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Archive for February, 2009

The 100 Funniest Words in English

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

 100 Funniest Words in English

Well, the book is out and available at

Abe Books
The Kindle version at Amazon.com

The Linguists on PBS

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

Sorry I didn’t get this out earlier. Watch PBS tonight (February 26, 200) for what promises to be an interesting program on dying languages.

The Linguists

Thursday, February 26, 2009 10 – 11:00 pm – PBS

This special chronicles the race of two scientists—David Harrison and Greg Anderson—to document languages on the verge of extinction. In Siberia, India and Bolivia, the linguists confront head-on the very forces silencing languages: racism, humiliation and violent economic unrest. Their journey takes them deep into the heart of the cultures, revealing communities at risk when a language dies. (CC, Stereo, HD, 5.1)

-Er or -Or?

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

Joe Kozuh asked a question yesterday that puzzles many more than him: “What is the difference between -er and -or on nouns and is there a rule of thumb that governs their selectioin?”

Generally, -or is a Latin suffix and -er is the Germanic equivalent meaning, roughly, “one who Vs”, where V represents any verb. Words borrowed directly from Latin, then, tend to end on -or: governor, calculator, arbitrator, legislator, alternator. Words of Germanic origin (English is a Germanic language) generally take -er: runner, thinker, worker, joker

However, two factors muddy the water.  English borrowed many words from French in the Middle Ages and the French equivalent of -or and -er, is -eur.  English generally reduced that suffix to -er, keeping it only in a few words borrowed late: amateur, restauranteur, raconteur, coiffeur. English also borrowed many verbs from French and added the English suffix: employer, deceiver, certifier.

So, you need to know the etymologies of many of the verbs that -er and -or are added to, in order to know how to distribute them. You can be sure that verbs ending on -ize and -ify will take the suffix -er and that verb ending on the suffix -ate will be suffixed with -or.  Other than that, though, we have the etymological rule of a very small and barely helpful thumb.

Soft Cs and Hard Cs

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

I’m not sure when Sara Goldman asked me this question. I hope I answered her but I just found this blog entry that I had started but never finished. In case others might be interested in the origin of the distinction between soft Cs and hard Cs, will finish it now.

This is what Sara asked:

When did the letter C change from the K sound to a soft C? I studied Latin; Caesar was pronounced [kaisar] from which comes German Kaiser, which means that’s how the ancient Germans pronounced it, I think. When I took Latin, all C’s were spoken K, e.g. circus was pronounced [kirkus].  But I’d like to know more about the K to C sounds.

First, let’s talk about both [k] and [g] sounds since they are identical except you vibrate the vocal cords in your larynx when pronouncing [g]. Otherwise, both are pronounced by raising the tongue to the top of the soft palate way in the back of your mouth and momentarily stopping the flow of air from your lungs (try a few ‘kahs’ and ‘gahs’ and see for yourself).

Both these sounds tend to undergo “palatalization”, that is, their pronuncation changes because, over time, speakers move their tongues forward to the hard palate, where [ch] and [j] are pronounced.

This normally occurs when [k] or [g] are followed by a “front” vowel, a vowel formed by raising the tongue in the front of the mouth. Front vowels  are [i] “ee” and [e] “ay” in most Indo-European languages. This is why soft Cs most often appear before I and E: city, certain but cough, catch.

The problem here, as you can see, is that a consonant, formed by raising the tongue to the back of the mouth, is followed by a vowel formed by raising the tongue in the front of the mouth. The tongue has to move a great distance in a very, very, very short time. The tendency is for the back consonants, [k] and [g] to move forward over time toward the middle of the mouth, where, as I mentioned, [ch] and [j] are pronounced.

These consonants usually spend some time as [ch] and [j], pronounced by raising the tongue to the middle of the mouth.  This is why kirke became church everywhere in English except in Scotland, where you still hear kirk. (This is an example of the front vowel moving to the back to meet the consonant, too.) It is a common change, still rampant in Portuguese but common in Late Latin, just before it divided into French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese.

In French and Spanish, however, the [ch] and [j] sounds continued to move forward until they become [s] and [z], respectively, pronounced almost in the same spot as [ee] (letter I) and [e] (letter E). So what began as a [k] sound in Caesar [kaisar] became Cesare ([chesare]) in Italian, then moved on to become Caesar [sezer] in French and [seezur] when English borrowed it.

You can read about these changes in almost any history of Romance languages (whence we borrowed most of our words). My favorite is Martin Harris’s “History of Romance Languages” but you can find it along with Peter Boyd-Bowman’s “From Latin to Romance in Sound Charts” in most college libraries or at Amazon.com. (You can also find my The 100 Funniest Words in English there, too.)

S. African Procrastinators Society

Friday, February 20th, 2009

Chris Stewart of South Africa and I have been corresponding since way back at yourDictionary.com. Today he outdid himself with his response to procrastinate, our Good Word for February 20, 2009. I thought I would just share it with everyone.

