Prescriptivist Christianity

I’ve been called a Grammar Nazi. I don’t call myself that, but I will cop to “grammar cop”, “pedant”, “stickler”, and other descriptors and epithets in that vein.

And one argument that I’ve run into over and over is that language evolves over time, an argument bolstered by the fact that most English dictionaries are descriptivist, not prescriptivist. That is, they don’t tell you how you’re supposed to use a word (the way the Académie Française does with the French language); rather, lexicographers study how people actually use words, and compile their observations into dictionaries. Thus, it does me no good to complain that “beg the question” means “assume one’s conclusion”: if most anglophones mean “raise the question” when they say it, and understand it that way when they hear it, then in practice, “beg the question” means “raise the question”. Sucks to be me.

But one thing I hear quite often is “that’s not very Christian”. In what might be considered a technical win for bipartisanship, I hear this from both ends of our new bicolored political spectrum. Things that are “not very Christian” can include lying, watching porn, bragging, refusing to help someone, lack of empathy, and much more.

Which brings me to this:


which links to a WaPo article entitled, “Christians are more than twice as likely to blame a person’s poverty on lack of effort”.

So for once, I”m going to put on my descriptivist hat and say that no, if large numbers of Christians do X, then X is Christian. Do you want “Christian” to be synonymous with “good”? Are you annoyed that people think hating on gays and brown-skinned people is Christian? Then stop tarnishing the brand.

Odd Plurals

We all know about irregular plurals like “mother-in-law” → “mothers-in-law”, “attorney general” → “attorneys general”. I just ran across another one, courtesy of a music podcast.
One of the hosts was saying that there are about 11,000 people who listen to the show, but only 100 or so write in or like it on social media. He added,

Where are the rest of the 10,900 people? You piece of shits.

(emphasis added)

Kind Of

Do you remember, some years ago, some people had a habit of using “literally” not in the dictionary sense, but for emphasis, as in “The boss is literally breathing down my neck”? In recent months, I’ve noticed people using “sort of” and “kind of” not to mean “more or less” or “in a way”, but for punctuation, emphasis, or decoration.

A lot of times, adding “kind of” doesn’t change much (“we need to kind of speak up about this”), and so it is merely useless. At best, it means “the following isn’t exactly what I mean, but it’s close, and I want to move on, rather than waste time finding the correct word.”

Sometimes, though, it contradicts the rest of the sententce. I’ve heard “This is kind of really important.” And just this morning, in a news story about Afghanistan, NPR’s correspondent said,

I think for Mr. Mattis it’s slightly personal, which is he wants to come back and make sure that he’s connected over here and provides the best kind of advice on what to do forward.

Which immediately raised the question, “What kind of advice is the best kind?”

I’d like to appropriate a piece of advice often attributed to Mark Twain: instead of saying “kind of”, say “fucking”, your editor will delete it and your sentence will be as it should be. Except that people don’t employ editors in casual speech, so maybe autocorrect can be modded to do this.

Da da da

Today is National Grammar Day, but rather than rail against common misuses of the English language like the insufferable language snob that I am, I thought I’d mention a peculiarity of language that I happened to notice.

The German word “da” means “there”, as in “Mein Bier ist da” — “My beer is right here”. In this sense, it refers to a location.

But in certain other combinations, it refers to a noun: “dagegen” means “against it” or “in contrast to it”. It literally means “that-against”. “Dafür” means “for it”.

So sometimes “da” refers to a location, and in at other times it refers to a “thing”. I put “thing” in scare-quotes because the object that a da-compound word refers to need not be an object made of atoms: one of the examples linked to above is “Haben Sie etwas dagegen, wenn ich rauche?” — “Do you mind if I smoke?”. Smoking is an activity, not an object, but our minds still treat it in many ways as an honorary object.

In fact, I can imagine an evolution of language in which “da” started out referring to a location, perhaps a location being pointed to, later came to also represent the thing in the location being pointed to, and eventually came to encompass honorary nouns.

But before we go pointing fingers at those silly Germans da, it’s worth pointing out that “there” — the English word for “da” — is similarly schizophrenic: it usually refers to a location, as in “I live in that house there”, but sometimes, in combinations, it refers to the same kind of “thing” as in German: “therefore”, “thereof”, “therewith”, and so forth.

In fact, the most common English example of this location/thing oddity is “wherefore”, in Romeo and Juliet, when Juliet says, “O Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”.

Wherefore” has “where” in it, which makes people think Juliet’s wondering about Romeo’s location. But actually it means “why” or “for what reason”. She’s asking why Romeo is Romeo, as in “of all the guys I could have fallen for, why did it have to be Romeo?”

Okay, so I couldn’t help myself and snuck in some grammar-railing there at the end. I warned you I was a snob.

“Avowed”

The New York Times ran a piece about the David Mabus affair (tl;dr version: he’s a mentally-ill troll who’d been sending death threats to people for years, and was finally arrested after enough people complained to the police).

It begins:

Over the years, someone writing as David Mabus made himself known to scientists and avowed atheists across North America in thousands of threatening e-mails and violently profane messages on Twitter.

The phrase “avowed atheists” annoyed me, because I see it a lot. I even twatted about it:

The phrase “avowed atheist” still annoys me, though. When’s the last time someone was an “avowed Baptist”?

Then I realized that with an entire browserful of Internet at my disposal, I could answer that question.
Continue reading ““Avowed””

Atheist Language

It occurs to me that it doesn’t make sense for an atheist to say “sure as hell”. I mean, you wouldn’t say “I’m as sure that Mordor exists that I ain’t volunteering for this assignment” (note to self: try using the phrase “sure as Mordor” and see how it goes over).

From a purely factual standpoint, it’s much better to say “sure as shit”, since shit is known to exist. Unfortunately, the use of that phrase isn’t always appropriate. The best I’ve been able to come up with so far is “sure as Shinola“, but I’m sure you can do better. Discuss in the comments.

Pre-Compressing Web Content

This was definitely a “D’oh!” type of problem.

One thing I’d been meaning to figure out for a while was how to send gzip-compressed files to a browser. That is, if I have a large HTML file, it’d be nice if the server could compress it to save bandwith and transmission time. Yes, Apache has mod_deflate which takes foo.html and gzips it on the fly, setting all the appropriate HTTP headers. But for static content, I should just be able to compress the file in advance. If the browser asked for foo.html, I wanted Apache to see that there’s a foo.html.gz and send that instead, with headers saying that it’s a text/html file that happens to be compressed.

mod_mime seemed like just the thing: just add

AddEncoding x-gzip .gz

to .htaccess. But every time I did that, Apache sent back “Content-Type: application/x-gzip“, so my browser treated it as a random file of unknown type that happened to be compressed.

Then I noticed that my vanilla-ish site-wide Apache config had

AddType application/x-gzip .gz .tgz

so that when Apache saw foo.html.gz, it ignored the .html extension, and saw only the .gz one.

The fix was to add RemoveType to my .htaccess:

RemoveType .gz
AddEncoding x-gzip .gz

And voilà! .gz stops being a file type and becomes an encoding, allowing .html to shine through.

I’ll add that this plays nice with AddLanguage as well. In my test setup, I have foo.html.en.gz, for which Apache returns the headers

Content-Type: text/html
Content-Encoding: x-gzip
Content-Language: en

I.e., it’s an HTML file, it’s gzip-encoded, and it’s in English.

Just as importantly, this works with other file types (e.g., CSS files and JavaScript scripts), and XMLHttpRequest does the Right Thing with them on all of the browsers I care about.