Assegai is more savage sounding

Sunday, December 22nd, 2019

One of the odder decisions Robert Graves made in translating ancient terms into modern English was his decision to call the German spear an assegai:

It has been difficult at times to find suitable renderings for military, legal and other technical terms. To give a single instance, there is the word “assegai”. Aircraftman T.E. Shaw (whom I take this opportunity of thanking for his careful reading of these proofs) questions my use of “assegai” as an equivalent of the German framea or pfreim. He suggests “javelin”. But I have not adopted the suggestion, as I have gratefully adopted others of his, because I need “javelin” for pilum, the regular missile weapon of the disciplined Roman infantryman; and “assegai” is more savage sounding. “Assegai” has had a three-hundred year currency in English and acquired new vigour in the nineteenth century because of the Zulu wars. The long-shafted iron-headed framea was used, according to Tacitus, both as a missile and as a stabbing weapon. So was the assegai of the Ama-Zulu warriors, with whom the Germans of Claudius’s day had culturally much in common. If Tacitus’s statements, first as to the handiness of the framea at close quarters, and then as to its unmanageability among trees, are to be reconciled, the Germans probably did what the Zulus did — they broke off the end of the framea‘s long shaft when hand-to-hand fighting started. But it seldom came to that, for the Germans always preferred strike-and-run tactics when engaged with the better-armed Roman infantryman.

When I rewatched Zulu Dawn a few years ago, I did a little digging and realized that assegai isn’t a Zulu word at all:

Assegai is a Berber word for spear, which somehow became the English word for any African spear.  Shaka’s innovative short-hafted spear with a sword-like blade, designed for close combat, was dubbed the iklwa — a grisly bit of onomatopoeia for the sound it made when pulled from a victim.

Impious imps of the devil

Saturday, December 21st, 2019

I had always assumed the word impious was pronounced just like the un-negated root pious, but with an im prepended. While listening to Nelson Runger’s narration of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, I heard him pronounce it im-pee-uhs, and, sure enough, that’s the preferred pronunciation.

This pronunciation conjures the image of a mischievous imp, which has its own odd, unrelated etymology:

The Old English noun impa meant a young shoot or scion of a plant or tree, and later came to mean the scion of a noble house, or a child in general. Starting in the 16th century, it was often used in expressions like “imps of serpents”, “imp of hell”, “imp of the devil”, and so on; and by the 17th century, it came to mean a small demon, a familiar of a witch.

The Thule Society lives on

Saturday, November 16th, 2019

A “trans-Neptunian object” located in the Kuiper belt was recently named Ultima Thule and then rapidly renamed Arrokoth:

It is a contact binary 36 km (22 mi) long, composed of two planetesimals 22 km (14 mi) and 15 km (9 mi) across, nicknamed “Ultima” and “Thule”, respectively, that are joined along their major axes. Ultima, which is flatter than Thule, appears to be an aggregate of 8 or so smaller units, each approximately 5 km (3 mi) across, that fused together before Ultima and Thule came into contact. Because there have been few to no disruptive impacts on Arrokoth since it formed, the details of its formation have been preserved. With the New Horizons space probe’s flyby at 05:33 on 1 January 2019 (UTC time), Arrokoth became the farthest and most primitive object in the Solar System visited by a spacecraft.


Before the flyby on 1 January 2019, NASA invited suggestions from the public on a nickname to be used. The campaign involved 115,000 participants from around the world, who suggested some 34,000 names. Of those, 37 reached the ballot for voting and were evaluated for popularity – this included eight names suggested by the New Horizons team and 29 suggested by the public. Ultima Thule, which was selected on 13 March 2018, was proposed by about 40 different members of the public and obtained the seventh highest number of votes among the nominees. It is named after the Latin phrase ultima Thule (literally “farthest Thule”), an expression referencing the most distant place beyond the borders of the known world. Once it was determined the body was a bilobate contact binary object, the New Horizons team nicknamed the larger lobe “Ultima” and the smaller “Thule”.

