May 21, 2013, 12:01 am
Remember 1849? Those were the great days of the California Gold Rush. Hundreds of thousands dropped everything to grab gold from the foothills near Sutter’s Fort. In that heady time, you didn’t need lots of equipment—perhaps just a pan to sift riverbed gravel for nuggets.
Well, it’s 1849 all over again. Not in gold mining, which now generally requires sophisticated technology, but in etymology, the study of word origins. Vast new fields of data have been opened and made accessible, so it’s easier than ever to find an earlier instance of a word or phrase not yet recorded in any dictionary.
Last week I gave an example of antedating, the Yale librarian Fred Shapiro’s discovery of an 1886 hot dog in a Nashville newspaper, some six years earlier than any previously discovered use of that now-familiar name for a sausage in a bun.
Years ago, before the Internet, that kind…
May 17, 2013, 12:01 am
News flash in the etymological world: Two new antedatings of hot dog!
In the etymological world, prospecting for earlier instances of a word is like prospecting for gold in the geological world. You look in the online Oxford English Dictionary for the earliest known date of a word and then go data mining in the archives of old publications for something earlier.
One of the leading prospectors is Fred Shapiro of the Yale University Library. He announced his findings in the first instance earlier this year on the American Dialect Society’s discussion list, ADS-L. That got the attention of the assay office, a.k.a. Comments on Etymology, a paper and ink journal I’ve written about before. It’s published by Gerald Cohen at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, and it’s the first draft of etymological history. The news about hot dog came in the recently arrived Vol. 4…
May 8, 2013, 12:01 am
Image from Aberdeen Bestiary, 12th-century collection, U. of Aberdeen
“In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Adam was the guy whose first job, on direct orders from God, was to name all the animals. Not so easy, at the rate God created them! Thanks to his rush job, today we’re left with lots of animal misnomers.
(And don’t try to tell me that Adam didn’t speak English. What language do you think the Lord used when he inspired King James to write the Bible?)
Here’s the full story, as reported in the King James Bible, Genesis 2:19-20:
“And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
And Adam gave names to all cattle,…
April 29, 2013, 12:01 am
A petting zoo is usually a cute, cuddly place. But the zoo of pet peeves about language isn’t cuddly at all. It’s filled with creatures captured in the wild of everyday use—misspellings, grammatical solecisms, clichés—and visitors come not to pet them but to voice outrage at their mere existence.
Look—there’s that awful hopefully! Here’s no problem, you guys! There’s my bad and conversate and graduate college! There’s a complete collection of Lake Superior State University’s annual catch of banished words—double down, job creators, bucket list, guru, yolo and the rest. And look who’s sitting right here in our presence, the big bad historical present!
The zoo of language pet peeves is run by the vast sect known as Prescriptivists. They bring their children to the zoo to teach them to recognize those awful usages and keep away from them. True, there are…
April 25, 2013, 12:01 am
One left, two left—
Excuse me, I was just talking with a guy from 6,000 years ago.
Language, being learned rather than innate, has a natural tendency to change as each person learns it under slightly different circumstances.
It works like the game of Telephone, where each person whispers a message to the next, and the outcome isn’t the same as the input. Languages don’t change as fast as Telephone, because mispronunciations and misinterpretations usually get corrected by family, friends, teachers, editors, and busybodies. Still, a thousand years of Telephone can make a big difference. It certainly does in English, which received a thick infusion of French vocabulary, topped off with Latin and Greek, during the past millennium.
So the English spoken in England a thousand years ago, the true “Old English,” is quite different from ours.
But it’s good to know that …
April 16, 2013, 12:01 am
To the language gourmet, nothing is as delectable as a mistake. A correct spelling, punctuation mark, word choice, or pronunciation doesn’t tempt the palate; it merely indicates that the author has successfully followed convention. To put it another way: Happy utterances are all alike; each unhappy utterance is unhappy in its own way. You could write a book about the latter. Call it something like “Eats Shoots and Leaves,” and you might have a best seller.
There is one kind of mistake that’s so delicious, even its perpetrator is often amused. That’s the “slip of the tongue,” immediately recognized by the speaker and quickly corrected, often with a smile.
The most famous tips of the slung are those attributed to the Rev. W.A. Spooner, late (1844-1930) of Oxford University, who is said to have said something like: “You have hissed the mystery lectures; you have…
April 9, 2013, 12:01 am
The DARE map (top), with state codes, compared with a geographic map. DARE’s map is based on population density as of the 1960s. It shows responses DARE collected during fieldwork in 1965-70.
Where does a dictionary reside nowadays?
In the cloud, of course.
But what if was created before there was a cloud? Then you’d have to look for it on the ground, in ink on paper.
And on paper, perhaps the most monumental lexicographic enterprise in the field of American English has just been completed: the Dictionary of American Regional English, with some 60,000 entries and thousands of maps, published in six 8¾-by-11¼-inch volumes by Harvard University Press. Too bad it’s not online. RIP, right?
Wrong. In this century, if you’re a dictionary, you have a chance for an afterlife online. You need to be…
April 3, 2013, 12:01 am
Illustration accompanying Hopkins’s 1913 article in “The Bulletin.” It was probably meant to be Hopkins himself.
I’m going to turn this post over to a guest columnist, Ernest J. Hopkins. On April 5, 1913—yes, almost exactly 100 years ago—he devoted “What’s Not in the News,” his regular column in the San Francisco Bulletin, to a brand new baseball term, jazz. It wasn’t the first use of the word in print, but it came close, and it was quite a send-off.
How this jazz came to designate New Orleans music just three years later is another story. Meanwhile, thanks to Gerald Cohen and his collaborators at Comments on Etymology, here’s Hopkins’s column. Happy centennial, jazz!
* * *
WHAT’S NOT IN THE NEWS—In Praise of “Jazz,” a Futurist Word Which Has Just Joined the Language….
March 25, 2013, 12:01 am
In the warm afterglow of the worldwide celebration of OK Day on Saturday (commemorating the birth of OK on Page 2 of the Boston Morning Post of Saturday, March 23, 1839), I can’t resist a few more words in praise of OK, that gentle giant.
OK is America’s greatest word. No other locution even comes close. I suppose the next greatest American word is jazz, the great-sounding word applied soon after its birth a century ago to the greatest American invention in music. But even if you’re a jazz musician, how often each day do you say jazz compared with OK?
OK owes its power to its distinctive form. It pairs a completely round letter with one composed entirely of straight lines. On a document it stands out more than most other initials would. And in speaking it’s simplicity itself, two simple long vowels (O and A) punctuated by that most un-vowel-like of consonants, the stop…
March 21, 2013, 12:01 am
Hard to believe, but with the coming of spring, it’s OK Day again, the birthday of OK.
It was a mere 174 years ago that OK was born, on March 23. It made its newborn appearance that Saturday morning on Page 2 of the four-page Boston Morning Post, in a turgid paragraph of would-be humor. The sentence that first gave ink to OK reads as follows:
The “Chairman of the Committee on Charity Lecture Bells,” is one of the deputation, and perhaps if he should return to Boston, via Providence, he of the Journal, and his train-band, would have the “contribution box,” et ceteras, o. k.—all correct—and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward.
To fully explain the in-group jokes in that passage requires more room than I can spare here. It has to do with the “Anti-Bell-Ringing Society” or ABRS, a group that despite its name was actually in favor of bell ringing. It was for…