(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘language

“I got stood up by the letter Y, he was hanging around with his X”*…




It’s perhaps not pornography’s fault that it’s cashing in on a global crisis. As, around the world, whole societies confine themselves to their quarters, traffic to major porn sites has been spiking everywhere, telling us all we need to know about how humans with a broadband connection tend to deal with exceptional levels of boredom and anxiety. From the point-of-view of page views, the season of self-isolation might well be the porn industry’s historical high point — but in terms of reputational damage, it also marks a new low for one of Western culture’s most enigmatic figures.

Once, the letter X was the holiest of all alphabetic symbols, standing for nothing less than the triumph of Christendom itself. The Roman emperor Constantine I imposed his adopted religion on Europe and the Middle East, with armies marching under the banner of an “X,” and for centuries, Latin scribes used it as shorthand for “Christ.”

But at the present moment… the 24th letter of the English alphabet is synonymous not even with professionally lit kissy porn, but rather the explicitier, extremier world of hardcore sharing platforms.

It’s a remarkably stratospheric fall from grace, especially for such a shy and retiring character — X is the second-least-common letter in written English (after Z), and the one that begins by far the fewest number of words. Oh X, what happened to you? Where did it all go so badly wrong that you’re hanging out in NSFW corners of the internet…?

From holiest hallmark to horniest sex symbol — the X-treme, X-haustive story of how the wild child of the alphabet lost its way: “How Did X Become the Edgiest Letter?

See also: “What’s So Fascinating About the Letter X?” and “Before X Was X: The Dark Horse Story Of The 24th Letter.”

* Norah Jones


As we mark the spot, we might recall that it was on this date 1397 that Geoffrey Chaucer “told” (read aloud his ribald, if not X-rated) The Canterbury Tales for the first time at the court of Richard II.


A woodcut from William Caxton‘s second edition of The Canterbury Tales, printed in 1483



Written by LW

April 17, 2020 at 1:01 am

” ‘Opsimath’: a person who begins to learn late in life”*…



Fun with words: dive into the Twitter thread

* Merriam-Webster Dictionary (entry for March 30)


As we enlarge our lexicons, we might spare a thought for Noël François de Wailly; he died on this date in 1801.  A grammarian and lexicographer, he published Principes généraux de la langue française (1754) which revolutionized the teaching of grammar in France.  The book was adopted as a textbook by the University of Paris and then more generally used throughout France in an adapted form in primary education.

Wailly grammar

Title page of the 1757 edition



Written by LW

April 7, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Hands have their own language”*…



Saint John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci


Most body parts come alone or in pairs. We have one nose, one tongue, and one navel. We sport two eyes, two knees, two feet, and so on. Fingers are a glaring exception—we’ve got a party of five on each side. This presents difficulties. When we want to single one out from the group—to specify which finger we slammed in the door, for instance—what do we do? We name them, naturally. But how?

This is a uniquely human problem. Pentadactyly—the condition of having five fingers—is pervasive in the biological world, but we are the only species that has the capacity (or occasion) to talk about those fingers. The problem is not just that we have five of them, but that they are so vexingly similar: they differ slightly in size and dexterity, but all have that pucker-knuckled, nail-capped look. How have people in different times and places solved this problem? How have they named the members of this confusable quintet? Answering this question offers a tour of the inventiveness of the human mind…

Our names for our fingers show a surprising depth of cultural variation—and similarity: “Where Do Finger Names Come From?

* Simon Van Booy


As we dub our digits, we might send carefully-timed birthday greetings to a man with very accomplished fingers, Abraham-Louis Breguet; he was born on this date in 1747.  The leading horologist of his day, he introduced a number of formative innovation into watch- and clock-making.  He built the first gong spring (which decreased the size of repeater watches) and the first anti-shock device or “pare-chute” (which improved the reliability of his watches while making them less fragile).  He sold the first modern carriage clock to Napoleon Bonaparte, and created the first “tact watch” by which time could be read by touch.  And finally– and most impactfully– he built the first tourbillon (the self-winding mechanism that introduced the “perpétuelle” watch), which he patented in 1801.

