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Archive for the 'Language Change' Category

Hilarious Note on ‘Hilarious’

Saturday, September 9th, 2017

George Kovac wrote in response to our Good Word hilarious. “Bob, and of course, ‘there was Pope Hilarius, who reigned from 461 to 468.’ You cannot make up material this good.” He went on to write:

“I was disappointed the current Pope chose ‘Francis’ instead of reaching back to revive this name, so that when someone says this new pope is kind, I could add, ‘Yes, and he is Hilarius 2.'”

Uncommonly clever, as I have come to expect from the lawyer from Miami. I hope his family and home survived Irma in good condition.

Asterisms and Constellations

Friday, February 19th, 2016

Chris Steward of South Africa sent a comment on our Good Word constellation that I thought we all might benefit from:

I did not know that strew was related, though it makes poetic sense.

There are precisely 88 internationally-recognised modern constellations identified by the IAU, who have sole mandate for such naming.

There is another word, ‘asterism’, which denotes an “informal” constellation, i.e. a group of stars in some recognizable pattern named for convenience in discussion. There are a host of asterisms, as well as archaic constellations from various cultures (which I suppose are now asterisms, too, since their fall from grace).

An obvious asterism would be Orion’s belt, otherwise known as die drie konings “the three kings”. Also prominent and well known worldwide are the Pleides, known informally as “the Seven Sisters” (Subaru in Japanese) even though the cluster contains many more than seven stars. In the southern hemisphere, we have the constellation Crux (the famous Southern Cross), and the asterism of the False Cross (which neophytes typically confuse with Crux). These two can easily be distinguished by the fact that the asterism of “the Pointers” helps to highlight the true cross, whereas the false cross has no such neighbour. Another would be the Teapot, which is a subset of Sagittarius.

Some asterisms are too small or too faint to the naked eye for them to be commonly known, but are readily identified with optical assistance and many are well known in, um, the constellation of astronomical observers. The Coathanger is a prime example. There is even a beautiful triangle-within-a-triangle known as the “Stargate” (after the TV series).

Saturday, December 12th, 2015

Is Santa Clause an NSA Spy?
(Sung to the tune of “Santa Clause is Coming to Town)

You better watch out,
You better not cry,
Better not pout,
I’m telling you why:
Santa Claus is coming to town!

He’s making a list and
Checking it twice;
Gonna find out
who’s naughty and nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town!

He sees you when you’re sleeping.
He knows when you’re awake.
He knows when you are really sick
Or faking a tummy ache!

He’s making a list
Whatever you say;
Sharing that list
With the NSA.
Santa Clause is coming to town!

(You can replace “Santa Clause” with “Donald Trump” if you think the Mr. Trump has supernatural powers.)


Friday, December 11th, 2015
Here is a note from Christ Stewart that I received last month which I simply pass on here for those who are interested in such things.
I thought I would raise a little levity and bring in a term commonly used by those interested in the mysterious behavior of our universe. It may be suitable for an April 1 Good Word, except that it is no joke (which would mean those who thought it was, would be fooled).
If one approaches a black hole, then due to the inverse square law of gravity, one reaches a zone where the gravity gradient is so extreme that solid objects will be torn apart. Were an astronaut to fall into a black hole feet first, the gravitational force at his feet would become much larger than at his head. The net effect of the complex forces (which are dragging not just matter, but space and time from our universe into the black hole) is akin to squeezing out the contents of a toothpaste tube. The result would be for the astronaut to be stretched long and thin like a rubber band, a rather unfavourable irreversible situation from which there is no return.
This process is known as spaghettification, and one who undergoes it is said to have been spaghettified. Doubtless modern Spanish Inquisitors would gladly trade in their racks for a spaghettifier.
I could not find many on-line dictionaries with the word, but there are some. Quite a good explanation can be found at
–Chris Stewart

Another ‘Lexical Gracenote’

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015
This morning, when the Good Word was nomophobia, I received a two-part e-mail from my stalwart e-friend, Chris Stewart, of South Africa. I’ve conjoined the two e-mails:
“Surely nomophobia would logically be a fear of numbers?  The reason why I leapt to the conclusion that nomo– should refer to numbers, is that a nomogram is a specific kind of graph whose sole purpose is to derive a numerical value in one unit of measure from two other kinds of numbers. The most commonly found example here is a little nomogram in vehicle logbooks to derive a fuel consumption value.”
“According to Merriam-Webster a nomogram is ‘a graphic representation that consists of several lines marked off to scale and arranged in such a way that by using a straightedge to connect known values on two lines an unknown value can be read at the point of intersection with another line’.”

“I see that nomo from the Greek means ‘law or custom’, which makes sense in the mathematical context too. However, there are other colloquial uses, e.g. the Urban Dictionary, which could alter the whole sense of nomophobia. Tricky! On the other hand, the Wikipedia article is interesting.”

My reply refers to a 2007 entry in this blog, Lady Finger, Lady Birds, and Woolly Bears
Yes, nomogram should mean “fear of numbers” or “fear of names”. However, when it comes to language, what should be is often quite distant from what is, e.g. earwig, lady finger, woolly bear. Actually, homophobia should mean “fear of people” and “fear of sameness”, so why shouldn’t nomophobia mean “fear of being without a cellphone”. People created language; people can determine what the words of their language mean. They have regular means at their disposal, but also irregular ones.
In my 2007 blog I call such phenomena “lexical grace notes”, things we don’t expect but that make language more interesting.

The History of English in Maps

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

Here is an excellent resource on the history of English found by Larry Brady, one of the editors of the Good Word series:

Snicklefritzes and Spizzerincta

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

I received this query from a long-time subscriber to the Good Word, David Lloyd-Jones:

“Seeing snickersnee made me wonder whether schnicklefritz had crossed over from German into English yet.”

