The Mid-Atlantic Accent

Thursday, November 3rd, 2016

Where did Katharine Hepburn’s accent come from?

In the 1800s, once relationships with England began to normalize following the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, the cities of Philadelphia, Boston, and, especially, New York City quickly became the new country’s most powerful. Financial and cultural elites began constructing their own kind of vaguely-British institutions, especially in the form of prestigious private schools. And those schools had elocution classes.

[...]

The upper-class New England accent of that time shares some things with modern New England accents. The most obvious of those is non-rhoticity, which refers to dropping the “r” sounds in words like “hear” and “Charles.”

But while parts of those accents are natural — some New Yorkers and many Bostonians still drop their “r” sounds today — the elite Northeastern accent was ramped up artificially by elocution teachers at boarding schools. Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut (where Jackie Onassis was educated), the Groton School in Massachusetts (FDR), St. Paul’s School (John Kerry), and others all decided to teach their well-heeled pupils to speak in a certain way, a vaguely British-y speech pattern meant to sound aristocratic, excessively proper, and, weirdly, not regionally specific.

The book that codified the elite Northeastern accent was Edith Skinner’s Speak With Distinction, which described “Good Speech”:

Good Speech is hard to define but easy to recognize when we hear it. Good Speech is a dialect of North American English that is free from regional characteristics; recognizably North American, yet suitable for classic texts; effortlessly articulated and easily understood in the last rows of a theater.

Skinner’s influence spread well beyond elite schools:

Skinner was born in New Brunswick, Canada, but studied linguistics at Columbia and taught drama for many years at Carnegie Mellon, in Pittsburgh, and Juilliard, in New York City, all highly elite schools. It was in the Northeast that she created Speak With Distinction: an insanely thorough linguistic text, full of specific ways to pronounce thousands of different words, diagrams, lessons on the International Phonetic Alphabet, and exercises for drama students.

Yep, drama: by this point, movies with sound had begun to hit theaters, and then came the disastrous story of Clara Bow. Bow was one of the silent film era’s biggest stars, a master of exaggerated expressions. When the talkies came along, audiences heard her voice for the first time and it was a nasal, honking Brooklyn accent. Though the idea that speaking roles killed her career in film is not entirely accurate (there were plenty of other factors, ranging from drug problems to insane pressures of film studios), it’s certainly true that her career took a nosedive around the time audiences heard her voice, possibly creating a cautionary tale for newly heard actors.

It’s now the 1930s, and Edith Skinner is Hollywood’s go-to advisor for all things speech-related. And Edith Skinner has extremely strong opinions, bred in the elite universities of the Northeast, about exactly how people should speak. So she forced her own “Good Speech” accent on stars, and other voice coaches, and soon her accent became the most popular accent in Hollywood.

Speak With Distinction is incredibly dense, but it’s also very thorough. You can see very clearly, right there on the beat-up pages, why Katharine Hepburn speaks the way she does. “In Good Speech, ALL vowel sounds are oral sounds, to be made with the soft palate raised. Thus the breath flows out through the mouth only, rather than through the mouth and nose,” she writes. (She capitalizes things a lot.) “Each vowel sound is called a PURE SOUND, and the slightest movement or change in any of the organs of speech during the formation of a vowel will mar its purity, resulting in DIPHTHONGIZATION.”

She demands that “r” sounds be dropped. She demands that the “agh” sound, as in “chance,” should be halfway between the American “agh” and the British “ah.” (Interestingly, this is very different than the typical New England accent today, which is highly “fronted,” meaning that the vowel sound is made with the tongue very close to the teeth in words like “father.” The British, and Mid-Atlantic, vowel is pronounced with the tongue much further back.) She requires that all “t” sounds be precisely enunciated: “butter” cannot sound like “budder,” as it mostly does in the US. Words beginning in “wh” must be given a guttural hacking noise, so “what” sounds more like “ccccchhhhwhat.” She bans all glottal stops — the cessation of air when you say “uh-oh” — even between words, as in this phrase, direct from her book: “Oh, Eaton! He’d even heave eels for Edith Healy!” Go ahead, try to say that without any glottal stops. It’s enormously difficult.

She cracks down on the most obvious of regional cues, railing against what’s now called the “pin-pen merger.” Today, the pin-pen merger — in which the word “pen” sounds like “pin” — is a very easy indicator that a speaker is from the American South. Yech, the South. That will not do for Edith Skinner.

Ordering multiple adjectives

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

I don’t know anyone who explicitly knows the rules for ordering multiple adjectives in English, but we can all immediately hear when they’re aren’t followed:

When a number of adjectives are used together, the order depends on the function of the adjective. The usual order is:

  • Quantity — four, ten, a few, several
  • Value/Opinion — delicious, charming, beautiful
  • Size — tall, tiny, huge
  • Temperature — hot, cold
  • Age — old, young, new, 14-year-old
  • Shape — square, round
  • Colour — red, purple, green
  • Origin — Swedish, Victorian, Chinese
  • Material — glass, silver, wooden

Gun Moll

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

Have you ever wondered where the term gun moll came from?

A gun moll (aka gangster moll) is the female companion of a male professional criminal. In some contexts, ‘gun moll’ more specifically suggests that the woman handles a firearm.

When the term came into usage in the first decade of the 20th century, “gun” was not derived from the firearm, but from the Yiddish word meaning “thief,” variously transliterated into English as ganefthe, gonif, goniff, or ganof, itself derived from Hebrew “Ganav”. However, this distinction gradually disappeared, especially when such women became associated with gangsters noted for their frequent use of guns.

“Moll” derives from “Molly”, used as a euphemism for “whore” or “prostitute” and attested at least since 17th century England.

In the U.S., the term has mostly been applied to a woman associating with an American gangster of the 1920s and 1930s, and in most cases remarkable only because of his notoriety. Extended use of the term without awareness of the Yiddish root, however, has invited interpretations of “gun” as suggesting more than simply criminal associations. Bonnie Parker and Blanche Barrow were gun molls in this stronger sense, and especially notable examples in general, because of their accompanying the rest of the Barrow Gang to the planned locations of violent crimes, and, in Parker’s case, apparently directly assisting at least to the extent of loading guns in the midst of shootouts.

(Addendum: This came up when Bill Christensen, aka @Technovelgy, tweeted, “Also adds interest for the old term ‘gun moll’ — which could now mean women who buy guns for their boyfriends.”)

The Semiotic Rifle

Saturday, August 6th, 2016

The winning team in fourth-generation warfare tends to be the one that seizes the initiative in language — as exemplified by the heroes of Heinlein’s Sixth Column:

Ardmore is the “PanAsian-American” protagonist who suffers the horrific invasion of his native North America by his own race, known collectively as the PanAsians. He loses much of his family in the persecutions, and decides to fight back. One problem: he has no military background.

Worse: he is a former marketing executive. This weakness ultimately emerges as a great strategic strength the instant that it dawns on him: hopeless 3rd generation war tactics versus the conventional militarily superior invader state are not the only tactics available to the natives.

He realized suddenly that he was thinking of the problem in direct terms again, in spite of his conscious knowledge that such an approach was futile. What he wanted was psychological jiu-jitsu — some way to turn their own strength against them. Misdirection — that was the idea!

Whatever it was they expected him to do, don’t do it!

Do something else.

But what else?

The core idea, the hero discovers, is that the “psychological jiu-jitsu” lies in speaking unexpectedly and exploiting the assumptions of the conquering state-run army suffering incurable hubris at the highest levels, and inevitable demoralization on the ground.

To say that the Oriental was disconcerted is to expose the inadequacy of language. He knew how to deal with opposition, but this whole-hearted cooperation left him without a plan; it was not in the rules.

Foreign Languages and SF

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

Army Special Forces is the only combat arms element in the US military that requires every member to have some mastery of a foreign language:

Why not just use interpreters?

Well, can you trust an interpreter the way you can a team member? Maybe. In time. With a certain subset of interpreters. But right from the beginning? No.

