Posts Tagged ‘language’
In the English language, the word “he” is used to refer to males and “she” to refer to females. But some people identify as neither gender, or both – which is why an increasing number of US universities are making it easier for people to choose to be referred to by other pronouns…
* James W. Pennebaker,
As we revel in reference, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to Naguib Mahfouz; he was born on this date in 1911. A prolific writer– he published 34 novels, over 350 short stories, dozens of movie scripts, and five plays over a 70-year career– he was one of the first writers in Arabic to explore Existentialist themes (e.g., the Cairo Trilogy, Adrift on the Nile). He was awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature.
The earliest writing existed at a time when the spoken word was king; texts were created without spaces or punctuation marks. It infuriated Greek playwright (and librarian) Aristophanes, who began what the Keith Houston calls the “punctuational big bang.”
Aristophanes created a system where people could add dots to lines of text to signify pauses. A dot in the middle (·) signified the shortest pause, called the comma. For an intermediate pause, known as the colon, the dot was at the bottom (.), and the period was the longest pause, represented with a dot at the top of the line. Aristophanes’s system evolved over the years—the colon got an extra dot, the period dropped to the bottom of the line, and the comma got a curve and dropped to the bottom of the line—but it’s remarkable how much has stuck around…
And it’s remarkable why (spoiler alert, it has to do with the printing press, and the standardization that it brought… though new tech in general and emoticons in particular are shaking things up again).
From the ellipsis to the exclamation point, “The origins of punctuation marks.”
* Mary Norris,
As we come to a full stop, we might send dark, but elegantly-punctuated birthday greetings to Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, or as he’s better known to English readers, Joesph Conrad; he was born on this date in 1857. An early modernist who spoke and wrote in three languages (his native Polish, French, and English), he imported a non-English diction and tragic sense to his work, which included Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo, 17 other novels, and dozens of short stories. A success in his own time, Conrad’s influence grew; he’s been cited as a formative influence on writers including D. H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Graham Greene, Malcolm Lowry, William Golding, William S. Burroughs, Joseph Heller, Italo Calvino, Gabriel García Márquez, J. G. Ballard, John le Carré, V.S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, Hunter S. Thompson, J.M. Coetzee, and Salman Rushdie… and of course, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola.
Typos can be embarrassing. They can also be costly. And not just for those individuals whose jobs depend on knowing the difference between “it’s” and “its” or where a comma is most appropriate. In 2013, bauble-loving Texans got the deal of a lifetime when a misprint in a Macy’s mailer advertised a $1500 necklace for just $47. (It should have read $497.) It didn’t take long for the entire inventory to be zapped, at a loss of $450 a pop to the retail giant. (Not to mention plenty of faces as red as the star in the company’s logo.)
Google, on the other hand, loves a good typing transposition: Harvard University researchers claim that the company earns about $497 million each year from people mistyping the names of popular websites and landing on “typosquatter” sites … which just happen to be littered with Google ads…
From a NSFW travel agency ad to “the most expensive hyphen in history”– “10 very costly typos.”
* Jarod Kintz
As we check our work, we might send carefully-edited birthday greetings to Samuel Langhorne Clemens, AKA Mark Twain; he was born on this date in 1835 in Florida, Missouri. One of the best-known writers and aphorists of his time and ours, his The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is consistently cited as a (if not indeed the) Great American Novel, at the same time that it is equally consistently the target of censors who would ban it from school and public libraries… but not for sloppy editing or typos: Clemens began his career as a newspaper man– first as a typesetter, then as a reporter, where he honed his copy editing skills. And he carried those skills with him into the use of new technologies: he was the first author to submit a typewritten manuscript to his publisher.
“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,
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.