The nickname was criticized due to its use by Nazi occultists as the supposed mythical origin of the Aryan race, although it is commonly used in ancient Greek and Latin literature as well as the historical Inuit culture of the Thule people. The Thule Society was a key sponsor of what became the Nazi Party, and some modern-day neo-Nazis and members of the alt-right continue to use the term. A few members of the New Horizons team were aware of that association when they selected the nickname, and have since defended their choice. Responding to a question at a press conference, Alan Stern said, “Just because some bad guys once liked that term, we’re not going to let them hijack it.”

Oh, but we are.

When the cognoscenti make a fracas

Wednesday, November 6th, 2019

I was listening to the audiobook version of The Everything Store, when the narrator (Pete Larkin) caught my attention by pronouncing cognoscenti in a more-or-less Italian manner — with a ny and a sh — which I had honestly never heard before.

Later, he pronounced fracas with a long first A, which I hadn’t heard either. In both cases, these are the supposedly preferred pronunciations. In both cases, the word comes from Italian. In the first case, the preferred pronunciation is roughly Italian, in the second, not so much.

Human speech may have a universal transmission rate

Wednesday, September 11th, 2019

Human speech may have a universal transmission rate: 39 bits per second:

Scientists started with written texts from 17 languages, including English, Italian, Japanese, and Vietnamese. They calculated the information density of each language in bits—the same unit that describes how quickly your cellphone, laptop, or computer modem transmits information. They found that Japanese, which has only 643 syllables, had an information density of about 5 bits per syllable, whereas English, with its 6949 syllables, had a density of just over 7 bits per syllable. Vietnamese, with its complex system of six tones (each of which can further differentiate a syllable), topped the charts at 8 bits per syllable.

Next, the researchers spent 3 years recruiting and recording 10 speakers—five men and five women—from 14 of their 17 languages. (They used previous recordings for the other three languages.) Each participant read aloud 15 identical passages that had been translated into their mother tongue. After noting how long the speakers took to get through their readings, the researchers calculated an average speech rate per language, measured in syllables/second.

Some languages were clearly faster than others: no surprise there. But when the researchers took their final step—multiplying this rate by the bit rate to find out how much information moved per second—they were shocked by the consistency of their results. No matter how fast or slow, how simple or complex, each language gravitated toward an average rate of 39.15 bits per second, they report today in Science Advances.


Research in neuroscience supports that idea, with one recent paper suggesting an upper bound to auditory processing of 9 syllables per second in U.S. English.

De Boer agrees that our brains are the bottleneck. But, he says, instead of being limited by how quickly we can process information by listening, we’re likely limited by how quickly we can gather our thoughts. That’s because, he says, the average person can listen to audio recordings sped up to about 120%—and still have no problems with comprehension. “It really seems that the bottleneck is in putting the ideas together.”

I suppose it depends on the content, but podcasts now sound normal to me at 1.5x, and audiobooks at 1.25x.

This naturally reminds me of the language of clear thinking.

A star shines at the hour of our meeting

Friday, August 16th, 2019

Lee Pace, who played the elf king Thranduil in the Hobbit movies, tried to greet Stephen Colbert appropriately:

What do you call a female defender?

Sunday, July 7th, 2019

The French language has masculine and feminine genders. Somehow this his become confusing when referring to female soccer players and managers. What do you call a female defender?

The language offers at least three options: the masculine form défenseur, the feminine form défenseuse, or another feminine form défenseure, which is pronounced exactly the same as the masculine. And if you follow French coverage of the tournament, you might see all three.

In Le Monde, you would read about a défenseuse or sélectionneuse (the word used for national team managers). A dispatch from Agence France-Presse, meanwhile, will say défenseure and sélectionneure. Television networks TF1 and Canal+, which are broadcasting the tournament here, often use one form in graphics on screen, but let commentators like Mr. Lizarazu employ another during live broadcasts.

