Frak and invective coinage

CNN is currently running a story about the word frak, created for the original Battlestar Galactica series in the 1970s as a way to swear but still get around TV censors. I hadn’t realized frak had been around quite so long – although perhaps I can be forgiven for not noticing it while watching the original BG as a kid – but I have noticed more and more TV shows using it and other invented words to skirt the censors. (Good for them, too – I don’t see the point of censoring language in television and radio anyway.)

Anyway, what really caught my eye in the CNN article was this:

“You can’t get in trouble. It’s a made-up word.”

That says a lot about folk views on word coinage, doesn’t it? The implication is that anything made-up is not part of the language, even though pretty much everyone understands what it means. I’d love to explore more what the author means by made-up, too – is it only words like frak that weren’t free morphemes in English before?

One of the actors in the new Battlestar Galactica series has this interesting insight:

“I mean why are we not offended by ‘frak’ because it means exactly the same thing as the other thing?” said Bamber, who plays fighter pilot-turned-president Lee “Apollo” Adama. “So it raises questions about language and why certain words are offensive. Is it their meaning? … Clearly it’s not their meaning. Clearly it’s literally their sound.”

In Firefly, another scifi series, Joss Whedon had his characters swear in Chinese most of the time – another excellent censor-avoidance method – but also had recognizable variants of current English swear words, such as gorram for god damn. In that sense, it’s not so much made-up as tweaked for a particular purpose. Is it because swear words are a largely closed class of words that you can claim a new one isn’t a real word? At what point does something made-up become a legitimate, trouble-inducing member of the language?

Adventures in font mishaps: Iñupiaq “dictionary”

Now that I’m back from my Alaska Native Language Center archives trip (more on that in an upcoming post – the first archive where I’ve ever seen a shampoo bottle in the stacks), I’ve got some catching up to do. First off, I want to post about the by now infamous Webster’s Online dictionaries (not to be confused with Merriam-Webster, the reputable guys). After Jangari’s posts (#1, #2 and #3) about the ridiculous Webster’s Online Dictionary by Philip M. Parker, I couldn’t help but look up what copyrighted Iñupiaq materials might have been lifted. Sure enough, Parker has an online Inupiatun dictionary, an Inupiatun-English thesaurus for purchase, etc. [1]

What’s especially funny in this case is that Parker didn’t bother with fonts, so his Iñupiaq dictionary contains a lot of letters that don’t really exist in the current Iñupiaq orthography (and in many cases not in the phoneme inventory at all). It’s pretty obvious that the material was copied from legitimate sources such as Alaskool’s Iñupiaq dictionary because of the special font Alaskool produced. Their pre-Unicode font involved remapping keys on a standard US English keyboard. The Iñupiaq letter ġ (IPA /ʁ/) was mapped to the English b key, for example. Parker, however, either didn’t manage to get his hands on the Iñupiaq font or it didn’t occur to him another font might be necessary – my money’s on the latter – so his dictionary is chock-full of errors. The word aġnaq ‘woman’, for example, appears as abnaq in his dictionary. The only possible way he could have arrived at grossly and systematically misspelled words like this is if he took them from an online source using the Iñupiaq font.

What I can’t figure out, though, is why one lone Inuktitut word appears in Parker’s Iñupiaq dictionary. He’s got ᑭᖑᐃᖓᒃ (/kiŋuiŋak/, but I’m quite sure Parker’s got that wrong, too) listed as the Iñupiaq word for ‘peace’ and that’s just bizarre. Regardless of whether you think Iñupiaq is a separate language or just Inuktitut with a different name, Iñupiaq doesn’t use the Inuktitut abugida and never has. How on earth did he link ᑭᖑᐃᖓᒃ to Iñupiaq? The Iñupiaq cognate is qiñuiññaq (qiñuiñaq in Alaskool’s; probably dialectal gemination variation), and while I can see the similarity, it would never be written in anything but modified Latin script. Then again, when you’re busy pumping out books every ten minutes, you don’t have time to check whether or not you’ve even got the basics of your topic correct.

[1] Iñupiatun being an alternate name for Iñupiaq; it’s simply the similative case of ‘Iñupiaq’.


This article about women who’ve left the polygamous FLDS sect has an interesting clip, polyg, as a short form of polygamy with apparent adjectival usage. Here’s she’s talking about the rebellion she went through after her mother left polygamy behind:

“I think I was one of the first girls in the seventh grade to wear lipstick. I put henna in my hair to make it red. I wasn’t going to look like a little ‘polyg’ kid,” she said, using the slang “polyg” with all the contempt of a racial slur.

