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Archive for the ‘semantics’ Category

Ever one for checking the etymological pulse of the world of pop culture, the word planking has caught my eye by exploding onto the media scene as the latest dangerous craze/fad/gene-pool-thinner. The act itself involves laying face down, like a plank or wood, in weird and/or unusual places, and then taking a picture to be shared across the internet. That’s it!

Planking

Get you plank on!

Now, like all stupid and pointless activities, the reason for it being catapulted into the collective consciousness is that someone has died, and nothing excites the media like Death, except Sex, and if you can link the two, you’re pretty much guaranteed a slot on Fox News. Curiously, many of the news reports refer to the dead man, Australian Acton Beale, as a “victim” of planking, which is an interesting metaphor to use considering that his death was caused by his own recklessness and not some wicked, third-party agent. Of course, one of the first steps to demonizing something is to turn it into a living thing by the metaphorical process of objectification. It also confers onto planking the status of an illness or disease, and therefore reinforcing that it’s a “bad thing.” Ah, how quickly our use of language can shape our perceptions of the world!

Still, if you must do it – and the 100,000 members of the newly swollen Facebook page, Official Planking apparently are at least considering it – there are some rules on how to plank safely:

1. You must always lay face down, ensuring your face remains expressionless for the duration of the Plank.
2. Your legs must remain straight, and together with toes pointed.
3. Your arms must be placed by your side, held straight and fingers pointed.
4. You must make it known that you are Planking. Saying “I am Planking” usually get this across. Sternly announcing it will ensure a good result.
5. Your safety should always be considered. Properly thought through Planking procedures should always go to plan. Never put your self at undue risk.
6. Every Plank that is captured must be named.

Notice that planking is crossing word-class boundaries. In the phrase “I am planking” it is taking on verb characteristics, whereas in “…Planking procedures” is is more adjectival, describing the type of “procedures.” But in the shock headlines where planking is used to refer directly to the activity, it is used as a verbal noun, or what we oldies prefer to call a gerund, if only because the word gerund sounds much more fun, cute, and cuddly than the more clinical, academic verbal noun. On the other hand, the rules above also refer to “the duration of the Plank,” so we now have the word “plank” without the -ing being used as a noun too!

What we need to watch for are references to someone who “planked himself to death” or perhaps “he planks regularly,” where the use of the -ed and -s suffixes establish the verbiness of plank meaning “to lie like a plank in an odd place.” Oh wait, the T-shirt is already here…!

planking T-shirt

"I planked" T-shirt

Planking previously had to significant meanings. The first is to refer simply to a collection of planks;

Planks collectively; the planks of a structure; plank-work. Also: a layer or surface made of planks, spec. one forming the outer shell or inner lining of a ship’s hull. (OED)

So you might say something like “I fell through the rotten, loose planking through to the deck below. Or you might just decide to fix the deck.

Another use is in the gerundial form as the “action of providing or covering something with planks,” such as in the sentence “When the planking was completed, he had the laborious job of caulking to do.”

In the US, planking is also the name given to a form of cooking that involves nailing fish or meat to a slab of wood:

Planking‥involves nailing the fish to thick oak boards coated with shortening, propping those boards on racks around a bonfire of logs‥, continually basting with the secret sauce‥and waiting for five hours in the middle of the night until the smoke has thoroughly roasted hundreds of pounds of shad. (Washington Post, 10th June, 2004).

Planking meat

Planking on the grill

Going back to the day when people wore hats other than backward-facing baseball caps, planking described the process of shaping and hardening a hat on a plan;

Planking,‥the felting of hat bodies by rolling them on a plank, and frequently immersing them in acidulated water. (OED)

Finally, an even more obscure meaning is “the action of levelling land by drawing a plank across it,” which sounds rather similar to the process by which folks who create crop circles work but in a much more artistic fashion.

Using planks to create crop circles

Planking crop circles

The word plank appears in Middle English as plakys, planak, planc, and a host of others. It came to the language via Anglo-Norman and Old French roots, and can be traced to be a variant of the Old French planche meaning “little wooden bridge.” Going back a little further , classical Latin has the word planca for “board, plank, or slab.” It’s the notion of stiff, wooden, and slab-like that has lead to the word planking taking on its new connotation.

At the time of writing (19th May, 2011) this definition of the words is so new that even the usually current Urban Dictionary has an older meaning;

When one individual proceeds to lie naked, face to face, on top of another person, in a rigid horizontal state.

Of course, I have taken the opportunity to submit my own entry and I’ll post the results of this in the future. Meanwhile, stay sensible and always practice safe planking.

