The Parlance of Pilots.

Mark Vanhoenacker is a pilot with British Airways, and writes engagingly about the language of the air:

The day I first flew in the cockpit of an airliner, I fell in love with the sights, of course, but also the sounds. […] I fell in love with what I saw from the airplane that day. But I was equally struck by the clipped, technical majesty of the words I heard through the expensive-looking noise-cancelling headset the pilots had handed to me. The pilots spoke of ‘localisers’ and ‘glideslopes’ and ‘veerefs plus five’ (VREF, I now know, is a baseline landing speed). On the radio they talked, in terms I could barely understand, to a series of laconic folks who identified themselves as ‘Maastricht Control’ and ‘London Centre’ and the all-powerful-sounding ‘Heathrow Director’. And the plane itself spoke out loud as we neared the ground, announcing our heights and then, all of a sudden, asking us in a brisk, clear voice, to ‘DECIDE.’ […]

A prominent feature of Aeroese is its deep nautical roots. Think port and starboard, forward and aft; deck; log; captain and first officer; bulkhead, hold and galley; rudder and tiller; wake; knot; even waves, as in mountain waves, an atmospheric disturbance that can produce turbulence. And of course the word aeronautical itself. […]

So what does Aeroese actually sound like on the radio? You can listen to certain air-traffic frequencies online – although most exchanges contain terms and certainly nuances that wouldn’t be apparent to non-Aeroese speakers. ‘Descend flight level 100, then reduce minimum clean.’ ‘Establish localiser two-seven-right, when established descend glide.’ And: ‘Check 63 north 40 west 1830 flight level 340 estimate 64 north 50 west 19 hundred CLAVY next.’ These examples from recent flights of mine I wouldn’t have been able to begin to make sense of as a teenager, even one who loved airplanes and read all he could about them.

Lots of good stuff there. Thanks, Jack!

Unrelated, but I support this Open Letter to the Linguistic Society of America about “the widespread problem of sexual harassment and the failure of existing responses from the academic units where our members study and work.” (More links and discussion at the Log.) I saw that at Yale forty years ago and it’s depressing that things haven’t gotten much better since.

Update. The LSA Executive Committee responds; they seem to be taking it seriously.

Nick Nicholas Is Back!

Back in the world of blogs, I mean (the only online world of personal expression that really means much to me). I first wrote about him and his wonderful blogs back in 2009, and at that time I said “this sucker’s going on the sidebar”; it’s been on the sidebar ever since, despite a lamentable absence of updates, and I’m thrilled I’ll be able to follow him on his new WordPress versions. See his announcement here (where he explains how he resumed writing online at Quora and became disillusioned with that venue), and by all means add his blogs to your preferred RSS feed. Callooh! Callay! I chortle in my joy.

Addendum. He posted this on Facebook: Why hasn’t Australia developed more diverse regional accents?

Rout and Conversazione.

A passage of linguistic interest from Ford Madox Ford’s Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (he is describing the late Victorian period when he was growing up):

Across the front of another confectioner’s near here is painted the inscription, “Routs catered for.” What was a rout? I suppose it was some sort of party, but what did you do when you got there? I remember reading a description by Albert Smith of a conversazione at somebody’s private house, and a conversazione in those days was the most modern form of entertainment. Apparently it consisted in taking a lady’s arm and wandering round among showcases.

There’s a description of a conversazione in one of Trollope’s early novels, and we talked about routs here (I think I would now be more tolerant of translating раут as “rout”). Another passage:

The word “exquisite” has gone almost as completely out of our vocabulary as the words “pot luck.” And for the same reason. We are no longer expected to take pot luck, because our hostess, by means of the telephone, can always get from round the corner some sort of ready-made confection that has only to be stood for ten minutes in a bain-marie to form a course of an indifferent dinner.

It’s interesting that he felt “pot luck” would no longer be understood by young Englishmen circa 1910; I’m pretty sure it’s been in continuous use in America, though it’s now mashed together as “potluck.”

The Root Of Toot-toot.

Here‘s a fun three-decade-old piece by Jack Hurst about the name of a long-forgotten minor hit:

Country music’s novelty hit of the year, “My Toot-Toot,” doubtless owes much of its popularity to the obvious question: What is a toot-toot? […]

In French-influenced Cajun Louisiana, where the 47-year-old Simien lives, toot is a corruption of the Gallic word tout, meaning ‘all.’

