Friday, 20 January 2017

Was I good?

One of the pubs I go to in Margate has these awful seaside postcard illustrations on the walls of the toilet. These are pretty tame, usually, though some of them make reasonably explicit references. They usually rely on double entendre of some kind for the joke. Here's one where the joke relies on the way that the meaning of adjectives changes in different contexts:

Good is a particularly fuzzy word. What does it mean? All we can really say is that it has some positive meaning (and even 'positive' is a bit vague). The rest, nearly all of the meaning, has to come from context. This is known as being 'underdetermined'.

Doctor Who uses this to good effect in one episode: the Doctor (played by Peter Capaldi, I think, or maybe it was Matt Smith - one of the modern ones, anyway) says early on that there is no such thing as a good dalek, meaning that they're inherently evil beings. At the end of the episode - spoiler alert - the daleks call the Doctor himself a 'good dalek', meaning that he is good at being a dalek. The difference lies in the application of the word good to some aspect of dalekhood, in which case it means 'unfeeling', 'ruthless', efficient', or whatever, or in treating it separately and giving it whatever meaning the word has when applied to animate entities more generally ('kind', 'well-meaning', etc).

The woman in the cartoon says I promised Mummy I'd be good... was I?. It's the same thing as the Doctor Who example, more or less, but good means different things again. What she promised her Mummy was that she'd be good in the sense of the term as applied to the behaviour of daughters on a night out: polite, sober, and most importantly, chaste. What she's asking the man is whether she was good at a particular activity: in other words, did she perform well at it? This conflicts with the crucial parts of how she promised her Mummy she'd behave, but it doesn't mean that good has conflicting meanings. It just has almost no meaning without a knowledge of what it applies to.

How you interpreted the title of this post out of context might give you some idea of how filthy a mind you have.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Josh Scot likes

This graffiti appears on a wall near where I live:

I imagine that that last word is an unfinished name, and Josh Scot was declaring his liking for that person but got caught in the act and had to scarper.

But I prefer to think that Scot likes Josh, and for whatever reason used an unusual word order to say so. Perhaps he was halfway through a comparison of the various people that other people like: Josh, Scot likes; Kieron, Phil likes. It's a bit strange to use this topicalisation construction in graffiti (or at all, to be honest - you see it in linguistics papers more than anywhere else) but you never know.

Incidentally, an indication of how uncommon a construction this is is that I just nearly got the participants the wrong way round: I typed 'Josh likes Scot' originally and had to think about it a bit to get it right. But you do sometimes find them occurring quite naturally and spontaneously, so it is a genuinely grammatical English sentence.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

On the rudeness of 'bint'

Last November I read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. It was really good, incredibly readable (I whizzed through it) and engaging and moving. That's the book recommendation; from here on in there's very bad language so stop reading now if you don't like that.

Here's a bit of the text from the book:

As you can see, Boris uses the word bint, which is unfamiliar to the main character Potter. When he asks what it means, Boris (who is Russian and very linguistically adept in various languages including English slang) says 'Same as a cunt, basically'. This book is set in the USA, so maybe things are different there, but the two words definitely do NOT mean the same to me.

Cunt is so rude that I never say it (unless I'm writing a blog post about it...). I never say bint either, but it's extremely familiar to me from growing up in Newcastle, where it's an everyday part of the language. It really isn't taboo; children say it, adults say it around children, it's not frowned upon as a 'bad word'. The only reason I never say it is that it feels very derogatory towards women. It's generally used in a critical way, and often in a phrase like stupid bint. It doesn't feel affectionate to me. It's from Arabic (I only just found this out) - the same word means 'daughter' in Arabic. According to Wiktionary, the Yemeni community in Tyneside meant that it entered the dialect in that area, and it supports my sense that it's pejorative, as does the OED, which notes that it entered English from the language of British servicemen in Egypt in the two world wars.

But it's really, really not as taboo as cunt, I promise. The OED has the difference between the two as being 'colloq.' versus 'coarse slang'. Cunt is often cited as the most offensive swearword in English. This Independent article reports on a study that puts it in the top three. And yet, somehow, I dislike bint more, because it has this added sense that the pejorative sense comes from the femininity of it: it's an insult because it's a word for a woman, rather than because it's used towards one.

I should say that I'm talking about Standard English. It is true that for some people, cunt is an extremely common word, used all the time, and not used offensively. Among friendship groups it may be used as an affectionate or neutral term for other members of the group. And in Glaswegian dialects it's commonly used in an entirely neutral way, classed as a pronoun by my linguist friend Gary Thoms. Here's a video he shared with me, illustrating exactly this (and note that this usage frequently escapes the censors, because of a mix of the non-aggressive use and the accent):