Traditionally, you use the masculine form unless you want to explicitly refer to a female. I have no idea where this third, quasi-female gender came from.

When it comes to questions of proper usage, the country has its own ancient authority, the 384-year-old Académie Française. Its 35 members are known as the Immortals. They are charged with sporadically producing the definitive dictionary on usage and cutting through the babble of a constantly evolving tongue. They are even issued swords.

But time moves slowly at the Académie. In 1984, as more French speakers adapted their speech to reflect a growing number of women in the workplace, the Académie felt compelled to weigh in on the topic: It ruled out any changes, preferring to stick to the masculine form, except in cases where usage had already taken root. It was important to remember, the Académie argued at the time, that there was no connection between what it called “natural gender” and “grammatical gender.”

Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?

Sunday, July 7th, 2019

The term “confidence man” appears to have been coined in 1849 during the trial of one William Thompson in New York:

A debonair thief, Thompson had a knack for ingratiating himself with complete strangers on the street and then asking, “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until tomorrow?” Many did, which cost them their expensive timepieces. The much-publicized trial and the odd crime at its heart piqued the interest of Herman Melville, who reworked it eight years later for his under-appreciated high-concept final novel, The Confidence-Man. After boarding a Mississippi steamboat on April Fool’s Day, its Mephistophelean titular character adopts a succession of guises with evocative backstories and surnames (Goodman, Truman, Noble) with the aim of getting one over on fellow passengers. Spurred by self-interest and reflective of society at large, the dupes place unquestioning trust in tokens such as attire and profession, making them as complicit in the con as the perpetrator. In The Adman’s Dilemma, which used literary and cultural waypoints to chart the evolution of the common snake-oil salesman into the modern man of advertising, Paul Rutherford bleakly described Melville’s novel as “a study in deception and even a self-deception so complete that there was no possibility of redemption”.

Is it jury-rigged or jerry-built or jerry-rigged?

Saturday, June 22nd, 2019

When you duct-tape some complicated structure together, is it jury-rigged or jerry-built or jerry-rigged?

If we were building this structure back in the 18th century, we would have only one of these terms available to us: jury-rig has meant “to erect, construct, or arrange in a makeshift fashion” since the late 18th century, and appears in its participial jury-rigged form from its earliest days. The only caveat here is that our 18th century selves would be using the word completely unconventionally in this context—unless the many-tiered carpeted cat structure were also a boat. That’s right: in its early days jury-rigged was a strictly nautical term.

That fact is also our clue that jury-rig has nothing to do with the juries of the courtroom. Jury-rig comes from the adjective jury, meaning “improvised for temporary use especially in an emergency,” or “makeshift.” It’s a 15th century term that comes from the Middle English jory, as known (back then, anyway) in the phrase “jory sail,” meaning “improvised sail.”

The rig in jury-rigged likewise has nothing to do with the rig that has to do with manipulating or controlling something, like a game or election, to get a desired result. That rig is from a 17th century noun meaning “swindle.” The rig in jury-rigged is a 15th century sailing term meaning “to fit out with rigging,” with rigging being the lines and chains used in operating a sailing vessel. In the 18th century, if it was jury-rigged it was a boat:

La Couronne … bad bottoms, jury rigged.
Morning Herald (London), 16 Aug. 1782

Jury-rigged was, of our three words, the only option for describing our questionably constructed many-tiered carpeted cat structure for quite a while. But in the mid-19th century another word came along: jerry-built means “built cheaply and unsubstantially” as well as “carelessly or hastily put together.” The origin of this word is unknown, though there is plenty of speculation that it’s from some poor slob named Jerry, which is a nickname for Jeremy or Jeremiah. While one named Jerry may reasonably disdain the word, jerry-built is not considered to be a slur. Jerry was used in British English around the time of the First World War as a disparaging word for a German person, but jerry-built predates that use:

The warehouses themselves which have been destroyed were of the class called “Jerry built,” which is equivalent to the term applied in Manchester to the property of building clubs.
The Guardian (London), 28 Sept. 1842

Before things were jerry-built, it seems that some things were built in the “jerry” style:

Another witness in the same case, Mr. Heighton, a house owner, who was called on the opposite side, was asked what was the meaning of the Jerry style of architecture. “Any thing that is badly built,” was the reply. “Have you any houses in Toxteth-park?” was the next question. “Yes,” said the witness. “Are any of them built in the Jerry style of architecture?” “No.” “What do you call your style?” “A sufficient and substantial style.” “And all your houses are of that order?” “I should say so.” “And what do you call the Jerry style?” “If the work is not well done, and the houses not well finished, we call that the Jerry style.”
The Liverpool (England) Mercury, 12 Apr. 1839

The definitive proof is absent, but etymologists believe that the similarity between something being jury-rigged and something being jerry-built paved the way for our third word. The jury of jury-rigged isn’t transparent to the modern English speaker, but the rigged makes sense: after its “to fit out with rigging” meaning, rig developed other senses, including “to equip,” “to construct,” and “to put in condition or position for use.” And so it was that in the late 19th century, the word jerry-rigged sidled up to the language and asked to come inside, offering a meaning of “organized or constructed in a crude or improvised manner”:

Naturally the naval and military establishments have been potent factors in the improvement and development of so convenient a neighborhood, while the efforts of the corporation, in laying out the ground, have received great support from the Government, which, as principal landlord, has taken care that its tenants should carry out building operations in a fashion unconnected with the speculative builder and the “jerry-rigged” villa.
The Daily Telegraph (London), 17 Sept. 1890

I learned this one afternoon when something went wrong with the jerry rigged derrick we were using.
The New England Farmer (Boston, MA), 15 Mar. 1902

While some will assert that jerry-rigged is an inferior sort of word to be avoided, it is in fact fully established and has been busy in the language for more than a century, describing any number of things organized or constructed in a crude or improvised way. Jury-rigged and jerry-built are somewhat older and not generally criticized, and have the added benefit of having corresponding verb forms. Jury-rigged is the best choice when the makeshift nature of the effort is to be emphasized rather than a shoddiness that results; the one who jury-rigs is merely doing what they can with the materials available. Jerry-built is most often applied when something has been made quickly and cheaply; the one who jerry-builds something builds it badly.

Then there’s the question of whether you should call it duct tape

Getting under weigh at the coach office

Wednesday, June 19th, 2019

Hans Schantz mentioned that Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s Two Years Before the Mast (1840) was the most challenging book he’d read, vocabulary-wise, because of the specialized nautical jargon.

I decided to revisit the book and was immediately struck by a bit a quasi-nautical jargon in the first paragraph:

The fourteenth of August was the day fixed upon for the sailing of the brig Pilgrim on her voyage from Boston round Cape Horn to the western coast of North America. As she was to get under weigh early in the afternoon, I made my appearance on board at twelve o’clock, in full sea-rig, and with my chest, containing an outfit for a two or three year voyage, which I had undertaken from a determination to cure, if possible, by an entire change of life, and by a long absence from books and study, a weakness of the eyes, which had obliged me to give up my pursuits, and which no medical aid seemed likely to cure.

Under weigh?

What happened was that the Dutch, who were European masters of the sea in the seventeenth century, gave us — among many other nautical expressions — the term onderweg, meaning “on the way”. This became naturalised as under way and is first recorded in English around 1740, specifically as a maritime term (its broader meanings didn’t appear until the following century). Some over-clever individuals connected with the sea almost immediately linked it erroneously with the phrase to weigh anchor. Weigh here is the same word as the one for finding out how heavy an object is. Both it and the anchor sense go back to the Old English verb, which could mean “raise up”. The link between the senses is the act of raising an object on scales.