You also need to have linguists on the team as a safety check on those interpreters. If they think they can get away with it, they’re going to put their own spin on what you’re saying — at the very least. It’s human nature.

[...]

But some people find language learning inordinately hard. We don’t know the neuropsychiatric explanation for this, but some bright people struggle to learn a language, just like some people are (at least in their youth) natural language sponges. It seems to be correlated with verbal reasoning in one’s native language, but not perfectly (or it would track IQ, most measures of which are half dependent on verbal reasoning). So there is a Language Aptitude or “L” factor which is only weakly correlated with Spearman’s “G” factor of general intelligence.

The Army (and now DOD) has a test that purports to measure one’s language aptitude. It’s recently been subject to a little drama, as the test scores tend to have a correlation with race, which is anathema to all right-thinking people, but so far they have not race-normed the scores (i.e., provided some affirmative action points to popular ancestries). Your performance on the DLAB, Defense Language Aptitude Battery is a usable indicator, albeit an imperfect one, of your general “L” factor, and the military will often assign languages based on DLAB performance. (The military assesses languages in Categories. Cat I is an easy language, for an English speaker, like Spanish or French. Cat IV is a tough one, like Chinese Mandarin or Arabic). For an 18X starting out in Special Forces, your language may also determine what Group you go to, although all bets are off in time of war. A trainee may get an opportunity to pick the language from within the category, depending on the needs of the Army. So if you’re a Category III, picking Russian might get you assigned to Europe-oriented 10th Group (although some Russian speakers are needed in other groups). Pick Chinese or Korean, and you will be wearing the yellow flash of the 1st Group; select Farsi, and you’ll be wearing the freshly-restored Vietnam-era flash of the 5th. Or a trainee may just be told “You start language school Monday. Roster Number 107, to French. Roster 116…”

People who scored high on the DLAB often find language learning easier than people who scored low. There’s a mountain of data on this after decades of DLABs. While the cut-off score for Cat I languages in 95, cut-off scores are a bit rubbery… if they don’t have enough students to fill a class, they may bend on admissions requirements. This bending often does the candidate no favors. Few people with scores below 100 complete a long-term language school like DLI, although with good study habits, hard work, and self-discipline, someone with limited aptitude can bull through the shorter SF language school. And the higher the score, the better. While you can get into a Cat IV language school with a 110, the cluster of people down around the minimum score are often not there on graduation day.

Of course, SF and other linguist positions in the military sometimes luck into a native speaker. This is a good thing, subject to CI investigation of the student and his or her family. (If the CI work is botched, you get situations like the Naval flight officer now sitting in the brig, charged with spying for China).

Not everyone in SF thinks language is worthwhile.

This idea tends to be concentrated in the officer corps, especially in those who have spent much of their career in Direct Action units (like the Rangers, for one example). One such officer was Colonel (later Brigadier General) Frank J. Toney, who had been a protegé of James Guest, in an environment where only door-kicking counted. When Toney took over SF Command, he brought his attitude with him: “My men don’t need any language training. They can speak 5.56 and 7.62!”

We leave as an exercise for the reader, why his nickname was Blank Frank.

The Voice of the Airline Pilot

Sunday, May 8th, 2016

Anyone who travels very much on airlines in the United States soon gets to know the voice of the airline pilot, Tom Wolfe explains:

Anyone who travels very much on airlines in the United States soon gets to know the voice of the airline pilot… coming over the intercom… with a particular drawl, a particular folksiness, a particular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself (nevertheless! — it’s reassuring)… the voice that tells you, as the airliner is caught in thunderheads and goes bolting up and down a thousand feet at a single gulp, to check your seat belts because “it might get a little choppy”… the voice that tells you (on a flight from Phoenix preparing for its final approach into Kennedy Airport, New York, just after dawn): “Now, folks, uh… this is the captain… ummmm… We’ve got a little ol’ red light up here on the control panel that’s tryin’ to tell us that the landin’ gears’re not… uh… lockin’ into position when we lower ‘em… Now… I don’t believe that little ol’ red light knows what it’s talkin’ about — I believe it’s that little ol’ red light that iddn’ workin’ right”… faint chuckle, long pause, as if to say, I’m not even sure all this is really worth going into — still, it may amuse you… “But… I guess to play it by the rules, we oughta humor that little ol’ light… so we’re gonna take her down to about, oh, two or three hundred feet over the runway at Kennedy, and the folks down there on the ground are gonna see if they caint give us a visual inspection of those ol’ landin’ gears” — with which he is obviously on intimate ol’-buddy terms, as with every other working part of this mighty ship — “and if I’m right… they’re gonna tell us everything is copacetic all the way aroun’ an’ we’ll jes take her on in”… and, after a couple of low passes over the field, the voice returns: “Well, folks, those folks down there on the ground — it must be too early for ‘em or somethin’ — I ‘spect they still got the sleepers in their eyes… ’cause they say they caint tell if those ol’ landin’ gears are all the way down or not… But, you know, up here in the cockpit we’re convinced they’re all the way down, so we’re jes gonna take her on in… And oh”… (I almost forgot)… “while we take a little swing out over the ocean an’ empty some of that surplus fuel we’re not gonna be needin’ anymore — that’s what you might be seein’ comin’ out of the wings — our lovely little ladies… if they’ll be so kind… they’re gonna go up and down the aisles and show you how we do what we call ‘assumin’ the position’”… another faint chuckle (We do this so often, and it’s so much fun, we even have a funny little name for it)… and the stewardesses, a bit grimmer, by the looks of them, than that voice, start telling the passengers to take their glasses off and take the ballpoint pens and other sharp objects out of their pockets, and they show them the position, with the head lowered… while down on the field at Kennedy the little yellow emergency trucks start roaring across the field — and even though in your pounding heart and your sweating palms and your broiling brainpan you know this is a critical moment in your life, you still can’t quite bring yourself to believe it, because if it were… how could the captain, the man who knows the actual situation most intimately… how could he keep on drawlin’ and chucklin’ and driftin’ and lollygaggin’ in that particular voice of his—

Well! — who doesn’t know that voice! And who can forget it! — even after he is proved right and the emergency is over.

That particular voice may sound vaguely Southern or Southwestern, but it is specifically Appalachian in origin. It originated in the mountains of West Virginia, in the coal country, in Lincoln County, so far up in the hollows that, as the saying went, “they had to pipe in daylight. ” In the late 1940′s and early 1950′s this up-hollow voice drifted down from on high, from over the high desert of California, down, down, down, from the upper reaches of the Brotherhood into all phases of American aviation. It was amazing. It was Pygmalion in reverse. Military pilots and then, soon, airline pilots, pilots from Maine and Massachusetts and the Dakotas and Oregon and everywhere else, began to talk in that poker-hollow West Virginia drawl, or as close to it as they could bend their native accents. It was the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.

The Secret Strategies of Skilled Listeners

Friday, March 18th, 2016

Annie Murphy Paul explains the secret strategies of skilled listeners:

Studies of skilled language learners have identified specific listening strategies that lead to superior comprehension. What’s more, research has shown that learners who deliberately adopt these strategies become better listeners. Last year, for example, University of Ottawa researcher Larry Vandergrift published his study of 106 undergraduates who were learning French as a second language. Half of the students were taught in a conventional fashion, listening to and practicing texts spoken aloud. The other half, possessing the same initial skill level and taught by the same teacher, were given explicit instruction on how to listen. In the journal Language Learning, Vandergrift reported the results: The second group “significantly outperformed” the first one on a test of comprehension. The improvement was especially pronounced among the less-fluent French speakers in the group.

So what are these listening strategies? Skilled learners go into a listening session with a sense of what they want to get out of it. They set a goal for their listening, and they generate predictions about what the speaker will say. Before the talking begins, they mentally review what they already know about the subject, and form an intention to “listen out for” what’s important or relevant. Once they begin listening, these learners maintain their focus; if their attention wanders, they bring it back to the words being spoken. They don’t allow themselves to be thrown off by confusing or unfamiliar details. Instead, they take note of what they don’t understand and make inferences about what those things might mean, based on other clues available to them: their previous knowledge of the subject, the context of the talk, the identity of the speaker, and so on. They’re “listening for gist,” and not getting caught up in fine-grained analysis. All the while, skilled learners are evaluating what they’re hearing and their own understanding of it. They’re checking their inferences to see if they’re correct, and identifying the questions they still have so they can pursue the answers later.