Clipping across the morpheme boundary – excellent! While examples aren’t exactly frequent (129,000 hits on Google, but that’s mostly hits for various chemical names) polyg does seem established as an adjective by those who use it. Some examples showed it being used as a noun, too, as in “where a lot of polygs went” and so on.

Another interesting use of this clipped form was here, where it’s short for polygraph.

Wrong of way

Back in January I heard my dad say something pretty interesting but keep forgetting to post about it. We were driving around town and he shouted at another driver, “What do you think you’re doing? You have the wrong of way!”

This method of negating right of way is new to me. I’m used to, “You don’t have (the) right of way,” where the predicate is negated. But in my dad’s version the adjective is swapped with an antonym – within a set phrase, no less! ETA: This is also interesting because while “having the right to (something)” is a common phrase, I don’t think people would normally say “have the wrong to (something).” Hm.

I was curious to see if this is in wider use, so of course I went to trusty Google. It gets 36,000 hits, but that’s a bit skewed because there’s apparently a song by that name bringing up thousands of those annoying junk lyrics pages in the search results. Other than that song, it shows up in a few news articles, apparently as an attempt at a clever title.

This article in particular has a very interesting example:

“Whooshing through, he swiped an oncoming red MG that had refused to yield the wrong of way until threatened with extinction.”

How exactly do you yield the wrong of way, I wonder?


Now that our department’s symposium and poster session are over, I have a bit more time to post so I’ll be doing some catching up.

This post isn’t really going to be about linguistics, but I’ve noticed a trend with my blog visitors and want to discuss it a bit. You see, about 1 in 10 hits to my blog for the past three months have been people looking for the word tikaani ‘wolf’. Apparently it’s a very popular dog name and people want to know how to pronounce it. Also, most people think it’s an Eskimo word, but it isn’t. Sorry to burst your bubble.

One more time for emphasis: tikaani is not an Eskimo word. It’s from Ahtna, one of the Native American languages of Alaska. If it were (Central Alaskan) Yup’ik Eskimo, for example, it would be kegluneq. If it were Iñupiaq Eskimo, it would be amaġuq.

Putting tikaani aside, a lot of hits to this blog come from people searching for dog names. What is it that makes people want Alaskan and/or Eskimo names for their dogs? (Judging from this page at the Alaska Native Language Center, they get asked about dog names a lot, too.) Sure, they might be huskies, but so what? I don’t see people naming their German Shepherds Helmut or Fritz just because the breed is German.

Sociolinguistics in songs

I’m not a sociolinguist, by any means, but the song Throw the ‘R’ Away (1987) by the Scottish band The Proclaimers has long been one of my favorites. Imagine my delight when I found a version of it on the now ubiquitous YouTube. These are the lyrics (minus repeats):

I’ve been so sad
Since you said my accent was bad
He’s worn a frown
This Caledonian clown

I’m just going to have to learn to hesitate
To make sure my words
On your Saxon ears don’t grate
But I wouldn’t know a single word to say
If I flattened all the vowels
And threw the ‘R’ away

Some days I stand
On your green and pleasant land
How dare I show face
When my diction is such a disgrace

I’m just going to have to learn to hesitate
To make sure my words
On your Saxon ears don’t grate
But I wouldn’t know a single word to say
If I flattened all the vowels
And threw the ‘R’ away

You say that if I want to get ahead
The language I use should be left for dead
It doesn’t please your ear
And though you tell it like a leg-pull
It seems you’re still full of John Bull
You just refuse to hear

Oh what can I do
To be understood by you
Perhaps for some money
I could talk like a bee dripping honey.

Any other songs come to mind where the singers tackle dialect discrimination head-on? I can’t think of any. Please let me know if I’m missing out on some more great linguistic-y songs.

Sweden’s most beautiful dialect: follow-up

Following up on Sveriges skönaste dialekt 2008 (Sweden’s most beautiful dialect 2008) contest, it looks like I wasn’t the only one with a preference for östgötska (the dialect(s) of Östergötland)! After some 382,000 votes, the winner was Titti Andersson from Motala – by a remarkable coincidence, the very town where I learned Swedish.

The announcement says, “[The winner] represents a dialect that is not an old-fashioned/outdated dialect but a contemporary language with typical local features which show that the dialect lives amidst modern daily life in Sweden.” Whatever that’s supposed to mean! In my experience, many östgötska varieties are actually the brunt of many farmer and hick jokes, so it’s interesting not only that voters chose an östgötska speaker, but also that the write-up puts such a heavy spin on its modernity.