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.”
Technology is a constant source of new vocabulary – not just new words but new ways of using existing words. One I’ve noticed this year is ratio as a verb in internet slang, which I’ve bundled here with the more familiar take as a noun.
Ratio entered English in the 16thC as a noun borrowed from Latin, gaining its familiar modern sense decades later in a translation of Euclid. About a century ago – the OED’s first citation is from 1928 – ratio began life as a verb meaning ‘express as a ratio’ or similar. Here’s an example from Harold Smith’s book Aerial Photographs (1943):
Each print which departs from the average scale or shows any apparent tilt is rectified and ‘ratioed’, or corrected for scale, by means of a projection printer.
And now a new sense of ratio as a verb is emerging on Twitter.
Here’s an intro, if needed, to the use of ‘ratio’ on Twitter to describe Tweets which have disproportionately more replies than retweets or likes. And, after that, an exploration of how it is used as a verb.
See also nominalisation: how verbs become ‘zombie’ nouns. I’m particularly bothered by two (at the moment): ‘bake’, as in the thing that was baked; and ‘ask’, as in the instruction.
Here’s a geolinguistic dispute I didn’t know existed:
Matthew Nimetz wants to make something clear – he has not spent every waking moment of the past 23 years thinking about one word: “Macedonia”.
“I have probably thought about it more than anyone else – including in the country,” says the 78-year-old US diplomat. “But I have to disappoint anyone that thinks it’s my full-time job.”
Since 1994, Nimetz has been trying to negotiate an end to arguably the world’s strangest international dispute, in which Greece is objecting to Macedonia’s name and refusing to let it join either Nato or the EU until it’s changed.
Greece says the name “Macedonia” suggests that the country has territorial ambitions over Greece’s own Macedonia – a province in the north of the country – and is a blatant attempt to lay claim to Greece’s national heritage.
When you look at it on a map, you can appreciate the potential confusion:
Even when a nation has a fixed, agreed name, people call it different things. See this Quora answer to the question “Why is the word Germany different in different languages?”:
Basically, because there were Germans before there was a Germany. Each of the Germans’ neighbors came up with their own name for them, long before there was a German state that people might want to refer to uniformly.
And spare a thought for Guinea. Which one though?
Guinea. Equatorial Guinea. Guinea-Bissau. Papua New Guinea. The Gulf of Guinea. Guinea, Virginia. Guinea, Nova Scotia. The world has more Guineas than a pirate’s treasure chest. What explains the prevalence of the name?
It is the role of modern lexicographers, according to Brewster, to track these changes—to wade through a near-infinite pool of formal and informal discourse, and, in the process, differentiate fleeting trends from substantive shifts in usage. Whether these shifts are annoying or welcomed is inconsequential—once they reach critical mass, ubiquity eclipses controversy. “What was once shunned and disparaged,” she says, “has a good chance of joining the ranks of the unremarkable.”
As a prime example, Brewster points to the word “negotiate.” In the early-20th century, journalists and orienteers began using the term as a verb meaning “to successfully travel along or over.” Grammar pedants took great umbrage at this usage and soon brought their fight to the mainstream media. A writer’s use of negotiate in a 1904 edition of The Saturday Review inspired one critic to fire off a letter to the editor. “Surely no purpose ornamental or useful can be served by this unwarranted extension of the sense of a familiar word,” he sassed. “Do the spoilers of English negotiate the English dictionary?” Despite similar complaints elsewhere, the new sense rapidly gained currency and eventually clawed its way into acceptance.
Baloney. The etymology of OK was masterfully explained by the distinguished Columbia University professor Allen Walker Read in a series of articles in the journal American Speech in 1963 and 1964.
The letters, not to keep you guessing, stand for “oll korrect.” They’re the result of a fad for comical abbreviations that flourished in the late 1830s and 1840s. Read buttressed his arguments with hundreds of citations from newspapers and other documents of the period. As far as I know his work has never been successfully challenged.
The abbreviation fad began in Boston in the summer of 1838 and spread to New York and New Orleans in 1839. The Boston newspapers began referring satirically to the local swells as OFM, “our first men,” and used expressions like NG, “no go,” GT, “gone to Texas,” and SP, “small potatoes.”
Many of the abbreviated expressions were exaggerated misspellings, a stock in trade of the humorists of the day. One predecessor of OK was OW, “oll wright,” and there was also KY, “know yuse,” KG, “know go,” and NS, “nuff said.”
From an obituary of linguist Ognen Čemerski:
Čemerski spent about 12 years working on the translation of “Moby-Dick,” a project initiated during his undergraduate studies at Graceland University in Iowa, USA. He conducted it as a scientific endeavor, and used it as basis of his masters’ thesis in linguistics.
This was not the first translation of “Moby-Dick” in Macedonian. There was one edition published in the 1980s, translated from Serbo-Croatian, which did not produce a lasting impact.
The main problem of translating a book from 1851 about sailing and whaling was that the Macedonian language lacked maritime terminology. Most of the ethnic Macedonian population had been landlocked during the last centuries, having little contact with the sea in general and sailing in particular. In order to overcome this, Čemerski had to re-construct the vocabulary by first discovering the origins of the English terms, and then trace their equivalents in Macedonian or other Slavic languages.
What does Yoda’s syntax look like in non-English versions of Star Wars? For those who aren’t familiar with Star Wars (all two of you), Yoda is an alien who, when speaking English, uses what seems to be an OSV syntax instead of the traditional SVO syntax.
So how do foreign translations of the script handle this? I am particularly interested in what it looks like in non-SVO languages. Are there any translations where Yoda’s incorrect syntax is emulated by using an English-like syntax? Or are other languages’ syntax so free that mistakes in the use of case or verb conjugations must instead be used to emulate Yoda’s “alien” speech?
Some interesting answers:
Estonian: Free word order language. Yoda retains the English OSV order. This is grammatical in Estonian, but does make it seem as though Yoda is constantly stressing the object phrase as the main point of his statements. This gives his speech an unusual quality.
Japanese: An SOV language. Yoda seems to use a more or less correct syntax, with a more archaic vocabulary.
Romanian: An SVO language. Yoda speaks in OSV. He also places adjectives before the noun instead of after the noun, and uses an archaic form of the future tense.
Turkish: An SOV language. Yoda speaks in OSV. Note: This order is also used in classical Ottoman poetry, so the syntax may have been chosen in order to emphasize Yoda’s wisdom or age.
As dictionary publishers never tire of reminding us, our language is growing. Not content with the million or so words they already have at their disposal, English speakers are adding new ones at the rate of around 1,000 a year. Recent dictionary debutants include blog, grok, crowdfunding, hackathon, airball, e-marketing, sudoku, twerk and Brexit.
But these represent just a sliver of the tip of the iceberg. According to Global Language Monitor, around 5,400 new words are created every year (Oxford Dictionaries Online, evidently using different criteria, reckon 1.8bn). It’s only the 1,000 or so deemed to be in sufficiently widespread use that make it into print. Who invents these words, and how? What rules govern their formation? And what determines whether they catch on?
This website will create for you a password that is not only secure, but is also so utterly repulsive that not even the most hardened criminal, identity thief, NSA agent, or jealous boyfriend would ever want to use it.
In fact, a lot of what Sarah Palin says sounds like it’s been poorly translated from the Latin. With her “he who” and “one who,” she’d sound almost Ciceronian if it weren’t for the holes in her logic and the way those complicated sentences sometimes dribble off into vaguely sinister, possibly offensive nonsense.
See also The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth, an excellent book about turning the perfect English phrase.
“Infinite Jest” is a genuinely groundbreaking novel of language. Not even the masters of the high/low rhetorical register go higher more panoramically or lower more exuberantly than Wallace — not Joyce, not Bellow, not Amis. Aphonia, erumpent, Eliotical, Nuckslaughter, phalluctomy! Made-up words, hot-wired words, words found only in the footnotes of medical dictionaries, words usable only within the context of classical rhetoric, home-chemistry words, mathematician words, philosopher words — Wallace spelunked the O.E.D. and fearlessly neologized, nouning verbs, verbing nouns, creating less a novel of language than a brand-new lexicographic reality. But nerdlinger word-mongering or “stunt-pilotry” (to use another Wallace phrase) can be an empty practice indeed. You need sentences to display-case the words, and here, too, “Infinite Jest” surpasses almost every novel written in the last century, maintaining a consistent and mind-boggling descriptive mastery, as when he portrays a sunset as “swollen and perfectly round, and large, radiating knives of light … It hung and trembled slightly like a viscous drop about to fall.”
Two big ideas often come up in discussions about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI. One is the Drake Equation, which estimates the number of civilizations in our Galaxy whose signals we might be able to detect—potentially thousands, according to plausible estimates. The other is the so-called Fermi paradox, which claims that we should see intelligent aliens here if they exist anywhere, because they would inevitably colonize the Galaxy by star travel—and since we don’t see any obvious signs of aliens here, searching for their signals is pointless.
The Drake Equation is perfectly genuine: it was created by astronomer and SETI pioneer Frank Drake. The Fermi paradox, however, is a myth. It is named for the physicist Enrico Fermi—but Fermi never made such a claim.
