Shared posts

04 Apr 14:01

Barstool punctuation

by Mark Liberman

The most recent SMBC:

The mouseover title: "Later he finds his true calling being forgotten about at the end of lines of code."

The aftercomic:

For some background, see Geoff Nunberg's discussion of Jane Austen's use of semicolons ("Jane Austen: Missing the points", 11/17/2010), or my notes on semicolons in Ursula K. LeGuin vs. Ernest Hemingway ("Death before syntax?", 10/20/2014).

09 Mar 14:21

A message to our sponsors

by debuk

My feelings about International Women’s Day are a bit like my feelings about Christmas: what’s meant to be a celebration all too often degenerates into internecine squabbles and vacuous corporate messaging. At Christmas companies spout pieties about peace on earth; on IWD they spout platitudes about women’s empowerment. Sometimes these are embellished with eyecatching gimmicks, and sometimes this strategy backfires. This year, the energy company Shell announced that it was temporarily rebranding itself as ‘She’ll’—a gesture so lame that for a while people believed a tweet which claimed it was a prank played on the company by someone else.

In the run-up to IWD 2020 I was approached by a couple of PR consultants myself. They asked if, in exchange for a sum of money, I would put my name, my expertise, and in one case this blog, in the service of a language-themed corporate campaign. The first of these correspondents told me the identity of the client was confidential: it would only be revealed to me if I agreed to be involved. Since I declined, I will never know who I was being asked to get involved with. The second identified the client as Avon, the world’s fifth-largest beauty company and its second-largest direct sales company. I said no to that as well. Just to be clear, I would say no to any proposal of this kind. But I’d never expected to actually get a proposal, let alone two in quick succession.

Maybe I should have seen it coming, though, because I do know the corporate world is obsessed with language as a tool for empowering women. I’ve written many times about the pervasiveness of the ‘deficit model’, according to which women are prevented from achieving their true potential by their weak and unauthoritative style of speaking. This idea has spawned a large and lucrative industry devoted to fixing (sorry, ‘empowering’) women through workplace training, personal coaching, self-help books and articles in women’s magazines. If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know what this advice consists of: lose the high squeaky voices, the uptalk and the vocal fry, cut out all the ‘justs’ and ‘sorries’ and stop larding your emails with emoji. You’ll also know what I think of it: that it’s linguistically naïve, sexist nonsense whose main effect is to make women feel self-conscious, anxious and inadequate.

But this remains a minority view. Whenever I criticise the deficit model I always get pushback from women who say they find the narrative of empowerment through language uplifting and inspiring. That’s probably why the narrative is also used to market other kinds of products to women.

A few years ago I came across an example on an Indian website. It started like this:

If you think about it, women are always apologizing – even when it’s not their fault. Especially when it’s not their fault. In the boardroom. When asking if someone’s got a moment to talk. When accidentally bumped by the gent who just sat in the next chair. While handing baby to daddy. In the process of recovering their legitimate share of the quilt at bedtime. While opening the passenger door of the car. It’s like they are genetically hardwired to apologize for being there, for bringing themselves to notice, for leaving the kitchen, for abdicating parenting responsibility however brief it may be, for being greater than the sum of the parts society (mostly the male bits) expects them to be. It’s the residual guilt of generations of conditioning.

In this text, the deficit-model claim that women apologise too much is presented in a less judgmental way. The writer seems to be commiserating with women rather than blaming them for being such wimps. But while it wasn’t hard to follow her line of thought, I couldn’t quite see where the writer was going with it. What message, exactly, were readers meant to take away?

And then all was revealed:

Stop it, says this advertisement by shampoo brand Pantene. Don’t be sorry. If anything, be sorry about not being sorry. Instead of apologizing, shine strong – like your Pantene-shampooed hair.

What I was reading was an ‘advertorial’, or in more contemporary parlance ‘native advertising’. It was designed to look like regular editorial content, but in fact it was part of a global campaign promoting Pantene shampoo. Embedded in the text was a link to a video of the TV ad, ‘Sorry not sorry’, that had launched the campaign in the US. The ad presents a series of vignettes (the same ones rendered verbally in the text already quoted) in which women apologise unnecessarily, followed by the ‘stop saying sorry and shine strong’ message. US audiences reportedly loved it, and it also got a lot of attention in the media. Clearly, as the trade publication Adweek commented,

talking about sexism and feminism and female empowerment is a great way for brands to build buzz.

Actually, the Pantene campaign doesn’t so much talk about sexism and feminism as obliquely allude to them; in the text I’ve quoted the clearest reference to sexism (‘mostly the male bits’) is literally a parenthesis. But since 2016 the buzz has got louder, and the brands, or at least some of them, have got bolder.

Avon’s IWD campaign is a case in point. It’s called #SpeakOut (notice the echo of recent feminist hashtags like #MeToo and #TimesUp), and it’s explicitly about a form of sexism. As the company’s website explains:

Through conversations with our global network of women, we have discovered that in languages and cultures across the world there are words and phrases used specifically to describe, criticise and negatively stereotype women. For example, being called ‘Lippy’ in English, ‘Vorlaut’ in German, or ‘Mandona’ in Spanish, to name but a few. Through the #SpeakOut campaign, we are urging women to reclaim this stereotyped language and be proud to speak out and share their stories.

In Britain the campaign has produced a promotional feature in Marie Claire magazine headed ‘It’s time to reclaim the words used against us with the #SpeakOut campaign’. The words ‘in partnership with Avon’ appear just below this title, making it clear that this is commercially sponsored content. Unlike in the Pantene example, however, what’s being promoted isn’t Avon’s products, but rather its ethos and history as a company which has always believed in empowering women. It’s given generations of women whose domestic responsibilities precluded regular employment a way to earn money selling products to their friends and neighbours; in 1955 it established a Foundation for Women which supports breast cancer charities and organisations working to end domestic violence. Now it’s taking up the cause of women’s ‘equal right to voice’ and encouraging them to be ‘proud to speak out’.

The core of the feature is a conversation in which a group of women–and one man, from the male allies’ group Good Lad–share their stories and their views. One of the women is a linguist, and she is given the role of explaining what research has shown (for instance that women’s speech tends to be evaluated less positively than men’s). The others are a rapper, a journalist, a trans woman who’s an Avon representative, the CEO of Avon and the editor of Marie Claire. They talk about their experiences of being silenced, ignored or dismissed, and affirm the importance of ‘amplifying women’s voices’.  Apart from one predictable irritant (there’s a lot of emphasis on how important it is to bring men into the conversation—because god forbid there should be even one day of the year when women don’t have to tell men they’re important) I thought this was basically fine. It’s not my kind of feminism, but it’s certainly an improvement on the cynical faux-feminism of ‘stop apologising and buy our shampoo’.

Campaigns like these raise a larger question: whose interests are being served when companies take up feminist concerns and use the language of feminism in their messaging? Obviously they’re not just doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they think there’s something in it for them. But should we condemn this corporate appropriation of feminism as inauthentic, self-serving and axiomatically antithetical to our goals, or is it possible to see it as enlightened self-interest, something which—if it’s done right—can serve women’s interests too?

With Pantene and ‘Sorry not sorry’ (or Shell and ‘She’ll’) I think it’s clearly self-serving: it’s the feminist equivalent of ‘green/pinkwashing’, using symbolic resources (logos, packaging, advertising copy) to associate your brand with a cause while doing absolutely nothing practical to advance it. But Avon is arguably a more complicated case. It does have some claim to be a historically woman-centred business, it puts a fair chunk of money where its mouth is, and I’m sure many of the women who work for it are genuinely committed to the causes it supports. But this pro-woman stance contains a number of contradictions which are hard for feminists to overlook.

