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kottke.org posts about language

Noto: A Typeface for the World

posted by Jason Kottke   May 05, 2022

character sample from the Noto typeface

Google has developed a typeface called Noto that seemingly includes every single character and symbol used for writing in the history of the world. I mean, look at all these different options: Korean, Bengali, Emoji, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Coptic, Old Hungarian, Cuneiform, Linear B, Osage, and literally dozens more.

Noto is a collection of high-quality fonts with multiple weights and widths in sans, serif, mono, and other styles. The Noto fonts are perfect for harmonious, aesthetic, and typographically correct global communication, in more than 1,000 languages and over 150 writing systems.

A particular shoutout to Noto Emoji: it supports the latest emoji release (14.0) and includes 3,663 emoji in multiple weights.

Noto Emoji

Perhaps it’s time for a new typeface ‘round these parts…

Update: I got it in my head that Noto was a new typeface, but it was first released in 2013. But Noto’s monochrome emoji font is new — I think that’s where I got confused.

Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 12, 2022

In January 2020, John Hendrickson wrote an article for The Atlantic about Joe Biden’s stutter…and his own. Hendrickson has written a memoir about his “lifelong struggle to speak”: Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter.

In Life on Delay, Hendrickson writes candidly about bullying, substance abuse, depression, isolation, and other issues stutterers like him face daily. He explores the intricate family dynamics surrounding his own stutter and revisits key people from his past in unguarded interviews. Readers get an over-the-shoulder view of his childhood; his career as a journalist, which once seemed impossible; and his search for a romantic partner. Along the way, Hendrickson guides us through the evolution of speech therapy, the controversial quest for a “magic pill” to end stuttering, and the burgeoning self-help movement within the stuttering community. Beyond his own experiences, he shares portraits of fellow stutterers who have changed his life, and he writes about a pioneering doctor who is upending the field of speech therapy.

Sounds fascinating and the cover is fantastic (who designed it?):

book cover for Life On Delay

See also Austin Kleon’s Our Stutter:

Around Christmastime, my son started stuttering differently and more frequently.

“Why are you so glitchy?” my 5-year-old asked him. “I’m worried about you.”

We might’ve been worried, too, except that we’d been through it before. The previous Christmas, we’d called Dr. Courtney Byrd at the Lang Stuttering Institute here in Austin, Texas, and she assured us that it was perfectly normal for stuttering to change during the holidays and that even good, exciting events can cause changes in stuttering.

So now, when Our Stutter changes, our listening changes.

We listen with more love.

The segment he references from This American Life featuring JJJJJerome Ellis is fantastic and a must-listen if you’ve never heard it before.

Update: Hendrickson reports that the cover is by Oliver Munday, whose work I admire greatly.

All the F*cking Books You See at the Bookstore

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 23, 2022

book cover with the word 'f*ck' in the title

book cover with the word 'f*ck' in the title

book cover with the word 'f*ck' in the title

book cover with the word 'f*ck' in the title

book cover with the word 'f*ck' in the title

book cover with the word 'f*ck' in the title

book cover with the word 'f*ck' in the title

book cover with the word 'f*ck' in the title

book cover with the word 'f*ck' in the title

book cover with the word 'f*ck' in the title

book cover with the word 'f*ck' in the title

book cover with the word 'f*ck' in the title

book cover with the word 'f*ck' in the title

book cover with the word 'f*ck' in the title

book cover with the word 'f*ck' in the title

book cover with the word 'f*ck' in the title

book cover with the word 'f*ck' in the title

book cover with the word 'f*ck' in the title

See also Why Are There So Many F**king Best-sellers Right Now With F**k in the Title?, What the F*ck Is Up With All These Sweary F*cking Book Titles?, and What Is With All of the Self-Help Books With Swear Words in the Title?

The FBI Guide to Internet Slang

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 21, 2022

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request in 2014, the FBI released their internal 83-page guide to internet slang (most of which are initialisms and acronyms). The quality of the scanned document is very poor, but it’s (just) readable. A few of my favorite phrases gleaned from skipping around the report:

BMUS - beam me up, Scotty
EMFBI - excuse me for butting in
JC - Jesus Christ/just curious/just chilling
MOS - mom over shoulder
PS - photoshop/play station/post script
SMG - sub-machine gun
TOTES FRESH - totally precious
YOYO - you’re on your own
WYLABOCTGWTR - would you like a bowl of cream to go with that remark?

