kottke.org posts about language

A collection of maps of the languages and ethnic groups of AsiaJun 20 2016

Language Map ChinaLanguage Map IndiaLanguage Map Indochina

Tim Merrill is using Pinterest to collect maps showing where ethnic groups live and what languages are spoken in Asia.

This and only this is a sandwichJun 15 2016

In today's post on "What is barbecue?" I skipped past "is a hot dog a sandwich?" so quickly that I forgot to answer the question. So in the same spirit in which someone can boldly declare that only smoked, slow-cooked pork is barbecue, here is my minimal definition of a sandwich:

A sandwich is any solid or semi-solid filling between two or more slices of bread. Not a roll, not a wrap, not a leaf of lettuce: sliced bread. What is inside far less than the container.

Consequently:

  • A hot dog is not a sandwich.
  • A burrito is not a sandwich.
  • A wrap is not a sandwich.
  • A cheeseburger on a roll is not a sandwich. Sliced bread only.
  • A lobster roll is not a sandwich.
  • A hoagie is not a sandwich.
  • An ice cream sandwich is not a sandwich.
  • A hot turkey sandwich is not a sandwich.
  • An open-faced sandwich is not a sandwich.
  • If you make a sandwich using one end of the bread and one proper slice, it's kind of a sandwich still, but not really. See also folding over a single slice of bread for a half-sandwich.
  • If you make a sandwich using both ends of the bread, it is no longer a sandwich at all.
  • A peanut butter or grilled cheese sandwich is a sandwich.
  • A mayonnaise, butter, or ketchup sandwich is probably a sandwich -- I'm not sure whether those fillings are solid enough -- just not a very good one.
  • A sandwich made with crackers instead of bread is not a sandwich, but an imitation of a sandwich.
  • A sandwich made with crackers between two slices of bread is a sandwich, but not a very good one.

Alternatively, "sandwich" is a family-resemblance concept and we can't appeal to definitional consistency to get away from the fact that language is a complex organism and its rules don't always make perfect sense.

(PS: I do not speak for Jason or Kottke.org on this matter, please do not argue with him about sandwiches)

Update (from Jason): Boy, you leave Tim to his own devices for a few hours and he establishes the official kottke.org stance on sandwiches. [That new emoji of the yellow smiley face grabbing its chin and looking skeptical that you might not have on Android IDK I'm Apple Man] I was just talking to my kids the other day about this important issue and Ollie, who is almost 9, told me that both hamburgers and hot dogs are sandwiches because "the meat is sandwiched in between the bread; it's right there in the word". When Ollie and Minna take over the family business in 2027, they can revisit this, but for now, Tim's definition stands.

What is barbecue?Jun 15 2016

At Eater, Chris Fuhrmeister hits on another topic near to my amateur linguist heart: policing the word "barbecue":

When it comes to American barbecue -- I certainly won't attempt to set ground rules for other barbecue cultures across the globe -- there are absolute rights and wrongs. Sure, there's some room for interpretation, but good-intentioned "barbecue" lovers across this country are blaspheming day in and day out. Before declaring what barbecue isn't, it's best to define what it is: pork that's slow-cooked with smoke.

This is controversial, because "barbecue" is also used to mean:

  • n. other slow-cooked smoked meats, e.g., beef
  • v. the act of cooking or eating such meats,
  • v. grilling anything outdoors,
  • n. an outdoor grill
  • a. a type or flavor of sauce, potato chips, and other foods
  • and so forth.

It's also odd because, as Fuhrmeister notes, it's an American controversy, and Americans tend to play faster and looser with food words than people elsewhere. Cognac has to be from Cognac, champagne from Champagne, and so on. Americans have lots of different regional words and practices when it comes to food (soda vs pop, sub vs hoagie, etc.), and we're definitely competitive when it comes to where and how food is made best, but we're generally pretty pluralist about definitions. Which is probably why "barbecue" has metastasized to mean so many different but related things.

I tried to come up with a shortlist of honest-to-goodness American food word debates.

  1. What is barbecue?
  2. Is a hot dog a sandwich?
  3. Is Chicago-style pizza really pizza?
  4. Is it donut or doughnut?
  5. Is a wrap a burrito?
  6. Why do we say "chai tea" when "chai" means "tea"?

From here you start to get into all the ways Americans abuse imported food words, which is a much longer list. British English also has a debated distinction between cake and biscuit that I don't fully understand. Some of us like "is a patty melt a hamburger?," because the ontology of hamburger is pretty complex stuff. But this is enough to get started.

Donut/doughnut is a straight-up style dispute, and doesn't have anything to do with definitions. "Are hot dogs sandwiches?" is almost too much about definitions -- there's no history, no implied values, or real stakes. Chicago vs NYC pizza is a regional value rivalry posing as a definitional one: press people, and they'll say, "yeah, what they make is pizza, it's just not as good as ours."

Barbecue is the debate that has everything. It's a regional rivalry with value attached to it, that's making definitional claims. And there are so many possible distinctions! Texas and Carolina partisans might unite to reject "barbecue" to mean "cookout," but fall apart again over the merits of beef vs pork. You can even vote on it; the voting will decide nothing. It is an infinite jewel.

X marks gender-neutral Jun 15 2016

"Mx." (pronounced "mix" or "mux") is a gender-neutral honorific. It's used by people who don't want to be identified by gender, whether their gender identity isn't well-represented by the older forms, or they just don't want to offer that information or assume it when addressing someone else. "Mx." was added to Merriam Webster's unabridged dictionary in April, has begun to be used on official forms in the UK (the Royal Bank of Scotland has been an early adopter), and appeared in two recent stories in the New York Times, once as a preferred honorific for a Barnard College student who doesn't identify as male or female, and once in a story about "Mx." itself.

Linguistic experts say it is harder to change usage habits of words uttered frequently in speech, such as "she" and "he." But a realignment in honorifics may be more quickly achieved because courtesy titles are less often spoken than written, like in the completion and mailing of government, health care and financial documents, as well as in newspapers and other media publications.

This second story, quoting Oxford University Press's Katherine C. Martin, also notes that some of the earliest uses of "Mx." were in the 1980s, "when some people engaged in nascent forms of digital communication and did not know one another's gender."

Likewise, "Latinx" aims to be more comprehensive and more inclusive than the older terms Latino and Latina. "The 'x' makes Latino, a masculine identifier, gender-neutral," writes Raquel Reichard. "It also moves beyond Latin@ - which has been used in the past to include both masculine and feminine identities - to encompass genders outside of that limiting man-woman binary."

This lights up my amateur linguist brain in all sorts of ways, but here's one of them: the telescoping (maybe kaleidoscoping?) between usage, in all its messiness, and forms, in their desire for clear standards and finite options.

You can break that down further into usage within a community or group versus usage outside that community, and the formal protocols a publication like a newspaper or dictionary might follow versus paperwork or a database run by a business or government office. They all interplay with each other, and linguistic change happens or doesn't happen through all of them.

And I guess the last thought is about how digital culture, by expanding and transforming the kinds of communities, identities, forms, and publications that are possible, can accelerate those changes or hold them back.

This tweet by NBC News is a good example: the tweet uses "Latinx" (and "Hispanic") -- the linked story, like the name of the news vertical and twitter account, overwhelmingly uses "Latino," in both the body and the headline.

Or take Planned Parenthood. Many of the health provider's affiliates have updated their intake forms and other paperwork and communication. The new language is more gender-neutral, gender-inclusive, and more specific, separating anatomy, sexual activity, and gender identity. The national office is working on a new style guide to help other affiliates make their own changes.

Language about certain kinds of birth control has changed as well. "Male condoms" and "female condoms" are now referred to as internal and external condoms at Planned Parenthood of New York City.

"The language we're using today reflects the fact that gender is a spectrum and not a simple system, a binary system of male and female," says [PPNYC's Lauren] Porsch. "We really talk about having sexual and reproductive health services: women who have penises, men who have vaginas, and there are people with all different types of anatomy that may not identify with a binary gender at all," she says.

Again, while the changes eventually get reflected in Planned Parenthood's intake forms and other official language, it was implemented early in digital and social media -- specifically, in response to users on Tumblr.

"The Tumblr audience is smart. They understand feminism. They understand that sex ed isn't one-size-fits-all--even though that's what they were taught in school," says Perugini. "And they know that words matter. They didn't see themselves reflected in the language we were using on our social media pages or our website, and they let us know."

This is happening. It's happening in progressive, diverse, digital communities first. And for all their fractiousness, and the inherent difficulty in dealing with areas as complex and personal as identity, gender, and sexuality, it does feel like some standards are emerging. These are words worth watching. If you work with digital technology and people (and yeah, that's almost everyone), I hope you're paying attention.

Today on the grammar rodeo: that vs. whichJun 07 2016

New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris explains when the magazine uses "which" and when it uses "that", a distinction I confess I had little knowledge of until just now.1 A cheeky example of the difference by E.B. White:

The New Yorker is a magazine, which likes "that."

The New Yorker is the magazine that likes "which."

(via df)

  1. This is why, when anyone asks me what I do for a living, the answer is never "writer". Writing for me is a brute-force operation; I'll use whatever is necessary to make it sound like I'm talking with you in person. (Wait, is a semicolon appropriate there? Should I have used "as though" instead of "like"? Who gives a shit!) I use too many commas (but often not between multiple adjectives in front of nouns), too many "I"s, too many "that"s (OMG, the thats), too many weirdo pacing mechanisms like ellipses, dashes, & parentheses, mix tenses, overuse the passive voice, and place unquoted periods and commas outside quotation marks like the Brits, although I was doing it before I learned they did because it just seemed to make sense. So, anyway, hi, I'm not a writer...who writes a lot.

In a game of big words, brevity triumphsMay 20 2016

If you love reading about unusual Moneyball-esque strategies in sports, check out how a player on the Nigerian team won the Scrabble World Championship last year.

So while Scrabblers still fancy bingos, they increasingly hold off on other high-scoring moves, such as six-letter words, or seven-letter terms that only use six tiles from the rack. Instead, by spelling four- or five-letter words, a player can keep their most useful tiles -- like E-D or I-N-G -- for the next round, a strategy called rack management. The Nigerians rehearse it during dayslong scrimmage sessions.

Also, thanks to a design quirk, the board is oddly generous to short words. Most of the bonus squares are just four or five letters apart.

"The geometry of the Scrabble board rewards five-letter words," said Mr. Mackay, who lost to Mr. Jighere in the world championship final, during which the Nigerian nabbed a triple word score with the antiquated adjective KATTI, meaning "spiteful." "It's a smart tactic."

Sign language translation glovesMay 09 2016

A pair of undergraduate students, Thomas Pryor and Navid Azodi of the University of Washington, have invented a pair of gloves that translates the sign language movements of the wearer into spoken English in realtime.

Thomas and Navid developed SignAloud, a pair of gloves that recognizes hand gestures that correspond to words and phrases in American Sign Language, using resources at the University of Washington CoMotion MakerSpace, a place that offers communal tools, equipment, and opportunities for students. Each glove contains sensors that record hand position and movement. As users put on the gloves, the device calibrates to account for differences in sensor placement. Data from the sensors is sent from the gloves wirelessly via Bluetooth to a central computer. The computer looks at the data for gestures through various sequential statistical regressions, similar to a neural network. If the data matches a gesture, then the associated word or phrase is spoken through a speaker.

Update: A woman named Katie, who is a linguistics professor and ASL interpreter, wrote a not-so-positive review of the gloves on her blog. Actually, she calls them impractical and "nothing more than a fun party trick".

ASL uses facial expressions and other "non-manual" markers to show grammar. The difference between a question, a statement and a command is purely on your face. How can the gloves interpret your face?

And she also points out the biggest thing I noticed when I first watched the video:

These guys are not signers. The signs they demoed are (laughably) not even correctly produced. Programming the device with incorrect input will not, as they say in their video, "translate American Sign Language into speech". Without the collaboration of a deaf person (the targeted audience of these things), how do these guys even know that what they're doing is right?

Sounds like a well-meaning experiment that may have merit in the future (like the Apple Watch?), but, as Katie says, presently impractical. (via @jonathonbellew)

Update: Alex Lu writes that deaf people don't need new communications tools.

Deaf people should not have to wear gloves to make their words and presentation palatable to hearing people. You already have all the tools you need to communicate with us, if you would only learn how to use them. It is time that hearing people respect Deaf people for who they are, instead of forcing us to be empty caricatures of hearing standards.

A list of nonbinary gender identitiesMar 31 2016

From the nonbinary.org wiki, a list of gender identities that aren't male or female.

transgender is an umbrella term for all genders that go beyond society's ideas of gender, which includes some kinds of binary gender people. Some call their gender identity simply "transgender," as a nonbinary identity itself.

genderfuzz. Coined by lolzmelmel in 2014. "having multiple genders that are fuzzy and blurred together, making it impossible to identify each one individually or separate one from the rest. alternative names: blurgender (not to be confused with genderblur)

cosmicgender. Coined by dragon-friker in 2014. "A gender so vast and complex that you are only able to process a small bit of it at a time. like viewing the night sky through a telescope you cannot hope to see all of it at once however you may gain more knowledge about parts of it the longer you focus on one part. may contain any number of sub genders within it that may present themselves to you. it is infinite in its possibility. name from the vast reaches of space filled with things we cannot begin to imagine."

hijra. In south Asian countries including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the Hijra are people assigned male at birth who have a feminine gender expression. This is a very ancient tradition. Today, Hijra are legally recognized as a gender other than female or male.

nocturnalgender. Coined by passengender in 2014. Any gender that feels more intense during the night, "but weak/nonexistent when it is light out." Syn. batgender, owlgender, moongender. Counterpart: flowergender.

Fascinating.

Update: Sam Escobar answers some frequently asked questions about non-binary gender.

The gender binary separates those who identify as male or female, simple as that. Non-binary genders, however, don't fit neatly within these two-they can be a combination of male and female, a fluid back-and-forth, or totally outside of the binary. Cisgender people, on the other hand, are folks whose identities align with the gender they were assigned at birth.

(via @djacobs)

Text editor restricted to 1000 most common wordsMar 31 2016

Simple Language Editor

Inspired by Randall Munroe's Thing Explainer, Morten Just built a simple text editor for OS X that restricts your writing to the 1000 most common English words. You can also use Munroe's Simple Writer on the web.

Business jargon we got used toMar 29 2016

Everybody hates management-speak and corporate jargon, but here are some terms that people used to think of as horrible jargon that we all got used to. Maybe one day we'll all be leveraging deliverables without a second thought.

(via @mulegirl)

Plagiarism of crossword puzzlesMar 06 2016

Not to be outdone by the recent New Yorker piece on cheating in bridge, FiveThirtyEight has written about allegations of plagiarism by a prominent crossword puzzle editor. Much like in the pro bridge case, an online repository of games has led to people uncovering inconsistencies in dozens of Timothy Parker's crossword puzzles that would not have been otherwise noticed.

Crossword Plagiarism

There are two types of Parker's puzzle duplications that the database has laid bare: what I'm calling the "shady" and the "shoddy." The shady are puzzles that appeared in Universal or USA Today with themes and theme answers identical to puzzles published earlier and in separate, unrelated publications, most often The New York Times and occasionally the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune. In every such case I saw - roughly 100 cases - the theme answers were in identical locations within the grid, and in many cases, the later puzzle also replicated the earlier puzzle's grid and some of its clues.

(via waxy)

The color thesaurusMar 03 2016

Color ThesaurusColor Thesaurus

Designer and author Ingrid Sundberg collects the names of colors and has compiled them into a color thesaurus.

AmericanismsFeb 04 2016

The Economist style guide's section on Americanisms is just a tad catty.

Try not to verb nouns or to adjective them. So do not access files, haemorrhage red ink (haemorrhage is a noun), let one event impact another, author books (still less co-author them), critique style guides, pressure colleagues (press will do), progress reports, source inputs, trial programmes or loan money. Avoid parenting and, even more assiduously, parenting skills. Gunned down means shot. And though it is sometimes necessary to use nouns as adjectives, there is no need to call an attempted coup a coup attempt, a suspected terrorist a terrorist suspect or the Californian legislature the California legislature. Vilest of all is the habit of throwing together several nouns into one ghastly adjectival reticule: Texas millionaire real-estate developer and failed thrift entrepreneur Hiram Turnipseed...

(via @mccanner)

Chinese nicknames for American pop starsJan 28 2016

Ethnographer Christina Xu discovered a few of the nicknames that young Chinese fans have devised for American pop stars.

Nicki Minaj - 麻辣鸡 (má là ji): a slant transliteration of "Minaj". Means spicy chicken (ma la is a spice combo commonly used in Sichuan cooking).

Drake - 公鸭 (gōng yā): Literally "male duck", as in the definition of a "drake". I laughed out loud when I finally figured this one out.

Kanye West - 侃爷 (kǎn yé): a transliteration of Kanye. In Beijing dialect, this means someone who brags a lot with no actions to follow it up.

Update: According to @billyroh's coworker, Rihanna is known to some as "the Pop Queen of Shandong Province".

A brief history of swearing in moviesJan 20 2016

Swearing in Hollywood movies was banned from the 1930s until 1968. And even then it took two more years for a movie (MASH) to use the word "fuck". NSFW if you've got your fucking sound turned up.

The secret world of casinosJan 13 2016

From Ben Schott, an examination of the inner workings, personnel, and lingo of casinos.

It is curious how irrational even experienced dealers and floor men can be, though inexplicable runs of luck may signal a flaw in security.

Supervisors have been known to perform a range of rituals to cool the action: Shaking salt behind players or under tables, turning the drop-box paddle around in its slot, standing on one leg, swapping out winning dice or cards-sometimes for replacements that have literally been chilled in a fridge. One shift manager places a folded surveillance photograph of a "lucky" player inside his shoe before walking the floor.

Craps is a hotbed of superstition. Pit bosses have been known to place seven ashtrays around a table, to spray paint the number seven on the table when changing the cloth and even to have "hot" tables moved an inch or so. Unscrupulous dealers might throw coins under the table to bring bad luck or find any excuse to touch the dice or brush against a shooter.

I still think it's hilarious that casinos ban players for counting cards but it's perfectly ok for the casinos to have the advantage in every single game they offer.

Editing as Punctuation in FilmJan 12 2016

Riffing on Kathryn Schulz's piece about the five best punctuation marks in literature, Max Tohline explores how editing in film can function as punctuation to separate or join together characters, shots, and ideas within movies.

58 commonly misused words and phrasesDec 02 2015

From Steven Pinker's book, The Sense of Style, here are some of the most common words and phrases that trip people up.

Bemused means bewildered and does not mean amused.

Correct: The unnecessarily complex plot left me bemused. / The silly comedy amused me.

Data is a plural count noun not, standardly speaking, a mass noun. [Note: "Data is rarely used as a plural today, just as candelabra and agenda long ago ceased to be plurals," Pinker writes. "But I still like it."]

Correct: "This datum supports the theory, but many of the other data refute it."

Enormity means extreme evil and does not mean enormousness. [Note: It is acceptable to use it to mean a deplorable enormousness.]

Correct: The enormity of the terrorist bombing brought bystanders to tears. / The enormousness of the homework assignment required several hours of work.

A deplorable enormousness!

The Real Wi-Fi Of BaltimoreNov 09 2015

From Julia Kim Smith, The Real Wi-Fi Of Baltimore, a look at the names of wifi networks in various neighborhoods of Baltimore. Some favorites:

Abraham Linksys
NSA Surveillance Van
Fuck Off
Bill Wi The Science Fi

There was even a Wu Tang LAN sighting. Note: about 4 years ago, my wireless network was called hamsterdam. Currently: surfbort.

Writing while passiveOct 20 2015

In McSweeney's, Vijith Assar writes about the increasingly pernicious use of the passive voice in the media and how it may have developed, one small step at a time, from:

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

to "the ultimate in passive voice":

Speed was involved in a jumping-related accident while a fox was brown.

New language for slavery and the Civil WarOct 15 2015

Drawing upon the work of colleagues, historian Michael Todd Landis proposes new language for talking about slavery and the Civil War. In addition to favoring "labor camps" over the more romantic "plantations", he suggests retiring the concept of the Union vs the Confederacy.

Specifically, let us drop the word "Union" when describing the United States side of the conflagration, as in "Union troops" versus "Confederate troops." Instead of "Union," we should say "United States." By employing "Union" instead of "United States," we are indirectly supporting the Confederate view of secession wherein the nation of the United States collapsed, having been built on a "sandy foundation" (according to rebel Vice President Alexander Stephens). In reality, however, the United States never ceased to exist. The Constitution continued to operate normally; elections were held; Congress, the presidency, and the courts functioned; diplomacy was conducted; taxes were collected; crimes were punished; etc. Yes, there was a massive, murderous rebellion in at least a dozen states, but that did not mean that the United States disappeared.

Why are parents called "mama" and "papa" worldwide?Oct 15 2015

In seemingly disparate languages around the world, the words for "mother" and "father" are surprisingly similar...usually "mama" or "nana" for "mother" and "papa", "baba", "dada", or "tata" for "father". It's tempting to believe these parental words were all derived from a single proto-language, but according to the work of Roman Jakobson, the words come from the first sounds all babies make.

If you're a baby making a random sound, the easiest vowel is ah because you can make it without doing anything with your tongue or lips. Then, if you are going to vary things at all, the first impulse is to break up the stream of ahhh by closing your lips for a spell, especially since you've been doing that to nurse. Hence, mmmm, such that you get a string of mahs as you keep the sound going while breaking it up at intervals.

(via df)

Climate change and boiling frogsOct 08 2015

I made a boiling frogs analogy in my post about coral bleaching this morning.

The oceans are slowly boiling and we're the frogs who aren't noticing.

James Fallows has been waging a small war on the use of that analogy for several years now.

You remember our old friend the boiled frog: It's the staple of any political or business-management speech, used to show that problems that build up slowly can be explained-away or ignored, while ones that happen all of a sudden are more likely to be addressed.

Conservatives use it to talk about the expansion of the socialist state. Liberals use it to talk about climate change. Business managers use it to talk about a slide toward mediocrity. Everyone can use it to talk about something.

And that's the problem with boiled-frogism. The minor issue is that the metaphor is flat wrong. If you put a frog in a pot of lukewarm water and gradually heat it up, the frog will stay there -- until things get uncomfortably warm, at which point it will climb out. But if you drop a frog into a boil of already-boiling water, the poor creature will be so badly hurt and scalded that it will stay there and die.

I'm going to defend my usage just a little. The ocean is literally water that is getting warmer. But other than that, yeah, guilty as charged. (via @jpiz)

The earliest use of "fuck"Sep 14 2015

Get ready to update the OED. There's a new attestation of English's most colorful and versatile word, from the year 1310.

Dr Paul Booth of Keele University spotted the name in 'Roger Fuckebythenavele' in the [Cheshire] county court plea rolls beginning on December 8, 1310. The man was being named three times part of a process to be outlawed, with the final mention coming on September 28, 1311.

Dr Booth believes that "this surname is presumably a nickname. I suggest it could either mean an actual attempt at copulation by an inexperienced youth, later reported by a rejected girlfriend, or an equivalent of the word 'dimwit' i.e. a man who might think that that was the correct way to go about it."

