Words have meaning. We use them to communicate to one another, and what we communicate depends, in part, on which words we use. What words mean varies from language to language. In many cases, we can communicate the same thing in different languages, but require different words to do so. And conversely, sometimes the very same words communicate different things in different languages.
Slang—mocking, sneering, casting a jaundiced eye on the world’s proprieties—is by its nature sour. It finds approval hard, congratulation challenging, and affection almost impossible. Yet even if slang’s oldest meaning of “sugar” is money, and the second oldest a euphemism for the most common term for defecation, slang, for all its skepticism, cannot resist the tempting possibilities of “sweet.”
In the near future I’ll have more than enough to say about bad, an adjective whose history is dismally obscure, but once again, and for the umpteenth time, we have to ask ourselves why there are words of undiscovered and seemingly undiscoverable origin. Historical linguists try to reconstruct ancient roots.
Since publishing Sorry About That a year ago, I’ve been trying to keep track of apologies in the news. Google sends me a handful of news items every day. Some are curious (“J.K. Rowling issues apology over slain ‘Harry Potter’ character”), some are cute (“Blizzard 2015: Meteorologist apologizes for ‘big forecast miss’”), and some are sad (“An open apology to my kids on the subject of my divorce”).
James Brown was famously introduced by Lucas ‘Fats’ Gonder at the Apollo Theater in the early 1960s as ‘The Hardest Working Man in Show Business’, an epithet that stuck with Brown for his entire life. It is a fitting term for the word hip–the hardest working word in the lexicon of American slang. For more than 110 years, hip has found a prominent place in our slang, reshaping and repurposing itself every few decades to carry itself forward, from the early 20th century’s hip to today’s hipster movement.
In the literature on language death and language renewal, two cases come up again and again: Irish and Hebrew. Mention of the former language is usually attended by a whiff of disapproval. It was abandoned relatively recently by a majority of the Irish people in favour of English, and hence is quoted as an example of a people rejecting their heritage. Hebrew, on the other hand, is presented as a model of linguistic good behaviour: not only was it not rejected by its own people, it was even revived after being dead for more than two thousand years, and is now thriving.
As the television show Mad Men recently reached its conclusion, we thought it might be fun to reflect on the contributions to language during the turbulent decade of the 1960s. This legacy is not surprising, given the huge shifts in culture that took place during this point in time, including the Civil Rights movement, the apex of the space race, the environmental movement, the sexual revolution, and—obviously—the rise of advertising and media. With this in mind, we picked 16 words from the 1960s that illuminate this historical moment.
It’s graduation time at many of the nation’s schools and colleges. The commencement ceremony is a great exhalation for all involved and an annual rite of passage celebrating academic achievements. Commencement ceremonies typically feature a visiting dignitary who offers a few thousand inspirational words. Over the years, I’ve heard more of these speeches than I care to admit and have made my own checklist of suggestions for speakers. For those of you giving commencement speeches or listening to them, here’s my advice.
It is curious that, although the modern theory of evolution has its source in Charles Darwin’s great book On the Origin of Species (1859), the word evolution does not appear in the original text at all. In fact, Darwin seems deliberately to have avoided using the word evolution, preferring to refer to the process of biological change as ‘transmutation’. Some of the reasons for this, and for continuing confusion about the word evolution in the succeeding century and a half, can be unpacked from the word’s entry in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
May the Fourth be with you! Playing off a pun on one of the movie’s most famous quotes, May the 4th is the unofficial holiday in which Star Wars fans across the globe celebrate the beloved blockbuster series. The original Star Wars movie, now known as Star Wars IV: A New Hope, was released on 25 May 1977, but to those of us who waited in line after line to see it again and again in theaters, it will always be just Star Wars.
23 April marks St. George’s Day. While St. George is widely venerated throughout Christian communities, England especially honors him, its patron saint, on this day. Indeed, his cross, red on a white field, flies as England’s flag. St. George, of course, is legendary for the dragon he slew, yet St. George bested the beast in legend alone. From Beowulf to The Game of Thrones, this creature continues to breathe life (and fire) into our stories, art, and language; even the very word dragon hoards its own gold. Let’s brave our way into its etymological lair to see what treasures we might find.
Last month marked the hundredth anniversary of the Federal Trade Commission, the regulatory agency that looks after consumer interests by enforcing truth in advertising laws. Established by the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914 and signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson, the FTC opened its doors in March 16 of 2015, taking the place of the older Bureau of Corporations.
False friends (‘faux amis’) are words in one language which look the same as words in another. We therefore think that their meanings are the same and get a shock when we find they are not. Generations of French students have believed that demander means ‘demand’ (whereas it means ‘ask’) or librairie means ‘library’ (instead of ‘bookshop’). It is a sign of a mature understanding of a language when you can cope with the false friends, which can be some of its most frequently used words.
As somebody who loves words and English literature, I have often been assumed to be a natural enemy of the mathematical mind. If we’re being honest, my days of calculus and the hypotenuse are behind me, but with those qualifications under my belt, I did learn that the worlds of words and numbers are not necessarily as separate as they seem. Quite a few expressions use numbers (sixes and sevens, six of one and half a dozen of the other, one of a kind, etc.) but a few are more closely related to mathematics than you’d expect.
Even though much of the world has adopted the Gregorian calendar, which is based on movement of the sun, many traditional cultures still observe lunar calendars, which are based on movement of the moon. The beginning of the Chinese lunar year this time fell on 19 February of the Gregorian calendar.
Sometimes, we say what we don’t really mean. ‘You look really tired’, for example, when we mean to be caring rather than disparaging of appearance. ‘I thought you were older than that!’ when we mean to applaud maturity rather than further disparage appearance. And so it is with the gay thing. The accidental difference between what people are saying or writing, and their intended meaning, is becoming perplexingly polarized.