Uncommon knowledge

The Honorable Senator’s buddies

These days, party affiliation seems to be the best predictor of whether a politician supports or opposes a particular policy. However, special interests still manage to drive a lot of votes, and one special interest — the politician’s own social network — has a measurable effect. Researchers at Harvard Business School found that members of Congress are significantly influenced by colleagues who happen to be alumni from the same school, especially if a vote is close and less important to home-state business interests. For votes that are important to home-state business interests, having more executives who went to the same school as the politician makes it more likely that the politician will vote in their favor. The importance of social networks even plays out on the Senate floor: How a senator votes is influenced by those senators who are seated nearby, above and beyond the influence of party and state.

Cohen, L. & Malloy, C., “Friends in High Places,” National Bureau of Economic Research (October 2010).

Just don’t make a single mistake

Women have slowly but surely advanced into traditionally male-dominated occupations, and some men have ventured into traditionally female-dominated roles. Yet, according to a new study, both women and men are in a precarious position in these domains. When people were asked to rate the competence of a male president of a women’s college or a female police chief — roles that don’t fit stereotypes — they were much less forgiving when he or she made a mistake. The same reaction occurred in the case of a female CEO of an aerospace engineering firm and a female chief judge.

Brescoll, V. et al., “Hard Won and Easily Lost: The Fragile Status of Leaders in Gender-Stereotype-Incongruent Occupations,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Go easy, he only hurt 10,000 people

Our legal system is grounded in notions of due process and reasonableness. Unfortunately, new research suggests a disturbing paradox: People tend to assign less punishment for harm to more people. When asked to judge fraud, people reacted more harshly to the offender if he had defrauded three people than if he had defrauded 30 people. Likewise, when asked to judge the culpability of executives of a food processing company who had knowingly shipped tainted food, people reacted more harshly if there were two victims than if there were 20 victims. People were also more willing to go along with a coverup if there were more victims. These effects were attenuated — though not reversed — if one of the victims was specifically identified. Nevertheless, an analysis of US jury verdicts in toxic liability cases revealed the same pattern: a significant negative correlation between the number of plaintiffs and punitive damages.

Nordgren, L. & McDonnell, M.-H., “The Scope-Severity Paradox: Why Doing More Harm Is Judged to Be Less Harmful,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

The look of a lawyer

Maybe you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but you’d be smart to judge a lawyer from his yearbook photo. Ratings of “facial dominance” and “maturity” of the managing partners of top US law firms from both their college yearbooks and current professional photos were associated with the profitability of their firms. It’s not clear whether faces just happen to reflect a personality already destined to be successful, or whether the faces themselves, in fitting a certain stereotype of success, help open doors.

Rule, N. & Ambady, N., “Judgments of Power from College Yearbook Photos and Later Career Success,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

Boys, girls, and competition

Males are seen as more competitive, especially in areas like sports, business, and technology, and this competitive attitude is often credited for their relative success. But does this supposed competitive advantage actually exist? Several economists ran an experiment with elementary school students to find the answer. Each student was matched against another student to see who would get the most questions right on a timed math quiz. Students were re-matched and re-quizzed several times in the course of an hour. Boys did significantly better on the first quiz, but then their competitive advantage petered out. They did no better than the girls on subsequent quizzes. In fact, boys’ superior performance on the first quiz couldn’t even be reproduced in another trial two weeks later. So while the boys seemed to experience an initial jolt of competitive juices, the spur of competition doesn’t appear to be a durable explanation for the gender gap. Still, as the authors note, if boys seek out competitive situations more than girls do — even if boys aren’t inherently better competitors — that may be enough to give them an edge.

Cotton, C. et al., “The Gender Gap Cracks Under Pressure: A Detailed Look at Male and Female Performance Differences during Competitions,” National Bureau of Economic Research (October 2010).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/11/07/the_honorable_senators_buddies?

