Where Do English Words Come From?
A recent thread on this site’s discussion forum got me thinking about the borrowing of foreign words into English, a language with a reputation for indiscriminately appropriating words from other languages. Etymology books and websites, including this one, often highlight the diversity of languages that English draws its vocabulary from, but how much of this reputation is deserved? Does English really borrow that many words? And does English really filch a lot of words from many different languages? The answers may be a bit surprising, but when you look at the data in light of history, they make a lot of sense.Read the rest of the article...
Nate Silver Takes on Baby Names
The website fivethirtyeight.com, best known for its data-driven political and sports analysis, has a rather good post on the popularity of baby names in the United States.
Swa meaht me bannan
As part of a rather inspired class assignment, students at Grinnell College in Iowa translated Carly Rae Jepsens’ song Call Me Maybe into Old English and produced a video:
It’s a rather faithful translation of Jepsen’s modern English lyrics, with a few alterations to accommodate anachronisms. For example, pennies and dimes becomes penning ond sceattas (pennies and wealth), jeans becomes brec (trousers), baby becomes loflice (praiseworthy one), and my number becomes min nama (my name).
The translation doesn’t use Old English prosody, using rhyme instead of alliteration. That’s a valid artistic choice and makes the Old English version of the song instantly recognizable, although creating an alliterative version would have been a cool exercise.
I also wince at the faux medieval/Harry Potter motif in the video. But then, the subject of Jepsen’s song is distinctly not Anglo-Saxon, so strict cultural adherence isn’t really possible.
Still, it’s a very clever and fun class project.
What is a Photocopier?
The New York Times is running this video, a dramatization of an actual legal deposition. The words are verbatim from the transcripts, but the actors were given license to perform them as they saw fit, so the video is not necessarily a true representation of what happened.
It’s a brilliant video that shows how much we rely on general categories and definitions when we speak and the pitfalls encountered when trying to pin a concept down precisely. Watch all the way to the end for a stunning demonstration of genericization of a trademark.
(Follow-up: According to Kevin Underhill of Lowering the Bar (a hilarious blog of legal humor, BTW), at issue in the case is whether copying onto a CD-ROM is “photocopying.” Ohio law allows the county clerk’s office to charge $2 per page for photocopies of public legal documents—pricey, but not totally unreasonable when you consider staffing costs. But the county clerk’s office took the position that it could charge $2 for each page of material copied onto a CD-ROM. One law firm saw its monthly bill for photocopies jump from around $1,000 to $100,000. Hence the man’s unwillingness to say what was meant by “photocopy.” If he gave the obvious answer, he’d be providing evidence against his employer and costing the county a boatload of money. But he didn’t want to look like an idiot either.)
[Discuss this post]
A short video from the Bodleian Library that provides an overview of what digitizing library materials entails.
The popular U. S. television show Breaking Bad (2008–13) is about a high-school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque who, after being diagnosed with lung cancer and with the assistance of an ex-student turned failed drug dealer, begins to cook and sell crystal meth. While the show has been popular with both audiences and critics, the title has baffled many. What does breaking bad mean? Where does the phrase come from?Read the rest of the article...
What does comedian Stephen Colbert have in common with a nineteenth-century English female writer, nineteenth-century Scottish pundit, and a turn-of-the-twentieth-century translator of Basque? In a word, truthiness.Read the rest of the article...
The word triumph comes to us from Latin, but its usual meaning in that language is not the one we commonly give to it in English. To the ancient Romans, a triumphus was a parade celebrating a great military victory. The victorious general would ride a chariot through the streets of Rome to the steps of the Senate, a slave standing beside him holding a crown of laurels over his head. The general’s army would follow, leading the defeated enemy commander, captured slaves, and great wagons of spoils from the victory. The day was a holiday and the entire city would turn out to cheer, to feast, and to drink. Roman poets also used the word triumphus to refer to the victory itself, as did later prose writers in Imperial Rome. But this second sense was relatively rare in Latin, and the word usually referred only to the processional and accompanying celebrations.Read the rest of the article...
Christian doesn’t have a particularly surprising or unusual etymology, but it is a good example of the care one must take when consulting a dictionary. If one looks up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary and then takes a casual read of the entry, one may be deceived into thinking that the word’s use in English is surprisingly recent, dating only to the sixteenth century, and begin to wonder what English Christians called themselves before that time. Dictionaries are sophisticated references, and one must understand how the one you are using is edited before drawing conclusions.Read the rest of the article...
Hwæt You Say? (Redux)
Back in November, George Walkden published a paper on the Old English word hwæt and how it is used in in Old English poetry, most famously in the opening lines of Beowulf:
Hwæt! We Gar-Dena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
My previous post summarizing Walkden’s article is here. But in a nutshell, Walkden says that instead of translating hwæt as an independent interjection “Listen!” “Lo!”, as is usually done, that it is part of a larger exclamative phrase, “How have we heard the glory...” Walkden uses statistical analysis of the word’s use in four works, three Old English and one Old Saxon, to make his case.
In his blog, Phenomenal Anglo Saxons, Peter Buchanan has challenged Walkden’s statistics, saying that his results are insufficient to draw a general conclusion about how the word is used in Old English. For anyone interested in the topic, I highly recommend Peter’s blog post. And if you’re not especially interested in the Old English, but want to know what the heck a p-value is, you should also give it a read. It’s one of the clearest explanations of statistical significance that I’ve seen. Not only does Peter walk through the mathematical process for determining p-value, but he explains exactly how the measure should and shouldn’t be used.
[Full disclosure: Peter is a friend of mine, who finished up his PhD here at Toronto last year. We share the same dissertation advisor.]
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