Such strategies are all about metacognition, or thinking about thinking, and they yield a variety of benefits. Research indicates that learners who engage in metacogition are better at processing and storing new information, better at finding the best ways to practice and better at reinforcing what they have learned. In a 2006 study by researchers from Singapore, Chinese speakers who were learning English as a second language reported increased motivation and confidence after they were taught metacognitive strategies.

Why Do We Know so Little about China in World War Two?

Monday, February 15th, 2016

Why do we know so little about China in World War Two? Well, the Chinese theatre wasn’t decisive, there’s no consensus narrative about the war there, and China’s archives were off limits for years. But there’s another, more pedestrian factor, Peter Harmsen explains — the difficulty of the Chinese language:

According to the Foreign Service Institute at the State Department, it takes 2,200 class hours of devoted study to achieve proficiency in Chinese. This is about twice the amount of time needed to learn Russian or Vietnamese, and four times as much as the time invested in learning French or Dutch.

This is just in order to learn the modern Chinese language. To truly grasp the Second Sino-Japanese War in all its complex intricacy, knowledge of the classical Chinese language is a definite advantage, too. For example, Chiang Kai-shek’s diary, possibly the most important primary source of them all, was written in a terse and elliptical style which comes across as archaic even to many Chinese.

Unfortunately, knowledge of the Chinese language is absolutely crucial in order to do more than just scratch the surface of the complex events in China in the years from 1937 to 1945. Speaking from personal experience, if I hadn’t been able to read Chinese, I could never have completed my own two books on the subject, Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City and Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze.

(Hat tip to T. Greer.)

Buy the Farm

Friday, August 21st, 2015

The phrase buy the farm is US slang, from the WWII era — the first printed record goes back to the US Air Force in the 1950s:

Similar expressions like buy the plot and buy the lot also existed, although buy the farm is the only one to have survived. When a military pilot with a stricken airplane attempted to crash land in a farmer’s field, he would destroy a portion of the farmer’s crops for which the US government paid reimbursement to the farmer. If it were a bad crash-landing destroying most of the crops then the crash would cause the buying of the whole farm, shortened susequently to the current idiom.

Probably related to older British slang buy it, buy one or buy the packet, both seemingly ironic references to something that one does not want to buy. May come from the common reflection that once someone had finished his service he would go home and buy a farm to settle on.

Also, it may be in reference to the book Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. [Spoiler alert!] Main characters George and Lennie always talk about owning their own farm where they will have to answer to no one and “live off the fatt’a the land.” Later, when George must kill Lennie they talk about how they will buy the farm when George pulls the trigger and shoots Lennie to kill him painlessly.

A Plea Regarding “Liberal”

Monday, August 10th, 2015

Dan Klein issues this plea:

Please do not describe leftists, progressives, social democrats, or Democrats as “liberal.”

The word liberal began to take on a political meaning around 1770, he notes:

By virtue of textual digitization, we now can pinpoint the inception with remarkable precision and certainty. In figure 4 we see the introduction of liberal in a political sense, in the expressions liberal policy, liberal system, liberal plan, liberal government, and liberal principles.

Liberal Figure 4

The inception of liberal as a political term should be credited to the Scottish historian William Robertson, who published a book in 1769 that uses the term repeatedly to mean principles of liberty and commercial freedom.(3) Adam Smith embraced and made important use of the semantic innovation in The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. Smith used the term repeatedly in a signal way to refer to the sort of policy he advocated, a system that gives a strong presumption to individual liberty, and hence commercial and market freedom.

