Book Review: The Man Who Deciphered Linear B
Andrew Robinson has written a clear and concise biography of Michael Ventris, the English architect who solved one of archaeology’s most vexing problems. In 1900, archeologists discovered clay tablets on the island of Crete containing a strange script. The tablets dated to c. 1450 BC, about two centuries before the Trojan War. The writing was utterly unintelligible—no one even knew what language it was in.
For fifty-odd years the tablets were undecipherable. More tablets with the same script, dubbed Linear B, were discovered on mainland Greece, at Pylos in 1939 and at Mycenae in 1950. Unlike Champollion’s decryption of Egyptian hieroglyphics a century before, there was no Rosetta Stone for Linear B, no bilingual inscriptions that pointed the way.
Word Of The Month: Hollywood
Summer is the time for big-budget, American film releases. This year we have, among others, Star Wars: Episode Two, Minority Report, and another Austin Powers movie. So in honor of summer days spent in dark, air-conditioned theaters, the word of the month for August is:
Hollywood, n. and adj., the American film industry. Named after the district in Los Angeles, California that is home to several major film studios. Generalized use dates to 1926. In 1886, Kansas prohibitionist Horace Wilcox carved out an area of what was then known as Rancho La Brea to found a community based on strict religious principles and strong moral underpinnings. His wife, Daeida, named the community Hollywood, after a friend’s Chicago home. The first film studio opened there in 1911 and the moral underpinnings of the community went downhill from there.
Prescriptivist’s Corner: Hopefully
One of the more common prescriptivist admonitions concerns the adverb hopefully. Prescriptivist mavens tell us that the word should only be used in the sense of in a hopeful manner, and not in the sense of it is to be hoped. So if we say, “Hopefully, Vinnie will give us good odds on the horse,” we mean that Vinnie is very confident the horse will lose, not that the speaker is optimistic about his chances for Vinnie being generous.
There are two problems with this strict interpretation of the meaning of hopefully. The first is that it is contrary to general usage. And the second is that it makes no sense grammatically.
Book Review: Power of Babel
John McWhorter, professor of linguistics at the University of California Berkeley, has authored The Power of Babel, an overview of linguistic change. The book is aimed at the layperson and attempts to convey linguistic “truths” and smash popular myths about the nature of language and how it changes.
McWhorter does a superb job of taking what should be an impossibly broad topic, the history of language—all language—and distilling it down into a small number of discrete principles of change. Humans have been speaking languages for 150,000 years. There have been tens of thousands of languages throughout the millennia. Yet they all share common features and they change in patterned, if unpredictable, ways.
Word of the Month: Fandom
The word of the month for July is fandom, n., a base of enthusiasts for a particularly activity, book, movie, or television series; originally from baseball; from fan + [king]dom; (1903).
Fandom is quite a sub-cultural phenomenon. The word dates to the turn of the 20th century and was originally used to refer to baseball fans. But it achieves it greatest linguistic heights in the realm of science fiction. Science fiction fans have their own lingo in referring to themselves and to their activities.
Prescriptivist’s Corner: Quotation Marks
It seems like a silly question, but when is it proper to use quotation marks? And how should they be used? Quotation marks are one of the basic forms of punctuation, but they are among the most often misused. And the situation is complicated because American and British styles differ on the point. (And on the name. They’re inverted commas in Britain.)
As to the first question, when should quotation marks be used, there are six different situations when they are appropriate.
Words On The Web: Alt.Usage.English FAQ
If you’re not familiar with Usenet, you’re missing out on a rich part of the Internet experience. Usenet (short for “Unix User Network") is a hierarchy of discussion groups on all manner of subjects. It got its start back in 1979 when the Internet was still known as Arpanet. The discussion groups range from 3dfx.game.discussion to z-netz.wissenschaft.technik. Every subject under the sun has its own discussion group. The one we’re interested in is alt.usage.english (or AUE).
As you might guess, AUE is all about English grammar and style. The group discusses the English language (and also occasionally other languages); how particular words, phrases, and syntactic forms are used; their origin; where in the English-speaking world they’re prevalent; and how they should be used.
Book Review: Language and the Internet
David Crystal, author of numerous books on language and linguistics, has written the first book-length study on the effects the Internet is having on language. In Language And The Internet Crystal provides an overview of the different forms of Internet communication and how language is used and modified in and by those media. Crystal’s conclusions are broad and tentative, as one might expect of such a large topic and such a new technology, but they are well-reasoned, supported by data, and often quite surprising, bucking the conventional wisdom.
Pundits have often opined that the Internet will be the death of grammar and spelling, that it will destroy thoughtful writing by encouraging sloppiness that is covered by the band-aid of a smiley or emoticon. Or that it will kill other languages, leaving only English as the sole survivor. Crystal carefully takes each of these conclusions apart, showing how people are adapting the tool of language to fit the new technology and enriching language and communication as a result.
Word of the Month: Watergate
Thirty years ago this month, five men were arrested breaking into the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington, DC. Among those arrested was James W. McCord, Jr., the security director for Republican President Richard Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President. The investigation into the break-in would expose ever larger circles of corruption and abuses of power in the Nixon White House and would eventually, in August 1974, lead to the resignation of the president.
Watergate, as the collection of scandals came to be known, was the biggest American political scandal of the 20th century. It left an indelible mark on US history, politics, and on the American political lexicon. So, in honor of this 30th anniversary, our word of the month is:
Watergate, n., a hotel-apartment-office complex along the Potomac River in Washington, DC. In 1972, the Democratic National Committee had its offices in the complex and on 17 June of that year burglars working for the White House broke into the offices to plant listening devices. Watergate became the name of the associated scandal. Subsequent Washington scandals were commonly dubbed with the -gate suffix, such as Koreagate, Irangate, and Monicagate.
Lloyd’s List, “She” No More
Some things never change and some things just seem like they never do. One of those things was using the feminine pronoun when referring to a ship.
But Lloyd’s List, the daily newspaper of the shipping industry, announced on 22 March that it is abandoning the practice. From now on the publication will refer to ships as it.
Lloyd’s List tried to make the change four years ago, but reversed itself in the face of the overwhelming ire of naval traditionalists.
Ships have been referred to as she in English since at least 1375, and Lloyd’s List has been doing it since its founding in 1734.
But traditionalists need not abandon all hope. The Royal Navy still plans to call its ships she.
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton