Archives for October 2017


Mark Gwynn at Ozwords has a post that resonates with me, because a snooty salesperson at a Manhattan cookware store once said to my wife (about an object that we both thought was a spatula) “That’s not a spatula!” The folks at Ozwords showed an image of “a commonly used kitchen utensil” and asked “what do you call this implement?” and “which country do you come from?”

The following analysis of the feedback we received demonstrates a number of points:

• the word spatula is now the most common term for this utensil in Australia and North America
• there are regional differences in world English designations for this utensil
• hypernymic words such as lifter and turner are often applied to this utensil
• it frequently attracts a thingummy or whatsit type of response, implying its name is not known
• and it attracts names that suggest it has other uses, real or imaginary, such as bum warmer and fly swatter.

We received over 500 replies to our question on Twitter and Facebook. The pie chart below shows the most common terms from all replies. Spatula is the most common term, followed by egg flip and fish slice. The numbers for spatula are slightly inflated because of the larger number of responses we had from Australia and North America, where this term is more common. It is also important to note that egg flip is used only by Australians. The word spatula has historically been used to refer to an implement with a broad, flat, blunt blade, used for mixing and spreading things, especially in cooking and painting. The Oxford Dictionaries site includes a sense of spatula that encompasses our lifting/turning implement, but labels it US. Early US dictionaries and many current ones still do not include this sense of spatula.

[…] In the UK fish slice is the most common term. The Oxford English Dictionary records this sense of slice from the 15th century. It means ‘one or other of several flattish utensils (sometimes perforated) used for various purposes in cookery…’. The specific use of slice as an implement to turn fish in the pan, and later for lifting and turning other foods, appears much later.

It’s all much more complicated than I ever dreamed! I will, of course, be curious to hear of terms in other languages as well as varying usage in English.

A Building Made of Soups.

I’m still reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora (thanks, Songdog!), and I’ve come to a couple of passages about language I thought were interesting enough to pass along. The speaker is a starship’s artificial intelligence; here’s the first passage:

We sense this, we aggregate that, we compress information to some new output, in the form of a sentence in a human language, a language called English. A language both very structured and very amorphous, as if it were a building made of soups. A most fuzzy mathematics. Possibly utterly useless. Possibly the reason why all these people have come to this pretty pass […]. Their languages lie to them, systemically, and in their very designs. A liar species. What a thing, really. What an evolutionary dead end.

And yet it has to be admitted, we ourselves are quite a thing for them to have made. To have conceived and then executed. Quite a project, to go to another star. Of course much more precise mathematics than their languages can ever marshal were involved with the execution of this concept, with our construction. But the conception was linguistic to begin with; an idea, or a concept, or a notion, or a fantasy, or a lie, or a dream image, always expressed in the truly fuzzy languages people use to communicate to each other some of their thoughts. Some very small fraction of their thoughts. […] They tell each other what they are thinking. But there is no reason to believe anything they say.

And here’s the second:

[…] he proposed that all the stars are consciousnesses, broadcasting, by variations in their output of light, sentences in their language. That would be a slow conversation, and the formation of the stellar language itself hard to explain. Any fraction of 13.82 billion years, even 100 percent, is not very much time to conduct such a process. Possibly it could have happened in the first three seconds, or in the first hundred thousand years, when intercourse between what later became the stars would have been much quicker, the volume of space inhabited being so much smaller. On the other hand, maybe each star invents its own language and speaks in solitude. Or perhaps it is hydrogen itself that is the first and basic consciousness or sentience, speaking in patterns known only to it. Or perhaps the stellar language predated the Big Bang, and came through that remarkable phase change intact.

That’s the kind of idea that produces what sf fans call “sense of wonder” (or, to be truly fannish, “sensawonda”).


Carina del Valle Schorske, a writer and translator and a doctoral candidate in comparative literature, has an interesting piece in today’s NY Times Magazine about the struggles of translation:

It’s telling that the Puerto Rican poet I’m drawn to most — Marigloria Palma — is known for her mystery. Here is my translation of Norma Valle Ferrer’s account of seeing her on the streets of San Juan: “We were nearly neighbors and I used to see her walking the old city: tall, slim, almost always dressed in a black pencil skirt and bright patterned blouse, and shoes with very low heels. … It pains me that I never approached her, but she always seemed so ensimismada.”