What King James wrought

How the Bible still shapes the language

In the past week or so, anyone following the news might have read that Jon Stewart is “a thorn in the side of politicians”; that Senator Harry Reid of Nevada won reelection “by the skin of his teeth”; and that people in the newspaper industry “see the writing on the wall.”

That well-informed reader wouldn’t have been especially surprised to hear that these phrases all come from the same source, the Bible. It has long been an article of faith among speakers of English that biblical language — especially that of the Authorized, or King James, version, published in 1611 — has been immensely influential. The KJV, wrote linguist David Crystal in 2004, “has contributed far more to English in the way of idiomatic or quasi-proverbial expressions than any other literary source.”

But just how much was that “far more”? Not even Crystal knew, and with the KJV about to celebrate its 400th year, he set out to explore and tabulate its contributions to everyday language. Now, in “Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language,” he has some answers. The short one is “257” — that’s the number of familiar idioms, from “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis) to the whore of Babylon (Revelation), that he credits to the stature and popularity of the King James Bible.

This doesn’t sound like a lot, given some past claims that thousands of phrases are Bible-derived. But Crystal is counting only idioms — the expressions we use and modify freely with no reference to their origins. He excludes what he labels “quotations,” like “the meek shall inherit the earth” — Bible words that are rarely borrowed for reuse in nonreligious contexts. And even that 257 beats Shakespeare, who has fewer than 100 original phrases to his credit.

But Shakespeare was an innovator, notes Crystal, and a prolific coiner of words, if not of phrases. The translators who produced the KJV were conservative, dedicated to continuing a language tradition. Their mandate was to improve on the earlier English Bibles — “to make…out of many good ones, one principall good one.” And in fact, only a handful of our 257 familiar idioms — “how the mighty are fallen,” “to every thing there is a season” — appear only in the KJV.

Crystal displays these variants clearly in a tabular appendix, showing which idioms were preserved from earlier Bibles and which were rewritten. Only the KJV, for instance, has “a thorn in the flesh”; earlier versions had “a prick” or “a sting” or “unquietness,” none as sharp as that thorn. The KJV asks if a leopard can “change its spots,” but the committee might have gone with “a pard may change his diversities,” from the Wycliffe Bible. “Cast thy bread upon the waters” is mysterious, but we manage to use it anyway; “lay thy bread upon wet faces” would not have been so versatile.

Other Bible-based idioms have evolved with use so they no longer reflect any one text. “From the cradle to the grave” was once “womb to the grave”; “pride goes before a fall” condenses four much wordier alternatives; our shorthand “fly in the ointment” no longer spells out the stink of the fly-fouled ointment.

But if you think this is dull, sober scholarship, think again. In Crystal’s definition, an idiom is an adaptable expression, and his 257 phrases have been adapted, twisted, and punned on to a fare-thee-well. “Signs of the times” begets “whine of the times” (on an advice column) and “shine of the times” (for a hair product). “Love of money is the root of all evil” becomes “Money is the root of all baseball” (and so on) and even “Monet is the root of all evil.”

Headline punsters, read this book with caution: When you see what your tribe hath wrought, you may have to conclude that when it comes to biblical wordplay, there’s nothing new under the sun.

HELLO, DARKNESS: When even the calendar publishers can’t get it right, we don’t need to lose any sleep over today’s biannual usage problem. But just for the record, today’s time shift marked the end of this year’s Daylight Saving Time. Not savings; just saving.

There’s no denying that the “savings” version is common — Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, says it’s the spelling in about one-fourth of print appearances — but why? Garner blames it on a “miscue” — a momentary confusion over the parsing of the phrase.

“Daylight Saving” is meant as a compound adjective, as in space-saving containers, money-saving tips, labor-saving technologies. But the verbal noun savings (“an amount saved”) is also widespread, notes Garner, so “using savings as the adjective — as in savings account or savings bond — makes perfect sense.”

The US government contributes to the problem by styling Daylight Saving Time without a hyphen, probably to keep it (superficially) consistent with Central Standard and the other zone designations. But that (along with the capital letters) is a preference, not a rule. Feel free to lower-case, and to add that clarifying hyphen, as we take our leave of daylight-saving time.

