Friday, June 28, 2013

Language in the trial of George Zimmerman

I haven't been following the trial of George Zimmerman for the slaying of Trayvon Martin, but apparently the twitmosphere has been twittering, or shall I say tittering, away at the testimony of Rachel Jeantel. Sigh. Little did I know that my posting of Stephen Fry's thoughts on language would come in handy so soon. Dear twits, before you go on lampooning the way someone else speaks, maybe you should take a listen. Because I'm pretty sure he's given the matter a bit more thought than you have.
Meanwhile, we have the valiant Chris Hayes and his guest John McWhorter, pointing out that just because someone's speech is different than yours, that doesn't make theirs wrong. Way to go to bat for Ms. Jeantel, guys!      

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

germane, part 2

I became quite absorbed in watching the Texas filibuster play out yesterday, in which State Senator Wendy Davis managed to hold up long enough to  make possible the defeat of a bill that would have brought sweeping restrictions on abortion to the state. Although Rand Paul preceded her in doing an actual rather than a nominal filibuster in the U.S. Senate recently, Davis's effort was somewhat akin to that famous comment about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels.

After wearing heels at an earlier successful filibuster against a bill that would have made four billion dollars in school cuts, Davis decided that pink tennis shoes were more in keeping with her task. But that didn't mean she had an easy time of it. Texas filibuster rules state that the participant must stand, not leaning on the desk before them, must not take breaks, and that everything they say must be germane to the bill under discussion. In other words, no reading from phone books.

The Texas Senate held her to a much more rigorous standard than that, and eventually ruled that she had not been germane enough in her presentation, even though the Senate's own rules allowed, in CAPITAL LETTERS, according to one senator, that germanity was a subjective thing.

Of course, being me, I started thinking about that word germane, and thought I might do a little discussion of it. But then I realized that I had already had.

Although Davis impressed me with her stamina, ability to stay on point and grace under pressure, the day was not hers alone. The strategic and at times brilliant tactics of  her fellow Democrats allowed the clock to click ever closer to the midnight deadline, but even this was not enough. In the end, the day was saved by the boisterous crowds in the gallery that disrupted the business at hand with cheers and other shouts, which made it impossible for the Senate to take the vote till two minutes after midnight, at which point it was (eventually declared) null and void. We the People, eh?

I must say that I'll think differently about the Texas legislature from here on out. Journalist Molly Ivins regaled us for many years with the shenanigans of the Good Ol' Boy network that presided over Texas government. But judging by the evidence last night, some of them Good Ol' Boys better watch out for these Good New Gals.

Edited to add that the Rachel Maddow Show did a good recap last night:


Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Monday, June 24, 2013

Stephen Fry on language

Although I may not completely agree with Stephen Fry's opinion here, it's worth hearing. But then, hearing Stephen Fry speak is always pretty delightful. I'm of two minds about reading the words as he speaks them, too. But in the end I'd say it's worth it.

Thursday, June 20, 2013


I don't know exactly why this one came up for me the other day. It just occurred to me that I have no idea where this word came from. It has that pronunciation link to empire and so to emperor, but is that really the background?

I am almost positive this has Roman roots, though. We shall see.


Roman roots, yes, but not of the kind I thought. It isn't a corruption of some ancient Roman term for an adjudicator. The English word was originally noumper, which came from the Old French nonper, (from Latin par--I told you Rome was involved)  which means "not even" or "not equal" --so, the one who arbitrates between two others, the non peer.

Umpire then, is one of those interesting mistake kind of words. It shares this particular mistake with words like adder (Old English næddre)  and auger (Middle English nauger), because people hearing the phrase as " a noumpere" thought of it as  "an oumpere". This, in the linguistic game, is what is known as "faulty separation". Such diverse things as aprons, nicknames, and humble pie all suffer from the same sort of misapprehension.

Umpires weren't always about sports, though. Originally, the word comes from the legal world. In fact, it is still used in U.S. law today to refer to arbitrators in legal arbitration, largely in labor disputes. It came into sporting vernacular, or at least into printed mention, in 1719. The sport?
Michiel Sweerts' Wrestling Match, 1649



Tuesday, June 11, 2013


I wouldn't have come up with this one on my own at all. I just happened to be playing a word game that had a "fun fact" at the end, suggested that a sardine is not actually a type of fish at all--more of a category. I assume they must know what they're talking about, but all the same, I was surprised. I've heard sardines are quite healthy for you, but is this just true across the board for all small fish?

