Tag Archives: language

Pink Used To Mean A Yellowish Color

Mental Floss has an interesting article explaining how back until about the year 1600, the word “pink” used to refer to the greenish-yellow color that lakes get from floating vegetation. This probably comes from the German word pinkeln, which means “to urinate”. But, “pink” has a lot of other meanings, including as a verb. So one of the definitions of “to pink” is “to perforate in an ornamental pattern”. No one’s sure how its meaning as a color went from urine-yellow to pale red, but the best theory is that it came from Queen Elizabeth. She loved pinked carnations, which happened to be colored pink (as in pale red) but were called “pinked” because they have notched, or pinked petals. So, the idea is that the word was first applied to the carnations because of pattern of the petals, but then people started using it to refer to the carnations’ color instead.

Pinked Pink Carnation

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From Mental Floss

Why Polyamory And Homosexuality Are Wrong

Poly is Greek for “many” and amor is Latin for “love”. Same goes for homo, which is Greek for “same” and sex, which is Latin for… “sex”.

Homosexuality? What barbarity! It’s half Greek and half Latin! — from the 1997 play The Invention of Love

There are a ton of other hybrid words like this: television, neuroscience, monolingual, sociology, amoral, bureaucracy, etc. In fact, there are so many that a word for words like this should exist: heteroriginal, from the Greek hetero meaning “different” and the Latin origin, meaning… “origin”.

From Zazzle, via FAIL Blog

How To Speak Kiwinglish

To truly get the pronunciation guide below, you should be familiar with the strange New Zealand accent, which can mostly be summed up by saying that they pronounce the letter ‘e’ like an ‘i’, so “pen” becomes “pin” and “bench” is “binch”. If you’ve never heard it before, or want to watch a great show, try Flight of the Conchords — and remember, Brit’s name is actually Bret. If you want to read a funny blog post about the Kiwi accent, try the first Kiwinglish blog post from Foreign Service Officer Adrian Pratt — the tutorial below comes from the 11th and final part of his Kiwinglish series.


From Life in the Land of the Long White Cloud

Fun With Plurality


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via FAIL Blog

Fun With Homonyms

Via Eat Liver

Pleonasms: Redundant Idioms

Quite often people speak in phrases, not words, because a couple of words strung together usually carry a more precise or nuanced meaning. These phrases or idioms are extremely common because they’re the shortest way to communicate certain details, which means they’re very efficient — and living things, like people, love efficiency because it affords us to be lazier and waste less energy. Some examples: saber rattling, name dropping, facing the music, backing down.


But, as with everything, there’s a dark side: idioms that are the epitome of inefficiency because they come with extraneous words which waste a couple of seconds every time we use them — words that are completely unnecessary to getting the point across. These redundant idioms — known as pleonasms — made their way into the common tongue, and now they’re used by everyone, without thinking about what their constituent words actually mean. Everyone, that is, except the Grammar Nazis at Mental Floss, who came up with a list of some common ones that other Grammar Nazis can now use to feel superior. But you can also use it for good, to speak with brevity and enlightenment, and feel superior for that reason alone:

  • Nape of the neck: there’s no nape of anything else, so just say “nape”
  • False pretense: is there a true pretense? Maybe technically, but no one’s going to say that “John is doing that under a true pretense.” Pretenses are false all the time, because pretentious people suck.
  • Frozen tundra: all tundra is frozen — that’s the definition of it.
  • Gnashing of teeth: you can’t gnash anything else, because then it wouldn’t be gnashing. Teeth are an integral part of gnashing, so this phrase is like “blinking of eyelids.”
  • Head honcho: the term honcho comes from Japanese, where it means “group leader”. But even in English, there’s no head honcho and assistant honcho — there’s only one honcho.
  • Bleary-eyed: face it, no one has any idea what “bleary” means: that you’re tired and foggy. But you can’t be bleary-nosed, or bleary-eared so you can safely say you woke up “bleary”.
  • Veer off-course: ever heard of veering on-course?
  • Safe haven: what kind of haven would it be, if it weren’t safe? “Dangerous haven” is an oxymoron. There’s a woody forest and wet stream near that safe haven.
  • Ford a river: this phrase realistically has no use outside of The Oregon Trail, but you can’t ford a lake, or a forest or a mountain or anything but a river.

Keep in mind that if your purpose is efficiency, which is why idioms exist, then using even these redundant ones is in your best interest: if you start talking about a girl’s nape or that your friend was gnashing, you’re going to get into a longer discussion about why you’re speaking like a weirdo. But if your purpose is to prove how smart you are, then that discussion will do wonders.

Of course, there’s also the nerd’s purpose: to make things more efficient in the long run. Sure, it’ll take longer to have that discussion a few times, but in a few short years, speaking will be so much more efficient that all the  time invested in lengthy discussions about idioms will be paid back in spades. AND you get to look like a Renaissance man while changing the world for the better. Win/win/win!