We've doubtlessly been using the word "fuck" in English for a lot longer; this is just an unusual set of conditions that's led it to be preserved in the written record. Like an animal falling into a tar pit.

(Via @kirstinbutler)

The life and death of languagesSep 11 2015

John McWhorter looks at Aramaic, once the lingua franca of the near east, now reduced to about half a million speakers (who separately call it Chaldean, Syriac, Assyrian, Mandaic, etc.).

Aramaic, then, is in a splintered and tenuous state. Yet it was the English of its time--a language that united a large number of distinct peoples across a vast region, a key to accessing life beyond one's village, and a mark of sophistication to many. The Aramaeans--according to Biblical lore named for Noah's grandson Aram--started as a little-known nomadic group. But they were seekers, and by the 11th century B.C.E. they ruled large swaths of territory in Mesopotamia, encompassing parts of modern-day Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, including, for a spell, the city of Babylon itself. On the basis of this expansion alone, however, theirs would likely have become just one of various languages of the area that briefly enjoyed fame and then vanished in the endless game of musical chairs that was ancient Middle Eastern politics. The Aramaeans themselves were in Babylon only temporarily: In 911 B.C.E., the Assyrians, who spoke a language called Akkadian, ousted them. But the Assyrians unwittingly helped the Aramaeans' language extinguish their own.

Namely, the Assyrians deported Aramaic-speakers far and wide, to Egypt and elsewhere. The Assyrians may have thought they were clearing their new territory, but this was like blowing on a fluffy milkweed and thinking of it as destruction rather than dissemination: The little seeds take root elsewhere.

There are many differences between English and Aramaic -- English is supposedly simple and easy to learn, while Aramaic is manifestly not -- but that actually had little effect on English's emergence as a global language, or on Aramaic's rise and decline. But one set of differences between the two languages, McWhorter argues, really is material:

At this point, I am supposed to write that English's preeminence could end as easily as Aramaic's. Actually, however, I doubt it: I suspect that English will hold on harder and longer than any language in history. It happened to rise to its current position at a time when three things had happened, profoundly transformative enough to stop the music, as it were: print, widespread literacy, and an omnipresent media.

Together, these things can drill a language into international consciousness in a historically unprecedented way, creating a sense of what is normal, cosmopolitan, cool even--arbitrary but possibly impregnable. If the Chinese, for example, rule the world someday, I suspect they will do it in English, just as King Darius ruled in Aramaic and Kublai Khan, despite speaking Mongolian, ruled China through Chinese translators in the 13th century C.E. Aramaic held sway at a time when a lingua franca was more fragile than it is today.

Restaurant menu definitionsAug 31 2015

All the terminology on fancy restaurant menus can be overwhelming. From Judy Wu at Gaper's Block, a glossary of common menu items and terms.

Gluten-Free: This dish contains a small trace of gluten, but a full dollop of bullshit.

Duck Fat: Duck fat fries, rillette, popcorn, confit, Brussels sprouts -- never skip this menu item.

Amish: This chicken was raised without electricity and fear.

Dictionary StoriesAug 26 2015

Jez Burrows is writing short stories composed of example sentences from the New Oxford American Dictionary. Here's a story called Noir; the underlined words are those from which the example sentences are drawn:

The midnight hours. The rain had not stopped for days. A stranger slowly approached from the shadows. The walls threw back the echoes of his footsteps. His voice was low and shaky with emotion. A day's growth of unshaven stubble on his chin. He took an envelope from his inside pocket. Her alabaster cheeks flushed with warmth, high cheekbones powdered with freckles. "We should talk somewhere less public." She grabbed him by the shirt collar. "We're going to settle this here and now." He drew a deep, shuddering breath. Chest pains. A trickle of blood. She was smiling. "I got all dolled up for a party."

A total clustercussAug 24 2015

I hadn't realized there was so much cussing swearing in Wes Anderson's movies. Here are some damn examples:

Just realized what the world is missing: the "fuck fuck fuck" scene from the first season of The Wire, but done in the style of ("cuss cuss mothercusser") and with the characters from Fantastic Mr. Fox.

The lost language of gay English menAug 21 2015

Polari was a secret slang language spoken by gay men in England so that they could converse together in public without fear of arrest. It fell into disuse in the 1960s, but this short film by Brian Fairbairn and Karl Eccleston features a conversation conducted entirely in Polari.

This Slate article has more on the film and Polari.

Of all the cultural forms that gay men have created and elaborated since coalescing into a social group around the late 19th century, Polari, a full-fledged gay English dialect with roots among circus folk, sailors, and prostitutes, has to be one of the most fascinating-not least since it has faded along with the need for discretion and secrecy. While some words remain in common use-zhush or zhoosh (to adjust or embellish something to make it more pleasing) and trade (highly masculine or straight-acting sex partners) come to mind -- the richness that we know once defined Polari is difficult to capture in 2015.

Food truck name ideasAug 21 2015

From Mark Christian, a selection of deliciously pun-filled food truck name ideas. Some favorites:

Shwarmageddon
Calamari Damacy
Get Quiche Or Die Tryin'
What About Kebab?
Planet of the Crepes
Naan Disclosure Agreement
Entrée the Giant

(via @mathowie)

Their life without genderAug 10 2015

Tyler Ford

Tyler Ford was born a girl, transitioned to being a man in college, but now identifies as an agender person.

I have been out as an agender, or genderless, person for about a year now. To me, this simply means having the freedom to exist as a person without being confined by the limits of the western gender binary. I wear what I want to wear, and do what I want to do, because it is absurd to limit myself to certain activities, behaviours or expressions based on gender. People don't know what to make of me when they see me, because they feel my features contradict one another. They see no room for the curve of my hips to coexist with my facial hair; they desperately want me to be someone they can easily categorise. My existence causes people to question everything they have been taught about gender, which in turn inspires them to question what they know about themselves, and that scares them. Strangers are often desperate to figure out what genitalia I have, in the hope that my body holds the key to some great secret and unavoidable truth about myself and my gender. It doesn't. My words hold my truth. My body is simply the vehicle that gives me the opportunity to express myself.

Ford uses the "they", "them", and "their" pronouns to refer to themselves. (Is it themselves? Or would it be themself? English is a relatively young and fluid language but even it can't keep up.)

Maps of the United States of SwearingJul 30 2015

Most everyone in the United States swears, but the specific words used vary by region. For example, "fuck" is popular in California but not so much in Oklahoma, which is the "crap" epicenter of America. "Motherfucker" is unusually popular in Maine, as is "shit" in the Southeast, "douche" in Iowa, and "fuckboy" in Jersey.

United States of SwearingUnited States of SwearingUnited States of Swearing

Translating SeinfeldJun 26 2015

Translating episodes of Seinfeld (and other sitcoms that rely on wordplay) is not an easy task. The Verge's Jennifer Armstrong has a piece that focuses mostly on the struggle to translate Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer's antics for a German audience.

Seinfeld's Jewish references posed a unique challenge: as Sebastian explained, "The Germans have a certain you-know-what with the Jewish." Her editor was worried about some of Seinfeld's Jewish jokes. "We better not say it like that," she remembered her editor saying, "because the Germans may be offended." She added later, recalling the incident to me, "They should be offended, in my understanding. They did it!"

Sebastian appreciated Seinfeld's direct approach to Jewish history. She wanted to use jokes in direct translation, but the editor wouldn't let her. She lost several battles. It was a fine line: Der Suppen-Nazi? Sure. Subtle reference to an uncle who survived a concentration camp? Not so fast. An entire episode based on George being mistaken for a neo-Nazi was problematic. So were references to the TV miniseries Holocaust and the film Schindler's List. Take Elaine's voiceover narration in "The Subway" episode when her train gets stuck: "We are in a cage. ... Oh, I can't breathe, I feel faint. Take it easy, it'll start moving soon. Think about the people in the concentration camps, what they went through."

(via mr)

The game is the gameMay 28 2015

It is what it is. What's done is done. My name is not my name. My name is my name.1 Derek Donahue found all of the tautologies from The Wire and collected them into one video:

These types of phrases characterize the immovable forces the characters feel govern their lives and actions: poverty, bureaucracy, addiction, institutional corruption, ethnicity, etc.

  1. The juxtaposition of Vondas' "my name is not my name" from season two and "my name is my name" from Marlo in the final season is one of my favorite little moments in the show. Two men pursuing similar ends going about it in opposite ways.

The 2015 names of the yearMar 25 2015

Oh my, I had forgotten about the Name of the Year site and how amazing it is. Each year, they collect the most unusual names in the world and pit them against each other in a March Madness-style bracket. Here are some of the names in the running for the 2015 Name of the Year:

Swindly Lint
Dr. Electron Kebebew
Flavious Coffee
Lancelot Supersad Jr.
Jazznique St. Junious

(A reminder...these are actual names of actual people. Somehow.)

Littice Bacon-Blood
Dr. Wallop Promthong
Infinite Grover
Genghis Muskox
Malvina Complainville
Beethoven Bong
Amanda Miranda Panda

Some Hall of Name inductees include Tokyo Sexwale, Nimrod Weiselfish, Doby Chrotchtangle, Tanqueray Beavers, and Vanilla Dong.

High definition Pluto needs namesMar 23 2015

HD Pluto

Ok, Pluto fans. They evicted Pluto from our solar system's planetary pantheon, but a NASA mission launched in 2006 is nearing the dwarf planet with its cameras. We'll soon have photos of Pluto that are much more high resolution than we currently have, which means scientists will need names for all the new geographic features. The Our Pluto site has been set up to help suggest and vote on names for these features. Naming themes include historic explorers, travelers to the underworld, and scientists and engineers. Go vote! (via slate)

James Joyce invented words and they are awesomeMar 19 2015

james-joyce.jpg

James Joyce is the greatest writer the world has ever known. Arguably! He didn't even bother confining himself to the known language. He created words of his own.

A few highlights from "17 Words Invented by James Joyce":

Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunnt-rovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk. This is Joyce's most famous word creation. It's from Finnegans Wake, and it's supposed to sound like a thunderclap. Which it does. If you can figure out how to pronounce it.

Peloothered. This means you're drunk. Someone calls you this in Ireland, and you know you're blotto.

Smilesmirk. Girls on Instagram have basically perfected this one.

Update: Ryan Goodlett advises: "I've found after a handful of languages that Icelandic sounds the best." Agreed! And Kevin Krebs suggests: "you'll want to follow @FW_WOTD." Michael Schwartz says: "You might want to try james Joyce or Kool Keith." I got six out of ten. How embarrassing.

Neon ChinatownFeb 18 2015

Chinatown LogoChinatown LogoChinatown Logo

A project called Chinatown takes familiar logos like Pepsi, Starbucks, UPS, and Lego and translates them, imprecisely, into their Chinese equivalents.

It uses basic words for translation, such as "Caramel Macchiato" for "Starbucks" in order to maintain the visual continuity. By arranging the words this way, 'Chinatown' pushes viewers to ask themselves what it means to see, hear, and become fully aware. 'Chinatown' also demonstrates our strangeness to 1.35 billion people in the world, when you can't read Chinese.

(via @pieratt)

Quack This WaySep 26 2014

One of the last interviews David Foster Wallace gave was with Bryan Garner, a lawyer and lexicographer who became friendly with Wallace due to their mutual love of language. That hour-long interview is reproduced in Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing.

David Foster Wallace was at the center of late-20th-century American literature, Bryan A. Garner at that of legal scholarship and lexicography. It was language that drew them together. The wide-ranging interview reproduced here memorializes 67 minutes of their second and final evening together, in February 2006. It was DFW's last long interview, and the only one devoted exclusively to language and writing.