If all nations, Smith says, were to follow “the liberal system of free exportation and free importation,” then they would be like one great cosmopolitan empire, and famines would be prevented. Then he repeats the phrase: “But very few countries have entirely adopted this liberal system.”(4) Smith’s “liberal system” was not concerned solely with international trade. He used “liberal” to describe the application of the same principles to domestic policy issues. Smith was a great opponent of restrictions in the labor market, favoring freedom of contract, and wished to see labor markets “resting on such liberal principles.”(5)

Klein has considered himself a classical liberal for decades:

Today conservatives and libertarians often use the term liberal to refer to leftists, progressives, social democrats, and Democrats. Here I beg you to stop doing so. But if you are not to say “liberal,” what are you to say? One option is to put “liberal” in quotation marks or to say “so-called liberal.” But even better is to use the words that have always signified the mentality of governmentalization: the terms left, progressive, and social democrat.

Prior to the twentieth century, in English-language discourse there was very little talk of “left” and “right,” as shown in figure 8. As the political term left emerged in the twentieth century, it has always signified political and cultural state centralization, through the governmentalization of social affairs. The extreme left is communism. A supposedly more liberal collectivism is socialism. The meaning of the left has changed somewhat, but, despite its verbiage and false consciousness, it still basically remains centered on the governmentalization of social affairs (although we must recognize that on a few issues, the left does lean toward liberalization). The left pretends to favor diversity, but that slogan is in reality just an agenda for people of diverse backgrounds to come together in a broadly uniform set of leftist beliefs.

Liberal Figure 8

As for progressive, the essence was aptly described in 1926 by H.?L. Mencken: “The Progressive is one who is in favor of more taxes instead of less, more bureaus and jobholders, more paternalism and meddling, more regulation of private affairs and less liberty.”(13) That is, the progressive is one who favors greater governmentalization of social affairs. The description has been largely accurate since the word progressive emerged as a political term. As Jonah Goldberg has shown in his regrettably titled book Liberal Fascism, early American progressivism contained rich veins of racism, eugenics, and all-around statism. In figure 9 we see that the political term progressives emerged around 1910.

Liberal Figure 9

Sometimes conservatives and libertarians balk at calling the left “progressive,” not wanting to concede the idea of progress. But I say, let them have it. Not only has progressive always signified statism, but the idea of progress is not suited to true liberalism. The idea of progress is goal-oriented: “Are you making progress on your term paper?” It suggests a goal or destination. But in politics the notion of a social goal or destination is baneful. That collectivists should join together for what they imagine to be progress is perfectly fitting. For them the term progressive is suitable. By contrast, conservatives and libertarians look to, not progress, but improvement.

Another fitting term for leftism is social democracy, which is standard in Europe. Social democracy is a compromise between democratic socialism and a tepid liberalism. The socialistic penchant is foremost, but a vacillating liberalism gnaws at the social democrat’s conscience. In figure 10 we see that the term social democracy emerged around 1900.

Liberal Figure 10

With the onset of the social-democratic age came a confusion of tongues, a Tower of Babel. Over the course of the twentieth century, as the left came to dominate most cultural institutions, its partisans set the semantic rules, and one either played by their rules or found oneself marginalized or excluded. Besides arrogating “liberal” to themselves, they created categories along the lines of “you’re either with us or against us.” There was the left, and then everything else — classical liberals, defenders of tradition, status-quo interest groups, or whatever else — was “the right.” For good measure they would throw in the Nazis, even though they stood for national socialism. With their absurd construction (“the right”), the left, by demonizing any of the groups placed therein — from religious extremists to skinheads to business-interest cronies — would damage and discredit every group within the set of groups denominated as “the right,” most important the true and perennial threat to the leftists’ worldview and selfhood, the classical liberals. How many times have Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, both of whom described themselves as “liberal,” been called “fascist” and “right-wing”?

How Dare You Say That! The Evolution of Profanity

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

John H. McWhorter (The Language Hoax) explores the evolution of profanity:

In medieval English, at a time when wars were fought in disputes over religious doctrine and authority, the chief category of profanity was, at first, invoking—that is, swearing to—the name of God, Jesus or other religious figures in heated moments, along the lines of “By God!” Even now, we describe profanity as “swearing” or as muttering “oaths.”

