooking Game," from the double Food Issue of Aug. 19 & 26; I wish I could provide a link, but the magazine has not chosen to put it online, so I'll have to type in my quotations (probably just as well, as it will keep me from quoting so much it takes up my entire blog).

The article is about a cookoff among five chefs in Manhattan restaurants, all of whom agreed to create meals based on farmer's-market ingredients chosen by Gopnik. Who cares, you say (unless you are a serious foodie), and you would be right, except that Gopnik can write about anything and keep you turning the pages with delight and anticipation. He begins with a paragraph saying that cooks are "the last artists among us who still live in the daily presence of patronage"; unlike artists, writers, and the rest, they have not been "Byronized.... there to instruct and puzzle an audience, not to please it." He goes on:
But although cooks are a source of romance, they are not themselves Romantic. They practice their art the way all art was practiced until the nineteenth century, as a job done to order for rich people who treat you as something between the court jester and the butler. Cooks can be temperamental--cooks are supposed to be temperamental--but temperament is the Byronism of the dependent; children, courtesans, and cooks all have it. What cooks have in place of freedom is what all artists had back before they were released from the condition of flunkydom: a weary, careful dignity, a secretive sense of craft, and the comforting knowledge of belonging to a guild.
Isn't that well said? I don't care if it's "true" in the judgment of historians; it gives me a new way of looking at the world and making connections I hadn't made before, and reading the words gives me intense pleasure. Let me finish up with another quote that provides the sort of illustration of perverse human nature I can't resist. He tells a story one of the chefs, Dan Barber of Blue Hill, told him, about a time when everyone in the restaurant was sure a customer who'd been coming and ordering different things was actually William Grimes, the main food critic of the NY Times.
"So the very next day, Grimes actually calls from the Times and asks for a wine list. Now, this guy, let's call him Mr. Hudsucker, had taken a menu with him--but not a wine list! So, I mean, now we're getting obvious." He went on, "That Friday, a 'Diner's Journal' article comes out that lists all the dishes Mr. Hudsucker ate at the bar! So, O.K., the next week H.M. Hudsucker makes another reservation, and we flip over backward for him, creating all these tasting menus, and the servers going through hula hoops. You have to be careful with that stuff, of course, because it's like the Enigma secret--you want to use it, but you don't want it to be obvious you've broken the code. Anyway, finally someone comes into the kitchen and I say, 'That's Grimes,' and he says, 'No, it isn't. I know Grimes, and that's not Grimes.' And I say, 'That's not Grimes? Then who the hell is that?' Later, a waiter went over without my knowing it and said, 'You seem so, uh, passionate abut food, Mr. Hudsucker, are you in the business?' And he said, 'What business?' And the server said the food business. And Mr. Hudsucker said, 'The food business? I'm in the insurance business. I just like it here.

"And the really terrible part of the story is that he came back and we didn't do anything for him--not because we're malicious. It's just, just that at this point we're sort of disillusioned with H.M. Hudsucker, no fault of his own. And he walked out upset. It's ironic because... he was the ideal diner! He ate like a food critic without being one! The ideal guest."

Friday, September 06, 2002

GET ME REWRITE. OK, you're all as sick of my complaining about the NY Times as I am. But. What can I do when they keep violating the English language? Once more into the breach...

I didn't go to J school. But. I strongly suspect they drum into their students the vital importance of maintaining a lively and engaging style by means of using contrast whenever possible, and even when not. I picture reporters waking up in the morning muttering "Although I will be going to work today, I will be taking the subway..." and going to bed with "I am currently lying on my right side; however, I will soon turn to the left." Normally the incessant parade of "however, although, nevertheless, on the other hand" doesn't especially bother me; I accept it as a professional tic. But. Read the following quote from Joyce Wadler's article in today's paper:
The wall behind Billy's bed is a mural of Billy and his girlfriend, Mary Fragapane, who is also a painter, kissing, with the names Billy and Mary written into it. There are photos and paintings of Mary, a pretty woman with long dark hair, throughout the apartment. Billy says he did not have to white-out anyone else's name when he and Mary started dating, two years ago, although, coincidentally, his last girlfriend's name was Mary.
Didn't it occur to anyone that the word "because" would be more appropriate than "although"?

Wednesday, September 04, 2002

BABBLING BABES. An article in the Observer provides a useful summary of what's been learned recently about the abilities of the infant brain (surprising scientists but not mothers). The following passage is of particular interest to linguists:
Scientists used to think that babies couldn't pick up the subtleties of speech sounds, and so took a long time to distinguish between, say, the r's and l's in English. But a landmark 1997 study by Patricia Kuhl showed that one-month-old American babies could distinguish 'every English sound contrast we threw at them'. Then they found out that one-month-old babies exposed to Spanish and Kikuyu had the same facility, and that one-month-olds everywhere were good at distinguishing sounds, even if they were from languages they'd never heard. But they went on to discover that they lose this general capacity as their first year progresses and they become more attentive to the rhythms and patterns of their mother tongue.

This is a good and necessary thing. It is only by picking up on familiar cadences and sound combinations of their mother tongue that they begin to pick words out of the flow of other people's speech.

The words they pick out go on to influence how they think. This is well illustrated in a 1995 study by Berkeley psychologists Alison Gopnik and Soonja Choi. Noting that the Korean language puts a greater emphasis on verbs while a sentence in English was not complete without a noun, they found the same patterns evident in the way Korean and American mothers talked to their infants and the way the babies developed their own vocabularies. And they also found that Korean-speaking children learnt 'how to solve problems like using the rake to get the out-of-reach toy well before the English-speaking children', while English-speakers started categorising objects earlier than the Korean speakers.
Sounds like it might provide support for a moderate version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I also like this bit, which reinforces a lesson about the limitations of the male-scientist mindset:
[Cognitive scientists] also credit much of the new thinking to the entry of large numbers of women into the field over the past few decades. Until their arrival, the profession was dominated by men who did not think it necessary to test their theories on real children. Now it is a field in which much of the imaginative thinking comes from men and women who spend time with children, both in and outside the laboratory.
(A tip of the hat to Billy Blogs.)
SPANGLISH DON. Inspired by "un académico purista" who said on Spanish radio that he wouldn't take seriously the hybrid of Spanish and English spoken widely in the Americas until it had its own Quixote, Ilan Stavans has translated the first chapter of Don Quixote into Spanglish! It's available here. It's not clear to me from the article in Reforma.com whether he's translated any more than the excerpt they present (or whether he even intends to), and I'm not sure if there's a market for it (even if you can make sense of it, you'll probably prefer to read it in the original or in English, whichever comes easier to you), but I'm glad he's done this much. Take that, purists! (A tip of the hat to the Enigmatic Mermaid.)

Tuesday, September 03, 2002

FRABJOUS. Thanks to an excellent blog called scribble, scribble, scribble... (the work of the writer Dale Keiger) I have learned of the possible resurrection of the late and much-lamented magazine Lingua Franca; you can read about it at the NY Times article Where the Talk Is Rarefied, Signs of Life.

Monday, September 02, 2002

LITERALLY. In an otherwise sensible piece on the threatened baseball strike and the childish belief on many fans' part that "players ought to play simply for the love of the game," Ira Berkow says the following:
The fact is, they are professionals, and from the time professional baseball began, in 1869, with the Red Stockings of Cincinnati, the most accomplished baseball players played for money. That is literally the name of the game.

Now, like most lovers of language, I hate the use of "literally" to mean its opposite ('metaphorically'), but I've grown resigned to hearing it in conversation and reading it in e-mails and the like. But to read it in the New York Times, allegedly a great newspaper, from the pen of Berkow, who's been paid for his writing for many years now, is depressing in the extreme. No, Ira, the name of the game is literally baseball. You could look it up. (Furthermore, the first professional player was probably the great pitcher Jim Creighton, who died at 21 in 1862, but that's not really Languagehat material.)

Having gotten that off my chest, I will quote a delightful exchange that, whether real or invented (sorry, Ira, you get no benefit of the doubt today), perfectly sums up a basic feature of human nature:
I got into a conversation the other day with a guy who sold stationery for a living. He resented the players. Why?

"They make too much money," he said.

"What's too much?" I asked.

"They make more in one time at bat than I do in a week."

"Would you trade places with them?"


"And if someone told you you were making too much money, what would you tell them?"

"I'd tell 'em it was none of their damn business."

