Uncommon knowledge

When left is right

Right is right, left is wrong. Because most people are righthanded, this bias has become customary. Thus, according to a recent paper, “the Latin words for right and left, dexter and sinister, form the roots of English words meaning skillful and evil, respectively,” and “according to Islamic doctrine, the left hand should only be used for dirty jobs, whereas the right hand is used for eating,” and “the left foot is used for stepping into the bathroom, and the right foot for entering the mosque.” But what do lefthanders think? The authors of the paper compared the gestures made by the presidential candidates in the final debates of the 2004 and 2008 elections to the phrases that were spoken at the same time. John McCain and Barack Obama, who are both lefthanded, preferred their left hands for positive comments and their right hands for negative comments, while the pattern was reversed for George W. Bush and John Kerry, who are both righthanded.

Casasanto, D. & Jasmin, K., “Good and Bad in the Hands of Politicians: Spontaneous Gestures during Positive and Negative Speech,” PLoS ONE (July 2010).

Couples therapy

Some marriages are healthier than others, both figuratively and literally. A team of researchers observed the social interactions of several dozen married couples. The researchers also collected blood samples from everyone and created small blisters on each person’s forearm, and then monitored the healing process. The level of two hormones (oxytocin and vasopressin) in a person’s blood was associated with both the quality of that person’s marital communication and how quickly that person’s wound healed. Those with higher levels of these hormones were more positive and less negative with their partner and exhibited faster wound healing.

Gouin, J. et al., “Marital Behavior, Oxytocin, Vasopressin, and Wound Healing,” Psychoneuroendocrinology (August 2010).

Teen sex and TV

As long as humans have communicated, they have probably debated the question of whether kids are influenced by lurid content. The issue is a big part of the culture wars and is especially acute in the age of cable TV and the Internet. However, a reanalysis of data from a widely cited study suggests that lurid media content may be getting too much blame. The original study in the journal Pediatrics surveyed hundreds of middle-school students about their media exposure and virginity and followed up with them two years later. Although the authors of the original study claimed to find an effect, the authors of this latest analysis — using a “more stringent approach” — found no effect of media exposure on the age when adolescents began to have sex. Instead, it appears that the kind of adolescent who has sex at an earlier age also just happens to be the kind of adolescent who consumes lurid media content.

Steinberg, L. & Monahan, K., “Adolescents’ Exposure to Sexy Media Does Not Hasten the Initiation of Sexual Intercourse,” Developmental Psychology (forthcoming).

The prejudice of the times

In this country, most discussions about race are concerned with blacks and Latinos. Blacks still confront the legacy of slavery, while Latinos are at the center of the immigration debate. Another group, Asian-Americans, has seemingly managed to stay above the fray. But is this wishful thinking? Perhaps, according to a new study. After reading an editorial about the economic downturn, participants became more prejudiced against Asian-Americans, but not against blacks. An editorial about global warming didn’t have the same effect. The authors attribute this to the perception that Asian-Americans are more of a competitive threat with regard to jobs and other economic resources.

Butz, D. & Yogeeswaran, K., “A New Threat in the Air: Macroeconomic Threat Increases Prejudice against Asian Americans,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Slogan backlash

A slogan is a set of words designed to influence your thoughts. You know this, and, according to a new study, your subconscious does, too. In fact, your subconscious tries to employ its own reverse psychology. When people were asked to remember slogans related to saving money, they were inclined to spend more later on; likewise, when remembering slogans related to spending money, people were inclined to spend less. However, brand names seem to get the job done: People spent less after being asked to remember a brand related to saving money, and people spent more after being asked to remember a brand related to spending money. So perhaps every company should have a brand like Tiffany and a slogan like “Every Day Low Prices.”

Laran, J. et al., “The Curious Case of Behavioral Backlash: Why Brands Produce Priming Effects and Slogans Produce Reverse Priming Effects,” Journal of Consumer Research (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.

