The origin and meaning of sex

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018

You might be surprised by the origin and meaning of sex — the etymology of the word, I mean:

sex (n.)

late 14c., “males or females collectively,” from Latin sexus “a sex, state of being either male or female, gender,” of uncertain origin. “Commonly taken with seco as division or ‘half’ of the race” [Tucker], which would connect it to secare “to divide or cut” (see section (n.)). Meaning “quality of being male or female” first recorded 1520s. Meaning “sexual intercourse” first attested 1929 (in writings of D.H. Lawrence).

Hat tip to Nick B. Steves. Incidentally, D.H. Lawrence was apparently on the radical right wing of politics.

A dish of marsh mallow was one of their delicacies

Sunday, April 1st, 2018

The mallow plant, or Althaea officinalis, grows in marshes:

Most of the mallows have been used as food, and are mentioned by early classic writers with this connection. Mallow was an edible vegetable among the Romans; a dish of marsh mallow was one of their delicacies. Prospero Alpini stated in 1592 that a plant of the mallow kind was eaten by the Egyptians. Many of the poorer inhabitants of Syria subsisted for weeks on herbs, of which marsh mallow is one of the most common. When boiled first and fried with onions and butter, the roots are said to form a palatable dish, and in times of scarcity consequent upon the failure of the crops, this plant, which grows there in great abundance, is collected heavily as a foodstuff.

[...]

The root extract (halawa extract) is sometimes used as flavoring in the making of a Middle Eastern snack called halva. The flowers and young leaves can be eaten, and are often added to salads or are boiled and fried. The later French version of the recipe, called pâte de guimauve (or guimauve for short), included an egg white meringue and was often flavored with rose water. Pâte de guimauve more closely resembles contemporary commercially available marshmallows, which no longer contain Althaea officinalis. Horace mentions it in reference to his own diet, which he describes as very simple: Me pascunt olivae, me cichorea levesque malvae (“As for me, olives, endives, and mallows provide sustenance”).

Addressing the assembly

Sunday, January 21st, 2018

The Left and the Right have two, very different concepts of free speech, which, Teresa M. Bejan argues, hark back to the ancient Greeks’ two, very different terms for what we now call “free speech”:

The conflict between what the ancient Greeks called isegoria, on the one hand, and parrhesia, on the other, is as old as democracy itself. Today, both terms are often translated as “freedom of speech,” but their meanings were and are importantly distinct. In ancient Athens, isegoria described the equal right of citizens to participate in public debate in the democratic assembly; parrhesia, the license to say what one pleased, how and when one pleased, and to whom.

[...]

Of the two ancient concepts of free speech, isegoria is the older. The term dates back to the fifth century BCE, although historians disagree as to when the democratic practice of permitting any citizen who wanted to address the assembly actually began. Despite the common translation “freedom of speech,” the Greek literally means something more like “equal speech in public.” The verb agoreuein, from which it derives, shares a root with the word agora or marketplace—that is, a public place where people, including philosophers like Socrates, would gather together and talk.

In the democracy of Athens, this idea of addressing an informal gathering in the agora carried over into the more formal setting of the ekklesia or political assembly. The herald would ask, “Who will address the assemblymen?” and then the volunteer would ascend the bema, or speaker’s platform. In theory, isegoria meant that any Athenian citizen in good standing had the right to participate in debate and try to persuade his fellow citizens. In practice, the number of participants was fairly small, limited to the practiced rhetoricians and elder statesmen seated near the front. (Disqualifying offenses included prostitution and taking bribes.)

Although Athens was not the only democracy in the ancient world, from the beginning the Athenian principle of isegoria was seen as something special. The historian Herodotus even described the form of government at Athens not as demokratia, but as isegoria itself. According to the fourth-century orator and patriot Demosthenes, the Athenian constitution was based on speeches (politeia en logois) and its citizens had chosen isegoria as a way of life. But for its critics, this was a bug, as well as a feature. One critic, the so-called ‘Old Oligarch,’ complained that even slaves and foreigners enjoyed isegoria at Athens, hence one could not beat them as one might elsewhere.

Critics like the Old Oligarch may have been exaggerating for comic effect, but they also had a point: as its etymology suggests, isegoria was fundamentally about equality, not freedom. As such, it would become the hallmark of Athenian democracy, which distinguished itself from the other Greek city-states not because it excluded slaves and women from citizenship (as did every society in the history of humankind until quite recently), but rather because it included the poor. Athens even took positive steps to render this equality of public speech effective by introducing pay for the poorest citizens to attend the assembly and to serve as jurors in the courts.

