In memory of Manute Bol

I knew that Manute Bol, who died recently, was the tallest player in the NBA at 7' 7". I knew that during his playing career, he was an extraordinary shot-blocker. I knew that, after his playing career ended, he was an extraordinary humanitarian. But I didn’t know, until a minute ago, that he invented the phrase “my bad” to describe one’s own mistake. (Hat tip to Johnson.)

p.s. Then again, according to the Language Log, Bol may have just been an early user of the phrase. Still, I’d like to think that he invented it.

“They all axed for you”

Why do New Orleanians sometimes pronounce ask as ax, as in the Meters’ song, They All Axed Fer You? The answer may surprise you. According to grammar maven Patricia O'Conner, the pronunciation dates back to the 8th century, when the predecessor of ask had two forms: ascian and acsian. In 1386, Chaucer wrote of “a man that ... cometh for to axe him of mercy.” And a 1536 translation of the Bible includes lines like “Axe and it shal be giuen you.” It was not until the 17th century that ask supplanted ax.

So if you say ax instead of ask, you’re just a stickler for tradition. Really old tradition.

Pilots and ushers

Matthew Stibbe reports that an airline in his neighborhood no longer calls a pilot a pilot. From now on, a pilot is a “flight service professional.”

At my church, an usher is not an usher, but a “hospitality minister.” If Edgar Allan Poe had been a parishioner, he might have written “The Fall of the House of the Hospitality Minister.” Somehow that doesn’t sound very scary.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

Mark Twain once said, "Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable." On the Language Log, Mark Liberman proves Twain's point, showing that the same sets of numbers can be used to prove two propositions:

  • Only 28% of those asked were able to name more than one of the First Amendment freedoms, yet 52% could name at least two members of Bart Simpson's family. (Americans know the Simpsons better than they know the Constitution.)
  • 73% can name a First Amendment freedom, but only 65% can name a Simpson. (Americans know the Constitution better than they know the Simpsons.)

Evan Esar once defined statistics as "The only science that enables different experts using the same figures to draw different conclusions." Yep.

2006 list of banished words

Once again, the folks at Lake Superior State University have performed the public service of identifying and banishing a slew of vogue words and phrases.1 Work is already underway on the 2007 list, and you too can get in on the fun. To nominate a word or phrase for banishment, click here.

To view the 2004 list, click here; the 2005 list is here.
1Tip of the hat to Grammar Hell.