Archive for Language and culture

The Twittering Machine

Illustrating Ben Tarnoff's 11/11/2022  NY Review of Books article "In the Hothouse", Paul Klee's 1922 painting Die Zwitscher-Maschine ("The Twittering Machine"):

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Some new words

Over the past few months, several of the leading characters in the Dumbing of Age webcomic have discovered that they are (or might be) autistic, in diverse ways, joining Dina who was always portrayed with stereotypical symptoms.

The reveal for Joyce came in the strip for 6/6/2022, and some of the ensuing discussion showed how new related terminology is spreading. Here's the strip for 6/23/2022, where Joyce enlightens Jennifer/Billie (click to embiggen):

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Hipster beer names

I'm used to the names of beers-and-such following the pattern <BRAND> <STYLE>, like "Yuengling Golden Pilsner" or "Orval Trappist Ale". Occasionally things get a bit more creative, like  "Victory HopDevil" or "Huyghe Delirium Tremens".

But a couple of days ago, in the food court of the Moynihan Train Hall in NYC, I was intrigued by a large ad for selections from Threes Brewing, which has a shop there. The picture below is what I think is the same line-up, copied from their website (click for a bigger version):

That particular array of beverage names, in left-to-right order, is

Fool's Errand, Temporary Identity, Here Ya Go, You People, I Hate Myself, Bad Wallpaper, Crying on the Inside, Logical Conclusion, Beyond the Void, Constant Disappointment, Chronic Myopia, Unreliable Narrator, Unintentional Fallacy.

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Another skirmish in the Dictionary Wars

A press release from the U.S. Atorney's Office, District of Massachusetts — "California Man Pleads Guilty to Threatening Merriam-Webster with Anti-LGBTQ Violence", 9/14/2022:

A California man pleaded guilty on Sept. 8, 2022 in federal court in Springfield, Mass. to making threats to commit anti-LGBTQ violence against Springfield-based Merriam-Webster, Inc. and others.

Jeremy David Hanson, 34, of Rossmoor, Calif., pleaded guilty to one count of interstate communication of threatening communications to commit violence against the employees of Merriam-Webster, and to another count charging the same offense, initially filed in the Eastern District of Texas, targeting the President of the University of North Texas. In a written statement of facts accompanying his plea agreement, Hanson also admitted to sending threatening communications to various corporations, politicians, and others, including the Walt Disney Co., the Governor of California and the Mayor of New York City, a New York rabbi and professors at Loyola Marymount University. Hanson also admitted that he frequently selected the object of his threatening communications because of the gender, gender identity and/or sexual orientation of various persons.

The lexicographical part of Hanson's ire was directed against online M-W entries relating to sex and gender, including girlfemale, and gender identity.

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Lingthusiasm interviews Randall Munroe

Episode 72 of Gretchen McCulloch's Lingthusiasm podcast is "What If Linguistics – Absurd hypothetical questions with Randall Munroe of xkcd":

What’s the “it’s” in “it’s three pm and hot”? How do you write a cough in the International Phonetic Alphabet? Who is the person most likely to speak similarly to a randomly-selected North American English speaker?

In this episode, your hosts Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne get enthusiastic about absurd hypothetical linguistic questions with special guest Randall Munroe, creator of the webcomic xkcd and author of What If? 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. We only wish that there was a little more linguistics in the book. So Randall came on to fill the gap with all his most ridiculous linguistics questions! One of our unresolved questions that we can merely speculate about is our predictions for what the future of English might be like. Are you listening to this episode from more than two decades in the future? Please write in from 2042 or later and let us know how accurate we’ve been!


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Backronym of the month

DARPA's AdvaNced airCraft Infrastructure-Less Launch And RecoverY (ANCILLARY) wins my vote for the backronym of the month — though some may feel that it's unfair to pick some medial and final letters while leaving out some initial ones.

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Biological and Mental Evolution

While refiling some books yesterday, I came across an interesting reprint: Arthur Koestler, "Biological and mental evolution: An exercise in analogy", Nature 1965. Given the title, I thought Koestler might have scooped Richard Dawkins on the gene/meme analogy. But not so — here's how the paper starts:

ALLOW me to take you on a ride on the treacherous wings of analogy, starting with an excursion into genetics. Creativity is a concept notoriously difficult to define ; and it is sometimes useful to approach a difficult subject by way of contrast. The opposite of the creative individual is the pedant, the slave of habit, whose thinking and behaviour move in rigid grooves. His biological equivalent is the over-specialized animal. Take, for example, that charming and pathetic creature, the koala bear, which specializes in feeding on the leaves of a particular variety of eucalyptus tree and on nothing else; and which, in lieu of fingers, has hook-like claws, ideally suited for clinging to the bark of the tree — and for nothing else . Some of our departments of higher learning seem expressly designed for breeding koala bears.

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Alex Baumans sent in the photo below, with the note "I came across this fast food restaurant on a recent trip to Germany. The franchise appears to be specialised in 'panasiatic' crossover cooking."

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Gentle reminder for women who approach the cenotaph of Genghis Khan

Trilingual tablet at the altar of Genghis Khan (ca. 1162-1227) in Kandehuo Enclosure in the town of Xinjie, in the Ejin Horo Banner in the Ordos Prefecture of Inner Mongolia:


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Low-hanging fruit: the history

Someone asked me recently about (sources for exploring) the history of idioms like "low-hanging fruit" in business jargon. Unable to suggest any truly suitable data sources, I did a few of the obvious things.

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Ajvar and caviar

Many of us first learned about the Balkan red pepper sauce / relish / spread called "ajvar" in this post:  "Bosnian menu" (7/28/22).  Simplicissimus contributed a nice comment in which it was averred that the BCS (Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian) "word ‘ajvar’ and the English word ‘caviar’ both derive from the same etymon, the Ottoman Turkish word ‘havyar’ (which, in turn, derives from the Persian ‘xâvyâr’) — now that I think about it, it’s not unimaginable to me that ‘ajvar’ got its name on account of a vague resemblance to red caviar."

Since I was one of those who had not previously heard of ajvar but was quite familiar with caviar, Simplicissimus' remark really piqued my fancy because neither did the two food items in question resemble each other very much (fish roe vs. red pepper sauce), nor was the phonological resemblance that great (thinking especially of the "c" at the beginning of "caviar" and its absence from "ajvar").  So I decided to dig more deeply into the relationship between ajvar and caviar.  Turns out to a fascinating linguistic, cultural, and culinary story.

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Trilingual Shandong beach toilet civilization

Since these signs are rather long and in three languages, I will not apply the customary Language Log treatment of Romanization, transcription, and complete translation, but you should be able to get a good idea of what they are all about nonetheless.

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A grammar of quickstick errors

Chopsticks:  in cookery, designates:

a pair of thin sticks, of ivory, wood, etc, used as eating utensils by the Chinese, Japanese, and other people of East Asia
[C17: from pidgin English, from chop quick, of Chinese dialect origin + stick1]

Collins English DictionaryComplete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014

That's for the English word, now for the Chinese:

The Old Chinese words for "chopsticks" were zhù (OC *das) and jiā (OC *keːb).  Zhù is preserved in almost all Min dialects (Taiwanese , ; Fuzhou dê̤ṳ) and some other dialects, especially those in some contact with Min; it is also preserved in loans to other languages, e.g., Korean 젓가락 (jeotgarak), Vietnamese đũa and Zhuang dawh. Starting from the Ming Dynasty, the change to kuàizi 筷子 occurred in Mandarin, Wu, and some Cantonese dialects. The 15th century book Shuyuan Miscellanies (《菽園雜記》) by Lu Rong (陸容) mentioned this change:


As the mariners feared (“to stay”) […], they called zhù (“chopsticks”) kuàier 快兒 (lit. "quick + diminutive suffix").  [VHM:  alt. "As the mariners had a taboo against "lingering / staying", they called zhù (“chopsticks”) kuàier 快兒 (lit. "quick + diminutive suffix").

The bamboo radical (zhu [the sound is not relevant here) was later added to kuài to form kuài .

(source, with some additions by VHM)

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