Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for August, 2006

More Pizza and Pita—Yum!

Wednesday, August 30th, 2006

Sally Capotosto, who chats with both Dr. Goodword and Joe Pastry (one of my wife’s favorites, too) wrote me the following today:

“This week Joe is making pita bread and once again touched upon the similarities of the words pita and pizza. Yum! YumSo, I dutifully commented using your history, and this is what Joe said back: “Oh yes Sally, I got it. The trouble with this citation is that it only traces the history of the word pizza back to its first occurrence in print in Italy. The Langobards, better known as the Lombards, were a Germanic tribe that moved down into Italy from Northwest Germany in about A.D. 100 (where they caused all kinds of mayhem). That was a minimum of 700 years after the arrival of the Greeks, their flat breads, and their word pitta. By A.D. 100 versions of the word pitta were already in use all around the Mediterranean. The Lombards almost certainly picked this word up from the locals after they got there.”

Joe and Sally were talking about our Good Word, pizza, of August 3rd. The problem with Joe’s etymology is that pitta in Classical Greek meant “tar, pitch”, the stuff used to make jars and ships waterproof and not “bread”. The Greek words for bread were sitos and artos; unleavened bread was azumos. There may have been another word for flat bread but it does not appear in any Greek writing that has been preserved.

The word is found in all modern languages around the Mediterranean but not in any ancient languages the predate Langobardian that we have any record of.

Here is what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say about the origin of pita:

“Various ancient Greek etymons have been suggested, but the word appears to be of fairly recent appearance in Greek (as is suggested by the variable spelling); also, a plausible transmission from ancient Greek into the various other modern languages is difficult to establish. Modern Hebrew pitth is written as if descended from an Aramaic form (cf. Old Western Aramaic pitt, Eastern Aramaic pitt, related to Palestinian colloquial Arabic fatte “crumb, piece of bread”) but there is no continuity between them. The Arabic word for this type of bread is kimj ([from] Persian kumj). Turkish pide (1890) is a loanword, prob[ably from] Greek.”

“An ultimate origin in Germanic has been suggested by G. Princi Braccini (Archivio Glottologico Italiano 64 (1979 ) 42-89), perh[aps from] an unattested Gothic *bita, cognate with Old High German bizzo “bite, morsel, lump, cake made of flour” (see PIZZA n.), whence the word spread first into Rhaeto-Romance and the languages of the western Balkans, and then beyond, cf. Romansh (Engadine) petta, Ladin (Ampezzano) peta, Friulian peta, all in sense “thin flat bread”, post-classical Latin petta, a kind of bread or flat cake (1249, 1297 in Friulian sources), Albanian petë thin layer of dough or pastry crust, Vlach pit pie, tart, Romanian regional pit “bread”, Hungarian pite “pie, tart” (1598). . . . An alternative theory has been proposed by J. Kramer (Balkan-Archiv 14-15 (1990 ) 220-31) who sees the word as ult[imately] of Illyrian origin.”

My source was an old colleague, Professor Martin Maiden of Oxford in his delightful article “Pizza is a German(ic) Word!” which he wrote for me when I was at He admits that there is a controversy around the word, the ancestor is an unattested presumed word. However, there is no question but that the word is likely to have existed because of the Germanic ancestors of English bite–all Germanic languages have one.

Not only do we not have a likely candidate for an ancestor for pita in other Mediterranean languages, none of them have a phonologically and semantically similar word that pita might be a paronym or derivation of. So, if the word came from Greek, which related word was it derived from? There are none. Hebrew pat “loaf” might work but a loaf is almost the opposite of flat bread and we have no evidence that it existed in any form of Hebrew other than Modern Hebrew.

So, Joe Pastry and Dr. Goodword seem to be named for what each does best. I find that somehow comforting.

The Truthiness of Wikiality

Monday, August 28th, 2006

alphaDictionary carries a growing list of sniglets, words that are not in the dictionary but should be, words for things that have no name but should (click here to see our list). The idea originated with comedian Rich Hall in one of the earliest news spoofs, Not Necessarily the News (1986-88).

The idea was that there are things in the world around us that we cannot talk about because there are no words for them. Hall focused on the funny ones, like elbonics, the actions of two people maneuvering for one armrest in a movie theater and aquadextrous, possessing the ability to turn the bathtub tap on and off with your toes.

The Washington Post‘s Annual Style Invitational picked up the tradition in the 90s, contributing such gems as hipatitis, terminal coolness and sarchasm, the gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn’t get it.

The web has spawned several sites that attempt to push forward this tradition but now Stephen Colbert is contributing sniglets in his ‘The Word’ segment of his Comedy Central news spoof, The Colbert Report. Two of Colbert’s (writers’) contributions that many people find appealing are truthiness and Wikiality.

