Constant Motion.

Stan Carey has a fine Macmillan column on the fact that language constantly changes and there’s nothing we can do about it, so we might as well accept it:

Understandably, this unsettles people. We may refuse to accept a new usage, especially if the change happens in our lifetime: Why can’t words stay as they are, with a fixed meaning and sound and use? Words here can be a substitute for deeper concerns. We tend to prefer when things are stable, and find instability disturbing.

The converse also applies. If we get on board with the fact that everything is in flux, it becomes easier to adjust to linguistic change instead of being automatically upset by it. It can be seen as a form of realism: we drop the false idea that language doesn’t or shouldn’t change.

It’s well said, and of course I thoroughly agree, but I might not have posted it here if it hadn’t begun thus: “To Heraclitus we owe the saying (variously phrased) that you can’t step into the same river twice.” Check out that parenthetical link; you may be as surprised as I was that the “same river twice” interpretation is basically folk philology — according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “we call a body of water a river precisely because it consists of changing waters; if the waters should cease to flow it would not be a river, but a lake or a dry streambed. There is a sense, then, in which a river is a remarkable kind of existent, one that remains what it is by changing what it contains.” That is actually more interesting than the traditional interpretation, at least to me.


  1. marie-lucie says

    “we call a body of water a river precisely because it consists of changing waters; if the waters should cease to flow it would not be a river

    I don’t know Greek, but the word for “river” must be related to the word for “to flow” (as in Latin fluvius from fluere)” Am I right?

  2. No, they’re unrelated: potamos “river”, rheō “to flow”. The argument isn’t etymologically based.

  3. potamos – is Pre-Greek substrate. It may have had literal meaning of “flowing” in that Pre-Greek language, we just don’t know.

  4. marie-lucie says

    Thanks Trond. Strange that the etymology would work in Latin but not in Greek, the language of the text!

  5. Речка движется и не движется,
    Вся из лунного серебра.
    Песня слышится и не слышится
    В эти тихие вечера.

    The river is moving and not moving
    Made of the silver moonlight
    A song is heard and not heard
    In these quite evenings.

  6. And also my lorde abbot of westmynster ded do shewe to me late certayn euydences wryton in olde englysshe for to reduce it in to our englysshe now vsid / And certaynly it was wreton in suche wyse that it was more lyke to dutche than englysshe I coude not reduce ne brynge it to be vnderstonden / And certaynly our langage now vsed varyeth ferre from that. whiche was vsed and spoken whan I was borne / For we englysshe men / ben borne vnder the domynacyon of the mone. whiche is neuer stedfaste / but euer wauerynge / wexynge one season / and waneth & dyscreaseth another season / And that comyn englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from a nother. In so moche that in my dayes happened that certayn marchaũtes were in a ship in tamyse for to haue sayled ouer the see into zelande / and for lacke of wynde thei taryed atte forlond. and wente to lande for to refreshe them And one of theym named sheffelde a mercer cam in to an hows and axed for mete. and specyally he axyd after eggys And the goode wyf answerde. that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaũt was angry. for he also coude speke no frenshe. but wolde haue hadde egges / and she vnderstode hym not / And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren / then the good wyf sayd that she vnderstod hym wel / Loo what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte. egges or eyren / certaynly it is harde to playse euery man / bycause of dyuersite & chaũge of langage.

    William Caxton’s colophon from Eneydos

  7. That’s great! Caxton at his chattiest. I’m surprised that he had so much trouble with OE, considering that he knew Flemish.

    Does anyone still say “eyren” in Kent or elsewhere?

  8. a remarkable kind of existent, one that remains what it is by changing …

    I’m not sure that’s so remarkable: an antelope is constantly ‘flowing’ across the terrain. We can still happily say it’s the same creature even though it is never still. That applies even more to a herd of antelope on the move. It’s the same herd even though we’re not seeing the same set of creatures from moment to moment.

  9. Does anyone still say “eyren” in Kent or elsewhere?

    Not in English, I’m afraid, and the traditional dialect of Kent has largely been engulfed by the Estuary koine. In some places, however, people can still be axed for meat.

  10. In some places, however, people can still be axed for meat.
    Thread won.

  11. marie-lucie says

    asked for meat

    I think that meant “food” at the time.