It’s easy to find a myriad of examples of under weigh from the best English authors in the following two centuries, such as William Makepeace Thackeray, Captain Marryat, Washington Irving, Thomas Carlyle, Herman Melville, Lord Byron, and Charles Dickens (“There were the bad odours of the town, and the rain and the refuse in the kennels, and the faint lamps slung across the road, and the huge Diligence, and its mountain of luggage, and its six grey horses with their tails tied up, getting under weigh at the coach office.” — Little Dorrit).

It was still common as recently as the 1930s (“He felt her gaze upon him, all the same, as he stood with his back to her attending to the business of getting under weigh.” — The Happy Return by C S Forester, 1937) but weigh has dropped off almost to nothing now. This paralleled another change, starting around the same time, in which the two words began to be combined into a single adverb, underway (though many style manuals still recommend it be written as two words). It may be that the influence of other words ending in -way, especially anyway, encouraged the shift in spelling back to the original and in the process killed off a persistent misunderstanding.

The Malay language transformed into Bahasa Indonesia

Wednesday, June 12th, 2019

Linguistically, Indonesia is one of the world’s most diverse countries, Jared Diamond explains (in Upheaval), with more than 700 different languages:

An important contribution to eventual Indonesian unity was the evolution and transformation of the Malay language, a trade language with a long history, into Bahasa Indonesia, the shared national language of all Indonesians today.


Even the largest of Indonesia’s hundreds of local languages, the Javanese language of Central Java, is the native language of less than one-third of Indonesia’s population.


If that largest local language had become the national language, it would have symbolized Java’s domination of Indonesia and thereby exacerbated a problem that has persisted in modern Indonesia, namely, fear of Javanese domination on the part of Indonesians of other islands.


The Javanese language has the additional disadvantage of being hierarchy-conscious, with different words used in speaking to people of higher or lower status.


Today, I share with Indonesians their appreciation for the advantages of the wonderful Bahasa Indonesia as their national language. It’s easy to learn. Only 18 years after Indonesia took over Dutch New Guinea and introduced Bahasa there, I found it being spoken even by uneducated New Guineans in remote villages.


Bahasa’s grammar is simple but supple at adding prefixes and suffixes to many word roots, in order to create new words with immediately predictable meanings. For example, the adjective meaning “clean” is “bersih,” the verb “to clean” is “membersihkan,” the noun “cleanliness” is “kebersihan,” and the noun “cleaning up” is “pembersihan.”

The Finnish language is distinctive, beautiful, and spoken by no one other than Finns

Monday, June 3rd, 2019

One of Finland’s strengths, Jared Diamond notes in Upheaval, is that it has a strong sense of unity:

Finland identifies with Scandinavia and is considered part of Scandinavia. Many Finns are blue-eyed blonds, like Swedes and Norwegians. Genetically, Finns are in effect 75% Scandinavian like Swedes and Norwegians, and only 25% invaders from the east. But geography, language, and culture make Finns different from other Scandinavians, and they are proud of those differences.


Out of the nearly 100 native languages of Europe, all are related members of the Indo-European language family except for the isolated Basque language and four others. Those four are Finnish, the closely related Estonian language, and the distantly related Hungarian and Lapp (Saami) languages, all of which belong to the Finno-Ugric language family.


Finland’s national epic poem, the Kalevala, holds an even bigger place in Finland’s national consciousness than do the plays of Shakespeare for English-speakers.


The letter k is very common in Finnish: of the 200 pages of my Finnish-to-English dictionary, 31 pages are for words beginning with k.


