Lane Greene of The Economist writes to tell me about their new language blog, Johnson. It won my heart in the first entry I looked at, Wild pigs versus cucumber troops, when I saw the following sentence: “The Etymologisches Wö[r]terbuch der deutschen Sprache notes that Gurke is a loan word from Polish (ogurek or ogorek), which in turn comes from the Middle Greek agovros, meaning ‘unripe’ or ‘immature’.” That could have come straight out of LH, and any blog that quotes the Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache is jake with me. Furthermore, in their first post, after explaining that the blog is a revival of a monthly column on the English language written in the ’90s by Stephen Hugh-Jones (available here), they say “this blog is not to be primarily about peeves—’we simply can’t stand it when someone says thus-and-such,” which of course was music to my ears (and has proven to be true). In their second post, they mocked the absurd Queen’s English Society (also mocked by Mark Liberman at the Log and by John McIntyre at You Don’t Say, e.g., here). And they’ve already taken a couple of whacks at the NY Times for their prudery (“We learn from Jeffrey Goldberg that the Times will not even print the Yiddishism ‘tuchus’. Oy.”). All in all, I feel confident in giving Johnson the coveted Languagehat Seal of Approval.
And I have to pass on their hilarious post about their name:

Last week A.T., an American colleague, tackled me, a Brit, about the title of this blog. Never has the nostrum about Britain and America being “two countries separated by a common language” seemed truer:

A.T.: I don’t like the name Johnson.
G.L.: What would you suggest?
A.T.: Well, for instance, Fowler, who wrote the great guide to English usage.
G.L.: What’s the advantage of Fowler over Johnson?
A.T.: Well, it doesn’t mean dick.
G.L.: Hold on—are you saying you prefer Fowler, or Johnson?
A.T.: Fowler.
G.L.: But is Fowler well-known in America?
A.T.: No, but nor is Johnson.
G.L.: So if Fowler doesn’t mean dick to Americans and nor does Johnson, why is Fowler better?
A.T.: But it does mean dick.
G.L.: Fowler does?
A.T.: No, Johnson.

At this point light dawned, and I realised that A.T. was trying to communicate one problem, while I, thinking myself a connoisseur of American slang, had understood another. In fact both were true: the trouble with “Johnson” is that while Brits know the name well, to Americans it both doesn’t mean dick and does mean “dick”. Fowler, on the other hand, may not mean “dick” to Americans, but to my mind it doesn’t really mean dick to anybody. So I proposed that we stop dicking around and simply explain, at the top right of the page, who Johnson was, so that even if it still means “dick”, at least it no longer doesn’t mean dick. I hope that’s now clear to everyone.


  1. Funny. But Johnson is actually very well known in America – certainly to the type of American who would read Economist blogs for entertainment.

  2. Bathrobe says

    Love that Swift with his condemnation of “illiterate Court-Fops, half-witted Poets, and University-Boys”. But who should we blame for the decline of English today? Hip-hop singers? MBA courses? Devious politicians?

  3. Charles Perry says

    ‘Agr (beginning with ‘ain) is Egyptian Arabic for “unripe”; in Syrian Arabic a’jar means ditto. And ‘aggur/’ajjur is Arabic for hairy cucumber (Cucumis melo v. chate). I would assume the transmission was via Syriac, except that I don’t find the word in my lexicon & or on CAL. To complicate things, there is an Aramaic root ‘-G-R meaning “heavy” or (significantly?) “rough.”

  4. John Emerson says

    In “The Big Lebowski” the insufferably avant-garde Maude Lebowski uses the word “Johnson” in the sense alluded to above in order to show Dude that she’s “with it”, but Dude seems not to recognize the term (though it may just be that he’s uneasy about the general situation). I have never heard that usage for real, though maybe I’ve heard it occasionally as a pedantic reference like Maude’s.

  5. At the Johnson blog I’ve commented about the Gurke and its role in society.
    It might be amusing to determine how many parts of the body can be given suitable proper names. Johnson is already taken. So for starters, how about Lewinski for the mouth, Gogol for the nose ? I would favor Burroughs for the asshole, but it might not make sense unless you have read The Naked Lunch.

  6. rootlesscosmo says

    ‘Agr (beginning with ‘ain) is Egyptian Arabic for “unripe”
    Is this cognate with Italian agro, French aigre etc.?–connecting “unripe” with “sour.”

