Archive for November, 2023

Americanisms in the OED

One of my favorite diversions is looking at old photographs of James Murray (1837-1915), chief editor of the OED, and his cohort working away in their scriptorium, "a shed in Murray’s back garden in Oxford".

What a bunch of committed eccentrics!  That includes Sarah Ogilvie, who worked at the OED for awhile and wrote this article:

When American Words Invaded the Greatest English Dictionary

Slips of paper with peculiar regional terms like ‘huckleberry’ and ‘cottondom’ crossed the Atlantic to Oxford and into the pages of a 70-year lexicographical project

WSJ (11/10/23)

I am so much in awe and admiration of these quaint, quirky, quixotic lexicographers buried amongst their millions of 4" X 6" quotation slips stuffed in more than a thousand pigeon hole grids that line the walls of their corrugated metal outbuilding that I wish I could quote this entire, wonderful piece, but that would not be acceptable according to the normal rules and practices of Language Log, so I will simply pick and choose several of the more colorful passages.

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Indigo and cabbage

In the first comment to this post on a Northeastern topolectal word for kohlrabi, "piě-le 丿了" (cf. MSM piělán 苤蓝), Jenny Chu astutely asked whether the second syllable is related to the Chinese word for the color blue, lán 藍 (also "indigo", for which see below).

That sent me scurrying, since — although I was vaguely aware of a secondary meaning besides "indigo, blue" of "cabbage" for lán 藍 — I could not recall ever hearing any convincing / satisfying explanation for what the relation between these two meanings is.

Some early Chinese authors and commentators do assert that the leaves of cruciferous vegetables (Brassicaceae, colloquially called cole crops in North America) are referred to as lán 藍 due to their color.  However, because of my background knowledge of words for cabbage, kale, etc. in many other languages, I did not find that a satisfying explanation.  So I decided to dig deeper into the mystery of the dual identity of lán 藍:  indigo and cabbage.

I believe that what I came up with will illuminate the conundrum.

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Rebuttal depth and the mainvisionist dogstream

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Advanced lexicography for diabetes in Japan and China

This is a followup to "Japanese words that are dying out: focus on diabetes" (11/21/23).  Because it's history of science / medicine for specialists and too technical for the majority of readers, I will not provide transcriptions for all but a few of the most common terms.

[The following is a guest post from Nathan Hopson]

Google doesn't have data for a Japanese ngram search, but here are the oldest results from searches of the National Diet Library (NDL) and the Asahi and Yomiuri newspapers:
Translated by 森鼻宗次 (Morihana Sōji).
Original authors listed as:
ゼオルヂービウード (George B. Wood)
ヘンリーハルツホールン (Henry Hartshorne)
Penn grad Hartshorne spent time in Japan, and wrote Wood's memoir; Wood was also a Penn grad
Looks like the original text of this book was Wood's, selected and edited by Hartshorne? Wood and Harsthorne were both very prolific, and I can't easily tell which text has been translated.

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BoJo bamboozled

From Philip Taylor:

The British media were flooded yesterday with reports that former Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been “bamboozled” by scientific evidence presented during the Covid-19 pandemic.  My understanding of "bamboozle" has always been that deception must be involved, and this is borne out by the OED, but there was clearly no deception in this case (other than, perhaps, self-deception, in that BoJo may well have convinced himself that he did understand the scientific evidence, when he clearly did not), so why did Sir Patrick Valance, then Chief Scientific Advisor to HMG, record in his diary that “the Prime Minister was at times ‘bamboozled’” ?

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Japanese words that are dying out: focus on diabetes

From The Japan Times:

A foray into the realm of Japanese ‘dead words’

Trendy buzzwords tend to be most at risk of dying out as they often reflect ideas and trends that are fleeting.

By Tadasu Takahashi
Staff writer
Oct 31, 2023

Sometimes whole languages go extinct, more often certain words within languages cease to exist as part of the living lexicon.  There are political, demographic, and other socioeconomic reasons why languages disappear.  The reasons why individual words die out are related more to fashion — in culture, science, and similar emotional and intellectual reasons.

Tadasu Takahashi's interesting article provides some specific examples from contemporary Japanese language.

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Xi's peculiar vocabulary

From another tweet / X-effusion by the Master Muckraker, Fang Zhouzi / Fang Shimin:

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Trends in Foreign Language enrollments

Karin Fisher, "It’s a Bleak Climate for Foreign Languages as Enrollments Tumble", Chronicle of Higher Education 11/15/2023"

Enrollments in foreign-language courses tumbled nearly 17 percent between the fall of 2016 and the fall of 2021, the largest decline in the six decades the Modern Language Association has been conducting its census of American colleges. […]

Since peaking in 2009, foreign-language enrollments have deteriorated by almost 30 percent, the MLA found. This is a stunning reversal: Over the previous 30 years, the number of students studying languages had been on a steady upward trajectory.

Ryan Quinn, "Foreign Language Enrollment Sees Steepest Decline on Record", Inside Higher Ed 11/16/2023:

While the COVID-19 crisis lowered enrollments generally, the new report notes that the overall number of students in U.S. colleges and universities only fell 8 percent between 2016 and 2021. While those aren’t directly comparable figures, the drop in enrollment in non-English-language classes was over twice as much — and the 2021 decline in language-taking continues a pre-pandemic trend.

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Mistakes in a fraudulent Chinese letter to the Israeli consul in Chengdu

From the Twitter / X account of the famous popular science writer and muckraker, Fang Zhouzi / Fang Shimin:

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Grids galore

[This is a guest post by Zhengyuan Wang]

Calligraphy Practicing Sheets and the Trussing Structure of Chinese Characters

One thing essential for every elementary-level Chinese learner is to learn to write the characters in the same size in one single passage. This is not a unique case that only exists in Chinese. But this can be a challenging task in reality, in regards to how different the Chinese characters can be to each other with the number of strokes ranging from as simple as characters with one stroke only (for instance, 一 yī and 丨gǔn [yes, this is a character]) to complex ones with up to twenty-eight strokes (矗 chù, the character with most strokes among the 3,500 common used Chinese characters). Not to mention, there are characters less common but with way more strokes, such as 麤 cū, with thirty-three strokes, 龘 dá/tà, with fifty-one strokes, and the most famous one biáng (as in figure 1) with forty-two or fifty-six strokes.

(figure 1: from left to right: biáng in traditional Chinese with 56 strokes, biáng in simplified Chinese with 42 strokes, and yī with only one stroke. How can you write them in the same size, which has to be not so big in the first place?)

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Extreme simplification and phoneticization

Probably only Northeastern Chinese could understand.


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Frog or chicken

From Charles Belov:

While scouting out restaurants on Yelp, I noticed that Harborview Restaurant Yelp page had an item on the menu listed in English as Congee with Bone-in Chicken. However, the menu image, taken in 2022, reads "Congree with stir-fried frog" in Chinese.

This appears to have been corrected on the Harborview Restaurant website. The Dim Sum menu reads Congee with Bone-in Chicken in English and 黃毛鷄粥 (jook with the Chinese version of free-range chicken) in Chinese.

I wonder how the frog got in there. Of course, I've eaten frog at Cantonese restaurants but it doesn't seem to be on Harborview's menu.

Screen print from Yelp:

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Sam Altman and King Blozo

We're all waiting to learn the story behind Sam Altman's firing as CEO of OpenAI. Or at least, many of us are.

Meanwhile, there's possible resonance with an on-going drama in the daily Popeye comic strip, concerning the fate of (former) King Blozo of Spinachovia, now the Superintendent of Royal Foot Surfaces:

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