As a form of free speech then, isegoria was essentially political. Its competitor, parrhesia, was more expansive. Here again, the common English translation “freedom of speech” can be deceptive. The Greek means something like “all saying” and comes closer to the idea of speaking freely or “frankly.” Parrhesia thus implied openness, honesty, and the courage to tell the truth, even when it meant causing offense. The practitioner of parrhesia (or parrhesiastes) was, quite literally, a “say-it-all.”

Parrhesia could have a political aspect. Demosthenes and other orators stressed the duty of those exercising isegoria in the assembly to speak their minds. But the concept applied more often outside of the ekklesia in more and less informal settings. In the theater, parrhesiastic playwrights like Aristophanes offended all and sundry by skewering their fellow citizens, including Socrates, by name. But the paradigmatic parrhesiastes in the ancient world were the Philosophers, self-styled “lovers of wisdom” like Socrates himself who would confront their fellow citizens in the agora and tell them whatever hard truths they least liked to hear. Among these was Diogenes the Cynic, who famously lived in a barrel, masturbated in public, and told Alexander the Great to get out of his light—all, so he said, to reveal the truth to his fellow Greeks about the arbitrariness of their customs.

Bejan goes on to make a tortured argument for Leftist suppression of free speech as really a form of isegoria, because it’s an attempt to achieve equality of speech, while the Right and the old-fashioned Liberal Left can only see free speech as parrhesia.

Obviously I thought isegoria made a perfect name for a semi-political blog at the dawn of blogging, 15 years ago.

He who does not know foreign languages does not know anything about his own

Sunday, December 31st, 2017

Machines have developed the ability to understand, process, and even translate languages:

In recent years, much of the research in machine learning has focused on the algorithmic concept of deep neural networks, or DNNs, which learn essentially by inferring patterns — often patterns of remarkable complexity — from large amounts of data. For example, a DNN-based machine can be fed many thousands of snippets of recorded English utterances, each one paired with its text transcription, and from this discern the patterns of correlation between the speech recordings and the paired transcriptions. These inferred correlation patterns get precise enough that, eventually, the system can “understand” English speech. In fact, today’s DNNs are so good that, when given enough training examples and a powerful enough computer, they can listen to a person speaking and make fewer transcription errors than would any human.

What may be surprising to some is that computerized learning machines exhibit transfer learning. For example, let’s consider an experiment involving two machine-learning systems, which for the sake of simplicity we’ll refer to as machines A and B. Machine A uses a brand-new DNN, whereas machine B uses a DNN that has been trained previously to understand English. Now, suppose we train both A and B on identical sets of recorded Mandarin utterances, along with their transcriptions. What happens? Remarkably, machine B (the previously English-trained one) ends up with better Mandarin capabilities than machine A. In effect, the system’s prior training on English ends up transferring capabilities to the related task of understanding Mandarin.

But there is an even more astonishing outcome of this experiment. Machine B not only ends up better on Mandarin, but B’s ability to understand English is also improved! It seems that Willans and Goethe were onto something — learning a second language enables deeper learning about both languages, even for a machine.

Coined in 1889 by US newspapers

Sunday, December 24th, 2017

Discussing how a Taser works reminded me of the word electrocution, which was already an old, established term by the time my parents were warning me not to stick things in the electrical socket, but which was a darkly cute portmanteau when it was coined:

Electrocution is death caused by electric shock, electric current passing through the body. The word is derived from “electro” and “execution”, but it is also used for accidental death. The word is also used to describe non-fatal injuries due to electricity. The term “electrocution,” was coined in 1889 by US newspapers just before the first use of the electric chair in 1890, originally referred only to electrical execution (from which it is a portmanteau word), and not to accidental or suicidal electrical deaths. However, since no English word was available for non-judicial deaths due to electric shock, the word “electrocution” eventually took over as a description of all circumstances of electrical death from the new commercial electricity.

A picket is just a metaphorical fence

Sunday, October 29th, 2017

I just got the first volume of Shelby Foote’s Civil War, at Audible’s latest 2-for-1 sale, and it reminded me of a word that comes up all the time in Civil War writings — picket. When I first came across the Civil-War use of picket years ago, I was confused. They obviously didn’t mean a white picket fence. Did they mean a metaphorical fence? Or did the men carry stakes, like medieval archers, to build up anti-cavalry defenses?

