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The World Cup’s over now, but there’s a little point that’s keeps gnawing at me. I followed the World Cup primarily through Yahoo!’s sports site (previously mentioned for its poor choices in headline truncation), and I have to admit that despite my general disdain for comments on sports sites, I found myself actually following theirs. Not, of course, because the comments offered any insights, but rather out of a worrisome inability to stop looking at them. They were mini-Medusas, turning my brain to stone each time I looked upon their inane blabberings and tried to figure out why the commenter thought I needed to hear their thoughts. And worse, they had a siren’s song, a cer—n undeniable beauty in their weird blend of nationalism, chauvinism, mockery, pop culture references, and insanity that kept me unable to turn away.

Curious about the dashes in cer—n? Well, so am I. Yahoo!’s commenting software has an apparently very strange censorship module in it. Like a standard censorship module, it replaces words it finds offensive with dashes. In order to deter the more clever vulgarians, it also replaces dirty words hidden within other words. This is why glasses is censored into gl— in the following comment:

The Refs need gl---.

That’s a little out of the ordinary; in my experience, most automatic-censoring software checks against a dictionary, and lets words whose only fault is containing an obscene word go through untouched. This isn’t a hard feature to program in, so I am led to believe that Yahoo! consciously decided to omit it. Maybe they were having trouble with commenters using minced oaths like “We’re going to kick your glasses!” and they decided to remove even within-word obscenities to foil them. That would also explain this comment:

kudos in major quan---ies

I’m going to go out on a limb and suppose that the commenter wished to offer major quantities of kudos, which would of course be censored by a censor that seeks out vulgarities lurking within words. Nothing too weird there. But then I found these comments:


Apparently FIFA president Sepp Blatter isn’t the only one against technology; Yahoo!’s censor is adamant that the word not be reproduced in full. For some reason, the string gy is marked as obscene. The only explanation I can come up with for that is that the censor wanted to prevent brainiacs slipping gay by the censor by omitting its vowel. That’s an implausible explanation, though, especially since I’ve seen gay come through uncensored in other comments.

Now what about the censorship I engaged in in the opening paragraph, cer—n? Why would I do something so silly? Well, check out these comments:

Based on context, surely the censored words in the comments above are meant to be Captain, certain, and entertaining, which suggests that the Yahoo! censor believes tai to be a vulgarity.*

I was worried that my lexicon of vulgarities had fallen out of date, which would ruin the street cred that I have so precisely cultivated, so I rushed onto Urban Dictionary to find out what made tai censorable. Strangely, there was only one obscene definition for tai on Urban Dictionary. But I don’t think that it has anywhere near the general appeal to need censoring; it was the eighth definition listed on Urban Dictionary, buried under references to the band The Academy Is… and a claims that folks with the name Tai are “unusually fly”, “elite, perfect, cool guy in planet”, and “a total badass”. I tried looking on Google, but struck out there as well, with searches for “tai obscene” and “tai vulgarity” not returning anything useful.**

Does anyone have any idea what’s going on here? Have I offended you by saying gy and tai all willy-nilly? If so, please accept my heartfelt apolo—.

*: Perhaps, you’re thinking, it’s not tai that’s obscene but rather ta or tain, which are also in all three words. Judging from the gl— and quan—ies examples, though, it appears that all and only the obscene letters are dashed out.

**: I was shocked to find out you could search for any phrase with “obscene” in it and not get a single porn site. I found that especially surprising with “Tai” given that Kobe Tai was a famous pornographic actress in the late 90s.

Last month, we grammar bloggers were all abuzz about the Queen’s English Society and their quixotic quest for the instatement of an academy to regulate the English language. The Society have already been clobbered by Stan Carey, Mark Liberman, John E. McIntyre, and David Mitchell.

There is little I could add to this quartet of brilliant battery, so instead of a general discussion of the Society’s shortcomings, I want to look at one of the things they’re complaining about as an example of bad English. The QES’s complaints are petty, insane, or both. Case in point: they’d like to see Ms. abolished. Why?