First and most obviously, Avon is part of the beauty industry, which has long been criticised by feminists for relentlessly exploiting women’s anxieties and insecurities. Clearly the company is aware of this, and it attempts a quasi-feminist defence in a section of the website called ‘The Power of Beauty’. Beauty, it says, is ‘not vain or frivolous, for many women it is key to building confidence and self-belief’. In other words, it’s empowering. But this misses the point of the feminist objection, which is not that the beauty industry encourages vanity and frivolity: the  problem is rather the role the industry plays in defining what will count as a desirable or even just acceptable way for women to look. Not only does this ideal demand a significant investment of time, attention and money, it’s also sexist, ageist and (if we look globally) racist and colourist. Why should women’s ‘confidence and self-belief’ depend on conforming to oppressive beauty standards?

Another contradiction emerges if we consider Avon’s business model—recruiting women to sell products to other women in their own communities. The prototypical Avon representative is a woman whose main occupation is unpaid care-work in the home, and who is looking for a way to make money which is compatible with her domestic role. It’s true that Avon is meeting a need by providing earning opportunities for women in this position, but it is also profiting from the patriarchal social arrangements that create the need in the first place.

Avon’s feminism, and indeed corporate feminism in general, exemplifies what Catherine Rottenberg calls ‘neoliberal feminism’. This doesn’t focus on large-scale structural issues like the exploitation of women’s unpaid care-work, but rather ‘exhorts individual women to organise their life in order to achieve “a happy work-family balance”’.  Unlike 1990s ‘post-feminism’, which suggested that women (at least in the West) were already equal and no longer needed feminism of any kind, neoliberal feminism does acknowledge the continuing existence of gender inequality and injustice. But the solutions it proposes are ‘individualised–such as encouraging individual women to speak out against sexual harassment and abuse’.

The #SpeakOut campaign is clearly in this mould. As I’ve already said, I don’t disagree with its general aims; nor do I dispute that individual ‘speaking out’ can be a powerful gesture (think of #MeToo). But if it isn’t a prelude to any kind of collective action, it’s hard to see what the gesture accomplishes. Second wave feminists also held ‘speak outs’ on issues like rape and illegal abortion, but they were clear that this wasn’t just an end in itself: it was meant to deepen their understanding of the problem so they could figure out what needed to be done about it. The work of actually changing things came later, took longer, and demanded a serious commitment from the activists involved.

The corporate messages we get on International Women’s Day generally aren’t a prelude to anything. They’re just a fleeting moment of feelgood celebration before it’s back to business as usual until next year. Shell’s ‘She’ll’ campaign, for instance, has produced a video in which images of girls and women are overlaid with uplifting statements that begin with the words ‘she will’, like ‘she will be respected’, and ‘she will be heard’. In future, they’re telling us, women will be equal. But when will this happen, and how will it come about?

That’s a detail too far for the people who make these ads, but feminists know the answer: it will happen, if it does happen, through the efforts of women themselves. Today and every other day, it’s those efforts we should be celebrating.

07 Mar 06:38

Coronavirus meets linguistic diversity - Language on the Move

Coronavirus meets linguistic diversity - Language on the Move:

An interesting post on the Language on the Move blog about how the novel coronavirus has led to increased attention to linguistic varieties in China beyond standardized Mandarin (Putonghua). Excerpt: 

Up until the outbreak of the coronavirus, Putonghua was conceptualized as capital for improving the labor force and individual employment prospects in China. The language policy “Promoting Putonghua to Eradicate Poverty” has been implemented nationwide in minority-centered remote areas and many Putonghua learning programs have been designed to facilitate access to Putonghua, particularly in China’s peripheral regions.

In short, Putonghua reigned supreme until the virus outbreak. However, the status of other dialects and languages changed almost immediately with the disease.

After the lockdown of Wuhan in Hubei Province, the center of the virus outbreak, the institutions which used to promote Putonghua to eradicate poverty have come to shift their strategy by developing language resources for the learning of non-standard Mandarin varieties. For instance, a bilingual audio-brochure in Putonghua and Hubei Mandarin was produced for medical staff and volunteers recruited to answer emergency calls and inquiries. The brochure provides model conversation between doctors and patients in both varieties. The necessity of speaking and understanding Hubei Mandarin has become more prominent as an increasing number of medical workers and volunteers from other parts of China have headed for Hubei: by February 20, over 60,000 medical workers from 29 provinces of China have been sent to Hubei to fight together with the local medical staff and infected patients.

The shifting linguistic focus from Putonghua to other Chinese varieties not only helps to improve medical care and save lives but also helps to build solidarity with the over 59 million Hubei residents hardest hit by the epidemic. The attempt to improve communication by speaking non-standard Chinese has raised the awareness of Chinese language policy makers regarding the importance of conducting more applied research on language and health communication in real-world contexts.

Read the whole thing.

03 Mar 15:06

Is the fuchsia female?

by debuk

Here’s something that made me laugh recently when somebody shared it on Facebook. 83778263_3912267798786914_6847277020674523136_n

It’s from a page called ‘Men’s Humor’, which I initially found surprising, since on the face of things it’s a joke at men’s expense: it’s saying men don’t normally get to name eyeshadow colours because their colour vocabulary is so limited. Once they’ve used up basic colour terms like ‘orange’, ‘pink’ and ‘purple’, they’ll be forced to fall back on unappealing comparisons with meat, ‘spoiled milk’ and (ew) ‘diarrhoea’.

But on reflection that’s only part of what the joke is doing. It’s also indirectly poking fun at the names conventionally given to make-up colours, which are absurd in a different way. From that perspective the joke is on women, who are suckers for a flowery name–they wouldn’t buy an eyeshadow in ‘pork’, but they’d be happy to shell out for one in ‘tea rose’ or ‘autumn sunrise’. When it comes to colour-names, cluelessness is proof of manliness. Real men don’t know words like ‘taupe’; they have more important things to worry about than the difference between ‘lavender’ and  ‘mauve’.

Some readers may recognise that last bit an allusion to Robin Lakoff’s 1970s classic Language and Woman’s Place. Lakoff put non-basic colour terms like ‘taupe’, ‘lavender’  and ‘mauve’ into the category of ‘women’s language’, a register which in her view both derived from and reinforced women’s subordinate status in society:

Since women are not expected to make decisions on important matters, like what kind of job to hold, they are relegated the non-crucial decisions as a sop. Deciding whether to name a color ‘lavender’ or ‘mauve’ is one such sop.

These distinctions are regarded by men as trivial; and once they have been defined as the province of women, any man who does display an interest in them invites questions about his masculinity.

[A] woman may say ‘The wall is mauve’ with no one consequently forming any special impression of her as a result of the words alone; but if the man should say ‘the wall is mauve’, one might well conclude he was either imitating a woman sarcastically, or a homosexual, or an interior decorator.

So in addition to being something men ‘relegate’ to women because they consider it beneath their notice, colour-naming might be something men actively avoid, because they don’t want to be perceived as effeminate or gay.