Jan Freeman, Boston Globe

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/11/07/what_king_james_wrought/

‘Homage’

In my recent column on Stephen Colbert’s coinage of “truthiness,” I wrote that the title of Charles Seife’s new book, “Proofiness,” is “very much a homage to Colbert.” Laura Kozin e-mails: “My brain stubbed its toe on this. I thought we pronounced it ‘an (h)omage.’ Did I miss a change to spoken ‘h’? Is it now ‘a herb garden’ as well?” Steve Penn e-mails: “Your last column indicated that you pronounce homage with the ‘h.’ Me too. A few years ago, on the radio, I was jolted to hear this word pronounced oh-MAZH. A real stomach-turner. Since then, I’ve heard this pronunciation fairly frequently on the radio and occasionally on television. Are the broadcast folks cooking up a new pronunciation, or do they intend some word other than homage?”

The New York Times style guide does not specifically address the word homage, and in such matters the copy desk typically turns to Webster’s New World Dictionary for guidance. As with other leading American dictionaries, Webster’s New World currently recognizes two equally accepted pronunciations of the word: either HOM-ij or OM-ij. Since the pronunciation with “h” is listed first, that would favor “a homage” over “an homage.” (The Times has not been terribly consistent on this score, however. Since 2001, “a homage” has appeared in the paper 500 times, but “an homage” has appeared 407 times.)

While most U.S. dictionaries list HOM-ij first, one exception is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Joshua S. Guenter, Merriam-Webster’s pronunciation editor, explained to me that prior to the Tenth Edition of the dictionary in 1993, the pronunciation of homage was given with the initial “h” in parentheses, “indicating the two variants were about equally common.” Starting with the Tenth, they began giving a slight edge to OM-ij. “Our citation files do show the ‘h’-less variant to be more common than the ‘h’-ful one, though not by a huge degree,” Guenter said.

Dropping the “h” sound from homage appears to be gathering steam in American speech, and other dictionaries will no doubt begin to reflect this move. This actually represents a return to a much older pronunciation pattern. As with many other imports from Norman French into Middle English, the initial “h” was not originally pronounced in homage. Eventually, so-called spelling pronunciation introduced the “h” sound to words like habit, host, hospital and human. Some words resisted the extra puff of aspiration, like heir, honest, honor and hour. Still others took on the “h” only in certain dialects: herb, for instance, stayed unaspirated in American pronunciation while it gained the “h” sound in British English. Starting around the eighteenth century, homage joined the “h”-ful crowd.

The shifting status of homage is further muddied by the modish French-influenced version, oh-MAZH. Strictly speaking, that pronunciation ought to be limited to artistic contexts where the French word hommage has been reintroduced into English as a term for a work that respectfully emulates that of another artist. Something similar happened with the word auteur, which cinephiles borrowed from French to refer to directors with distinctive styles, even though the word had already entered the lexicon centuries ago as author.

The oh-MAZH pronunciation is gaining a foothold beyond the arts world, and for some that’s a cause for alarm. In his book “The Accidents of Style,” Charles Harrington Elster calls this a “preposterous de-Anglicization” that is “becoming fashionable among the literati.” Elster had previously complained that good old HOM-ij was losing out to OM-ij “in havens for the better-educated like National Public Radio,” and for defenders of the “h” pronunciation oh-MAZH just adds insult to injury.

A check of NPR’s audio archives corroborates Elster’s hunch. Listening to 10 recent uses of the word homage by on-the-air personalities, I found an even split: five for oh-MAZH and five for OM-ij, with the latter generally reserved for the “respect” meaning, as in pay homage. The HOM-ij pronunciation, meanwhile, seems to be losing out to its trendier h-less rivals, despite the protestations of traditionalists. And since it’s a fight of two against one, “a homage” may, over time, become increasingly rare.

Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/07/magazine/07FOB-onlanguage-t.html