The Laboratorium
March 2006

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Name That Part of Speech!

The court will hold a hearing on the issue.
The slayings shocked the sleepy town.
The running of the bulls is held annually in Pamplona.
His fiery sermons attracted a strong following.
Famous sayings take on a life of their own.

As a matter of English grammar, what are the “-ing” words in these sentences? I genuinely do not know.

The most boring possibility is that they’re just nouns related to verbs, and it’s just an accident of English etymology that they end in “-ing.” These words seem like they’re part of a family formed in a fairly similar way, though, so I’m hoping there’s something more to it than that.

They clearly function as nouns; they’re clearly created from verbs. We ordinarily call nouns and adjectives created from verbs “verbals.” In my eighth grade grammar class, we were taught that there are three kinds of verbals in English: gerunds, participles, and infinitives. We can rule out infinitives, as English infinitives are preceded by the particle “to.”

Participles are normally adjectives (as in “the running refrigerator”), so to function as nouns, the “-ing” words above would have to be adjectives functioning as substantives. In English it’s possible to have an implied generic noun and thereby effectively turn an adjective modifying that noun into a noun itself. “Give me your tired, your poor” contains two adjectives that are doing the work of nouns. This construction arguably works in a fairly awkward way for “following,” above, but clearly fails for the other four. All five of the sentences would get a (*) next to them in a lingustics paper if “one” or “ones” were inserted after the “-ing” word.

Let’s try gerunds, then. Gerunds — as in “Running is fun.” — ordinarily refer only to the activity of the verb itself. That activity can be restricted by qualifying it with appropriate adjective phrases (e.g. “Competing in the Olympics is every athlete’s dream.”) But the “-ing” words above seem to refer to something even more specific. It’s an activity reified into a particular thing or things. The “hearing” exists at a particular point in time. You can count the “slayings.” I’m just not used to seeing English gerunds thrown around like that.

That would seem to leave us out of options—unless we can find another type of verbal. In Latin, verbs can be formed into infinitives, participles, gerunds, … and supines. The Latin supine is an extraordinarily restricted construction—the nouns thereby formed can only be used in two out of the seven grammatical cases. The most common use of the supine is actually where English would use an infinitive.

The one thread that seems potentially worth of pulling on is that supines also, in their ablative form, lead to constructions such as mirabile dictu, “strange to say.” The ablative case is used almost exclusively in Latin for prepositional phrases and phrases that, how can I put this, feel prepositional. (I’m sorry for my inarticulate grunting. After a few years, the cases become as much intuitions as logical rules. I could never explain in words why a double dative or a partitive genitive uses the case it does—it’s just that any other case would be wrong.) In any event, to capture the proper ablative flavor of dictu, I’d rather translate it as “strange with respect to saying.” That still doesn’t quite get us to the “-ing” words above, but perhaps “strange with respect to the saying” does.

So, perhaps by exceedingly strained analogy, we can think of the “-ing” words above as supines. They represent the action work of a verb condensed into a specific reified thing, which thing can then be slung around and inflected just like any other English thing word—a.k.a noun.

Or perhaps sometmes a noun is just a noun and well enough should be left alone.

Expensive Cheap Jewelery

Lanciani Travel Jewelry offers a line of “the most exquisite jewelry offered in the market today for the woman who travels and prefers to keep her precious jewelry safe at home.” In other words, it’s fake stuff, so you can look nice without breaking the bank.

Except that it’s expensive fake stuff: “The collection includes earrings, necklaces, pins, bracelets and rings priced from $65 to $2000.” I realize that I’m not quite in the target demographic here, but still, $2000 is a lot to drop if the earring drops off. That’s more than many people spend on their good jewelry.

There is much to love here, in an astonished Veblenian postmodernist kind of way. This is costume jewelry, to be sure, but how do you convince people rich enough to afford real jewelry that they should buy the tricked-out sterling silver with cubic zirconia? By reminding them that it’s not “costume jewelry,” it’s “travel jewelry.” And by insisting that this stuff is only for the woman who already has “precious jewelry” safe at home.

