I was listening to a podcast in which the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson stated that he was under the impression that the discipline of ergonomics arose when the baby boomers started growing old and began feeling aches and pains. Of course, I had to immediately research the origin of the term, and it turns out Tyson’s impression is incorrect. (To be fair, Tyson wasn’t stating it as fact and expressed his own skepticism as to whether or not it was true.)

It seems the term ergonomics was coined in 1949 by British psychologist K. F. Hywel Murrell (1908–84). That same year Murrell as several colleagues founded the Ergonomics Research Society. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation of the term in a published work is from the 1 April 1950 issue of the medical journal The Lancet, when that journal made mention of the society that Murrell had founded. The word is modeled after economics, but uses the Greek ἔργον, or ergon, meaning work, as the root.

So the term comes much too early to be the result of aging baby boomers, the first of whom were only toddlers when the term and the discipline came into existence.


“ergonomics, n.” The Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.

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Footnotes in the Digital Age

Last week Tim Parks posted in the New York Review of Books Blog on the need, or rather lack thereof, for formal reference citations in scholarly literature. Parks contends that with the advent of the internet and databases like Project Gutenberg, there is no longer a need for footnotes that give the source of information. Everything is simply a few key or mouse clicks away, and it’s easier for all concerned just to Google something rather than follow a footnoted reference.

Parks couldn’t be more wrong, and his argument betrays the biases in his work. His scholarly work is focused on contemporary literature and on translation. While it may, in many cases, be easier for him to Google something than look for a footnote, that is not necessarily the case in other fields.

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ASL Poetry

Gretchen McCulloch has a nice post on how to rhyme in sign language over at Slate’s Lexicon Valley blog. Of particular note is this video:

More generally, this falls under the category of “how to translate poetry.” Whether the target language is spoken or signed, the same basic issue arises: How do you translate verse while remaining true to the source?

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The Problem of Defining Genocide

Stéphanie Giry has an article in the New York Review of Books, The Genocide That Wasn’t, discussing the application of the term genocide to the case of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Giry outlines the problem that occurs when the generally accepted definition of a term clashes with the legal one and points out that genocide has become the ultimate crime in the eyes of the world public.

In this case, the Cambodian people, and most others around the world, consider what the Khmer Rouge did to the Cambodian people as genocide. But because the actions of the Khmer Rouge were not directed against an ethnic or national minority, the crime doesn’t fit the legal definition of genocide. Instead, the Khmer Rouge leaders have been convicted of crimes against humanity, which is perceived as a lesser crime. (Even though the penalty is the same, life in prison.)

Analogous cases where popular definitions of terms conflict with technical ones are common, but the moral stakes here make this case a special one.

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Genocide is a rare case of a word where we know who exactly coined it, a lawyer and law professor named Raphael Lemkin. Lemkin formed the word from the Greek word γένος (genos, race or tribe) and -cide (killing). Lemkin used the word in his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, defining it as “the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group.” (Lemkin had argued as early as 1933 for an international law banning genocide, but I haven’t found evidence that he used the specific word before his 1944 book.)

In a Washington Post editorial from December 1944, Lemkin is quoted elaborating on what he meant by the term, broadening its application:

Genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.

There is a flurry of citations of the word from December 1944, the result of a 26 November 1944 report by the U.S. War Refugee Board that for the first time made known to the U.S. public the full extent and horror of the Nazi war crimes.

The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines the crime as:

any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The Holocaust of WWII is the prototypical example of genocide and the event that caused the word to enter into common lexicon, but many other events, before and since, have been classified as genocide, including the extermination of Native Americans and Australian Aborigines, the 1994 mass killings in Rwanda, the mass killings in Darfur in the opening years of the twenty-first century, the actions of the Khmer Rouge government of Cambodia in the 1970s, and the mass killings of Armenians by the Turks in 1915. The application of the term to any particular case, except that of the Nazis, is usually controversial to some degree, with some claiming the crimes do not warrant the label of genocide or because, as in the case of Cambodia, the crimes do not fit the strict definition outlined in international law.


“genocide, n.” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.

“Genocide,” The Washington Post, 3 December 1944, B4.

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mook, moke

Mook is an American slang term for a dull-witted or otherwise person of low status. It’s recorded as far back as February 1930 when it appears in The Judge magazine in an article by S. J. Perelman:

Even ordinary mooks like you and me have been stuffing their blotters and backs of envelopes in safe deposits for posterity.

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A New Scrabble Champion

One may wonder at the detail and effort that put into this article on the national Scrabble championship, but really it’s no more silly than the amount of analysis that goes into football (soccer or the other one), baseball, or hockey.

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Rethinking the Prescriptivist-Descriptivist Dyad

I’ve just had an article published in English Today, “Rethinking the Prescriptivist-Descriptivist Dyad: Motives and Methods in Two Eighteenth-Century Grammars,” that may be of interest.

Grammars and other works about language are traditionally described along an axis that runs from prescriptivism to descriptivism, but I contend that these two poles are not positioned along the same continuum. Rather, prescriptivism is a measure of intent, while descriptivism is a measure of methodology.

In the this paper I propose that a two-axis system that evaluates both motivation and methodology is better suited to describing grammatical approaches. Along one axis the motivation is categorized by the degree the grammar espouses normative principles and seeks to instruct, rather than describe. Along the second axis the methodology is categorized by the degree the grammar’s pronouncements are based on either observations of actual usage or aspirational appeals to an idealized form. The paper examines the work of two late-eighteenth century grammarians, Lowth and Priestley, as test cases to see if this two-axis system can better capture the differences in these grammars.

Through this analysis it can be seen that, counter to common perception, Lowth is somewhat more observational than Priestley’s first edition, although Priestley takes a significantly more observational stance in his second edition. Furthermore, Lowth’s grammars, while generally observational, vary the methodology depending on the linguistic feature under examination, taking a strongly aspirational stance on at least one point of grammar.

This separation of motivation and methodology has wider application and can be used to resolve some of the issues in the current prescriptive-descriptive debate, as many modern grammars and dictionaries are used normatively, even if the methodology used to produce them is observational.

The article is available from Cambridge Journals Online.

Or you can download it from here.

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In a World Where Protolanguages Could Not Be Understood…

We all know that academic titles don’t exactly sell like hotcakes, but I’m not sure this marketing strategy will actually work.

You may recall George Walkden from this previous post and this follow-up on the use of hwæt in Old English poetry.

Tip o’ the Hat: languagehat

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zero gravity, zero g, microgravity

Zero gravity is one of those words that appears in science fiction before science and engineering had an actual need for it. Zero gravity, also called zero g or microgravity, is the state of weightlessness experienced in outer space (and, as we shall see, at the center of the earth).

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