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From Mental Floss, via Neatorama

‘Ye Olde’ Should Be Read As ‘The Old’

Minute Physics decided this issue is important enough to make a video about even though it has nothing to do with physics, so here is why you’re reading ‘Ye Olde Shoppe’ the wrong way: in the olden days, the sound “th” had its own letter, Þ, called thorn. This letter appears in Scandinavian languages and was probably introduced by the Vikings, during numerous invasions of England during the 9th and 10th centuries (Old Norse and Old English were similar languages, both having come from Northern Germany). During this time, words like “this” and “that” would have been written “Þis” and “Þat”, if Old English were anything like Modern English.


The first page of the Old English text of Beowulf, with words containing the letter thorn circled


Then the English were conquered for the last time, in 1066 by an entirely different sort of Vikings: Normans, who had settled in the part of northern France now known as Normandy, who spoke French and who instituted it as the language of the aristocracy in England. Over time, the ruling class did adopt English, but it became heavily influenced by French.  These French-speaking English didn’t like the letter thorn, so they started using “th” instead of “Þ”, and it obviously caught on. But for centuries after the Norman conquest, thorn was still used.

In fact, it was still in use when the printing press was invented 400 years later, but since printing presses came from continental Europe, the typed alphabets were Latin and didn’t include the letter thorn and other Norse runes. Having to make do with what they had, English writers figured that ‘y’ looked close enough to “Þ” and started using it instead. And that’s how “Þe olde” became “ye olde”. Interestingly “ye“, pronounced like you’d think, actually meant the same thing back in those days as “y’all” does in the South now.

This taco house will not put up the French spelling of "þe"


All Scandinavian languages eventually followed suit with English and started using “th” instead of “Þ” — except for Icelandic, who still uses thorn and another Old English letter called eth (ð). As for English, there’s little chance of it going back to “Þ”, especially since words like “thorn” would become “Þorn” and probably be either read as “born” or “porn”. And just for confusion, there’s a letter called sho (Ϸ) that looks very similar to thorn, but comes from the Greek alphabet and has nothing to do with English.

From YouTube, via Neatorama

Spoken Language Correlates To Long-Term Choices

An associate professor of economics at Yale wrote a very interesting paper (PDF) in which he compares good future-driven behaviors with not speaking a future-aware language. He noted the distinction between languages that have a strong future-time reference (FTR) requirement and ones that have a weak one: for example, English ranks as a strong FTR language because the language changes significantly when talking about the future (“It will be cold tomorrow”) compared to talking about the present (“It is cold today”). Contrast that with Finnish, which barely changes to account for the future: “Tomorrow be cold” vs “Today be cold.”

Most languages have a strong FTR: all Romance ones, most Slavic, Turkic, Iranian, etc. The language families that tend to have weak FTRs are Germanic, Chinese, Japanese and Sundic. (English, while a Germanic language, has been so heavily influenced by Latin and French that it has a strong FTR — the only other Germanic language besides Afrikaans to do so.)

Charlize Theron's first language is Afrikaans


The paper then compares this language trait with data that indicates a concern for the future: savings accounts, heavy smoking, physical activity, obesity. The idea being that if you smoke a pack a day, have 47$ in your bank account, spend your weekends on the couch and ate a cheesecake for dinner last night, you probably aren’t too concerned about the future. It turned out that speakers of languages with weak FTRs (like the Germans and Japanese) are a lot better about future-oriented behaviors:

Weak-FTR speakers are 30% more likely to have saved in any given year, and have accumulated an additional 170 thousand Euros by retirement. I also examine non-monetary measures such as health behaviors and long-run health. I find that by retirement, weak-FTR speakers are in better health by numerous measures: they are 24% less likely to have smoked heavily, are 29% more likely to be physically active, and are 13% less likely to be medically obese.

So there is correlation between how much a language emphasizes the distinction between present and future and how much speakers of that language prepare for the future. This is evident in the current economic situation in Europe: Germany (weak FTR) has to bail out Greece, Spain and Italy (strong FTRs). The author’s hypothesis is that speakers of languages like Finnish, in which present and future are pretty much treated the same, are more aware of the future because to them the future is now — so they tend to smoke less and save more. Whereas the French see the future as this far-off thing, so they smoke more and save less.


But is there also a causation between language and behavior? That’s a much harder question to answer: it could be that the language influences behavior, and it’s pretty unlikely that behavior influences language — people would have to migrate on a scale that’s probably a lot larger than observed. But it could also be that a third factor, like culture, influenced the way the languages developed, as well as the behavior. If, thousands of years ago, the Germans as a people were concerned about the future, maybe they didn’t care to make the distinction between present and future, but cared to save their gold. The author himself notes that it appears that language and culture both independently influence future-driven behavior, and that language doesn’t directly cause that behavior, but that it may affect it through an intermediary.

In marginally-related news, having a name that’s easy to pronounce has been correlated to being more likely to be promoted. That explains why Mitt doesn’t go by Willard.

From Yale (PDF), via Motherboard and Slashdot


No, “exigology” is not a real word.

From Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal