Archive for the 'Language' Category

Vulgarity over time

So as not to upset the internet filters, I won’t put the search terms on my site, but this link shows trends in use of various words that were once clearly taboo.

We seem to have cleaned up our language a little in the last decade.

A Google measure of ideological fashion

Brendan Duong points me to another Google innovation, a new way of tracking mentions of words and terms in books, using the huge archive of scanned books in Google Books. It can be used to track ideological fashion and interest over time.

In the easy to use version (there is a complicated-looking raw data download option) some care has to be taken with interpreting the results. For single words it is calculated as a % of all ‘unigrams’ or single words, for two-word phrases it is a % of all ‘bigrams’ or two-words. So percentages will always be lower for bigrams than unigrams, and I won’t directly compare them.

And because we are looking at percentages of all words in the category, a term could be rising in absolute mentions but still declining relatively.

Over the 150 years to 2000, we can see the changing fortunes of the three main Western ideological forces: socialism, liberalism, and conservatism. The interest of intellectuals in socialism is very evident here. Despite socialism entering a long decline in the 1980s, in 2008 it was still more mentioned slightly more often than liberalism. And despite the apparent ideological revival of conservatism, it trended slightly down from the 1960s.
[19/12: graphs and text updated to take account of later data]

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What is a donkey vote?

In my post-election conversations and eavesdropping I have heard several people refer to informal votes as ‘donkey votes’.

In standard usage – still supported by the Macquarie Dictionary and several random Australian politics books I checked – a donkey vote is defined as the practice of numbering all candidates in the order they appear in the ballot paper, rather than according to the voter’s political preference. This is a formal vote, which will eventually go to whichever serious candidate appears first in the list of candidates. However Wikipedia is wobbling, suggesting that informal votes can also be classified as ‘donkey votes’.

In Bryan Garner’s five stages of language change, ‘donkey vote’ is at stage two or three. Several of the people I have heard use ‘donkey vote’ when they mean informal vote have university degrees.

Stage 2: The form spreads to a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage.

Stage 3: The form becomes commonplace even among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage.

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‘Left’ and ‘right’ not so useless after all

Commenter Senexx today joined others who don’t think much of the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’. Way back in 1993 I wrote an article for the IPA Review arguing something similar.

But re-reading that article after all this time makes me think that if anything ‘left’ and ‘right’ have gained in utility since the early 1990s. The test of labels like ‘left’ and ‘right’ is not whether they can fully describe someone’s political position. Rather, it is whether the label will reasonably reliably locate someone in significant political contests of the day.

In 2007 I used results from the 2004 Australian Election Survey to suggest that this was the case with the questions I examined – especially on party preference, perhaps the most important indicator because of the way it bundles reactions to many different issues.

In my 1993 article I suggested that Labor support for market reform was complicating the old left-right divide. Now there is little support for further market reform in Labor or anywhere else on the left, and near universal left support for a serious reform rollback on industrial relations. Read the rest of this entry »

Malcolm Fraser’s liberalism

Malcolm Fraser’s biography is actually called Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, but according to his biographer (or narrator, as she calls herself) Margaret Simons ‘Enduring Liberal’ was one possible title, perhaps with a question mark. The book makes clear that Fraser has seen himself as following a liberal philosophy through his long political life, though a pragmatic one.

Fraser’s reputation on this is perhaps worse than it should be, because over the last few decades the most contested freedoms have been economic, and his record as an economic liberal isn’t great – though the biography argues persuasively that it is better than many assume.

A chapter on financial deregulation shows that there was a lively internal debate within the government, with Fraser and his office generally pushing for less regulation, while Treasury and the RBA took a more conservative line. By the time Hawke and Keating actually implemented financial deregulation much of the thinking, discussing and planning had already been done. In this sense, Fraser laid the groundwork for what followed. Read the rest of this entry »

Why even a good English curriculum should not be a monopoly curriculum

At least at first glance, the draft English national curriculum released yesterday looks reasonably good. I was pleased to see specific reference to apostrophes, and encouraged by a story in this morning’s Age that Julia Gillard is also big on apostrophes:

As a solicitor at law firm Slater and Gordon in the 1980s and ’90s, Ms Gillard would get her staff to chant: ”One cat’s hat, two cats’ hats, where do the apostrophes go?”

