Saturday, May 8, 2010

Modern Family: A Treasure Trove of Linguistic Anomalies

The ABC show Modern Family is not only fun to watch but is also fun to think about ways we can use English words. This past Wednesday (5/5/10), the episode that aired (titled "Airport") had two such instances of word play that left me literally laughing out loud (or should I say "ROFL"?).

Phil, one of the characters in the show, is a real estate agent and is helping his brother-in-law break into his own home after leaving his house keys with his partner at the airport. Phil faces the camera and says:

The average burglar breaks in and leaves all these clues behind. Not me. I'm completely clueless.

Obviously, most of us turn to the interpretation of clue to mean 'idea' so that clueless means 'lost' or 'confused.' However, Phil's play on words turns clueless into a new meaning of 'without physical clues (or without leaving physical clues behind)'.

That one line is enough to make me love that episode. Later on in the episode, Jay (Phil's father-in-law) is telling his grandson to sit down. His grandson falls into a chair and lands on Jay's Kindle, which prompted this reaction from Jay:

Ooh, ooh, my Ludlums!

Prior to this incident, we learned that Jay had loaded 8 books by Ludlum onto his "reading device", and he was looking forward to spending some quality time reading those books on his vacation. So when his grandson broke his Kindle, he voiced his concern over losing the ability to read the books by Ludlum; instead of using a longer phrase to describe that, though, he substitutes the author's name for the books (i.e., he uses metonymy).

What are some of your favorite instances of word play in a movie, TV show, or book?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Lexical Gap: Noun for 'Ridiculous'

When we make up new words, our motivation is typically that we have an idea to express but do not have a word for it; thus, we have a lexical gap--a gap where the precise word we are looking for should be. Sometimes lexical gaps are legitimate ones (i.e., our language truly does not have a word to express what we would like to express). Oftentimes, though, lexical gaps are speaker-dependent. There is a word in our language that would work--we just don't know about it, or it doesn't quite sound right for the situation.

For example, the other day I was driving down the road and got stuck behind someone going a good 15 mph below the speed limit. I couldn't go around the car because I needed to stay in the right lane so that I could make a right turn into a parking lot. The car in front of me was already going slow--in and of itself a frustrating experience--but as we got closer to where I needed to turn, the car in front of me kept going slower and slower and slower... until I shouted, "Enough of this ridiculosity!" Yes, road rage gets the best of us. Not only did I shout in my car at the driver in front of me, but I also experienced a momentary lexical gap in my vocabulary.

After my outburst, I started a conversation with myself (I was alone in the car) that went something like this:

Hmm... Ridiculosity doesn't sound like a real word. But what is the noun form of ridiculous? I'm fairly sure we have one because we'd need a noun to describe a ridiculous situation without using complex phrases full of modifiers when one word could sum it all up. The go-to suffix for making nouns tends to be -ness, so is ridiculousness the word I'm looking for? Well, that just sounds ridiculous. There's far too many s sounds in a row for that to be a good word. Ridiculousness... ridiculosity. I like ridiculosity better, but something is telling me ridiculousness is actually the word.
When I got home, I went to my handy Mac dictionary, and--sure enough--ridiculousness is, in fact, the noun form of the adjective ridiculous. However, I think we should start a campaign that any adjective ending in -ous should form its noun counterpart by using the -ity suffix (thus changing the -ous to simply -os when spelling out the whole word). Words like ridiculousness, incredulousness, and marvelousness just sound wrong. Don't ridiculosity, incredulosity, and marvelosity just sound better?