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Posts Tagged ‘language

“I was supposed to say, ‘In a pig’s eye you are,’ what came out was, ‘In a pig’s ass you are.’ Old habits die awfully hard.”*…


Explore expletives at “Strong Language.” (Though it probably goes without saying: NSFW.)

Special word-lover’s bonus:


* Ava Gardner, Ava: My Story


As we flirt with forswearing swearing, we might recall that it was on this date in 1644, at the height of the English Civil War, that Milton’s Areopagitica (or Areopagitica; A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England) was published.  An impassioned philosophical attack on censorship and defense of the principle of a right to freedom of speech and expression, it is regarded as one of the most eloquent arguments for press freedom ever written; indeed, many of its principles form the basis for modern justifications of that right.



Written by LW

November 23, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Different languages, the same thoughts; servant to thoughts and their masters”*…


Every year, the US Census Bureau releases data on the languages spoken in American homes. Usually it groups the languages in 39 major categories. Now it has released much more detailed figures, which show that Americans speak not 39, but more than 320 distinct languages.

The bureau collected the data from 2009 to 2013 as part of the American Community Survey, which asks Americans all kinds of questions to create highly granular estimates on various demographic indicators. The new data estimate that more than 60 million Americans speak a language other than English at home…

Learn more– and see the breakdown– at “All 300-plus languages spoken in American homes, and the number of people who speak them.”

* Dejan Stojanovic, The Sun Watches the Sun


As we choose our words, we might recall that it was on this date in 1969 that Sesame Street premiered on public television in the U.S.  In 2008, it was estimated that 77 million Americans had watched the series as children.  By its 40th anniversary in 2009, Sesame Street was broadcast in over 120 countries, and 20 international versions had been produced. And as of 2014, Sesame Street has won 159 Emmy Awards and 8 Grammy Awards—more than any other children’s show.  The show, which was itself based on mountainous research,  has been the subject of, literally, thousands of studies on its effectiveness as a learning vehicle for children; it has been a keystone of English (and native) language learning in the U.S. and around the world.



Written by LW

November 10, 2015 at 1:01 am

“I define nothing”*…


As evidenced in recent quotes from the worlds of politics, sports, and journalism, the word “wheelhouse” has become an increasingly prevalent metaphor for a person’s comfort zone or area of expertise:

“This is my wheelhouse. That’s what I do well. The economy is what I do well.”
~ Presidential candidate Donald Trump, on his economic program (9/28/15)

“He put it right in my wheelhouse. I just had to shoot.”
~ Hockey player Nikita Kucherov, on his game-winning goal (5/02/2015)

“…His values are very much in my wheelhouse.”
~ Broadcaster Tom Brokaw, on Lester Holt becoming an NBC anchor (6/22/2015)

Yet despite its increased usage, this metaphor is not well understood. Tracing its origins yields a story rooted in a technology-driven revolution that took place within the nation’s transportation infrastructure…

Explore etymology at “Wheelhouse: How Technology Changes the Meaning of Words.”

* Bob Dylan


As we change with the times, we might spare a thought for Geoffrey Chaucer; he died on this date in 1400. Best known in his lifetime as a philosopher, alchemist and astronomer,  he was the author of Troilus and Criseyde and The Canterbury Tales (among other works)– for which he is now widely considered the “Father of English Literature” and the greatest poet of the English Middle Ages.

Chaucer, who coined–  was the first to use– around 2,000 words (in existing manuscripts), was the first person to be buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

A 17th century portrait of Chaucer



Written by LW

October 25, 2015 at 1:01 am

“It is a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word”*…


The 9-15-year-olds who compete in the annual Scripps Spelling Bee tend to delight in words like “flibbertigibbet,” “onomatopoeia,” “schadenfreude,” “syzygy,” “tchotchke” and “triskaidekaphobia.”  We normal humans are forced to seek help with much simpler words like “grey,” “cancelled” and “Hanukkah.”  Vocativ used Google Trends data to learn which words were most frequently spellchecked in each state; along the way, they detected some interesting patterns, for instance:

Out of all the states, Idaho turned to Google for spelling assistance most often, and when it did, the state’s most Googled spelling was “antelope.” Idahoans struggled with “cevilian” [sic] and stumbled over “tongue”. On the bottom of the list of spellchecking states, the confident writers and readers of Oregon resorted to Google least often, only using it for spellchecks 28% as frequently as Idaho residents, according to Google data.

