Thursday, 22 July 2010

On long time no see

A correspondent, having encountered the idiom long time no see, writes to ask what its origin is and if there are any more like it in English.

Nobody knows exactly where it comes from. Earliest reference in the OED is 1900, the context indicating a simplified English being used in conversation with American Indians. It probably caught on through cowboy movies. Certainly it was in US usage long before it arrived in British English. But the same pidgin expression has been noted in several other contact situations, such as Chinese/English, so it may have multiple origins.

Any more like it? Well it's rare to find pidginized expressions becoming part of standard English idiom, but it's not alone. For a start, there's the analogous long time no hear. Then there's the fictitious me Tarzan, you Jane - 'fictitious' as it doesn't actually turn up in the Tarzan books. And this one has a clearly Eastern source: softly, softly, catchee monkey (also heard as slowly, slowly...). I can think of a few others:

monkey see, monkey do
dog eat dog
no can do

and maybe also no go, as in a no-go situation. Any more?

How unusual are these constructions? They're not so far away from the traditional two-part elliptical constructions often heard in proverbial utterances, and still being created today. Some examples:

the more, the merrier
once bitten, twice shy
out of sight, out of mind
penny wise, pound foolish
more haste, less speed
like father, like son
first come, first served
here today, gone tomorrow
waste not, want not
no pain, no gain
garbage in, garbage out

Nor are they far away from those colloquial expressions where the impact relies greatly on ellipsis, such as:

been there, done that
hail fellow well met
twenty-four seven
how come?
yah boo sucks

These can be the stuff of grammatical nightmares.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

On antinyms

I've been asked a couple of times what one calls a situation where a word is used to mean the opposite of what it normally means. I've usually interpreted the question to be about euphemisms, where the aim is to obscure or hide a reality. When people talk about 'passing away' instead of 'dying', or 'collateral damage' instead of 'war casualties', the reality stays the same, but the word alters. But an experience this week has made me think that my correspondents might have had in mind a different category of usage, where the word stays the same but the reality alters - and, moreover, alters to the extent of becoming the opposite of what it originally meant.

My wife and I returned from a trip abroad this week, flying Club World on British Airways. This allows one's luggage to be given a bright orange PRIORITY label, which means that it should be among the first bags to be offloaded at the destination. We arrived at Terminal 5 in Heathrow and waited for our bag. The luggage started to arrive, with priority labels randomly dispersed among the items. The term priority was beginning to lose its meaning, and I'd encountered this many times before. But this time it was different. Regular readers of this blog will recall a previous post about new words, one of which is bagonizing. We bagonized. All other passengers came, took up their bags and went, until eventually we were the only ones left at the carousel. We were just about to leave and file a complaint about a lost bag when, lo, alone and looking rather dejected, our bag stumbled through the portal, waving its PRIORITY label triumphantly. So there we have my example: this was as far away from priority as it was possible to get. The word was the same, but the reality was the opposite. For this linguistic relief, much thanks.

What to call such a phenomenon? I'm inclined to coin a term: antinyms. This was, I hope, a nonce-antinym - though others have now told me of similar experiences. They are of course the life-blood of satirical books, of the kind made famous by Andrew Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, such as apologise 'to lay the foundation for future offence'. I have a feeling there is an airline glossary just waiting to be written.

So: antinym - a word whose referent becomes the opposite of its original sense. There are many examples of this happening over long periods of time - such as wicked or wonder moving from 'bad' meanings to 'good' meanings. What I'm wondering is how often this sort of thing occurs synchronically. Maybe synchronic antinyms only occur in contexts of bad vs good practice or incorrect data. The railway station sign that says the 8.32 is 'on time' when it is now 8.40. The electronic road sign that says 'congestion' when there is congestion no longer. Such phenomena are transient, yet they recur to the extent of becoming expected events. I'd be interested to see some more examples.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

On since/ago

A correspondent writes to ask whether it is possible to use sentences like I've been studying English since four years ago and Since three years ago, I've had several accidents.

It must be possible. The question wouldn't be coming up at all if people weren't being heard to use such sentences. What has happened, of course, is that there is a clash between the usage and the rule that is widely taught in grammar books.

The rule says that since and ago are incompatible, because since refers to an event that has current relevance whereas ago refers to a completed event in the past. Another way of putting it is when teachers say that ago is looking from the present towards the past, whereas since is looking from the past towards the present. There appears to be a clash of logic: people can't be doing the two things in the same sentence, goes the argument.

But of course they can. It's the same issue that arose when I discussed ago with present perfect have in an earlier post. It's perfectly possible to switch or conflate different points of view in a single sentence, especially in speech. And people have been doing this with since/ago for ages, both in phrases and clauses. In As You Like It (2.7.24) we hear Jacques reporting Touchstone saying 'Tis but an hour ago since it was nine'. In 1633, a character in John Ford's play The Broken Heart (3.5.63) says 'Tis long agone since first I broke my heart'. There's also a parallelism between ago and since which dates from the Middle Ages. Here's an example recorded in the OED, from Caxton (1489): 'Long time since... shee fell sick and died'.

The usage isn't as illogical as traditional grammars suggest. The logic goes something like this:

I haven't seen John since 2009.
2009 is a year ago.
Therefore, I haven't seen John since a year ago.

And this is how we most commonly hear the usage.

Every day, since a year ago today, I've been writing in my diary...
I haven't been this happy since a year ago.
Retail sales figures show consumer spending trend at highest since a year ago.
Costs have halved since a year ago.

There are over 2 million hits for 'since a year ago' on Google, several in quite formal written contexts, such as financial reporting. So, I have to conclude that there are two rules in English relating to ago and since, not one:

I want to say that a completed event in the past, expressed through ago, has no current relevance: I don't use since.

I want to say that a completed event in the past, expressed through ago, does still has current relevance: I do use since