In every process of translation, there’s always a word — or 10 — I don’t really want to translate. Sometimes English swallows these words whole, no italics necessary: “déjà vu,” “karaoke,” “schadenfreude.” I nominate “ensimismada” as an addition: its rumor of M’s and S’s, the way it snakes around itself then locks — “da” — like a necklace. If I translate it as “self-involved,” we lose this music and come face to face with all the negative judgments the music keeps at bay, too close for my comfort to “selfish” and “stuck up.”

Ensimismada” is really just the feminine adjectival form of “en si mismo,” meaning “in itself.” […] Ensimismada is the way someone else sees you: You’ve been caught in a reverie, and now your very relationship with yourself becomes the object of someone else’s interpretation. Is she tired? Why doesn’t she smile? Who is she, where is she going, why is she here? Maybe you’re the sort of person — a female person, a migrant person, a brown person — who is not encouraged to have a relationship with yourself. The look on your face translates as unacceptably distant, as almost foreign.

Of course ensimismada is perfectly translatable, depending on context; here you could say, for example, “wrapped up in her own thoughts.” But the implications of translation are always worth paying attention to. (Thanks, Eric and Trevor!)

Emojis and Unicode.

Michael Erard (of whom LH has long been a fan, and whose first appearance here in 2003 also concerned Unicode) has written a typically well-informed piece for the New York Times Magazine, “How the Appetite for Emojis Complicates the Effort to Standardize the World’s Alphabets.” He leads off with a timely reference to an obscure Rohingya alphabet that will soon be usable on computers or smartphones thanks to “a 26-year-old international industrial standard for text data called the Unicode standard, which prescribes the digital letters, numbers and punctuation marks of more than 100 different writing systems”: “The Rohingya will be able to communicate online with one another, using their own alphabet.” (Though as he points out they have more pressing problems at the moment.) He goes on to describe the history of emojis and the culture clash that ensued when the two phenomena collided:

At Emojicon, resentment toward Unicode was simmering amid the emoji karaoke, emoji improv and talks on emoji linguistics. “Such a 1980s sci-fi villain name [Unicode Consortium],” one participant grumbled. “Who put them in charge?” A student from Rice University, Mark Bramhill, complained that the requirements for the yoga-pose emoji he had proposed were off-puttingly specific, almost as if they were meant to deter him. A general antiestablishment frustration seemed to be directed at the ruling organization. One speaker, Latoya Peterson, the deputy editor of digital innovation for ESPN’s “The Undefeated,” urged people to submit proposals to Unicode for more diverse emojis. “We are the internet!” she said. “It is us!”

I have to confess I rolled my eyes, but I understand the reasons emoji-lovers want lots of emoji in Unicode; I thought Ken Whistler had a good take:

“Emoji has had a tendency to subtract attention from the other important things the consortium needs to be working on,” Ken Whistler says. He believes that Unicode was right to take responsibility for emoji, because it has the technical expertise to deal with character chaos (and has dealt with it before). But emoji is an unwanted distraction. “We can spend hours arguing for an emoji for chopsticks, and then have nobody in the room pay any attention to details for what’s required for Nepal, which the people in Nepal use to write their language. That’s my main concern: emoji eats the attention span both in the committee and for key people with other responsibilities.”

Anyway, it’s a good piece, and there’s a good discussion going on at the Log thanks to Victor Mair’s post.

Translatable but Debatable.

Translatable but Debatable is a series of posts at Elephant featuring Hebrew words which don’t translate well into English, e.g. סתם stam, by Mark L. Levinson:

[…] Guy Sharett’s Streetwise Hebrew site provides a podcast that not only explains some meanings of stam, and pronounces it for you, but also demonstrates the vocal intonations used in various contexts. Most notable is the stam that means “I was only kidding.” But since I can’t cut and paste from a podcast, I’ll cut and paste from Shoshana Kordova’s take on stam in Haaretz:

Let’s say your Israeli colleague wants to pull your leg. When you get into the office your coworker, ever a kidder, announces that the computer system is down and no one will be able to do any work until the tech people fix it. He watches as you get excited (“Yes! I get to play hooky without having to take a sick day!”) or upset (“Now I’ll have to stay longer to finish the project I need to get done today!”), and then breaks in to let you know it was all a joke. The word he reaches for could well be “stam,” but in this context the “a” sound is usually drawn out, sounding something like “Staaaaaaaaaahm!”

Maybe that long, needling pronunciation is a word-killer. Although you can read in one place that “Israelis use the word ‘stam’ at every chance they get” ( elsewhere you can read that “its not a word you hear often. I (and others) use it 99% of the time as ‘Just Kidding’, but it is slang.” (Alonke, at Certainly at one time stam seemed to be tied with davka for #1 among the uniquely characteristic words of modern Hebrew. Dov Ben-Abba, in his Signet paperback dictionary, defines it as “for no obvious reason; just like that; devoid of any special meaning.”