Truthiness is truth unencumbered by facts, truth by intuition, seen in people’s eyes rather than their actions. The word has the ring of authenticity to it since truthy would mean either “having truth” or “like truth”.

Wikiality has a meaning that is a bit more subtle: “reality approved by a majority”, the way articles get into the Wikipedia. Often the in the US the majority is merely the majority of the TV producers, as we saw in the recent TV coverage of the suspect in the JonBenet Ramsey murder case–truthiness in TV entertainment Wikiality for a couple of weeks.

At least we are building a vocabulary for discussing the amoeboid world we live in. Fewer and fewer of the concepts that surround us go unnamed. Maybe the day of the sniglets has returned and the web will be a conduit for a new era for them.

Sardonic or Sarcastic? (And what about Ironic?)

Friday, August 25th, 2006

William Hupy asked me today, “What IS the difference between sarcastic and sardonic? And while we are at it, how do those two relate to being ironic? Are their etymologies related?” It occurred to me that it might be a question on the minds of others. Here is my response.

Sardonic means “disdainful or playfully derisive, especially in facial or verbal expression.”

  • Sarcasm implies a derision explicitly intended to hurt or offend someone.
  • Sardonicism implies a cynical derision expressed either verbally or facially with no necessary intent to offend or cause emotional distress.
  • Irony comes from an amusingly provocative disparity between any two seemingly incompatible things, expressed to amuse rather than to offend.

Sardonic remarks often follow ambiguous statements: “Joe is an unusual wit,” said Fred. “That’s true,” Marge remarked sardonically.” Sarcasm hurts: “Murray’s marriage proposal received a sarcastic, ‘Ask me again if you return from the dead’ from Eloise.” Irony comes from odd coincidences we bump into in life: “I just love the irony of Lois, the daughter of an obstetrician, marrying Ferdie, whose father is a mortician!”

Sardonic comes from Greek sardanios “scornful (smiles or laughter)” from sardane, a Sardinian plant (Sardinian crowfoot, Ranunculus Sardous) which makes you grimace when you eat it. Later Greek authors confused this word with sardonios from Sardo (Sardinia), which in French became sardonique, a term English could not resist usurping. Sarcastic comes from Greek sarkasmos, from sarkazein “to bite the lips in rage,” a verb based on sarx (sark-s) “flesh”, the same root we see in the flesh-eating sarcophagus.

Southern Accents Today

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2006

I just returned from my annual pilgramage down South (North Carolina) and was amazed at what I heard. To understand it, let me give a little background.

I was born in Fayetteville, NC but was raised in the rural area north of it, Eastover Township and Beard, NC (which used to have a post office but no longer does). The dialects I was exposed to differ significantly. The urban dialect of Fayetteville is very similar to the urban dialects of other Southern cities (Atlanta, Charlotte, Spartanburg, etc.)

The rural dialects and those of small towns are the funny ones, like Andy Griffith’s and Kyra Sedgewick’s. I started out with one of those since both my parents came from farms.

I spent a good deal of time last week playing with my grandnephews and grandnieces, all of whom live in rural areas or in small towns. They range in age from 6-12, so all have mastered their version of English. I was amazed that they all spoke the “standard” dialect of radio and TV announcers. In both Cumberland and Onslow counties we would seem to be no more than one generation away from losing the color and regional individualism of Southern dialects.

Those of my age still retain their accents, of course. As I discuss elsewhere,what is popularly called an “accent” is in fact a regional dialect. A regional dialect is a slightly different grammar of a language which is just as complex and rigid as the standard variant. Thus, like any grammar, it is “hard wired” into our brains as we learn language between the ages of 2 and 6 and this makes it difficult to change.

So the old folks I hob-nobbed with at my 50th HS reunion spoke pretty much like they did when we were in HS but their grandchildren probably speak like your average Yankee.

The mass media makes retaining regional differences difficult. In many US families today children hear radio and TV more than they hear their parents. Since we pick up language and whatever dialects it carries from those we hear speaking it, regional dialects in the US are probably doomed. It is just a matter of time.

One aspect of this disappearance, however, may slow it down. People who listen to little radio and TV—or restrict there conact with the media to country radio and the popular redneck humor of Comedy Central—tend to retain their accents longer. Hopefully, this will not strengthen the prejudict that an association exists between southern accents and lack of education or knowledge.

But this is just my impression. I know of no research that has been conducted on the subject. Maybe I am wrong. (I was once before back in November of 1983).

50th High School Reunion

Monday, August 21st, 2006

Some people enjoy a stroll down Memory Lane. I find Memory Lane a frightening place, filled with embarrassing mistakes, missed opportunities, forks in the road of life chosen for the wrong reasons if for any reason at all. As Yogi Berra purportedly once put it, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” I followed Yogi’s advice a lot in those days and prefer forgetting about it.