As usual, though, what got into wider circulation was not Lakoff’s analysis of the cultural conditions that might produce gender differences in colour vocabulary, but just the ‘fun fact’ that women know more colour terms than men. The ‘if men got to name eyeshadow colors’ joke shows that nearly 50 years on, this is still part of our cultural common sense. Does research done since the 1970s bear it out, though? Many of these ‘fun facts’, after all, continue to be repeated long after they’ve been debunked by science. We’ve known for years that the ever-popular ‘Women talk more than men/use x times as many words per day as men’ is just straight-up BS. And other claims, including some of Lakoff’s, have turned out to be more complicated than they originally seemed. So, what’s the story about colour terms?

The short answer is that research done since the 1970s generally has supported the claim that women know more colour terms than men. There are also some finer-grained differences in the kinds of terms men and women produce when their colour vocabulary is tested. But what’s behind these differences is still a matter of debate.

By way of illustration, let’s take a closer look at one fairly recent piece of research in this tradition: an experimental study which was presented at a conference in 2012. It was conducted with 272 English-speaking subjects (159 women and 113 men), who were each asked to name a series of 20 colours selected randomly from a set of 600. The responses were ‘unconstrained’, i.e. participants could give each stimulus colour a name entirely of their own choosing. This procedure produced over 5000 responses, containing 1226 different colour terms. 29 per cent of these were ‘basic colour terms’ (red, blue, green, etc.), 23 per cent were single-word non-basic terms (mauve, scarlet), 42 per cent were two-word descriptions (a one-word term plus a modifier, like ‘bluish green’ or ‘pale yellow’) and 6 per cent contained three words or more (e.g. ‘pillar box red’).

As expected, there were differences between men and women–and there was more to this than the familiar finding that women produce more colour-names overall. Though the two sexes made similar use of basic colour terms, beyond the basics their choices diverged. Women chose more single-word terms like ‘mauve’, whereas men gravitated more to the two-word ‘bluish green’ type. The most frequently-used non-basic terms were also different for each sex. For instance, the top 20 female choices included ‘peach’ and ‘fuchsia’, neither of which featured in the men’s top 20; conversely, the male top 20 included ‘cyan’ and ‘magenta’, which did not make it onto the female list.

In their discussion of these findings the researchers remark that the colour men labelled ‘magenta’ is the same one for which women preferred the ‘fancy’ term ‘fuchsia’. I find this comment interesting, because to me it isn’t obvious that ‘fuchsia’ is any ‘fancier’ than ‘magenta’. On the contrary, I would argue that the two terms are not just equally fancy, they are fancy in exactly the same way. Both are derived from proper names: ‘fuchsia’, the name of a plant genus, honours the botanist Leonhard Fuchs, while ‘magenta’, the name given to an aniline dye invented in 1859, commemorates France’s victory at the battle of Magenta. The dye-colour was inspired by the fuchsia plant, and before its (French) inventor got carried away by patriotic pride he had intended to call it ‘fuchsine’.

We might suspect–in fact, I find it hard not to–that the researchers’ description of ‘fuchsia’, but not ‘magenta’, as ‘fancy’ reflects the pre-existing gender stereotype according to which women, but not men, use fancy colour terms. Similarly, they note that the part of the spectrum which women typically categorised as ‘turquoise’ was segmented by men into ‘turquoise, cyan and light blue’–but they make no comment on the ‘fanciness’ of ‘cyan’, nor on the fact that in this case it was men who made finer distinctions.

You may already have thought of an explanation for men’s more frequent use of ‘cyan’ and ‘magenta’. These terms have a tech connection: they’re two of the four ink colours used in colour printing. ‘Peach’ and ‘fuchsia’, by contrast, are terms you’d be more likely to encounter if you were shopping for lingerie. Such observations might suggest that women’s more extensive colour vocabulary is not a product of nature but an artefact of culture. Men don’t shy away from non-basic colour terms if they belong to a male domain; it’s just that there tends to be more use of elaborate terminology in domains which are coded as female.

Until recently, this cultural explanation was favoured not only by feminists, but also by most scientists. But in sex-difference science generally there’s been a resurgence of interest in biological explanations, and it’s been suggested that women’s more extensive colour vocabulary might reflect their naturally superior ability to discriminate colours visually. This isn’t an easy argument to settle: there’s an obvious chicken and egg problem. For instance, referring to a 1990 study of mail order catalogues which found ‘more variation in the terms describing women’s clothing than men’s’, the authors of the 2012 study suggest that the catalogue producers were ‘taking advantage’ of women’s greater facility for discriminating and naming colours. Yet it could equally be argued that women develop this facility precisely because the products they consume come in a wider range of colours and are described using a wider range of terms.

One way to investigate this further might be to consider variables other than sex/gender. Men and women, after all, are diverse rather than homogeneous, in ways that might be expected to make a difference to their use of colour-terms–especially if this is primarily a cultural thing. Pursuing that line of thought, I discovered a study published in 2007 which found a difference between older and younger men: while the older men, as usual, produced a limited range of non-basic terms, the younger men were far more similar to women. There is more than one possible explanation for this finding, but the most plausible one, arguably, is cultural change, both in gendered patterns of consumption and in ideas about masculinity. I found some indirect support for this in current clothing catalogues. When I looked at a (small) sample it was clear that the colour-terms used in the menswear and womenswear sections were less sharply differentiated than they reportedly had been in 1990. Today’s fashion retailers seem confident that their male customers, like their female ones, will buy shirts in ‘sage’, ‘forest’ or ‘acqua’ rather than just ‘green’.

But another variable that should probably be in the mix here is social class. The catalogues I looked at (which had come unsolicited through my letterbox and ended up in my recycling bin) were clearly addressed to a certain segment of the market, and that was reflected in their language as well as their prices. Words are among the semiotic resources companies use to construct an image that will appeal to, or flatter, their target customer; elaborate or unusual colour terms often seem to be associated with more ‘aspirational’ brands.

Consider, for instance, paint shade-cards. They’re a vast repository of ridiculous colour-names, but if you compare, say, the upscale Farrow & Ball range to B&Q’s more basic house-brand, you will find they are ridiculous in different ways. F&B sells shades called things like ‘Railings’; B&Q offers shades like ‘Pumpkin Pie’. Both might be described as whimsical, but one is–to quote a painter and decorator I once discussed this with–‘poncier’ than the other.

Of course, no one participating in a colour-naming experiment would be likely to produce something as obscure as ‘Railings’. But participants’ choices might still be influenced by the ‘ponciness’ factor. And this wouldn’t necessarily be just a direct reflection of their own class position. As I explained in an earlier post about swearing, there’s quite a strong tendency for middle- or upper-class linguistic norms to be symbolically associated with femininity while working-class norms are associated with masculinity. We might therefore expect men, including middle-class ones, to be more concerned than women about avoiding terms they consider ‘poncy’. This avoidance is central to the humour of the joke eyeshadow palette: in a context where poncy words are standard, the author of the joke has substituted aggressively plain, down-to-earth or crude alternatives.

The maleness that’s both parodied and celebrated in this joke is defined not only in opposition to femininity, but also by contrast with certain kinds of masculinity (for instance, anything too gay or too educated). Colour terms, it turns out, are a great resource for this kind of social symbolism. But precisely for that reason I think it’s hard to know what we can safely conclude from studies which claim to show that women know more colour terms. I’m not disputing the (very consistent) finding that women generally produce more terms; but is that simply because men’s vocabulary is smaller? If men write ‘pinkish-purple’ rather than ‘mauve’, does that mean ‘mauve’ isn’t in their repertoire, or does it mean they’re reluctant to present themselves as the kind of man who uses words like ‘mauve’?