I'm confused.


No surprise--it's true. Sardine is the name for any number of small fish. The Free Online Dictionary tells us first that it is one of numerous small or half grown oily fish, herrings or others, from the family Clupeidae. The second definition, though, is: " Any of numerous small, silvery, edible freshwater or marine fishes unrelated to the sardine." (Emphasis mine.)

I guess the real question is, when is a  small fish not a sardine? When it's a pilchard?

This article in The Independent took the whole region of Cornwall to task for rebranding the lowly  pilchard as the "Cornish sardine". I hadn't noticed that the sardine was any less lowly than the pilchard, but apparently there was some kind of perception problem. Wikipedia  uses sardine and pilchard interchangeably. And even the aforementioned article ends with advise from the "food industry":

But when is a pilchard a sardine? "A pilchard is bigger than a sardine," explained a food industry source last week. "Anything under six inches is a sardine, and anything over six inches is a pilchard - but could also be called a sardine." Perfectly straightforward then.


The problem stems perhaps from the source of the name itself.  The thought is that it comes to us through Latin from the Greek sardine, sardinos and is thought to refer back to the island of Sardos, which we know as Sardinia, and around which the fish once swum in abundance. However the Online Etymology Dictionary also gives a dissenting opinion, that of etymologist Ernest Klein:

 "It is hardly probable that the Greeks would have obtained fish from so far as Sardinia at a time relatively so early as that of Aristotle, from whom Athenaios quotes a passage in which the fish sardinos is mentioned."

Whether Klein is in a position to know how far Aristotle would go for small, oily fish, I don't know. But one thing is sure--I am not. 

It seems fitting to end this post with the festival called "The Burial of the Sardine". This is the way Spain celebrates the end of Carnival and the beginning of Lent. Each town has its own tradition, but the basic pattern is that the "Sardine" in some form is carried through the streets by a procession of "mourners" and ritually burned at the end.

We can start with Goya's famous painting, El Entierro de la Sardina , which captures the spirit of the festival, though not, unfortunately, the sardine. It is thought to have been painted sometime around 1810, and I guess we can presume this was not the first festival, so it must go back a long way.

If that's not to your liking, maybe this modern day procession is. There are any number of YouTubes up, but I particularly like the 'mourners' in this one. It took place in Sitges, which is on the coast near Barcelona.


Saturday, June 8, 2013


Hugo, a sometime commenter here, asked a while ago whether instead of just posing conundrums I might explore the word itself. I thought it was a good idea, and, more importantly to the state of my life over the last six weeks or so, easy to resolve. Some kind of typical Latin to Old French to Anglo French route, most likely.

But it proved more complicated than that. In fact, I haven't had time to do justice to the task--until now.

Scene of one of the most famous conundrums of all*.

First off, let's define the word a little. There turn out to be two meanings. One is the one that most of us are familiar with--"a paradoxical, difficult or insoluble problem," according to the FreeDictionary. But the second meaning is a little more specific--a riddle that is answered by a pun. Or, as one commenter over on Wikipedia has it, "a riddle whose answer also turns out to be a riddle." Wikipedia also has this definition of riddles (although I actually found it on an interesting and very punny thread on Metafilter):

"A riddle is a statement or question or phrase having a double or veiled meaning, put forth as a puzzle to be solved. Riddles are of two types: enigmas, which are problems generally expressed in metaphorical or allegorical language that require ingenuity and careful thinking for their solution, and conundrums, which are questions relying for their effects on punning in either the question or the answer."

As for its origins. Well. The Online Etymology Dictionary sides with most other sources in saying that it is first seen in print in 1590 out of Oxford University and was slang for pedant but also whim. It gradually acquired the meaning of riddle or puzzle, but doesn't show up in print in this form till 1790. It took many forms before solidifying into the word we know now:conibrum, conuncrum, quonumdrum, connunder... and so on. The Online Etymology has an uncharacteristically pointed comment: "The sort of ponderous pseudo-Latin word that was once the height of humor in learned circles."

Yes--too bad those days are past...

But I promised a mention of my favorite etymologist soon, and here it is. Anatoly Liberman has a long article on Conundrum: a Cold Spoor Warmed Up, where he perhaps despairs a little of the type of quest involved here, in which all roads lead to the Oxford English Dictionary, which tells us only that "the origin is lost". 

