Did you know that 'fantastic' and 'phenotype' are etymological relatives?

Daniel de Haas used some word datasets to create “ancestral trees” that linked words together, helping him find words that had the same root but were semantically different. A few examples:

“piano” & “plainclothed”

“Piano” is a shortened form of the Italian word “pianoforte”, which means “soft-loud”. The “piano” part comes from Latin “planus”, meaning “level, flat, even”, and which is also the source of the word “plain” and eventually “plainclothed”.

“potable” & “poison”

One of many of the pairs of words in these results that seem obvious once pointed out, “potable” and “poison” both ultimately come from Latin “potare”, meaning “to drink”. “Potare” also gives English the word “potion”, a close cousin of “poison”.

“fantastic” & “phenotype”

“Fantastic” and “phenotype” both descend from the Greek “phainein”, meaning “show”.

The path from “phainein” to “phenotype” is fairly plain, but “fantastic” takes a longer path via Greek “phantos” (“visible”) ➔ Greek “phantazesthai” (“have visions, imagine”) ➔ Greek “phantastikos” (“imaginary, fantastic”) ➔ Old French “fantastique” (“fantastic”).

The leap from a word meaning “imaginary” to a word meaning “fantastic” struck me as odd initially, but apparently it comes from the sense of the word “imaginary” as “unreal”.

I love etymology so much!

Other blogs on etymology: the etymological identity crisis of Arctic bears, daughters, milking cows, and etymological debates, and Language Log discovers the word ‘yeet’ (and so do I, kinda)

'What's a Tom Swifty?” asked Dick in a harried manner

A Tom Swifty is a pun that plays on the description of reported speech. The title of this blog post was an example—it features the names Tom (Swifty), Dick and Harry (in the word ‘harried’). Other examples include:

  • “I manufacture table tops,” said Tom counterproductively.
  • “Let’s have a debate about cows,” Tom mooted.
  • “Who discovered radium?” asked Marie curiously.
  • “This sea-spray will ruin all the metal-work,” said Tom mistrustfully.
  • “Show no mercy killing the vampire,” said Tom painstakingly.

The name “Tom Swifty” derives from the Tom Swift series of books where the house pseudonym author, “Victor Appleton“, tried to avoid using the word “said” too often so he decided to use an adverb or description clause after it. An example of this was “‘We must hurry,’ said Tom Swiftly.” and the joke took off from there.

What's a 'jawn'? Well, it could be anything.

Dan Nosowitz wrote about the word jawn for Atlas Obscura and its linguistic ubiquity:

The word “jawn” is unlike any other English word. In fact, according to the experts that I spoke to, it’s unlike any other word in any other language. It is an all-purpose noun, a stand-in for inanimate objects, abstract concepts, events, places, individual people, and groups of people. It is a completely acceptable statement in Philadelphia to ask someone to “remember to bring that jawn to the jawn.”

It is a word without boundaries or limits. Growing up in the suburbs just west of the city, I heard it used mostly to refer to objects and events. In the 2015 movie Creed, a character asks a sandwich maker to “put some onions on that jawn.” But it can get much more complex. It can refer to abstract nouns such as theories; a colleague of Jones routinely refers to “Marxist jawn.” It can also refer to people or groups of people. “Side-jawn,” meaning a someone with whom the speaker cheats on his or her significant other, “is a uniquely Philly thing as far as I can tell,” says Jones. “And not something you want to be.”

The only time I’ve ever heard the word ‘jawn’ or used it was in context to a song or beat. Here are some articles where I’ve used the word:

It is versatile!

'The Page 69 Test' tests a Marshall McLuhan addage on choosing books

According to Marshall McLuhan, if you turn to page 69 of any book, read it and like the page, you should buy the book. The Page 69 Test has been testing that theory for the past 14 years with thousands of books analysed. I might have to try this out the next time I’m in a bookshop (sometime in 2022 no doubt).

See also: The Page 99 Test, following a similar Ford Madox Ford saying—”open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.”

