Archives for December 2003


Wasabi (stress on the first syllable: WAH-sah-bee) is not horseradish. For an explanation of why it’s not even close, as well as of why people think it is (not to mention a description of the word’s bizarre relationship to the characters used to write it in Japanese), see Bill Poser’s post at Language Log.


I believe I’ve mentioned before that one of the changes going on in English that distresses me the most (I say “going on” out of a combination of nostalgia and wilful blindness—the fact is that it’s already happened) is the obsolescence of the contrary-to-fact past “might have.” I can’t remember the last time I heard it used, and I’m slowly beginning to wince less ferociously when I hear “if he’d run faster he may have caught the ball”; I suppose before I die I’ll become more or less accustomed to it, though I don’t imagine I’ll actually take it up myself. I seem to have made the unconscious assumption, however, that it was an American phenomenon, so I was shocked anew just now, listening to an interview with a British author named Caryl Phillips, to hear him say “If I lived there [England], it may not be as easy for me to see the changes.” Now, as is apparent from the quote itself, he has not actually lived in England for years; an online biography says “Born in St. Kitts on March 13, 1958, he moved to England after just one year. There he took an honors B.A. at Oxford and began his blossoming writing career. He has since taken up a home in Amherst as well, where he serves as writer in residence.” It is possible, therefore, that he picked up this distressing verbal remodeling here in the US, and that in the mother country they still say “it might not be as easy.” Can anyone enlighten me on usage in the UK (or, for that matter, elsewhere in the Anglophone world)?

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Dave Furstenau (MetaFilter’s RavinDave) sent me a link to an interesting Straight Dope column. A reader named Cathy asked:

In what language do deaf people think? I think in English, because that’s what I speak. But since deaf people cannot hear, they can’t learn how to speak a language. Nevertheless, they must think in some language. Would they think in English if they use sign language and read English? How would they do that if they’ve never heard the words they are signing or reading pronounced? Or maybe they just see words in their head, instead of hearing themselves?

Excerpts from Cecil’s reply:

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Eve has a list of movies where languages and accents are done well and badly; she solicits suggestions for others. (I entirely agree with her complaint about the use of a British accent to signify “foreign.”)


An interesting article by Charles Foran (from the promising new Canadian magazine Walrus) on world varieties of English; nothing particularly new, but written with panache:

In a restaurant in Singapore’s Little India district I chatted recently with a man doling out bowls of fish-head curry. He called me a “mat saleh,” Malay for ‘white foreigner.’ He dubbed a woman who walked past us an “S.P.G.” a ‘Sarong Party Girl.’ Upper-crust Singaporians who put on posh accents were “chiak kantang.” “Chiak” is Hokkien for ‘eating,’ “kantang” a mangling of the Malay for ‘potatoes.’ ‘Eating potatoes’: affecting Western mannerisms. Singapore has four official tongues Mandarin, English, Malay, and Tamil. At street level, though, none of these takes precedence. Neither does the Hokkien dialect, spoken by many older Chinese. The city-state’s functioning language is actually Singlish, a much-loved, much-frowned-upon hodge-podge of dialects and slang. When the man asked if I could pay for the meal with a smaller bill, he expressed it this way: “Got, lah?” I recognized that bit of language cobbling. In Hong Kong, where I was then living, Cantonese speakers sprinkle their English with similar punctuation. ‘Lah’ often denotes a question, like ‘eh’ for Canadians. ‘Wah’ infers astonishment. Once, when I was walking through that city’s nightclub district with a Chinese friend, we nearly knocked into a Canto-pop star, a young man of smouldering Elvis looks. “Wah, now can die!” my friend said, only half-jokingly.


LivingWithCaucasians is a blog describing the life of an American family in Caucasian Georgia, and it’s a great read if you happen to be interested in that part of the world. Some bits involving language (no permalinks—it’s Blogger):

Saturday, December 13, 2003
Consumer Culture in Georgia: Maybe You Should Rethink That Product Name
The desire to adopt Western consumer culture, as misguided as you and I might think that is, proceeds at a fair clip here in the former Soviet Union. Here in Georgia, there is a triple barrier: language. And not just language, alphabet, too. There are three distinct written languages here: mkhedruli (kartuli/Georgian), Cyrillic (Russian), and Latin (English). There are several other written languages that are around on a regular basis, depending on which consumer product you are dealing with: Armenian and Farsi, as well as the other languages that use Cyrillic—Ukrainian, Uzbek, Kazakh, etc.

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The Yinka Déné Language Institute, founded in 1988, is devoted to the preservation and promotion of Yinka Déné language and culture. The link was sent me by Bill Poser, Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania and Adjunct Professor of Linguistics at the University of British Columbia, who says: “It contains information both specifically about the Carrier language [mentioned in an earlier LH post] and the activities of the organization and more generally about the native languages of British Columbia.”


One of my Christmas gifts was Simon Winchester’s book The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, which I am very much looking forward to reading. How can I resist a book whose acknowledgments include the line “Philip Durkin, an expert on etymology and a philologist at the OED, was most helpful in navigating the minefields of Chapter 1, and worked with Elizabeth on such vexing matters as the supposed origins of words like periwinkle, skirt, and ketchup“? There was a time when the job description I most wanted was that of “philologist.”
Those of you who live in snowy climes will be amused to learn that another of my presents was a set of cross-country skis, with the associated poles, boots, gloves, &c. I’ve never been on skis in my life, but clearly it’s time to start learning.


Here’s a nice little page explaining the origins of Christmas, reindeer, mistletoe, Christmas carol, St. Nicholas, poinsettia, and wassail. I should point out that in the Christmas entry they have “moesse” for mæsse. (Via Circadian Shift.)
Merry Christmas to all LH readers that celebrate it, and waes haeil to all!


This excellent word (“Origin unknown”) is best explained by quoting the OED’s citations:

1936 Allen & Lyman Wonder Bk. Air 312 A modoc, the derivation of which is obscure, is a flashy chap who goes around wearing helmet and goggles, and more than likely, leather boots and riding breeches, too, and talking about the big things he is going to do for aviation. 1942 Berrey & Van den Bark Amer. Thes. Slang §756/2 Modock, one who has taken up aviation for publicity, social, or similar reasons. 1960 Wentworth & Flexner Dict. Amer. Slang 341/2 Modoc, one who becomes an Air Force flier for publicity, social prestige, or similar reasons.

As far as I can tell by googling, the word is dead as a mackerel, which is a pity—it has a fine slangy ring to it. (Found at The Sensible Ass, a blog which makes a habit of listing odd and interesting words.)
Update. According to Mike (in the comments), modock (as he spells it) “is currently used by a large group of U.S. pilots”; I am happy to retract my statement that it was dead as a mackerel. Mike is interested in the early history of the word, so if you know anything about it, please e-mail him (click on his name in the comments for the address).