“From the old Cajun (language), a toot-toot is something special, maybe your best girlfriend, your all, your everything,” Simien says. “I got the idea from hearing my grandmother and the older folks use the word quite a bit. Especially when they saw a newborn baby. They`d pinch the baby on the cheek and say, ‘Isn’t she — or isn’t he — a sweet little toot-toot?’

“And I used to hear older guys call their girlfriends toot-toot. Plus there was an old song — I never really heard the record, but I used to hear different bands play at house parties when I was a kid, and they would sing . . . several songs, really, and put that word in there: ‘Mon chere toot-toot.'” […]

The song’s title and Simien’s widely varied labors in its creation aren`t all “My Toot-Toot” has going for it. It also rides an apparently growing ripple of national urban interest in an accordion-based Louisiana brand of music called “zydeco.” […] Expect, therefore, to hear more in the next few months about zydeco, a term currently about as well known in the mainstream as “toot-toot.” The word zydeco is derived from the French words les haricots, which means green beans.

“Which doesn’t make any sense,” Simien says with a chuckle.

“But we call a dance or a party a zydeco. There was an old record a long time ago called ‘Zydeco Est Pas Sale’ that meant ‘no salt in the beans’ and became very popular. Some people didn’t know the whole title of it, so they just asked radio stations to ‘play that zydeco record,’ and they’d go to the dances and ask for the same thing. That`s how zydeco music got to be called that — or at least that’s my view of it.”

I could have sworn we’d covered zydeco before, but apparently not. Thanks, Eric!

Oxford on Diacritics.

Jenny List had an amusing piece some years ago for the Oxford Dictionaries blog about diacritics, starting by saying you might think they’re not needed for English, and continuing:

But as any halfway observant child would tell you, what about the café down the road? Or the jalapeño peppers you and your fiancée enjoyed on your à la carte pizza, brought to you by a garçon? Washed down with a refreshing pint of Löwenbräu while reading a Brontë novel, no doubt. Or perhaps you’re not as naïve as all that, dreaming as you were of a ménage à trois. No, that’s probably a bit risqué, not to mention too much of a cliché. For somewhere so supposedly devoid of diacritic marks on our letters, we do seem to see an awful lot of them.

Of course, the English language has appropriated so many words from other languages that it would be extremely surprising were some of them to manage the transition unscathed. Most words gradually lose their accents on Anglicization; cafe is a perfect example of this as its occurrence without the accent is slowly overtaking that of café. Our lexicographers use the Oxford English Corpus to track the relative use of diacritic marks when deciding upon the preferred form of an imported word. Other words have left their diacritics behind completely, such as muesli (which has lost its umlaut on the u) or canyon (which is an Anglicization of the Spanish word cañon). Sometimes a word will retain its accent to preserve the pronunciation thus bestowed or to settle any ambiguity between the imported word and a similarly spelled existing English word. Thus we find maté and mate or the three outwardly similar but completely different words pâté, pâte, and pate. Occasionally we even encounter the same word entering English by two completely different routes, such as rosé and rose or the unexpected souffle and soufflé. Who knew that omitting that final e-acute could put you in hospital!

Some of our most familiar diacritics appear in brand names. Most of us will have eaten Nestlé chocolate (or perhaps even drunk Nescafé coffee) or imbibed copious quantities of umlaut-bespeckled German beers, but not I hope before driving away in a Škoda or a Citroën. As an aside, given the treatment his surname receives from most Brits, it should be stressed that the pronunciation of that last trema on the ‘e’ is important: cars from the company founded by André Citroën are not lemons.

She goes on to talk about Häagen-Dazs ice-cream, Gü puddings, and the metal umlaut; as for André Citroën, we discussed the history of his name back in 2008 — his cars may not have been lemons, but the Citroëns were originally Limoenmans.

Irritating Byssus.

Felicitas Maeder’s article “Irritating Byssus – Etymological Problems, Material facts, and the Impact of Mass Media” (pdf; from Textile Terminologies from the Orient to the Mediterranean and Europe, 1000 BC to 1000 AD 36 [2017]) begins by quoting the OED’s etymological entry for the term byssus:

< Latin byssus, < Greek βύσσος ‘a fine yellowish flax, and the linen made from it, but in later writers taken for cotton, also silk, which was supposed to be a kind of cotton’ (Liddell & Scott), < Hebrew būts, applied to ‘the finest and most precious stuffs, as worn by kings, priests, and persons of high rank or honour’ (Gesenius), translated in Bible of 1611 ‘fine linen’, < root *būts, Arabic bāḍ to be white, to surpass in whiteness. Originally therefore a fibre or fabric distinguished for its whiteness.

