Archive for Names

Novel illness name of the week

News is leaking out about DSM-5, the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the central reference book of mental illnesses for the psychiatric profession, due to be published in May 2013. Journalists who have been delving into the details of its proposed new listings (it is up for comment by the medical community at the moment) are finding rich pickings in jargon-encapsulated official names for new mental conditions. I think my vote for new illness name of the week has to go to disruptive mood dysregulation disorder. This would be the new DSM-5 term for temper tantrums. Is your child (or indeed, your domestic partner) sicker than you thought?

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The economics of Chinese character usage

Under the above rubric, my friend Apollo Wu sent around a note (copied below) about the economic impact of the use of Chinese characters in the operation of his business.  Since Apollo was for many years (from 1973 to 1998) a top translator in the Chinese Translation Service at United Nations headquarters in New York, he knows whereof he speaks.  Among other interesting tidbits that I heard from Apollo over the decades was that, of the official languages of the United Nations (Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Castilian Spanish) Chinese was by far the least efficient and most expensive to process.

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Must Cinco de Mayo fall on the 5th of May?

Last night Jay Leno presented an advertisement by someone a little bit confused about Mexican(-American) culture: it urged people to get ready for Cinco de Mayo on May 6th. "Cinco de Mayo" of course means "the fifth of May". In this case the confusion is real – Cinco de Mayo does not fall on the sixth of May, but in theory it could. "Cinco de Mayo" is the name of a holiday. The holiday is named after the day on which it falls, but the name is not itself a date. That means that we can imagine a future in which the holiday is still named "Cinco de Mayo" but falls on another date. It might be decided to celebrate on another day but to keep the traditional name, or Mexico might adapt a different calendar, one that had no month called "Mayo".

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On my blog, an inventory of postings (mostly from Language Log) on arthrousness, here, plus a fresh note on anarthrous U.S., here.

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There aren't as many plants as we thought

It is well known that the same organism may be known by different common names in different areas (e.g. "cougar", "panther", "puma", and "mountain lion") and that the same common name may be used for different organisms in different areas (e.g. "blackberry"), but the assumption is that (pseudo-)Latin scientific names like Achillea millefolium "yarrow" are unique. Recent work by Kew Gardens and the Missouri Botanical Garden, with numerous collaborators, has revealed that this is not quite true: of 1.04 million species-level names, they classified only about 300,00 (29%) as accepted names. They classified 480,000 names (46%) as synonyms for accepted names and 260,000 (25%) as unresolved, meaning that the available data is not sufficient to determine whether or not they designate distinct species. By way of example, a query for Achillea millefolium reveals that it has synonyms such as Achillea ambigua, Achillea angustissima, Achillea borealis, and even some in other genera, such as Chamaemelum tanacetifolium. You can look things up yourself at The Plant List.

No word yet on beetles.

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Tiggy does an infix

I think perhaps the most delicious name I have ever encountered on a real human being, certainly on anyone moderately well known, is Tiggy Legge-Bourke. I don't know why I find it so deliciously silly, but I do. Tiggy was back in the news the other day because she had a reaction to the recently announced royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton — a much less sour and disloyal one than that of the Mad Bishop), and more newsworthy than most people's, because Tiggy used to be Prince William's nanny. (For a long time the newspapers had tried to establish that she had been Prince Charles's lover as well, but that never came to anything.) Tiggy's comment on the news of the nuptials was: "fan-flaming-tastic".

That kind of infixing of an expletive in the middle of what is quite clearly a single morpheme is well known to linguists, and has some intrinsic interest, but one doesn't see it that often in the newspapers, so I cherished this instance. Coming in a story mentioning Tiggy Legge-Bourke, it was (for me) a small extravaganza of linguistic pleasures.

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Pullum Xhani and Snowclone

A bit of silliness as the U.S. Revolutionary holiday winds down.

Facebook just suggested to me that I might want to friend Pullum Xhani. I was, of course, intrigued by the name, but found nothing illuminating in what Pullum Xhani was willing to provide on his page — nothing but name, sex, and a photo of anime characters. Pursuing things a bit further, I seem to have discovered that the name is Albanian, with Xhani being a reasonably commonly Albanian family name (well, in the top 100, though just barely) and that Pullum is an Albanian personal name. Geoff take note. (I say "seem to have discovered" because the pages I pulled up were all in Albanian, and though Albanian is an Indo-European language it's about as opaque to me as Mongolian or Aymara. So I could easily have misunderstood things.)

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Name change

Richard Smith, a 41-year-old care worker in Carlisle, England, did not think his name did justice to the exciting person that he actually was, so he changed his name by deed poll. The new name he chose was Stormhammer Deathclaw Firebrand.

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Toyota and Toyoda

The testimony of Toyota president and CEO Akio Toyoda regarding problems with his company's cars has raised the question of the relationship between his name and that of the company. They are related: he is the grandson of company founder Kiichiro Toyoda. Why then is the family name Toyoda but the company name Toyota? The BBC has done pretty good job on this question, but some further explanation may be useful.

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In the NYT

In the January 25 New York Times, two items that caught my eye:

First, a front-page piece on the Tohono O'odham Nation of southern Arizona: "In Drug War, Tribe Feels Invaded by Both Sides" (by Erik Eckholm). The tribe is pressed by drug smugglers and by federal agents, a combination that has made their lives difficult indeed.

Linguists will recognize the group as the people formerly known as the Papago (a name given them by unfriendly outsiders), whose (Uto-Aztecan) language is familiar to linguists through the work of the late Ken Hale and his student Ofelia Zepeda. Reading about the trials of the Tohono O'oodham is like hearing distressing news about an old friend.

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The exoplanet Achilles

From the Names Desk at Language Log Plaza, a bulletin from the October 31 New Scientist, p. 6:

ALIEN worlds deserve more romantic names. So says Wladimir Lyra at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, who has proposed mythological monikers for the known exoplanets.

The profusion of planets discovered around other stars in the past 15 years are known only by drab and hard to decipher strings of numbers and letters – at least officially. Instead, Lyra suggests that the 400 exoplanets found so far should be named after characters from Greek and Roman mythology, in the same way the planets in our own solar system were. For example, MOA-2007-BLG-400-Lb becomes "Achilles" (

Alas, Lyra's suggestions are unlikely to become official. The International Astronomical Union, which approves names for objects in our own solar system, considers it impractical to name exoplanets, given how many of them are likely to be discovered.

On beyond the dwarf planet Pluto and off to other worlds!

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Ig Nobel Onomastics

Polish Driver\'s License

First, a new twist on a story that our legal desk covered back in February: at the annual Ig Nobel awards ceremony earlier tonight, the Prize for Literature was awarded to the Garda Síochána na hÉireann (i.e. the Irish Police Force) for the 50 or more speeding tickets they've issued in the name "Prawo Jazdy", Polish for "driver's license."

And as if that wasn't enough onomastic excitement, the 2009 Ig Nobel Prize for Veterinary Medicine was awarded for work reported in Bertenshaw, C. and Rowlinson, P., Exploring Stock Managers' Perceptions of the Human-Animal Relationship on Dairy Farms and an Association with Milk Production, Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People and Animals 22:1, pp. 59-69, 2009. Specifically, Dr. Bertenshaw and Dr. Rowlinson share the prize for their demonstration that (and here I quote from the article's abstract): "On farms where cows were called by name, milk yield was 258 liters higher than on farms where this was not the case (p < 0.001)."

Yet all this groundbreaking research leaves me with more questions than answers. What is the causal direction behind the correlation? And if my cow produced 238 liters too little milk, would I admit to the researchers the names I used for her? And how much milk can an Irish policeman get from a speeding Polish cow?

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Sino-American Name Reversion

Yesterday an applicant from China came to my office and introduced herself to me as Runxiao ("Moist Dawn").  However, in previous correspondence, she had always referred to herself as Layn (a variant of Lane; other variants of the name Lane are:  Laen, Laene, Lain, Laine, Laney, Lanie, Layn, Layne, and Laynne ("living near a lane"; "descendant of Laighean or Luan" in Gaelic) — so say the name books.  When I asked her which name she preferred, she said, "You can call me Runxiao."

"But what about Layn?" I asked.  "Didn't you used to go by the name Layn?"

"Oh, yes!" she replied cheerfully with a gleaming smile.  "When I was in China, I called myself Layn, but now that I'm in America, I call myself Runxiao."

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Name rage

In the past week my new credit card had been sent by courier service to someone called "Pullem"; a student paper had cited a linguist named "Pollum" for work of mine; and a kindly administrator had sent out an email to a large list in Edinburgh congratulating "our own Geoff Pullman" on being elected to the British Academy. Things had not been going well. But now the general quality of life was improving. United Airlines had asked me to switch to a later (and delayed) flight via London Heathrow on my way back from San Francisco, and for this had given me an upgrade to business class. Definitely a mood-changer. No longer the 247th economy-class passenger from the left in the departure lounge: I'm an F.B.A., and I'm sitting in business class sipping free champagne over the Rocky Mountains. Dinner is coming up soon, with a smoked salmon starter and real metal cutlery. Life is sweet. The long, long wait to board is forgotten, and I'm actually mellow. And now the purser was coming down the aisle with a seating plan on a clipboard so he could ask each passenger by name about their menu choices ("Mr. Fortescue, Mrs. Fortescue: can I ask you about your main course preferences tonight?"). He arrived at my seat and checked his clipboard. "Mr… Pullman?"

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Venetia Phair, namer of Pluto

Obituary in the New York Times, Monday 11 May:

Venetia Phair Dies at 90; as a Girl, She Named Pluto

She died on 30 April at her home in Banstead, Surrey.

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