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Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/08/29/when_left_is_right/

Un-rules

Start the school year right: Forget these 10 language laws

Another school year, another set of writing assignments: Students of all ages will soon be composing papers on summer vacations, the Chinese economy, or the heroines of Henry James. And beginners or veterans, these student writers all risk exposure to usage myths — bogus rules of English they may hear, or read, or suddenly discover (via a teacher’s red pen) that they’ve violated.

Fake language rules can come from respected sources, but that’s no reason to believe them. As Kathryn Schulz explains in her new book, “Being Wrong,” people don’t know that they’re misinformed: Being wrong, after all, feels just like being right. But learning to write is hard enough without the burden of following non-rules. So let’s lighten the load a bit, starting with 10 usage topics that deserve a good leaving alone.

None are? None is? They’re both correct; none has meant both “not one” and “not any” for more than 1,000 years. During the past century though, a few usage writers have fretted about it, arguing that making none always singular would be etymologically and aesthetically preferable. Their reasoning was faulty, and they haven’t made a dent in usage, but the singular superstition hangs on somehow. Let’s not encourage it.

The girl that I marry. No, it doesn’t have to be whom I marry. “People that has always been good English,” notes Bryan Garner in Garner’s Modern American Usage, “and it’s a silly fetish to insist that who is the only relative pronoun that can refer to humans.” Choose who if you like, but to claim that using that “makes a person seem less human,” as Mignon Fogarty suggested in a Grammar Girl podcast — that’s just looking for trouble.

Since you asked. It’s totally legit to use since for because, unless it would cause ambiguity. Since has had its causal sense, as well as its temporal sense, from the beginning.

Healthy choices. Many of us have been taught that it’s healthy people but healthful foods. But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, healthy meant both “hale” and “wholesome” from the time it arrived in English in the mid-16th century. More than 300 years later, an American usage critic proposed limiting healthy to living things; his idea has ardent supporters, but in practice, healthy has always been preferred to healthful.

“Till” was there first. In recent decades, somebody launched the mischievous rumor that till is a substandard form of until. In fact, till is ancient English, and until was formed by combining on and till. If you want to disparage a member of this family, go with ’til, the entirely superfluous 20th-century addition.

Verbing nouns. Your teacher hates to see nouns used as verbs? So that teacher never hammers, brakes, weeds, elbows, or trashes anything? Verbing nouns is standard procedure in English. We may dislike new verbs, especially if they seem like in-group jargon (incent, effort, unfriend, tweet). But you can’t predict which ones will have legs: The verbs progress, contact, and experience were scorned in their youth, and look at them now.

“And” can start a sentence. So can But and However. One theory is that teachers ban the and opening for kids of Tooth Fairy age so they can’t just string together a series of “and then” sentences, thus planting the idea that it’s forbidden. But anyone old enough for Harry Potter should be able to handle the truth.

Misspelled is not misused. Errors like “faster then a speeding bullet” and “taking a lot of flack” are mistakes in spelling, not comprehension. But you’ll often see them flagged as “confusions,” as if the writer truly didn’t know the meanings of then and than. The confused person here is the critic, who fails to distinguish a spelling goof from a true word mix-up like flaunt for flout. Learn to spell, by all means, but don’t fall for this sort of violation inflation.

The adverb can be “wrong.” The usage czar of the Telegraph in London recently chastised a reporter for using the construction “spelled it wrong.” But the reporter had it right: He spelled it wrong, it’s tied too tight, she drives too slow — all these adverbial forms are fine. Once there were more “flat adverbs” — identical to the adjectives, lacking the “ly” ending — but “two centuries of chipping away by schoolmasters and grammarians” has taken its toll, says Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Flat adverbs: Get ’em while you can!

