Friday, December 30, 2005

The FUDGERY of neologisms

Mark Liberman at LL:

Ben Zimmer has promoted Alan Metcalf’s five FUDGE factors for predicting the success of neologisms (Frequency of use, Unobtrusiveness, Diversity of users and situations, Generation of other forms and meanings, and Endurance of the concept), adding his own sixth factor Resistance to public backlash. This gives us FUDGER, and I don’t see any graceful way to add another pronounceable letter (maybe fudgery?), so I’ll give up on the acronymic theme, and just add my suggestion in plain prose.

Multiple sources, interpretations and resonances increase the fitness of a word or phrase. Regionalisms, archaisms, technical terms, substrate influences and euphemistic (or scatalogical) alternatives can all help.

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 12/30 at 02:34 PM
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Mutual intelligibility across the Finno-Ugric family?

Geoff Pullum at LL:

The Finno-Ugric family of languages contains Finnish, and its close relative Estonian, and Sami (the language of the Lappish people of the far north), and various related languages languages in Russia (Komi, Mari, Udmurt), along with a distant southern relative, Hungarian. It’s actually not that easy to show with clear etymologies and sound changes that Finnish and Hungarian really are cousins. There are maybe 200 solid cognates. (A cognate is a word showing in both its pronunciation and its meaning or grammatical properties that it was ancestrally shared by the relevant languages, and was transmitted in altered phonological form down the centuries rather than being directly borrowed between modern languages.) The Economist (December 24th, page 73) has a very interesting article about the way Finno-Ugric languages are dying in Russia. In connection with the discussion of linguistic relatedness, it cites Estonian philologist Mall Hellam as having come up with a sentence that should be intelligible to Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian speakers alike:

Finnish: Elävä kala ui veden alla.
Estonian: Elav kala ujub vee all.
Hungarian: Eleven hal úszkál a víz alatt.

The translation is “The living fish swims in water.”  ...

I have already heard from a Finn living in Hungary, Vili Manula, who says no Hungarians understand the Finnish sentence, and certainly no Finn would understand the Hungarian one.

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 12/30 at 02:32 PM
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‘On Language’ 12/28: words of the year

`Podcast’ is lexicon’s Word of the Year

On Language

Chicago Tribune

December 28, 2005

By Nathan Bierma

The “pod” in “iPod” suggests Apple’s device is small and compact but chock full of good contents, like a pea pod. The word “pod” began as “cod” in Old English, meaning “the husk or outer covering of any fruit or seed.” The “pod” spelling isn’t recorded until 1688, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

(The “pod” that comes from the Greek word for “foot,” as in “podiatrist” and “tripod,” is unrelated.)

Dictionaries list the origin of the word “pod” as obscure or unknown.

Etymologists say the letter “P” gradually replaced the word “C” in “cod,” but they aren’t sure why.

Anatoly Liberman, author of “Word Origins and How We Know Them” (Oxford University Press, 312 pages, $25), says people may have favored the “P” in “pod” because it matched the sound of “pea,” which is often paired with “pod.”

More subtly, Liberman says, “pod” might have emerged because it sounded similar to words such as “pad,” “pudge,” “pot” and “pudding.”

“Numerous English words referring to swollen objects, protrusion, and the like have the structure P + Vowel + Consonant,” Liberman writes by e-mail. This sound structure, he says, may have “suggested fatness to the speakers of Germanic [languages].”

If Liberman is right, and “pod” did emerge in English because it sounded similar to words meaning “fat” or “full,” then it would be ironic that Apple markets products in the iPod line that are distinctive for their thinness.


Posted by Nathan Bierma on 12/30 at 02:28 PM
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‘On Language’ 12/21: books of year

This holiday season, turn page to the new world of words

On Language

Chicago Tribune

December 21, 2005

By Nathan Bierma

‘Tis the season of year-end lists and last-minute shopping, so here are the 10 best language books of 2005:

10. “Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods” (St. Martin’s Press, 320 pages, $24.95). Wex takes a colorful look at Yiddish words and phrases for food, sex and other things to kvetch about, providing a lively addition to Dovid Katz’s more straightforward history published last year: “Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish” (Basic Books, 430 pages, $26.95).

9. “A Natural History of Latin: The Story of the World’s Most Successful Language” by Tore Janson (Oxford University Press, 305 pages, $24). What a long, strange trip it’s been for Latin, from its origins in Rome to its use in the medieval church to its current job helping us name new technology (“television,” “video,” “digital”). Janson tells this intriguing story as well as anyone.

8. “Bad Language: Are Some Words Better Than Others?” by Edwin L. Battistella (Oxford University Press, 240 pages, $29.95). This book reminds us that language is the basis of the last acceptable prejudice: There is no snobbery as safe as looking down your nose at people for their grammar, vocabulary or accent. As Battistella shows, this kind of condescension often comes from misunderstandings and myths about the way language works. An even better myth-buster is still the 1999 book “Language Myths,” edited by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill (Penguin, 188 pages, $14).


Posted by Nathan Bierma on 12/30 at 02:24 PM
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Thursday, December 15, 2005

The poetic appositive in Old English

From Beowulf and the Appositive Style:

Etymologically The Harbrace College Handbook is correct in saying that an appositive is “set beside” another noun, for the Latin appositus means “placed (next) to.” But in practice appositives can sometimes be separated from the word to which they refer, as in “Beowulf was there, the king of the Geatas.” Also, some grammarians extend the meaning of “appositive” to include parts of speech other than the noun and to include even phrases and clauses. ...

“Appositive” in this broad sense describes fairly accurately what Anglo-Saxon scholars term “variation” in Old English poetry. “Variation” has been defined as “syntactically parallel words or word-groups which share a common referent and which occur within a single clause.” A ubiquitous feature in Old Germanic poetry, variation is, according to Frederick Klaeber, “the very soul of the Old English poetical style.” ...