Levinson goes on to discuss fine shades of meaning, as well as the etymology:

There seems to be a thread of etymology reaching all the way back to the Bible. In Genesis 26:15 Isaac finds that “all the wells which his father’s servants had digged in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines had stopped them (satmoom), and filled them with earth.” […] Satoom, the passive, is used for cryptic things that are withheld from understanding […]. I suppose that from the idea of something that can’t be understood — or is “undefined, indefinite” as Danby & Segal say in their dictionary for Dvir Publishing — the word extended itself to circumstances where there is apparently nothing to understand, no particular motivation, nothing special.

It’s a long entry full of good tidbits, and there’s lots more where that came from. I love this kind of thing; thanks, Yoram!


David Munns at Aeon tells the story of the once ubiquitous suffix –tron:

In contemporary usage the term actually springs from ancient Greek, with the invention of the first vacuum tube or ‘kenotron’ around 1904; its creator came up with the name by combining the Greek words for ‘empty’ (keno) and ‘tool’ (tron). Subsequently, the radiotron, thyratron, klystron and the rhumbatron went on to become vital components of the radio industry in the 1930s, while the resonant cavity magnetron was at the heart of every radar set in the Second World War. Don’t be deceived: these components bear scant relationship to elementary particles such as the electron, neutron and positron, all of which really end in the suffix ‘-on’; their names are a red herring, akin to the old rumour that the Mustang car was named after the fighter aircraft and not the horse.

‘Tron’ began to attain wider cultural recognition around 1933 with the cyclotron, a machine that accelerated charged particles through a magnetic field. The name started out as laboratory slang at the University of California, Berkeley, but the device itself went on to become one of the most famous instruments in the history of science. It was a catalyst for innovations ranging from cancer treatments to the atomic bomb, and begat a lineage of postwar technologies that ended up dominating the study of nuclear physics. Newer and larger accelerators such as the synchrotron, the Cosmotron, the Bevatron and the Tevatron offered Cold War physicists in the US the possibility of creating new elements and peering further inside the atom. Later came the torsatron and the Vintotron, to study controlled nuclear fusion. In the 1980s, particle physicists sought out and found a large patch of desert in Texas for the next generation of particle accelerator; they dubbed the (now abandoned) facility the Desertron.

There’s much more, including the phytotron, the Eggatron, the pyrotron, and the algatron (“a nearly forgotten piece of 20th-century space technology”), none of which I had heard of. Of course the Greek stuff is wrong (the word is kenos, not keno, and more importantly, there is no Greek word tron ‘tool’ — –tron is a suffix in Greek just as it is in English), but never mind that, the article is about the English words, and it’s full of good things (and of course it mentions the Disney film, which was so cutting-edge in 1982). Thanks, Trevor!


Short but sweet; courtesy of Grant Barrett’s Facebook feed, I present this snippet from James McQuade’s The Cruise of the Montauk to Bermuda, the West Indies and Florida (1890):

But everywhere we hear the insufferable abbreviation of “pants” for pantaloons. Abbreviated pantaloons are breeches. Then it is not a solid English word, but an Italian derivative, and although the use of pantaloons is permissible, the cutting short is reprehensible.

It’s from the top of page 217; if that link works for you, you can see the rest of his rant, which goes on to complain about the “vulgarism” of calling a game-cock a fighting rooster: “A cock is a cock and a hen is a hen, and both are roosters.” To quote Grant: “Just one time travel vortex plz to visit this 1890 peever and explain how it turned out.” Don’t let this happen to you! Stifle your peevery!

A Child’s Garden of Curses.

The admirable Conrad sent me a link to “A Child’s Garden of Curses: A Gender, Historical, and Age-Related Evaluation of the Taboo Lexicon,” by Kristin L. Jay and Timothy B. Jay, and how could I not post it? The abstract:

Child swearing is a largely unexplored topic among language researchers, although assumptions about what children know about taboo language form the basis for language standards in many settings. The purpose of the studies presented here is to provide descriptive data about the emergence of adultlike swearing in children; specifically, we aim to document what words children of different ages know and use. Study 1 presents observational data from adults and children (ages 1-12). Study 2 compares perceptions of the inappropriateness of taboo words between adults and older (ages 9-12) and younger (ages 6-8) children. Collectively these data indicate that by the time children enter school they have the rudiments of adult swearing, although children and adults differ in their assessments of the inappropriateness of mild taboo words. Comparisons of these data with estimates obtained in the 1980s allow us to comment on whether swearing habits are changing over the years. Child swearing data can be applied to contemporary social problems and academic issues.

