STOP PRESS: “heart” is a verb now

29 03 2011


You know those T-shirts that announce I LOVE NEW YORK, except that the “love” is replaced by a red heart?  Like this:  And ever since,  the idea has been propagated successfully with any number of cities, places, pop stars and you-name-its.

Now a new trend has started, a kind of backformation. Instead of being semiotically concise with the red heart symbol, there’s evidence now of people using “heart” as a verb. Essentially, to replace “love”. Thus, I love you becomes I heart you. Hence also:  I heart Sydney or I heart summer.

Yes I know, it’s a replacement of one single syllable by one single syllable, hence saving no one at all any time at all.  But possibly babies being born right now will, in 15 years, be hearting their first boy/girl friend. Maybe sooner, if that story about push-up bras being sold to 8-year old girls is true.

The I + heart + object is the transitive form.  The suggested usage (from the Oxford, no less) is: I heart the fact that this is in the O.E.D. No news yet about the infinitive: it is better to heart and lose than not to heart at all. Nothing about the gerund:  Life is all about hearting. Nor the adjectival participle: He broke my hearting soul.

I’m wondering now if we’re to see a backformation from the backformation: where say, “open-heart surgery” might morph into “open-love surgery”. It’s a waiting game.

Love is Blinds

19 03 2011

There’s a shop up the road from my place that sells window coverings – like blinds, awnings, venetians etc. I haven’t been in there but from the street it seems that’s what they’re on about.

More than its content,  what attracted my eye, from quite far away actually,  was the name of the shop. It’s called LOVE IS BLINDS.

What a lovely nest of intertexualities and grammatical incongruences, which combined, appeals very nicely to my kind of brain.

Let’s unpack it.

First off, there’s the snowclone –  a type of cliché and phrasal template originally defined as “a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different variants” (from Wikipedia). A good example of a snowclone is “X is the new Y”  eg “grey is the new black”.

Of course much more is available  via Google on this subject, but the basics are that like metaphors, snowclones allow the new to be understood in terms of the already-familiar. Any good teacher knows that the brain is particularly conducive to receiving new information via old (or already-established) information. I like to think of this as the old information opening the gate(secret key?)  to allow the new information in.

Let’s return to LOVE IS BLINDS. Here the snow clone is the construction “Love is…”  There are many of these:  love is blind, love is great, love is kind, love is (means) never having to say you’re sorry… etc etc. There are even  “love is” websites (just Google “love is”).

Now, usually when the template is in its simplest form, we have Noun+Verb”to be” + adjectival complement eg Love is blind. Here, though, the shop owners have come up with a variant – changing “blind” as adjectival complement to “blind” as a noun (ie the thing you hang on your windows), here rendered plural (“blinds”).

This links in to my second point, which is to highlight the numerical incongruence. By now we’re moving a long way from the notion of love as blind (or causing deception or misunderstanding), to love as in lovely, and as associated with the commodity known as “blinds”. It’s clever because while many words could be used to describe blinds, calling  them the equivalent of “love” is a pretty big ask. So it’s an oblique, humorous, and even modest, way of speaking very positively about the product on sale.

Third, the actual grammatical aberration stimulates another snowclone, exemplified in the phrase “Toys are Us”, itself an amazing example of erroneous English that took off and kept on growing (eg Babies are Us, Cars are Us, Bald is Us, Genes are Us, Designs are Us etc etc). Why is it erroneous? Good question – I’ll return to this in another post. For the moment I want to suggest that  the snowclone  (“X are us”) is intimated in the LOVE IS BLINDS epithet, probably because of the format (noun+verb”to be”+noun) and also because of the plurality/agreement issue.

You see, underlying all of this is the fact that we tend in English to want, with copular verbs like “to be”, to ensure that the bit before the verb shows some agreement with the bit after the verb. In Latin this is a sacred rule, and formal English often tries to emulate Latin (eg the rule about not splitting the infinitive). Obviously in LOVE IS BLINDS we lack agreement in number: as an abstract noun, “love” tends to be rendered singular, while “blinds” as a common noun is undeniably plural.

Similarly, with “Toys are Us”, the correct form would more likely be “We are Toys”, or “Toys are We”, the latter probably rejected because of the rather un-seductive homophone “wee” (urine). In any case, appealing to the majority  (less-grammatically literate folk), “us” is far more user-friendly, and conveys the intended message which is:  Trust us,  we know about Toys!

All of these previously absorbed templates are activated to some degree in the process of comprehension, interpretation and inference. This is what makes communication so intensely interesting while also so intensely fraught –  or capable of capsizing at any moment.

In any case, the anomalous non-agreement of LOVE IS BLINDS is likely to fix the name in one’s mind, and arguably, this is the whole purpose of advertising. Disappointingly perhaps, for the shop at least, when I recently decided to buy some venetian blinds for my study, I first did think of the LOVE IS BLINDS shop, but then was seduced by the sale being advertised in a well-known department store. Ultimately, perhaps, the hip pocket will always win out, even over grammatical fascination.