For their annual publication that they send out to their company mailing list, Pentagram recently made a far more legible and well-designed version of the FBI’s guide featuring some of their own favorites.

sample pages from Pentagram's FBI Guide to Slang

sample pages from Pentagram's FBI Guide to Slang with the initialisms BTW, ITII, and LWY

The booklet challenges readers to identify 14 abbreviations of varying difficulty and absurdity, with answers at the back. The acronyms are set in two custom typefaces designed by Pentagram partner Matt Willey, based on the markings that appear on the agency’s uniforms, particularly in popular media. The two fonts are fittingly named Edgar Sans and Clyde Slab in honor of longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and his deputy and alleged lover Clyde Tolson.

Better Names for Food

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 17, 2022

several foods illustrated with proposed 'better' names for each

Nathan Pyle has come up with some alternate names for everyday foods: wheat wands for breadsticks, leafbucket for salad, fried beans 2.0 for refried beans, guac cartridge for avocado, and breadcocoon meatapillar for corn dogs. Click through for more.

Cancel Culture Is a Moral Panic

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 08, 2022

Michael Hobbes, late of You’re Wrong About, has made a video essay arguing that “cancel culture” is a moral panic and not some huge new problem in our society. He says you can tell it’s a moral panic because of the shifting definitions of the term, the stories are often exaggerated or untrue, the stakes are often low, and it’s fueling a reactionary backlash.

Even if you think that cancel culture really is a nationwide problem, I don’t see why we should focus on random college students and salty Twitter users rather than elected officials and actual legislation. Look, I’m not gonna sit here and pretend there haven’t been genuinely ugly internet pile-ons. Social media makes it easy to gang up on random people and ruin their lives over dumb jokes and honest mistakes.

But for two years now, right-wing grifters and the liberal rubes who launder them into the mainstream have cast cancel culture as a problem for the American left and a sign of creeping authoritarianism. They’re wrong. Internet mobs are not a left-wing phenomenon and historically speaking, the threat of authoritarianism usually comes from political parties that try to overturn elections, make it harder to vote, and censor ideas they don’t like. All of this is obvious, but that’s what moral panics do: they distract you from an obvious truth and make you believe in a stupid lie.

Back in October, Hobbes wrote a piece on The Methods of Moral Panic Journalism that pairs well with this video.

Exposing the Slavers of New York

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 03, 2022

sticker that says 'John van Nostrand was a slave owner'

map of New York City places named for slave owners

A group of activists called Slavers Of New York is working to educate people about the prominent New Yorkers who lent their names to the city’s geography (Nostrand, Bergen, Rivington, Stuyvesant, Lefferts, Boerum) and were also slave owners or traffickers. From the NY Times:

Just a few months before, while scrolling through social media, Mx. Waithe had stumbled upon records from the nation’s first census in 1790, which listed well-known New York families like the Leffertses, the Boerums and the Nostrands. To the right of those names was another category: “slaves.”

According to the census, the Lefferts family enslaved 87 Black people throughout New York City (Prospect Lefferts Gardens and an avenue in that Brooklyn neighborhood were named after them). The Boerums owned 14 slaves (the neighborhood Boerum Hill is named for them). And the Nostrands (of the eight-mile-long Nostrand Avenue), enslaved 23 people (this number would nearly double by the beginning of the 19th century).

The discovery sparked Slavers of New York, a sticker campaign and education initiative dedicated to calling out — and eventually mapping — the history of slavery in New York City.

The group detailed how they started where the project is headed in an interview in Guernica:

Mainly, our goal is to just educate people about the legacy of slavery and how it persists in the present day. We don’t advocate for changing the names in any way. We hope that, if people feel so inclined to change names, they create their own groups and engage in political action. I definitely think there should be more context available in public places. When Maria and I went to Stuyvesant Square in Manhattan, a statue of Peter Stuyvesant was there in the middle of the park, glorified, and there’s no information about his slave-owning history.

What’s really interesting is that some of the naming of places for slavers happened more recently than you would imagine. Boerum Hill wasn’t called “Boerum Hill” until 1964 or so, when that name was resurrected as part of the gentrification of Brooklyn. You can see, directly, the entanglement of the history of slavery and gentrification. Bringing this man’s name back into the neighborhood is a symbol of violence. The persistence of these names and links carry this space through history.

You can keep up with the group’s efforts on Twitter and Instagram and support their mission on GoFundMe. (Map above courtesy of The Decolonial Atlas.)

Lake Toiletbrush and the Curse of Ikea’s Product Names

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 20, 2021

a woman standing in front of a billboard that reads 'Welcome to Bolman, more than an IKEA toilet brush

Ikea names their products after locations all over Scandinavia and a bunch of those places in Sweden are fighting back against the practice with a clever “discover the originals” ad campaign.

From Strange Maps:

Bolmen. Now there’s a word you don’t use every day. Where have you encountered it before? In IKEA, where it’s the name of a cheap toilet brush — for a dollar, it’s yours. What you probably don’t know is that the brush was named after a pristine lake in southern Sweden. And now that you do know, that lake doesn’t sound so pristine anymore.

Call it the Curse of IKEA. A curse repeated hundreds of times across the map of Sweden. Beautiful places with exotic names, their appeal diminished by association with mundane items from the world’s most popular furniture catalog. Where does that leave the tourist industry around Lake Toiletbrush? Down in the dumps, is where.

Bodviken is “more than an IKEA countertop sink”; it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. Voxnan is “more than an IKEA shower shelf”; it’s home to a marvelous river for fishing, paddling, and hiking. Björksta is “more than an IKEA picture with frame”; it’s an historic Viking site. You can check out more of the originals here.

Lydia Davis on Translation and Learning Languages

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 10, 2021

Lydia Davis.jpeg

My favorite contemporary writer is probably Lydia Davis, in no small part because I don’t know if anyone takes a finer care for the language they use, as a writer and reader.

Davis also does double duty as both an original writer of fiction and essays, and a translator of other people’s writings, in multiple languages. In her new collection, Essays 2, she describes her unusual technique:

Although she learned German by immersion, Davis’s preferred method of language acquisition is quite different, and, to an outside observer, demonically challenging: She finds a book published in a language that she does not fully or even partially understand and then tries to figure out what it means.

To improve her Spanish, she digs into a copy of “Las Aventuras de Tom Sawyer.” In some cases the decryption proves easy. Words like “plan” are the same in English and Spanish. In other cases she inductively reasons the meaning of a word after noticing it in different contexts. Hoja initially stumps her when it pops up in the phrase hoja de papel — “hoja of paper.” Later in the book, it occurs in the context of a tree. Finally, Huck wraps a dry hoja around something to make a cigarette, and Davis realizes that only one meaning would work as well with paper as with a tree or a cigarette: “leaf.” Of course, it would be possible to solve the hoja enigma in two seconds by plugging the word into Google, but that would destroy the fun.

I’m (re)learning Italian right now — I sort of learned it backwards the first time, starting with Dante and Petrarch and only now learning how to ask where the bathroom is (dove el gabinetto?) and the difference between coat (cappotto) and hat (cappello). But what remains exciting are the little associations you learn, the conjunctions of phrasing, the possible substitutions of one term for another, the way a question and an answer can reflect the same structure — a map of phonemic possibilities that is also a way of seeing the world. Davis’s method might be impractical for learning a second language, but for a gifted language learner, it seems to put a premium on finding those connections. Which is, indeed, a big part of the fun.

The Story of Jumbo the Elephant

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 18, 2021

Jumbo the Elephant was one of the most famous animals in the world. Bought as a calf in Sudan by a European animal dealer in 1860, Jumbo found fame first at the London Zoo and later as the centerpiece of the Barnum & Bailey Circus in the US. Jumbo was so beloved in London that news of his sale to P.T. Barnum prompted 100,000 children to write to Queen Victoria, urging her to nix the deal. In the video above, Andrew McClellan recounts Jumbo’s too-short (and probably unhappy) life and the impact he had on society.

The word “jumbo” hadn’t been known or used in the English language before he came along and has since become the byword for anything humongous or supersized. So every time we use the word “jumbo jet” or “jumbotron”, we’re actually referring back to Jumbo the elephant.

(thx, ben)

What’s the Proper Metaphor for the Covid Vaccine?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 13, 2021

For The Atlantic, Katherine Wu writes about the difficulty of communicating how vaccines work and how they protect individuals and communities from disease: Vaccines Are Like Sunscreen… No, Wait, Airbags… No, Wait…

Unfortunately, communal benefit is harder to define, harder to quantify, and harder to describe than individual protection, because “it’s not the way Americans are used to thinking about things,” Neil Lewis, a behavioral scientist and communications expert at Cornell, told me. That’s in part because communal risk isn’t characteristic of the health perils people in wealthy countries are accustomed to facing: heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer. Maybe that’s part of why we gravitate toward individual-focused comparisons. Slipping into a pandemic-compatible, population-based frame of mind is a big shift. In the age of COVID-19, “there’s been a lot of focus on the individual,” Lewis told me. That’s pretty at odds “with how infection works.”

As someone who has struggled with analogizing the virus & vaccines, I was nodding my head a lot while reading this. Something I’ve noticed in recent years that Wu didn’t get into is that readers desire precision in metaphors and analogies, even though metaphor is — by definition! — not supposed to be taken literally. People seem much more interested in taking analogies apart, identifying what doesn’t work, and discarding them rather than — more generously and constructively IMO — using them as the author intended to better understand the subject matter. The perfect metaphor doesn’t exist because then it wouldn’t be a metaphor.

“Where Is Everybody?” or, How Did Fermi Phrase His Paradox?

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 06, 2021

Enrico_Fermi_1943-49.jpg

Fermi’s paradox is fairly well known: given what we know about the chance of intelligent life appearing somewhere in the universe, why haven’t any other species to date so far made contact with humanity? You can formalize the paradox via the Drake equation or some other method, but that’s the crux of it.

What’s less clear is how Enrico Fermi originally phrased the paradox. At Language Log, Mark Lieberman points out that each of the participants in the original conversation remembers it differently:

At lunch, Fermi suddenly exclaimed, “Where are they?” (Teller’s remembrance), or “Don’t you ever wonder where everybody is?” (York’s remembrance), or “But where is everybody?” (Konopinski’s remembrance).

As Liberman writes, “our memory of exact word sequences usually fades more quickly than our memory of (contextually interpreted) meanings. More broadly, the exact auditory sensations normally fade very quickly; the corresponding word sequences fade a bit more slowly; and the interpreted meanings last longest.”

My own favorite (for purely aesthetic reasons) is “where is everybody?” It just kind of says everything you want such an observation to say.

Surprising Shared Word Origins

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 15, 2021

Using publicly available datasets of English words, their etymologies, and their semantic distances, software engineer Daniel de Haas generated pairs & triples of words that have a common origin but otherwise are unrelated to each other.

“actor” & “coagulate”
Both of these words derive ultimately from the Latin “ago”, meaning “act”, “do”, “make”, and a bunch of other things.

English “actor” is a short hop away from “ago”, but “coagulate” takes a longer path: “ago” ➔ “cogo” (“collect”) ➔ “coagulum” (“a clot”) ➔ “coagulo” (“to clot”).

“educate” & “subdue”
I never would have picked those two words out of a lineup as having a shared etymological root, but sure enough it sits right there — the “du” in the middle of each word, which ultimately derives from Latin “duco”, meaning “lead”.

“Educate” comes from the Latin “eductus”, meaning to “lead or bring out”, and then the Latin “educare” (“raise, train, mould”). I love the image of education as the process of extruding a refined person out of a base of unrefined material.

“Subdue” comes from the latin “subduco”, meaning “lead under”. Again, a very clear physical description of what the word means — to put beneath you, or bring under control.

Update: Oh here’s a good one: the words “fascism” and “fajita” are both derived from the same Latin root.

Leslie Odom Jr. Teaches You Philly Slang

posted by Jason Kottke   May 26, 2021

Singer and actor Leslie Odom Jr., who grew up in Philadelphia and who you may know from Hamilton and who is wearing an amazing purple sweater in this video, breaks down some Philly slang for us, including jawn, Mummers, MAC machine, old head, water ice, and outta pocket.

Where Do Company Names Come From?

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 27, 2021

The Wikipedia page listing company name etymologies is a good place to spend some time.

7-Eleven - convenience stores; renamed from “Tote’m” in 1946 to reflect their newly extended hours, 7:00 am until 11:00 pm.

Samsung - meaning “three stars” in Korean

Coca-Cola - derived from the coca leaves and kola nuts used as flavoring. Coca-Cola creator John S. Pemberton changed the ‘K’ of kola to ‘C’ to make the name look better.

Pepsi - named from the digestive enzyme pepsin

Jordache - from the first names of the Nakash brothers who founded the company: Joe, Ralph, David (Ralph’s first son), Avi, plus che, after the second syllable of “Nakash”

GEICO - from Government Employees Insurance Company

Häagen-Dazs - name was invented in 1961 by ice-cream makers Reuben and Rose Mattus of the Bronx “to convey an aura of the old-world traditions and craftsmanship”. The name has no meaning.

Hotmail - founder Jack Smith got the idea of accessing e-mail via the web from a computer anywhere in the world. When Sabeer Bhatia came up with the business plan for the mail service he tried all kinds of names ending in ‘mail’ and finally settled for Hotmail as it included the letters “HTML” - the markup language used to write web pages. It was initially referred to as HoTMaiL with selective upper casing.

Mozilla Foundation - from the name of the web browser that preceded Netscape Navigator. When Marc Andreesen, co-founder of Netscape, created a browser to replace the Mosaic browser, it was internally named Mozilla (Mosaic-Killer, Godzilla) by Jamie Zawinski.

(via sam potts)

Why Does Mount Everest’s Height Keep Changing?

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 18, 2021

Back in December 2020, Nepal and China announced that the height of Mount Everest had been remeasured and updated from a height of 8,848 meters (29,028.87 feet) to 8,848.86 meters (29,031.7 feet). Did the mountain get taller? Or the measuring more precise? And how do you measure the height of a mountain — or “sea level” for that matter — anyway?

In December of 2020, China and Nepal made a joint announcement about a new measurement for Mount Everest: 8,849 meters. This is just the latest of several different surveys of Everest since the first measurement was taken in 1855. The reasons why the height has fluctuated have to do with surveying methodology, challenges in determining sea level, and the people who have historically been able to measure Everest.

Also worth noting the (romanised) Nepalese and Tibetan names for the mountain: Sagarmāthā and Chomolungma. The section on its name at Wikipedia is pretty interesting — apparently George Everest, for whom the mountain was named, pronounced his name differently than we all do today.

Map of the Names of Donald Duck’s Nephews in Different Countries

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 17, 2021

Donald Duck Nephews Map

In the US and other English-speaking countries, the names of Donald Duck’s three nephews are Huey, Dewey, and Louie. As this map shows, they have different names in other countries — like Tick/Trick/Track in Germany, Billi/Villi/Dilli in Russia, and Ripp/Rapp/Rupp in Iceland.

You should check out the rest of the maps on the Mapologies blog as well, including maps of what the Milky Way is called in different countries and what people say when toasting.

“Spready Mercury” and Other Scottish Snow Plow Names

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 11, 2020

This is a map showing the real-time location of Scotland’s fleet of snow plows (which they call “road gritters”). As Jackie Sojico discovered, Scotland names their plows and some of them are hilarious.

a map of Scotland's fleet of snow plows

Some of the plows are named things like Sprinkles or Salty but there are also Gangsta Granny Gritter, Mr Plow, Spready Mercury, License to Chill, Ready Spready Go, and Gritney Spears. A possibly out-of-date list of plow names shared on Twitter includes Darth Spreader, Gritty Gritty Bang Bang, and Snowbegone Kenobi.

Plows elsewhere in the UK are also given interesting names: Basil Salty, David Plowie, Freezy Rider, and Roger Spreaderer. (thx, meg)

What Ancient Egyptian Sounded Like (and How We Know)

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 02, 2020

For most of us, ancient Egyptian is a highly visual language represented by the familiar hieroglyphs left behind on monuments, papyrus documents, and even sarcophagi. But of course it was a spoken language as well…and linguists even have a good idea of what it sounded like. As NativLang’s Josh Rudder explains in this video, by studying the language family that ancient Egyptian descended from, the languages that evolved from it (like Coptic), and languages it traded words with, researchers have been able to determine how many ancient Egyptian words were pronounced.

For more, you can check out Rudder’s extensive list of sources, notes, and quotes related to the video. (via open culture)

Stan Lee: “Fuck” Is the “Most Useful Word in the English Language”

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2020

This is a lovely little animated video made from a recording of Stan Lee where he declares that the f-word is “probable the most useful word in the English language”. I found this via Josh Jones’ post at Open Culture, who shares some more Stan Lee tidbits.

Learn Some Black American Sign Language

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 01, 2020

After a video Nakia Smith did with her grandfather went viral, Netflix asked her to explain what Black American Sign Language is, how it came about, and how it differs from American Sign Language.

Black American Sign Language is a dialect of American Sign Language. It’s still a language. It was developed by Black deaf people in the 1800s and 1900s during segregation. For reference, the first American school for the deaf was created in 1817, but only started admitting Black students in 1952. So as a result, Black communities had a different means of language socialization and BASL was born.

Smith demonstrates a few BASL signs that differ from ASL signs and you can see more of those differences in the video w/ her grandfather, who is also deaf.

For more information, you can check out Smith’s TikTok, Wikipedia, and a documentary film called Signing Black in America.

Update: There was also a book about BASL published this year: The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL (Bookshop.org). The book includes 10 companion videos on YouTube.

Q: What Is a Hole? A: We’re Not Sure!

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 11, 2020

How many holes does a donut have? That’s pretty easy: one. What about a straw? Two (one at each end) or just one? (Isn’t a straw just an elongated donut?) Does a coffee mug have one hole or two? Does a bowl have a hole? If no, then what about a hole in the ground or a hole in a wall that doesn’t pass all the way through? Does a basketball have a hole? A Reddit user asked 1600 people how many holes were in various objects and the results are fantastically all over the place.

How Many Holes

This is a trivial question, but it reveals something interesting about people’s perceptions. The dictionary definition of “hole” includes two main meanings for the purposes of this question: “an opening through something” and “a hollowed-out place”. Mathematics offers another possible meaning:

A hole in a mathematical object is a topological structure which prevents the object from being continuously shrunk to a point. When dealing with topological spaces, a disconnectivity is interpreted as a hole in the space. Examples of holes are things like the “donut hole” in the center of the torus, a domain removed from a plane, and the portion missing from Euclidean space after cutting a knot out from it.

But a hole isn’t clearly defined in math or topology. From What We Talk about When We Talk about Holes in Scientific American:

Here’s my short answer that is also the reason I’m not an algebraic topologist. If you can put it on a necklace, it has a one-dimensional hole. If you can fill it with toothpaste, it has a two-dimensional hole. For holes of higher dimensions, you’re on your own.

That answer isn’t very satisfying. Is there a better way to describe holes? I talked with some of my topologist friends and discovered two things: topologists don’t all agree on what a hole is, and it’s fun and interesting to think about different interpretations of a word whose mathematical definition isn’t completely settled. I think my larger conclusion, in the spirit of the season, is that holes are like Santa Claus: the true meaning is in your heart.

No wonder those poll results are all over the place. But at the same time, it’s interesting that many more people say that donuts have a hole than washers or rubber bands. I guess donut holes have better marketing? As for straws — reason tells me they only have one hole but I know in my heart they have two. (via the whippet)

Merriam-Webster’s “Time Traveler” Tracks the First Known Use of Words by Year

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 22, 2020

A list of words first used in 1973

The English language, for better or worse, is constantly shifting and changing, with dozens of new and useful words being added to our collective vocabulary each year. With Merriam-Webster’s Time Traveler tool, you can browse what new words were first used in years dating all the way back to 1500 (and even earlier). The obvious thing is to look up your birth year, so I did that and then poked around for some other interesting years.

1973 (my birth year): automated teller machine, bikini wax, closed-captioning, gender dysphoria, hot tub, Joe Six-Pack, LCD, reverse engineer, soccer mom, televangelist.

2007 (the year my son was born): Bechdel Test, hashtag, retweet, crowdfunding, DM.

1969: ageism, crystal meth, gangbanger, in vitro fertilization, life coach, point guard, sexual harassment, sport utility vehicle.

1945: A-bomb, cold war, d’oh, game theory, graffiti, name-dropping, passive-aggressive.

1929: antiviral, blue-collar, burp, eyeliner, Marxism-Leninism, penicillin, preteen, QWERTY, Sasquatch, spacecraft.

1865: anti-Muslim, baseball cap, gasoline, pessimistic, potato chip, showerhead.

1776: anthrax, division of labor, killjoy, natural resource, slaveholder, sour cream.

1619: bungled, diagram, libelous, retributive, sarcasm.

1561: aristocracy, curator, index, orgy, random, tarantula, well-being.

1500: cadaver, illness, minion, polite.

This is extremely inexpensive time travel. Almost every year is a gold mine (1605!) of terms that are seemingly out of time, either too early or too late. Careful, you might lose several hours to this. (thx, megan)

It’s a Dialect Quiz!

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 15, 2020

XKCD dialect quiz

Remember when dialect quizzes and maps were a thing? XKCD is joining the fun with their own quiz. Reader, I giggled when I got to “lawn buddies” and full-on laughed at “longwich”. Longwich is totally going in my vocabulary arsenal.

Clear Language on Slavery

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 24, 2020

I’ve posted before about how the language we’ve been conditioned to use about slavery and the Civil War obscures reality. From historian Michael Todd Landis:

Likewise, scholar Edward Baptist (Cornell) has provided new terms with which to speak about slavery. In his 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books), he rejects “plantations” (a term pregnant with false memory and romantic myths) in favor of “labor camps”; instead of “slave-owners” (which seems to legitimate and rationalize the ownership of human beings), he uses “enslavers.” Small changes with big implications. These far more accurate and appropriate terms serve his argument well, as he re-examines the role of unfree labor in the rise of the United States as an economic powerhouse and its place in the global economy. In order to tear down old myths, he eschews the old language.

@absurdistwords had a great thread on this recently, urging us to “stop obscuring the horror with detached, antiquated, euphemistic terms”.

Clear Language on Slavery:

Slaves = Hostages
Slave Owners = Human Traffickers
Slave Catchers = Police
Plantations = Death Camps
Mistresses = Rape Victims
Discipline = Torture/Murder
Overseers = Torturers
Trading = Kidnapping
Profit = Theft
Middle Passage = Genocide

For example:

“The prominent slave owner never publicly recognized the offspring of he and one of his slave romances but allowed him to serve in the house”

is really

“The rich human trafficker raped his female hostage and then held their son hostage as well at the death camp he owned”

And from an earlier thread:

When you replace

“Owned slaves” with

“Was an active and willing participant in a vast conspiracy to kidnap children from their families in order to force them into industrial and sexual servitude”

It becomes harder to write slave owning off as just a blot on one’s record.

For instance:

George Washington was our first President and was an active and willing participant in a vast conspiracy to kidnap children from their families in order to force them into industrial and sexual servitude

They continue:

America treats slavery like an oopsie rather than a centuries-long campaign of nightmarish, brutal terrorism.

America sees the systemic and sadistic destruction of Black families as an etiquette violation.

Which is why it will excuse slave owners so readily.

“I Hate to Write, but I Love Having Written”

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 21, 2020

I was surprised and a little bit gutted to learn that the quote “I hate to write, but I love having written” cannot be attributed to Dorothy Parker. According to the Quote Investigator, there’s no evidence Parker ever wrote or said anything like that. The earliest instance of such a phrase was from a letter written by novelist Frank Norris prior to his death in 1902 (when Parker would have been 8 or 9 years old).

I write with great difficulty, but have managed somehow to accomplish 40 short stories (all published in fugitive fashion) and five novels within the last three years, and a lot of special unsigned articles. Believe my forte is the novel. Don’t like to write, but like having written. Hate the effort of driving pen from line to line, work only three hours a day, but work every day.