The article in the local newspaper went through the “The Most” choices from the 1956 yearbook, careful to omit “The Most Likely to Succeed”, who didn’t succeed at removing funds from the bank where he worked (I was told). The Best Looking couple ran about 3rd at the 50th (not bad), The Friendliest never said “hello” to me, and The Most Talented apparently couldn’t find their way to the meet.

The highlight of a 50th reunion is any event that occurred 50 years prior that can be recalled with any accuracy at all. If you can remember the name of anyone who was not your intimate friend, you find yourself the center of attention at a 50th reunion.

Those who had remained in the old hometown had more to talk about and perhaps share the closeness the newspaper article mentions. Those of us who surrendered our roots were little more than new acquaintances, though several of us turned out to be interesting people in our own right. Plans were made for private rendezvous at later dates and different places. Something may come of it yet.

Fun? I suppose, if a sort of enjoyable blahness comes under the cover of that term. We had spent an important time together, trying to figure out adulthood collectively. But most of us had risen to that task long ago, each in our own way, and we certainly did not have time over a single weekend to compare notes on how we managed that daunting task.

So, we smiled to see each other alive (not all of us made it) and looking as good as we did and chatted about things that were no longer relevant to any of us before they vanished from memory altogether.

On Vacation

Monday, August 14th, 2006

This short note is to let everyone know that I will be on vacation this week and am not sure of the nature of my access to the Internet.  I am returning to my origins in central North Carolina, in and around Fayetteville, including a visit to my sister in Beard, NC.

I will, therefore, be in what I think is the cradle of uptalk, my blog of last Thursday, and will be taking notes.  I will return refreshed and with fresh topics next Monday, August 21.

The Low Down on Uptalk

Thursday, August 10th, 2006

Lynda Pongracz asked today, “Have you ever commented on the style of speech I’ve heard described as ‘up talk’? There seems to be a tendency (mostly in American speech) to end every sentence with the voice going up as it does when asking a question. It used to be that declarative sentences ended with the voice steady or even going down. This kind of up talk seems to be popular in the current generation, and I’ve heard it used both informally in conversation as well as formally in speeches and even in TV news. I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this. When and how did this trend begin? Is it typical of certain parts of the US? Do other language groups have up talk?

“Uptalk” is sweeping the English-speaking world, it would seem. Reports of it in Australia, New Zealand, England, and Canada are pouring in. Unfortunately, because it is different from radio-TV intonation, it frightens many people.

Linguists didn’t like the journalese term “uptalk”, so they created their own monstrosity (which is, admittedly a bit more descriptive): High Rising Tone or simply HRT. It is an intonation pattern in which the pitch of the voice rises to the level of a question across the predicate of a statement, e.g. “I heard Freddy is working real hard these days? at two jobs now? one at night and the other during the day?”

The intonation is not that of a question, however, because it does not simply rise at the end of the sentence but before the end and is sustained. It sounds very much like the intonation of “you know what I’m sayin?” superimposed on a statement.

Imagine the intonation of that phrase added to that of “I heard Freddy is working real hard these days, know what I’m saying?” Now, drop the phrase and retract the intonation over the phrase itself. The interesting aspect of this analysis is that the meaning of this information is very similar to the meaning of the phrase. It is not question intonation nor does it mark questions; it serves to accentuate whatever is being said and checks to see if the listener is following.

Raising the intonation before the end of a statement is not unusual. Another language I speak, Russian, regularly indicates dependent clauses by the same raised intonation pattern that they use for questions. So it is not an unusual linguistic phenomenon; it is just unusual for those of us accustomed to radio-TV intonation.

A major question has been, where did uptalk originate? According to a 1995 piece in the Houston Chronicle, “It began as a feature of valley speak, the adolescent argot native to the San Fernando Valley and immortalised by the valley girl. But now uptalk has taken on a life of its own.” Others have traced it to Australia and New Zealand. Neither of these presumptions are true.

In fact, it was alive and healthy in the South in the 1950s because most of my cousins used it in rural North Carolina and many girls in the city high school did, too. It was only used when they were talking relatively urgently about something and, as many others have noted, only by girls.

My guess would be that it is a late development of an Irish accentuation pattern which also tends to go up at unusual points in a phrase. Irish and Scottish accents changed more slowly in the South than in the North since, as I mentioned recently on a talk show, the southern accents were not battered by the foreign accents of immigrants, who arrived mostly in the North. However, this is just a working hypothesis for which I have no historical evidence.

However, next week I will be back in the South and will certainly keep my ears open for further evidence of uptalk down there. I think that all evidence points to uptalk being a second major contribution to English made by the South, yall being the first.

The best piece I could find on the Web is Mark Lieberman’s survey in his Language Log. I will look for some more.

