In a Word

ambagious
adj. circumlocutory

polylogize
v. to talk a great deal

asteism
n. genteel irony, polite and ingenious mockery

The prolixity of counsel has provoked much good-and-bad-humored interruption from the Bench; and first for the good:– In Mr. Justice Darling’s court a few years ago, counsel, in cross-examining a witness, was very diffuse, and wasted much time. He had begun by asking the witness how many children she had, and concluded by asking the same question. Before the witness could reply, Justice Darling interposed with the suave remark — ‘When you began, she had three.’

Central Law Journal, Sept. 13, 1912

A Friendly Greeting

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On Nov. 21, 1897, Mark Twain addressed the Vienna Press Club on “The Horrors of the German Language.” He spoke in German; here’s his literal translation:

It has me deeply touched, my gentlemen, here so hospitably received to be. From colleagues out of my own profession, in this from my own home so far distant land. My heart is full of gratitude, but my poverty of German words forces me to great economy of expression. Excuse you, my gentlemen, that I read off, what I you say will.

The German language speak I not good, but have numerous connoisseurs me assured that I her write like an angel. Maybe — I know not. Have till now no acquaintance with the angels had. That comes later — when it the dear God please — it has no hurry.

Since long, my gentlemen, have I the passionate longing nursed a speech on German to hold, but one has me not permitted. Men, who no feeling for the art had, laid me ever hindrance in the way and made naught my desire — sometimes by excuses, often by force. Always said these men to me: ‘Keep you still, your Highness! Silence! For God’s sake seek another way and means yourself obnoxious to make.’

In the present case, as usual it is me difficult become, for me the permission to obtain. The committee sorrowed deeply, but could me the permission not grant on account of a law which from the Concordia demands she shall the German language protect. Du liebe Zeit! How so had one to me this say could — might — dared — should? I am indeed the truest friend of the German language — and not only now, but from long since — yes, before twenty years already. And never have I the desire had the noble language to hurt; to the contrary, only wished she to improve — I would her only reform. It is the dream of my life been. I have already visits by the various German governments paid and for contracts prayed. I am now to Austria in the same task come. I would only some changes effect. I would only the language method — the luxurious, elaborate construction — compress, the eternal parenthesis suppress, do away with, annihilate; the introduction of more than thirteen subjects in one sentence forbid; the verb so far to the front pull that one it without a telescope discover can. With one word, my gentlemen, I would your beloved language simplify so that, my gentlemen, when you her for prayer need, One her yonder-up understands.

I beseech you, from me yourself counsel to let, execute these mentioned reforms. Then will you an elegant language possess, and afterward, when you some thing say will, will you at least yourself understand what you said had. But often nowadays, when you a mile-long sentence from you given and you yourself somewhat have rested, then must you a touching inquisitiveness have yourself to determine what you actually spoken have. Before several days has the correspondent of a local paper a sentence constructed which hundred and twelve words contained, and therein were seven parentheses smuggled in, and the subject seven times changed. Think you only, my gentlemen, in the course of the voyage of a single sentence must the poor, persecuted, fatigued subject seven times change position!

Now, when we the mentioned reforms execute, will it no longer so bad be. Doch noch eins. I might gladly the separable verb also a little bit reform. I might none do let what Schiller did: he has the whole history of the Thirty Years’ War between the two members of a separable verb in-pushed. That has even Germany itself aroused, and one has Schiller the permission refused the History of the Hundred Years’ War to compose — God be it thanked! After all these reforms established be will, will the German language the noblest and the prettiest on the world be.

Since to you now, my gentlemen, the character of my mission known is, beseech I you so friendly to be and to me your valuable help grant. Mr. Potzl has the public believed make would that I to Vienna come am in order the bridges to clog up and the traffic to hinder, while I observations gather and note. Allow you yourselves but not from him deceived. My frequent presence on the bridges has an entirely innocent ground. Yonder gives it the necessary space, yonder can one a noble long German sentence elaborate, the bridge-railing along, and his whole contents with one glance overlook. On the one end of the railing pasted I the first member of a separable verb and the final member cleave I to the other end — then spread the body of the sentence between it out! Usually are for my purposes the bridges of the city long enough; when I but Potzl’s writings study will I ride out and use the glorious endless imperial bridge. But this is a calumny; Potzl writes the prettiest German. Perhaps not so pliable as the mine, but in many details much better. Excuse you these flatteries. These are well deserved.

Now I my speech execute — no, I would say I bring her to the close. I am a foreigner — but here, under you, have I it entirely forgotten. And so again and yet again proffer I you my heartiest thanks.