“I searched on it, and was referred to shnicklefritz and shnickelfritz, and was appalled to find it in the Urban Dictionary (which I assume means black English), [defined as] a snob or a pretentious person.”

“In my experience it’s what my ver-ree conservative father-in-law called his grand-daughters, and snobbishness was far from his mind. It migtht have overtones of mischief to it, but cuteness is surely the dominant theme.”

My response to him is as follows.

Yet another reason why not to trust the completely unedited Urban Dictionary. You should see the entry for Pennsylvania Dutch (Dutch as in Deutsch = German) written by someone who is not only ignorant of their culture, but who bears a major grudge against them. They are predominantly Amish or Mennonite and in my Pennsylvania county (Union) with a large population of these people, no crime committed by a Mennonite or Amish has ever been recorded.

Now, let’s get down to business. Schnickel is a real German surname and Fritz is just short for Friedrich. Put them together backwards and you get a pretty amusing appellation.

Schnicklefritz started out in English around here; it comes from Pennsylvania Dutch. The Pennsylvania Dutch brought it over from the Neckar Valley in Germany in the 18th century. Schnicklefritz is an affectionate name for a mischievous, overly talkative, or otherwise bothersome child.

In North Carolina in my day my father called his children spizzerinctum for similar reasons, to amuse by befuddling the child and in a gentle way to dissuade them from mischief.


Saturday, June 28th, 2014

• binky •

Pronunciation: bing-kee • Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: Love my binky1. Security blanked or a favorite stuffed animal that soothes and offers comfort to a baby. Something babies must cling to in order to get to sleep. 2. A pacifier (US &: Canada), dummy (UK), soother (elsewhere). 3. A bunny pronk, a high hop of joy for a rabbit.

Notes: Today’s Good Word may be two words: one referring to a pacifier, the other referring to a security toy or blanket. You’ll have to read the Word History to find out why. Remember to change the Y to an I in the plural: binkies.

In Play: Because the word is used as a commercial name for a popular pacifier, many people know only this meaning: “What happened to the baby’s binky? He didn’t swallow it, did he?” We needn’t stretch the sense of this word far to apply it more broadly: “Martin must have his coffee in his favorite cup, his ‘binky’. I would be surprised if he didn’t sleep with it.”

Word History: Two sources have been proposed for Binky: (1) the commercial name for a pacifier manufactured by Playtex® and (2) a baby’s pronunciation of blanket. According to Paul Ogden’s research, binky first appeared in print in 1944 and Playtex came into existence only in 1947, so we can’t give Playtex® the credit. We simply don’t know how binky came to be associated with pacifiers. Blanket is from Old French blanchet “white flannel cloth”, a diminutive of blanc “white”. Old French apparently borrowed this word from a Germanic language. Proto-Germanic had a word blangkaz “shine, dazzle”, which came to be German blank “shining, clean”. This same word turned out in English as bleachblanch and blank. (We now offer a blanket ‘thank you’ to Eric Berntson, who proposed today’s Good Word in the Alpha Agora.)

French Pronunciation

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Jan Collins raised a question today about French which all French learners (and some speakers) might be interested in:

“Can you please tell me when people stopped pronouncing final consonants in French? When I see the historical words I never know how they would have been spoken.”

In the Early Modern French Period, which began about 1700, French passed through an “open syllable” stage, when all syllables had to end on a vowel and could not end on a consonant. That is why those ending on consonant sounds, always are spelled with a “silent e”, e.g. l’homme, pronounced [lOm], because the [e] at one time was pronounced, and still is in some songs.

However, few words—only new ones—end on consonants that are pronounced; otherwise they are silent unless they appear before a word beginning with a vowel:

  • muet [mye] “mute”
  • nez [ne] “nose”
  • mot [mo] “word”

French opened all the syllables ending on nasal consonants, [n, m], by nasalizing the vowel. That is why French has nasal vowels, e.g. temps [tã] “time”, grand [gRã] “large”.

Mothers and Fathers in European and Semitic Languages

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

Paul Ogden, one of the editors of the Good Word series, responded to my etymology of the word amorous and we engaged in an e-conversation I thought might interest the readers of this blog. Here it is.

Interesting etymology. Something similar happened in Hebrew and some of the other Semitic languages. The Hebrew word for mother is emm, the Aramaic word is immah, and the Arabic word is umm.

The liturgical word amen, which at its core means “confirmation, support”, is derived from the words for “mother”. Another derivation from amen is oman, Hebrew for “artist”, from the days when artists made faithful representations of what they saw. A slew of additional Hebrew words that mean loyalty, trust, reliability and so forth are in turn derived from amen.

I replied:

Fascinating. Mother and father started out the same way. Ma and pa are usually the first two “words” settled on by an infant in referring to its parents. So to these utterances were added the suffix marking members of a family: ma-ter and pa-ter. Compare brother and sister, which started out with the same suffix and—voila—the words for “mother” (mater) and “father” (pater).

Paul replied:

But there’s more:

Av is Hebrew for father. Abba is Aramaic for father. Ab is Arabic for father. I know that P and B are considered pretty much the same in historical linguistics, so we’re not too far here from papa, pappas, and the like. [The only difference between [p] and [b] is that we vibrate our vocal cords when pronouncing the latter. –RB] The noun abbot, referring to the Christian religious authority, comes from Aramaic abba.

The word abu that you sometimes see as an element in Arab male names means “father of”, e.g., Mohammed Abbas is sometimes referred to as Abu Mazen, meaning he has a son, probably his firstborn, named Mazen.