Word Nerd News: California bill defines ‘hot dog’; The NYT insults Scotland; Washington state gets rid of sexist language

© elfivetrov - Fotolia.comCalifornia bill seeks to define ‘hot dog’

NPR reported on a recent California bill that, among other things, defines a hot dog as: “a whole, cured, cooked sausage that is skinless or stuffed in casing, that may be known as a frankfurter, frank, furter, wiener, red hot, Vienna, bologna, garlic bologna, or knockwurst, and that may be served in a bun or roll.” Sounds about right to me.

But why are legislators defining tasty meat treats, you ask? Well, the bill is actually about the California food code and this particular definition is being pushed by health inspectors who want to emphasize that hot dogs should be cured or pre-cooked. That means “street vendors who reheat them are held to different health standards than restaurants.”

The New York Times accidentally insults Scotland

Andy Murray  clinched the Wimbledon title on Sunday, making him the first British person (as in from Great Britain — including Scotland and Ireland) to win the title in 77 years. Despite the pressure placed on him from, well, just about everyone in Great Britain, he played the tournament of his life. Even coach Ivan Lendl couldn’t help but smile.

The New York Times heralded Murray’s win with this headline: “After 77 Years, Murray and England Rule” (they since changed England to Britain). This touched a nerve and set off a fury on Twitter because Murray is Scottish. And if you ask Scottish people, Scotland is not England. They are two separate entities that are both part of Great Britain.

Washington state removes all gender-biased language from the books

Reuters reported that earlier this month, Washington (my former home state with strong female political leadership) became the fourth state to officially remove gender-biased language from the law, joining Florida, North Carolina, and Illinois. This means that 40,000 words in state statutes have been changed to reflect more gender-neutral language.

What exactly does this look like? Well, ‘penmanship’ is now ‘handwriting,’ ‘fisherman’ is now ‘fisher’, and ‘his’ is now ‘his and hers’, to name a few.  Lawmakers said this ended up being a much bigger project than they envisioned, but their hope is that removing sexism from official language is a first step towards combatting it in our daily lives.

Is technology ruining the language of love in romantic movies?

© Callahan - Fotolia.comIn honor of Valentine’s Day, I wrote a piece for The Huffington Post called Love Notes From a Smartphone: Is Technology Ruining Romantic Movies?

It’s not because I think romance is dead (in the movies or in real life, for that matter). But it’s because how we communicate about love has changed significantly with the advent of smartphones and social media. This is especially noticeable in romantic movies, from comedies to dramas and everything in between.

Nowadays, love letters are relegated to period pieces and war movies, unless a writer finds a crafty way to work them into the script (think Big emailing Carrie love letters from famous men in Sex and the City). Our real-life expressions of love are much shorter, crisper, and less poetic (or less schmaltzy, depending on how you look at it) thanks to our cynical 21st-century sensibilities.

In The Huffington Post piece, I looked at four movies from days gone by that would be markedly different if the characters had smartphones and social media at their disposal. This raised some questions/comments about the loads of movies I didn’t chose. So, I thought I’d offer up a Part 2, if you will, where I give the same tech-savvy treatment to a few other classic romantic movies:

1.) Roman Holiday (1953)
Audrey Hepburn plays a princess who’s bored out of her mind and escapes from her guards during a trip to Rome. During her jaunt around the city, she encounters American journalist Joe Bradley, played by Gregory Peck, who shows her the time of her life. They gradually fall in love, and though Joe eventually realizes that his companion is the missing princess, he keeps her secret (and the photographs of their time together) safe. When he briefly encounters her at a royal press conference, they wonder what might have been.

21st century ending: A fake Twitter account about the princess’ romp around Rome immediately springs up, gaining 200,000 followers in under 5 minutes. Joe is offered $5 million for his photos of the princess and he refuses to hand them over. But his email is hacked and the photos are uploaded to the Internet anyway. The princess continues to be hounded by paparazzi and is named one of Barbara Walters’ most fascinating people.

2.) Coming to America (1988)
Eddie Murphy plays an African prince about to be married off to a princess who’s been trained to do whatever he wants. But ever the romantic, he wants to find true love and embarks on a quest to find his future in queen in, well, Queens. He gets a job at a McDonald’s rip-off and lives in the most meager accommodations he can find, in hopes of finding a woman who loves him for who he is. Eventually he finds Lisa, an intelligent and independent woman who steals his heart, much to the chagrin of his parents.

21st century ending: Prince Akeem (Murphy) goes on Match.com to find his bride. But his best friend Semi spills the beans on Twitter that Akeem is a prince. When word gets out, he’s offered his own reality series not unlike The Bachelor called Finding Prince Charming. He offers a rose/proposal to Lisa in the very last episode and she accepts. Their wedding inspires African prints on Pinterest wedding boards that year.