I have nothing against k’s—but, alas, Finnish, unlike English, has double consonants (like kk) pronounced differently from single consonants (like k). That was the feature of Finnish pronunciation that made it hardest for my tolerant Finnish hosts to understand me on the few occasions when I gave short speeches in Finnish. The consequences of failing to pronounce single and double consonants distinctly can be serious. For instance, the Finnish verb meaning “to meet” is “tapaa” with a single p, while the verb “to kill” is “tappaa” with a double p. Hence if you ask a Finn to meet you but you mistakenly double the p, you may end up dead.


Finnish also has what are called short vowels and long vowels.


If you find yourself confused by the four cases of the German language or the six cases of the Latin language, you’ll be horrified to know that the Finnish language has 15 cases, many of which replace prepositions in English.


But in Finnish, whenever you use a direct object, you have to decide whether your verb is doing something to the whole object (requiring the accusative case) or to only a part of the object (requiring the partitive case).


One of my Finnish hosts in 1959 was a Swedish Finn whose home language was Swedish but who was fluent in Finnish. Nevertheless, he couldn’t get a job from any government agency in Finland, because all Finnish government jobs require passing exams in both the Finnish and the Swedish languages. My friend told me that if, in the 1950’s, you made only a single mistake in choosing between the accusative case and the partitive case, you flunked the exam and couldn’t get a government job.


All of those features contribute to making the Finnish language distinctive, beautiful, a source of national pride, and spoken by almost no one other than Finns themselves.


Other central pieces of Finland’s national identity are its music composers, its architects and designers, and its long-distance runners.


The Finnish musician Jean Sibelius is considered one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.


Finnish architects and interior designers are renowned worldwide. (American readers will think of the St. Louis Arch, Dulles Airport outside Washington, and the TWA terminal at New York’s Kennedy Airport, all of them designed by the Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen.)

There is nothing very boyish about a war soldier

Tuesday, May 28th, 2019

Dunlap didn’t like most of the civilians’ names for soldiers:

I do not like the use of that word “boy” in all places, either, for there is nothing very boyish about a war soldier regardless of his age. It used to gripe us to read blurbs about “our boys.” A soldier can call other soldiers boys, the same way a man refers to his lodge poker gang that way, even though there is not a lad under 60 in the bunch, but it irritated us to be called that in print and by civilians, the way it irritated us to be called “Joe” or “Buddy” by outsiders. I always wanted to hit civilians who called me that. No real soldier ever called another “Buddy” anyway. Besides, in the Pacific, only the Filipinos used “Joe” as a name. Privates were sometimes referred to objectively and collectively as “joes” but only replacements thought it a name. Soldiers called other strange ones “Mac” (or in our outfit, “Mate” was popular — the guys had been on ships so often they used sailor lingo). “Doughfoot” and “Doughboy” are more civilian terms. In the army if a soldier belonged to the cavalry he was a trooper, and if to the infantry, an infantryman. He was called foot soldier, or line man, if belonging to a combat unit.

Everything which is incomprehensible to the Indians, they call big medicine

Monday, May 27th, 2019

According to Lewis and Clark: Linguistic Pioneers, a 1940 study by Elijah Criswell, more than one thousand words appeared in print for the first time in Lewis and Clark’s journals:

Alan H. Hartley, author of the 2004 book Lewis and Clark Lexicon of Discovery, notes that without word creation skills, “it would have been difficult for them to discuss their discoveries amongst themselves, and even more difficult to convey and explain the discoveries to their sponsors — who had, in many cases, not been far inland from the eastern seaboard.” Carefully worded descriptions were essential.

One of Lewis and Clark’s primary methods for creating new terms was naming animals or plants according to some salient feature, whether physical, behavioral, or otherwise. The explorers noticed “a curious kind of deer,” in Clark’s words, “its ears large and long,” that was obviously different from eastern deer. Lewis explains in his journal how they chose a name for it: “The ear and tail of this animal … so well comported with those of the mule … that we have … adapted the appellation of the mule deer.” Lewis called a small swan that he spotted along the Pacific coast the whistling swan because it made “a kind of whistling sound.” A mountain ram with unusually large, twisted horns was named bighorn. Other animals they noticed include tumble-bug (dung beetle), tiger cat (lynx), and leather-wing bat. Plants that received similar treatment include the red elm and the snowberry (“a globular berry … as white as wax”).