Reading military history can be frustrating this way, because it’s almost always written for an audience that already knows quite a bit about the subject, rather than for curious boys. Anyway, it turns out a picket is just a metaphorical fence, with no stakes involved. It also turns out that the word was really, really popular during the Civil War, and not before:

Picket Use Over Time

No Caucasian man was properly dressed without his kindjal

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

In writing Dune, Frank Herbert drew inspiration from the nascent environmental movement, European feudalism, Middle Eastern oil politics, Zen Buddhism, and, perhaps less obviously, the mid-19th century Islamic holy war against Russian imperialism in the Caucasus, described in Lesley Blanch’s 1960 novel, The Sabres of Paradise:

Anyone who has obsessed over the mythology of Dune will immediately recognize the language Herbert borrowed from Blanch’s work. Chakobsa, a Caucasian hunting language, becomes the language of a galactic diaspora in Herbert’s universe. Kanly, from a word for blood feud among the Islamic tribes of the Caucasus, signifies a vendetta between Dune’s great spacefaring dynasties. Kindjal, the personal weapon of the region’s Islamic warriors, becomes a knife favored by Herbert’s techno-aristocrats. As Blanch writes, “No Caucasian man was properly dressed without his kindjal.”

Herbert is ecumenical with his borrowing, lifting terminology and rituals from both sides of this obscure Central Asian conflict. When Paul Atreides, Dune’s youthful protagonist, is adopted by a desert tribe whose rituals and feuds bear a marked resemblance to the warrior culture of the Islamic Caucasus, he lives at the exotically named Sietch Tabr. Sietch and tabr are both words for camp borrowed from the Cossacks, the Czarist warrior caste who would become the great Christian antagonists of Shamyl’s Islamic holy warriors.

Herbert also lifted two of Dune’s most memorable lines directly from Blanch. While describing the Caucasians’ fondness for swordplay, Blanch writes, “To kill with the point lacked artistry.” In Dune, this becomes “[k]illing with the tip lacks artistry,” advice given to a young Paul Atreides by a loquacious weapons instructor. A Caucasian proverb recorded by Blanch transforms into a common desert aphorism. “Polish comes from the city, wisdom from the hills,” an apt saying for a mountain people, becomes “Polish comes from the cities, wisdom from the desert” in Dune.

Dune’s narrative, however, owes more to The Sabres of Paradise than just terminology and customs. The story of a fiercely independent, religiously inspired people resisting an outside power is certainly not unique to the Caucasus, but Blanch’s influence can be found here, too. The name of Herbert’s major villain, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, is redolent of Russian imperialism. Meanwhile, Imam Shamyl, the charismatic leader of Islamic resistance in the Caucasus, describes the Russian Czar as “Padishah” and his provincial governor as “Siridar,” titles that Herbert would later borrow for Dune’s galactic emperor and his military underlings.

There are even some interesting echoes of Blanch’s writing style and tendencies in Herbert’s book. Both authors traffic in evocative descriptions of stark, unforgiving landscapes and equally unforgiving peoples. And their shared tendency to describe their protagonists in raptor-like terms may not be a coincidence. (For Blanch, the Caucasus was a land of “eagle-faced warriors” and Imam Shamyl was possessed of “handsome eagle features.” Naturally, the Atreides are also notable for their “hawk features.”) Even Dune’s colors owe something to Blanch’s history. The banners of House Atreides are green and black. The first is, of course, the color of Islam and the second was adopted by Imam Shamyl’s Murids, holy Islamic warriors pledged to fight Russian imperialism to the death.

One of the biggest differences between the classics of SF&F and modern derivative works is that their authors borrowed from outside the genre:

Science fiction and fantasy have always been syncretic genres. The extravagant world-building that fires the imagination of so many readers would be nearly impossible if authors refused to seek inspiration in our own histories, religious traditions, and myths. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy was famously inspired by Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. J. R. R. Tolkien’s background in medieval languages helped shape the mythology of Middle Earth. Frank Herbert’s Dune is no different, and rediscovering one of the book’s most significant influences is a rewarding experience. At a time when our most popular science fiction sagas have been reduced to cannibalizing themselves, we would do well to celebrate genre pioneers who were more ambitious in their borrowing.

Low explosives deflagrate

Thursday, August 31st, 2017

High explosive detonate, while low explosives deflagrate:

Low explosives are compounds where the rate of decomposition proceeds through the material at less than the speed of sound. The decomposition is propagated by a flame front (deflagration) which travels much more slowly through the explosive material than a shock wave of a high explosive. Under normal conditions, low explosives undergo deflagration at rates that vary from a few centimetres per second to approximately 400 metres per second.