3.) Before Sunrise (1995)
This simple, charming tale takes place over the course of one day, when 20-somethings Jesse and Celine meet on a train in Europe. They’re immediately attracted to one another and spend the day in deep conversation as they roam the streets of Vienna. But as their romantic evening comes to a close, it becomes clear that this will likely be the only night they have to spend together since they have other lives to return to. Just before they bid farewell at the train station, they agree to meet in the same place six months to the day.

21st century ending: There’s no need for the heartbreaking sequels, Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013), because Jesse and Celine exchange email addresses before they go their separate ways. After getting back to their normal lives, they find each other on Facebook and start Skype chatting with each other. A serendipitous Facebook posts reveals that they’ll be in the same city again in a few months, so they decide to meet in person again rather than leaving it up to chance. They live happily ever after.

So there you have it. While technology is an amazing tool for couples separated by great distances, it doesn’t do much for epic romance movies. Just consider You’ve Got Mail, which doesn’t quite make the cut as one of Nora Ephron’s timeless romantic classics. Maybe that’s because the story gets overshadowed in our memories by the now outdated AOL references and dial-up Internet. Be still my beating heart.

Does Your Dictionary Have an Opinion? Defining marriage, global warming, and gun control

© Robert Pernell - Fotolia.com
If there’s one thing we’ve learned watching the political circus here in the U.S., it’s that the battle over social issues is often a war of words. Does ‘marriage’ have to be between a man and a woman? Should it be ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’? Is ‘gun control’ about regulating or eliminating gun ownership?

It’s no doubt that these have come to be loaded terms in our society, which makes the act of defining them for a dictionary a delicate task. Is there a way to capture the full meaning of a word without stepping on any sensitive political toes? Well, let’s look at how three definitive online dictionaries — Merriam-Webster, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the American Heritage Dictionary — handle gay marriage, global warming, and gun control.

Merriam-Webster(1) : the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law (2) : the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage <same-sex marriage>

Oxford Dictionary(1) : the formal union of a man and a woman, typically recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife (2) : the state of being married (3) : (in some jurisdictions) a formal union between partners of the same sex

American Heritage Dictionary(1) : the legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife, and in some jurisdictions, between two persons of the same sex, usually entailing legal obligations of each person to the other

The verdict? Well, all three dictionaries include same-sex marriage as part of their definitions of marriage. The American Heritage Dictionary includes same-sex marriage in its primary definition rather than as a secondary bullet point. But it qualifies it with “in some jurisdictions,” as does the Oxford Dictionary — the definitions focus largely on legality. The Merriam-Webster dictionary seems to take the strongest position that same-sex marriage IS marriage, although it also creates a distinction from traditional marriage. But if language is any indicator, times and attitudes are changing.

Global Warming
Merriam-Webster: an increase in the earth’s atmospheric and oceanic temperatures widely predicted to occur due to an increase in the greenhouse effect resulting especially from pollution

Oxford Dictionary: a gradual increase in the overall temperature of the earth’s atmosphere generally attributed to the greenhouse effect caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide, CFCs, and other pollutants

American Heritage Dictionary: an increase in the average temperature of the earth’s atmosphere, especially a sustained increase sufficient to cause climatic change

Interestingly, the American Heritage Dictionary steers clear of the controversial ‘why’ of global warming: Is it a man-made problem? Merriam-Webster’s definition is bolder, stating that global warming is a “widely predicted” phenomenon, “resulting especially from pollution.” But this definition suggests that global warming is something that’s likely to happen in the future, rather than something that’s already happening… The Oxford Dictionary definition takes the strongest position here, noting that the greenhouse effect is real, man-made, and “generally” believed to be the cause of global warming.

Gun Control
Merriam-Webster: regulation of the selling, owning, and use of guns

Oxford Dictionary: no exact results found for ‘gun control’

American Heritage Dictionary: regulation restricting or limiting the sale and possession of handguns and rifles in an effort to reduce violent crime

Merriam-Webster’s definition is short and sweet — gun control is about regulating guns, plain and simple. The Oxford Dictionary, on the other hand, doesn’t even define gun control (perhaps because in Britain, there is no powerful gun lobby and handguns and automatic weapons have been “effectively banned“). In this case, American Heritage’s definition provides the most context, connecting gun control to an effort to reduce violent crime caused by certain kinds of weapons.

So there you have it. This exercise isn’t meant to sing the praise of any single dictionary or try and point out potential bias — rather, it’s to show that cultural, editorial, and perhaps even subconscious factors all play a role in how definitions get written for dictionaries. It doesn’t mean that any of these definitions are right or wrong — on the contrary, they illustrate that language isn’t black and white. It’s always changing and adjusting, as we humans struggle to define the words that define us.

Why do we sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ to end one year and kick off the next?

Nouvel an horloge à 2013Well, since the world didn’t end on December 21st, we can officially celebrate the start of another new year. (I’m sure you’re breathing a sigh of relief.)

But when it comes to having an array of catchy tunes to help celebrate the season, New Year’s is the ugly stepchild of Christmas. It gets secondary, parenthetical billing in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas (and a Happy New Year),” and the other song or two we associate with the holiday — like “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” — are decidedly melancholy.