Yes, that’s right—this is jewelry that lets you have the combined satisfaction of wearing jewelry and owning expensive jewelry, without actually having to, you know, wear the good stuff. The price tags, then, are an inducement to buy. The people this stuff is intented for wouldn’t be as interested if the price were lower. You have to keep away the strivers who’d wear “travel jewelry” without owning the heavy gems to back it up.

One more twist: Lanciani holds a trademark on TRAVEL JEWELRY. (That’s serial number 76077829 and registration number 2577430 for the trademark hounds out there.) I would note that JEWELRY standing alone is clearly generic for jewelry and jewelry-related services. The addition of TRAVEL makes it descriptive—but showing secondary meaning seems like an uphill battle. The most interesting possibility is that Lanciani, if push came to shove, would claim that TRAVEL JEWELRY is merely suggestive. That is, TRAVEL isn’t meant to be taken literally, this is not jewelry for travelling, this is just jewelry that has the connotations of travelling (fear of losing something valuable, glamorous jetsetters, easily portable, something you don’t keep at home).

A quick set of web searches on “travel jewelry” reveals two interesting things. First, there appears to be exactly one significant competitor also using the phrase “travel jewelry” to describe its jewelry. I wonder whether there is some trademark licensing going on. Second, Lanciani itself could do better getting searchjuice for its marks. You pretty much need to search on “Lanciani”—even logically related searches like “Lanciani and jewelry” don’t bring up their page at all.

And third, MSN Search has a long way to go in resisting SEO tactics.

Devils on the Deep Blue Boardroom

Kristoffer Garin’s Devils on the Deep Blue Sea is unusually good at making legal wrangling interesting. I have no intention of becoming a corporate transactional lawyer, and the book is certainly not aimed at a legal audience. Nonetheless, Garin manages to convey a vivid sense of what it’s like to be a corporate lawyer in the merger mines: overwhelming quantities of excruciatingly boring grunt work punctuated by moments of pure swashbuckling excitement.

One passage stands out in particular. In it, Garin details the backroom maneuvering that led to the Pritzker family’s successful buy-in to Royal Caribbean over a competing bid from Carnival. The deal was under extraordinary time pressure—if it wasn’t completed correctly and successfully on a lightning schedule, everyone involved was likely to wind up on the defending side of some very pricey lawsuits. And that meant a lot of detailed restructuring:

The dozens of freestanding partnerships that Royal Caribbean and Admiral had comprised had to be consolidated into a single entity. Old boards had to be voted out; new boards had to be voted in. Many of the subpartnerships had individual financing, and each change had to be approved by the banks holding that paper. At one point, one of the attorneys discovered that a forgotten cranny of the partnership’s bylaws stipulated a board of nine directors—no one remembered why, but there it was. Royal Caribbean had been operating with twelve directors for more than a decade. Rather than risk a challenge later on, [Royal Caribbean CEO Richard] Fain had to chair more than fifty board meetings, one in each subsidiary, “ratifying every action they had taken in the last twenty years.”

It takes quite a book to make corporate merger document review due diligence sound like more fun than going on a cruise. This is that book.

Paparazzi and Assignment of Income

A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal reported on the phenomenon of celebrities tipping off paparazzi as to their whereabouts, so as to gain a measure of control over seemingly unposed photos. (WSJ & co. are poopyheads for not putting their archives online, but the Google cache has it for now.) It included the following remarkable incident:

In January, when rumors In January, when rumors swirled in the press that [Angelina] Jolie might be pregnant with the child of actor Brad Pitt, Ms. Jolie arranged for an employee of the charity Yéle Haiti to take a picture of her with her growing belly.

Ms. Jolie then let Yéle Haiti sell the picture to People, according to Mr. Hackett, the magazine’s managing editor, and a representative for Mr. Pitt. A person familiar with the situation says People paid $400,000 for the picture. It appeared on the cover of the magazine with the headline: “Angelina Reveals: ‘Yes, I’m Pregnant.’”

Leave aside the ethics, the economics, and the cultural significance of these events, fascinating as they me. Instead, indulge me in the following question: What are the tax consequences of allowing someone to take a profitable picture of you?

In the actual case, the tax issues appear to be largely irrelevant, because Yéle Haiti is presumably tax-exempt as a non-profit. Even if Angelina has income from the transaction, she has an offsetting deduction.

No, the more interesting case arises if the photographer is just some individual. Also according to the WSJ, Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin let a photographer named Steve Sands take the first photo of them leaving the hospital with Apple, a photo Sands then sold to People for $125,000. What then? The interesting question I see is whether the transaction constitutes $125,000 of income to Sands (as it almost certainly would if the photograph was taken without Paltrow’s consent or acquiescence) or whether it should be regarded as $125,000 of income to Paltrow followed by a gift of a $125,000 asset from Paltrow to Sands (as it would if someone else took a photo of Paltrow under contract and she gave the negatives to Sands). The actual facts sit somewhere interesting in the middle.

Should Paltrow and Sands be free to characterize the transaction as they wish (so long as they do so consistently with each other) or should the IRS impute a particular characterization of it? Is the wink-wink-nudge-nudge agreement the assignment of an amorphous possibility for Sands to create a $125,000 asset? Is it the gift of future personal services from Paltrow to Sands? Or is it the assignment of a full-blown asset worth $125,000 immediately after its creation? For bonus points, is the income involved capital or ordinary? (Possible hint: Read § 1221 closely.)

I’m sure these questions have more definite answers than I’m letting on. Some of them are rhetorical socractic brainteasers, but some are quite legitimate puzzlement on my part. It would take a better tax lawyer than me to know where to go next. Any better tax lawyers in the audience?

Two Newark Vignettes

Morning, Broad Street:

A man turns and looks at me as I walk past. After I pass, I hear him say to me, “White boy in a black city.” I keep walking.

Afternoon, Market Street:

A man is riding a bicycle on the sidewalk with obvious difficulty. It wobbles, and he half-falls, half-dismounts, leaving the bicycle lying in the middle of the sidewalk. Half a block later, he approaches some people walking in the opposite direction. “I left a bike lying in the sidewalk back there. It’s a good bike if you want it.” He keeps walking.

Dear Gracenote

Elmer Bernstein CDs are not “Jazz.”

Jerry Goldsmith CDs are not “New Age.”

Who Is Fiona Ness?

This photo (which I originally saw as part of this article) identifies the woman ignoring Ryan Adams’s clowning as “Fiona Ness.”

Oh, really?

Try Leona Naess. She was, after all, engaged to Adams.

My guess is that whoever was slapping captions on file photos asked someone for a ID on the chick and then misheard the reply.

Wind, Shadowed

Well, I finished The Shadow of the Wind. It turned out less wierd than I was expecting, which I mark as a mild disappointment. Imagine a novel equal parts Borges and Southern Gothic, or perhaps a substantially better-written version of Arturo Perez-Reverte.

What was perhaps most odd is that the novel tells two parallel plots (one in the present, the other a decades-old story being reconstructed by the protagonist) that obeyed profoundly different narrative logics. The plot in the present is a mystery with touches of the supernatural; it winds up with a string of plot twists and lucky accidents that tie everything up nicely. The plot from the past is a tragedy that builds inexorably towards the death or misery of all involved. I can think of several better ways that the novel could have let both of these arcs reach their natural conclusions than the one the novel actually employs.

Reasonable read, not a classic.

Progress Rept., Fiction Dept.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s novel The Shadow of the Wind takes a fairly shopworn narrative device and uses it as a plot twist. I’ve never seen it done in this particular way before. I’m quite impressed.

Benevolent Confusion

I love the parody of a taxonomy Borges created in The Analytical Language of John Wilkins. In it, all animals are divided into:

a. belonging to the Emperor
b. embalmed
c. trained
d. pigs
e. sirens
f. fabulous
g. stray dogs
h. included in this classification
i. trembling like crazy
j. innumerable
k. drawn with a very fine camelhair brush
l. et cetera
m. just broke the vase
n. from a distance look like flies

The translations are all, to my untrained eye, plausible. But what of the name of the fictitious encyclopedia containing this taxonomy? The Spanish is Emporio celestial de conocimientos benévolos. Celestial is clear enough; that’s “celestial.” So is benévolos, which I take to be “benevolent.” I know incredibly little Spanish, but what little grammar I have is enough to tell me that emporio is a singular noun and conocimentos is a plural noun. Here, the consensus ends.