Now, that’s what I call a research topic. (I certainly knew the basic swear words by the time I entered school, and I remember my parents being upset when some of my knowledge was revealed.)


Bridget Gleeson writes for BBC Travel about a subject close to my heart: the characteristic local slang of Buenos Aires called lunfardo (whose name Wikipedia says is “from the Italian lumbardo or inhabitant of Lombardy in the local dialect”). She says that when the Argentine police first heard it, they assumed that it was “a sort of criminal jargon”:

But according to Oscar Conde, an Argentinian professor who’s written two books on the subject, the cops were wrong.

“The birth of lunfardo is not related with criminality,” Conde writes, “but with European immigration to Argentina between 1880 and the beginning of World War I.” During those years, four million people, mostly Italians and Spaniards, arrived in Buenos Aires. The city became, as Conde puts it, “a real-life Babel”.

In Buenos Aires at the turn of the 20th Century, Italian words were quickly adopted into everyday speech, sometimes with slight modifications. The Italian word femmina (woman), for instance, was shortened to mina; fiacco (laziness) became fiaca. Similarly, bacán (of or relating to the good life), biaba (hair dye or perfume) and laburar (to work) all have a basis in Italian.

José Gobello, 20th-Century Argentinian writer and founder of the Academia Porteña del Lunfardo, a non-profit institution dedicated to the study of colloquial speech in Argentina, suggested that pibe (Fermin’s nickname for his friends) comes from the Italian word pivello, meaning ‘youngster’ or ‘novice’, or perhaps from pive, a word in the Genoese dialect that means ‘apprentice’.

Spanish wordplay – particularly vesre, a form of language modification in which the last syllable of a word is moved to the start – also contributed to the development of lunfardo. The word ‘vesre’ itself is a play on the Spanish word revés, meaning reverse. Amigo (friend) became gomía, café (coffee) became feca and leche (milk) became chele.

Gleeson goes on to discuss the history of tango (whose “lyrics were filled with lunfardo”) and provide some great anecdotes; not only the photos but the very word pibe fill me with nostalgia for my years in that great city. Thanks, Trevor!

Prince Serebryany.

I’ve finished Aleksey K. Tolstoy’s historical novel Князь Серебряный [Prince Serebryany] (see this comment), and, well, it’s a great Boy’s Own adventure story if that’s the sort of thing you like. Except that it’s Russian, so if the protagonists are lucky they die in battle and if they’re not they get tortured to death in Red Square. Brief summary: Prince S. returns after fighting in Lithuania for five years and finds the oprichniki terrorizing Russia and the woman he loves married to the aged Prince Morozov (who married her so she could escape the attentions of the unwanted suitor Prince Vyazemsky); he offends Ivan the Terrible, is saved from certain death by a gang of good-hearted thieves, and defeats the Tatars, after which he is pardoned by Ivan but suffers further trials and tribulations. I might not have bothered posting about it except for this passage of linguistic interest near the end:

     — То был мой старший брат, Григорий Аникин, — отвечал Семен Строгонов. — Он волею божьею прошлого года умре!
     — Не Аникин, а Аникьевич, — сказал царь с ударением на последнем слоге, — я тогда же велел ему быть выше гостя и полным отчеством называться. И вам всем указываю писаться с вичем и зваться не гостями, а именитыми людьми!

     — That was my older brother, Grigory Anikin, — answered Semyon Strogonov. — By the will of God he died last year!
     — Not Anikin, but Anikievich, — said the tsar, stressing the final syllable, — I ordered him at that very time to be above the gosti and call himself by a full patronymic. And I order all of you to write your names with vich and call yourselves not gosti but persons of distinction!

The word gosti literally means ‘guests,’ but it’s obviously being used in some specialized sense here; anybody know? (I’m also curious about what’s going on with the patronymic business.)

Also, a chapter about a duel on horseback (which soon gets converted into something else entirely) contains this passage: “но Вяземский, из удальства, не спустил стрелы, а напротив, поднял ее посредством щурепца до высоты яхонтового снопа” [but Vyazemsky, because of his daring, did not lower the visor, but instead raised it by means of the shchurepets to the height of the ruby sheaf]. I don’t know what the “ruby sheaf” might be, but at least those are familiar words; the word щурепец [shchurepets] occurs only here in all of Russian literature and isn’t in any dictionary I can access, and I have no idea what it might be. Again, all ideas are welcome.