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kottke.org posts about language

“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)

Law Professor Skillfully Handles a “Black Lives Matter” Complaint From Her Students

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 25, 2020

Patricia Leary Black Lives Matter

For the curious and open-minded, many explanations of what “Black Lives Matter” means and what it doesn’t (e.g. White lives don’t matter) are readily available online. But in terms of pure clarity, it’s hard to beat what Whittier Law School professor Patricia Leary wrote in response to a letter sent to her by an anonymous group of students in 2016. This group of students was offended by Leary wearing a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt on campus, writing in part:

We write this letter to you with concern about your inappropriate conduct at XXXXXXX Law School.

Specifically, you have presented yourself on campus, on at least one occasion, wearing a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt. We believe this is an inappropriate and unnecessary statement that has no legitimate place within our institution of higher learning. The statement you represented and endorsed is also highly offensive and extremely inflammatory. We are here to learn the law. We do not spend three years of our lives and tens of thousands of dollars to be subjected to indoctrination or personal opinions of our professors.

XXXXXXX Law School has prided itself on the diverse demographics represented within the student body. Your actions however, clearly represent your View that some of those demographics matter more than others. That alienates and isolates all non-black groups.

As someone who is charged to teach criminal law, it should be abundantly clear to you and beyond any question that ALL lives matter, as it is expressed unequivocally in the law. Furthermore, the “Black Lives Matter” statement is racist and anti-law enforcement and has been known to incite violence in this country. As someone who is paid to teach the law, you should be ashamed of yourself.

If you’re going to argue with law professors, you should bring your A game, and Leary wastes no time in informing these students that they did not do so.

Premise: You are not paying for my opinion.

Critique: You are not paying me to pretend I don’t have one.

And on the meaning of “Black Lives Matter”:

Premise: There is an invisible “only” in front of the words “Black Lives Matter.”

Critique: There is a difference between focus and exclusion. If something matters, this does not imply that nothing else does. If I say “Law Students Matter” it does not imply that my colleagues, friends, and family do not. Here is something else that matters: context. The Black Lives Matter movement arose in a context of evidence that they don’t. When people are receiving messages from the culture in which they live that their lives are less important than other lives, it is a cruel distortion of reality to scold them for not being inclusive enough.

As applied specifically to the context in which I wore my Black Lives Matter shirt, I did this on a day in Criminal Procedure when we were explicitly discussing violence against the black community by police.

There are some implicit words that precede “Black Lives Matter,” and they go something like this:

“Because of the brutalizing and killing of black people at the hands of the police and the indifference of society in general and the criminal justice system in particular. It is important that we say that…”

This is, of course, far too long to fit on a shirt.

Black Lives Matter is about focus, not exclusion. As a general matter, seeing the world and the people in it in mutually exclusive, either/or terms impedes your own thought processes. If you wish to bear that intellectual consequence of a constricting ideology, that’s your decision. But this does not entitle you to project your either/or ideology onto people who do not share it.

The rest of her response is worth a read, particularly the part about the misconception that “what you think something means is the same as what it actually means”.

And then in part 2 of the letter, she rips the batteries right out of the anonymous students by critiquing how they wrote the letter.

Frame the issue precisely and then focus on it. Don’t overgeneralize. You begin by stating that the issue is my “inappropriate conduct,” which sounds very general. Then you narrow the issue to “specifically” one event that occurred on a particular day last semester. Your use of hyperbolic rhetoric throughout the memo suggests that you really are angry about more than just a T-shirt. If it really is about just the T-shirt, then by overgeneralizing from a specific occurrence, your message is swamped by exaggeration. If it really is about other “conduct” on my part, I can’t tell what that is. By the end of the memo you have lost focus completely, generalizing (in statements that are unexplained and inexplicable) about bar passage and about the faculty and administration of the entire law school.

Well, they did ask her to teach…

Covid-19 Superspreading Events and “Speech Superemitters”

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 25, 2020

From Christie Aschwanden’s Scientific American article about How ‘Superspreading’ Events Drive Most COVID-19 Spread comes this speculation by a group of scientists that the way in which some people talk or breathe might spread many more potential coronavirus-carrying droplets than other people.

The scientists also have found intriguing evidence that a small subset of people may behave as “speech superemitters” — individuals who consistently broadcast an order of magnitude more respiratory particles than their peers. “It is very difficult to identify who is going to be a superemitter ahead of time,” he says. “One of the superemitters was a very petite young woman. And I was a bigger, bulkier guy and was not a superemitter.”

I don’t know why I find this so interesting, but I do. Add “speech superemitter” to the list of new Covid-19 vocabulary.

Kadir Nelson’s Powerful New Yorker Cover Honors the Black Victims of Police Violence

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 14, 2020

Kadir Nelson New Yorker Cover

This week’s issue of the New Yorker features a cover designed by artist Kadir Nelson. The magazine has an interactive version of the cover online that identifies the people shown, along with their stories. Along with George Floyd, there’s Tony McDade, Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, Rodney King, the victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and too many others. The cover also features periwinkles, which have been used to locate the often unmarked graves of slaves.