It might seem like a kind of obsessive piety to us now, but the culture of that day was largely oral, and swearing—making a sincere oral testament—was a key gesture of commitment. To swear by or to God lightly was considered sinful, which is the origin of the expression to take the Lord’s name in vain (translated from Biblical Hebrew for “emptily”).

The need to avoid such transgressions produced various euphemisms, many of them familiar today, such as “by Jove,” “by George,” “gosh,” “golly” and “Odsbodikins,” which started as “God’s body.” “Zounds!” was a twee shortening of “By his wounds,” as in those of Jesus. A time traveler to the 17th century would encounter variations on that theme such as “Zlids!” and “Znails!”, referring to “his” eyelids and nails.

In the 19th century, “Drat!” was a way to say “God rot.” Around the same time, darn started when people avoided saying “Eternal damnation!” by saying “Tarnation!”, which, because of the D-word hovering around, was easy to recast as “Darnation!”, from which “darn!” was a short step.

By the late 18th century, sex, excretion and the parts associated with same had come to be treated as equally profane as “swearing” in the religious sense. Such matters had always been considered bawdy topics, of course, but the space for ordinary words referring to them had been shrinking for centuries already.

Chaucer had available to him a thoroughly inoffensive word referring to the sex act, swive.

I think that qualifies as the word of the day!

We are hardly beyond taboos, McWhorter notes; we just observe different ones:

Today, what we regard as truly profane isn’t religion or sex but the slandering of groups, especially groups that have historically suffered discrimination or worse. Our profanity consists of the N-word, that C-word once suitable for an anatomy book discussion of women’s bodies, and a word beginning with f referring to gay men (and some would include a word referring to women beginning with b).

It might seem strained to compare our feelings about the N-word with a bygone era’s appalled shuddering over the utterance of “By God!” But do note that I have to euphemize the N-word here in print just as someone would have once have felt compelled to say, “By Jove!”

[...]

But we are just as capable as previous eras of policing our taboos with unquestioning excess. An administrator in Washington, D.C.’s Office of the Public Advocate had to resign in 1999 for using the word niggardly in a staff meeting. At the University of Virginia, there was a campus protest in 2003 after a medical school staffer said that a sports team called the Redskins “was as derogatory to Indians as having a team called n— would be to blacks.” Julian Bond, who was then the head of the NAACP, said that only his respect for free speech kept him from recommending that she be fired. In 2014, the lawyer and writer Wendy Kaminer elicited aggrieved comments for saying, during a panel discussion at Smith College, that when we use euphemisms for the N-word we all “hear the word n— in our head.”

[...]

Some might object that we should not check that impulse, and that extremism is necessary to create lasting social change. But it’s useful to recall that, when it comes to profanity, there were once people who considered themselves every bit as enlightened as we see ourselves today, with the same ardent and appalled sense of moral urgency. They were people who said “Odsbodikins” and did everything they could to avoid talking about their pants.

Scrabble Francophone

Monday, July 27th, 2015

The French-language Scrabble world championship just went to a New Zealander — who doesn’t speak French:

The BBC reported that Nigel Richards, originally from Christchurch, defeated a rival from French-speaking Gabon in the final in Louvain, Belgium, on Monday.

He had only started studying the French dictionary about eight weeks ago, said a close friend of Mr Richards, Liz Fagerlund.

“He doesn’t speak French at all, he just learnt the words. He won’t know what they mean, wouldn’t be able to carry out a conversation in French I wouldn’t think.”

Mr Richards, now in his late forties, is a previous English Scrabble champion. He is based in Malaysia.

He has won five US National titles and the World Scrabble Championship three times.

Camouflage

Saturday, July 25th, 2015

Camouflage is “the disguising of military personnel, equipment, and installations by painting or covering them to make them blend in with their surroundings,” from the French:

Camouflage Word Origin

late 19th century (in sense ‘disguise, concealment’): French, from camoufler ‘to disguise’ (originally thieves’ slang), from Italian camuffare ‘disguise, deceive,’ perhaps by association with French camouflet ‘whiff of smoke in the face.’ The military sense originated during World War I.

