Happy Birthday OK!

March 23, 2020

On this date in 1839, the initials “O.K.” were first published in The Boston Morning Post, meant as an abbreviation for “oll korrect,” a popular slang misspelling of “all correct” at the time.

The Boston Magazine has the full story.


Listophilia

March 16, 2020

I have always loved writing, words, languages. It is one of the great joys of my life that the final chapter of my working life was as a professional writer.

I remember with the clarity of the senile the day in 1960 I first discovered Roget’s Thesaurus. It was a moment of sheer ecstasy for a 10-year old boy with undiagnosed OCD and an over-developed love for words. Pages of words. Lists of words. Lists of words in clever categories. Words referring back to other words. I spent several months reading it from front to back. To hell with God, this was heaven.

This nostalgic torrent was unleashed through the agency of Jonathan Yardley’s review of Joshua Kendall’s biography of Peter Mark Roget. From the review I was fascinated to learn that the Thesaurus for Roget was a form of therapy for depression.

“As a boy, he stumbled upon a remarkable discovery — that compiling lists of words could provide solace, no matter what misfortunes might befall him. He was particularly fond of cataloguing the objects, both animate and inanimate, in his environment. As an adult, he kept returning to the classification of words and concepts. Immersion in the nuances of language could invariably both energize him and keep his persistent anxiety at bay.”

I’m sure I know exactly how he felt.


Wither Punctuation?

January 29, 2020

There is a very good article in History Today by Florence Hazrat on the history (and possible future) of punctuation.  She notes that:

“In classical times there were no punctuation marks or spaces between words. Since punctuation determines sense (‘Let’s eat, Grandpa’ versus ‘Let’s eat Grandpa’), scriptio continua allowed scribes to offer their masters a clean text, waiting to be interpreted by those higher up the social ladder. Writing was merely a recording of, or preparation for, speech: any punctuation that was inserted had oratorical, rather than grammatical, functions, indicating the degree of pauses upon delivery only.”

When classical texts were being rediscovered and copied in the early Middle Ages, scribes added various pauses to assist comprehension and these eventually developed into the comma, the colon, and the full stop.

“The 15th century saw a boom of inventive punctuation, including the exclamation mark, the semicolon and brackets (or parentheses). New marks arise when a lack of clarity needs to be redressed, communication controlled and sense disambiguated, an emergency perhaps stemming from greater reliance on written diplomacy as well as the newly fashionable art of letter writing.”

The semi-colon made an appearance first in 1494; while the dash and the ellipsis had to wait until the 18th century.

She concludes with a warning and a suggestion:

“When constant availability makes us minimise the effort and time we devote to messages, one may assume that punctuation is doomed. After all, December 2019 saw the demise of the Apostrophe Protection Society, because the ‘ignorance and laziness present in modern times have won’, according to its former president. Yet studies on the use of the full stop in text messaging have shown that we do care about punctuation, even in a medium that promises endless continuation. When is it time to not send another text back? A full stop, the study suggests, comes across as aggressive and cuts conversation short. Perhaps a new mark is necessary?

 


When “Fuck” Actually Meant Something

November 13, 2019

It is hard to imagine that hearing the word “fuck” used in a casual conversation would shock many people these days. We hear it so much — on TV, in films, on the bus, in the playground — that is has become little more than an annoyance of constant repetition.   However there was a time, in my remembrance, when the word carried real freight.

Fifty-four years ago today, on 13 November 1965, I was part of the audience for a BBC late-night satirical show called BBC-3. On the show was the renowned theatre critic and public intellectual Kenneth Tynan. In an answer to a question about sex in plays, he said: “I doubt if there are any rational people to whom the word ‘fuck’ would be particularly diabolical, revolting or totally forbidden.”

This was quickly recognized as the first deliberate use of the word on the BBC and the event became a weekend sensation for the more lurid media.  In 1988, Paul Johnson called the moment, Tynans’s “masterpiece of calculated self-publicity.”

Times have changed.


A Question For Etymologists: Skulk

October 10, 2019

I am looking to find the ultimate origin of the English word SKULK which, in the southern England that I grew up in, means to hang around, in a semi-concealed fashion, for some underhanded purpose.  “That burglar is skulking around the neighbourhood.”

In all the etymological dictionaries that I have examined, the word origin is given as Scandinavian from the 12th or 13th century.  For example: Danish “skulke“, Swedish “skolka“, and Icelandic “skolla.”  Those derivations are from Walter Skeat’s Dictionary, and similar derivations can be found at various online dictionaries such here, here, and here.  Normally that would be that; all the sources agree.

However, I have also been read 1985 PhD dissertation on the settlement of 6th and 7th century northern Italy by the Langobards who came from Pannonia which is roughly Croatia, and northern parts of Serbia and Bosnia-Herzeogivana.  In a discussion of military organization, the author mentions: “the sculca, denoting a spying or reconnaissance group or look-out … it was of Germanic origin which passed into Byzantine usage.”

Sculca as spies or look outs and skulking seem awfully close in both meaning and sound.  Could the Scandinavians have picked up the earlier word via the Germanic tribes between Lombardy and the Baltic?  Or perhaps both words derive from a proto-Germanic or even PIE original. Is there any debate on this anywhere?


Deep History

October 6, 2019

A quick review of  David W. Anthony’s extraordinarily fine 2007 volume:  The Horse, the Wheel and Language“.

It has a sub-title that I am sure came from the publisher’s marketing department rather than from the author — “How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World.”  However, this is not a text that is aimed at the popular market. It is a thoroughly documented 500-page academic essay on the development of culture and the birth of various language families within the period from about 9,000 years ago to roughly 4,000 years ago in the area stretching from south-east Europe through the central Asian steppes.

That probably doesn’t sound particularly exciting to most people. But for the minority of us who try to keep up with research on the period between the last glaciation (say, 20,000 years ago) and the birth of “modern” society (5,000 to 8,000 years ago), who are fascinated by the origin and development of languages, and who are interested in the beginnings of certain cultural forms (hierarchy, for example) and technologies, this is a work of seminal importance.

Anthony brings together his own archaeological work and the previously unavailable texts of the most recent generation of Russian and East European scholars and creates a highly refined synthesis that argues, convincingly to me, at least, that horses were first domesticated in the grasslands of the central Eurasian steppes, and that horse-riding played a significant role in the expansion of what would become the Indo-European languages (including, much later, the dominant English language).  Along the way, he examines the beginnings of Indo-European myths, the establishment of the guest-host relationship, leadership functions, funeral practices, the purpose of feasting, the origin of wagons and chariots, and a wide range of other topics that, in their modern manifestation, dominate our lives today.

Anthony writes very well but it cannot be denied that, for the general reader without some background in these subjects, there are some difficult sections.  They are well worth the effort, though, for the understanding that this research brings with it.  I cannot recommend this too highly to anyone interested in this stuff.


Ur-Symbols

March 5, 2019

One of my enduring interests is the history of language in general, the historical and genetic links between each language in a language family (Indo-European, for example, or Niger-Congo), and between each of the families into which we have divided the earth’s 7,000+ spoken and written forms of communication.

Languages, like all living forms, evolve and change. We know that each language and each language family had earlier forms, known as proto-languages; and there has been speculation that all languages are ultimately derived from some original or ur-language.  I haven’t accepted that thesis for quite some time, preferring instead to believe that language — being so vital to the complex world that the fast-rising homo genus was creating — evolved multiple times in multiple locations.

That being said, and while understanding that language and writing are not the same thing, Canadian paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has presented evidence that the same symbols of human communication might well be global at a period many thousands of years before the Sumerians “invented” writing.

 

In fact, she suggests that this system is “a carryover from modern humans’ migration into Europe from Africa” tens of thousands of years ago. ‘This does not look like the start-up phase of a brand-new invention,’ she writes.”

Like much cutting edge science, this analysis remains to be proven or otherwise. In the meanwhile, it allows for fascinating speculation.


Looking For Love With The Oxford Comma

February 22, 2019

Image: from Reddit

I have always used the Oxford comma. Because of it, I have been abused by grammar “purists”, marked down in school, and “corrected” by copy editors all my life it seems, but still I am happy to cheer lead for it. The battle for and against the Oxford comma is deeply divisive but limited, or so I thought, to those who write a lot. No more, according to an article in GQ:

“Recently, the Oxford comma has found a spot on the Bingo card of online-dating profiles, alongside mainstays like “no hookups,” “no drama,” and “420 friendly.” Whether you’re mindlessly grazing on Tinder or Bumble, OkCupid or Match.com, you’re now as likely to learn someone’s thoughts on the Oxford comma as you are their job title or their penchant for tacos. On the Tinder subreddit, which has 1.8 million subscribers, one user lamented that the Oxford comma features in “like a quarter of bios ’round my parts.” Another said, “It’s everywhere.” Even a journal entry on Tinder’s own blog mentions it: “Honestly, I’m not sure how compatible I can be with someone who is anti-the Oxford comma.”

I sympathize with that final cri de coeur.  However, is it really so important that it can affect your love life?  According to GQ, it is a reliable class signifier:

“The blue-blood punctuation mark, named after the Oxford University Press, acts as a social signifier, a sieve for the bookish and studious (and, perhaps, pretentious). It suggests personality traits that extend far beyond punctuation preferences …  I think it suggests care. It suggests somebody who’s structured and disciplined and not a slob … Somebody who’s into detail, who likes precision. Somebody who has standards.”

Gosh. Who knew?


History of the English Language in 10 Minutes

December 12, 2018


Listophilia

January 14, 2018

I have always loved writing, words, languages. It is one of the great joys of my life that the final chapter of my working life was as a professional writer.

I remember with the clarity of the senile the day in 1960 I first discovered Roget’s Thesaurus. It was a moment of sheer ecstasy for a 10-year old boy with undiagnosed OCD and an over-developed love for words. Pages of words. Lists of words. Lists of words in clever categories. Words referring back to other words. I spent several months reading it from front to back. To hell with God, this was heaven.

This nostalgic torrent was unleashed through the agency of Jonathan Yardley’s review of Joshua Kendall’s biography of Peter Mark Roget. From the review I was fascinated to learn that the Thesaurus for Roget was a form of therapy for depression.

“As a boy, he stumbled upon a remarkable discovery — that compiling lists of words could provide solace, no matter what misfortunes might befall him. He was particularly fond of cataloguing the objects, both animate and inanimate, in his environment. As an adult, he kept returning to the classification of words and concepts. Immersion in the nuances of language could invariably both energize him and keep his persistent anxiety at bay.”

I’m sure I know exactly how he felt.


When “Fuck” Actually Meant Something

November 13, 2015

It is hard to imagine that hearing the word “fuck” used in a casual conversation would shock many people these days. We hear it so much — on TV, in films, on the bus, in the playground — that is has become little more than an annoyance of constant repetition.   However there was a time, in my remembrance, when the word carried real freight.

Fifty years ago today, on 13 November 1965, I was part of the audience for a BBC late-night satirical show called BBC-3. On the show was the renowned theatre critic and public intellectual Kenneth Tynan. In an answer to a question about sex in plays, he said: “I doubt if there are any rational people to whom the word ‘fuck’ would be particularly diabolical, revolting or totally forbidden.”

This was quickly recognized as the first deliberate use of the word on the BBC and the event became a weekend sensation for the more lurid media.  In 1988, Paul Johnson called the moment, Tynans’s “masterpiece of calculated self-publicity.”

Times have changed.


Alphabetical

March 9, 2015

I went for a long ride on the #20 and then the #9 (and return) followed by lunch at The Dime today, which allowed me lots of time to finish up a wonderful book called “Alphabetical” by Michael Rosen.

This thick 400+ page tome has 27 chapters, one for each of the letters in the English alphabet plus a chapter on word games at the end.  Each of the first 26 chapters gives a brief history of each letter and a summation of its use in English, followed by a short essay on a subject that is more or less related (for example “C is for Ciphers”, and “P is for Pitman”).  Academic snobs might pooh-pooh the lack of footnotes and specific citations, but this is a lively read full of fascinating detail and personal anecdotes about all things alphabetical.

The author, Michael Rosen, knows whereof he speaks. He is an accomplished poet and host of the BBC Radio show about language, “Word of Mouth“.

I enjoyed this immensely and thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in language and symbols.


On Dictionaries

January 25, 2015

While suffering — though definitely not in silence — from some nasty bug that has laid me low for three days now and shows few signs of abating, I have at least had a chance to rest and read. One of the most interesting pieces I got to spend time on is this marvelous Slate piece about the creation of the 4th edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary — the OED of American English.

Merriam-Webster have caught up with the times:

More than half a century after it was published, the company’s landmark book—Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, known in lexicographic circles as Webster’s Third, W3, the Unabridged, or the Third—is getting an overhaul. The Third is a behemoth—4 inches thick, 13½ pounds, 2,700 pages—that falls like a crashing wave when opened. A fourth edition, by contrast, might never exist as a physical object. This latest revision, a project Merriam-Webster hopes will secure its dominance in the tenuous business of commercial lexicography if not ensure its future survival, is happening entirely online.