The origin of the milkshake line in 'There Will Be Blood'

Ever since I watched There Will Be Blood a few weeks ago, I can’t hear the words “milkshake” or “you can sit down now” without thinking of the final scene from the movie. But where did that line about milkshake come from? If you’ve not seen the movie or the scene, here’s the line:

“If you have a milkshake and I have a milkshake—there it is. [He holds up his index finger]. That’s the straw, you see. [He turns and walks away from Eli] And my straw reaches acrooooooossssss [walking back toward Eli] the room … I … drink … your … milkshake. [He makes a sucking noise] I drink it up!”

It turns out the line wasn’t made up; it came from a transcript that Paul Thomas Anderson found from the 1924 Teapot Dome scandal congressional hearings.

Sen. Albert Fall described oil drainage thus: “Sir, if you have a milkshake and I have a milkshake and my straw reaches across the room, I’ll end up drinking your milkshake.” He was convicted of taking bribes for oil rights on public lands.

(via kottke.org)

The Green Experience

Green is the colour of Kermit the Frog, Mike Wazowski, and two-thirds of Nigeria’s national flag. It’s associated with nature, fertility, tranquillity, money, good luck, health, movement, and ecology. It can also signify illness and envy. Grass is green, the Chicago River is green once a year for St. Patrick’s Day, many political parties are green. Great gardeners have green fingers, inexperienced ones might be greenhorns, and jealous ones might be green-eyed monsters.

Green is my second favourite colour behind red (sorry, blue, you’re in 3rd place now!) thanks to Sporting CP. Green is also a traditional colour in Islam, associated with paradise in the Quran.

A passage from the Quran describes paradise as a place where people “will wear green garments of fine silk.” One hadith, or teaching, says, “When Allah’s Apostle died, he was covered with a Hibra Burd,” which is a green square garment. As a result, you’ll see green used to color the binding of Qurans, the domes of mosques, and, yes, campaign materials.

via Slate

J. Milton Hayes’s “Yellow God” had a green eye (likely an emerald), Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden” said “No white nor red was ever seen / So am’rous as this lovely green.”, and D. H. Lawrence said the dawn was “apple-green”. Aliens are often green, little, and men for some reason.

The green room is where performers wait before they go on stage, there are at least 250 films in Letterboxd with “green” in the title including Green Book, Green Lantern, The Green Hornet, The Green Mile, and 17 films simply called Green.

Green and gold go together perfectly in a room and green Victorian tiles adorn many London Underground corridors (but not Green Park’s for some reason).

Judy Horacek and Mem Fox asked “Where Is The Green Sheep?“, Dr. Seuss wrote about Green Eggs and Ham, and Hemingway talked about the Green Hills of Africa (specifically East Africa). Kermit sang it ain’t easy being green, Tom Jones sang about the green green grass of home and Beyoncé gave us the green light (as did John Legend).

In art, you have Karel Appel’s The Green Cat, Lilian Thomas Burwell’s Greening, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Queen Green, and Jean Gabriel Domergue’s Green Park. There have been 3 green colours chosen as Pantone’s Colour of the Year between 2000 and 2021 (the most recent was emerald in 2014).

There’s a lot of love about green.

A compendium of interesting words

Marijn van Hoorn of marijn.uk has an ongoing list of really cool words, ranging from semi-common words like ‘zenith’ and ‘iridescent’ to obsolete terms like ‘zenzizenzizenzic’ and ‘psychopomp’.

Some of my favourites:

  • cephalophore (n) – A Christian saint depicted in artworks as carrying their own severed head.
  • eggcorn (n) – A reanalysis of a word or phrase for another that sounds similar and could be taken to have a similar meaning.
  • kakistocracy (n) – Rule by the worst and least qualified people.
  • nychthemeron (n) – A period of 24 hours, a day and a night.

Is DeepL the best Google Translate alternative?

When you need a quick translation, you turn to Google Translate. But it doesn’t always work the way it should. But there’s an alternative that TechCrunch claims is “as quick as the outsized competition, but more accurate and nuanced” than any they’d tried. It’s called DeepL.

About DeepL

Ever since the launch of DeepL Translator in August 2017, DeepL has been setting records for machine translation quality.

DeepL Pro, released in March of 2018, allows subscribers to unlock the full capacity of DeepL’s AI translation technology. DeepL Pro subscribers can benefit from an optimized web translator, integrate our algorithms into translation software, or build new apps and services with the DeepL API.

Let’s test an example. I’ve taken an original poem called Círculo Vicioso by Machado de Assis:

Bailando no ar, gemia inquieto vaga-lume:
– Quem me dera que fosse aquela loura estrela,
que arde no eterno azul, como uma eterna vela!
Mas a estrela, fitando a lua, com ciúme:
– Pudesse eu copiar o transparente lume,
que, da grega coluna á gótica janela,
contemplou, suspirosa, a fronte amada e bela !
Mas a lua, fitando o sol, com azedume:
– Misera ! tivesse eu aquela enorme, aquela
claridade imortal, que toda a luz resume !
Mas o sol, inclinando a rutila capela:
– Pesa-me esta brilhante aureola de nume…
Enfara-me esta azul e desmedida umbela…
Porque não nasci eu um simples vaga-lume?

Google TranslateDeepL TranslatorEnglish translation
Dancing in the air, an uneasy firefly moaned:
I wish it were that blond star,
that burns in the eternal blue, like an eternal candle!
But the star, looking at the moon, with jealousy:
I could copy the transparent fire,
that from the greek column to the gothic window,
she gazed, sighingly, at the beloved and beautiful forehead!
But the moon, staring at the sun, with bitterness:
Misera! had I that huge, that
immortal clarity, which all light sums up!
But the sun, tilting the rutile chapel:
This brilliant number aureole weighs me…
Put on this blue and immeasurable umbilicus …
Why am I not born a simple firefly?
Dancing in the air, a restless firefly moaned:
I wish it were that blond star
That burns in the eternal blue, like an eternal candle!
But the star, staring at the moon, jealous
If I could copy the transparent light,
That from the Greek column to the Gothic window
from the Greek column to the Gothic window, gazed, sighing, upon the beloved and beautiful brow!
But the moon, staring at the sun, with bitterness:
Misera! had I that enormous, that immortal
immortal clarity, which all light sums up!
But the sun, inclining the ruddy chapel:
This bright aureole of nume weighs me down…
Pities me this blue and unmeasured umbrella?
Why was I not born a simple firefly?
Dancing in the air, the firefly moaned restlessly:
– How I wish I was that blonde star,
That burns in the eternal blue, live an infinite candle!
But the star, gazing at the moon jealously:
– Who am I to copy the transparent light,
That from the Greek column to the gothic window,
Contemplated, sighing, forehead beloved and beautiful!
But the moon, gazing at the sun, sourly:
– Misery! Had I that huge, that
Immortal brightness, in which all live is summarized!
But the sun, tilting its shining chapel:
– This bright halo weighs down upon me…
This blue and unmeasurable umbrella sickens me…
Why wasn’t I born a simple firefly?

While neither translator could emulate the original English translation (which likely had its own artistic flair), they both did a good job. DeepL picked up “restless” in the first verse compared to Google Translate’s “uneasy” and in the word fitando, DeepL goes for “staring”, which is closer to the original “gazing”, while Google Translate chooses “looking” which doesn’t have the same feeling.

That said, there were some glitches with DeepL, for example duplicating the line “from the Greek column to the Gothic window”, and neither picked up the word misera translated to “misery” but that’s not the traditional translation so that makes sense.

Maybe a poem wasn’t the best example. Here’s a paragraph from a news story from Le Monde:

L’heure de la réconciliation entre la France et le Rwanda est-elle arrivée ? Vingt-sept ans après le génocide des Tutsi, qui a fait près de 1 million de morts entre avril et juillet 1994, on veut le croire au sommet de l’Etat français. Emmanuel Macron reçoit son homologue rwandais, Paul Kagame, lundi 17 mai, à Paris, en marge d’une conférence sur le Soudan et à la veille d’un sommet sur le financement des économies africaines. Les deux hommes « ont pris l’habitude d’échanger en anglais dans un climat de confiance, de sincérité et de respect »,précise un membre de l’entourage du chef de l’Etat. Au cours de sa visite, Paul Kagame doit aussi s’entretenir avec d’anciens officiers de l’armée française, dont le général Jean Varret, responsable de la mission de coopération de 1990 à 1993, qui s’était opposé à sa hiérarchie lors de la tragédie.

Google TranslateDeepL Translator
Has the time come for reconciliation between France and Rwanda? Twenty-seven years after the genocide of the Tutsi, which killed nearly 1 million people between April and July 1994, we believe him at the top of the French state. Emmanuel Macron receives his Rwandan counterpart, Paul Kagame, on Monday, May 17, in Paris, on the sidelines of a conference on Sudan and on the eve of a summit on the financing of African economies. The two men “have become accustomed to speaking in English in an atmosphere of trust, sincerity and respect,” said a member of the head of state’s entourage. During his visit, Paul Kagame must also meet with former officers of the French army, including General Jean Varret, responsible for the cooperation mission from 1990 to 1993, who opposed his hierarchy during of tragedy.Has the time for reconciliation between France and Rwanda arrived? Twenty-seven years after the Tutsi genocide, which killed nearly one million people between April and July 1994, people at the top of the French government want to believe so. Emmanuel Macron received his Rwandan counterpart, Paul Kagame, on Monday 17 May in Paris, on the sidelines of a conference on Sudan and on the eve of a summit on the financing of African economies. The two men “have become accustomed to exchanging in English in a climate of trust, sincerity and respect,” said a member of the entourage of the head of state. During his visit, Paul Kagame is also expected to meet with former French army officers, including General Jean Varret, head of the cooperation mission from 1990 to 1993, who had opposed his superiors during the tragedy.

For me, it’s a tie on that one. Google Translate’s first sentence felt more natural while DeepL’s “Tutsi genocide” vs. GT’s “genocide of the Tutsi” sounded better. DeepL’s “climate of trust, sincerity and respect” was better than GT’s “atmosphere of trust, sincerity and respect” as well as “opposed his superiors during the tragedy” vs. “opposed his hierarchy during of tragedy.”

Ultimately, this both use machine learning based on data that’s already out there and as language continues to change and evolve, it’ll be almost impossible to get things exactly right. But, for me, DeepL offers more nuance and less literal translations for words which is what you want as a human being.

10 'The Man in the' movies

I saw an old advert for The Man in the Iron Mask and noticed it came out in 1998 which I never realised despite watching it last year. During a Google search to confirm that fact, the auto-suggestion brought up terms such as The Man in the High Castle and it got me thinking: how many movies start with the phrase ‘The Man in the’?

I picked 10:

  1. The Man in the Iron Mask (letterboxd link)
  2. The Man in the Moon (letterboxd link)
  3. The Man in the Hat (letterboxd link)
  4. The Man in the Net (letterboxd link)
  5. The Man in the Woods
  6. The Man in the White Suit (letterboxd link)
  7. The Man in the Silo (letterboxd link)
  8. The Man in the Brown Suit (letterboxd link)
  9. The Man in the Wall
  10. The Man in the Raincoat

Honourable mentions: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Man in the Glass Booth, The Man in the Orange Jacket, and The Man in the Black Cape

There are at least 3 films with men in different coloured suits (white, brown, and grey), one in an orange jacket and one in a raincoat. Then there’s one in a black cape and one in a hat.

Update: I’ve created a Letterboxd list for them too and may add to it over time.

Phrases to help you protect your mental health

For Grammarly, Devon Delfino wrote a great guide on language that can protect your mental health while you work from home or just talking to friends and family.

Social isolation. Work-from-home burnout. Public health-related stress. Political upheaval. If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that mental health matters and has become a central issue for many. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily become easier to talk about.

Mental health awareness is one thing but we need more active behaviour to quash the stigmas and myths that surround mental health so those who need help can feel safe to talk about it (or not).

And if you need any alternatives to ableist terms, you can check that out too.

Amen and awoman

women praying

To paraphrase Ross Geller, congresspeople say all kinds of… stuff.

On 4th January, The New York Post reported on Rep. Emanuel Cleaver closing Congress’s opening prayer with the phrase “amen and awoman”:

May the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon us and give us peace,” Cleaver said during his two-minute invocation, “peace in our families, peace across this land, and dare I ask, o Lord, peace even in this chamber.

We ask it in the name of the monotheistic God, Brahma, and ‘God’ known by many names by many different faiths. Amen and awoman.

I’m no stranger to this kind of gendered prayer; the God interlude from OutKast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below uses a similar variation:

Amen
Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry
A-lady

But that was in jest. Cleaver meant what he said. Victor Mair from Language Log dissected the utterance, with etymologies of the word “amen” and, for those who didn’t know, it isn’t connected to the word “man” in any way.

Old English, from Late Latin amen, from Ecclesiastical Greek amen, from Hebrew amen “truth,” used adverbially as an expression of agreement (as in Deuteronomy xxvii.26, I Kings i.36), from Semitic root a-m-n “to be trustworthy, confirm, support.”

There’s something to be said about the trustworthiness, confirmation, support of men but that’s for another day. Needless to say, you don’t need to feminise the word “amen” but what Congress should do is make women’s lives better—especially women of colour—with better legislation for their rights and their bodies.

Daughters, milking cows, and etymological debates

An Indian woman milking a cow

Victor Mair wrote a very in-depth piece on the etymological origins of the word “daughter” and its connection to milking cows.

I was just thinking how important cows (and their milk) are for Indian people and was surprised that’s reflected in such a fundamental word for a family relationship as “daughter” — at least in the popular imagination.

The etymology of ‘daughter’

Upon further investigation, Mair traced “daughter” back to its roots, via Middle English, Old English, Proto-West Germanic, Proto-Germanic, Proto-Indo-European, and finally Vedic Sanskrit—duhitṛ (“one who milks”).

But rather than take Wikitionary’s word for it, Mair posed two questions to a host of linguists:

  1. Is that analysis reliable?
  2. Is duhitṛ cognate with “daughter”?

Enter a mixed bag of responses for and against the cognate connection. I won’t list them all here but if the answers were on a spectrum, every part of it would be covered but here are two extremes:

duhitṛ is indeed cognate with Eng. daughter. While I’m no kind of Indo-Europeanist, I do recall hearing that connecting it with √duh, dogdhi, etc. is spurious. But I don’t have any references to hand.

Whitney Cox—Associate Professor in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago

Vedic duhitár- does NOT mean ‘one who milks’! That’s a 19th-c. myth that was exploded generations ago.

Don Ringer—American linguist, Indo-Europeanist, and Professor of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania

Read the article over at Language Log and choose your own etymological adventure. And if you’d prefer articles on milk from other animals, check out pule, made from donkey milk, and cheese made from moose milk.

The origins of the "black sheep"

A black sheep amongst white sheep

Ever wondered where the term “black sheep”, to denote a bad character, came from? Well, language blog Grammarphobia answered that very question but not before taking a counterquestion first:

Q: You say the phrase “black sheep” has been used to mean a bad character since the 17th century. That might be true, but it’s only the result of an even earlier meaning. “Black sheep” is actually a very old weaving term. Black sheep were considered unlucky because you couldn’t dye the wool any other colors.

Grammarphobia couldn’t find any instance of that terminology before or after the bad character definition but suggested a possible link with the “disreputable usage”:

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example of “black sheep” meaning a bad character is from a 17th-century religious treatise about the conversion process in Congregational churches of New England:

“Cast out all the Prophane people among us, as drunkards, swearers, whores, lyers, which the Scripture brands for blacke sheepe, and condemnes them in a 100. places.”

They then go further back to the 16th century biblical texts and a passage from the 2013 edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms which suggested that the use of “black sheep” for a person of bad reputation was “based on the idea that black sheep were less valuable than white ones because it was more difficult to dye their wool different colors.”

But a direct link between them? Nothing concrete but not totally implausible. Finally, Grammarphobia discussed the general etymology of “black” as a negative descriptor which would tie the two concepts together, albeit with loose string.

I can still remember the faux debate between White people over the alleged banning of singing “Baa Baa Black Sheep”. You can’t say anything these days. Or in 1997.