Camouflage Word Use Over Time

So, a camoufleur would camoufler something, and this camouflage would deceive the enemy.

Camouflage New French Word

If the word had been borrowed earlier, we might all be camoofling our equipment today.

When Birds Squawk, Other Species Listen

Monday, June 1st, 2015

When birds squawk, other species listen:

Studies in recent years by many researchers, including Dr. Greene, have shown that animals such as birds, mammals and even fish recognize the alarm signals of other species. Some can even eavesdrop on one another across classes. Red-breasted nuthatches listen to chickadees. Dozens of birds listen to tufted titmice, who act like the forest’s crossing guards. Squirrels and chipmunks eavesdrop on birds, sometimes adding their own thoughts. In Africa, vervet monkeys recognize predator alarm calls by superb starlings.

[...]

So-called “seet” calls, peeps produced by many small songbirds in response to a raptor on the wing, are well-known to ornithologists. Conventional wisdom held that the calls dissipated quickly and were produced only for other birds nearby. However, that’s not what Dr. Greene noticed: chatter sweeping across the hillside, then birds diving into bushes.

Studying the phenomenon, he documented a “distant early-warning system” among the birds in which the alarm calls were picked up by other birds and passed through the forest at more than 100 miles per hour. Dr. Greene likened it to a bucket brigade at a fire.

The information rippled ahead of a predator minutes before it flew overhead, giving prey time to hide. Moreover, while raptors can hear well at low frequencies, they are not very good at hearing at 6 to 10 kilohertz, the higher frequency at which seet calls are produced. “So it’s sort of a private channel,” he said.

Dr. Greene turned to chickadees, which are highly attuned to threats. When one sees a perched raptor nearby, it will issue its well-known “chick-a-dee” call, a loud, frequent and harsh sound known as a mobbing call because its goal is to attract other birds to harass the predator until it departs.

In 2005, Dr. Greene was an author of an article in the journal Science that demonstrated how black-capped chickadees embed information about the size of predators into these calls. When faced with a high-threat raptor perched nearby, the birds not only call more frequently, they also attach more dee’s to their call.

Raptors tend to be the biggest threat to birds nearest their own size because they can match the maneuverability of their prey. So a large goshawk might only merit a chick-a-dee-dee from a nimble chickadee, while that little pygmy owl will elicit a chick-a-dee followed by five or even 10 or 12 additional dee syllables, Dr. Greene said.

The researchers next showed that red-breasted nuthatches, which are chickadee-size and frequently flock with them in the winter, eavesdrop on their alarm language, too.

Dr. Greene, working with a student, has also found that “squirrels understand ‘bird-ese,’ and birds understand ‘squirrel-ese.’ ” When red squirrels hear a call announcing a dangerous raptor in the air, or they see such a raptor, they will give calls that are acoustically “almost identical” to the birds, Dr. Greene said. (Researchers have found that eastern chipmunks are attuned to mobbing calls by the eastern tufted titmouse, a cousin of the chickadee.)

Giants

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

Legendary foes grow larger with every retelling of the tale of their defeat, but I didn’t realize this was so true of the giants of Greek mythology:

In Greek mythology, the Giants or Gigantes (singular Gigas) were a race of great strength and aggression, though not necessarily of great size, known for the Gigantomachy (Gigantomachia), their battle with the Olympian gods. According to Hesiod, the Giants were the offspring of Gaia (Earth), born from the blood that fell when Uranus (Sky) was castrated by their Titan son Cronus.

Archaic and Classical representations show Gigantes as man-sized hoplites (heavily-armed ancient Greek foot soldiers) fully human in form. Later representations (after c. 380 BC) show Gigantes with snakes for legs. In later traditions, the Giants were often confused with other opponents of the Olympians, particularly the Titans, an earlier generation of large and powerful children of Gaia and Uranus.

The vanquished Giants were said to be buried under volcanos, and to be the cause of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.