God, I’m getting nauseous just picturing what an insufferably pedantic snot I’m going sound like the next time someone tries that “Parker” quote on me. “Well, actually…”

But! This was a great excuse to dive into the deep well of Parker’s wit. Some of my favorite quotes of hers:

“Too fucking busy, and vice versa.” is an instant classic, up there with E.B. White’s “I must decline, for secret reasons.”

Oh, and one other thing I’d never heard about Parker: when she died, she left her estate to Martin Luther King Jr., even though the two had never met. When King was assassinated, her estate passed to the NAACP.

Extending American Sign Language Vocabulary With Signs for “Coronavirus” and “TikTok”

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 06, 2020

Coronavirus in sign language

The Instagram account thefamilyvocab features videos of words & phrases in sign language that are not part of standard ASL.

Our aim is to play with sign language and expand my child’s visual vocabulary with signs that are not part of standard ASL. It’s only 200 years old and still thriving and evolving.

I love this. So far, they’ve done words like pho, Black Lives Matter, TikTok (I really like this one), Brexit, coronavirus, emoji (I like this one too), gentrification, and dozens of others. They’re creating new signs, taking suggestions from followers, and sourcing signs from other sign languages from around the world. (via youngna)

Americans Can’t Stop Mask Debating

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 29, 2020

A compilation of TV news clips of people saying “mask debate” (which sounds very much like another unrelated word when spoken — try saying it out loud right now to see what I mean), stitched together by the folks at Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. It feels good to laugh at infuriating things sometimes.

BTW, the actual debate over masks will continue to wane — science and then culture will win most people over and it’ll just become a normal thing that most people do in public all the time, like wearing shoes or carrying a bag.

The Indigenous Peruvian Trap Music of Renata Flores

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 07, 2020

Quechua is an indigenous language family spoken by millions of people in the Andean region of South America, primarily in Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. It was the main language of the Inca empire and today is the most widely spoken pre-Columbian language in the Americas. In her music, Peruvian singer/songwriter Renata Flores combines modern forms like hip hop, electronic, and trap music with native instruments and vocals sung in Quechua. Here’s the video for one of her most popular songs, Tijeras:

Flores also does covers of pop songs (Billie Eilish’s Bad Guy, Fallin’ by Alicia Keys) and she first captured people’s online attention with a Quechua cover of Michael Jackson’s The Way You Make Me Feel performed when she was 14 years old:

Rosa Chávez Yacila wrote an article for Vice about Flores and her music last year. Her use of Quechua in pop music brought the language out of private spaces into the public.

It’s very common for many Quechua speakers to not teach their children or grandchildren the language because they consider this knowledge as a burden. To explain the shortage of active bilingualism in Peru, the linguist Virginia Zavala uses the concept of “linguistic ideologies,” which are the ideas that people have about languages. For example: French is the language of love; German sounds rough; Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish are similar.

Quechua, similarly to other indigenous languages, is associated with poverty, rural life, and illiteracy. These ideas have been shaped by history and society to the point that people hold on to these beliefs as if they were universal truths. And these “truths” are deeply embedded in their conscious thought process. Value hierarchies also exist with languages. Some are “worth” more than others.

The end result is that many native Quechua speakers believe that using Quechua in public is unnecessary after learning Spanish. Either by shyness or shame, they reserve their maternal tongue for private spaces and intimate conversations.

Doublespeak: Language Designed to Mislead While Pretending Otherwise

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 07, 2020

Linguist William Lutz, former editor of the Quarterly Review of Doublespeak, went on CSPAN in 1989 to promote his book, Doublespeak. The video above is a 7-minute distillation of his thoughts on what he calls “language designed to mislead while pretending not to”. (Watch Lutz’s full interview here.)

You can read the first chapter of Doublespeak; an excerpt:

Doublespeak is not the product of carelessness or sloppy thinking. Indeed, most doublespeak is the product of clear thinking and carefully designed and constructed to appear to communicate when in fact it doesn’t. It is language designed not to lead but mislead. It is language designed to distort reality and corrupt thought… In the world created by doublespeak, if it’s not a tax increase, but rather “revenue enhancement” or “tax base broadening”, how can you complain about higher taxes? If it’s not acid rain, but rather “poorly buffered precipitation”, how can you worry about all those dead trees?

See also On Bullshit and Donald Trump. (via dunstan)