Friday, August 23, 2002

HIATUS. Language hat is going to spend the next week on the West Coast. Regular blogging will be resumed in September. Ciao, poka, and be seein' y'all...
Update. I'm making a quick internet check while my brother is off on some errand, and (realizing I probably won't get a chance to blog on Sunday, when I return, very late, to NYC) I wanted to wish my loyal readers a Happy New Year for 7511, as of September 1!
THIS IS AN EX-LANGUAGE! Cornish has been made an official language of the U.K. Now, I'm as big a fan of obscure languages as you'll find; I even have a book of Cornish place names. But this is ridiculous. Irish is one thing; there are actual native Irish speakers left, and unlikely as it is that the language can be preserved for long, I understand the desire of the Republic of Ireland to try. But Cornish! I don't care how many people enjoy playing around with it and speaking it to each other at meetings (I love the fact there are three rival versions, by the way), it's kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisibile!! (Via Billy Blogs.)

Wednesday, August 21, 2002

SAWBUCK. Avva has recently learned this slang term for a ten-dollar bill, and in the discussion on his site it turns out that various English-speakers consulted by his Russian-speaking readers were not familiar with the expression. My assumption is that this is generational rather than regional, the term being long past its sell-by date, but I'm curious to hear from my own loyal band of readers. I've known the word as long as I can remember, but then I cut my teeth on '40s pulp fiction (yellowing, not hot off the presses); do you know it, and if so, from reading or as living terminology?

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

OLEHASHOLEM. It was brought to my attention by a person who wishes to remain nameless (not wanting to be thought an inveterate scanner of obits) that among the death notices in last Sunday's NY Times is one that begins as follows:
ROTHSTEIN - Miriam Chilson. Died at age 91, on August 14, 2002. She would've turned 92 on September 21. Miriam was the wife of the late Irwin Chilson, the late Lou Fineberg, the late Phil Rispler and the latest late Moe Rothstein.
I submit that Miriam must have been quite a gal to have inspired that bit of affectionate wordplay, and that Irwin, Lou, Phil, and Moe were four lucky guys. I wish I'd known her, and I hereby honor her memory.
WHY DID THE YEAR 7208 HAVE ONLY THREE MONTHS? Not only is that a meaningful question, it has a perfectly good answer. Until Peter the Great's calendar reform, Russia counted its years from the creation of the world, which the Russian Orthodox church reckoned as having happened in 5509 BC, and celebrated New Year's Day on September 1; thus Peter was born in the year 7180, or 180 as they often referred to it (early 1672 by our calendar). Once Peter took full power he began making drastic changes in the Russian way of life to imitate the Western European countries, and along with cutting off beards and banning caftans he updated the calendar, decreeing in late 1699 (or early 208, as it then was) that January 1 would be the New Year, and it would be the beginning of the year 1700. So 7208, which had begun on Sept. 1, only ran for three months before giving way to the newfangled Western year 1700, producing documents with phrases like: "In the years 207 and 208 and in the present year of 1700..." I love this stuff.

What I don't understand is why he didn't go all the way and adopt the Gregorian calendar, which had been around for over a century and was used in the Western countries he wanted to emulate. For over two hundred years Russia remained 10 or 11 days behind, and Peter didn't like being left behind. Strange.
FODER! Miguel Cardoso (over at MeFi) expatiates upon Portuguese sexual practices and terminology, and I urge anyone with an interest in Romance obscenities (and obscene romance) to hie themselves thither forthwith. (And scroll down for more.)

Monday, August 19, 2002

ORTHOGRAPHIC PRINCIPLES. Avva has a debate going about Russian orthography. It began with a remark, in a post of his about Pope Gregory's bull Inter gravissimus (which proclaimed the year 2000 a leap year), that he was writing the Russian adjective for 'leap' (in "leap year") vysokosnyi rather than the standard spelling visokosnyi because that was how he pronounced it. This caused quite a hullabulloo. People accused him of willful flouting of the rules, even of illiteracy. He responded with three long and closely reasoned analyses of the Russian writing system, based not on the simplistic "write as you pronounce" principle but on the phonemic principle, which in this case forced him, precisely, to write the word as he pronounced it. My initial reaction was like that of his opponents: write it the way it is in the dictionary; what's the problem? But in the end he convinced me with his arguments and analogies. What struck me is how hopeless it would be to reproduce the argument in English, where writing is so far from pronunciation (though not as far as many think) that to introduce even the minor correctives he argues for would be to risk letting the sea wash away the dikes and flood the land. Russian is, as it were, above sea level; it can afford to get a little wet.
THE TIMES GETS IT RIGHT. Since I lambasted the NY Times a couple of days ago, I feel I should present the other side of the coin. Sometimes they show me things I would probably never have known about and am glad to have discovered. Herewith two examples from the Sunday "Arts and Leisure" section.