Here’s their summary chart:

Read more (and see a larger version) at “These Words Would Knock Your State Out Of the National Spelling Bee.”

* Andrew Jackson


As we spell “spell,” we might send acerbic birthday greetings to journalist, essayist, magazine editor, satirist, and critic Henry Louis “H. L.” Mencken; he was born on this date in 1880.  Mencken is the author of the philological work The American Language, and is remembered for his journalism (e.g., his coverage of the Scopes Trial) and for his cultural criticism (and editorship of American Mercury— published by Alfred Knopf, also born on this date, but 12 years after Mencken ) in which he championed such writers as D.H. Lawrence, Ford Madox Ford, and Sherwood Anderson.  But “H.L.” is probably most famous for the profusion of pointed one-liners and adages that leavened his work…

The difference between a moral man and a man of honor is that the latter regrets a discreditable act, even when it has worked and he has not been caught.

Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.

I believe in only one thing and that thing is human liberty. If ever a man is to achieve anything like dignity, it can happen only if superior men are given absolute freedom to think what they want to think and say what they want to say. I am against any man and any organization which seeks to limit or deny that freedom. . . [and] the superior man can be sure of freedom only if it is given to all men.

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

Truth would quickly cease to be stranger than fiction, once we got as used to it.

And on spelling:

“Correct” spelling, indeed, is one of the arts that are far more esteemed by schoolma’ams than by practical men, neck-deep in the heat and agony of the world.

H.L. Mencken, photograph by Carl Van Vechten



Written by LW

July 29, 2015 at 1:01 am

“I like good strong words that mean something”*…


From Word Journal, “a journal of interesting and infrequently encountered words.”

Many more wonderful words there, and at its frequent source, the remarkable Ragbag.

* Louisa May Alcott, Little Women


As we luxuriate in language, we might recall that it was on this date in 1984 that noted slinger of mots Prince Charles threw a wrench into plans to build an addition onto England’s National Gallery.  The museum had held a competition for designs, and tentatively settled on plans drawn by Ahrends, Burton and Koralek (with elements from the high-tech scheme of Richard Rogers).  The Prince, on reviewing the drawings, pronounced them a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.”  His pronouncement sparked spirited dialogue, both on the proper role of the Royal Family and on the state of modern architecture.  Indeed, “monstrous carbuncle” has become a common descriptor for a modern building that clashes with its surroundings.

The ABK plans were withdrawn, and the Gallery went back to the drawing board.  In 1991 they opened The Sainsbury Wing, designed by the architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.

The Sainsbury Wing, as built, seen from Trafalgar Square



Written by LW

May 17, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Thugs fretting under the restraints of a not very thick skin of civilization”*…


… The history of “thug” goes back not just to the hip-hop scene of the 1990s, to Tupac Shakur and the “Thug Life” tattoo that stretched, arc-like, across his abdomen; it goes back to India—to the India, specifically, of the 1350s.”Thug” comes from the Hindi thuggee or tuggee (pronounced “toog-gee” or “toog”); it is derived from the word ठग, or ṭhag, which means “deceiver” or “thief” or “swindler.” The Thugs, in India, were a gang of professional thieves and assassins who operated from the 14th century and into the 19th. They worked, in general, by joining travelers, gaining their trust … and then murdering them—strangulation was their preferred method—and stealing their valuables…

Who is a thug? Who is not a thug? “The thug,” the Brown University professor Tricia Rose writes in her book The Hip Hop Wars, “both represents a product of discriminatory conditions, and embodies behaviors that injure the very communities from which it comes.” Thugs, in this conception, are both victims and agents of injustice. They are both the products and the producers of violence, and mayhem, and outrage. So it is fitting that, as the word’s history suggests, there is—contrary to [Baltimore] Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s claims last [week]—a kind of universality to thuggery. Thugs are not necessarily “evil”; thugs are not necessarily opposed to “the will of good”; thugs are not necessarily unsympathetic. Which is another way of saying that thugs are human. And, being such, they evolve. Mark Twain, in Following the Equator, noted that all of human history, on some level, has found “Thugs fretting under the restraints of a not very thick skin of civilization.”