It was Wallace's piece featuring Garner in Harper's, Tense Present, that cemented him as a favorite writer of mine, even before I tackled Infinite Jest. Wallace later expanded the essay to 62 pages in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.

Every Samuel L. Jackson MF-bombAug 01 2014

Thesis: the quality of every movie starring Samuel L. Jackson varies directly with the number of times he says "motherfucker." I feel like somebody at 538 should get on this.

Whenever I think about how Sam Jackson says "motherfucker," I can't get this Supremes song out of my head.

Whenever you're near, I hear a symphony
Play sweet and tenderly
Every time your lips meet mine, now, baby, baby, baby
You bring much joy within
Don't let this feeling end
Let it go on and on and on, now, baby, baby, baby
Those tears that fill my eyes
I cry not for myself
But for those who've never felt the joy we felt (baby)

(via @igorbobic by way of @daveweigel)

Update: In mid-2013, Filmdrunk calculated that since joining Twitter, Samuel L. Jackson has spelled "motherfucker" no fewer than 151 different ways.

Sam Jackson Motherfuckers

Hawkeye's hearing, or How to use signs in storytellingJul 31 2014

Hi, everybody! Tim Carmody here, guest-hosting for Jason this week.

In the Marvel comic Hawkeye #15, published in February, the title character was brutally attacked and deafened by a supervillain real estate developer trying to push the hero's neighbors out of their apartment building in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy. (It's a very special comic book.) This week's issue, #19, took months to finish but finally picks up that story line. It's mostly told in a combination of silent panels, American Sign Language, and half-intelligible lip reading. It's already being talked about as a shoo-in for this year's Eisner award for best single issue.

clint-600x287.jpg

There are precedents here. Last year's mostly-silent Hawkeye #11 was told from the point of view of a dog (named Pizza Dog), using symbols and maps to tell a kind of detective story. (That issue also won writer Matt Fraction and artist David Aja the Eisner.)

Pizza dog.png

There's also a silent issue of Daredevil by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev where the blind superhero is temporarily deafened by an explosion. And there's two gorgeous mini-arcs of Daredevil by writer/artist David Mack, featuring Maya Lopez as Echo, Daredevil's deaf, super-powered love interest and counterpart.

Echo.png

Hawkeye's also been temporarily deaf twice before: once in the limited series Hawkeye, back in the 1980s (his use of a hearing aid made him a minor hero to hearing-impaired readers) and (it's revealed in this new issue) also as a child, as a result of an injury implied to be caused by his abusive father. This is how Clint and his brother Barney are shown to know American Sign Language.

I've been interested in ASL for a long time for personal reasons, but also as a kind of "writing," in the family-resemblance sense of visible language, that functions like speech.

Comic books, at least in print, are a silent medium by necessity. But it's still harder to render ASL in comics than ordinary oral/aural speech, because it's a language of movement, and we don't have the conventions of speech bubbles and the alphabet.

What we do have is a graphic tradition of maps, signs, atlases, manuals, and other forms of everyday iconography to draw on. And those are largely what Mack used in Daredevil, and what Aja uses in Hawkeye.

It's a sign that we, all of us, read signs everywhere, and every kind of reading can be used and incorporated in every other kind. The best way to stay true to what's essential in a medium is to do your best to explode your way out of it.

The mystery of the Wu-Tang name generatorJul 29 2014

Hi, everybody! Tim Carmody here, guest-hosting for Jason this week.

You probably know that Donald Glover (actor on Community, writer on 30 Rock) also has a rap career under the stage name Childish Gambino. You may not know that the name "Childish Gambino" comes from a Wu-Tang Name Generator.

That's half of the reason I'm here - I'm dead serious. Like I met RZA and he was like, "you're a cool dude, man - and your name is perfect for you! It's like that computer had a brain!" But yeah, I put my name in a Wu-Tang name generator and it spit out Childish Gambino, and for some reason I just thought that fit.

Now here's where things get a little weird. There are multiple, competing Wu-Tang name generators. (Of course there are.) Most of them seem to work the same way -- they run a script matching your name's characters with a decent-sized database of Wu-sounding words, kind of like a hash. But little differences in the scripts or in the database give you different results.

For instance, at recordstore.com, the "Original Wu Name Generator" (tagline "WE CAN WU YOU!") spits back "Erratic Assassin" (for "Timothy Carmody"), while "Tim Carmody" yields "Well-Liked Assman." These names are both awesome.

But the "Wu-Tang Name Generator" at mess.be ("Become a real Wu warrior, entah ur full name 'n smack da ol' dirty button"), which proprietor Pieter Dom says was made in 2002, is totally different. There, "Timothy Carmody" and "Tim Carmody" return "Shriekin' Wizard" and "Gentlemen Overlord," respectively. Now, while these definitely sound like Wu names, they are definitely The W to the other site's Enter the 36 Chambers.

Here's the weird part: both of these Wu-Tang name generators return the same name for "Donald Glover." It is, of course, "Childish Gambino."

Is it just a quirk that whatever difference crept in affects most names, but not Donald Glover's? Did one of the sites hard-code that result in, to boost its credibility with people who heard the Childish Gambino story? Or is Donald Glover somehow necessarily Childish Gambino, across all possible Wu-accessible worlds, in the same way that "Clifford Smith" is always and only "Method Man," even when he pretends to be an actor?

I don't think we can ever know. But just as Russell Jones was Ol' Dirty Bastard, ODB, Dirt McGirt, Big Baby Jesus, and Ason Unique as well as Osirus, I am content to be known by many names under the Wu.

(Dedicated to "Sarkastik Beggar" and "Lesbian Pimp." Via @hoverbird.)

Update: The TLDR podcast did a follow-up to this story: The Mystery of Childish Gambino.

One woman, 17 British accentsJul 03 2014

Watch actress Siobhan Thompson do 17 different British and Irish accents:

Much better done and more entertaining than this tour of British accents I featured back in April. (via @Atul_Gawande)

Cheese chartsJun 18 2014

Camembert chart

In France, pie charts are called "le camembert" after the cheese. Or sometimes "un diagramme en fromage" (cheese diagram). In Brazil, they are pizza charts. (via numberphile & reddit)

The end of @everywordJun 05 2014

The Guardian has an interview with Adam Parrish, creator of @everyword, an automated Twitter account that's been listing a dictionary's worth of English words in sequence since 2007. @everyword recently reached the Zs and will complete and close tomorrow, June 6.

Words aren't just things that we write and use in our speech. They are also things we think about individually. Like sex, weed, swag - when they're not in a sentence, we can also think about them individually. Everyword raises that question of thinking about a word just from that perspective, as a social object.

On the other hand, because @everyword is inside an individual person's Twitter stream, the words take on the context of whatever else is in the stream at the time. There's the possibility of weird serendipitous interactions between a word in your stream and some other tweets. The word "super" might be tweeted, and then you read a tweet about a school superintendent or Superman movie.

Any Twitter account that gets you thinking about both the Platonist and the Dadaist dimensions of language at the same time is my kind of fun. And that's a sort of fun that I associate with the Golden Age of Twitter, given its commingling of high and low, news and musings, humans and bots. That too is coming to a close:

In its early days, because of ven-cap funding, Twitter wasn't thinking about monetization. They were just really encouraging developers to work with it and do interesting things. There was no concept of ads or promoted tweets. Now things are different. They've changed the API and some of the things that were easy to do are now difficult.

The flipside is, more people use it. As an artist, it's disappointing that the medium has been converted into this very commercial, focused platform, but on the other hand I get to have a huge audience for an experimental writing project. It's a huge privilege and I definitely have Twitter to thank for that.

It's all cause for low-grade melancholy and a touch of anxiety. As Suzanne Fischer wryly tweets: "If the dictionary is finite, what else might be ending?"

You're using the wrong dictionaryJun 02 2014

James Somers says that we're probably using the wrong dictionary and that most modern dictionaries are "where all the words live and the writing's no good".

The New Oxford American dictionary, by the way, is not like singularly bad. Google's dictionary, the modern Merriam-Webster, the dictionary at dictionary.com: they're all like this. They're all a chore to read. There's no play, no delight in the language. The definitions are these desiccated little husks of technocratic meaningese, as if a word were no more than its coordinates in semantic space.

As a counterpoint, Somers offers John McPhee's secret weapon, Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, the bulk of which was the work of one man and was last revised in 1913.

Take a simple word, like "flash." In all the dictionaries I've ever known, I would have never looked up that word. I'd've had no reason to -- I already knew what it meant. But go look up "flash" in Webster's (the edition I'm using is the 1913). The first thing you'll notice is that the example sentences don't sound like they came out of a DMV training manual ("the lights started flashing") -- they come from Milton and Shakespeare and Tennyson ("A thought flashed through me, which I clothed in act").

You'll find a sense of the word that is somehow more evocative than any you've seen. "2. To convey as by a flash... as, to flash a message along the wires; to flash conviction on the mind." In the juxtaposition of those two examples -- a message transmitted by wires; a feeling that comes suddenly to mind -- is a beautiful analogy, worth dwelling on, and savoring. Listen to that phrase: "to flash conviction on the mind." This is in a dictionary, for God's sake.

And, toward the bottom of the entry, as McPhee promised, is a usage note, explaining the fine differences in meaning between words in the penumbra of "flash":

"... Flashing differs from exploding or disploding in not being accompanied with a loud report. To glisten, or glister, is to shine with a soft and fitful luster, as eyes suffused with tears, or flowers wet with dew."

Did you see that last clause? "To shine with a soft and fitful luster, as eyes suffused with tears, or flowers wet with dew." I'm not sure why you won't find writing like that in dictionaries these days, but you won't. Here is the modern equivalent of that sentence in the latest edition of the Merriam-Webster: "glisten applies to the soft sparkle from a wet or oily surface ."

Who decided that the American public couldn't handle "a soft and fitful luster"? I can't help but think something has been lost. "A soft sparkle from a wet or oily surface" doesn't just sound worse, it actually describes the phenomenon with less precision. In particular it misses the shimmeriness, the micro movement and action, "the fitful luster," of, for example, an eye full of tears -- which is by the way far more intense and interesting an image than "a wet sidewalk."

It's as if someone decided that dictionaries these days had to sound like they were written by a Xerox machine, not a person, certainly not a person with a poet's ear, a man capable of high and mighty English, who set out to write the secular American equivalent of the King James Bible and pulled it off.

Don't miss the end of the piece, where Somers shows how to replace the tin-eared dictionaries on your Mac, iPhone, and Kindle with the Webster's 1913. (via @satishev)

Update: In the same vein, Kevin Kelly recommends using The Synonym Finder as a thesaurus.

Just look up a word, any word, and it proceeds to overwhelm you with alternative choices (a total of 1.5 million synonyms are presented in 1,361 pages), including short phrases and only mildly related words. Rather than being a problem of imprecision, the Finder's broad inclusiveness prods your imagination and prompts your recall.

How Manhattan neighborhoods got their namesMay 19 2014

While not quite exhaustive in scope, Laura Turner Garrison's piece in Mental Floss about how Manhattan neighborhoods got their names is worthwhile reading.

In recent decades, businesses and real estate agents have tried in vain to clean up the lively reputation of this west side neighborhood by renaming it "Clinton." Gentrification and expansion from the neighboring theater district have certainly helped the beautification cause. Nonetheless, the area spanning 34th Street to 59th Street and 8th Avenue (or 9th, depending on who you ask) to the Hudson River just can't shake the nickname "Hell's Kitchen."