The article includes some fascinating snippets about the history of dictionary-making in America, and provides insights into how the old and the new are melding in the current production. For example:

The New Words file contains about 1,700 nominees for word-dom. But it isn’t the sum and substance of the Unabridged revision. Merriam plans to re-examine and when necessary—and it’s usually necessary—rewrite each of more than 476,000 entries from the most recent printing of the Third, in 2002, when the original 1961 edition, plus its seven addenda, was first made available online.

An incredible task and not without its risks from a business perspective. After all, with no physical book to sell, the potential revenue streams are more difficult to assess:

On its face, this might sound like a terrible plan. Merriam has tasked the majority of its employees with rewriting a book that likely won’t generate revenue the old-fashioned way, through hardcover sales. The project involves the subscription-only Unabridged site, not Merriam’s free online dictionary, which is based on its smaller desktop book, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. So there’s no guarantee it will find enough customers willing to pay $29.95 a year to turn a profit. Plus, the work could take decades to complete. By the time the Third gets close to being a Fourth, it’s not clear how people will use a dictionary, or even what a dictionary will be.

This is a wonderful piece for anyone interested in the future of vocabulary and the use of dictionaries. Thoroughly recommended.


English As She Is Not

December 19, 2014

english

I just love this. It is from the always creative Michael Ciancio.


Globish

December 15, 2014

That “English” has become the predominant language around the world might seem to us, lazing around on the west coast of North America, as a truism.  But Robert McCrum and other watchers of the cultural milieu have noticed something far more subtle.  The language they see as taking over is called “Globish”, a de-politicized non-Anglo Saxon version of English with a basic vocabulary of about 1,500 words.  McCrum quotes Times journalist Ben McIntyre who

waiting for a flight from Delhi, had overheard a conversation between a Spanish UN peacekeeper and an Indian soldier. “The Indian spoke no Spanish; the Spaniard spoke no Punjabi. Yet they understood one another easily. The language they spoke was a highly simplified form of English, without grammar or structure, but perfectly comprehensible, to them and to me.  Only now,” he concluded, “do I realise that they were speaking ‘Globish’, the newest and most widely spoken language in the world.”

McCrum traces the history:

British English had enjoyed global supremacy throughout the 19th century in the days of empire. Then, broadly speaking, its power and influence had passed to the Americans in the 20th century (through the agency of two world wars). After that, during the cold war, Anglo-American culture and values became as much part of global consciousness as the combustion engine. From 1945 to 1989, hardly a transaction in the modern world was innocent of English in some form – but its scope was always limited by its troubled association with British imperialism and the pax Americana. Now that seemed to be all in the past … Things had changed … English language and culture were becoming decoupled from their contentious heritage, disassociated from post-colonial trauma.

McCrum concludes that “the emergence of English as a global communications phenomenon which can celebrate a real independence from its Anglo-American roots is potentially decisive”, especially on the Internet.  Interesting stuff.


A Question For Etymologists

March 1, 2014

I am looking to find the ultimate origin of the English word SKULK which, in the southern England that I grew up in, means to hang around, in a semi-concealed fashion, for some underhanded purpose.  “That burglar is skulking around the neighbourhood.”

In all the etymological dictionaries that I have examined, the word origin is given as Scandinavian from the 12th or 13th century.  For example: Danish “skulke“, Swedish “skolka“, and Icelandic “skolla.”  Those derivations are from Walter Skeat’s Dictionary, and similar derivations can be found at various online dictionaries such here, here, and here.  Normally that would be that; all the sources agree.

However, today I have been reading a 1985 PhD dissertation on the settlement of 6th and 7th century northern Italy by the Langobards who came from Pannonia which is roughly Croatia, and northern parts of Serbia and Bosnia-Herzeogivana.  In a discussion of military organization, the author mentions: “the sculca, denoting a spying or reconnaissance group or look-out … it was of Germanic origin which passed into Byzantine usage.”

Sculca as spies or look outs and skulking seem awfully close in both meaning and sound.  Could the Scandinavians have picked up the earlier word via the Germanic tribes between Lombardy and the Baltic?  Or perhaps both words derive from a proto-Germanic or even PIE original. Is there any debate on this anywhere?


The History of English in Ten Minutes

November 13, 2013

My ever-loving found this brilliant animation for me.  Ten minutes that cannot fail to amuse and educate.


Deep History

August 15, 2013

While all this local politics business has been exercising me for weeks now, I have just about managed to keep up my reading. This month’s tome has been David W. Anthony’s extraordinarily fine 2007 volume:  “The Horse, the Wheel and Language“.

It has a sub-title that I am sure came from the publisher’s marketing department rather than from the author — “How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World.”  However, this is not a text that is aimed at the popular market. It is a thoroughly documented 500-page academic essay on the development of culture and the birth of various language families within the period from about 9,000 years ago to roughly 4,000 years ago in the area stretching from south-east Europe through the central Asian steppes.

That probably doesn’t sound particularly exciting to most people. But for the minority of us who try to keep up with research on the period between the last glaciation (say, 20,000 years ago) and the birth of “modern” society (5,000 to 8,000 years ago), who are fascinated by the origin and development of languages, and who are interested in the beginnings of certain cultural forms (hierarchy, for example) and technologies, this is a work of seminal importance.

Anthony brings together his own archaeological work and the previously unavailable texts of the most recent generation of Russian and East European scholars and creates a highly refined synthesis that argues, convincingly to me, at least, that horses were first domesticated in the grasslands of the central Eurasian steppes, and that horse-riding played a significant role in the expansion of what would become the Indo-European languages (including, much later, the dominant English language).  Along the way, he examines the beginnings of Indo-European myths, the establishment of the guest-host relationship, leadership functions, funeral practices, the purpose of feasting, the origin of wagons and chariots, and a wide range of other topics that, in their modern manifestation, dominate our lives today.

Anthony writes very well but it cannot be denied that, for the general reader without some background in these subjects, there are some difficult sections.  They are well worth the effort, though, for the understanding that this research brings with it.  I cannot recommend this too highly to anyone interested in this stuff.


Muons For Mayans

September 1, 2008

OK, I’m excited.  Particle physics and archaeology are coming together to investigate Mayan mounds, most of which have not been excavated.  No-one really knows what is inside these impressive structures.  But now, scientists working with muon detectors are coming to help.

The first major experiment of the Maya Muon Group will bridge the disciplines of physics and archeology. The particle detectors and related systems are designed specifically to explore ruins of a Maya pyramid in collaboration with colleagues at the UT Mesoamerican Archaeological Laboratory. The Maya Muon Group will travel to La Milpa in northwest Belize to make discoveries about “Structure 1” – a jungle-covered mound covering an unexplored Maya ruin.

Pointing out that dense materials block more muons, Patel explains that a muon detector can actually detect rooms, spaces, and caves inside what seems to be solid:  A detector next to a Maya pyramid, for example, will see fewer particles coming from the direction of the structure than from other angles: a muon “shadow.” And if a part of that pyramid is less dense than expected – containing an open space for, say, a royal burial – it will have less of a shadow. Count enough muons that have passed through the pyramid over the course of several months, and they will form an image of its internal structure, just like light makes an image on film. Then combine the images from three or four devices and a 3-D reconstruction of the pyramid’s guts will take shape.

Fascinating stuff.  The article at BLDGBLOG goes much further and is well worth the read.


Listening To Mayan And Protecting Quechua

June 18, 2008

The work of making the Mayan language, as found on their numerous buildings and monuments, available to researchers today has been one of the triumphs of linguistic and anthropological research.  Success has only come in the last couple of decades, but the output of completed and ongoing projects has been immense.

It was a thrill, therefore, to fall over the Nova site supporting their TV show’s look at the decipherment of Mayan.   If you follow the link to the Interactive Feature, you can actually hear the Mayan language of a stela dedication spoken while the English translation of each glyph is discussed in brief but fascinating detail.

It is quickly being forgotten that less than twenty years ago, we did not have the technology to make this research available to any but a limited few researchers.  We need to keep reminding ourselves about how lucky we are.

Further south, in the lands of the Inca, Demetrio Tupac Yupanqui’s new translation of “Don Quixote” into Quechua is helping to boost the once-imperial language that had fallen on hard times.

Once the lingua franca of the Inca empire, Quechua has long been in decline. But thanks to Tupac Yupanqui and others, Quechua, which remains the most widely spoken indigenous language in the Americas, is winning some new respect. Tupac Yupanqui’s elegant translation of a major portion of “Don Quixote” has been celebrated as a pioneering development for Quechua, which in many far-flung areas remains an oral language. While the Incas spoke Quechua, they had no written alphabet, leaving perplexed archaeologists to wonder how they managed to assemble and run an empire without writing.

Both Google and Microsft have versions in Quechua, and the current government in Bolivia is trying to make fluency in Quechua a condition of civil service advancement.  It might well survive.