  1. It’s an abbreviation, but it has no long form.
  2. It’s “unpronounceable” since it lacks a vowel.
  3. It was created by “certain” women who “suddenly became sensitive about revealing their marital status.”

Regarding point 1, this is matter of being beholden to word labels.  It reminds me of an objection I once received to preposition stranding; “preposition” suggests “in a position before”, and therefore a preposition at the end of a sentence, where it doesn’t precede anything, must be incorrect.

So it goes with abbreviations; if you want to be literal, an abbreviation is an abbreviated form of something. But Ms. doesn’t need to be a literal abbreviation to exist. It does exist, as anyone can plainly see. If it’s not an abbreviation, that doesn’t stop it existing any more than a mannequin not being human stops it existing.

Ms. isn’t an abbreviation, but rather a blend. It’s a combination of the two words Miss and Mrs., and it happens to inherit the closing period of the abbreviation Mrs., making it superficially resemble an abbreviation. That’s all.

And if we’re doing an abbreviation witch-hunt, what is Mrs. short for?  Missus, one might say, but that isn’t really a word of its own as much as a spelling of the pronunciation of Mrs.  Etymologically, Mrs. is an abbreviation of mistress, but the meaning of that word has changed sufficiently that you’d be stirring up a good deal of trouble if you called someone’s wife a “mistress”. I would argue that in modern English Mrs. itself is no longer an abbreviation, but a fully independent lexical item, much like Ms.

Regarding point 2, well, we all manage to pronounce Ms. pretty well for the lack of a vowel supposedly rendering it unpronounceable. How do we do it? Technically speaking, the standard pronunciation of Ms. doesn’t have a vowel. We were told in school that all words need to have vowels, since each syllable has to have a vowel, but that’s not quite right.  Some consonants can function as the nucleus of a syllable, just like a vowel. This is more apparent in some non-English languages, such as Berber or Slavic languages. For instance, in Czech or Slovak, you can apparently tell someone to stick their finger through their throat by saying Strč prst skrz krk (audio), a sentence where every word has a nucleic r in lieu of a vowel.

English does this, too, albeit more rarely. We often reduce and down to a syllabic [n] or [ŋ] between words (as in the restaurants Eat ‘n Park or In-N-Out), and word-final [l] and [r] are sometimes syllabic as well (as in bottle [boɾl] or pepper [pepr]). As you might have guessed, [z] is another syllabic consonant, which explains how we are able to pronounce [mz] as a stand-alone word.

Again, I don’t mean to demonize Mrs., but if we’re getting rid of vowel-less words, wouldn’t we have to get rid of it, too? Mrs. lacks a vowel orthographically, and has to trade its r for two [ɪ]s and an extra [z] just to get pronounced (as [mɪzɪz])! Now that’s unpronounceable!

Regarding point 3, this is a contentious point, and I don’t want you to think that I’m caricaturing the QES, so let me quote the entirety of their paragraph on it:

“This linguistic misfit [Ms.] came about because certain — note: certain, not all — women suddenly became sensitive about revealing their marital status. Or perhaps they were annoyed that they could not identify a man as married or single by his title. We won’t begrudge these women their complexes but surely there is a better solution to their problem than an unpronounceable buzz!”

Women, amiright? Well, no. Actually, the original push for Ms. was to avoid mistaking a married woman for an unmarried woman or vice versa.  Ben Zimmer found the first known proposal for Ms. in a 1901 newspaper column (probably written by a man), which says:

“Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss.”

This is certainly a conundrum that I face often. Ms. is not (only) popular because women rightfully feel no need to disclose their marital status*, but because it offers a way for both males and females to address a woman whose marital status is unknown.

Of course, the QES has a counter-proposal to make Ms. unnecessary. They propose introducing an unmarried male title to complete the symmetry with Miss and Mrs. and then to make the choice of titles rely on age. Despite the QES’s claim that this is “so simple and sensible”, I think any reasonable person will see that this is a far inferior solution, and so I won’t bother with further comment on that numbskullery.

Summary: Ms. isn’t some recent feminist invention, it’s pronounceable, and it’s a useful addition to English. There is no reasonable reason to oppose it.

*: Not to mention that marital status isn’t all or nothing. What is the right title for someone divorced, widowed, separated, etc.? Ms. is a convenient way to solve that problem of etiquette.

Sarah Palin is back in the news for matters linguistic. I’ll only briefly summarize the issue here; given the strange belief by media and Internet folks that Sarah Palin’s doings are somehow significant*, I assume that by the time you’re reading this post, you’ve already been inundated with information about this latest event.

In short, there’s a proposal for an Islamic community center and mosque, the Cordoba House, at 45 Park Place in lower Manhattan. This is two blocks from the edge of the former World Trade Center site. The Community Board for that part of New York unanimously approved the proposal, but now Real Americans like Sarah Palin are instigating a Crescent Scare against the center, essentially claiming that having a good Muslim thing so close to a bad Muslim thing in a city many of them haven’t ever been to will cause them substantial emotional duress. Or as Palin herself put it, it would be a stab through the heart.

Personally, I find her position silly; there’s no reason that New Yorkers should care what Sarah Palin thinks they should do in their city, and there’s no reason she should care what they do. In fact, the only reason I find her position at all interesting is the way she chose to express it. In a tweet, she called on “Peaceful Muslims” to “refudiate” something:

That tweet was quickly taken down (thanks to Little Green Footballs for getting the screenshot) and replaced with a similar tweet that took out not only the heart-stabbing imagery, but also the curious word refudiate, which was replaced with the more standard refute**:

But the damage was done. The blogosphere, primed by her usage of refudiate in a Fox News appearance a few days earlier, had already caught wind of Palin’s refudiated tweet. So Palin was left with little choice but to defend herself:

Yes, people create words a lot. Shakespeare is especially known for this. English, like all extant languages, is ever-changing, and there’s a lot of good to be had in allowing people to create words or mess with syntax when it’s called for. However, refudiate was an error (just like misunderestimate). That’s fine; we all make mistakes. But there is a world of difference between passing off a mistake as a word and the premeditated release of a new word.

The fact that Palin took down her original tweet, and then added not only the “refute” tweet but also another tweet that re-instated the heart-stabbing point of the original, shows that she lacks confidence in her new coinage. Those two tweets contain pretty much everything that was in the original, except for refudiate, so it seems pretty clear that Palin is trying to repudiate refudiate.

So what of refudiate? As Mark Liberman showed, Sarah Palin is not the first to use the word; the science-fiction author John Sladek used it in a short story, Answers, back in 1984. It’s popped up from time to time since then, but in all of the instances I’ve listed here (as well as most of the others I found), it’s explicitly labelled as erroneous, just as Palin has implicitly labelled it.

Personally, I find this surprising and a little bit sad, as refudiate could be a useful word for me. Sometimes someone will say something both profoundly mistaken and offensive, and I’ll want to simultaneously repudiate it (i.e., separate myself from it unequivocally) and refute it (i.e., disprove it). In fact, I’ve been noticing this feeling a lot more when I read about political news lately. Sarah Palin herself is someone whose opinions I’d often like to refudiate.

Unfortunately, Palin has miscreated refudiate, rendering it unusable. In her original tweet, it seems likely to me that the word she wants is repudiate; it’s a little unclear because the character limit forced her to omit the object of transitive refudiate, so we’re left to infer that the intended object is the mosque. The only other possible object would be Palin’s own argument-in-question-form, and presumably she’s not requesting people to disprove her claim.

Assuming that the mosque is the object, we can then be pretty sure that repudiate is the intended meaning, as you can’t refute a thing***; refuting is the act of disproving or rebutting or showing to be erroneous, which must be done to an argument, claim, belief, or something of the like. To refute a mosque would be, I suppose, to prove that it does not exist, in which case the whole tweet would become quite unnecessary. It isn’t a blend; it’s just a variant form of repudiate. Because she introduced the word in a domain already solidly ruled by another word, refudiate has no reason to catch on.