[...]

Low explosives are normally employed as propellants. Included in this group are petroleum products such as propane and gasoline, gunpowder (both black and smokeless), and light pyrotechnics, such as flares and fireworks.

[...]

High explosives (HE) are explosive materials that detonate, meaning that the explosive shock front passes through the material at a supersonic speed. High explosives detonate with explosive velocity ranging from 3 to 9 km/s. For instance, TNT has a detonation (burn) rate of approximately 5.8 km/s (19,000 feet per second),

Detonation has an interesting etymology:

Detonation (from Latin detonare, meaning “to thunder down”) is a type of combustion involving a supersonic exothermic front accelerating through a medium that eventually drives a shock front propagating directly in front of it.

[...]

In classical Latin, detonare means “to stop thundering”, as in weather. The modern meaning developed later.

Researchers have quantified Muhammad Ali’s mental decline

Thursday, August 24th, 2017

Researchers have quantified Muhammad Ali’s mental decline as he took more punches throughout his career:

In 1968, Ali spoke at a rate of 4.1 syllables per second, which is close to average for healthy adults. By 1971, his rate of speech had fallen to 3.8 syllables per second, and it continued sliding steadily, year by year, fight by fight. An ordinary adult would see little or no decline in his speaking rate between the ages of 25 and 40, but Ali experienced a drop of more than 26% in that same period. Slowing his speaking rate couldn’t indefinitely compensate for the deterioration of signals between his brain and his speech muscles. The paper suggests that by 1978, six years before his Parkinson’s syndrome diagnosis and three years before his retirement from boxing, Ali was slurring his words.

In addition to this overall decline in speech, researchers found a strong relationship between Ali’s activity in the ring and his verbal skills. The more punches he took, the more steeply his speaking abilities declined. (Listen to a sample of Ali’s speech changes.)

In 1977, the 35-year-old Ali fought a brutal, 15-round bout with Earnie Shavers. One of the strongest punchers in boxing history, Shavers hit Ali with 266 punches, including 209 power punches, according to the new CompuBox data. Before his fight with Shavers, Ali spoke at a rate of 3.7 syllables per sec. After the fight, his speaking rate fell 16% to 3.1 syllables per sec. His voice also became less animated in the immediate aftermath of fights.

The war for our minds is waged over neither facts nor opinions

Thursday, June 15th, 2017

The war for our minds and attention is now increasingly being waged over neither facts nor opinions, but feelings, and one weapon in this war, Eric R. Weinstein explains, is the Russell Conjugation:

Russell Conjugation (or “emotive conjugation”) is a presently obscure construction from linguistics, psychology and rhetoric which demonstrates how our rational minds are shielded from understanding the junior role factual information generally plays relative to empathy in our formation of opinions. I frequently suggest it as perhaps the most important idea with which almost no one seems to be familiar, as it showed me just how easily my opinions could be manipulated without any need to falsify facts. Historically, the idea is not new and seems to have been first defined by several examples given by Bertrand Russell in 1948 on the BBC without much follow up work, until it was later rediscovered in the internet age and developed into a near data-driven science by pollster Frank Luntz beginning in the early 1990s.

In order to understand the concept properly you have to appreciate that most words and phrases are actually defined not by a single dictionary description, but rather two distinct attributes:

I) The factual content of the word or phrase.

II) The emotional content of the construction.

Where words can be considered “synonyms” if they carry the same factual content (I) regardless of the emotional content (II). This however leads to the peculiar effect that the synonyms for a positive word like “whistle-blower” cannot be used in its place as they are almost universally negative (with “snitch,” “fink,” “tattletale” being representative examples). This is our first clue that something is wrong, or at least incomplete with our concept of synonym requiring an upgrade to distinguish words that may be content synonyms but emotional antonyms.

The basic principle of Russell Conjugation is that the human mind is constantly looking ahead well beyond what is true or false to ask “What is the social consequence of accepting the facts as they are?”  While this line of thinking is obviously self-serving, we are descended from social creatures who could not safely form opinions around pure facts so much as around how those facts are presented to us by those we ape, trust or fear. Thus, as listeners and readers our minds generally mirror the emotional state of the source, while in our roles as authoritative narrators presenting the facts, we maintain an arsenal of language to subliminally instruct our listeners and readers on how we expect them to color their perceptions. Russell discussed this by putting three such presentations of a common underlying fact in the form in which a verb is typically conjugated:

I am firm. [Positive empathy]

You are obstinate. [Neutral to mildly negative empathy]

He/She/It is pigheaded.  [Very negative empathy]

In all three cases, Russell was describing people who did not readily change their minds. Yet by putting these descriptions so close together and without further factual information to separate the individual cases, we were forced to confront the fact that most of us feel positively towards the steadfast narrator and negatively towards the pigheaded fool, all without any basis in fact.

Years later, the data-driven pollster Frank Luntz stumbled on much the same concept unaware of Russell’s earlier construction.  By holding focus-groups with new real time technology that let participants share emotional responses to changes in authoritative language, Luntz was lead to make a stunning discovery that pushed Russell’s construction out of the realm of linguistics and into the realm of applied psychology. What he found was extraordinary: many if not most people form their opinions based solely on whatever Russell conjugation is presented to them and not on the underlying facts. That is, the very same person will oppose a “death tax” while having supported an “estate tax” seconds earlier even though these taxes are two descriptions of the exact same underlying object. Further, such is the power of emotive conjugation that we are generally not even aware that we hold such contradictory opinions. Thus “Illegal aliens” and “undocumented immigrants” may be the same people, but the former label leads to calls for deportation while the latter one instantly causes many of us to consider amnesty programs and paths to citizenship.

If we accept that Russell Conjugation keeps us from even seeing that we do not hold consistent opinions on facts, we see a possible new answer to a puzzle that dates from the birth of the web: “If the internet democratized information, why has its social impact been so much slower than many of us expected?” Assuming that our actions are based not on what we know but upon how we feel about what we know, we see that traditional media has all but lost control of gate-keeping our information, but not yet how it is emotively shaded.

How the Toilet Got Its Name

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

The fine folks at Merriam-Webster explain how the toilet got its name:

You may be surprised to learn that toilet and the noun toil, meaning “snare” or “trap” (as in “caught in the toils of love”), have a common ancestor: the Middle French word toile, meaning “cloth” or “hunting net.” How toil developed from the French word needs no explanation; on the other hand, how toilet as a name for a modern bathroom fixture developed from a word for “cloth” is a head-scratcher.

In Middle French, the diminutive form of toile was toilette, which means “small piece of cloth” but which also came to be used for more specific senses (many of which are reflected in the semantic development of the English word). English speakers borrowed the word in the 16th century, and eventually settled on the spelling toilet while still making use of toilette in the “grooming” sense. The word was originally used for a wrapper or covering for clothes and later for a cloth put over the shoulders while dressing the hair or shaving.

From the “shoulder cloth” sense, toilet came to refer first to a cloth covering a dressing table (or vanity) then to the articles on the table, then to the table itself. Next, a more abstract meaning developed, as the word was applied to the whole process of washing, grooming, and dressing, especially at the beginning of the day or for a special occasion. This use of the word is often found in the constructions “at one’s toilet” or “to make one’s toilet.”

She hurried at her toilet, which was soon made….
— Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie, 1900

Miss Chauncey proceeded to make her toilet for the night.
— Walter De la Mare, Broomsticks, 1925

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the “washing” sense of toilet was extended to the nonhuman (e.g., animals, places, tools, and such).

Before breakfast they made the toilet of the six chosen kittens.
— Edgar Jepson, Terrible Twins, 1913

The toilet of London … cannot be satisfactory unless the streets are flushed with water every night.
The Daily Telegraph, 1855

… the workman performed ‘the toilet’ of these saws and other dreadful implements.
The Eclectic Magazine, October 1888

The word’s “grooming” sense also developed new meaning in prisons and hospitals. It was used for the preparation of execution by guillotine, as described by Lord Ronald Gower in 1903:

The ghastly ceremony of his toilette, as they call the pinioning and cutting off the hair at the back of his head.

19th-century surgeons applied the word to the cleansing done after an operation—for example, “the toilet of the peritoneum” would be made after surgery. Toilet is still used in the medical field in this way.

At this point, our discussion of toilet has been clogged with descriptions of grooming and washing, and you’re probably wondering when we’ll get to how and when the word came to refer to the bathroom toilet we are familiar with today. We’ll plunge into that now.

In the late 18th century, toilet was transferred to the room where the grooming and washing occurred. In America, the room was most often one that included facilities for bathing, and when the water closet—which in the 1700s referred to a room with a fixture for defecation and urination capable of being flushed, or to the fixture itself—was introduced into houses that could afford one, it was typically placed in the bathroom or toilet room. In the late 19th century, toilet was transferred from the room to the fixture itself.

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.