Best Word Ever
At least according to Ted McCragg and his blog Questionable Skills. McCragg conducted an unscientific competition between words organized into brackets like the NCAA basketball championship. The others in the final four were gherkin, kerfuffle, and hornswoggle.
You can read more about the competition in The Atlantic.
[All this transpired over two months ago, but I missed it. Hat tip to David A. Daniel on ADS-L for bringing it to my attention.]
Up Goer Five
xkcd has done it again. This time it’s a drawing of “the only flying space car that’s taken anyone to another world (explained using only the ten hundred words people use the most often).”
A vocabulary of only a thousand words is limiting, but you can get points across.
I’m a bit surprised that computer made the cut, but I guess that’s the world we live in now.
Book Review: Punctuation..?
Punctuation..? by User Design (Thomas Bohm) is a short handbook on how to use the most common punctuation marks, plus some of the not-so-common ones. Illustrated with simple, yet intriguing line drawings, the book covers British stylistic practice, not North American, and is aimed at the novice writer who is looking to improve their use of common punctuation marks.Read the rest of the article...
The Need for Cursive Writing?
This article is a few months old, but I just saw it, and it got my hackles up. I’m not sure what’s scarier, that this is even a debate or the level of argument that is being put forth by these educators.Read the rest of the article...
Odd Toppled Trees
While here in Toronto the advent of Hurricane Sandy isn’t the cause of evacuations and frenzied preparations that it is for my relatives and friends back on the Jersey Shore, but that doesn’t mean we won’t feel its effects. But one sentence from the Canadian Weather Office’s warning for the city jumped out at me:
Sporadic power outages are quite likely across the warned regions due to falling limbs and the odd toppled tree taking out hydro lines.
“The odd toppled tree” is distinctly unbureaucratic in tone; I like it. It’s not the kind of thing you expect to see in an official announcement about severe weather. “Quite likely” is also nicely informal. The “hydro,” of course, is pure Canadian, a clipping of hydroelectric. Had this been a warning in the States it would have read “power lines.”
Whenever normal, human speech works its way into official bureaucrat-speak, it’s a good thing.
Did Chaucer Coin “Twitter”?
Um, no. Or at least, probably not.
But that’s what The Atlantic Wire claimed yesterday in another conflating of coinage with earliest recorded usage. The Atlantic’s blog post was inspired by this tweet from the editors of the OED which says “Chaucer provides our earliest ex. of twitter, verb.”
In his Boece, a translation of Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, written sometime in the late 1370s or early 1380s (the OED says c. 1374, but that’s probably a few years too early; the Middle English Dictionary puts it at c. 1380), Chaucer writes:
And the janglynge brid [...] twytereth desyrynge the wode with hir swete voys. (3.m2.21–31)
(The chattering bird [...] twitters, longing for the woods with its sweet voice.)
Chaucer wasn’t the only writer around that time to be using twitter. John Trevisa in his translation of Higden’s Polychronicon writes:
Þe osul twytereþ mery songes [...] Þe ny3tyngale in his note Twytereþ [...] Wiþ full swete song. (1.237)
(The blackbird twitters merry songs [...] The nightingale in his notes twitters [...] With full sweet song.)
So, the editors of the OED are correct in saying that Chaucer is the earliest known writer to use the the verb to twitter, but others were using it shortly after he was, and it seems likely that Chaucer was using a trendy, new verb that that was floating about London at the time, and not the coiner as The Atlantic Wire inferred from the evidence. It’s a small, but important distinction.
Sources: The Oxford English Dictionary Online; The Middle English Dictionary; and The Riverside Chaucer, Larry Benson, ed., Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
This post on the Economist’s “Johnson” blog on language addresses sex-neutral terms and how they’ve been patchily applied in English. While the general thrust of the article is correct, the application of sex-neutral terms, like most things having to do with language, is inconsistent, at points the article starts to go off the rails, conflating issues that have nothing to do with being sex neutral.
“Hostess" is harmless but “mistress” is tainted.
This one is perhaps the most egregious slip in the post. Yes mistress is a tainted word, but it’s not tainted because it is sex-neutral; it’s tainted because of its other senses of adulterous lover and dominatrix.
The lowest enlisted ranks in America’s navy are “seamen"—regardless of the sex of the sailors in question.
True, the lowest ranks are officially dubbed seamen, a word that not only isn’t sex-neutral, but which causes pre-teen boys to giggle, but the more commonly used generic word is the sex-neutral sailor. Although the Johnson blogger is quite correct in that there is no good sex-neutral term for the air force equivalent of airmen.
Female Hollywood types are “actresses”, uncontroversially, but many women of the serious New York stage call themselves “actors”.
Yes, actress can still be used uncontroversially, but the use of actor to refer to women is gaining ground. It’s not just “women of the serious New York stage who call themselves ‘actors.’” It may be that in a decade or so, actress may be a skunked term as well. Although perhaps not, because unlike these other professions sex does make a difference in the roles that actors play. The profession itself isn’t sex neutral. (Like dominatrix, where the outdated -trix suffix lives on because the whole point of the fetish is that the woman is in charge.)
I also note that the sex neutrality can go the other way. The -ster suffix, once used to refer to woman doing a job normally performed by a man, in current use the suffix has lost its sex specificity entirely, although it retains some of its diminutive quality.
Words and Politics (and Bold as Brass)
In this political season it may be worthwhile to take a moment to ponder the relationship between words and political reality, and which one really influences the other. Do words shape political reality? Or does reality change the meaning of our words? Mark Forsyth takes a good look at this topic in this TED Talk:
One correction, however: I believe that Forsyth gets the origin of the phrase bold as brass wrong. While the tale of Brass Crosby may have helped popularize the phrase, it’s unlikely to be the origin.
While the phrase isn’t recorded until 1789, eighteen years after Crosby’s arrest, the first citation in the OED reads:
1789 G. Parker Life’s Painter xv. 162 He died damn’d hard and as bold as brass. An expression commonly used among the vulgar after returning from an execution.
So we know that the phrase was in oral use earlier than 1789. How much earlier? We really don’t know. But the word brass has meant effrontery and impudence since the mid seventeenth century, long before Crosby was born. And the brass, with the definite article, also predates Crosby:
a1734 R. North Examen (1740) iii. viii. ⁋17 The Author hath the Brass to add, etc.
Furthermore, the pairing of the words bold and brass can be found earlier, albeit not in the form of a phrase.
There is this from an anonymous pamphlet, A Label Without being a Libel against Truth, published by J. Roberts of London in 1728 (emphasis mine):
Prejudice is a Glass if you look through,
It misrepresents e’ry thing to you.
It makes Folks with good Truth to be too bold,
Cries up the canker’d Brass, and cries down pure Gold,
And in this Book such various Faults will find,
As ain’t seen, but by a Prejudiced Mind.
A search of Eighteenth Century Collections Online turns up some fifteen similar co-locations published between 1700–71. It’s not the phrase, but it does show that people were making the alliterative pairing long before Brass Crosby appeared on the scene.
[Tip o’ the Hat to Andrew Sullivan and The Daily Dish]
Sources: brass, n., Oxford English Dictionary Online, 2nd Edition, 1989; Eighteenth Century Collections Online.
Video: Naco, Pocho
A neat video (12 minutes) on two Mexican slang terms naco, “common, tacky person,” and pocho ”Mexican-American." Both are derogatory, but have been reclaimed and are used as a proud self-identification for some. For me, the best part of the video are the last few minutes where the interviews touch upon the intermingling of Mexican and American cultures.
Tip of the hat: Languagehat
Contest: Devise a Silly “Grammar” Rule
Allan Metcalf over at the Lingua Franca blog is sponsoring a contest to solicit new bogus grammar/usage rules.
The example that Metcalf gives is to use “centered on” as opposed to “centered around.”
The rule you propose must be new. It can’t be in any standard usage manual. But it should look “venerable.” It should have a false patina of respectability and erudition.
The contest ends 10 October. The prize is one of Metcalf’s books.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton