“In adland, we don’t call it language-mangling, we call it ‘Language DJing’ or ‘Langling’,” jokes Alex Myers, founder of agency Manifest. “In reality it’s just lazy creative work. Copywriting is a lost art. Ad agencies need to ‘Think more good’.”
Eagle-eyed bad-ad fans can quickly notice patterns emerging: “finding” something and it being “amazing” appear with the same clockwork regularity as Love Island contestants on Instagram. See, for instance, Rightmove’s “Find your happy” and Visit Wales’s “Find your epic”. Or Lexus’s “Experience amazing” and Deliveroo’s “Eat more amazing”.
Frequently described as “words that are their own opposites,” Janus words are also known as contronyms, antagonyms, or auto-antonyms. These are words that have developed contradictory meanings. Cleave is often cited as the go-to contronym: it can refer to splitting something apart and uniting two things. But it’s not the only one out there, and there is usually some sort of logic behind most auto-antonyms.
As well as cleave: clip, fast, oversight, sanction. All have contradictory meanings which arise from a word’s original specific definition becoming much broader. Or, somewhat appropriately, the opposite.
Of all the literatures in the world, the smallest and most enigmatic belongs without question to the people of Easter Island. It is written in a script—rongorongo—that no one can decipher. Experts cannot even agree whether it is an alphabet, a syllabary, a mnemonic, or a rebus. Its entire corpus consists of two dozen texts. The longest, consisting of a few thousand signs, winds its way around a magnificent ceremonial staff. The shortest texts—if they can even be called that—consist of barely more than a single sign. One took the form of a tattoo on a man’s back. Another was carved onto a human skull.
For more on old languages, see also The strange reinvention of Icelandic:
The result is something close to unique—a language that is at the same time modern (it can happily express concepts such as podcasting), pure (it borrows very few words from any other tongue) and ancient (it is far closer to the ancestral Norse tongue than its increasingly distant cousins, Danish and Norwegian). Its complex grammar has barely changed in almost a thousand years and has a distinct old-worldliness. But if, like the forniskúfur, Icelandic is a living fossil, it is a lovely and lively one.
Surveying the structure of the language as a whole, I end up thinking of it as the concentric rings of a tree, each ring defined by clear patterns in groups of words and phrases, each belying a particular history. The core of the tree is an ancient Paleo-European language, perhaps 6000 BCE or more, followed by a ring of Finnic language from 1500-1000 BC. Then, moving outwards, a ring of Old Norse for a few hundred years either side of the 8th century, leading into the language of trade and nobility, under the Swedish empire, from around 13th century onwards. This administrative language develops further in the 16th century (Helsinki was established in 1550), before the Russian rule, and the language of municipalities, during the 19th century. Finally, the outer rings of the 20th century, and its language of Fordism, modernity and nationalism, becoming the 21st century language of postmodern globalisation.
The French are always inserting their arses into the English language. There is, for example, the cul-de-sac which literally means arse of a bag and which sneaks onto English street signs without anybody noticing. Before this disgusting French term was introduced, the English had a much better, cleaner native term for a dead end; we called it a butt-hole. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary’s butt-hole entry lists this as the only meaning.
We resort to foreign words for a number of psychologically interesting reasons. A lot of them, I’d argue, are rooted in the middle class aversion to bluntness or crudeness. When what we’re saying has an underlying tone that may cause embarrassment to either the speaker or listener, we borrow from Latin or modern European languages (often French) to give a veneer of refinement, glossing over what’s crass, base, or stark.
For example, on the use of entre nous: “I want to gossip but gossiping is common so I’m going to get away with it by using the pretentious French phrase for it.”
The longest pair (cholecystoduodenostomy and duodenocholecystostomy) isn’t necessarily the most interesting, as both words are made up of three units (cholecysto, duodeno, stomy) in different orders.
So he came up with a way of scoring pairs based on the degree of rearrangement required:
This gave me the idea to score a pair of anagrams according to how many chunks one had to be cut into in order to rearrange it to make the other one. On this plan, the “cholecystoduodenostomy / duodenocholecystostomy” pair would score 3, just barely above the minimum possible score of 2. Something even a tiny bit more interesting, say “abler / blare” would score higher, in this case 4. Even if this strategy didn’t lead me directly to the most interesting anagrams, it would be a big step in the right direction, allowing me to eliminate the least interesting.
From this algorithm, the most interesting anagram pair is 15 letters long, with only two letters that stay next to each other. Go see what it is.