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Posts Tagged ‘linguistics

“Under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer”*…

 

Ofcom, the government regulator of communications in the U.K., recently commissioned research into the relative offensiveness of 150 obscene words and gestures, as a basis for its regulations on content.

The “Quick Reference Guide” is here; the full report, here.  As the cover of each notes: “Warning: this guide contains a wide range of words which may cause offence.”

* Mark Twain

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As we titter, we might recall that it was on this date in 1886 that the “tuxedo” made it’s debut, at a formal ball at the then-new Tuxedo Park Club, just outside of New York City.

Earlier that year, Tuxedo Park resident James Brown Potter and his wife were vacationing in England, where they were invited to dinner by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII).  Unprepared to dress for such an occasion, Potter asked the Prince for advice, and was sent to the the Prince’s tailor, Henry Poole & Co., where he was fitted with a short black jacket and black tie– not the then-standard white tie and tails.

Potter brought the ensemble back to Tuxedo Park, where he showed it to Pierre Lorillard IV, the scion of a wealthy tobacco family, who had just opened the Tuxedo Park Club– and whose passion was designing clothes.  Lorillard revised the design to include the crepe lapels, covered buttons, and other now-standard details, and unveiled his creation at the Autumn Ball.

The prospect of liberation from tails proved irresistible– and the “tuxedo” steadily replaced traditional “evening wear” as the American formal standard.  (Edward continued to wear “black tie,” so the fashion caught on in England too– as the “dinner jacket”– but remained a less formal option…)

Lorillard (in his jacket, but with a white tie)

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Written by LW

October 10, 2016 at 1:01 am

“In Japanese and Italian, the response to [‘How are you?’] is ‘I’m fine, and you?’ In German it’s answered with a sigh and a slight pause, followed by ‘Not so good’.”*…

 

If you own a smartphone and are trying to learn a language, you probably have Duolingo. At this very moment the app—which tries to turn language learning into a rewarding game—may be not-so-subtly suggesting that you are overdue for some Spanish vocabulary practice.

 How many other people are learning Spanish, and where do they live?

Duolingo recently answered such questions by running the numbers on their 120 million users, spanning every country on the planet. The company identified the most popular language for each country, among the 19 it offers…

More at “The languages the world is trying to learn, according to Duolingo.” [Note the absence of Mandarin, Japanese, Arabic and other Asian and Middle Eastern languages– surely a reflection, at least in large part, of the offers available on Duolingo, which teaches in more languages than it teaches…]

* David Sedaris, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls

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As we prepare to conjugate, 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 the quatrains that comprise the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Omar was 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.

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Written by LW

May 15, 2016 at 1:01 am

“I don’t want just words”*…

 

ZAGATTITUDE  (N.) za-‘gat-i-tood  Mindset of one who always has a firm, vocal opinion on where, what and how to eat—informed by Zagats, Chowhound, and other foodie bibles. Usage: They all just wanted pizza, but Blake, flexing his Zagattitude, insisted they go to a pricey new tapas place he’d read about.

Just one of the “Wordbirds“: an illustrated lexicon of neologisms for the 21st century…

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned

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As we match plumage with coinage, we might recall that this leap-day (like every “last day in February”) is Rare Disease Day— an occasion devoted to raising awareness of and encouraging action on the too-often horrifying ailments that fall outside the spotlight, but that cumulatively are all-too-common.  It’s a great day to adopt an orphan (disease).

 

Written by LW

February 29, 2016 at 1:01 am

“‘Meow’ means ‘woof’ in cat”*…

 

In cliff-side houses like these, some Malian villagers speak an enigmatic anti-language originally designed to fool slave-traders

Criminals, conspirators, fugitives, outcasts– throughout history, they’ve all often spoken “The secret ‘anti-languages’ you’re not supposed to know.

[Update:  further to “I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after ‘semicolons,’ and another one after ‘now’*…,” this wonderful variation, via @PhelimKine]

* George Carlin

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As we watch our tongues, we might send breath-taking birthday greetings to the man who spoke the secret language of the environment, Ansel Easton Adams; he was born on this date in 1902.  A co-founder of Group f/64 (with other masters like Edward Weston, Willard Van Dyke, and Imogen Cunningham), his black-and-white landscape photographs of the American West, especially Yosemite National Park, helped define landscape photography and establish photography as a fine art.

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Written by LW

February 20, 2016 at 1:01 am

“It ain’t no fun if the homies can’t have none”*…

 

Flyting is a stylized battle of insults and wits that was practiced most actively between the fifth and 16th centuries in England and Scotland. Participants employed the timeless tools of provocation and perversion as well as satire, rhetoric, and early bathroom humor to publicly trounce opponents. The term “flyting” comes from Old English and Old Norse words for “quarrel” and “provocation.” [Indeed, the image above is of Norse god Loki trading insults with his divine brother, Bragi.] ‘Tis a form of highly poetic abuse, or highly abusive poetry—a very early precursor to MTV’s Yo Mama and Eminem’s 8 Mile

More of the history of insult as a form of battle– and a discussion of the actual ancestry of rap-as-we-know-it– at “Flyting was medieval England’s version of an insult-trading rap battle.”

Rap has been a path between cultures in the best tradition of popular music.
― Jay-Z

* Snoop Dog

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As we yoyo “yo mamas,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1956 that Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley & the Comets became the first rock and roll album to enter the chart.  The single had become the first rock single to top the pop charts six months earlier.

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Written by LW

January 18, 2016 at 1:01 am

“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:

 xkcd

* Ava Gardner, Ava: My Story

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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.

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Written by LW

November 23, 2015 at 1:01 am

“The past is always tense, the future perfect”*…

 

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Predicting the future of the English language is rather easy, in the short term.  The odds are, over the next few decades its New World dialects are going to gain increasing global dominance, accelerating the demise of thousands of less fortunate languages but at long last allowing a single advertisement to reach everybody in the world.  Then after a century or two of US dominance some other geopolitical grouping will gain the ascendancy, everyone will learn Chechen or Patagonian or whatever it is, and history will continue as usual.  Ho hum.  But apart from that… what might the language actually look like in a thousand years time?  For comparison, the English spoken at the turn of the last millennium looked like this:

1000 AD: Wé cildra biddaþ þé, éalá láréow, þæt þú tǽce ús sprecan rihte, forþám ungelǽrede wé sindon, and gewæmmodlíce we sprecaþ…
2000 AD: We children beg you, teacher, that you should teach us to speak correctly, because we are ignorant and we speak corruptly…

(1000 AD, from”The Colloquy of Aelfric.”)

So how far will another thousand years take it?…

Peek over the linguistic horizon at “FUTURESE- The American Language in 3000 AD.”

* Zadie Smith

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As we envision emergent etymologies, we might spare a thought for a wicked bender of English words, James Augustine Aloysius Joyce; he died on this date in 1941.  A poet and novelist best known for Ulysses, he was the preeminent figure in the Modernist avant-garde, and a formative influence on writers as various as (Joyce’s protege) Samuel Becket, Jorge Luis Borges, Salmon Rushdie, and Joesph Campbell.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Ulysses No. 1, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man No. 3, and Finnegans Wake No. 77, on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.  The next year, Time Magazine named Joyce one of its 100 Most Important People of the 20th century, observing that “Joyce … revolutionized 20th century fiction.”  And illustrating that Joyce’s influence was not confined to the arts:  physicist Murray Gell-Mann used the sentence “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” (in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake) as source for the elementary particle he was naming– the quark.

Photo of Joyce included in a printed subscription order form for Ulysses, published Paris, 1921

 

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Written by LW

January 13, 2015 at 1:01 am

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