Alternatives to ableist terms

(Content warning: this article contains ableist slurs for the purposes of definitions)

We all know how language can evolve beyond our control. The word ‘literally’ can now mean the opposite, for example. But there are words that we use that have negative connotations.

The word ‘crazy’ used to mean ‘to be sickly and infirm’ back in the 1500’s but its meaning changed to ‘insane’ or demented’ a century later. In the 20th and 21st century, it became a colloquial term to describe something that was ‘unexpected’. But that change in use doesn’t make it okay in non-derogatory ways.

What is ableism?

Ableism is a form of discrimination against disabled people or those perceived to have disabilities. An example of ableism could be:

  • Calling someone ‘mental’ for leaving their door unlocked
  • Building difficult-to-read fonts
  • Creating a movie without audio descriptions or closed captions

Using ableist terms is a common form of ableism because of our dependence on media and conversation. Words like ‘crazy’, ‘stupid’, or ‘mental’ are still weaponised against people with mental illnesses and reinforce centuries of stigma.

Given the English language’s penchant for stolen—sorry, ‘loan’ words—there are plenty you can use in replacement of these terms. Here are some alternatives.

Note: context is key so some alternatives might not make sense for the same words. That’s for you to decide. These lists are also:

  1. Non-exhaustive
  2. Imperfect

So if I’ve included a term that is considered ableist and you have a better alternative, let me know in the comments and I’ll remove it. Nobody is above reproach regarding ableism and it’s all about doing better by people.

Are “idiot” and “moron” ableist?

Yes, they are but in varying degrees.

Here’s what disability activist and Paralympic medalist Elizabeth Wright had to say on the term “moron”:

Moron is a term attributed to Henry H. Goddard who was a psychologist and, perhaps most disturbingly, a eugenicist. He came up with the term to describe someone who was “feeble-minded.” According to MuseumHack, Goddard felt that the term “feeble-minded” wasn’t scientific enough, so he had to come up with his own.

From this point the history of moron gets even more disturbing. Remember Goddard was a prominent eugenicist at the time… he had his word, so he now had to figure out how to classify between people who he perceived to be intelligent or not. The tests that he came up with resulted in a stack of people, namely immigrants, being labelled as morons. This included Jews, Italians, and Hungarians.

Goddard decided that the best way forward was to sterilise people he identified as morons. Essentially anyone who was offensive or deemed “unfit” could and would be sterilised.

And for idiot:

Stepping right back into the history books, the origins of the term idiot are not that questionable. In fact the word idiot etymologically derives from the Greek word idiotes meaning “private person.” It was a term used to describe someone who kept their affairs to themselves.

In later years the word passed into Latin, becoming idiota. It is here that we start to see the problematic connotations of the word; it became synonymous with “ignorant person.” This meaning passed with the term throughout history, resulting in our use of it today to mean someone we perceive as being ignorant or stupid. You can read more about the history of the word idiot here — Tales of Times Forgotten.

I use the word idiot every day. I use it to describe myself sometimes and other people a lot. It is almost like a slip of the tongue, a common word in my linguistic insults dictionary. This one will be the hardest to stop using because it is literally everywhere.

Alternatives to crazy/mental/nuts

  • wild
  • unreal
  • incredible
  • bizarre
  • ridiculous
  • absurd
  • comical
  • farcical
  • silly
  • ludicrous
  • foolish
  • nonsensical
  • outrageous
  • shocking
  • astonishing
  • unbelievable
  • unthinkable

Alternatives to stupid

  • asinine
  • banal
  • clueless
  • fatuous
  • foolish
  • frivolous
  • gullible
  • ignorant
  • inept
  • insipid
  • irrational
  • misguided
  • misinformed
  • mistaken
  • naïve
  • oblivious
  • obtuse
  • uninformed
  • unwise
  • vacuous
  • vapid
  • wrong

Alternatives to idiot/moron/cretin

  • fool
  • asshole/arsehole
  • chump
  • jackass
  • jerk
  • melt
  • silly-billy
  • wally
  • git
  • muppet
  • tit
  • turkey
  • goofball
  • goof

Further reading