“I think you got it wrong – our motto is ‘never put off till tomorrow what you can put off to the next day’. I would ask the gurus at the Procrastinator’s Society for verification, but I have not yet got around to joining. I believe they are doing good work, having recently got around to predicting the outbreak of World War II (which I understand they managed with 100% accuracy). Now if we had been in power at the time, simply subscribing to our other watchword “better never than late” would have completely averted that tragedy.

“A surprising number of gots in that paragraph. Can’t say I like it. But much worse is that American favorite, gotten which—dountless due to television—is steadily gaining ground here in SA. Can’t imagine how such a word could’ve come into being, let alone gotten so prevalent (oops).

“By the way, there is much to be said for putting off buying Christmas presents, and in fact my own experience is totally at odds with the statement ‘seldom have a wide selection to choose from’. The thing to do is the buy from the after Christmas sales and stash them away for the next season. My wife does that, picking things up at sales throughout the year and stashing them in the ‘presents box’, which we then mine as necessary for various occasions at a later time.”

Russian Names: Oviches and Ovnas

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

Kit Plunkett wrote today about a problem many non-Russian readers of Russian novels run into.

Kit wrote: “Hello! I am currently reading “Dr. Zhivago” and I am struck with the ending ‘vich’ at the end of proper names. My question is: What does it mean? Is it as simple as a common ending of a name, a ‘traditional’ form of saying “of” (as in the Irish ‘O’, ‘Mc’, ‘Mac’ meanig “Of”) or a term of endearment by gender? I’ve researched different sites on the Web and can’t seem to find any answer. Thanks in advance for insight you may have.

Kit, you are on the right track. These names are always middle names or “patronymics”. Russians are given only their first name. Their second name is the first name of their father plus the suffix -ovich (sometimes -evich) if they are males and -ovna (sometimes -evna) if they are female. Boris Ivanovich is Boris, the son of Ivan, and Marisa Borisovna is Marisa, the daughter of Boris.

Now, since their last name is the last name of their fathers, they are only given their first name. However, Russians who are members of the Russian Orthodox Church don’t even choose their first name. The Church publishes a calendar on which each day is associated with two or more saints (minimally one male and one female). If you are a true believer (and orthodox means “true belief”), your first name will be that of a saint associated with the day you were born.

Up until World War II, Russian Christians celebrated their “Name Day” rather than birthday, since they day of the birth gave them their name. Some Russians still refer to their birthday as their “name day”.

The suffixes -ovich and -ovna are combinations of -ov “of” (as you surmised) plus a suffix indicating something little, hence Ivan Borisovich would have meant centuries ago, Ivan the little one of Boris”. Today, no one has any sense of the historical meaning of these suffixes. In fact, the -ov- is seldom even pronounced. Ivan Borisovich is pronounced Ivan Borisich.

Why ‘Willies’ Give Etymologists the Willies

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

No one knows for sure where the word willies originated, a state which has invited broad if not wild speculation.

The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins claims that it is a reduction of an old word, willie-boy “sissy”. This explanation hardly makes semantic sense: having the willies is far from being or even feeling like a sissy.

William Morris, the Word Detective, opines that willies might come from the name of a Slavic sprite called a vila (plural vili “sprites”) sometimes translated as wili. However, the spelling of vili as wili is German, where W is pronounced [v], not English where it is pronounced [w]. 

The best guess in my opinion was recently suggested by Jackie Strauss, who also suggested the word itself as a Good Word in our daily series. This word reminds Jackie of the woolies, which is to say scratchy wool long winter underwear. The willies are the same as the creeps, which suggests a skin sensation to me, too. So, I’m putting Jackie’s speculation at the top of my list of potential explanations of the origin of willies.

Now all we need is some evidence.

Periods, Commas and Quotations

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

Bob Meinig raised a question yesterday that comes up now and then. It concerns the placement of quotation marks vis-a-vis periods and commas in our Good Words and on the website.

At yourDictionary.com I decided to use the US style of placing commas and periods inside quotations marks no matter what. This bothered me because the US system leads to confusion. The US punctuation style would look like this: …the meaning of the word is “to dance.” This is illogical because the period is not part of the meaning of the word which the quotation marks set off. When I give entire sentences, where the period is a part of the sentence, the period goes inside the quotation marks: “The dog began to dance.”

This is the style of punctuation used throughout the non-US English-speaking world and also the style of most scientific journals in the US, certainly those intended for a world-wide audience. Since I am an unrepentant scholar widely published in such journals, this style comes most naturally to me and—it’s logical!

So, when I started up alphaDictionary.com, where I often argue a point of grammar on the basis of consistency, I decided to go with the logical style. I honestly expected to change my mind and do a simple search and replace to change back to the US style. I knew that many visitors, particularly those who consider the entire planet the US, would think me ignorant of the rules of punctuation.

But I never did. I don’t know why. It would be a problematic job going through the entire website now to make a correction. I did decide to use the US style in my new book, “The 100 Funniest Words in English”, just to avoid the hassle this side the Atlantic and Pacific. Hmmm. I guess someone could take that as inconsistent, couldn’t they?