You only live once. Spotting “misplacements” of only is a hobby for some picky readers — they’d rewrite that sentence as “you live only once,” so there’s no way to misinterpret it. Yes, there are times when moving the only can change the meaning of a sentence. But can you show me a published example of a misplaced only causing genuine confusion? I offered readers that challenge in 2001, and it still stands. Other usage critics, including H.W. Fowler (1926) and Bergen Evans (1957), have also pooh-poohed the only alarmists — though Garner’s 2009 usage tome still argues for strict enforcement. Until there’s evidence of harm, though, I say a normally worded sentence should get the benefit of the doubt.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe

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Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/08/29/un_rules/

‘Jersey’ as a Nickname for New Jersey

Commenting on my column about beach lingo from the Jersey Shore and elsewhere, Gary Muldoon writes: “If someone from the Garden State comes from ‘Jersey,’ do those residents refer to someone from the Empire State as being from ‘York’?”

“Jersey” as a nickname for New Jersey is an oddity: there’s no corresponding clipping of “New York” to “York,” “New Hampshire” to “Hampshire,” and certainly not “New Mexico” to “Mexico.” Some have complained that the use of “Jersey” is “demeaning” to the state. David Lavery, author of “This Thing of Ours: Investigating the Sopranos,” agrees: plain old “Jersey,” with its “familiar and slangy” feel, “does not elicit respect.”

Those who dislike the “Jersey” label may be surprised to discover that it has a distinguished historical pedigree. I asked Maxine N. Lurie, professor of history at Seton Hall University and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of New Jersey, about the usage, and she traced its origins to the end of the 17th century, when there were actually two “Jerseys”: the provinces of East and West Jersey, dividing the territory of New Jersey along a diagonal. (New Jersey was named in honor of the proprietor of East Jersey, George Carteret, who hailed from the Island of Jersey.)

Because of this split, it was common to talk of “the Jerseys,” even after the provinces were united in 1702. Lurie suspects it was “easier to refer to the ‘Jerseys’ and people from ‘Jersey’ than to say ‘East New Jersey’ and ‘West New Jersey.'” The historical record bears this out: 18th-century documents are peppered with mentions of “the Jerseys,” and colonial accounts from 1735 and 1746 refer simply to “the province of Jersey.”

Another factor that helped “Jersey” shed the “New” was the proliferation of compounds with “Jersey” as the first element. The Oxford English Dictionary lists “Jerseyman” from 1679, “Jersey maid” from 1713, and “Jersey blues” (the name of the local militia regiment) from 1758. Inhabitants of New Jersey could also be called “Jerseys,” as in a 1756 letter from George Washington that read, “The Jerseys and New Yorkers, I do not remember what it is they give.”

Many of these colonial vestiges carried over into statehood, though instead of East and West Jersey, the state has more typically been divided into North and South. Standalone “Jersey” worked its way into place names, too. Notably, in 1804, The Jersey Company incorporated the City of Jersey, counterbalancing the City of New York on the other side of the Hudson River. A few decades later it was reincorporated as Jersey City.

Making compound forms with “Jersey” has certainly never let up: consider the Jersey Shore and the Jersey Devil, Jersey justice (the rough kind) and Jersey lightning (strong liquor, usually applejack), Jersey boys and Jersey girls. Jersey Joe Walcott won the world heavyweight boxing title in 1951, and concrete highway dividers have been called “Jersey barriers” since the late ’60s.

New York has, for the most part, missed out on all of this “New”-less naming. New Yorkers were sometimes called “Yorkers” back in the revolutionary era (Abigail Adams wrote that “a regiment of Yorkers refused to quit the city” in a 1776 letter), but the epithet never stuck. There wasn’t much compounding of “York” either, except for the “York shilling,” a bygone local currency that lingered until 1865, according to H.L. Mencken.

That only makes the “Jersey” legacy even more peculiar to the state. As a born-and-bred Jersey boy, I embrace this idiosyncratic heritage. Sure, “Jersey” (or, God forbid, “Joisey”) can be used derisively at times, but Jersey-bashing won’t suddenly disappear just because people use the state’s full name. Better to revel in the timeless lyric of Bruce Springsteen, “My machine she’s a dud, out stuck in the mud somewhere in the swamps of Jersey.”

Ben Zimmer, New York Times

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/magazine/29onlanguage.html