The Periwinkle Initiative derives its name from the flower that certain scholars believe was the most common wildflower brought to gravesites of enslaved Americans. This perennial flower has guided researchers to many abandoned burial grounds that would have otherwise gone undetected. The resilient Periwinkle is a perfect symbol to represent the endurance of enslaved Americans and their legacy.

One other thing. According to the NYer, the name of the cover is “Say Their Names”. This is a take on the #SayHerName hashtag that was created to bring “awareness to the often invisible names and stories of Black women and girls who have been victimized by racist police violence”. Phrases and associated hashtags like “Say His Name” and “Say Their Names” have been used over the past few weeks, but some activists say that co-opting specifically takes the spotlight away from the victims the original hashtag was meant to highlight. Here’s Precious Fondren for Teen Vogue:

Since Floyd’s death, there have been uprisings around the country. There’s also been an influx of people using hashtags like #SayHisName and #SayTheirNames to remember the names of other male victims of police violence. While everyone deserves to be honored and remembered, especially when they are being murdered at the hands of those sworn to protect us, it should be noted that such hashtags muddle the very reasoning behind the creation of the #SayHerName.

Conceived in 2014 by the African American Policy Forum and the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, the #SayHerName hashtag was meant to amplify the names and narratives of Black women and girls who have also been the victims of police killings; people simply couldn’t name them the way they can name Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, or Freddie Gray.

Racism Is Death

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 12, 2020

In yesterday’s post about police abolition, I linked to a two-part podcast conversation between Chenjerai Kumanyika and Ruth Wilson Gilmore. I listened to the first part yesterday afternoon after posting and it was excellent, full of serious knowledge and deep context about a massive and complex American problem. But I wanted to focus here on something from the closing moments of the episode that I had never heard before: Gilmore’s definition of racism. Acknowledging that it’s a “mouthful”, she defined racism in her book Golden Gulag as “the state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death”.

I do not have the expertise or desire to wade into the often-contentious debate about what racism is or is not (see here for instance), but what I like about Gilmore’s take is how it explicitly includes the consequence of racism as an integral part of the definition. Racism is death — there’s a sense of moral urgency when you describe it like that, a clarity that’s absent if you’re just talking about a belief in the superiority of one race over another or even the systemic application or sanction of such prejudice.

Covid-19 Slang and How Language Evolves Quickly in Stressful Times

posted by Jason Kottke   May 13, 2020

Couchella

Kate Burridge and Howard Manns recently wrote a piece about how the Covid-19 pandemic is changing the English language. It’s written from an Australian perspective, so some of the slang might be a bit hard to follow for Americans et al.

In these times of COVID-19, there are the usual suspects: shortenings like “sanny” (hand sanitizer) and “iso” (isolation), abbreviations like BCV (before corona virus) and WFH (working from home), also compounds “corona moaner” (the whingers) and “zoombombing” (the intrusion into a video conference).

Plenty of nouns have been “verbed” too — the toilet paper/pasta/tinned tomatoes have been “magpied”. Even rhyming slang has made a bit of a comeback with Miley Cyrus lending her name to the virus (already end-clipped to “the Miley”). Some combine more than one process — “the isodesk” (or is that “the isobar”) is where many of us are currently spending our days.

“I’ve got the Miley”…I’ve always been a fan of rhyming slang. Linguist Tony Thorne, who specializes in slang & jargon, has compiled a list of new language introduced to (and by) the general public because of the pandemic.

Quarantimes - a hashtag or label for the prevailing circumstances under lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic

Rona, Lady Rona, roni, rone - the coronavirus personified/familiarised

Boomer remover - the coronavirus viewed as a phenomenon resulting in the decimation of the baby boomer demographic

Covidiot - a person behaving irresponsibly in conditions of containment

Doomscrolling/doomsurfing - obsessively accessing upsetting news online

Infits - outfits worn in conditions of confinement

Zoom mullet - a hairstyle developed in lockdown which is ‘camera-ready’ (presentable to a webcam) at front and sides and dishevelled at the rear

Covid waltz - manoeuvring to avoid close contact with passers-by while distance restrictions are in place

Apropos Couchella illustration by the awesome Gemma Correll. (via lera boroditsky)

The Best New York Accent

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 16, 2020

Stuck at home during the pandemic, filmmaker Nicolas Heller decided to hold a contest on Instagram to find the person with the best New York accent.

It would be impolitic to say that the New York accent is the signature American accent. You could argue, though, that the New York accent is the accent of the current crisis. It’s there in the burly roundness of the words coming out of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mouth, or the acidity in the tone of Dr. Anthony Fauci, or the way President Trump scrapes all of his syllables together. (Senator Bernie Sanders’s howling woof counts here, too.)

For New Yorkers, that’s made the conversation around the coronavirus feel as local as the pandemic’s actual impact. Watching the news can feel like watching quarrels between grouchy neighbors.

In this climate, the #BestNYAccent challenge was even more reassuring. A reminder of local resilience and stubbornness in the face of global trauma. A monument to history and place standing firm against titanic winds. A middle finger to life’s cruel dice roll.

The Pandemic Has Driven Twitter to New Lows in Happiness

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 07, 2020

Since 2008, the Hedonometer has been tracking the language we use on Twitter to assign a daily score that measures how collectively happy we are (English tweets only). From the data, you can see that happiness spikes on holidays & after notable news events (same-sex marriage legalization) and unhappiness follows mass shootings, terrorist events, and Trump’s election. But the Covid-19 pandemic has brought Twitter’s collective happiness rating to an overall new low and its first sustained period of unhappiness.

Twitter Happy Pandemic

The day they identify as the unhappiest is March 12, 2020, which is the day after Americans finally took Covid-19 seriously. Within the space of a few hours on March 11, the NBA announced it was suspending its season, Tom Hanks revealed that he and his wife Rita Wilson had Covid-19, the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic, Donald Trump went on primetime TV to address the nation, and the DJIA closed down 1400 points (it would drop another 2350 points on Mar 12).

See also the previous low point after the Las Vegas shootings and my initial post on the Hedonometer from July 2016. In that initial post, I shared a hunch that Twitter’s happiness seemed to have reached a peak in early 2016. With four years of additional data, it’s obvious that the happiness peaked in late 2015 or early 2016 (at least according to their methodology).

Twitter Happy Overall

Weird Internet Careers

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 09, 2020

Gretchen McCulloch, author of Because Internet, has developed a Weird Internet Career as an internet linguist. In the first installment in a series on such jobs, McCulloch explains what they are:

Weird Internet Careers are the kinds of jobs that are impossible to explain to your parents, people who somehow make a living from the internet, generally involving a changing mix of revenue streams. Weird Internet Career is a term I made up (it had no google results in quotes before I started using it), but once you start noticing them, you’ll see them everywhere.

Weird Internet Careers are weird because there is no one else who does exactly what they do. They’re internet because they rely on the internet as a cornerstone, such as bloggers, webcomics, youtubers, artists, podcasters, writers, developers, subject-matter experts, and other people in very specific niches. And they’re careers because they somehow manage to support themselves, often making money from some combination of ad revenue, t-shirt sales, other merch, ongoing membership/subscription (Patreon, Substack), crowdfunding (Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Ko-Fi), sponsorship deals, conventional book deals, self-published ebooks, selling online courses, selling products or apps or services, public speaking, and consulting.

I’ve had a Weird Internet Career for more than 15 years and even though it’s much more normalized now than when I started (folks generally know that people make money from being popular on YouTube or Instagram), it’s still a struggle to explain. Usually someone will ask me what I do and I tell them. Them, wide-eyed: “That’s your job?!” Then there’s a long pause and eventually their curiosity overwhelms their politeness and they tentatively say: “Can I ask…uh…how do you make money doing that?”

For awhile, in an attempt to have more symmetrical relationships with new friends — because 5 minutes of googling yields so much about who I am, leading to weird information imbalances — I would be vague about my profession, saying that I managed a website and not offering any further information. This approach often backfired because you’ve essentially given people a mystery, and mysteries must be solved. More than one person looked at me with a cocked eyebrow and asked, “Do you run a porn site? Is that why you don’t want to tell me?” *facepalm*

Linguistic Constellations

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 04, 2020

Linguistic Constellations

Linguistic Constellations

Illustrator Jerry M. Wilson has drawn a series of constellations that explore the etymology of the constellations’ names and related words in several languages. So for example, “Taurus” is Latin for “bull”, which is “toro” in Spanish & Italian and “tyr” in Danish. And then you also have associated words like “toreador” (“bullfighter” in Spanish) and “teurastamo” (Finnish for “slaughterhouse”)…a constellation of words related to “Taurus”.

Smaht Pahk

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 28, 2020

There’s nothing more entertaining than watching Boston-area natives do over-the-top Bawston accents, but it’s always a precarious undertaking. If you don’t get the accent right…yeesh. When Hyundai named their new automated parking feature “Smart Park”, those two words demanded that they give the Boston angle a shot, and the team of Chris Evans, John Krasinski, and Rachel Dratch delivered. The bit that really set the hook for me was when Krasinski called Evans “kid”.

The Stop Motion of the Ocean

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 28, 2020

This clever stop motion animation by Charlotte Arene features a bedroom taking on the characteristics of an increasingly angry sea, before the morning calm sets in. Pillows, the comforter, a sleeping woman’s hair, candles on the windowsill, they all move like waves washing ashore to a seaside soundtrack.

The name of the short is “La mer à boire”, which Google translates as “unrealizable” but is literally something more like “drinking the sea”.1 “Ce n’est pas la mer à boire” is a French expression that means “it’s not that big a deal” (it’s not like drinking the sea), which is what the Google translation is hinting at, I think. Anyway, good title! (via colossal)

  1. It’s kind of amazing that Google returns the figurative meaning of the phrase rather than the literal meaning.