Twain continues…

The joy of killing! the joy of seeing killing done–these are traits of the human race at large. We white people are merely modified Thugs; Thugs fretting under the restraints of a not very thick skin of civilization; Thugs who long ago enjoyed the slaughter of the Roman arena, and later the burning of doubtful Christians by authentic Christians in the public squares, and who now, with the Thugs of Spain and Nimes, flock to enjoy the blood and misery of the bull-ring. We have no tourists of either sex or any religion who are able to resist the delights of the bull-ring when opportunity offers; and we are gentle Thugs in the hunting-season, and love to chase a tame rabbit and kill it. Still, we have made some progress–microscopic, and in truth scarcely worth mentioning, and certainly nothing to be proud of–still it is progress: we no longer take pleasure in slaughtering or burning helpless men. We have reached a little altitude where we may look down upon the Indian Thugs with a complacent shudder; and we may even hope for a day, many centuries hence, when our posterity will look down upon us in the same way.
Following the Equator

More at “The History of ‘Thug’.”

* Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World


As we examine our etymology, we might send crafty birthday greetings to Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli; he was born on this date in 1469.  Machiavelli wrote comedies, poetry, and some of the best-known personal correspondence in Italian; but he is best remembered as a Man of Affairs, first as a servant of the Florentine Republic in a time during which Medici influence was on the wane, then as an adviser to the Medici.  His most famous work, The Prince— first published as a pamphlet in 1513– was written mid-career to gain favor with the Medici, who were at that point regaining dominance in Florence.  The essay on the exercise of power (inspired by Cesare Borgia) not only failed to win over the Medici, it alienated Machiavelli from the Florentine public; he never again played an important role in government.  Indeed, when the Florentine Republic was established in 1527, Machiavelli was effectively ostracized.

But published in book form posthumously (in 1532), The Prince began its steady growth in influence.  And of course today, Machiavelli is considered one of the fathers of modern political theory… if not indeed a philosopher of thuggery.

Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito


Written by LW

May 3, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Learning languages is like learning history from the inside out”*…


In a way that’s analogous to the evolution of morphology via mutation, the changes in the languages that we speak are driven by “mistakes” that get baked into practice.  For instance…


projectiles to be fired from a gun

It is common to misanalyze an article that precedes a word as if it were part of that word. Here the French phrase la munition was misanalyzed so the “a” of the article became part of the word, becoming l’ammunition


a group of many islands in a large body of water

The etymology of archipelago seems like it should be from Greek arkhi meaning “chief” andpelagos “sea,” suggesting the importance of a sea with so many islands. The problem is that this form never occurs in ancient Greek, and the modern form is actually borrowed from Italian, with the intended meaning being “the Aegean Sea.” If that’s the case, then the archi- inarchipelago is actually a corrupted version of Aigaion, which is how you say “Aegean” in Greek…

More words that originated in error.

* Eric van Lustbader


As we misspeak creatively, we might spare a thought for Baruch (or Benedict) de Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher who lived a quiet public life as a lens grinder– but whose rationalism and determinism put him in opposition to Descartes and helped lay the foundation for The Enlightenment, and whose pantheistic views led to his excommunication from the Jewish community in Amsterdam.  He died on this date in 1677.

As men’s habits of mind differ, so that some more readily embrace one form of faith, some another, for what moves one to pray may move another to scoff, I conclude … that everyone should be free to choose for himself the foundations of his creed, and that faith should be judged only by its fruits; each would then obey God freely with his whole heart, while nothing would be publicly honored save justice and charity.

Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, 1670



Written by LW

February 21, 2015 at 1:01 am


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