There’s also a more fundamental question, one I always seem to end up asking when I post about any kind of sex-difference science: why does any of this matter in the first place? So what if you say magenta and I say fuchsia? Let’s call the whole thing off!

But while I don’t care about the question itself, I do care about what’s behind it. When a (real or alleged) sex-difference becomes the object of intense scientific and/or popular fascination, that often has less to do with its real-world importance than with the symbolic meaning we project onto it. We seize on certain generalisations because they fit with our beliefs about what men and women are or should be like. Sometimes the generalisations are completely false; sometimes, as in this case, they’re more robust; but either way, they contribute to the patriarchal project of keeping men and women in their prescribed, different-and-not-equal, places. And even when it’s funny, that’s no joke.


14 Feb 19:47

Pets of LEL: Beatrice Bowler

by manling

Pets of LEL continues with Beatrice Bowler.

Beatrice is a labradoodle and a peaceful old lady. Here she is with her human, Margit, enjoying a snowy day in Kansas.


14 Feb 06:27

Gender Diversity in Greek and Latin Grammar: Ten Ancient Discussions

Gender Diversity in Greek and Latin Grammar: Ten Ancient Discussions:

When I studied Latin and Ancient Greek, I was taught that they each had three genders. So I was fascinated to read this article about how the Romans and the Greeks didn’t necessarily think of their own languages that way, featuring many quotes from original texts. Excerpt:  

As a Latin teacher, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I present grammatical gender to my students. Latin obsessively genders its speakers. From pronouns to choice of name and use of adjectives, it’s one thing if you identify as masculine or feminine, but Latin presents real questions for non-binary speakers. In addition, there is a chauvinism inherent in Latin grammar, like in the way that mixed-gender groups are referred to as masculine. There is a similar chauvinism in the Latin pedagogical tradition: the very ordering of adjectival forms as masculine/feminine/neuter (-us/-a/-um) presents a hierarchy of being masquerading as a lexicographical convenience.

On top of that, I worry that our modern pedagogical practices implicitly present students a highly essentialized vision of gender: every noun has one gender exclusively, rigid and unchanging.

Yet grammatical gender is actually complex and shifting, a fact that Greek and Roman grammarians were highly conscious of. They debated whether grammatical gender was inherent in the things themselves or a product of human convention. They devised a technical vocabulary to articulate the difference between grammatical gender identity and grammatical gender expression. They argued about whether their language had three genders — as we teach — or perhaps only two, or maybe five, or even as many as seven, if you count “fluid” and “uncertain” and as distinct categories (and they did!).

Grammatical gender, at its most basic, is a system of noun classes whose forms agree with other inflected words, like adjectives. French nouns have two genders, German three, Chechen six, and Ganda ten. Wikipedia has a handy list of languages by type of grammatical gender.

The fact that we think of these classes as “genders” at all is a product of historical circumstance rather than linguistic necessity. There is nothing inherently feminine about aqua (“water”) or masculine about rivus (“stream”). From a purely morphological perspective, we could dump the very concept of grammatical gender and call these groups “noun classes,” which is apparently the usual term for them in Bantu languages.

Read the whole thing.

10 Feb 19:44

ghast505: ritavonbees: necromancy-savant: the-macra: brunhiddensmusings: the-macra: types of...







types of stard

  • mu
  • ba

this is oddly close to real

‘ard’ is a real suffix in the english language just like ‘ly’ or ‘ify’, it just isnt common enough for us to notice its usage. ‘ard’ means ‘too much’ or ‘too easily’

so ‘mustard’ is something that is ‘too pungent’, just as ‘wizard’ is someone who is too wise, ‘coward’ is someone too easily cowed, and ‘drunkard’ is someone too often drunk

this implies that ‘bastard’ is someone who is too ‘bast’ and this needs experimentation and research

Are you fucking serious omg

This is pretty much correct. According to the OED bastard is from Old French and the bast- part means “pack saddle” which was used as a bed by mule drivers, giving the phrase fils de bast, a child conceived on the pack saddle instead of the marriage bed. In English it becomes bastard, the -ard being a pejorative. It is the same one as wizard and coward and drunkard.

types of ard

  • must
  • bast
  • wiz
  • cow

my brain feels Expanded

further types of ard, since etymonline has a whole section about it (art is an accepted variant)

06 Feb 07:43

linguisten: infamouslydorky: Imagine English having a massive linguist vowel shift for the second...



Imagine English having a massive linguist vowel shift for the second time only it’s like “lorge” instead of “large” and “bork” instead of “bark”


it’s only a smol olteration

02 Feb 23:01

Special Topics In Being A Human, vol 1.

by letsaskbear

Hello, Brave Correspondents all. Today marks the beginning of an occasional special illustrated feature on Asking Bear: Special Topics In Being A Human, written by me and illustrated by the amazing Saul Freedman-Lawson. These intermittent guides are breakouts of a series of steps for managing complex human stuff that I’ve done my best to explain in a way that’s colloquial, coherent and reasonably comprehensive. As always no advice is one-size-fits-all, but I’m hopeful that this will fit some people who can make use of it (as I really, REALLY could have as a younger person, holy hopping toads).

(if you’d like a downloadable, printable version, that’s available to all Patrons on my Patreon, even the $1 level – hop over to my Patreon to join and download.)

01 Feb 07:46

smallest-feeblest-boggart: copperbadge: pinglederry: decoy-ocel...





Oh, oh, this reminds me of the only known bilingual palindrome:

Anger? ‘Tis safe never. Bar it! Use love.

Spell that backward and you get:

Evoles ut ira breve nefas sit; regna!

Which is Latin for:

Rise up, in order that your anger may be but a brief madness; control it!


Whenever I see stuff like this I wonder how people even come up with it. 

i’m so glad you people are out there being clever so i don’t have to be

12 Jan 15:02

Why do we move our hands when we talk? My latest collab video...

Why do we move our hands when we talk? 

My latest collab video with Tom Scott is about gesture

11 Jan 07:43

therussianmajor: Interpretation! And! Translation! Are! Hard!...


Interpretation! And! Translation! Are! Hard! F*cking! Work!

These fields deserve so much more respect and reverence.

25 Dec 14:51

allthingslinguistic: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in...


“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in Anglo-Saxon meter, by Philip Craig Chapman-Bell. Via Etymonline on Facebook, who says “An Internet classic; but I can no longer find it where I first found it (Cathy Ball’s Old English reference pages).”

Incipit gestis Rudolphi rangifer tarandus

Hwæt, Hrodulf readnosa hrandeor –
Næfde þæt nieten unsciende næsðyrlas!
Glitenode and gladode godlice nosgrisele.
Ða hofberendas mid huscwordum hine gehefigodon;
Nolden þa geneatas Hrodulf næftig
To gomene hraniscum geador ætsomne.
Þa in Cristesmæsseæfne stormigum clommum,
Halga Claus þæt gemunde to him maðelode:
“Neahfreond nihteage nosubeorhtende!
Min hroden hrædwæn gelæd ðu, Hrodulf!”
Ða gelufodon hira laddeor þa lyftflogan –
Wæs glædnes and gliwdream; hornede sum gegieddode
“Hwæt, Hrodulf readnosa hrandeor,
Brad springð þin blæd: breme eart þu!”