220px-Abraham_Louis_Breguet_02 source



Written by LW

January 10, 2020 at 1:01 am

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




“One of my favorite words is lox,” says Gregory Guy, a professor of linguistics at New York University. There is hardly a more quintessential New York food than a lox bagel—a century-old popular appetizing store, Russ & Daughters, calls it “The Classic.” But Guy, who has lived in the city for the past 17 years, is passionate about lox for a different reason. “The pronunciation in the Proto-Indo-European was probably ‘lox,’ and that’s exactly how it is pronounced in modern English,” he says. “Then, it meant salmon, and now it specifically means ‘smoked salmon.’ It’s really cool that that word hasn’t changed its pronunciation at all in 8,000 years and still refers to a particular fish.”

How scholars have traced the word’s pronunciation over thousands of years is also really cool. The story goes back to Thomas Young, also known as “The Last Person Who Knew Everything.” The 18th-century British polymath came up with the wave theory of light, first described astigmatism, and played a key role in deciphering the Rosetta Stone. Like some people before him, Young noticed eerie similarities between Indic and European languages. He went further, analyzing 400 languages spread across continents and millennia and proved that the overlap between some of them was too extensive to be an accident. A single coincidence meant nothing, but each additional one increased the chance of an underlying connection. In 1813, Young declared that all those languages belong to one family. He named it “Indo-European.”…

Delight in the detective work recounted at “The English Word That Hasn’t Changed in Sound or Meaning in 8,000 Years.”

* Louisa May Alcott, Little Women


As we celebrate continuity, we might spare a thought for James Burnett, Lord Monboddo; he died on this date in 1799.  a Scottish judge and scholar of linguistic evolution, he is best remembered a one of the founders of the modern field of comparative historical linguistics.

Monboddo was one of a number of scholars involved at the time in development of early concepts of biological evolution. Some credit him with anticipating in principle the idea of natural selection in papers that were read by (and acknowledged in the writings of) Erasmus Darwin.  Charles Darwin read the works of his grandfather Erasmus and, of course, later developed the ideas into a scientific theory.

Lord_Monboddo01 source


“If thou thou’st him some thrice, it will not be amiss”*…




‘You’ is the fourteenth most frequently used word in the English language, following closely behind its fellow pronouns ‘it’ at number eight and ‘I’ at number eleven:

The fact that you follows closely behind I in popularity is probably attributable to its being an eight-way word: both subject and object, both singular and plural, and both formal and familiar. The all-purpose second person is an unusual feature of English, as middle-schoolers realize when they start taking French, Spanish, or, especially German, which offers a choice of seven different singular versions of you. It’s relatively new in our language. In early modern English, beginning  in the late fifteenth century, thou, thee and thy were singular forms for the subjective, objective and possessive, and ye, you and your were plural. In the 1500s and 1600s, ye and then the thou/thee/thy forms, faded away, to be replaced by the all-purpose you. But approaches to this second person were interesting in this period of flux. David Crystal writes in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of English that by Shakespeare’s time, you “was used by people of lower rank or status to those above them (such as ordinary people to nobles, children to parents, servants to masters, nobles to the monarch), and was also the standard way for the upper classes to talk to each other. … By contrast, thou/thee were used by people of higher rank to those beneath them, and by the lower classes to each other; also in elevated poetic style, in addressing God, and in talking to witches, ghosts and other supernatural  beings.” The OED cites a 1675 quotation: “No Man will You God but will use the pronoun Thou to him.”

“Needless to say, this ambiguity and variability were gold in the hand of a writer like Shakespeare, and he played with it endlessly, sometimes having a character switch modes of address within a speech to indicate a change in attitude.” [see the title of this post, for example]…

More of this excerpt from Ben Yagoda’s When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse  at “You.”

[Via the ever-illuminating Delanceyplace.com]

* Sir Toby Belch to Sir Andrew Aguecheek, in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night


As we muse on modes of address, we might send elegantly phrased and eclectic birthday greetings to Persian polymath Omar Khayyam; the philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, epigrammatist, and poet was born on this date in 1048. While he’s probably best known to English-speakers as a poet, via Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation of (what he called) the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Fitzgerald’s attribution of the book’s poetry to Omar (as opposed to the aphorisms and other quotes in the volume) is now questionable to many scholars (who believe those verses to be by several different Persian authors).

In any case, Omar was unquestionably one of the major mathematicians and astronomers of the medieval period.  He is the author of one of the most important treatises on algebra written before modern times, the Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra, which includes a geometric method for solving cubic equations by intersecting a hyperbola with a circle.  His astronomical observations contributed to the reform of the Persian calendar.  And he made important contributions to mechanics, geography, mineralogy, music, climatology and Islamic theology.




Written by LW

May 15, 2019 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: