Seven Words You Can’t Say On Yahoo

In the 1970s, comedian George Carlin became famous with a routine about seven words one can’t say on television. Carlin’s words were all of the “four-letter” variety. But in this more enlightened age, a different category of words is posing a problem, those that can be interpreted as part of a computer scripting language like JavaScript.

JavaScript is used to give commands to a computer and is commonly used in websites to run search and other such functions. While most JavaScript is innocuous, malicious hackers can use it to run damaging programs. To combat this potential menace, over a year ago Yahoo started subtly changing the text of HTML messages sent over its free email service. (Plain ASCII text messages, which can’t hide JavaScript, are unaffected.) In all, seven words used in JavaScript were changed to synonyms that aren’t. These are:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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