Rendered literally into modern English:

Here begins the deeds of Rudolph, Tundra-Wanderer

Lo, Hrodulf the red-nosed reindeer –
That beast didn’t have unshiny nostrils!
The goodly nose-cartilage glittered and glowed.
The hoof-bearers taunted him with proud words;
The comrades wouldn’t allow wretched Hrodulf
To join the reindeer games.
Then, on Christmas Eve bound in storms
Santa Claus remembered that, spoke formally to him:
“Dear night-sighted friend, nose-bright one!
You, Hrodulf, shall lead my adorned rapid-wagon!”
Then the sky-flyers praised their lead-deer –
There was gladness and music; one of the horned ones sang
“Lo, Hrodulf the red-nosed reindeer,
Your fame spreads broadly, you are renowned!”

01 Dec 20:51

Apostropocalypse again

by Mark Liberman

"'Laziness has won': apostrophe society admits its defeat", The Guardian 12/1/2019:

John Richards, who worked in journalism for much of his career, started the Apostrophe Protection Society in 2001 after he retired.

Now 96, Richards is calling time on the society, which lists the three simple rules for correct use of the punctuation mark.

Writing on the society's website, he said: "Fewer organisations and individuals are now caring about the correct use of the apostrophe in the English language.

"We, and our many supporters worldwide, have done our best but the ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won!"

That would be the "ignorance and laziness" found in John Donne and William Shakespeare ("Apostropocalypse Now", 1/15/2012), or Thomas Jefferson ("A soul candidly acknowleging it's fault", 6/9/2004), or Emily Dickinson (e.g. "The Brain, within it's Groove / Runs evenly — and true –"), or any other elite writer before the a century and a half ago, when the current (and entirely illogical) set of conventions for apostrophe usage in English was established.

See also:

Odile Piton and Hélène Pignot, "Mind your p's and q's": or the peregrinations of an apostrophe in 17th Century English;
Stan Carey, "Apostrophe apostasy", Macmillan Dictionary Blog;
"October and the Apostrophe", The English Project 2015.

From the last reference:

One reason for the battered state of the mark is that orthodox deployment demands an orthodox education, one most easily obtained at a private school. Those who have not been to a private school look as though they have if they use an orthodox apostrophe. That may be its main function, and it is well to use it well in applications for the higher jobs.

In the U.S., better-class public schools also teach the apostrophic complexities. But in any case, orthodox apostrophe usage is certainly a form of cultural capital — a property it shares with the rest of the current English orthographic system, as well as most other orthograpic systems. And those who are most anxious about preserving "the rules" are presumably also those who are most anxious about the value of their own cultural bank accounts.

[h/t Michael Glazer]


28 Nov 05:16

Mic drop

by Mo
17 Nov 13:34

Part I - What is a Weird Internet Career?

Lately, as I’ve been doing fancy things like publishing a NYT bestselling book about internet linguistics and writing a column about internet linguistics for Wired, I’ve also been hearing things from people like “how did those come about?” or “I want to be you when I grow up.” 

The bad news is, there’s no magical shortcut. The good news is also, there’s no magical shortcut. What there is, is a series of smaller and less glamorous things that I did as I was starting out, which eventually built into something larger and more glamorous. So this is a series about the early days of building all these things that came to fruition in the past year or so, in the hopes that it may be useful for other people.

I call myself an internet linguist for two reasons: one is that I analyze the language of the internet and two is that I do so in a very internettish sort of way. In other words, I have a Weird Internet Career for linguistics. You may never have encountered an internet linguist before (hello, welcome!), but you’ve definitely encountered other people with Weird Internet Careers. 

Weird Internet Careers are the kinds of jobs that are impossible to explain to your parents, people who somehow make a living from the internet, generally involving a changing mix of revenue streams. Weird Internet Career is a term I made up (it had no google results in quotes before I started using it), but once you start noticing them, you’ll see them everywhere. 

Weird Internet Careers are weird because there is no one else who does exactly what they do. They’re internet because they rely on the internet as a cornerstone, such as bloggers, webcomics, youtubers, artists, podcasters, writers, developers, subject-matter experts, and other people in very specific niches. And they’re careers because they somehow manage to support themselves, often making money from some combination of ad revenue, t-shirt sales, other merch, ongoing membership/subscription (Patreon, Substack), crowdfunding (Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Ko-Fi), sponsorship deals, conventional book deals, self-published ebooks, selling online courses, selling products or apps or services, public speaking, and consulting. 

But there isn’t necessarily much relationship between the type of weird internet thing someone makes and how they make money from it — one webcomic artist and one youtuber may both support themselves from t-shirt sales and ad revenue, while another webcomic artist and another youtuber may both support themselves from Patreon and conventional book deals. Some Weird Internet Careers have entirely transparent incomes through crowdfunding or posting their finances online; some have mysterious revenue that’s entirely surmise (or may not be enough to actually be a career). 

People who have Weird Internet Careers sometimes start out unintentionally, by making things for personal expression or because they like being helpful, but they eventually realize that they’re providing a thing that people need or want, and that there’s a version of it that someone will buy, and that they’ve build up the kind of reputation which means that people will buy from them. (You can also definitely make things that stay being just about your personal expression, as long as you’re aiming for a hobby rather than a career. Hobbies are great, you don’t have to monetize your hobbies, they’re just not what this series is about.) But I think a person could also start a Weird Internet Career more intentionally, or at least be more intentional about building an existing “making things for free on the internet” habit into a career, which is why I’m writing this series. Also, I want more people doing public-facing linguistics, at a purely personal level. 

The cornerstone of a Weird Internet Career is that you a) make a thing on the internet that people value and b) provide a way to convert that value into money. (If you have the first but not the second, it’s not a career, at least not yet. If you have the second but not the first, well, you probably don’t have much in the way of career yet either.) The thing you make might be a recipe blog, and that money might be from ads and an associated cookbook, or it might be email advice on developing a new skill and the money from an e-course on the skill, or it might be a podcast and the money from bonus episodes and merch. And so on. I know one person whose Weird Internet Career is basically “making zines about Linux (some free, some paid).” There are so many niches.

You don’t need to be famous to have a Weird Internet Career, though it often involves building a certain amount of reputation for you or your thing in some corner of the internet, but most of that reputation is built by doing the thing, not by starting off as notable from something else. Some people start off with Weird Internet Careers as a springboard into more conventional jobs, some people have conventional jobs that they find unsatisfying and develop a Weird Internet Career in their spare time (that they may eventually quit their jobs for), some people keep going with both at the same time and enjoy how they feed off each other. 

So, I said I have a Weird Internet Career as a pop linguist. How did I get it? Well, I built it. The next part is about how that happened. 

I’m posting this series about Weird Internet Careers and how to build them to my blog over the next few weeks. However, if you want to get the whole series now as a single doc, with bonus Weird Internet Career-building questions to think about, you can sign up for my newsletter on Substack here, which will also get you monthly updates about my future Weird Internet Career activities as an Internet Linguist. 

Part I - What is a Weird Internet Career?
Part II - How I Built a Weird Internet Career as an Internet Linguist
Part III - How to start a Weird Internet Career
Part IV - How to make money doing a Weird Internet Career
Part V - What can a Weird Internet Career look like?
Part VI - Is it too late for me to start my Weird Internet Career?
Part VII - How to level up your Weird Internet Career

13 Nov 13:25

leftoversalad: Inspired by Rullmann Chemistry 101 prof: All...


Inspired by Rullmann

Chemistry 101 prof: All atoms have an equal number of electrons and protons. Yes, Kevin? 
Kevin (student): What about negatively charged ions? 
Chemistry 101 prof: Those are just BAD atoms. 