In Old English poetry, where apposition is used so heavily, the construction often seems especially rich in implicit meaning, as the following examples from Beowulf may suggest.

nealles him on heape handgesteallan
aethelinga bearn ymbe gestodon [2596-97]


Posted by Nathan Bierma on 12/15 at 09:36 AM
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‘On Language’ 12/14: The religious roots of ‘holiday’

`Happy Holidays’ also rooted in religious meaning

On Language

Chicago Tribune

December 14, 2005

By Nathan Bierma

Ironically, while the White House, along with other government officials and retailers this year, opts to use the word “holiday” as its generic, non-religious alternative to “Christmas,” linguists point out that the word “holiday” itself has religious etymological roots. In fact, religious references are buried in the histories of many words we now use without thinking about their history.

While the religious roots of “Christmas” are transparent—the word began as a compound of “Christ’s mass”—it’s less obvious that the word “holiday” has the word “holy” in it, as in “holy-day.” It began in Old English as two words, “halig daeg” (“holy day”) that were combined into one as early as 1,000 years ago, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. A 13th Century rulebook for nuns, for example, instructs nuns to pray more often on “helidawes” (holy days) than on “werkedawes” (workdays).

“Holiday” gradually came to mean any special day set aside for leisure or celebration. A 16th Century poet, for instance, describes “holiday” as “a day to dance in and make merry at the Ale house.” Soon, the OED says, the generic meaning of “holiday” became the most common definition, and sacred references again had to be written as two words, “holy day.” Today, even non-religious days such as Presidents’ Day and Labor Day are “holidays,” and the British word for “vacation” is “holiday”—as in, “He’s on holiday this week.”

Posted by Nathan Bierma on 12/15 at 09:30 AM
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Monday, December 12, 2005

C’est francais


The great humorist Mark Twain once said, “In Paris they simply stared when
I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots
understand their language.” Well, that’s the pitfall of learning a foreign
language away from its natural habitat. We might become proficient in the
grammar but there is never a certainty about the nuances of the language.

No matter. Some of the terms we borrow from French have become an integral
part of the English language. They often help us convey a whole idea
succinctly, in just a word or two. This week let’s see five such terms from

degringolade (day-grang-guh-LAYD) noun

  A rapid decline, deterioration, or collapse (of a situation).

[From French, from dégringoler (to tumble down, fall sharply),
from Middle French desgringueler, from des- (de-) + gringueler
(to tumble), from Middle Dutch crinkelen (to curl).]

-Anu Garg (

  “Even before the latest degringolade, Mr Duncan Smith’s position
  had been disintegrating.”
  Bruce Anderson; This is Duncan Smith’s Last Stand; The Independent
  (London, UK); Feb 24, 2003.


Posted by Nathan Bierma on 12/12 at 02:50 PM
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Friday, December 09, 2005

‘On Language’ 12/7: A Usage Guide for Language Disputes

Everyone has English pet peeves
On Language
Chicago Tribune
December 7, 2005
By Nathan Bierma

The introduction to “The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style” points out that English has always had “conflict between ongoing language change and the conventions of publishing,” because the uses and meanings of words are constantly evolving.

In some cases, the editors of the guide take issue with the Usage Panel.

The case of “hopefully” as a so-called “sentence adverb” (as in, “Hopefully, they’ll go soon”) brings up another disagreement between the guide’s editors and their panel’s verdict. Picky purists insist that “hopefully” should only mean “full of hope,” and that “We hope” or “It is to be hoped that” should be used in other cases. Opposition to this use of “hopefully” has risen among the panel over the years.

The guide points out that nobody seems to mind when “mercifully” or “frankly” are used as sentence adverbs (as in, “Frankly, he bothers me”). In fact, the same panel that frowns on “hopefully” approves, by a vast majority, the similar use of “mercifully.” The guide says there’s no good grammatical reason to reject one and accept the other.

“It would seem, then, that it is not the use of `hopefully’ as a sentence adverb per se that bothers the panel,” the guide concludes. “Rather, `hopefully’ seems to have taken on a life of its own as a sign that the writer is unaware of the canons of usage.”

Nunberg says that while the panel has generally grown more lenient on many usage questions over the years, some words such as “hopefully” are stigmatized as telltale signs of oblivion or indifference to standards of formal English.


Posted by Nathan Bierma on 12/09 at 04:33 PM
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The Power of Puns

Never underestimate the power of puns. What do these illustrate about language?

1. Two antennas meet on a roof, fall in love and get married. The
ceremony wasn’t much, but the reception was excellent.

2. Two hydrogen atoms walk into a bar. One says,  “I’ve lost my
electron.” The other says, “Are you sure?” The first replies, “Yes, I’m

3. A jumper cable walks into a bar. The bartender says, “I’ll serve
you, but don’t start anything.”


Posted by Nathan Bierma on 12/09 at 04:32 PM
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Saturday, December 03, 2005

Direct Etymological Latin Legacies


Latin Legacies

If you pay attention to the topics dealt with in this newsletter each week, you can get a glimpse into my life. Recently, I’ve been watching the excellent HBO series Rome, about Julius Caesar and playing the extremely addictive computer game Rome: Total War. These two sources are the inspiration for this week’s article.

We all know that many English words are derived from Latin roots. Most commonly, these words come to us from Old French as a result of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 or are modern scientific and technical terms created in modern times from Latin roots. But there are a few that come to us directly and mostly unaltered from the traditions and practices of ancient Rome. Here are some of those words.


Posted by Nathan Bierma on 12/03 at 01:12 PM
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