Fun Idioms from NBC’s Constantine

Constantine TV bannerThe title character of NBC’s new show Constantine is meant to be a Liverpool-raised Londoner living in Atlanta, Georgia. Accordingly, the show uses a lot of British (and sometimes Southern American) idiomatic expressions. Here are some of my recent favorites.

The duck’s nuts“—cf. “the dog’s bollocks,” the bee’s knees” and “the cat’s pajamas.”
Gaz: “Back then we all thought John was the duck’s nuts.”

Taking the piss“—once largely unknown in the US, the expression “are you taking the piss?” usually means “are you kidding me?” This usage is gaining stateside traction.
Gaz: “I’m coming with you.”
John: “Are you taking the piss?
Gaz: “It’s my responsibility.”
John: “Forget it. You’re the last person I want by my side in this—or anything.”

Bitta” —a person who is a bit of this, a bit of that—a “bitta” everything.
John: “You’re showing flashes of precognition, retrocognition, clairtangence—you’re a real Bitta.”

Rocket surgery“—a combination of  “rocket science” and “brain surgery.” “It’s not rocket surgery” means “it’s not difficult.”

Pear-shaped“—”Everything went all pear-shaped” in British parlance means “everything went horribly wrong.”

Leave it out“—an equivalent to “I don’t want to hear it.”
Gaz: “I’m clean now, John, and it’s going to stay that way; I swear.”
John: “Oh, leave it out, Gaz; I don’t have the time.”

Read my recaps of the show at The Supernatural Fox Sisters.


Unpack Your Anti-Intersective Adjectives

I mentioned in a previous post that I would elaborate on the linguistic concepts of non-intersective and anti-intersective adjectives, so here we go.

Intersective adjective: The adjective intersects with other uses of the same descriptor. A green car and a green frog are intersective in that they are both green, and green means the same thing in both cases: both the car and the frog are within the same subset: that of things that are green.

Frog Car

Frog Car photo by Darin McGrew / Creative Commons

Relative intersective adjective: These differ from regular intersective adjectives in that they are—you guessed it—relative. A big car and a big frog are both described as big, but big is a relative term—the big frog is only big in relation to other frogs, not in relation to a car. They can’t be considered as being members of the same subset, “things that are big,” without qualification.

Non-intersective adjective: This is where it gets a little weirder. Non-intersective adjectives are descriptors that may or may not describe their noun. The most frequently cited examples are words such as alleged, probable, suspected and possible. In the sentence, “A possible motive for her alleged crime is jealousy,” there may or may not be a motive, and there may or may not be a crime. Note that unlike most intersective adjectives, most non-intersective adjectives have corresponding adverb or noun forms: allegedly, probably; suspect (n), possibility.

Anti-intersective adjective: Anti-intersective, or privative, adjectives are descriptors that negate the noun—the described noun cannot be a member of its own set. The best examples of  anti-intersective adjectives are fake and counterfeit. A fake gun is never a member of the subset “things that are guns.” A counterfeit Rembrandt cannot be a member of the subset “Rembrandts.”

Non-intersective and anti-intersective adjectives usually come early in adjective sequence. Using Radiohead lyrics as an example, “a fake Chinese rubber plant” is a Chinese rubber plant that is fake. If you instead said, “a Chinese fake rubber plant,” you’d be talking about a rubber plant that is fake and made in China. If you said, “a Chinese rubber fake plant,” you’d be describing a fake plant made out of Chinese rubber. The song title, “Fake Plastic Trees,” is a lyrical play on words that would be redundant in normal (non-lyrical) usage: although a rubber plant is a real plant, a plastic tree is a fake tree. In the title “Fake Plastic Trees,” both fake and plastic could qualify as anti-intersective adjectives: plastic trees are not part of the set “things that are trees,” nor are fake trees. In regular usage, although you might say “fake rubber tree/plant,” you would probably say either “fake tree” or “plastic tree,” but not fake plastic tree.”


John Oliver Calls Dingo; Truthiness Will Out

On his show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver recently came up with a neologism that I feel ranks with such terms as Stephen Colbert’s 2005 coinage of “truthiness.” On the subject of net neutrality, the blatant conflict of interest inherent in former cable industry lobbyist Tom Wheeler being appointed to the position of Federal Communications Commission chairman was described by Oliver as “the equivalent of needing a babysitter and hiring a dingo.”


Not a fox, but a dingo. Photo courtesy of Matthias Siegel via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Oliver and Wheeler have traded barbs with each other since the original show aired in June 2014, thereby spreading the terminology further across the the internet. (Also note that when asked about the show at an FCC open meeting, Wheeler said that he had needed to look up “dingo,” as he hadn’t known what one was. From this statement we can infer that he was also ignorant of the popular cultural references associated with dingoes and babies.)

Several weeks later, on a show about predatory lending, Oliver slimmed the joke down to the catchy idiom, “I call dingo!” in reference to the even crazier conflicts of interest between the Texas legislature and the payday loan industry. This is a construction and usage similar to that of calling shenanigans: “shenanigans” as a noun, meaning “dishonest maneuvering,” or, more innocuously, “practical jokes” or “mischief,” goes back a few centuries, but the popularity of the accusatory construction “to call shenanigans,” meaning “to cry foul,” seems to be traceable to a 1998 episode of South Park (although Kyle declares, not calls, shenanigans):

Kyle: I’m declaring shenanigans on you! This game is rigged!
Carnie: Shenanigans?
Barbrady: [arriving] What’s all the hoo-ha?
Kyle: Officer Barbrady, I wanna declare shenanigans on this carnival operator.
Barbrady: Why?
Kyle: This game is fixed! The balls are bigger than Jennifer Love Hewitt’s mouth!
Barbrady: If that is true, then your declaration of shenanigans is just.

Neologisms are often born of necessity, and that’s what I love about these three  constructions: they all pretty much mean “bullshit” (either as a noun or an interjection), but with more specific (and timely/topical) shades of meaning, as well as having the additional benefit of being non-expletives.

Truthiness, while infrequently having been used as a synonym for “truthfulness” in centuries past, was redefined and popularized by Stephen Colbert: “Truthiness is, ‘What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.”

(Tangentially, the original dingo story, that of the murder conviction (now overturned) of Lindy Chamberlain, mother of an infant girl taken by dingoes in central Australia in 1980, could be considered a case of truthiness over truth—it is widely believed that Chamberlain and her husband were accused and convicted of murder, despite all evidence to the contrary, in large part due to a belief that Chamberlain did not appear to behave in a way that one would consider “normal” for a grieving mother. In other words, regardless of the coroner’s report, the physical evidence, witness testimony, etc., the “gut feeling” people seemed to have at the time was that Chamberlain wasn’t hysterical enough, and therefore must be guilty of infanticide.)

Now I’m sure some of the “word police,” the “wordinistas” over at Webster’s, are gonna say, “Hey, that’s not a word.” Well, anybody who knows me knows I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist — constantly telling us what is or isn’t true, or what did or didn’t happen.
——Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report (premiere episode), 2005

“Truthiness” served such a pointed and immediate need in America’s vocabulary that it was Merriam-Webster’s 2006 Word of the Year:

1. truthiness (noun)
1 : “truth that comes from the gut, not books” (Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” October 2005)
2 : “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true” (American Dialect Society, January 2006)

(Interestingly, while this definition comes from the Word of the Year link above, the word truthiness itself does not yet show up in a word query on

I call shenanigans! is most comparable in meaning to “I call bullshit!” The “I call” [bullshit/shenanigans/dingo] preface to the respective object words is a semantic pleonasm, meaning that the nouns used alone (as interjections) are understood to mean the same thing as their full idiomatic phrases—calling “dingo!” means the same thing as “calling dingo.” (Or, to be more clear, “dingo!” is synonymous with “I call dingo.”)

Dingo! or I call dingo! borrows its syntax from earlier phrases (cf. “Shotgun!“), but its meaning is distinct and precise; it refers specifically to conflicts of interest—a particular sort of political shenanigans. Besides the current usefulness of having a pithier way to say “conflict of interest,” it is a particularly nice bit of coinage in that it sounds like “Bingo!”—another called-out declaratory interjection. With the extraordinary amount of conflicts of interest in American governance today, I can envision “dingo!” becoming a meaningful and widely used term. Good on yer, John O!

Pleonastic Tautological Redundancies

See what I did there? Here are some common, yet often overlooked, examples of grammatical tautologies.

ATM machine sign

Sign at McBaker Market, San Francisco

heir apparent
end result
general public
doctorate degree
undergraduate student
root cause
old adage
major breakthrough
close proximity
final outcome

There are lots of tautological proper nouns, like the Los Angeles Angels (The the angels angels: Spanish) or Lake Tahoe (Lake the Lake: Washo). But they just are what they are.

Pleonasm can be syntactic or semantic.
Semantic pleonasm occurs when the grammar of a language allows for a word or words to be be left out of a sentence without changing the meaning. “That” is a commonly semantically pleonastic word in English:
I thought that you had read it” can be replaced by “I thought you had read it.”
Syntactic pleonasm is what we more commonly call a redundancy, such as this one taken from a popular book:
What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.