Vicki Goldberg presents the photographer Josef Koudelka, who's led an amazing life, both complicated ("Never married, he has three children by three women of different nationalities. He has helped support all three children, he said, and has remained in touch with them.") and simple ("I have two shirts.... I have one trousers for one year, one shoes for one year, one jacket for two years, two socks, and for travel a good sleeping bag."). He did a series of photographs of Gypsies:
The Gypsy pictures are dark, brooding, disjunctive, tinged with tenderness and sorrow. Years later, he said, he met some Gypsies on a pilgrimage and told them he'd done a book on their people: " 'We know,' they said. `We call you Iconar. We have the book. It's been cut apart and put in a chapel. We pray for the people in them.' "

And Christopher Hall describes working on a project to build a 13th-century castle in a remote area of Burgundy (Treigny, in la Puisaye, for those keeping score at home; the Times, uncharacteristically, doesn't supply a map). They're using medieval tools and techniques and even wearing medieval clothes (barring safety glasses). I don't know about you, but that sounds like a great way to spend my summer vacation, if I still had a summer vacation.

There's also a good piece by Norimitsu Onishi on the use and misuse of statistics, but I posted that on MetaFilter (where it sank without a trace).
MINIM. Naomi, over at Baraita, has taken time out from her lytdybr entries about moving to a new university town and posted a fascinating discussion of, among other things, "Jewish groups who deviated from some perceived norm": minim, apikursim, and others. One of the reasons I used to wish I were Jewish was so I could be an apikoyres, but the other terms were new to me.

Sunday, August 18, 2002

JANEWAY. I happened upon the family name Janeway and vaguely wondered about it, as I have every time I've seen it. This time, for whatever reason, the vagueness sharpened into an immediate desire to know what the hell was going on. So I went to my Rybakin (Slovar' angliiskikh familii/Dictionary of English Surnames), and the first thing I discovered was that the name is pronounced in three syllables, Jan-away (traditionally, in England, that is; I assume modern Americans with the name pronounce it Jane-way). The Janeway entry referred me to Janaway, the main entry, where I discovered that alternate spellings are Gannaway, Jannaway, January [!], Janway, and Jennaway—and that the name is derived from the Italian city Genoa! This etymology delighted me no end (not "to no end," which means something entirely different), and I thought I'd share it.

Saturday, August 17, 2002

THE TIMES SCREWS IT UP. There is an article in today's NY Times about verlan, the French backwards slang (verlan is verlan for l'envers 'the reverse'). Well and good; it's an interesting subject. But after a lead-in defining the term, the article goes on:
Within a couple of decades, Verlan has spread from the peripheral housing projects of France's poorest immigrants, heavily populated with Africans and North African Arabs, and gained widespread popularity among young people across France. It has seeped into film dialogue, advertising campaigns, French rap and hip-hop music, the mainstream media. It has even made it into some of the country's leading dictionaries.

A language of alienation that has, paradoxically, also become a means of integration, Verlan expresses France's love-hate relationship with its immigrant community and has begun to attract a number of scholarly studies.

Ah, so it's some newfangled thing, a product of those strange Arab immigrants! Except it's not. As they eventually mention, in a tossed-off sentence in the seventh graf, "The first documented uses of Verlan date to the 19th century, when it was used as a code language among criminals, said the French scholar Louis-Jean Calvet." Then it's back to the immigrants and their entertaining ways, so beloved of reporters the world over.

This is just silly. Verlan is a venerable form of inner-city slang comparable to the Cockney rhyming-slang of London; it is in no way new, not even to "the attention of a wider public" (which they claim discovered it in the 1980s). I knew about it when I was first studying French forty years ago, and it was not considered new then. Of course it's been used by criminals and defiant youth; these are prime users of slang everywhere. And of course immigrants (in this case North African Arabs) are represented in both groups. To make that the focus of the article is ridiculous... and sadly inevitable, given the blinders that come with being a reporter.