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A couple of nights ago I was watching the classic movie The Silence of the Lambs, during which there is an appearance by a moth. Specifically, it’s the Death’s-head Hawkmoth or Acherontia lachesis. For the entomologist, the fascinating feature of this moth is that on its thorax is a marking that looks like a skull.

Death's-head moth

Acherontia lachesis

Skull on moth thorax

The skull

For the etymologist, the fascination is with the origin of the name. Or names. The first part, acherontia, comes from Greek mythology and the river Acheron, which is found in Hades and is a branch of the Styx. The second element, lachesis, also derives from mythology and the three Fates; Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Clotho would spin the thread of Life, Lachesis would measure it, and Atropos would choose the mode of a person’s death and then cut the thread. This deathly connection is also found in the two other species of moth – Acherontia styx and Acherontia atropos.

But what caught my attention were two jobs mentioned in the end credits. The first was “Moth Wrangler” and the second was “Assistant Moth Wrangler.” Wranglers for moths? How much wrangling does a moth take? As far as I was concerned, a wrangler in the US was someone who rounded up cattle or horses, occasionally swirling a lasso to subjugate an unruly animal. So the inevitable image I had was of cowboys chasing down moths and trying to snag them with ropes.

Ah, but times have moved on since the days of the Wild West. According to the New Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition) the original US definition was “a person in charge of horses or other livestock on a ranch” but that has since extended to include “a person who trains and takes care of the animals used in a movie.”

In the 1982 movie Creepshow, there is a “Roach Wrangler” credited, and in 1984’s Hollywood Hot Tubs there’s a “Rat Wrangler.” Patti Rocks (1989) has a “Skunk Wrangler,” Look Who’s Talking Too (1990)  includes a “Sperm Wrangler,” and James and the Giant Peach (1996) has a “Spider Wrangler.” OK, so maybe the sperm wrangler is a little tongue in cheek, but you get the drift of how the word has shifted to encompass much more than just horse management.

So where did the wrangler come from in the first place?

As a verb, the OED has it popping up in 1377 in Piers Plowman;

There as wratthe and wranglyng is þere wynne þei siluer

At this point, it is defined as meaning;

To dispute angrily; to argue noisily or vehemently; to altercate, contend; to bicker.

The word appears to comes from Low German wrangen meaning to struggle, to wrestle, or just to make an uproar.

It appears as a noun in 1520in the sentence;

Many one… ageynst Lawe and Reason somtyme wyll stryue and… be full of questyons, wherfore they be takyn for wrangelers and euyll people.

By this time, the noun was being used to refer to a person who engages in angry dispute or quarreling.  Then, in the mid-1800’s, it took on another very specific meaning to refer to a student at England’s Cambridge University who was place in the first-class of the mathematical tripos – a set of exams for a degree.

The sense of someone who is in charge of horses on a stock farm – or even a herder in general – is first seen in the US in 1888 in an article for the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine; “There are two herders, always known as ‘horse-wranglers’—one for the day and one for the night.” But in what sense does this notion of “wrangling” have anything to do with the original wrangler? The notion of a wrangler taking on a problem working through it has some resonance but it seems a little stretched.

wrangler

Wrangler

Some sources, such as the Merriam-Webster dictionary suggest that the word is a corruption of the Mexican Spanish word caballerango, a groomsman or ranch hand. The first part of the word, caballer, clearly comes from caballo, the Spanish for “horse.” The second part, rango, means either “range” or “rank,” the latter being the operative one here, with the cabellerango being “the ranking horseman” or “master of the horses.” The cowboys then shortened the word to wrangler based on the sound similarity between “rango” and “wrangler.”

Poster for Rango the movie

Rango

Which brings us to Johnny Depp and his new animated movie, “Rango.” Depp is the voice for a chameleon who becomes the sheriff of a western town. Although I have so far not been able to find any comments on the choice of the name, I have to think that it’s not too much of a stretch to see it as a contraction of caballerango, especially since Rango is (a) a cowboy and (b) the boss or ranking official. Tragically, I don’t have the clout to directly ask either Depp or the film’s director, Gore Verbinski, whether my interpretation has any truth. Still, even if it doesn’t you have to admit it would make a pretty decent urban legend!