Reportedly his spoken German was actually excellent (PDF), and he delivered the address without reading the text.

He’d been sparring with German for some time — his essay “The Awful German Language” had appeared as an appendix to A Tramp Abroad in 1880.

And-cestry

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alphabet_with_ampersand.jpg

In the Middle Ages, when schoolchildren spelled a one-letter word, they would indicate this with the Latin phrase per se (“by itself”) — so students learning to read would say “D-O-G, dog” but “A per se, a,” meaning “A by itself, [the word] a.”

When the alphabet was printed, the symbol & was customarily added at the end, and the reader would say, “& per se, and.”

After many years of hasty slurring, this left us with the word ampersand.

(Thanks, David.)

Watching the Detectives

Police exist, and sometimes they scrutinize other members of the constabulary. We might say Police police police. If the observed officers are already being observed by a third set of officers, then we could say Police police police police police, that is, “Police observe police [whom] police police.”

The trouble is that if you say this sentence, “Police police police police police,” to an innocent friend, she might take you to mean “Police [whom] police police … police police.” Police police police police police has one verb, police, and two noun phrases, Police and police police police, and without some guidance there’s no way to tell which noun phrase is intended to begin and which to end the sentence.

It gets worse. Suppose we add two more polices: Police police police police police police police. Now do we mean “Police [whom] police observe observe police [whom] police observe”? Or “Police observe police [whom] police whom police observe observe”? Or something else again?

In general, McGill University mathematician Joachim Lambek finds that if police is repeated 2n + 1 times (n ≥ 1), then the numbers of ways in which the sentence can be parsed is  \frac{1}{\left ( n + 1 \right )}\binom{2n}{n} , the (n + 1)st Catalan number.

Buffalo have their own troubles.

(J. Lambek, “Counting Ambiguous Meanings,” Mathematical Intelligencer 30:2 [March 2008], 4.)

First Things First

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In Languages and Their Speakers (1979), linguist Timothy Shopen shows how greetings and leave-takings can reflect a society’s cultural values. First he gives a typical American conversation in which one friend encounters another who is 15 minutes late for work:

Hello Ed!

— Hi! How are you?

Sorry, I’m in a hurry.

— Yeah, me too.

See you on Saturday.

The whole interaction lasts five seconds; it includes a greeting and a leave-taking, but there is no actual conversation between. Here’s the same interaction in the Maninka culture of West Africa:

Ah Sedou, you and the morning.

— Excellent. You and the morning.

Did you sleep in peace?

— Only peace.

Are the people of the household well?

— There is no trouble.

Are you well?

— Peace, praise Allah. Did you sleep well?

Praise Allah. You Kanté.

— Excellent. You Diarra.

Excellent.

— And the family?

I thank Allah. Is there peace?

— We are here.

How is your mother?

— No trouble.

And your cousin Fanta?

— Only peace. And your father?

Praise Allah. He greets you.

— Tell him I have heard it.

And your younger brother Amadou?

— He is well. And your uncle Sidi?

No trouble, Praise Allah …

Where are you going?

— I’m going to the market. And you?

My boss is waiting for me.

— O.K. then, I’ll see you later.

Yes, I’ll see you later. Greet the people of the household.

— They will hear it. Greet your father.

He will hear it.

— May your day pass well.

Amen. May the market go well.

— Amen. May we meet soon.

May that “soon” arrive in good stead.

“Time elapsed: 46 seconds,” Shopen writes. “It is more important to show respect for a friend or a kinsman than to be on time for work, and thus we have the example of Mamadou Diarra above, already fifteen minutes late for work and not hesitating to be even later in order to greet a friend in the proper manner. First things first, and there is no question for the Maninka people about what is most important.”

In a Word

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Union-rat.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

obtest
v. to call heaven to witness; to protest against

proditor
n. a traitor; a betrayer

Is a union breaking the law if it posts a giant inflatable rat outside an employer’s facility? No, it’s not, according to a 2011 decision by the National Labor Relations Board. The Sheet Metal Workers’ Union had sought to dissuade a hospital from using non-union workers by stationing a 16-foot rat near the building’s entrance. The NLRB held that the “the use of the stationary Giant Rat (i) constituted peaceful and constitutionally protectable expression, (ii) did not involve confrontational conduct that would qualify as unlawful picketing, and (iii) did not qualify as nonpicketing conduct that was otherwise unlawfully coercive.”

The “rat collosi” are multiplying (gallery). Let’s hope they don’t stage an uprising themselves someday.