Still, nothing reminds us of the fleeting nature of time and the importance of long-standing friendships like the song that gets drunkenly belted out at raucous New Year’s parties around the English-speaking world: “Auld Lang Syne.” We sing it with gusto every year, but what does it mean and how did it become the go-to ballad of New Year’s Eve?

“Auld lang syne” simply means “times long past,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, although the American Merriam-Webster gives it a cheerier spin by defining it as “the good old times.” The phrase was popularized by Robert Burns’ version of “Auld Lang Syne” in 1788, though the melody is much older, stemming from traditional Scottish folk music. This little ditty became an American standard in the 1930s thanks to bandleader Guy Lombardo, the man who owned New Year’s Eve long before Dick Clark.

If you’ve ever sung the lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne” and thought to yourself, “What the heck am I singing?” or “Why is this so freaking depressing?” you’re not alone. Here are the words that we use to welcome the new year (the full version of the song is much longer):

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and days of auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne.
We’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

This is the most well-known portion of the English translation of this song — so if you find this confusing, don’t even try to sing the rest of the song with its pint-stowps and running around the braes. But I think it’s time to put that famous question from “When Harry Met Sally” to rest:

Harry: [about Auld Lang Syne] What does this song mean? My whole life, I don’t know what this song means. I mean, ‘Should old acquaintance be forgot’? Does that mean that we should forget old acquaintances, or does it mean if we happened to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot?

Sally: Well, maybe it just means that we should remember that we forgot them or something. Anyway, it’s about old friends.

It turns out, neither of them are quite right. “Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” is actually a rhetorical question that’s meant to make you reflect: Should we forget our old friends and loved ones? Should we forget the good times gone by? The obvious answer, which goes unspoken, is no. And that becomes more apparent with the rest of the lyrics, which are largely about buying pints for friends (along with some dining and frolicking).

Who wants to forget friends like that? So tonight, when you belt out “Auld Lang Syne,” impress your friends with the fact that really, they’re just asking a rhetorical question (since I’m sure it’ll just come up naturally, of course). Happy new year!

Big Bird, Bayonets and Binders: The best debate memes of 2012

© James Steidl - Fotolia.comWho won the presidential debates of 2012, you ask? Sure, media and political analysts might be calling it 2 out of 3 wins for Barack Obama… But the real winner this year is the meme.

Put simply, a meme is “an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” The term was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, but the word has caught on today as Internet memes spread like wildfire.

Political debates have long been known for giving birth to memorable zingers like, Lloyd Bentsen’s “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” or Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again.” But in the age of Twitter, a gotcha zinger by itself just isn’t good enough. It needs to be meme-worthy — that is, easy to convert into 140-character Tweets, quippy soundbites, and animated or captioned images (my fave is the post-RNC “I’m with [picture of chair]!“) This debate season has been meme-tastic, so I thought I’d recap the best of them here:

1.) Binders full of women – When the candidates were asked during the second presidential debate how they plan to rectify gender inequality in the workplace, Romney’s answer stole the show (but not in the way he intended). He said his team brought him “binders full of women” so he could find qualified females to serve on his staff.  Oops. In about a nanosecond, the Binders Full of Women Tumblr blog and bindersfullofwomen.com had sprung up on the Web. Twitter was set ablaze, and reviews for Avery binders on Amazon would never be the same again.

2.) Horses and bayonets – During the third debate, Mitt Romney criticized Barack Obama for the Navy having fewer ships than it did in 1917. Where he was going with that, I don’t know — but the President struck back with, “we also have fewer horses and bayonets.” And with that, an Internet meme was born — the line won Obama the debate, and the phrase became an instant hit (soon after the debate, there were over 105,000 Tweets per minute about #horsesandbayonets). Just for the record, the military does still have some horses and bayonets

3.) Big Bird – Mitt Romney was on a tear during the first presidential debate, and one of his targets was PBS. Romney said that while he liked PBS, Big Bird and even debate moderator Jim Lehrer, he was going to stop the subsidy to PBS. A slew of angry Big Bird memes ensued, including an official Obama campaign ad (it later got pulled down, though, since Sesame Street is a nonpartisan nonprofit). So who won this meme war? Sorry boys, Sesame Street made out like a bandit with this one — Big Bird costumes are flying off the shelves for Halloween this year.

4.) The 1980s called – The third presidential debate was Obama’s turn to go on a tear, criticizing Romney for being stuck in the Cold War by calling Russia America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” Of course, the president said it with style and sarcasm: “The 1980s called — they’re asking for their foreign policy back.” If you ask me, this meme didn’t get the steam behind it that it deserved (Example: The 1980s called — they want to send you Trapper Keepers full of women…wearing shoulder pads.”) Still, #The1980sCalled was very much a meme of its own.

In the year of the meme, President Obama has been declared the clear winner of the Twitter war — now let’s see how that translates at the polls.