"It may therefore be worthwhile to glance at the state of the art, the more so because our chase for the answer will not necessarily end in a confession of ignorance."

(Although, ironically and unbeknownst to him, it does--this one.)

I should have known from my own searching that that "-um" ending doesn't necessarily make it Latin.  In fact, I looked into the very word he mentions--tantrum--some time ago.

Liberman reminds us, too, that just  that this "rootless neologism" only appears at the end of the 16th century, that doesn't mean it doesn't go back a lot further.

"At that time, rather many words made it to the Standard from dialects (first to London slang and then to the language of the educated class)." He goes on to remind us that 'A word’s earliest recorded meaning and a word’s initial meaning are not synonyms; in our documentation, a great deal depends on chance. Conundrum “whim” and “pun; puzzle; quibble” may have coexisted from the start.' " 

Check out his article. You will find a survey of many ingenious etymologies--most of them necessarily wrong.

And there you have it. Oh, and if you like the idea of solving conundrums, both the punny kind and the puzzle kind, here is list of some increasing order of difficulty.

 *Why is a raven like a writing desk? 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


Photo by Gord McKenna

Yeah, no trick questions here--I just happened to pay more attention to the word recently and wondered what the whole idea behind it was. I have a feeling that having time to wonder  about whether things are fun or not is a relatively recent human development, although on the other hand I think fun itself has probably been with us for a long time. But what is it?


I'm always surprised when a simple English word that we all know, use (and can probably even spell in this case) proves elusive. "Fun" turns out to be a bit in that frustrating "origins unknown" category. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, its sense of "diversion" or "amusement" comes second. First off, it meant  a trick or hoax. The  noun came from the verb form, which meant to cheat or hoax, and preceded the milder meaning of the noun by a good bit. Before that, though, it all gets a bit hazy. Some think it comes from the Middle English fonnen, to befool. "Fond" is apparently related. But no one really knows.

There are a few fun things about "fun", though. For one thing, it doesn't really have a true correlate in other languages. Or so says Darius Kazemi, over on his blog, Tiny Subversions. I was thinking the same thing--how do you really translate the word?

Says Kazemi:

Did you know that the word “fun” is unique to the English language? In other languages, the word they use in similar circumstances translates to “diversion,” “amusement,” or something similar, but there is no word meaning exactly “fun.” (The etymology of the word goes back to Middle English, where we lose the trail.)
We don’t really precisely know what fun is: it seems to be a chimera consisting of many different emotions. So it’s disingenuous to say that a game is or isn’t some degree of fun. That said, fun still exists as a concept, whether we like it or not.    

Kazemi also recommends the book A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster, which I might just have to check out sometime.

Personally, I don't really think fun has much to do with fond. It does have a relation to funny, of course, and funny has a connection to that older meaning of hoax, as in the phrase "something feels funny about this to me." Is it possible that funny, as in odd, actually has a connection to the word phony?

Whatever else, though, etymologists do seem to have a lot of fun. Regular readers here will be familiar with the dry humor of Anatoly Liberman, and if not, I should be writing about him soon. If you look at etymological sources at all regularly, you will soon run across the attribution "Skeat", but it was not till now that I actually came across the actual irascible voice of the  man. This entry in Notes and Queries comes from the volume dated July to December, 1880.

It's fun.

The “etymology ” of fun from A.-S. feán (not fean) is too ridiculous to be worth “powder and shot”; one wonders who could ever have proposed it. It is new to me, but welcome as an addition to my list of curiosities. Fun can hardly be from Old French, or there would be some trace of it in Old English. I should like to see an example of fun as a substantive earlier than 1700. Spenser's fon is not an adj., but a sb., and means a fool, just as Chaucer's fonne does. We do indeed find fonly as an adverb, Shep. KaL, “ May,” 58 ; but it is either a printer's error for fondly, as we may charitably hope, or one of Spenser's own (very numerous) errors in attempting to deal with archaic English, with which his acquaintance was, from a scholarly point of view, very meagre indeed. The relation of fond to fon is well known, and given in my Etym. Dictionary; both words are Scandinavian, not French at all. The relation of fun to fon is not clear. There is a verb to fun, to cheat, clearly from the Scandinavian; but the common sb. fun in the sense of joviality is, as I have said already, best explained by the Irish and Gaelic fonn, pleasure. I suspect it was imported from Ireland in the days of Swift, but further illustration of the history of the word is much desired.
                                                                                                         Walter W. Skeat