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Sometimes you have to admire the entrepreneurial spirit, especially when it comes to marketing by leveraging people’s fascination with the celebrity and prurience. Enter the London-based company Crown Jewels, which has released a boxed set of condoms to celebrate the up-coming wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Crown Jewels condoms

The Crown Jewels

Tastefully presented in a royal blue color, the “Condoms of Distinction” are currently marketed on the company’s website with the tag line, “Like a Royal Wedding, intercourse with a loved one is an unforgettable occasion.”  The tongue-in-cheek marketing is so wonderfully flowery that it’s well worth quoting at length the company’s take on “The Gentleman’s Condom”:

Founded in London, England’s historic capital, Crown Jewels Condoms of Distinction is the proud purveyor of an exclusive range of heritage love sheaths.

England boasts some of the finest lovemaking in the world, with a tradition of coitus going back generations.

Honouring this history, Crown Jewels Condoms of Distinction is dedicated to furnishing the best English prophylactics to discerning clientele across the world.

Using only the finest lubricatory preparation and with each condom individually wrapped for your pleasure and convenience, Crown Jewels is the first choice of gentlemen and ladies who demand excellence without compromise.

The word condom appears in the 18th century in a poem by John Hamilton, a Scottish . Entitled A Scottish Answer to British Vision, (1706) Hamilton includes the sentence;

Then Sirenge and Condum Come both in Request.

The actual device has been around for much longer that. It has been suggested that the Ancient Egyptians used some sort of sheath but it rather uncertain. There is evidence that upper-class Egyptian women used crocodile dung pessaries and irrigated the
vagina with honey and sodium bicarbonate but no evidence for condoms.[1]

The first recorded evidence for the modern condom comes from Italian anatomist Gabriello Fallopio in 1564.  He claimed to have invented a linen sheath that was made to fit the glans and which was worn for protection against syphilis. He wrote that he tried it on 1100 men and not one of them became infected.

The word’s origin is still uncertain. One theory is that it was named after an 18th century doctor called Dr. Condom, but up until now, neither etymologist nor historians have found the elusive clinician.

Zacharias Thundy[2] (1985) favors the word being derived from the Latin morphemes con meaning “with” and doma meaning “roof” or “dome.” Thundy suggests that “the harmless word served as a euphemism – an indirect, inoffensive, and tasteful word – for
the contraceptive device.” He also argues that the use of the concept of a “dome” or “building” that provides protection is semantically appropriate.

Logical as it sounds, it doesn’t quite float my boat because the semantic link seems too tenuous. In her 2007 book, The Humble Little Condom, Aine Collier proposes that the word is a corruption of cumdum, which means “scabbard” or “sheath.” This seems much more semantically close to the function of a condom – certainly more than the “house” metaphor. And the mental effort to imagine a condom as a sheath is not that much.

Another contender is the Italian words guantone, derived from guanto = glove. This also has a certain credibility with the glove metaphor seeming quite logical. There’s also some phonetic similarity, which at least adds to guantone as being a serious contender.

So although the real origin of condom is shrouded in mystery, one thing we do know is that there are many euphemisms for the humble French letter (a UK label). Let’s list a few:

Rubber, raincoat, love glove, jock jacket, willy wrap, flesh fedora, jimmy hat, Trojan®, Durex®, wand wallet, and the burrito pancho!

Oh, and one last tip for English learners: In the UK, an eraser is often called a “rubber.” In the US, a condom is often called a “rubber.” Intriguingly, you have to be very careful on trips between the US and the UK, because walking into a US store and asking for a rubber is likely to end up in an embarrassing situation!

References
[1] Youssef, H. (1998). The history of the condom. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 86, 226-228.
[2] Thundy, Z.P. (1985). The Etymology of Condom. American Speech, 60, 177-179.

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The recent shooting incident in Tucson, Arizona, has sparked off debate on the nature of political rhetoric and to what extent it may or may not have influenced the shooter, Jared Loughner. More specifically, discussions have centered on the current perceived trend for popular politicians to use metaphors such as “targeting the opposition,” “taking back the country,” “locking and loading,” and even “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Although the latter was originally attributed to Thomas Jefferson, the issue under fire is whether this type of language can actually encourage people to take violent action.

It’s worth taking a look at the words rhetoric and metaphor just to clear up any confusion between them. The OED defines rhetoric as;

The art of using language effectively so as to persuade or influence others, esp. the exploitation of figures of speech and other compositional techniques to this end; the study of principles and rules to be followed by a speaker or writer striving for eloquence, esp. as formulated by ancient Greek and Roman writers.

Rhetoric can be traced back to classical Latin rhētoricē and refers to the art of oratory and public speaking. Further back, the Greek word is ῥητορική, which in turn can be traced to a “rhetor,” one who teaches rhetoric, with the ultimate derivation coming from Attic Greek ἐρῶ) meaning “I shall say.”