Not included in the piece is the East Village, which was part of the Lower East Side until the 1960s, when the neighborhood's new residents (artists, hippies, Beatniks) and real estate brokers recast the area as the eastern outpost of Greenwich Village. (via digg)

KintsukuroiMay 07 2014

Kintsukuroi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery using resin mixed with precious metals like gold. The result is often something more beautiful than the original:

Kintsukuroi

There are dozens of examples of kintsukuroi on Pinterest. And as with many Japanese concepts for which there are no corresponding English words, kintsukuroi has many philosophical and metaphorical implications. (via ★interesting)

Update: Here's a short video that shows the technique and other related techniques:

(via the kid should see this)

Update: When I originally posted this, I forgot to transfer the photo of a bowl repaired through kintsukuroi to my server, resulting in the browser displaying a broken image icon. Rather than just fix it by uploading the photo, I used digital kintsukuroi to fill in the crack in the icon. Not sure the technique works as well as it does with pottery, but it seemed fitting. Here's the photo I meant to post:

Kintsukuroi

Meet the doodiesMay 07 2014

"Doodie" is a portmanteau of "dude" and "foodie" and a good word to describe the phenomenon of (mostly) male foodies I've observed with increasing regularity in the past few years. Jessica Pressler coined the term in Help! There's a Doodie in My Kitchen.

You see; these are the things you deal with when you live with a food dude. Or, as I have come to call them, doodies. I know, it's an unfortunate term, but like its antecedent, the dreaded foodie, it is also extremely useful for summing up the characteristics of a certain breed of food enthusiast, the kind whose culinary preferences are intrinsically, classically male.

You know the type. Has Heat or Fergus Henderson's Complete Nose to Tail on his bookshelf. Can sustain a remarkably long conversation about knives. Is super into his grill. Likes pour-over coffee. Is, at this moment, really excited about ramps. I could go on, but I won't, because I am sure you know one. New York City in 2014 is rife with doodies: You can find them stalking around Smorgasburg, attending knife-skills classes at the Meat Hook, writing lengthy, tumescent odes to the Bo Ssam Miracle in the paper of record.

(via @fanelli)

Update: Michael Hoffman of Food52 has another name for doodies: assholes.

The food dude is nothing new. He's just a jerk who learned to cook. He's taken what could be a force for good -- feeding loved ones well -- and made it into yet another thing that he can claim to be better at than his wife or girlfriend. (Apparently, food dudes are all heterosexual, too.)

Here's what the food dude doesn't do: He doesn't spend his Sunday afternoon planning practical dinners for the week; he doesn't make sure there's milk in the fridge; he doesn't make something the baby is going to eat. He might as well be building train sets in the basement. Even for people like us who love doing it, getting dinner on the table is, among many other things, a chore. And guess who's doing the chores at Food Dude's place? Women.

Transgender 101Apr 30 2014

GLAAD has a good resource on transgender identity: Transgender 101.

Gender identity is someone's internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman (or as someone outside of that gender binary.) For transgender people, the sex they were assigned at birth and their own internal gender identity do not match.

Trying to change a person's gender identity is no more successful than trying to change a person's sexual orientation -- it doesn't work. So most transgender people seek to bring their bodies more into alignment with their gender identity.

People under the transgender umbrella may describe themselves using one (or more) of a wide variety of terms, including transgender, transsexual, and genderqueer. Always use the descriptive term preferred by the individual.

In writing here, I sometimes get tripped up on the differences between sex, gender, and sexual orientation. No more. See also Tips for Allies of Transgender People and An Ally's Guide to Terminology: Talking About LGBT People & Equality.

Five word usage tips from David Foster WallaceApr 10 2014

Farnam Street is featuring a handout given by the late David Foster Wallace to his fiction writing class in 2002. It's titled YOUR LIBERAL-ARTS $ AT WORK and covers five common usages gotchas.

2. And is a conjunction; so is so. Except in dialogue between particular kinds of characters, you never need both conjunctions. "He needed to eat, and so he bought food" is incorrect. In 95% of cases like this, what you want to do is cut the and.

Former trademarksApr 10 2014

From Wikipedia, a list of former trademarks and brands that have become generic terms. Some surprises: Heroin, Videotape, Zipper, Laundromat, Kerosene, Dry Ice, and Escalator.

A tour of the accents of the British IslesApr 07 2014

Using Google Earth, dialect coach Andrew Jack gives a tour of the accents of Great Britain and Ireland.

The audio is originally from this BBC program. See also Peter Sellers doing various English accents. (via devour)

Always. Be. Knolling.Mar 19 2014

You've probably seen instances of knolling without knowing there was a word for it. Knolling at the Apple Store:

Knolling Apple

Knolling the contents of your bag:

Knolling Bag

Knolling a recipe for a book:

Knolling Food

Knolling the parts of a machine:

Knolling Motorcycle

Knolling is the practice of organizing objects in parallel or at 90° angles. The term has been popularized by artist Tom Sachs; he picked it up from Andrew Kromelow when both were working at Frank Gehry's furniture fabrication shop. Gehry was designing chairs for furniture company Knoll, and Kromelow would arrange unused tools in a manner similar to Knoll furniture. Hence, knolling.

Knoll SofaUpdate: Things Organized Neatly is really something. Lots of knolling.

Fit to print?Mar 10 2014

Fit To Print is a Tumblr blog tracking the sometimes absurd instances of profanity avoidance in the NY Times. Like so:

Mr. Lee blasted a dictionary's worth of unprintable words at developers who fluff gritty neighborhoods with glossy names ("East Williamsburg" for Bushwick, for instance), and at the "Christopher Columbus syndrome" of gentrifiers who were sweeping into the largely black neighborhood of his youth with little regard for "a culture that's been laid down for generations."

I have already been on record about the Times' dumbass profanity policy, especially when it gets in the way of actually performing journalism.

Update: Language expert Jesse Sheidlower in a NY Times opinion piece:

When language can play such a hot-button role in our society, what we need is more reporting, not less. Some publications have loosened the restraints. The New Yorker has noticeably done so, British and Australian newspapers often print offensive words in full, and The Economist's style guide reads: "if you do use swear words, spell them out in full, without asterisks or other coynesses."

Beyonce emojiMar 04 2014

Jesse Hill made a music video for Beyonce's Drunk in Love entirely out of emoji. Fantastic work.

Fist Eggplant! Poo! Surfbort! Oh man, that was fun.

The opening lines of famous novels, diagrammedFeb 28 2014

Pop Chart Lab has produced a print of grammatical diagrams of the opening lines of notable novels. Here's Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea:

Hemingway Sentence Diagram

There are also sentences from DFW, Plath, and Austen. Prints start at $29.

Trend: people naming their kids after gunsFeb 21 2014

While they still represent a small overall number, the popularity in the US of naming children after guns (Colt, Remington, Ruger, Gunner, Beretta) is up in recent years.

In 2002, only 194 babies were named Colt, while in 2012 there were 955. Just 185 babies were given the name Remington in 2002, but by 2012 the number had jumped to 666. Perhaps the most surprising of all, however, is a jump in the name Ruger's (America's leading firearm manufacturer) from just 23 in 2002 to 118 in 2012. "This name [Ruger] is more evidence of parents' increasing interest in naming children after firearms," Wattenberg writes. "Colt, Remington, and Gauge have all soared, and Gunner is much more common than the traditional name Gunnar."

Bar talkFeb 19 2014

I don't care if all of this vocabulary of NYC's best bars is made up (it sure sounds made up), I still loved reading it. You can totally tell which places are about the drinks, which are about hospitality, which are bitchy, and which are all about the benjamins.

Sipper: A small pour (typically Mother's Milk) gifted to a colleague, loved one, regular, etc.

Amuse-booze (experimental term): A tiny sipper to acknowledge a guest an reassure them they will be served soon.

The Cousins: Affectionate term for other cocktail bars (after the British secret service's name for the CIA in Le Carre's Smiley novels).

Even if it's fake, it's real.

The Great Language GameFeb 06 2014

Think you can distinguish between 80 of the world's most spoken languages? Play the Great Language Game and find out. (Oof, I am bad at this.)

Emoji rebus puzzlesJan 09 2014

Rebus And Emoji

Using pictures to represent words dates back to Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese pictographs. But in the 1500s in France, a particular format of picture writing called the rebus was invented. A rebus is a word puzzle which uses pictures to represent words (or parts of words). The rebus became very popular in Europe and elsewhere. Here's a French rebus from 1592:

French Rebus

Alice in Wonderland's author, Lewis Carroll, was fond of rebuses...here's the first page of a letter he wrote in 1869:

Lewis Carroll Rebus

Compare the rebus with the use of emoji on mobile devices and social media, like this emoji version of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song:

Emoji Rebus

The speech accent archiveJan 09 2014

George Mason University's speech accent archive collects English speech samples from all over the world. Each speaker is asked to say the same snippet of text:

Please call Stella. Ask her to bring these things with her from the store: Six spoons of fresh snow peas, five thick slabs of blue cheese, and maybe a snack for her brother Bob. We also need a small plastic snake and a big toy frog for the kids. She can scoop these things into three red bags, and we will go meet her Wednesday at the train station.

An audio map of US dialectsNov 26 2013

You've likely seen the various dialect maps of the US...the Coke/soda/pop maps. The Atlantic Video team did a wonderful thing with them...they called native speakers around the country and asked them to pronounce some of the words featured on these maps.

It's one thing to read the difference between the pronounciations of "route", it's another thing entirely to hear them. I haven't lived in the Midwest since 2000 and I have since transitioned from "pop" to "soda", "waiting in line" to "waiting on line", and am working on switching to "sneakers" from "tennis shoes" (or even "tennies"). But I was surprised to learn that I still pronounce "bag" differently than everyone else!

God fave the Queen!Sep 25 2013

While researching the etymology of the word "fave", a noun that's in the process of being verbed,1 I noticed that, according to Google's ngram viewer, the word was much more popular in the 1600-1700s than it is now.

fave etymology

A bit of investigation reveals that Google's book-scanning software is at fault; it can't recognize the long s commonly used in books prior to the 1800s. So each time it encounters "save" with a long s, it sees "fave":

Fave UsFave Us 02Fave Us 03Fave Us 04

  1. "Fave" (n., adj.) is slang for "favorite", a usage that started in the US in the 1920s, as in "Teddy Roosevelt was totally my fave President". Recently, "fave" (v.) has come to mean liking or marking an item as a favorite on social media services like Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, Tumblr, Stellar, etc. (IMPORTANT: It's "fave", not "fav". Let's get this one right, people.)

Legend of the Black PerlSep 23 2013

Black Perl is a poem written in valid Perl 3 code:

BEFOREHAND: close door, each window & exit; wait until time.
open spellbook, study, read (scan, select, tell us);
write it, print the hex while each watches,
reverse its length, write again;
kill spiders, pop them, chop, split, kill them.
unlink arms, shift, wait & listen (listening, wait),
sort the flock (then, warn the "goats" & kill the "sheep");
kill them, dump qualms, shift moralities,
values aside, each one;
die sheep! die to reverse the system
you accept (reject, respect);
next step,
kill the next sacrifice, each sacrifice,
wait, redo ritual until "all the spirits are pleased";
do it ("as they say").
do it(*everyone***must***participate***in***forbidden**s*e*x*).
return last victim; package body;
exit crypt (time, times & "half a time") & close it,
select (quickly) & warn your next victim;
AFTERWORDS: tell nobody.
wait, wait until time;
wait until next year, next decade;
sleep, sleep, die yourself,
die at last
# Larry Wall

It's not Shakespeare, but it's not bad for executable code.

The Shaq baby boomSep 17 2013

When Shaquille O'Neal entered the NBA in 1992 after starring at LSU, people had already begun naming their children after him. 20-something years later, some of those kids are starting to play college basketball themselves. Ken Pomeroy is tracking the Shaq babies as they show up in their schools' line-ups and offers a look at the future of children named after NBA stars.

We can never know those reasons for sure, but we can say that since 1997, Kobe has been the name of choice for parents opting to name their children after basketball players. (Lebron has yet to crack the top 1000.) From this we can be confident we'll see the first-ever college basketball player named Kobe sometime in the 2016 to 2018 seasons. And while the supply of Shaqs will peter out right quick, Kobe's name will be appearing on college basketball rosters well into the 2030's. Kobe Bryant may have skipped college, but Kobe will be playing college basketball for many, many, many years to come.

(via http://marginalrevolution.com/)

Shakespeare with its original pronounciationSep 09 2013

Speaking of inexpensive time travel, listen as David and Ben Crystal perform selections from Shakespeare in the original accent, as it would have been heard at the Globe in the early 1600s.

(via @KBAndersen)

The Saturn V rocket, simplifiedJul 31 2013

Randall Munroe of XKCD drew the Saturn V rocket (aka Up Goer Five) annotated using only the 1000 most common English words.

Up Goer Five

See also Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity In Words of Four Letters or Less.

Regex crossword puzzlesJul 16 2013

This is a surprisingly helpful activity for learning about regular expressions. (via @bdeskin)

Anagram map of the London UndergroundJul 10 2013

Otter Bends, Queer Spank, Frog Innard, and Lob Horn are some of the stations on the anagram map of the London Underground.

Anagram London Tube Map

Maps of US linguistic patternsJun 06 2013

Joshua Katz has been studying American dialects and has made more than 120 maps of some of the differences in American speech. Here are a few examples:

Us Dialects Map 1
 

Us Dialects Map 2
 

Us Dialects Map 3

(thx, everyone)

Update: As he notes on the site, Katz's maps are based on the research and work of Bert Vaux...Vaux's maps of the same data can be found here. (thx, molly, margaret, & nicholas)

"You my Midga"Apr 04 2013

I'm reading back through my archive of stuff written by and about Roger Ebert and I realized I've never written about my favorite piece of his: Dwarfs, Little People and the M-Word. It's nothing particularly earthshattering or insightful, but the piece demonstrates what I really liked about Ebert: humanist, happy to be corrected when in the wrong, not afraid to poke fun at himself, and a lover of both language and knowledge.

I had no idea the word "midget" was considered offensive, and you are the only person who has ever written to me about it. In my mind it is a descriptive term, like "dwarf." "Little People" has seemed to me to have a vaguely condescending cuteness to it. If I am now informed that "midget" is offensive, I will no longer use it. What is your feeling about "dwarf?" Is "Little Person" always the preferred term? Our newspaper's style book, based on Associated Press, does not consider "midget" or "dwarf" to be offensive terms, but perhaps we have not caught up.

The world championship of punsMar 06 2013

Your endurance challenge for today: see how much of this video of the final round of the 2012 O. Henry Pun-Off World Championship you can watch before flinging your computing device across the room.

For bonus points, see if you can get through some of the comments...they are PUNishing. (Gah, I've been infected.)

The secret language of sommeliersFeb 19 2013

For the NY Times, Ben Schott compiles an extensive list of wine-related jargon.

WHALE . PLAYER . BALLER . DEEP OCEAN

A serious drinker who will regularly DROP more than $1,000 on a single bottle. When on a furious spending spree, a WHALE is said to be DROPPING THE HAMMER. BIG WALES -- or EXTRA BIG BALLERS (E.B.B.) -- can spend more than $100,000 on wine during a meal.

Schott expanded on this list in a companion blog post:

But, vocabulary aside, the central thing I learned from these talented people is that if you are dining in a restaurant which employs a Sommelier, you should never, ever order your own wine.

If you know little or nothing about wine, they will guide you to a bottle far more interesting and suited to your food than you could possibly pluck from the list.

And if you are a wine aficionado, you will not know more than the Somm about their list - or what they are hiding off-list in the cellar.

See also What Restaurants Know (About You)

An analysis of gender on TwitterFeb 13 2013

A study of 14,000 Twitter users was published recently (pdf) by a trio of linguists and computer scientists (Bamman, Eisenstein, Schnoebelen) that looks at the gendered expression of language online.

Female markers include a relatively large number of emotion-related terms like sad, love, glad, sick, proud, happy, scared, annoyed, excited, and jealous. All of the emoticons that appear as gender markers are associated with female authors, including some that the prior literature found to be neutral or male: :) :D and ;). [...] Computer mediated communication (CMC) terms like lol and omg appear as female markers, as do ellipses, expressive lengthening (e.g., coooooool), exclamation marks, question marks, and backchannel sounds like ah, hmmm, ugh, and grr.

Swears and other taboo words are more often associated with male authors: bullshit, damn, dick, fuck, fucked, fucking, hell, pussy, shit, shitty are male markers; the anti-swear darn appears in the list as a female marker. This gendered distinction between strong swear words and mild swear words follows that seen by McEnry 2006 in the BNC. Thelwall 2008, a study of the social networking site MySpace produced more mixed results: among American young adults, men used more swears than women, but in Britain there was no gender difference

I don't want to draw too many conclusions from a single study especially one that, in my opinion, makes some questionable methodology choices (people who follow or are followed by more than 100 people are excluded from the study?) but the results point to an interesting evolution in conversational, public speech.

Update 2: Tyler Schnoebelen, one of the study's authors reached out to clarify. The study says "we selected only those users with between four and 100 friends", with friends being defined not as people you follow, people who follow you, or even mutual follow backs. They poll accounts and if you and someone else mention each other with a separation of at least two weeks (to eliminate one-off convos with strangers), then for the purposes of the study you and the other person are defined as friends. And they're looking to isolate people who have between 4 and 100 of those friend connections.

Now that that's clarified, that seems a really reasonable way to try to determine friendships on Twitter.

Update 1: David Friedman reminded me of a post he did on telegraph operators in 1890 and how female operators have a different and identifiable transmission style.

It is a peculiar fact also that an experienced operator can almost invariably distinguish a woman's sending from a man's. There is nearly always some peculiarity about a woman's style of transmission. it is not necessarily a fault. Many women send very clearly and make their dots and dashes precisely as they were intended to be made. It is impossible to describe the peculiarity, but there is no doubt of its existence. Nearly all women have a habit of rattling off a lot of meaningless dots before they say anything. But some men do that too. A woman's touch is lighter than a man's, and her dots and dashes will not carry so well on a very long circuit. That is presumably the reason why in all large offices the women are usually assigned to work the wires running to various parts of the cities.

Commander Riker lorem ipsumJan 03 2013

This is perfect...Riker Ipsum is lorem ipsum dummy text from Commander Riker's dialogue on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Our neural pathways have become accustomed to your sensory input patterns. Computer, belay that order. The game's not big enough unless it scares you a little. When has justice ever been as simple as a rule book? What's a knock-out like you doing in a computer-generated gin joint like this? Did you come here for something in particular or just general Riker-bashing?

(via ★interesting)

"Gun safety", not "gun control"Dec 18 2012

James Fallows suggests talking about "gun safety" and not "gun control".

I will henceforth and only talk about "gun safety" as a goal for America, as opposed to "gun control." I have no abstract interest in "controlling" someone else's ability to own a gun. I have a very powerful, direct, and legitimate interest in the consequences of others' gun ownership -- namely that we change America's outlier status as site of most of the world's mass shootings. No reasonable gun-owner can disagree with steps to make gun use safer and more responsible. This also shifts the discussion to the realm of the incremental, the feasible, and the effective.

AOL's history as told by NY Times crossword cluesDec 06 2012

Over on Quartz, Zach Seward takes a neat look at the 14 year rise and fall of AOL through the zeitgeist-y lens of clues for that short, double vowel word being used in the New York Times crossword.

Mar. 29, 1998: Netcom competitor
Jun. 17, 1998: Chat room inits.
Oct. 4, 1998: Part of some E-mail addresses

(via ★faketv)

White whale mimics human speechOct 24 2012

NOC is a white whale that, for a period of four years, could make human speech-like sounds. Take a listen:

"The whale's vocalizations often sounded as if two people were conversing in the distance," says Dr. Sam Ridgway, President of the National Marine Mammal Foundation. "These 'conversations' were heard several times before the whale was eventually identified as the source. In fact, we discovered it when a diver mistook the whale for a human voice giving him underwater directions."

As soon as the whale was identified as the source, NMMF scientists recorded his speech-like episodes both in air and underwater, studying the physiology behind his ability to mimic. It's believed that the animals close association with humans played a role in how often he employed his 'human' voice, as well as in its quality.

Perhaps instead of the machines taking over as with Skynet in the Terminator movies, we should be worried about Seanet: talking whales, dolphins, and octopuses working together to fight humanity. (via @DavidGrann)

A video pronunciation guide to ScotchOct 04 2012

Actor & Scotsman Brian Cox pronounces the names of different kinds of Scotch, including Bruichladdich, Laphroaig, An Cnoc, Auchentoshan, and Lagavulin.

Of course, this is how you really pronounce Laphroaig, courtesy of Pronunciation Manual.

(via @benhammersley)

The best word everSep 20 2012

Over the past two months, Ted McCagg has been running a contest on his blog to find the best word ever. A winner was recently announced.

Best Word Ever

(via @bobulate)

Generational warfare in the 2010s: :) vs :-)Sep 20 2012

According to research done by Stanford University's Tyler Schnoebelen, the type of smiley you use is determined in part by your age.

Emoticons with noses are historically older. Since it is words that unite and distinguish clusters, this means that people who use old-fashion noses also use a different vocabulary -- nose users don't mention Bieber or omg.

I am obviously a non-noser because I am down, as we kids say, with Beibler and Carly Mae and Gandgum Style and Skillet. :) (via the atlantic)

English phrases common only to IndiaJul 27 2012

In response to this question on Quora -- What are some English phrases and terms commonly heard in India but rarely used elsewhere? -- Pushpendra Mohta offers up a story with many examples.

As it turns out, the manager there is also my college batchmate. You can use my connection there. Just give your good name. We were both backbenchers but he was actually rusticated for ragging and bunking. The final straw was when he was caught eve-teasing the dean's daughter. But, he did some jugaad and palm greasing, and got himself a license to manufacture Indian-made foreign liquor. Rags to riches story. Now he is a mover and shaker. For a while he was under the scanner of the IT authorities and they chargesheeted a disproportionate-asset case against him. I think he may have been doing some hawala transactions. The whole official machinery was after him. He tried to file a grievance but there was no redressal mechanism for such cases. Ultimately, he went on an indefinite fast.

My favorite term from the rest of the thread is "prepone", which means to move something ahead in the schedule, i.e. the opposite of postpone. (via @ftrain)

Why isn't the sky blue?Jul 23 2012

This segment of the most recent episode of Radiolab about color is super interesting. It seems that people haven't always seen colors in the same way we do today.

What is the color of honey, and "faces pale with fear"? If you're Homer--one of the most influential poets in human history--that color is green. And the sea is "wine-dark," just like oxen...though sheep are violet. Which all sounds...well, really off. Producer Tim Howard introduces us to linguist Guy Deutscher, and the story of William Gladstone (a British Prime Minister back in the 1800s, and a huge Homer-ophile). Gladstone conducted an exhaustive study of every color reference in The Odyssey and The Iliad. And he found something startling: No blue! Tim pays a visit to the New York Public Library, where a book of German philosophy from the late 19th Century helps reveal a pattern: across all cultures, words for colors appear in stages. And blue always comes last.

It's worth listening to the whole thing...the bit at the end with the linguist's daughter and the color of the sky is especially cool.