  12. When did this “thread won” meme start to become popular? I had never seen it until I noticed it popping up on LH this year.

  13. It was imported by David M from Elsewhere (where it’s been in use considerably longer).

  14. January First-of-May says

    (BTW, what does “You can no longer edit this comment” mean? Is it a spam thing? I wanted to add a few words, but the edit didn’t work, and this line appeared instead, even though there was clearly enough time left.)

  15. Weird. I have no idea.

  16. But you can always ask me to edit a comment.

  17. January First-of-May says

    I can’t. because I got stuck with that unable-to-comment bug again (which is probably why I wasn’t able to edit).

    EDIT: looks like the bug went away, but in any case, the original comment isn’t visible now. (And I forgot what I wanted to add pretty quickly, anyway. But it was fairly minor.)
    The missing comment, for the record, was about the “thread won” thing, and had a link to a forum thread using this meme in 2007 – which is probably what it was deleted for.

  18. From here (May 21, 2007):

    Thread won.

  19. January First-of-May says

    The link I wanted to post was this (March 10, 2007):

    “Thread won. No one can top Mattingburg.”

    (There are several other SpaceBattles results from later in 2007.)

    (How do you do that quote alignment thing, by the way?)

  20. Did Google Books search on the expression. The oldest was

    “He who cut the thread won the game.”
    (c) “History of the Mongols: From the 9th to the 19th Century” by Sir Henry Hoyle Howorth – 1880 -.

  21. With regards to winning threads, there was a period of hyperinflation starting around five years ago. Instead of just threads somebody would “win the Internet.” Sometimes that would just be “for today,” until, “You win the Internet forever,” came along. Even that was inflated further, to “You win 1000 Internets,” before settling back to where the winning started, with threads.

  22. January First-of-May says

    I was pretty sure that was “you won an internet”, or maybe “won 1 internet” (and it might be where the “1000 internet” thing got started).

    But apparently Know Your Meme does mention this as “win the internet”, and dates it back to 2004 (also, as I just found on Google, here is a hilarious complaint on “you win this thread” from 2005).

  23. That is hilarious!

  24. David Marjanović says

    You win an internet made from cookies!

    I’m surprised that he had so much trouble with OE, considering that he knew Flemish.

    Some of the vocabulary has completely fallen out of fashion throughout Germanic.

  25. “He who cut the thread won the game.”

    I am pretty sure it should have started at least as far back as Μοῖραι

  26. What makes LH special is that here someone can win the thread without ending it.

  27. David Marjanović says

    That’s actually normal.

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    Kusaal proverb (there’s one for every occasion):

    Ba ɛɛnti maknɛ gbin ka vʋl kʋkpar.
    “They measure the anus before swallowing a palmnut.”

    (i.e. “Look before you leap”, but more – um – edgy.)

  29. My dog once ate an entire stick, about six inches long, and passed it (evidently painfully) all the way through.

  30. And learned nothing from the experience, I’ll wager.

  31. Well, he never did it again. But he was certainly not an intelligent pet.

    It is interesting that digestive discomfort is actually a special category of negative stimuli for teaching animals behaviors to avoid. Most of the learning that occurs through behaviorist conditioning requires that two stimuli (classical conditioning) or a behavior and then a stimulus (operant conditioning) have to be pretty close in time. In operant conditioning, an animal performs a behavior, then is promptly rewarded or punished for it. If this is repeated, the animal can learn to repeat or avoid the particular behavior. In most cases, an animal cannot learn not to do something if they are only penalized half an hour after the behavior, but getting sick to the stomach is an exception. Animals (including humans) can develop taste aversions to foods (particularly unusual-tasting foods) that they ate up to several hours before experiencing nausea or stomach pain. There are obvious evolutionary reasons why it makes sense to develop these aversions, but the lack of proximity between the ingestion and feelings of unwellness can lead to the development of taste aversions that are unnecessary or misplaced. This process is, for example, how I stopped liking the taste of milk even before it was figured out that I was lactose intolerant. Yet, it is also why I don’t like turkey slices very much—although it may well have been some bad butter that I ate at the same meal with the turkey that actually made me ill.