It then examines written and material evidence of byssos in antiquity (“All mummy bandages analysed until today are made of linen”), the term byssus in the Bible (“In the Old Testament, different Hebrew linen terms were translated with the single term byssus in the Latin vulgate”), and later developments; she sums up this part of the argument thus:

The conclusion is: In antiquity byssus was a fine textile of linen (or cotton, rarely silk). In the 16th century the filaments of bivalves like Pinna, blue mussel and others were given the name byssus, in analogy to the ancient byssus.

The fatal consequences for textile history are: From that moment on, textiles called byssus in antique texts were no longer associated only with linen (or cotton, rarely silk). Byssus became, in popular wisdom, for journalists and for some authors, sea-silk. With the simple logic: byssus is the name of the filaments of the Pinna nobilis of which was made sea-silk, byssus is found in the Bible and in profane antique literature, so byssus is, almost always and everywhere and at any time: sea-silk.

She goes on to talk about sea-silk in antiquity and in Italy, with extended quotes from the Enciclopedia italiana di science, lettere ed arti di Treccani, and ends with an extended section on “Invented tradition and the role of mass media,” concluding:

John Peter Wild stated once: “To discover the meaning of a specific textile term, a lexicon is a good place to start, but a bad place to end.” How true! Studying the terms byssus and sea-silk in lexicons and dictionaries is of nearly no help. They only render the researchers uncertain with all their inconsistencies and contradictions. As we have seen, even actual specialised dictionaries raise more questions than answering them. […]

These few examples – from the thesis of a Roman university to historical and textile studies of antique and medieval times up to a modern specialised lexicon and biological reference book – show the consequences of the impact of mass media in present-day research, at least in the matter of byssus and sea-silk. The ‘power of naming’ – so it seems – lies more and more in fanciful websites, odd blogs, facebook accounts, and magic events around ‘secret and sacred old traditions’.

Interesting stuff; thanks, Trevor!


My wife and I enjoy reading the police report in the local paper, which frequently amuses us with tales like these:

An animal was removed from a chicken coop at a Pelham Road residence. The owner of the chickens was given advice on how to keep other animals from attacking the chickens.

A black bear wandering in and out of traffic on Shays Street was not located by police.

(We don’t live in a high-crime area, though there are occasionally worrying rashes of burglaries.) This morning, my wife asked me “What does asportation mean?” “Gotta be a typo,” I responded. (The paper’s typos are so frequent and so awful I’ve given up complaining about them, since they obviously don’t give a damn.) “But it occurs twice,” she said. I took a look. A story about two people “facing charges related to a shoplifting incident” ended thus:

The woman will be summoned to court on a a charges [sic!] of larceny over $250 and shoplifting by asportation, second offense, while the man will be summoned to court on charges of larceny over $250 and shoplifting by asportation, third offense [sic, no period]

This word asportation is not in M-W or AHD, but it’s in various law references, several of them collected here; West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, for instance, defines it as “The removal of items from one place to another, such as carrying things away illegally.” And it’s in the OnEtDic: “from Latin asportationem (nominative asportatio) ‘a carrying away,’ noun of action from past participle stem of asportare ‘to carry off,’ from abs– ‘away’ […] + portare ‘to carry.'” So there you have it. And remember, kids, crime doesn’t pay!


Dictionaria, according to its beta page, is “an open-access journal that publishes high-quality dictionaries of languages from around the world, especially languages that do not have a large number of speakers. The dictionaries are published not in the traditional linear form, but as electronic databases that can be easily searched, linked and exported.” One of its editors, Martin Haspelmath, writes about the virtues of such dictionaries in this Diversity Linguistics Comment post:

To look up a word in a linear dictionary, you typically need to browse to an alphabetic list of possible initial letters, and then browse to the right word, as in a paper dictionary (this is so in the Maa and Archi dictionaries, for example). Other dictionaries try to approximate the familiar Google search line and present users with a search box (e.g. the Yurok dictionary), but this creates the problem that one doesn’t know what to look for – many searches will lead nowhere. Dictionaria combines searching and browsing in an optimal way: Each page shows up to 100 entries (words), with one entry per line (e.g. in the Daakaka dictionary). Each column has a search field on top of it (as in other CLLD applications, such as APiCS), thus allowing searching and filtering by different criteria: not only by headword (as in many dictionaries), but also by part of speech, meaning description and semantic domain, and potentially more. In addition to searching, you can also sort by any field in ascending or descending order.

Many linguists like leafing through dictionaries in order to get a sense of what’s in them, and for a first rough impression, this may work. But have you ever tried to leaf through a dictionary to find out how much it says about adjectives or prepositions? In the Daakaka dictionary, select PREP in the part-of-speech column, and you’ll see all 15 prepositions of the language right away. Similarly, select “color” in the semantic-domain column, and you’ll see all six color terms in the dictionary. You can of course also select two columns at the same time, e.g. “verb” and “food”, to see all 41 food-related verbs of Daakaka. […]

Extensive dictionaries often include copious examples, like the German WDG dictionary above. But what if you want to search within examples? Linear dictionaries let you down, while this is easy in Dictionaria: There is a separate tab where the examples are given in tabular format. Thus, it is easy to search within the 1546 examples of the Teop marine life dictionary, e.g. to find all 36 examples containing ‘tail’ in the English translation. In the Daakaka dictionary, the examples are even glossed, so that it is easy to find the 87 illustrating sentences containing demonstratives, for example.

He is, of course, not an impartial observer, but it certainly does seem like a good concept, and the linked dictionary is fun to play with.


I ran into the word gout and decided to look it up, because although I’ve doubtless seen the etymology before, I couldn’t remember it (ah, the joys of the sexagenarian brain!). It’s interesting but not especially noteworthy; to quote the AHD:

[Middle English goute, from Old French, drop, gout, from Medieval Latin gutta, from Latin, drop (from the belief that gout was caused by drops of morbid humors).]

Now, I knew the Russian word was подагра [podagra], and podagra also exists in English (defined as ‘gout’), and for some reason I assumed that most languages would have equivalents of podagra (from Greek podagrā: pod– ‘foot’ + agrā ‘trap, seizing’), but when I checked the language sidebar at Wikipedia (always a good resource for such things) I found that while the East Slavic and Baltic languages have podagra, the Romance languages (unsurprisingly) have derivatives of Latin gutta (French goutte, Spanish gota, Italian gotta, Romanian gută), while the other Germanic languages have equivalents of German Gicht (“Herkunft unklar”): Dutch jicht, Swedish gikt, etc., and so do Croatian (giht), Serbian (гихт), and Finnish (kihti). Czech and Slovak have dna (in Old Czech ‘intestinal colic’), from Proto-Slavic *dъna, which is probably related to *dъno ‘bottom part of something’ (per Wiktionary). Hungarian has köszvény, whose etymology I don’t know. There is no Georgian equivalent listed, which I take to mean that the Georgian diet is so healthy they don’t suffer from the disease.

Grammatical Mistakes in Medieval Texts.

Bathrobe sent me this extremely interesting response from Will Scathlocke at Quora:

What kind of grammatical mistakes are most prevalent in medieval and later texts written in Latin or Greek by non-native speakers?

Do you by “mistake” mean a deviation from the sort of Latin which Caesar and Cicero wrote?

If so, then the most common sort in mediaeval Latin involves interference from the writer’s actual native language. For example, in classical Latin the preposition post always means “after, behind, in back of” and never “towards”. In the mediaeval Latin written by native speakers of German, the preposition post often enough does mean “towards” because the corresponding German preposition nach means both “after, behind” and “towards” (e.g. in the mediaeval Christmas carol “In dulci jubilo”, a Latin-German macaronic, it is trahe me post te, “draw me unto thee” or “zeuch mich hin nach dir”, where classical Latin would have used the preposition ad, “to, toward”.

Another common type of interference from people’s native languages involves the use of the infinitive to express purpose (in classical Latin a big no-no, but normal in most vernaculars in the post-classical period). Thus what in the creed comes out as venturus est iterum iudicare vivos et mortuos (“and He shall come again to judge the quick and the dead”) would be the following in classical Latin: iterum veniet ut vivos et mortuos iudicet (with ut plus subjunctive; lit. “and He shall come again that he may judge the quick and the dead”).

There’s plenty more at the link, including “the use of pseudo-Latin verbs coined on the basis of English ones” in the Magna Carta (imprisono, disseisio, utlago, exulo = “to imprison”, “to disseise”, “to outlaw”, “to exile”).