Language X is essentially language Y under conditions ZJul 19 2012

A large collection of expressions compiled by John Cowan in which languages are explained in terms of other languages. Like so:

English is essentially a half dozen other languages locked in a small room. They fight.

Icelandic is essentially Norwegian spoken with an American accent.

English is what you get from Normans trying to pick up Saxon girls.

Spanish is what happened when Moors tried to learn Latin and said "screw it."

Dutch is English spelt funny and spoken in a Klingon accent.

English is essentially French converted to 7-bit ASCII.

(thx, rasmus)

How colors get their namesJul 04 2012

On this day full of red, white, and blue in the US, it's interesting to note that, in a large number of languages, when colors start getting their own words, red is usually the first color defined after black and white (or light and dark), and that blue and green are often not defined individually, at least at first. Those facts and more in this super long/interesting article about color and language and how colors got their names and and and...just read it already. Here's part 2.

The figure above is really telling a story. What it says is this. If a language has just two color terms, they will be a light and a dark shade - blacks and whites. Add a third color, and it's going to be red. Add another, and it will be either green or yellow - you need five colors to have both. And when you get to six colors, the green splits into two, and you now have a blue. What we're seeing here is a deeply trodden road that most languages seem to follow, towards greater visual discernment (92 of their 98 languages seemed to follow this basic route).

Also note the Wikipedia entry for "distinguishing blue from green in language." (via The Millions)

Food trucks in Paris and they going gorillasJun 04 2012

The food truck trend has invaded Paris, where young people use the phrase "très Brooklyn" to denote food that combines "informality, creativity and quality".

On a bright morning last month at the Marché St.-Honoré, a weekly market in an elegant residential section of Paris, several sleekly dressed women struggled to lift the thick burgers to their mouths gracefully. (In French restaurants, and sometimes even fast-food joints, burgers are eaten with utensils, not hands.) A few brave souls were trying to eat tacos with a knife and fork. "C'est pas trop épicé," said one, encouraging a tentative friend -- "It's not too spicy," high praise from the chile-fearing French.

Street food itself isn't new to France. At outdoor markets like this one, there is often a truck selling snacks like pizza, crepes or spicy Moroccan merguez sausages, cooked on griddles and stuffed into baguettes.

But the idea of street food made by chefs, using restaurant-grade ingredients, technique and technology, is very new indeed.

Anachronisms that aren't actually anachronisticMay 30 2012

This thread at Ask MetaFilter contains several examples of English words and phrases that sound current but actually aren't.

"Fly" mentioned above is one of my favorites (though it's considered dated by youngsters today -- they'll basically only use it ironically), but one not mentioned so is "crib" (also a bit dated) which has meant something like "house" or "home" since 1600. OED: "A small habitation, cabin, hovel; a narrow room; fig. a confined space. In N.Z. now esp. a small house at the seaside or at a holiday resort."

I particularly liked this early example of the maternal insult from Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus:

Demetrius: "Villain, what hast thou done?"

Aaron: "That which thou canst not undo."

Chiron: "Thou hast undone our mother."

Aaron: "Villain, I have done thy mother."

Hunting for anachronisms in Mad Men and Downton AbbeyMay 14 2012

Prochronism analyzes word usage in shows like Mad Men and Downton Abbey to hunt down anachronisms...like "a callback for" and "pay phone" from a recent episode of Mad Men.

Prochronism

The big one from the charts: Megan gets "a callback for" an audition. This is, the data says, a candidate for the worst anachronism of the season. The word "callback" is about 100x more common by the 1990s, and "callback for" is even worse. The OED doesn't have any examples of a theater-oriented use of "callback" until the 1970s; although I bet one could find some examples somewhere earlier in the New York theater scene, that may not save it. It wouldn't really suite Megan's generally dilettantish attitude towards the theater, or the office staff's lack of knowledge of it, for them to be so au courant. "call-back" and "call back" don't seem much more likely.

(via waxy)

Cockney rhyming slang ATMApr 30 2012

A number of banking machines in London offer Cockney rhyming slang as a language option. Operating the machine is simple...just insert your barrel of lard and punch in your Huckleberry Finn to get your sausage and mash.

Cockney ATM

The company has also been responsible for introducing cash machines which only dispense £5 notes -- fivers as they are colloquially named or Lady Godivas in cockney.

It also allows people to withdraw a pony -- which is £25 to non-cockney folk.

"I was talking to Andrew Bailey, the chief cashier of the Bank of England, and he said they were trying to get more £5 notes into circulation," Mr Delnevo reflects.

He came up with the idea that, rather than putting £5 notes in as one choice, it would be better to have £5-note only cash machines.

"We were getting to the state where we were a £20 note society - handing over £20 for an item which cost £4.50 and handed back enough metal to act as an anchor for the aircraft carrier Ark Royal," he says.

See also ATMs in Latin. (via @nrturner)

A tale of two RockefellersApr 30 2012

New essay from Errol Morris in the NY Times, What's in a Name? In it, he talks about the two Rockefellers that appeared in the newspapers a few years ago...one an imposter and one real.

Clearly, the name was also responsible for the attention he was getting in the newspaper. Clark is not just any impostor; he is a Rockefeller impostor. And as such he becomes more important, more significant. It is as if the name gives him some of the stature and allure of a real Rockefeller. A perfect example of this is the importance given to Clark in both The New York Times and The Boston Globe. He even managed to outshine Barack Obama and Joseph Biden during the week that Obama picked his running mate. Obama and Biden get a little picture at the bottom of the right-hand side of the front page. Clark gets a photo spread -- one big picture and four little ones -- at the top of the left-hand side. He also got more column inches in the newspaper than Clayton, the real Rockefeller. It's impressive.

Vatican City ATMs use LatinApr 26 2012

ATMs in the Vatican City have Latin as one of the language options:

Latin ATM

Anyone know what that means? Google Translate spits out a bunch of jibberish... (Photo by Seth Schoen)

Update: Lots of slightly different answers as to what this says, but this email from a Ph.D. candidate in Classics at Columbia is representative of the spread:

Anyhow, a super-literal translation would be something like this:

I ask that you insert [your] card in order that you come to understand the method needing to be used.

But more colloquially, we can do this:

Please insert your card to learn the instructions.

or even (although I'm really getting into sloppy translation territory here):

Please insert your card for instructions.

(thx, charles)

Update: And it may be more accurate to say that Vatican City ATMs previously offered a Latin option. According to @johnke, "they removed the Latin option with a software update sometime in late 2010/early 2011".

Blog skisFeb 22 2012

Atomic sells a ski called the Blog.

The Blog is ideal for freeskiers who refuse to compromise on airs and tricks in the backcountry.

(via meg)

1811 Dictionary in the Vulgar TongueFeb 21 2012

From Project Gutenberg, Francis Grose's Dictionary in the Vulgar Tongue was published in 1811 and gives the reader a full account of the slang, swears, and insults used at the time.

FLOGGING CULLY. A debilitated lecher, commonly an old one.

COLD PIG. To give cold pig is a punishment inflicted on sluggards who lie too long in bed: it consists in pulling off all the bed clothes from them, and throwing cold water upon them.

TWIDDLE-DIDDLES. Testicles.

TWIDDLE POOP. An effeminate looking fellow.

ROUND ROBIN. A mode of signing remonstrances practised by sailors on board the king's ships, wherein their names are written in a circle, so that it cannot be discovered who first signed it, or was, in other words, the ringleader.

A modern copy is available on Amazon.

How to pronounce things hilariouslyJan 31 2012

The Pronunciation Book channel on YouTube shows you how to say various words in American English in a straightforward fashion. Here's how to say Zegna, the men's clothing brand:

This is not to be confused with the Pronunciation Manual channel, which does the same thing in the same format but much funnier and more incorrect.

I could have embedded a dozen more...I have no idea why I think these are so funny but I just cannot stop laughing at them. Ok, one more:

And this one! Make it stop!!

Is that what she said or not?Jan 12 2012

This is a node.js module that determines if a sentence can be replied to with "that's what she said". You can use either a naive Bayes or k-nearest neighbor algorithm. This totally paves the way for a Michael Scott auto-replying Twitter bot. (via @kellan)

Dubtrot: My Little Pony dubstepJan 06 2012

You've probably seen the NY Times correction that everyone's talking about. Ok, not everyone, just everyone who works in media. Anyway, here it is:

An article on Monday about Jack Robison and Kirsten Lindsmith, two college students with Asperger syndrome who are navigating the perils of an intimate relationship, misidentified the character from the animated children's TV show "My Little Pony" that Ms. Lindsmith said she visualized to cheer herself up. It is Twilight Sparkle, the nerdy intellectual, not Fluttershy, the kind animal lover.

Here is said article. Jim Romenesko talked to Amy Harmon, the reporter who wrote the article, and uncovered this magical tidbit:

I was accompanying Kirsten to school, taking notes on my laptop as she drove. She was listening to music on her iPod known to Pony fans as "dubtrot," -- a take-off on "dubstep,'' get it? -- in which fans remix songs and dialogue from the show with electronic dance music.

Dubtrot! And leave it Urban Dictionary to gild the lily.

Dubstep music relating to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Often created by bronies, dubtrot can include dubstep remixes of songs from the show and original pieces created as homage or in reference to the show.

Bronies! Defined as:

The term used to describe the fan community(usually of the older group, males and females) of the show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

Anyway, would you like to listen to some dubtrot? Of course you would: Rainbowstep, Rainbow Dubtrot, and fluttershymix.

Nigel Richards, Scrabble's Bobby FischerDec 06 2011

In an outtake from his 2001 book Word Freak, author Stefan Fatsis introduces us to Nigel Richards, perhaps the best Scrabble player in the world.

If Nigel has a weakness, it's that his wide-open, high-scoring style often leaves him vulnerable to counterattack by opponents who also have prodigious word knowledge. And Nigel is regarded as having a less-than-proficient endgame, which is variously attributed to his lack of interest in strategic play or his reluctance to study board positions. Indeed, Nigel doesn't record his racks, doesn't review games, rarely kibitzes about particular plays. The other top experts, particularly the Americans, talk disdainfully about this gap in Nigel's ability, how it makes him an incomplete player. Naturally, Nigel doesn't care.

According to Wikipedia, Richards has continued his winning ways since 2001...he's a two-time World Championship winner and has won the U.S. National Scrabble Championship three out of the last four years.

The world's rudest hand gesturesSep 22 2011

The middle finger and the British "up yours" don't make the abbreviated list, but if you want to know how to piss people off in their native land without talking, this is a nice little guide. From a book called Rude Hand Gestures of the World.

Samuel L. IpsumSep 21 2011

I don't know if Samuel L. Ipsum is better than Hipster Ipsum, but the name is great.

Well, the way they make shows is, they make one show. That show's called a pilot. Then they show that show to the people who make shows, and on the strength of that one show they decide if they're going to make more shows. Some pilots get picked and become television programs. Some don't, become nothing. She starred in one of the ones that became nothing.

Who else has a good lorem ipsum name? Lorem Bacall? Buddy Ipsum? Anthony Lorem Hall? Lorem Fishburne? Loremington Steele?

The world's funniest analogiesSep 15 2011

Well, I don't know about that, but as an analogy enthusiast, I did enjoy reading through this list. Some favorites:

Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you're on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.

He was as tall as a six-foot, three-inch tree.

John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

That first one...I can't decide if it's bad or the best analogy ever.

The speed and density of languageSep 08 2011

Different languages are spoken at varying speeds but thanks to correlated differences in data-density, the same amount of information is conveyed within a given time period.