What does “sparkle” have in common with “jiggle”?

7 03 2011

English has a sophisticated verb system, or more correctly, a collection of sub-systems, that allow for very precise reference to time. In fact, I tend towards the view that the soul of English is encased in its verb.

One of my favourite tenses is the future-in-the-past eg I thought it was going to be a great evening out. This means: in the past I had this thought about an activity yet to be experienced and now, looking back, after the event, I can recognize my prediction was completely wrong (or totally correct, as the case may be).

I’m very fond of this tense structure and as I get older, I find I have more and more use for it – perhaps because it allows for a certain bittersweet reminiscence and regret to which I find myself rather prone. Until such time as I can express this function in a language other than English, I feel I’ll never be able to take much pride in my other languages. It can be done in Spanish; it’s just that, limited as my Spanish is, I can’t do it.

But that’s by the way. What I was hoping to get onto, by introducing verbs,  was a mention of a verb form called the frequentative. This is a special independent verb ( let’s call it #2), derived from another verb (let’s call this one #1) where Verb #2 has the very particular meaning of denoting a repeated occurrence of Verb #1’s meaning.

Obtuse? Let’s look at it through some examples. Take the word “flutter”. Historically, this is a frequentative of the verb “float”,  its meaning related to the rapid, flapping movement of wings.

We have a few others in English. Some employ the suffix –le – : – like “sparkle” (from “spark”); “crumble” (from “crumb”); “nestle” (from “nest”); “jiggle” (from “jig”); “gobble” (from “gob”); “wrestle” (from “wrest”). Others, like “flutter”, use the –er suffix eg “batter” (from “bat”); “patter” (from “pat”).

In English the list of frequentative verbs is short and closed. Some other languages, notably Lithuania and Finnish, are much stronger on frequentatives. In Finnish, for example, you can include a special device, which is very nice,  that denotes that the repeated occurrence is sudden  and short-lived. There’s another device (called an “anti-causative”) denoting that the action is not deliberate but accidental or independent. As I look at this from the outside, it seems the possibilities for nuanced expression are endless.

Most Finns no doubt take all this in their stride, with only a handful of linguists regularly celebrating their language’s dexterity. The fact is that many of the original verbs (Verb #1) have disappeared over time (as too, they have in English: eg we have “scuttle” but no longer much use for “scud”) , leaving only the derived form (Verb #2), making it even less likely that your ordinary speaker of Finnish knows that their frequentatives have a rich history.

Sadly, your ordinary Finn may only ever discover his/her language’s special capacity when, in learning English, they struggle to express in English that which comes naturally to them in Finnish. Or maybe the dexterity of their first language actually privileges them as second language learners. I have no idea, but it is a subject of conversation I might raise when next I run into a Finn.

Dr Ruth’s Grammar Corner

28 05 2010

This is the place to come when you have a question about language (any aspect thereof) to which you’d like a considered response. I often receive emails from people agonizing over where to put a comma, or how to untangle their syntax, or whatever. Sometimes there’s a spat going on in the office and they appoint me mediator-cum-arbiter (big responsibility). In the past I’ve carried on these private conversations by email.  Now instead, I intend to have the conversation on my blog. This way I can share the love around. Here’s an authentic recent example. It took place by email, but I’ve reconstructed it here.

Hi Ruth. Am increasingly irked by Americans who use the term “off of”  as in “get off of that ….” Or “It’s time for politicians to move off of their long held views…..  Much to my horror, even Barack Obama (who writes beautifully) uses it in The Audacity of Hope. I am so horrified I felt obliged to discuss this with my local wordsmith.  Do you have any comments?  In disgust. (name withheld)

Dear Reader. Thanks for your query.  I see this as a matter of dialectal difference. In the US dialect, they simply have a double particle here. Like we do , for instance. with “put up with”  and countless others. Actually, what’s not to like? It’s a different dialect, that’s all.  Somewhere along the line you have had a neuronal synapse (or something)  between the  form and a quality of irksomeness (maybe it was coming out of the mouth of a rapper?) and that’s the source of the problem. Whatever way you look at it, however, your objections aren’t linguistically based. How can you get so disgusted by an extra little particle?

Dear Ruth.  I don’t agree that it’s a dialect. To me it’s silly grammar and I don’t equate it with double participles like “put up with”. After all you have to put up with something – you can’t just “put up” in that context.  But you can “fall off” something – you don’t have to “fall off of it”.  No it wasn’t coming out the mouth of a rapper – it’s in all the tv programs etc.  And anyway, I still don’t like it!

Dear Reader. The thing is, applying logic to things like “put up with”, as if they are inherently logical, is  problematic. I’m sure a speaker of American English could come up with an equally “logical” explanation for “fall off of”, a construction that would surely seem quite natural and normal to him/her. Certainly, language does have rules and regularities, but it’s generally an understanding we have as we look back over the language as we know it. It’s not a set of rules by which new items are constructed. Much more organic and unpredicatable. We don’t want it too predictable, do we? Latin is predictable, and look what happened there.