Occasionally, Lewis and Clark picked up a name from the French trappers who crisscrossed the region. Few of the terms stuck, but one that did is Yellowstone. Although they started by using the French, they eventually switched to an English translation. Clark uses both the French and the English versions in this line from his journal: “Capt. Lewis concluded to go by land as far as the Rochejhone [roche jaune, ‘yellow rock’] or yellow stone river.”

Lewis and Clark based some terms on where they found a plant or an animal—sand-hill crane, Osage apple, and various denizens of the prairie, such as prairie lark, prairie hen, prairie wolf (coyote), and prairie dog. They also noted when items were found in buffalo territory. Since the 18th century, Americans had been calling bison buffalo (a word that originally referred to oxen), and Lewis and Clark used that term for the bison they saw on the plains. They created or recorded several words connected with that animal—for example, buffalo grass (where buffalo graze), buffalo berry (found on the upper Missouri in buffalo territory), and buffalo robe (made from buffalo skins).

The explorers often went to great lengths to study a creature closely before deciding what to name it. “Though not self-proclaimed naturalists,” says Hartley, “they were keen observers and de facto naturalists.” They also knew that Jefferson wanted meticulous details. For instance, while the Corps overwintered in Oregon from 1805 to 1806, Lewis spotted what he suspected was a different kind of deer from the mule deer found on the plains, although it looked similar. He writes, “The Black-tailed fallow deer are peculiar to this coast.” The ears, he notes, are “rather larger… than the common deer,” and the horns resemble those of the mule deer. The tail is white, but the hair of the sides and top is “quite black.” Concluding that these deer were a distinct type, he labeled them black-tailed deer. Lewis’s instincts were right. Zoologists later classified the Columbian black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) as a subspecies of the mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus).

Before deciding what to call the grizzly bear, Lewis and Clark studied several pelts and consulted with indigenous people. The men first mention grizzlies in their journals while in present-day Montana. Lewis initially calls them brown or yellow bears, saying their color is “yellowish brown.” Others in the party describe the bear as “whiteish,” and Clark sometimes refers to the creatures as “white bears.” After the men had shot several and taken a close-up look, they realized that the fur was variegated, often featuring silvery tips. Clark started calling the bear grizzly, a word for gray, and Lewis eventually followed suit. Lewis recounts a discussion with a band of Nez Perce in Idaho, who studied “several skins of the bear which we had killed” and concurred that they were members of the species the explorers named grizzly. Lewis concludes in his notes that the bears they had been calling brown or yellow, whiteish, and grizzly are all “the same species or family of bears, which assumes all those colors at different ages and seasons of the year.”


Lewis and Clark also gave English names to several Native American cultural items. They called a tribe’s meeting house a council house, and the place for taking steam baths a sweat lodge or sweat house. “I saw near an old Indian encampment a sweat house covered with earth,” writes Clark in his journal. They also adopted a specific meaning for medicine—something with magical powers—which was probably a translation of the Ojibwe word mashkiki. Lewis writes, “Everything which is incomprehensible to the Indians, they call big medicine.” The word appears in the journals in several combinations, including medicine man, medicine bag, medicine dance, and war medicine. Clark records that some of the party went to see a ceremonial “war medicine” dance while the Corps was camped among the Mandan tribe.

My favorite bit of “big medicine” is Lewis and Clark’s air rifle.

How English beat German as the language of science

Friday, May 24th, 2019

Reading Blitzed reminded me of a throwaway comment that my high school chemistry teacher made, about how a chemistry degree used to require German-language proficiency. So, how did English beat German as the language of science?