“Empire” for emporio is a plausible translation. It’s rendered thusly in Schott’s Original Miscellany. “Plausible” is sometimes a synonym for “wrong.” Quick online searching reveals that the Spanish word for “empire” is not emporio but imperio. We are dealing, then, either with a mistranslation or a transcription error in the original Spanish text.

Wikipedia appears to believe that the former is the case. The relevant but redundant entries translate emporio as “emporium.” This translation accords with the one in the bilingual text above, as well as Yahoo’s dictionary entry.

It’s not wholly clear why an encyclopedia would be a marketplace, even metaphorically. Perhaps the idea is that one can find anything in it. “Celestial Empire,” on the other hand, is a familiar phrase, especially when discussing things Chinese. That seems intuitively plausible as an original meaning—but then again, it also seems eminently plausible as a false attractor leading to a mistranslation.

Turning to conocimientos, things turn out to be a little clearer-cut. Google and Yahoo agree that it should be translated as “knowledge,” a perfectly sensible meaning in context. (The singular-plural issue I will just let slide as one of those subtleties I’m not going to get completely without much more detailed study. Knowledge is a sensible enough mass noun.) Wikipedia, on the other hand, insists that it’s “recognition” in one of the two redundant articles on the subject. That’s just bizzare, although the elusive (and allusive) quality of the word is just such that I wouldn’t completely put it past Borges.

Going to the online language tools, though, puts “recognition” in a coffin and nails it shut. The Spanish for “recognition” is not conocimiento but reconocimiento. I’d chalk up the errant Wikipedia rendition to a single mistranslation somewhere upstream; it doesn’t seem to have been replicated in too many other places. Wikiquote, for one, uses “knowledge”, as does the other Wikipedia page

And now, since this is the web, and Wikipedia is a collaborative site, it’s time for me to go fix matters. Environmentalism, online and off, means always leaving things better than you found them. I’ll suggest merging the pages. That should deal with the redundancy and resolve the translation question in favor of what seems to be the most correct version.

Some Dumb Questions

Why does taking the stand involve sitting down and why is the bench the highest seat in the room?

Cranberry juice is astringent. Is there anything you can drink that’s stringent?

If the sandwich you make with a wrap is also called a wrap, why isn’t the sandwich you make with a roll also called a roll?

Three Vingettes From My College Career

(Inspired by this sketch of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg napping:

James, wake up!

I see the beauty of the lambda calculus has stunned James here. Elegant, no?
(dazed nod)
Elegant, yes.
Oh no! I’m being so boring that I’m putting people to sleep.


The Legal Information Institute (which is a great resource and also has the URL one would expect Cornell Law School to have) provides a table of popular names of acts. The (non-hyperlinked) example of a popular name the LII provides on its page about the United States Code is the “Wild Horse Annie Act.”

What is the Wild Horse Annie Act?

The LII’s table of popular names tells us that it was Pub. L. 86-234, Sept. 8, 1959, 73 Stat. 470, and is now codified at 18 U.S.C. § 47:

(a) Whoever uses an aircraft or a motor vehicle to hunt, for the purpose of capturing or killing, any wild unbranded horse, mare, colt, or burro running at large on any of the public land or ranges shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.

(b) Whoever pollutes or causes the pollution of any watering hole on any of the public land or ranges for the purpose of trapping, killing, wounding, or maiming any of the animals referred to in subsection (a) of this section shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.

(c) As used in subsection (a) of this section-

(1) The term “aircraft” means any contrivance used for flight in the air; and

(2) The term “motor vehicle” includes an automobile, automobile truck, automobile wagon, motorcycle, or any other self-propelled vehicle designed for running on land.

Annie herself was not a horse but a horse enthusiast.

The Rolling Stones’s take on wild horses is here.

The horse in Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken is not wild, but apparently the hearts are (and possibly also the heads).