Surgeon: Another successful operation! 
Assistant: You think so? I mean, stomach sutures are supposed to be thread with sheep intestine. That’s how Hippocrates did it. 

Social studies teacher: So basically, all dudes like to ride horses. This is true because in ancient Rome, lots of dudes rode horses and they loved it. 
Student: But– I hate horses!
Social studies teacher: No you love horses because you’re a dude. 


07 Nov 10:00

Cushty Kazakh

by Nadia Christopher

With thousands of miles between the East End of London and the land of Kazakhs, cushty was the last word one expected to hear one warm spring afternoon in the streets of Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan, since renamed Nur-Sultan). The word cushty (meaning ‘great, very good, pleasing’) is usually associated with the Cockney dialect of the English language which originated in the East End of London.

Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses
Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses

Check out Del Boy’s Cockney sayings (Cushty from 4:04 to 4:41).

Cockney is still spoken in London now, and the word is often used to refer to anyone from London, although a true Cockney would disagree with that, and would proudly declare her East End origins. More specifically, a true ‘Bow-bell’ Cockney comes from the area within hearing distance of the church bells of St. Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, London.

Due to its strong association with modern-day London, the word ‘Cockney’ might be perceived as being one with a fairly short history. This could not be further from the truth as its etymology goes back to a late Middle English 14th century word cokenay, which literally means a “cock’s egg” – a useless, small, and defective egg laid by a rooster (which does not actually produce eggs). This pejorative term was later used to denote a spoiled or pampered child, a milksop, and eventually came to mean a town resident who was seen as affected or puny.

The pronunciation of the Cockney dialect is thought to have been influenced by Essex and other dialects from the east of England, while the vocabulary contains many borrowings from Yiddish and Romany (cushty being one of those borrowings – we’ll get back to that in a bit!). One of the most prominent features of Cockney pronunciation is the glottalisation of the sound [t], which means that [t] is pronounced as a glottal stop: [ʔ]. Another interesting feature of Cockney pronunciation is called th-fronting, which means that the sounds usually induced by the letter combination th ([θ] as in ‘thanks’ and [ð] as in ‘there’ are replaced by the sounds [f] and [v]. These (and some other) phonological features characteristic of the Cockney dialect have now spread far and wide across London and other areas, partly thanks to the popularity of television shows like “Only Fools and Horses” and “EastEnders”.

As far as grammar is concerned, the Cockney dialect is distinguished by the use of me instead of my to indicate possession; heavy use of ain’t in place of am not, is not, are not, has not, have not; and the use of double negation which is ungrammatical in Standard British English: I ain’t saying nuffink to mean I am not saying anything.

Having borrowed words, Cockney also gave back generously, with derivatives from Cockney rhyming slang becoming a staple of the English vernacular. The rhyming slang tradition is believed to have started in the early to mid-19th century as a way for criminals and wheeler-dealers to code their speech beyond the understanding of police or ordinary folk. The code is constructed by way of rhyming a phrase with a common word, but only using the first word of that phrase to refer to the word. For example, the phrase apples and pears rhymes with the word stairs, so the first word of the phrase – apples – is then used to signify stairs: I’m going up the apples. Another popular and well-known example is dog and bone – telephone, so if a Cockney speaker asks to borrow your dog, do not rush to hand over your poodle!

Test your knowledge of Cockney rhyming slang!

Right, so did I encounter a Cockney walking down the field of wheat (street!) in Astana saying how cushty it was? Perhaps it was a Kazakh student who had recently returned from his studies in London and couldn’t quite switch back to Kazakh? No and no. It was a native speaker of Kazakh reacting in Kazakh to her interlocutor’s remark on the new book she’d purchased by saying күшті [kyʃ.tɨˈ] which sounds incredibly close to cushty [kʊˈʃ.ti]. The meanings of the words and contexts in which they can be used are remarkably similar too. The Kazakh күшті literally means ‘strong’, however, colloquially it is used to mean ‘wonderful, great, excellent’ – it really would not be out of place in any of Del Boy’s remarks in the YouTube video above! Surely, the two kushtis have to be related, right? Well…

Recall, that cushty is a borrowing from Romany (Indo-European) kushto/kushti, which, in turn, is known to have borrowed from Persian and Arabic. In the case of the Romany kushto/kushti, the borrowing could have been from the Persian khoši meaning ‘happiness’ or ‘pleasure’. It would have been very neat if this could be linked to the Kazakh күшті, however, there seems to be no connection there… Kazakh is a Turkic language and the etymology of күшті can be traced back to the Old Turkic root küč meaning ‘power’, which does not seem to have been borrowed from or connected with Persian. Certainly, had we been able to go back far enough, we might have found a common Indo-European-Turkic root in some Proto-Proto-Proto-Language. As things stand now, all we can do is admire what appears to be a wonderful coincidence, and enjoy the journeys on which a two-syllable word you’d overheard in the street might take you.

24 Oct 08:53

prokopetz:We say “English doesn’t make any sense” because saying “English is unusual in that, when...


We say “English doesn’t make any sense” because saying “English is unusual in that, when it borrows vocabulary from other languages, it tends to partially retain the morphology of the originating language group rather than adapting the word in question to English morphology, which is why we have twelve different ways to construct a plural” takes too long.

15 Oct 04:32

"Hospitals named after sandwiches kill five"

by Ben Zimmer

Sherlocution Holmes is an entertaining UK-based Twitter presence with a bio that reads, "Consultant detective tracking down the best (and worst!) linguistics and language examples." Many of the tweets are humorous illustrations of structural or semantic ambiguity, including many examples of "crash blossoms" — those double-take headlines that are ambiguous enough to be laughably misinterpreted. Here's one popular recent tweet.

It turns out that this is recycled from a tweet last June from the author Adam Macqueen:

The headline appeared in the (UK) Times on June 18, though the online version of the article now features slightly different wording: "Hospital trusts named after sandwiches kill five." (The headline was also noted in the Straight Dope and Black Cat Bone forums.)

Here are tree diagrams for the two possible readings of the headline:

In the intended reading, "named" is the main verb (with the copula "are" deleted as is typical in headlinese), while in the misparsed version, "named" is the verb in the reduced relative clause "named after sandwiches." It's similar to the type of ambiguity found in the classic garden-path sentence, "The horse raced past the barn fell" (where "raced" can be interpreted as the main verb or as the verb in the reduced relative clause "raced past the barn").

Replies to the tweets from Macqueen and Sherlocution Holmes took the idea of "hospitals named after sandwiches" and ran with it.

And so on.

14 Oct 01:51

I’m…not actually sure if I asked them to make the...

I’m…not actually sure if I asked them to make the word “multicolored” actually multicoloured but I am extremely pleased they did

Shoutout to the Kindle app for handling all the absurd formatting in Gretchen McCulloch’s amazing book Because Internet

10 Oct 16:13

"I think, like many linguists, I have a difficult time turning the linguistics part of my brain off...."

I think, like many linguists, I have a difficult time turning the linguistics part of my brain off. If you get me at the pub, I may be trying to listen to what you’re saying and then get distracted by your vowels. So to be interested in the way people talk on the internet is just a natural extension of being interested in how people talk around me on an everyday basis. […]

I think it’s easy to see people doing something different from you, and assume it must be haphazard, random, or they must not know “the right way” to do it. In reality, people are acting for deliberate reasons, and I’m figuring out what those reasons are.

I think that it can come as a tremendous relief to realise that you don’t have to be angry about language, you don’t have to be annoyed about people doing something different from you.

- Internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch: ‘I’m still figuring out what’s going on with the comma ellipsis’
09 Oct 02:57

Mars Is Heaven!

by Phil Plait

You probably hear a lot of news from NASA's many amazing Mars missions: the Curiosity rover, InSight, MRO, and more. NASA is good at promoting their stuff of course, but also the images returned from all these missions are truly wonderful.

You may not hear as much from the European Space Agency's Mars Express mission. Well, you may have heard about the lander Beagle 2: It set down safely on the surface, but two of the four solar panels didn't deploy, dooming that part of that mission.

But the orbiter part of the spacecraft has been running now for nearly 16 years. It takes images of the surface, maps the minerals there, and has lots of other instruments to poke and prod at the Red Planet to learn what's there. The science from the mission has been extremely valuable.

And so have the images. A lot of sweeping imagery has been returned by the mission, but one recently released made me literally gasp when I saw it. It's incredible:

An image of Mars, pole-to-pole, taken by the Mars Express mission on June 17, 2019. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

This was taken on June 17, 2019, so just a couple of months ago. Now have a care here: The original image is a massive 2,772 x 7,526 pixels. I had to shrink it by a factor of two to fit the blog here, and I also dropped the resolution (i.e. used JPEG compression) to keep the file size from being so big our servers would've choked on it. Grab the full-res version and just scan around it. It's magnificent.

The colors are exaggerated; what's shown as blue here is mostly grayish basaltic regions, though the wispy clouds seen near the north pole (top) do tend to look blue.

Speaking of, here's the north pole of Mars at near full resolution to give you a taste of this:

The north pole of Mars, seen by the Mars Express orbiter. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Wow. The north polar cap is mostly water ice with dust mixed in, with a thin layer of carbon dioxide ice that sublimates (turns to gas) every Martian summer. There are deep canyons there that you can see radiating away from the pole. Off to the right, just off the edge of the planet are more clouds seen edge-on.

Farther south, near the equator, is this incredible region:

The heavily cratered Arabia Terra region near the equator of Mars. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

This is the northeast corner of the vast Arabia Terra, a huge plain on Mars about 4,500 kilometers wide. The crater on the left is Cassini, which itself is over 400 km across. Whatever hit Mars to form it was big. Way bigger than the Dinosaur Killer that hit Earth 66 million years ago.

The 170-km-wide crater on the right (with the two smaller craters on its edge) is called Flammarion, named after astronomer Camille Flammarion, who studied Mars. He was quite an interesting character, and thought the canali seen by the Italian astronomer Schiaparelli were truly canals dug by a Martian civilization. Wealthy American astronomer Percival Lowell thought so as well, and built an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona just to observe Mars. He popularized the idea of Martians as a dying species, and, wrong as it was, even today that idea still resonates.

I urge you to grab the big image and just look around it. The ESA page has a lot more information about it, including a description of the weird topography of the planet. Head over there and give it a read; you'll get a deeper (haha) appreciation for how strange a world Mars is.

P.S. If you're wondering about the title of this article, you should read more Ray Bradbury.

24 Sep 21:21

"When you think of communication back in the early 21st century, you probably think of it as the..."

When you think of communication back in the early 21st century, you probably think of it as the beginnings of the modern phone. But you may not realize that it’s also the origin point for many words and linguistic constructions that we’re still using now, 200 years later. I’ve
been using the records at the Internet Archive to research the English of this fascinating historical era, and my research has led me to believe that we should take a more relaxed and curious attitude toward our own language changes in the 23rd century.

For example, did you know that there was a period between the 17th and the 20th centuries when English didn’t make a distinction between formal and informal ways of addressing someone? Shakespeare distinguished between formal “you” and informal “thou,” but our presentday distinction between formal “you” and informal “u” dates back only to the beginning of the internet age. How could people of this unfortunate era have had a true understanding of the Bard when they had no way to fully grasp the intimacy of the sonnets (“shall i compare u to a summer’s day / u are more lovely and more temperate”)?


So you’d imagine that early-21st-century people would have been really excited about this fascinating era that they were living in, right?

In my research, I came across so many doommongering quotes about how texting was ruining the English language, when we obviously now know it as a cultural renaissance in writing that ushered in the new genre of the textolary novel and other kinds of microfiction, not to mention creating now-classic nonfiction formats like the thread. (I drafted this op-ed as a thread myself, as any sensible writer would do, because how else would I stresstest each of my sentences to make sure they were all pithy and vital?)

As ridiculous as the fears of the past seem, when I read them, I found myself seeing with new light the fears of the present. We’ve all heard the complaints about how the youths are communicating these days — many of us even have complained about it ourselves. But what will the people of the 25th century think, looking back at our 23rd-century rants about kids refusing to say “no worries” in response to “thank you?” Won’t they be totally accustomed to hearing “it’s nothing” or its even more reviled short form “snothin” by then?


How arrogant of us to think that, amid all of the possible eras of the English language, it somehow peaked exactly one generation ago, in the 22nd century. How foolish the critics of those bygone years look in their disdain for their own century and reverence for the 20th or the 21st. How clear it is, from the perspective of history, that when we mythologize the English of a previous age, all we’re doing is creating a moving target that we can never quite hit.

We can break this cycle. We don’t have to wait until the 23rd century passes into history before we start appreciating its linguistic innovations. We don’t have to use language as a tool for demonstrating intellectual superiority when we could be using it as a way of connecting with each other.


Gretchen McCulloch, How Can You Appreciate 23rd-Century English? Look Back 200 Years

Part of the New York Times Op-Eds From the Future series, in which science fiction authors, futurists, philosophers and scientists write Op-Eds that they imagine we might read 10, 50 or even 200 years from now. 

17 Sep 20:38

funereal-disease: As promised, here’s the masterpost of names once considered “made up” or otherwise...


As promised, here’s the masterpost of names once considered “made up” or otherwise bizarre that are perfectly cromulent today: 

  • Shirley: Derived from a place name meaning “bright clearing”, this was originally a surname. It was almost unheard of as a given name until actress Shirley Temple’s popularity engendered a huge spike, around 1935. 
  • Vanessa: Invented by Jonathan Swift in 1726 for his poem “Cadenus and Vanessa”. 
  • Madison: An English surname meaning “son of Maud”, it was almost completely unheard of as a first name (at least for girls) until the movie Splash
  • Ashley: A surname derived from the Old English for “ash tree clearing”. An exclusively male name until the 1960s. 
  • Beverly: Another place surname, this one meaning “beaver stream”. Used for boys since the 19th century, became popular for girls after the 1904 novel Beverly of Graustark
  • Lorelei: A rock headland on the Rhine. 
  • Eleanor: Literally “the other Aenor”. More here
  • Percival: Invented by 12th-century poet Chrétien de Troyes. 
  • Jessica: Invented by Shakespeare in 1596, possibly based on the Hebrew Jescha
  • Lucinda: A variant of Lucia first used by Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote (1605). 
  • Norma: Seldom used before 1831, when it was popularized by Felice Romani’s opera of the same name.
  • Elaine: Popularized after Tennyson’s Arthurian epic Idylls of the King (1859). 
  • Nemo: Means “nobody” in Latin. First used as a name by Jules Verne in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870).

There’s plenty more where that came from. This is merely a sample to indicate that there’s no need to clutch your pearls over the crazy names “moms these days” are making up. “Making it up out of thin air” or “pointing to a nearby object” are as historically legitimate a means of naming your child as anything else. 

My personal favourite example of a made-up name that now doesn’t register as made-up is Wendy, which JM Barrie created for Peter Pan “from the nickname fwendy “friend”, given to the author by a young friend.” 

13 Sep 21:07

Earth-Like Exoplanet

Fire is actually a potential biosignature, since it means something is filling the atmosphere with an unstable gas like oxygen. If we find a planet covered in flames, it might be an indicator that it supports life. Or used to, anyway, before the fire.
12 Sep 14:14

Swot swat?

by Mark Liberman

Boris Johnson called  Jeremy Corbyn a "big girl's blouse"  in parliament last Wednesday, and on Friday it was revealed that he had referred to David Cameron as a "girly swot" in a cabinet note.  For Americans not versed in British slang, the OED tells us that a swot is "one who studies hard", and explains that swot as an abstract noun refers to "Work or study at school or college; in early use spec. mathematics". The Guardian story tells us that

It is not the first time Johnson has used the insult about the former prime minister. In 2013, when he was London mayor, Johnson called Cameron and his brother, Jo, "girly swots" for gaining first-class degrees at university, when the current prime minister had to make do with a 2:1.

and links to a tweet from MP Allison McGovern asking "What is it about big smart women Boris Johnson doesn't like?"

A possible clue emerged during the Leo Varadkar's contribution to yesterday's joint press conference with Johnson:

The Irish Prime Minister said:

If there is no deal,
it'll cause severe disruption
for British and Irish people alike.
Not so much on the continent.
And whatever happens,
we'll have to get back to the negotiating table quite quickly.
And when we do,
the first items on the agenda
will be citizens' rights,
the financial settlement,
and the Irish border —
all issues which we had resolved
in the withdrawal agreement made with your predecessor,
an agreement made in good faith by twenty eight governments.
But if there is a deal,
and I think it's possible,
we'll enter talks on a future relationship agreement
between the E.U. and the U.K.
It's going to be very tough,
we'll have to deal with issues like tariffs,
fishing rights, product standards, state aid.
And it will then have to be ratified by 31 parliaments.
Prime minister, negotiating F.T.A.s with the E.U. and the U.S.,
and securing their ratification in less than three years,
I think is going to be a herculean task for you.
But we do want to be your friend, and your ally —
your Athena —
in doing so.

As the Guardian explains ("Why did Varadkar say he wanted to be Athena to Johnson's Hercules? The Irish PM cited a Greek goddess famous for knocking Hercules out to prevent him causing further damage", 9/9/2019):

In Greek mythology, the goddess Athena did assist Hercules as an ally during the performance of his 12 labours. She provided, for example, bronze krotala – noise-makers similar to castanets – to help him scare off the flock of Stymphalian birds. And in some versions of the tale she was also of service to him by returning to their rightful place the golden apples of the gods that Hercules had been asked to obtain.

But it is perhaps her most dramatic intervention in the life of Hercules that Varadkar was obliquely referring to.

Hercules was obliged to perform the 12 labours as an act of penitence after he had descended into madness and murdered his wife, Megara, and his children. At the moment he was about to go on and kill the man who had fostered him, Amphitryon, Athena intervened. Seeing that he had gone mad, she struck Hercules down and knocked him out to prevent him causing more bloodshed and doing more damage than he had already done.

Very much what you would hope for from a friend and ally, but maybe not what you would want to hear on the international stage at a moment of tense diplomacy.

Athena is the goddess of "wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, strategic warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts, and skill" — the original "girly (goddess of) swot", here threatening to deliver another well-deserved swat.


11 Sep 16:06


by S J Tamsett

For Jonah

For year and years,

I thought I had invented it.

A collage from stories,

Nature documentaries,

And Time Life picture books;

You can’t forget something so huge!

But no one remembered the whale.

No one but me.

My visual memories are rare and scattered,

So why would one be

Blubber and whale skin,

A strange, chthonic smell,

And size, oh, sweet Jesus,

The monstrous size of it.

It’s deathly pale underbelly

That massive gaping jaw,

And it’s dead, empty eye.

So vacant, and yet so sad.

I remember I wanted to touch it.

That strange, cold, fishy flesh.

I wanted to stroke it, to soothe it somehow.

I felt it wanted comforting, that it was lonely.

Perhaps I sensed somehow

That he was missing his brothers.

I saw a whale! It stuck in my head.

It was at Belle Vue Zoo,

Because where else would it be?

Lying, beached, on a flatbed truck,

Labelled as if it were a frog

In a school science lesson.

The stench of formaldehyde

Wreathing the air all around.

Someone must have been with me

That day, when I saw it.

Someone must have taken me.

I was only a child.

But no one remembered.

And for so long it seemed like some mad dream.

No mention in the press.

It’s as if no one noticed

A dead whale being driven around the country.

It’s not something surely

You can do without one person

Thinking they might take a snap?

So it just became the strange thing

That I made up one day,

And I couldn’t explain why

When I saw pictures of whales,

I felt so odd, so melancholy.

As if there was something I needed to remember,

But had forgotten how.

Like finding my way back to the sea.

When I was at high school,

There were specimens

Preserved in formaldehyde

And the smell made me feel

Like I missed the sea, for no reason

I could really name.

And I longed to set the long-dead

Invertebrates free from their jars.

Like a modern Frankenstein

Of the fourth form.

I unscrewed too many lids

And some were never the same again.

Then one day, very recently,

I saw someone had created an art exhibit

To commemorate three long dead whales.

And their names were Goliath,

Jonah and Hercules,

And they had toured Europe

From the 50s until the 70s

On the back of three huge trucks.

And I felt like I could cry

For that beautiful sad whale

I saw, so long ago.

Who wasn’t ever a dream.

And who had never found his way

Back to the sea again.

The story goes that he’s frozen

Somewhere in storage,

Like a fairytale princess.

And now I dream about him again

That I wake him from decades of slumber.

And one day at last,

He finds his way back

To the sea again,

And he returns to the deep dark places

Where he always belonged.

02 Sep 18:16

culmaer: at this point I think we’re all familiar with the etymologies, that the animals “chicken,...


at this point I think we’re all familiar with the etymologies, that the animals “chicken, cow, sheep, pig” are all Germanic, Anglosaxon, words, but the culinary equivalents “poultry, beef, mutton, pork” all derive from Norman French

but 〜fun fact〜 almost the exact same phenomenon exists in isiXhosa !!!

inkuku and inkomo are refer to the animals, chicken and cow, while the meats are usually called ichicken and ibeef. there’s still an awareness that they’re loans, which is why the spelling isn’t *itshigini for example, but it’s ubiquitous in the spoken language

apparently, mutton and pork are usually still called inyama yegusha and inyama yehagu (lit. sheep meat and pig meat) and I’ve definitely never heard *imutton before so that checks out (though *ipork sounds familiar ?)… and in formal, written contexts one uses those same constructions for beef and chicken : inyama yenkomo and inyama yenkuku

02 Sep 14:01


by Jed

On Tumblr a year or two back, in a discussion of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah,” user bigscaryd noted that the phrase “tag your favorite line of hallelujah” scans to the meter of the song.

Which led to other people creating new meta-verses to the song. Like this from animatedamerican:

you tried to read the words as prose

but noticed how its scansion goes

and now you can’t unhear the tune, so screw ya

recall the phrase you love the most

then once again reblog this post

and tag your fav’rite line of hallelujah

For a few more comments along similar lines, see amatalefay’s response.