Major New alphaDictionary Feature Coming Up

Wednesday, August 9th, 2006

From flappers to rappersWe are beta-testing a major new feature of the alphaDictionary website which you might enjoy helping with. We have now developed a test (we are tentatively calling it a “Checkup”) for the generation which your speech—specifically your slang—identifies you with. In other words, you tell our magic machine which slang terms you used in high school or college, and it will tell you when you attended those schools. (Don’t laugh; at my age things like that slip your mind fairly easily.)

Like our Rebel-Yankee Test, our aim is to acquaint our visitors with a fascinating element of language, this time, slang. We start with a short exegesis on the nature of slang, then procede to our usual 20 questions. This time, though, the questions are about the slang expression used in your high school and college years. When this information is gathered, our “Generational Slang Engine” will pin-point (where “pin” refers to a rolling pin) the decade of your high school-college years.

I personally think that once we get sufficient feedback, we will be able to do more than pinpoint the decade. I think we can eventually make a pretty good stab at the age of the person undergoing the checkup. However, for the time being, our goals are modest.

If you think you might be interested in serving as a guinea pig in this endeavor, click here to go to the check up page. Remember, at present this is a top secret project, so keep it to yourself except for your feedback here. Just feed me your response as comments to this page. That way no one will know but the three (my estimate of how many read this blog) of us.

The US National Language

Tuesday, August 8th, 2006

National languages are no big deal. Why the issue keeps arising in this country I find bewildering.

I’m not sure what a national language even is. The term is often used in referring to an official language, the language or languages in which all official documents must be written in order for them to be official.

The US has always had a default official language since all laws and other official documents are written only in English. Other languages are required in special circumstances, as in court proceedings, company procedures, and the like but the language everything must be written in to have legal impact is English.

This being the case, the English Only and English First movements are irrelevant. They will become relevant only if Spanish Sometimes or Spanish Second movements appear. (I can’t even imagine a Spanish Only or Spanish First movement.)

English is the medium that melts things in the melting pot. The idea of the US as a melting pot was a point of pride when I was growing up and for good reasons. Multicultural nations are fraught with problems monocultural societies do not face. Compare the history of ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia, China, Soviet Union–and Russia today–with our own history since the Indian wars settled the issue of domination (however you might feel about them). Even mild-mannered Canada with its two languages went through a violent period in the 60s and 70s.

If you examine the societies around the world today you will see that monocultural countries tend to work more smoothly and be more productive. France, England, and German are monocultural countries who have experiences only minor ethnic conflicts and many of those between immigrants and nationals. Everyone works around one dominant language and those who do not like that language for whatever reason moves on.

Those who immigrated to the US, learned the language, and joined the fray with the rest of us have always succeeded to a greater extent than those who did not merge. Yet, we have always had ethnic neighborhoods, ethnic restaurants, ethnic festivals. It has traditionally been possible to maintain your ethnic identity while speaking English.

So what would declaring English the official language change? Then why does the issue keep coming up?

Life in the Slow Lane

Monday, August 7th, 2006

We hear so much about life in the fast lane, do you every wonder what it is like in the slow lane?

At the peak of the heat wave last week, the headline–HEADLINE–of our local newspaper was:


It was a distressing fact for the Lewisburg community but we really aren’t disappointed that we never see headlines like this: “Three Killed in Holdup Attempt”. You read headlines like this in the fast lane.

The first edition of our local weekly newspaper, the Union Country Journal, that I received (back in ’65) contained a story I almost memorized. It went something like this:


Mrs. Dolly Wallop [I made up the name] was treated at Evangelical Memorial Hospital yesterday and released. Ms. Wallop cut her finger on the screen on the back door of her house causing minor injury. Doctors said there was little danger of infection. Mr. Wallop’s husband will repair the screen door this weekend.

I showed this article to my wife and we decided then and there that Lewisburg was the place to settle down. The previous week we had been in my hometown where the story of one soldier biting the nose off another in a motel parking lot was relegated to p. 7. The front page was devoted to national and international mayhem and significant local crimes like major drug raids, holdups, and murders.

As you can see, the threshold for an injury making the paper has risen since the screen-door incident. In fact, the day following the unfortunate passing of the dog, ostensibly from heat stroke, the headline of our newspaper (The Sunbury Daily Item) was:


Stu DeBaker [I made this one up, too], of Milton, was driving a teal Chevrolet Cavalier south when [it] swerved off the road at approximately (continued on p. A4) 7:45 pm. There was no apparent cause of the accident” according to local police. (Driver probably fell asleep from boredom and accidentally slipped into the fast lane.) “[He] had a really nasty bruise on [his] arm,” according to one of the people in the house hit. Mr DeBaker was treated at the hospital and released shortly thereafter.

The important point I want to make here, though, is how relaxing it is to live in a community where life is so laid-back and easy-going that reporters use the color and model of cars to beef up their crash stories and people are so healthy that only household animals are subject to heat stroke.  Beat that, Garrison!