She told her biographer, Jacqueline Kent: ”If I got a letter with it done wrong I would draw a cat with a hat at the bottom in the hope it would come back right the next time. They all thought I was kind of strange.”

That Gillard needed to use a primary school mnemonic to teach people working in law firms how to write letters shows how badly English teaching has failed over the last generation.

Though this English curriculum may be better than those currently in use by the states, I am still strongly opposed to the idea of a national monopoly curriculum. What we should have instead is competitive curricula. Each curriculum on offer could be adopted anywhere in Australia, but none would be mandated for every school.

Though there are educational reasons for avoiding monopoly – one size is unlikely to fit all, we need better pressures than politics for innovation and improvement, etc – other stories running in today’s papers highlight the political reasons against monopoly curriculum (this is as much a criticism of the current state monopolies as the national curriculum). Read the rest of this entry »

What a difference a word makes

A CBS poll on gays in the US military finds that the American public is much happier with the idea of ‘gay men and lesbians’ serving in the military than ‘homosexuals’ serving in the military. For the ‘strongly favour’, ‘gay men and lesbians’ adds 17 percentage points to the total.

‘Gay’ is a word with more positive connotations than ‘homosexual’ – a legacy of its old meaning and not prompting respondents to think about sex acts that they don’t want to think about, even while liking some gay people and enjoying aspects of gay culture.

But this theory of connotations is better at explaining why people go from ‘somewhat’ to ‘strongly’ than to explaining the shift from oppose to favour (homosexual – 59%, gay – 70%). It’s surprising that near-synonyms can lead to a non-trivial minority offering different views on the substantive issue.

HT: Marginal Revolution.

The first Grattan Institute research paper

The Grattan Institute has released its first report, an analysis of student progress measures by Ben Jensen. It argues that ‘value-added’ measures – that is, how much students improve between NAPLAN tests – are a more useful way of assessing a school’s performance than simply looking at its absolute results.

The report meets Grattan’s claims to be ‘objective, evidence-driven and non-aligned’. It is well-researched, uses data, and presents ideas that could easily be adopted by either major political party. While the media played up its differences with the about-to-be-launched My School website, it’s hard to imagine that Julia Gillard would have any fundamental objection to the ideas presented. And that was pretty much how she handled it today:

From what I’ve seen of the reports of the Grattan Institute work, they are saying that this is a good start but they are wanting to see more. Of course we are going to keep building on this website year by year as we get more results from national testing, more results on Year 12 retention, more results on vocational education and training pathways and attendance at school.

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The five stages of language change

When I am in doubt about a point of style or grammar, first I always see what Pam Peters has to say. Her Cambridge Guide to English Usage miraculously foresees almost every question I want answered, and offers sensible suggestions based on Australian usage.

But I am also a big fan of Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage, the third edition of which I received last week.

The most useful addition made in Modern American Usage‘s 3rd edition is its rating of evolving words and usage not as correct/incorrect but on a scale from new usage to universal acceptance:

Stage 1: A new form emerges as an innovation among a small minority of the language community, perhaps displacing a traditional usage.

Stage 2: The form spreads to a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage. Read the rest of this entry »

William Safire, RIP

It’s turning into a bad month for conservative pundits -with first Irving Kristol and now William Safire moving from the opinion page to the obituary page.

In Safire’s case, however, he will be remembered more for his interest in other people’s words than his own words of political commentary. As the NYT obituary says

from 1979 until earlier this month, he wrote “On Language,” a New York Times Magazine column that explored written and oral trends, plumbed the origins and meanings of words and phrases, and drew a devoted following, including a stable of correspondents he called his Lexicographic Irregulars.

One of my (rather too many) nerdish interests is in the origins of phrases and sayings, and his Safire’s Political Dictionary is invaluable for the history of political terminology. Read the rest of this entry »