  7. rootlesscosmo: probably not, unless ‘agr passed through Latin first. I might be wrong, but I believe agro/aigre/… are closer cognates of the English acrid instead.

  8. Italian agro, French aigre, Romanian acru, Spanish agrio and Catalan/Spanish/Portuguese acre are all descendants of Latin acer, which seems to come from a Protoindoeuropean root *H₂eḱ-. An extended version of the root gave acerbus, with a similarly large set of descendants.
    I can’t check on the etymology of ʿagr, but if it is cognate, it must be at a pre-PIE level.

  9. We have agurk for cucumber & pickle in Norway. Amazing enough to think of this word having traveled from Egypt via Poland to me in Norway, but (though I don’t really understand it) now I see on Urban Dictionary:

    1. A green vegetable 2. Everything else, except Allah
    Agurk! It’s so agurk in this agurk place!

  10. Johnson is too generic, though it’s no big deal. It’s a generic last name, mostly Scandinavian andsometimes English. “My name is John Johnson, I come from Wisconsin, etc.” No one thinks of Sam first.

  11. The canonical form is Yon Yonson.

  12. marie-lucie says

    “Cognate” does not mean just “having the same origin” but “directly descended by evolution from the same ancestor”. The French, Rumanian, Italian, etc words are cognate because they have all evolved from the same Latin word. English “acrid” is not cognate with them, because it was “borrowed” (= adopted) from Latin at one time and does not have an ancestor within the Germanic line (of which English is a member).
    Alon: I can’t check on the etymology of ʿagr, but if it is cognate, it must be at a pre-PIE level.
    Alon is right: in order for this Arabic word to be cognate with the Latin one (rather than reflect a borrowing), the two would have to have descended by evolution from a common ancestor. Since Latin descends from Proto-Into-European, and Arabic from Proto-Semitic, cognacy would imply that PIE and PS themselves have a common ancestor (something which is possible, but, to my knowledge, not commonly accepted).

  13. If you spell it in English Yon will read it in Norwegian anyway.

  14. On cognacy: what Marie-Lucie said. To Alon: In this light Spanish/Portuguese/Catalan (and French) ACRE is not cognate with Latin ACER: rather it is a form borrowed directly from Latin (or, possibly, was borrowed from Latin by one of those languages and borrowed thence by the others).
    This is an annoying aspect of Romance etymologies: too often, when saying of a word in these languages that it “comes from Latin”, no distinction is made between words which are “native” (i.e. which were part of the language from day 1) and those that were later borrowed from Latin.

  15. marie-lucie says

    Etienne, amen.

  16. I think that ‘acier’ comes from that root becasue the leaves have points, at least in some species, which is pretty close to sharp and maybe by extension even sour.

  17. “My name is Lyndon Johnson and I come from Texas”

  18. Somewhere out there in the world there must be a Mr John Thomas Johnson?

  19. Yes, Eel, many as it turns out. This one seems to be the most notable:
    More “Dick Johnsons” than you can count.
    And the New York Jets are owned by Woody Johnson. The fun never ends.

  20. Dick Johnson – my word, that must be the onomastic equivalent of diphallic terata?

  21. Chales Perry says

    I kept ignoring the fact that the word was from Middle Greek. It seems to have been properly ἀγγούριον (>Latin anguria), not ἀγούρος, which raises more issues (OED actually speculates that it might be from Slavic). The medieval date pretty much rules out a borrowing in Arabic, even by way of Syriac (which would have explained the loss of the nasal).
    For what it’s worth, according to Liddell & Scott, in the 12th century Bishop Eustathius of Thessalonica recorded ἀγούρος as a Thracian word for a youth. I’m just saying.

  22. The great Pedro Martinez made his own use of the word.

  23. “My name is Lyndon Johnson and I come from Texas”.
    That, Crown, is what I find a great many of LBJ’s fellow-countrymen cannot help.
    Never ask a man where he’s from: if he’s from Texas, he’ll tell you; if not, why embarrass him?
    Why are Texans always smiling? Because they have long thumbs.

  24. Fowler is more familiar to this American than either Johnson or johnson — and, more relevantly, more (relevantly) evocative.
    Now there’s a clause that I might prefer to have put in loglan.

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