Most modern music is an urban animal. Cities regularly birth music scenes, and artists often claim to be inspired by “the streets”, or by their neighbourhood. Yet the actual link between the music they make and the built environment where they do so is generally underplayed – spoken about as a matter of mood, or a source of lyrics. Music historians generally cite a critical mass of musicians as being crucial to the birth of a scene: classical composers in 18th century Vienna, for example, or modern metal bands in Helsinki. But the city itself? Well that’s mainly just credited as a convenient place for the musicians to hang out – though David Bowie’s residency in Berlin, for one, took that relationship to particularly intimate levels. But what if a city’s role isn’t quite so one-note?
Frinkiac has nearly 3 million Simpsons screencaps so get to searching for crying out glayvin!
Like [Holden Caulfield], teen Ryder was the smart, ambivalent outsider searching for a place in a society that opposed those very things. Even into her twenties, in Reality Bites and Girl, Interrupted, she was more of a delayed adolescent than an adult. Ryder was unable to move on because of what moving on meant. And we weren’t either. Our Nonistalgia keeps her cloistered to this day in adolescence, alongside then-boyfriend Johnny Depp, before he cashed in on his eccentricity. But despite our attempts to resuscitate the past—Beetlejuice 2, Heathers: The Musical, Marc Jacobs—and as young as Ryder continues to look, she is no longer that ‘90s ingénue. In that sense she and Holden really are a team. “[Caulfield’s] central dilemma is that he wants to retain a child’s innocence, solipsism, and clarity,” wrote Harold Bloom, “but because of biology he must move into either adulthood or madness.”
From John Herrman’s excellent Awl series, The Content Wars:
What’s unusual about text, and which helps explain why journalists’ reactions to this change are so confident and visceral—as opposed to the resigned and uncertain responses they have to changes in Facebook, which, to them, is much more powerful in ways they can control much less—is that, unlike, say, native Twitter images, which marginalized a small number of Twitter-specific companies, longer posts change a professional calculus for anyone who uses Twitter to promote writing online. An old boss used to say, half-joking and then eventually not joking at all, “maybe that story would be better as a tweet.” What was initially almost pejorative—said to mean “short” or “slight” or “unworthy of a longer post”—became a complex judgement. Could this piece of news be conveyed well in a sentence or two with an image or video? Could we just screenshot that statement, or release, rather than asking people to follow a link to a post where it’s quoted? If the answer is yes, then the corresponding reader question—would I rather see this on Twitter, or click on some site—is answered as well.
The ability to post 10,000 characters will make the answer to that question “yes” in a majority of situations. Possibly a large majority! This post, for example, would fit in a 10,000 word text card. I doubt anyone reading it expanded in their Twitter feed would think, “damn, I wish I was reading this on a website instead of right here! I wish I had clicked a link, for some reason!” This is somewhat worrying if you’re in the business of making posts against which ads are sold.
You may well have seen this doing the rounds—just as interesting is Meyer’s follow-up note.
This is an isochronic map – isochrones being lines joining points accessible in the same amount of time – and it tells a story about how travel was changing. You can get anywhere in the dark-pink section in the middle [London] within five days – to the Azores in the west and the Russian city of Perm in the east. No surprises there: you’re just not going very far. Beyond that, things get a little more interesting. Within five to ten days, you can get as far as Winnipeg or the Blue Pearl of Siberia, Lake Baikal. It takes as much as 20 days to get to Tashkent, which is closer than either, or Honolulu, which is much farther away. In some places, a colour sweeps across a landmass, as pink sweeps across the eastern United States or orange across India. In others, you reach a barrier of blue not far inland, as in Africa and South America. What explains the difference? Railways.
It’s a choice that belies Jay’s relative lack of acting experience. He and Mark began making movies in New Orleans when they were very young, and because of their age difference — Jay is four years older than Mark — it worked out that Jay would operate the camera while Mark stayed in front of it. As they grew up, they lived what Jay calls an “uncultivated, un-curated” childhood, filled with street football and DIY art projects and a general improvisational spirit, including a deep involvement in music.
“When you grow up in New Orleans, like, the only way to be an artist is to be a 55-year-old black musician. That’s basically what we wanted to be,” he said. “If you had asked me very truthfully what I wanted to be when I was 16, the answer would’ve been, ‘I want to be a 55-year-old black musician.’”
Martin Carr (The Boo Radleys) listens to Ram for the first time. Spoiler: he loves it. As he should. (See also Dave Depper’s The Ram Project, where he re-recorded everything you can hear on the album over the course of a single month.)
Where is ‘Shady Lane’?