  32. ate up to several hours before experiencing nausea or stomach pain

    That might work if animals in question are not prone to incessant munching. Than cause and effect are close in time on a relevant scale. Alternatively, if the diet is generally fixed than an unexpected stomach reaction can be attributed to the unusual food even with intervening snacking.

  33. @D.O.: It might be interesting to see how the normal eating habits of animal species affect whether and how they acquire taste aversions. (I have no idea if it has actually been studied.) Certainly, early accounts of behavioral conditioning were generally far too simplified. For example, contrary to what B. F. Skinner originally thought, you cannot train animals to perform arbitrary behaviors in order to receive rewards or avoid punishment. Pigeons can be trained to do things with their beaks in order to receive food, but teaching them to do things with their wingtips (the wings not being, in nature, directly related to food acquisition and consumption) is difficult to impossible.

  34. David Marjanović says

    That reminds me of a TV documentary I once saw, where meerkats found an ostrich egg and tried to figure out how to open it. Again and again, they burst into half-second bouts of frantically digging under it. Comment: “Meerkats are used to solving problems by digging.”

  35. As its common name in English implies, the cattle egret is a semi-domesticated species that meets many of its transportation needs by riding around on the backs of cattle, eating the cattle’s ticks en route. At the time I moved to Oahu, more than forty years ago, the egrets were strictly country birds. Now, though, they’ve gone urban and acquired new tastes. There aren’t many cattle in town, but what there are are lawnmowers — and every one now is followed by a little flock of egrets walking in dignified single file.

    The pedagogical association has generalized, too. Down the street from my house is a soccer field that’s visited from time to time by a truck towing a big riding mower on a trailer, and after the driver has finished the mowing and reloaded the trailer he’s escorted on his way by egrets soaring overhead.

  36. “Mower egrets”. I mowed the lawn this morning, and the idea of a flock or even a single cattle egret following me is a hilarious, wonderful image. Alas, the lawns in the neighborhood are so chemically treated that it wouldn’t profit them much. Ours excepted, but they probably need a bunch of yards in order to establish and reinforce the association.

    We honeymooned at a lodge up the canyon of the Macal River in Belize. Each day an hour or so before sunset, a flock of cattle egrets would make their way up the gorge, passing perhaps 50 feet above the water and 50 feet below us, which was an amazing sight. At some point, we hiked up the river a couple miles, and discovered their roost, which the lodge guides hadn’t previously realized was there. (Or maybe they tell all the guests that to indulge their sense of discovery.)

  37. My parents, driving a rented light SUV, once pulled over across the street from the community garden in Charlestown, Boston. My father was going to get out and walk back to where I had pulled over a couple car lengths back, to discuss where we should all head next. However, his vehicle was immediately mobbed by hundreds of birds. It looked like a scene right out of Hitchcock. The flock had been sitting on the ground, unnoticed, until the vehicle arrived. Then they moved. Some landed on the roof, while overs flapped and pecked at the windows.

    After a brief period of total confusion, my father just drove on, leaving the flock behind. We rendezvoused further up the road and decided what to do next, after all discussing in wonderment what had happened with the birds. After we picked up some stuff at our apartment, we were headed back in the direction of Cambridge and drove past the community garden again, fifteen or twenty minutes later. As we passed by (coming down Bunker Hill* on the other side of the garden), we saw another similar SUV pull over when my father had, and a man hopped out and started feeding the birds. Apparently, being fed from that vehicle was a regular occurrence, and the birds knew it.

    * My wife and I lived on the slope of Bunker Hill, but the Battle of Bunker Hill actually took place on the next hill over, Breed’s Hill. The patriot troops had been ordered to fortify Bunker Hill, but command and control was not very effective at that very early point in the Revolutionary War. It is unknown why the troops actually threw up their redoubts on Breed’s Hill instead, and it is also unclear which site was actually better defensively. Breed’s Hill was lower, but it was also closer to the water, leaving little room for the British soldiers landed on the shore to position themselves before attacking or to maneuver to flank the defenders. In the final reckoning, the choice of hill probably made no difference in the outcome of the battle; the patriot defenders inflicted far more casualties than they sustained, but they were forced to abandon their positions anyway, because they were running out of ammunition.

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