On the other hand, metaphor is one of those “figures of speech” that the definition mentions, and turning back to the OED we find the definition as follows:

A figure of speech in which a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable.

Like rhetoric, the word can be traced back via the Latin metaphora to the Greek μεταϕορά that comes from the prefix “meta-” meaning “change or transformation” followed by ϕορά, a form of the verb ϕέρειν, which means “to bear or carry.” So the word literally means something along the lines of “carrying a change.”

So when a politicians and pundits talk about “having their opponents in their crosshairs” or “taking out the opposition,” they are not literally pointing a sniper rifle or shooting someone – they are using a metaphor. And it is the current prevalence – actual or perceived – of this type of hunting metaphor that is being debated.

In the realm of sexual conquests, metaphors involving sports are more prominent. “Getting to first base,” “I’d hit that,” or “I scored last night” are clearly embedded in the sporting arena, and the underlying notion here is that sex is a game on some level or another.

In business, metaphors abound as each management guru seeks to find his or her own unique spin, typically with the aim of selling books, training programs, and raking in obscene amounts of money for personal presentations to the gullible business community.

Recent articles have questioned whether or not the Internet has killed the art of rhetoric. One such article in The Economist’s Johnson blog suggested that sloganeering has trumped rhetoric as the regular mode of discourse in the political arena. My own response was to doubt that the general level of intellectual discourse has ever been as high as it has been imagined to be.

“The Internet hasn’t so much killed rhetoric as amplify the lack of rhetoric that has always been a part of common discourse. And by “common discourse” I mean the level of argument that goes on in an average pub along with a couple of drinks.

“Rhetoric as an art or a skill has, I suggest, never been something the masses have either used or learned, but been restricted to the chattering classes. Simply sit at a bar for 10 minutes and listen to the discussions going on around you and it becomes apparent that the “strength” of an argument seems to depend on factors such as volume (he who shouts loudest is right); personal experience (“My dad smoked until he was 105 so how can it be dangerous?”); TV truthiness (“It was on the Jon Stewart show so it has to be real”); and Internet validity (“All the proof to show that Bush and the Jews caused 911 is open for all to see on the net. Just google it!”)

“Any assumed decline in the standard of rhetoric is predicated on the notion that there was previously a high standard from which to fall. I’m suggesting that the bar was pretty low in the first place. The problem of the Internet is that it (a) acts as a repository for so-called “facts” that are not facts, which in turn form the basis for arguments, and (b) provides a level playing field for all commentators regardless of how valid, accurate, well-researched, or even logical their comments are. A post by an expert such as John McWhorter is as easy to find on the net as one by Joe the Plumber, whose knowledge on a particular subject may be based on a cut-and-paste from Wikipedia, fueled by a passion to be heard.

“And there are far more Joe the Plumbers posting to blogs than John McWhorters.”

The Internet itself cannot be “good” or “bad.” What can be “good” and “bad” is content, and there is no magically algorithm that trawls the web checking whether facts are right or wrong. And pre-Internet, being the local one-man conspiracy theorist resulted in a lonely life and possible ridicule, but post-Internet, there is now “safety in numbers” and the one lunatic can now become a feted sage amongst the thousands of no-longer isolated crackpots and weirdos that use the web as a magnifying glass to make their own “truths” seem that much larger.

To paraphrase; when one loony thinks the world will end, he’s mentally ill; when thousands create a website, it’s a tenable hypothesis!

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One of my favorite pieces of technology is the Delphi MyFi portable satellite radio. My wife bought it for me some six years ago and I consider the $12 per month I pay for the service to be money extremely well spent. I have it mounted in my car so I listen to it on a daily basis, which is why it turns out to have been such great value.

 

MyFi satellite radio

 

When I think about it, I’ve been a regular radio listener for many years. I can remember as a kid hiding under the bed covers late at night with a small transistor radio and an even smaller earplug listening to such subversive stations as Radio Luxembourg and Radio Caroline, the latter broadcasting illegally from a ship moored of the south-east of England. Even earlier, I recall – albeit vaguely – listening to my grandma’s old valve radio that had short wave, spending hours twiddling with the huge dial to tune in to hissing, distant crackly voices and martial music. At college, I had a portable radio that also included short wave reception, and when I got my first job that involved travelling, I bought a Grundig World Traveler and which became a constant companion.

 

Bush valve radio

 

So it’s not surprising that although the technology has changed from short waves to satellite signals, I still tune in to the BBC World Service to keep abreast of things that are happening globally. Sure, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox dominate the TV but radio reporting is a qualitatively different thing altogether. This is why two days ago I found myself tuning in to XM 131 for an eclectic selection of programming, and stumbling across the first in a series of documentary programs entitled Blind Man Roams the Globe.