Friday, August 16, 2002

POPULIST LINGUISTICS. I found an interesting list of language books via the comments at Prentiss Riddle's Language; I was put off by the recommendation for Mario Pei's books, which are fun but nutritionally empty, but fortunately I persevered, and came across this: "Jim Quinn's amusing little book is the antiparticle to the pop grammarians; he actually looks things up instead of just fulminating." Which reminded me that it was my bounden duty to tell y'all about Quinn's American Tongue and Cheek. Some years ago Barnes & Noble was selling remaindered copies for a dollar, and I bought several to give away (and of course wish I had bought more); my own copy is always within arm's reach, ready to provide ammunition against unfounded prejudices. Let me quote his "Special Preface for You, The Lover of Our Language":

If this book doesn't make you angry, it wasn't worth writing....
It attacks no use of language.
It defends all the words and phrases and sentences you have been trying to stamp out: Finalize. Hopefully. Between you and I....
This book defends all those constructions—not on the grounds that anyone can say what they please (though of course they can)—but on the grounds that all those constructions are grammatically correct.

His basic technique is to show that every maligned usage turns up in Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Faulkner, etc., and to ask the entirely reasonable question, Whose language sense would you rather trust, a great writer's or Edwin Newman's? He has a great deal of fun with Newman, Safire, John Simon, and the other mandarins of "good English," and shows them tying themselves into knots trying to "correct" sentences there was nothing wrong with in the first place. The book is, alas, long out of print, but it's available from online bookstores, and of course there's your friendly local library (if they haven't put it on the For Sale table, but don't get me started on that). Try it, you'll like it. It's the perfect antidote to David Foster Wallace (see below).
And for an excellent shorthand equivalent (just theory, no examples), try Alan Pagliere's article at, of all places, The Vocabula Review (home of linguistic curmudgeonry).
ANOTHER LINGUIST LOST TO LEMURS. All right, that's a bit misleading—no linguists were harmed in the making of this article—but no more so than the Times' headline, "How to Say Lemur and Quiddich in 11 Languages" (which led me to expect a quirky new dictionary). Reg. req., and if you don't want to take the trouble, here are the parts about languages:
As a Yale undergraduate, she planned to study comparative linguistics. She studied Latin in high school, picked up French and German from her father's translation of vocal concerts and later her own classical singing and learned Russian in college. But, early in her sophomore year, she was shopping for one course to fill her distribution requirements and was urged by a friend to try physical anthropology.

Dr. [Eleanor] Sterling, who still resembles a graduate student in jangling silver bracelets and a peasant skirt, was riveted by the professor, who studied lemurs in Madagascar. "I was mesmerized by how she spoke." Dr. Sterling said. "I took every class she taught from then on. I'm sure I would have been happy doing something else. But that was the turning point."

Dr. Sterling's gift for language complements her science. "I was lucky to come from a linguistic background to this," she said.

To write a book about the natural history of Vietnam, which will coincide with a museum exhibit next year, she had to read the so-called gray literature — unpublished papers, many in Vietnamese. So she hired a tutor. She is fluent in Swahili, from African fieldwork, hard at work on Spanish and has lately taken up Lao and Burmese, for a total of 11 languages.

Her husband suggested a novel study method when Dr. Sterling set out to polish her Spanish for a speech in Bolivia. A nephew was peppering her with questions about Harry Potter. She had read the books in English but strained for details. So she re-read them in translation. "Killing two birds," Dr. Sterling said, using an unlikely figure of speech given her profession, "with one stone."

An impressive woman, no?

Thursday, August 15, 2002

LANGUAGE MAP OF L.A. Pat claims he got this amazing interactive map via me, but I've never seen it, so I'm crediting him. It's sort of like the closed-loop artifact in P. Schuyler Miller's "As Never Was" (classic 1944 sf). Anyway, check it out.

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

...BUT I DON'T HAVE TO LIKE IT. Avva, in the course of a discussion of the diamond industry and its ethnic makeup, makes the following observation (after someone has pointed out that language changes of its own accord):
"Language develops, of course, but that doesn't mean I can't have my opinion about the changes."
This expresses a paradox that has plagued me ever since I began studying linguistics. A linguist has, ex officio, no opinion regarding the facts of the language; it would be like a physicist preferring one subatomic particle to another. Yet a linguist with any feel for the language can't help but have such opinions; I, at any rate, can't. I accept certain developments with a cheerful and welcoming heart; "hopefully" as a sentence adverb is an example. Others, like "disinterested" to mean "uninterested," I have come to accept, however grudgingly, as semantic changes that I have to live with (though I personally will never use the new sense). But there are some that fill me with insensate rage, however unseemly it may be in a person with scientific training, and I fear I will never come to terms with them. Such a thing is the growing use of "may have" to mean "might have": "If he had started running earlier, he may have caught the ball." No, no, I cry (soundlessly) every time I see this—he might have caught it! A few years ago, when I began to notice this phenomenon, I started to keep a record of occurrences, but it eventually became futile; it would now make more sense to record instances of the correct usage. And what am I, proud holder of an M.Phil. in linguistics from one of our finer educational bazaars, doing talking about "correct" usage? Correct is whatever native speakers say! Yes, yes, quite correct... eppur si muove lo stomaco. It's probably just as well I went into editing, where this irrational attitude is an asset.