And so, sadly, the meaning that people will think of for refudiate will not be the reasonable meaning that blends refutation and repudiation into a rebuttal-and-disavowal. Worse, because of Palin’s awkward attempt to justify it away, the word will be a laughingstock for the near future. This has poisoned what could have been a good word.

But at least it gives us a cautionary tale. Refudiate coulda had class. It coulda been a contender. Instead, it’s the butt of a joke. If you have a pet word that you’ve been nurturing, and you want to see it find its way into the language, don’t introduce it as an identical replacement for an existing word. Don’t omit its context. And don’t ever treat it like a typo. Be proud of your word, thrust it into the light of day, make clear what exactly it means, and you’ll be the proud parent of a word.

*: Of course, the fact that I’m writing about Sarah Palin again means that I am part of the problem. Crumbs.

**: I say “more standard” here even though her usage of refute is still non-standard. The OED notes that pre-18th century Scotland is the only place and time when refute has been used consistently to mean “to refuse or reject (a thing or person)”. In general, refuting something is about disproving it, and it doesn’t really make sense to disprove a plan.

***: Unless you are in Scotland in the 17th century, which I remain confident Palin is not.

The Fourth of July found me, like any stereotypical red-blooded American male, in front of a grill cooking meats during the day and in the living room playing Cranium once night set in. The game was going well, in that my team was beating the other two, but then one of the other teams got a trivia question asking “What animal is in the Elmer’s Glue logo?” and my world turned upside-down.

Here's the Elmer's logo, in case you don't remember kindergarten.

The asked team answered “cow”, to which I helpfully added “duh”. But the asking team said, “No, it’s a bull. Cows are female,” and the asked team all nodded their heads sadly in agreement. I was confused; sure, cow can refer to a specifically female animal, but I speak of cows all the time without knowing their gender. I can’t remember how the rest of the game turned out*, because from that point on, I couldn’t stop thinking about the best word to refer to a single animal of the species Bos primigenius taurus.

A week passed, and I’d pretty much forgotten about the cow question, aside from a subconscious cattle-directed malaise that prevented me from enjoying lolcows or Cow Appreciation Day at Chick-fil-A.



And then, on a lark, I was perusing the blog Starlingford Chronicles, and found this recent post asking the same question that my infuriatingly persistent subconscious was asking. With the question returned to the forefront of my mind, either I had to settle it or it would settle me.

So I went straight to my shelf of grammar books to see how others had settled the question. Alas, it appears that grammar books are now intended for the unlanded elite, containing virtually no information about farm animals. I was surprised to see that even grammar books ignore the plight of the modern farmer. Thus, like the farmer, we must strike out on our own to find the answer. Let’s start by looking at the word cattle.

Cattle, the OED says, comes from Middle English catel, which is an adoption into English of the same word in Old Northern French, which in turn comes from the Latin capitale. This is the same Latin word that gives us Modern English capital; the divergent meanings are the result of a fairly interesting semantic drift.

First cattle referred to any wealth or property, then more specifically in feudal times it referred to “movable” wealth, which at the time was pretty much limited to livestock. By 1500, cattle was almost exclusively used to refer to livestock. Back then, it could refer to any type of livestock or any mixtures of kinds of livestock, and thus we see examples like:

(1a) Is wool thy care? Let not thy cattle go / Where bushes are, where Burs and Thistles grow [Dryden, 1697]

(1b) By cattle, in this act, is to be understood any bull, cow, ox, steer, bullock, heifer, calf, sheep, and lamb, and no other cattle whatever. [UK Parliament, 1741-2]

(1c) […] among all manner of bovine, swinish and feathered cattle. [Carlyle, 1830]

Between then and now, the general livestock meaning lost out to the more specific meaning of a bovine, as in this OED attestation from 1836:

(2) In the usual acceptation of the word [cattle] it is confined to the ox.

Unfortunately, cattle entered the English language strictly as a mass noun, much like its sibling capital**. (Mass nouns, if you aren’t familiar with the term, are words like milk or money that lack a grammatical number and resist being treated as a singular noun, as in the ungrammatical *a money.) Because these words were borrowed into English as mass nouns, they didn’t come with countable versions. That’s not surprising for capital, as it’s not something easily quantized — there isn’t really a unit of capital — but (bovine) cattle has an obvious unit: a single animal.

Why hasn’t cattle been countified then? Well, there’re two common ways of creating a count noun from a mass noun. The simpler is to just use the mass noun into a count noun as-is; this has happened for many people with e-mail, which came from the mass noun mail, but now is often used as a count noun (“I sent an e-mail about that”). It’s also common for food and drink (“I’ll have an orange juice.”) In theory, this could be done for cattle, and it is occasionally. Google shows 460k hits for the phrase “a cattle is”, but most of these look to be from countries or writers for whom English is a second language.

The second method is to create a phrase with an explicit quantity stated for the mass noun. This is pretty common for inherently quantized mass nouns: a grain of rice, a blade of grass, a piece of mail, etc. Cattle does have such a phrase, the technical term head of cattle, but it’s jargonic, generally limited to encyclopedias and agricultural reports.

Neither of the countified versions of cattle have caught on in standard speech. That leaves us to seek out count nouns that are not derived from cattle. Here the problem is either over- or under-specificity. Cow is the word I’ve always used, but technically speaking, cow can denote the female from a range of species, including elephants, alligators, dolphins, whales, and Komodo dragons (if Wikipedia is to be trusted). Bulls are always male and calves always young, even informally, and they also suffer from the same ambiguity in what species they are. There’re a bunch of very specific terms, such as heifer, ox, steer, micky, yearling, or pollard, but using them correctly requires substantially more bovine familiarity than most of us have. And speaking of bovine, even it doesn’t quite work, because technically speaking, bovines aren’t strictly cattle; bison are generally considered bovine as well.

So with all of that out there, what do you do the next time you’re driving down the road and you notice a farm with a lonely Bos primigenius taurus standing on a hillside?

A cow?

"What did you call me?"

You can go ahead and inform your carmates that “there’s a head of cattle on that hill”, but unless they’re ranchers, they’ll probably think you’re describing a gruesome bovine decapitation. You can squint and try to determine at 50 miles per hour the gender of the animal, or even go for the gold and assess its age and (if female) the number of calves it’s had in order to ensure that you’re calling a heifer a heifer. You can point out the “bovine” to the other humans in the car, but you’ll be being both technically imprecise and strangely formal, so your friends may suspect you of being a robot.

Or you can accept the standard informal usage and mention the cow. Is it technically accurate? Potentially not, although you’ve got around a 50% chance. Unfortunately, all your other options are potentially inaccurate or overly technical. Cow at least has the advantage of being widely accepted as a general term in various dictionaries. And there are even attestations of the technically paradoxical “male cow” and technically redundant “female cow” on the web.

English has a hole here, and it’s up to you how you want to fill it. Unless you’re playing Cranium, of course.

Summary: Cattle doesn’t have a singular form, aside from the technical term head of cattle. There isn’t a single word that means specifically a single cattle of unstated gender and age. As such, even though it’s technically inaccurate, cow is generally used in informal situations as the singular form of cattle.

[Update 07/13: Anndra in the comments noted that Scots use the word beast as the genderless singular of cattle. This reminded me that there is a word that is specific to a bovine animal and is genderless and ageless: neat, as in neatfoot oil. Unfortunately, beast is of limited geographical reach, and neat is archaic, although I might try to adopt one or both into my lexicon all the same.]

*: Okay, I can. We lost.

**: Of course, this is in reference to capital meaning to money, wealth, etc., as in capitalism. Capital can be a count noun when it refers to the head of a column or an upper-case letter.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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