For all of the other languages, the researchers discovered, the more data-dense the average syllable is, the fewer of those syllables had to be spoken per second -- and the slower the speech thus was. English, with a high information density of .91, is spoken at an average rate of 6.19 syllables per second. Mandarin, which topped the density list at .94, was the spoken slowpoke at 5.18 syllables per second. Spanish, with a low-density .63, rips along at a syllable-per-second velocity of 7.82. The true speed demon of the group, however, was Japanese, which edges past Spanish at 7.84, thanks to its low density of .49. Despite those differences, at the end of, say, a minute of speech, all of the languages would have conveyed more or less identical amounts of information.

(via @mulegirl)

Hipster lorem ipsumAug 12 2011

Need some "artisanal text filler" for your latest project? Hipster Ipsum provides dummy text in two great flavors: "Hipster w/ a shot of Latin" and "Hipster, neat."

Organic sustainable lomo, +1 irony McSweeney's skateboard Portland PBR tattooed farm-to-table Terry Richardson Williamsburg. Organic farm-to-table wolf, next level shit put a bird on it freegan American Apparel Williamsburg chambray gentrify viral you probably haven't heard of them keffiyeh Cosby sweater. Pitchfork photo booth fuck, DIY cardigan messenger bag butcher Thundercats tofu you probably haven't heard of them whatever squid VHS put a bird on it. Thundercats fixie Williamsburg, photo booth synth vinyl dreamcatcher Wes Anderson cliche. You probably haven't heard of them DIY mlkshk biodiesel McSweeney's raw denim. Skateboard Pitchfork Etsy, photo booth messenger bag artisan raw denim beard Tumblr retro Austin. Wes Anderson sustainable keffiyeh, blog lomo craft beer cliche brunch homo skateboard biodiesel fanny pack Pitchfork you probably haven't heard of them Stumptown.

(via ★dansays)

KWHA-sohn or crah-SONT?Jul 18 2011

Julian Dibbell quotes H.W. Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage on the correct pronounciation of French words while speaking English.

To say a French word in the middle of an English sentence exactly as it would be said by a Frenchman in a French sentence is a feat demanding an acrobatic mouth; the muscles have to be suddenly adjusted to a performance of a different nature, & after it as suddenly recalled to the normal state; it is a feat that should not be attempted; the greater its success as a tour de force, the greater its failure as a step in the conversational progress; for your collocutor, aware that he could not have done it himself, has his attention distracted whether he admires or is humiliated.

I think that's what Feynman was getting at here in his discussion with Murray Gell-Mann, although, in typical Feynman fashion, not in so many words.

Richard Feynman, Gell-Mann's chief competitor for the title of the World's Smartest Man but a stranger to pretension, once encountered Gell-Mann in the hall outside their offices at Caltech and asked him where he had been on a recent trip; "Moon-TRAY-ALGH!" Gell-Mann responded in a French accent so thick that he sounded as if he were strangling. Feynman -- who, like Gell-Mann, was born in New York City -- had no idea what he was talking about. "Don't you think," he asked Gell-Mann, when at length he had ascertained that Gell-Mann was saying "Montreal," "that the purpose of language is communication?"

The language of Harry PotterJul 15 2011

Worknik has a fun post up about the language of the Harry Potter books & movies.

Characters' names are often also common words. A dumbledore is a bumblebee. Snape is a ship-building term that means "to bevel the end of (a timber or plank) so that it will fit accurately upon an inclined surface." Hagrid is the past participle of hagride, which means "to harass or torment by dread or nightmares." Skeeter is a term for an annoying pest, and not just Rita Skeeter, blood-sucking journalist. Mundungus is "waste animal product" or "poor-quality tobacco with a foul, rancid, or putrid smell," a good name for a sneaky thief.

(via @djacobs)

Keeping language alive through textingJul 05 2011

Young people in Chile, the Phillipines, and Mexico are using endangered regional languages to communicate and express themselves online and via text messaging.

Herrera also discovered teens in the Phillippines and Mexico who think it's "cool" to send text messages in regional endangered languages like Kapampangan and Huave. Almost as soon as text messaging exploded on the world stage as a means to reach anyone, anywhere, and anytime, young people began to find a way to scale it back, make it more exclusive and develop their own code or doublespeak to use on the widely used devices.

(via @tcarmody?)

The world's 100 best Unicode charactersJun 30 2011

Using a Hot or Not style interface, Daniel Temkin is trying to crowdsource a list of the world's top Unicode charaters. (via @cory_arcangel)

Oxford Writing and Style Guide no longer recommending the Oxford commaJun 29 2011

What the hell? Is the sky still blue?

As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write 'a, b and c' not 'a, b, and c'. But when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used -- especially where one of the items in the list is already joined by 'and'.

The kottke.org style guide still advocates the use of the Oxford comma, but take that with a grain of salt; I also misuse semicolons, use too many (often unnecessary) parentheses -- not to mention m-dashes that are actually rendered as two n-dashes in old-school ASCII fashion -- use too many commas, and place punctuation outside quotation marks, which many people find, in the words of Bill S. Preston Esq. and Ted "Theodore" Logan, "bogus". Oh, and in another nod to the old-school, I also use "dumb quotes" instead of the fancier and, I guess, technically more correct "smart quotes". (via, who else?, @tcarmody (or should that be "whom else?"))

Update: The document I linked to above is from a branding style guide for Oxford University. It recommends against using the Oxford comma in most cases. The Oxford Style Manual, meant for the general public and last published in 2003 by Oxford University Press, "a department of the University of Oxford", recommends using the Oxford comma in all cases. So basically, Oxford is telling us to use the Oxford comma but isn't going to use it internally. Oxford gone schizo, y'all! (thx, @rchrd_h)

Update: Further clarification comes in the form of this official statement from Oxford University Press...they are definitely in favor of the Oxford comma.

A brief history of profanity in The New YorkerMay 31 2011

At The Awl, Elon Green chronicles the first instances of various profanities in the pages of the New Yorker.

motherfucker
First used: 1994, Ian Frazier, "On the Floor"
It sounded like a chorus of high-pitched voices shouting the word "motherfucker" through a blender.

How giving 110% is actually possibleMay 04 2011

Quantitative pedants always wince whenever anyone -- usually an athlete -- rattles off a phrase like "we gave 110% out there tonight."

"It's impossible to give more than 100%," they'll say. "That's what 'percent' means."

But of course percentages greater than 100 are possible. That's how Google's Android Market can grow by 861.5% in year-over-year revenue, just to pick one example.

It all depends on what your baseline is -- x percent of what. But it's usually easier for tongue-clicking know-it-alls to just assume athletes are dumb than to try to actually figure out what it is they might be talking about.

Here's actually a more serious (and more mathematically precise) way to look at this. Economist Stephen Shmanske has a new paper in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports titled "Dynamic Effort, Sustainability, Myopia, and 110% Effort" that actually brings some stats and benchmarks to bear to figure this out in the context of the NBA.

For Shmanske, it's all about defining what counts as 100% effort. Let's say "100%" is the maximum amount of effort that can be consistently sustained. With this benchmark, it's obviously possible to give less than 100%. But it's also possible to give more. All you have to do is put forth an effort that can only be sustained inconsistently, for short periods of time. In other words, you're overclocking.

And in fact, based on the numbers, NBA players pull greater-than-100-percent off relatively frequently, putting forth more effort in short bursts than they can keep up over a longer period. And giving greater than 100% can reduce your ability to subsequently and consistently give 100%. You overdraw your account, and don't have anything left.

I haven't dived into the paper (it's behind a subscription wall, natch), but doesn't this seem like a rough-but-reasonable analysis of what athletes and other people mean when they use language this way? Shouldn't we all calm down a little with rulers across the fingers, offering our ready-made "correct" use of the rhetoric of percentages?

(Via @pkedrosky.)

Molecules with silly or unusual namesApr 29 2011

Paul May keeps track of the dozens of molecules that have unusual names. Like moronic acid, betweenanene, and draculin:

Draculin is the anticoagulant factor in vampire bat saliva. It is a large glycoprotein made from a sequence of 411 amino acids.

(via prosthetic knowledge)

A tower defense word gameApr 08 2011

That's how Clockwords bills itself...you try words containing the available letters to shoot badguys coming your way. More fun than it sounds, especially for Boggle/Scrabble nerds.

What's the longest English word?Jan 21 2011

Ok smartypants, put your hand down. It's antidisestablishmentarianism, right? Maybe not. Robert Krulwich explains.

Science writer Sam Kean, in his book The Disappearing Spoon, worked really hard on this and after much sleuthing, he landed on a word that comes not from dancing English nannies but from virus-hunting scientists. It's a protein, found in a virus, but this is a very dangerous, economically important virus, the first ever discovered.

Compare with the Wikipedia entry on long words, which contains this glorious non-word: Twoallbeefpattiesspecialsaucelettucecheesepicklesonionsonasesameseedbun. (via @bobulate)

Horoscopes: all the sameJan 20 2011

As you can see in this visualization created by Information is Beautiful, the most commonly used words in horoscopes are amazingly consistent across the twelve different signs. As part of the analysis, they also created a meta-horoscope reading for use anytime during the year:

Ready? Sure? Whatever the situation or secret moment, enjoy everything a lot. Feel able to absolutely care. Expect nothing else. Keep making love. Family and friends matter. The world is life, fun, and energy. Maybe hard. Or easy. Taking exactly enough is best. Help and talk to others. Change your mind and a better mood comes along...

What a crock. (via @dens)

No "nigger" in new edition of Huck FinnJan 05 2011

A new edition of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn replaces occurrences of "nigger" in the text to "slave".

The idea of a more politically correct Finn came to the 69-year-old English professor over years of teaching and outreach, during which he habitually replaced the word with "slave" when reading aloud. Gribben grew up without ever hearing the "n" word ("My mother said it's only useful to identify [those who use it as] the wrong kind of people") and became increasingly aware of its jarring effect as he moved South and started a family. "My daughter went to a magnet school and one of her best friends was an African-American girl. She loathed the book, could barely read it."

I wonder how many times that word was used in songs appearing on Billboard's Hot 100 chart last year? Or perhaps nigga != nigger.

North American English dialect mapDec 28 2010

Massive and detailed dialect map of North America. (via @brainpicker)

Word LensDec 17 2010

This is just flat out magical...you hold your iPhone running Word Lens up to some text in, say, Spanish, and you'll automatically see it translated into English.

!!! No, like !!!!!

The Antarctic dictionaryDec 06 2010

The world's most isolated continent has spawned some of the most unusual words in the English language. In the space of a mere century, a remarkable vocabulary has evolved to deal with the extraordinary environment and living organisms of the Antarctic and subantarctic.

The first entry in the dictionary is "aaaa, aaaaah, aaahh See ahhh". The entry for "ahhh" reads:

'Halt', a sledge dog command, usually softly called

The book is listed on Amazon but "temporarily out of stock".

Google BeatboxNov 30 2010

The latest big thing from Google: beatboxing. Just go to this page on Google Translate and press "Listen". I laughed out loud. (via prosthetic knowledge)

Lying phrasesNov 23 2010

There are some phrases -- like "I hate to say it", "with all due respect", and "it's not about the money, but..." -- that sound honest but signify that the speaker is actually lying.

The point of a but-head is to preemptively deny a charge that has yet to be made, with a kind of "best offense is a good defense" strategy. This technique has a distinguished relative in classical rhetoric: the device of procatalepsis, in which the speaker brings up and immediately refutes the anticipated objections of his or her hearer. When someone says "I'm not trying to hurt your feelings, but..." they are maneuvering to keep you from saying "I don't believe you -- you're just trying to hurt my feelings."

See also the non-apology apology.

this is kottke.org

   Front page
   About + contact
   Site archives

You can follow kottke.org on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Feedly, or RSS.

Ad from The Deck

We Work Remotely

 

Enginehosting

Hosting provided EngineHosting