Tuesday, August 13, 2002

INUKTITUT. An excellent article on Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit (often called Eskimo); via MeFi.

Monday, August 12, 2002

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE DEMOLISHED. I was attacking DFW's long Harper's essay on usage in a comment on MeFi today, and the more I thought about it, the madder I got, and I finally couldn't resist letting him have it at length. I didn't want to take up the whole front page of languagehat, but the interested reader will find it on the Languages page (scroll down).

Sunday, August 11, 2002

LYTDYBR: POLYGLOT CITY. One of the things I love about New York is the variety of languages you are exposed to in the course of your civic existence. I eavesdrop shamelessly on the conversations of my fellow straphangers, and sometimes when I'm stumped I break the rules of non-interaction and ask the person next to me what language they are speaking (most recent answers: Albanian and Armenian). Today on the N train to Times Square the woman across from me was reading a Korean book, and the woman next to me was reading a Hungarian magazine. On the 2 train from Times Square to Houston St. (I was off to see another Kurosawa movie, this time High and Low, not well known but the equal of the famous samurai movies if you ask me) I heard Spanish and Hebrew in my vicinity. In between, alas, I was the victim of one of the MTA's impromptu stoppages—"Last stop on this train... there is a train experiencing mechanical difficulties at Chambers St. and there is no downtown service at this time..."—but I was able to give directions to Ground Zero to a family of clueless Midwestern tourists, who will now be able to report to their fellow Midwesterners that New Yorkers, contrary to rumor, are helpful and polite. And the train eventually did come and get me to Film Forum in time. So the universe showed its beneficent side despite initial appearances.
VIRTUAL. William Safire is on vacation, which is ordinarily a time to rejoice—the On Language column can for a few weeks be written by people who actually know something about language. But today's column, by Patricia T. O'Connor and Stewart Kellerman, is a hopeless mishmosh. Its point is apparently to promote polite e-mails, which (though doubtless a Good Thing) is only tangentially concerned with language. Having realized this, they chose to lead in with a discussion of the word "virtual," which, while indisputably appropriate for On Language, is only tangentially related to their main point. They then proceed to bungle the lead-in, discussing at some length the history of the (completely irrelevant) word "virtuous" while ignoring the question that is likely to be on the minds of anyone who bothers to read the column: how did "virtual" pass from meaning 'possessed of certain physical virtues or capacities' to (in their words) 'existing in effect rather than in reality'? Languagehat is here to remedy the omission.

The transition is the meaning (OED's number 3) 'capable of producing a certain effect or result; effective': "So vertuall was the speech of Paul a Prisoner, in the heart of his Judge" (W. Sclater, 1619). Now consider this quote (J. Smith, 1815): "Whatever is the real length of the leg b a [of a siphon], the virtual or acting length when in use, only extends from b to the surface of the fluid." (Note the premodern commas in both quotes.) It's natural to contrast the "virtual or acting" with the "real." From there we get the OED's meaning 4: 'that is so in essence or effect, although not formally or actually; admitting of being called by the name so far as the effect or result is concerned': "Every proof a priori proceeds by Causes either real or virtual" (Waterland, 1734). Now the weight of reality has shifted; the "virtual," once the powerful agent, is now opposed to the real, and the way to the modern electronic-ethereal is open.

While I'm on the subject of the Times Magazine, the cover story this week is "The Odds of That" by Lisa Belkin, who for a reporter does a pretty good job of presenting the uncomfortable, unintuitive scientific truth (though she tends to use "we" too much). It's about coincidence, and the tagline "In paranoid times like these, people see connections where there aren't any" pretty much sums it up. Since I recently posted a rant about coincidence, I thought I'd bring it to your attention. You can never have too much balloon-pricking.