The Great Singular ‘They’ Debate

#Abstract, by Ronosaurus Rex

#Abstract, by Ronosaurus Rex

The lovely and talented Ronosaurus Rex (author of the finely edited book Narrative Madness) has written an argument for the use of “they” as a generic singular pronounA Case for the Singular They as a Genderless Pronoun in Formal Speech and Writing.” The Chronicle of Higher Education has also recently covered the idea a few times in the recent past, largely agreeing with Professor Rex, as do I—recasting around the pronoun can affect shades of meaning, and “they” is already in common use in non-formal language (and has been so for centuries). (RR also discusses the use of “they” as a pronoun for agender people; we will comment on that usage, as well as some gender-related neologisms and current debates, in future posts.)

Books by Ronosaurus Rex (Ronald B. Richardson):
#Abstract, available at Blurb
Narrative Madness, available at Amazon (coming soon in dead tree format!)


A list of links, largely stolen from a recent Reddit thread of useful sites no one knows about, is up on BuzzFeed. In turn, here are a few links from those lists I hadn’t previously known (or had forgotten) about and think are pretty neat:

MerriamWebsterOnline’s YouTube channel. “Ask the Editor” is a series of videos covering all kinds of word and grammar issues. The perfect YouTube playlist for language mavens in search of something to listen to while folding laundry. Latest video: “It is I” vs. “It’s me.”

The WriteWords Word Frequency Counter. Although it has uses for all kinds of writing, I’m thinking of running cover letters through it to check for commonly overused words like “responsible,” “strategic,” and “effective.”curious lawn fox

The Online Etymology Dictionary. The work of one awesome person, this would have helped me explain the clear derivative difference between “virgin” and “vagina” when it came up.

Print Friendly.  A version of this functionality should be built into every browser. Available as a handy bookmarklet, Print Friendly does what it says on the tin—clearing away clutter and images from websites while leaving nice, readable text for printing, emailing, or downloading as PDF. It’s meant to save printer paper, and although it doesn’t always succeed at reducing the page count, it does still make most web pages much easier to save, print and read. Actually, to be fair, it might save me printer paper after all—having clean, searchable PDFs of research materials may obviate the need to print some of them entirely.

Bonus party-time link: ViddyJam. Pandora-style playlist creation for YouTube music videos.

Everyone, Every Day

Sign on University Avenue, Berkeley, 2014.

Sign on University Avenue, Berkeley, 2014.

There seem to be more and more instances of the adjective “everyday” being used where the adjective+noun (acting together as an adverbial phrase) “every day” should be used.  Everyday means: “Daily, quotidian, commonplace: happening every day.” Every day also means “daily,” but modifies a verb, not a noun.

Every Day vs. Everyday
The bus driver frowns at me every day. (adj. every modifies n. day; “every day” modifies v. frowns.)
It is an everyday occurrence. (adj. everyday modifies n. occurrence.)
Trick: If you can replace it in a sentence with “every night,” it’s two words. (“Everynight” isn’t a word.)

Similarly (as seen in the badly proofed sign pictured), “everyone” and “every one” are used differently. Everyone is a pronoun, meaning “every person.” Every one is an noun phrase, meaning “each,” often followed followed by a prepositional phrase describing “one”:

Every One vs. Everyone
Every one of his passengers dislikes him. (Both every and the prepositional phrase of his passengers act as adjectives describing one.) NB: This sentence is tricky in regard to subject/verb agreement: the root subject is one [singular], so the root predicate, dislikes, is correspondingly singular. Cf. the sentence:
All of his passengers dislike him.  All is plural, and therefore we use the plural verb dislike. One dislikes; all dislike.
Everyone dislikes him. (Everyone is a pronoun and the subject of the sentence, yet as above, uses one (singular) to determine the verb case.)
He is disliked by everyone. (Everyone is still a pronoun, but the object of the preposition by. The prepositional phrase by everyone acts as an adverb describing v. disliked.)

“Prepositional” is really hard to type correctly.

Passive Voice and Passival Tense

Happy Passive Voice Day!

Don’t go nuts trying to always avoid passive. Here is a useful illustration of other verb forms being confused for passive in student paper-grading, and links to Language Log posts on the passive voice.

Bonus links: Language Log on the now-archaic passival tense, replaced since ca. the mid-18th century by the progressive passive. Lexicon Valley podcast on passival.

Progressive: She put out the fire.
Passive: The fire was put out (by her).
Passival: The fire was putting out (by her).
Progressive+passive: The fire was being put out (by her).
Pennsylvania Dutch past perfect: She has outened the fire.