“If you look around the world in 1900, and someone told you, ‘Guess what the universal language of science will be in the year 2000′, you would first of all laugh at them. It was obvious that no one language would be the language of science, but a mixture of French, German and English would be the right answer,” says Princeton University’s Rosengarten professor of modern and contemporary history Michael Gordin.

Gordin’s upcoming book, Scientific Babel, explores the history of language and science. He says that English was far from the dominant scientific language in 1900. The dominant language was German.

“So the story of the 20th Century is not so much the rise of English as the serial collapse of German as the up-and-coming language of scientific communication,” Gordin says.

You may think of Latin as the dominant language of science. And for many, many years it was the universal means of communication in Western Europe — from the late medieval period to the mid-17th Century. Then it began to fracture. Latin became one of many languages in which science was done.

The first person to publish extensively in his native language, according to Gordin, was Galileo. Galileo wrote in Italian and was then translated to Latin so that more scientists might read his work.

Fast forward to the 20th Century. How did English come to dominate German in the realm of science?

“The first major shock to the system of basically having a third of science published in English, a third in French and a third in German – although it fluctuated based on field, and Latin still held out in some places – was World War One, which had two major impacts,” Gordin says.

After World War One, Belgian, French and British scientists organised a boycott of scientists from Germany and Austria. They were blocked from conferences and weren’t able to publish in Western European journals.

“Increasingly, you have two scientific communities, one German, which functions in the defeated [Central Powers] of Germany and Austria, and another that functions in Western Europe, which is mostly English and French,” Gordin explains.

It’s that moment in history, he adds, when international organisations to govern science, such as the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, were established. And those newly established organisations begin to function in English and French. German, which was the dominant language of chemistry, was written out.

The second effect of World War One took place in the US. Starting in 1917 when the US entered the war, there was a wave of anti-German hysteria that swept the country.

“At this moment something that’s often hard to keep in mind is that large portions of the US still speak German,” Gordin says.

In Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota there were many, many German speakers. World War One changed all that.

“German is criminalised in 23 states. You’re not allowed to speak it in public, you’re not allowed to use it in the radio, you’re not allowed to teach it to a child under the age of 10,” Gordin explains.

The Supreme Court overturned those anti-German laws in 1923, but for years they were the law of the land. What that effectively did, according to Gordin, was decimate foreign language learning in the US.

“In 1915 Americans were teaching foreign languages and learning foreign languages about the same level as Europeans were,” Gordin says. “After these laws go into effect, foreign language education drops massively. Isolationism kicks in in the 1920s, even after the laws are overturned, and that means people don’t think they need to pay attention to what happens in French or in German.”


“And you have a set of people who don’t speak foreign languages,” said Gordin, “They’re comfortable in English, they read English, they can get by in English because the most exciting stuff in their mind is happening in English. So you end up with a very American-centric, and therefore very English-centric, community of science after World War Two.”

I’m reminded of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s point that the most intolerant wins.

Oxygen has an interesting history:

The term was born in the 1770s, as French chemists are developing a new theory of burning. In their scientific experiments, they needed a new term for a new notion of an element they were constructing.

“They pick the term ‘oxygen’ from Greek for ‘acid’ and ‘maker’ because they have a theory that oxygen is the substance that makes up acids. They’re wrong about that, but the word acid-maker is what they create, and they create it from Greek. That tells you that French scientists and European scientists of that period would have a good classical education,” Gordin says.

The English adopted the word “oxygen” wholesale from the French. But the Germans didn’t. Instead they made up their own version of the word by translating each part of the word into “Sauerstoff”, or acid substance.

“So you can see how at a certain moments, certain words get formed, and the tendency was for Germans, in particular, to take French and English terms and translate them. Now that’s not true. Now terms like online, transistor, microchip, that stuff is just brought over in English as a whole. So you see different fashions about how people feel about the productive capacity of their own language versus borrowing a term wholesale from another,” Gordin says.

And that reminds me of uncleftish beholding.