The premise is that Peter White, a blind broadcaster, takes listeners on his trips across the world in such as way as to experience how he “sees” it – by listening. In the first episode, he goes to San Francisco accompanied, not unlike myself, by a pocket radio. What caught my ears was his description of this process:

“All I need when I’m traveling is my little tranny.”

Now, considering he’s in San Francisco, my unashamedly wicked sense of humor couldn’t avoid wondering what would happen if Peter were to go shopping to replace his radio and ask someone where he could find himself “a cheap little tranny.”

The word tranny appeared in the late 60’s as an abbreviation for the then-new transistor radios. The process of cutting off the end of a word is called apocope (pronounced a-PO-cuh-pih) and is a common phenomenon. Transistor itself is a blend of transfer and resistor, which describes the basic physics of the device. Once the transistor radio had become a popular consumer item, it was somewhat inevitable that it would take on some sort of colloquial diminutive, just as the television set became the telly in the UK and TV in the US. From the 70’s on, tranny became the popular name for the radio.

It wasn’t until the 1980’s that the same word became slang for a transvestite, but it is the same process of lopping off the end that underlies its origin. Compare this with the late 70’s meaning of tranny as being a photographic transparency.

We therefore have the following list that summarizes the relatively sudden development of three meanings for one slang term:

  • 1969: tranny – shortened form of transistor radio
  • 1979: tranny – shortened form of photographic transparency
  • 1983: tranny – shortened version of transvestite

The tran- element is a Latin prefix meaning “across,” with all of the abbreviated words deriving from this root but adding different endings. Transfer ends with Latin ferre = to bear or carry; transparency ends with Latin parere = to appear or become visible; and transvestite ends with Latin vestire = to clothe.

The written form trannie will also be found for the different meanings of the word but seems to be more often used for transvestites and not radios.

Oh, and in a politically incorrect coincidence, the show was still running as I reached my office and turned off the engine, only to reach over and pick up a box of tissues with the brand name of Puffs®. There’s a whole Coen brothers comedy waiting to be written around a blind man in San Francisco asking “Where can I find a cheap little tranny and some Puffs®?”

Hey, I don’t invent the connotations, I just analyze them!

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So the big news in the blogosphere over the past few days has been the mysterious deaths of thousands of birds in Arkansas. The headline Dead Birds Fall From The Sky makes you want to say, “Well, what else would they do?” Estimates of precisely how many have shuffled off their mortal coils seem to run from about 1000 to 5000 and all points in-between. Until some hapless bugger has to go round collecting and tagging the fallen fledglings it seems we have to rely on eye-witness estimates from people who are typically not used to estimating what constitutes a “dead flock.”

But just like a London omnibus, you wait for years to see a road strewn with avian carcasses and then along comes two at once! With the Arkansas avians not yet counted, another 500 birds have been found dead in Louisiana, close to the False River Regional Airport. Really? Close to airplanes? You mean those large, 3000 ton pieces of metal that fly hundreds of miles per hour, causing huge wakes that can suck up, say, birds? Well no shit, Sherlock!

The Arkansas victims appear to have suffered severe trauma, according to specialists, which resulted in internal bleeding and ultimately death. Non-specialists – that is, conspiracy theorists, religious nutcases, paranoid schizophrenics armed with a blog site, and Fox News viewers – prefer to accept the evidence of their own minds and opt for the culprits being any one of the following; God, Mayans, UFOs, Men in Black, government secret testing, phosgene gas, or the magneto-acoustic-gravity-wavelet weapon.

The one word that crops up in almost all the versions of this story is mystery. And the cause of the birds’ deaths is currently as mysterious as the time at which the next bus will arrive. Both are, as the OED explains, “something inexplicable or beyond human comprehension.”

Curiously, some people take that notion of being “inexplicable” as carte-blanche for making up an explanation that is even more inexplicable than the original event! For them, the notion that, for example, the birds were caught in high velocity storm winds seems so improbable that they prefer to accept that they ran into an invisible UFO. Actually, those folks tend to make it sound more scientific by using the word “cloaked” to describe the UFO, and then go on to use a glut of pseudo-scientific babble to “explain” how cloaking works. And hey, if it works for the Klingon Birds of Prey spaceships, it must be true.

In Ancient Greece, the word μυστήριον is used to describe secret religious ceremonies, the most famous of which is probably those held at Eleusis, some 15 miles northwest of Athens, in honor of the goddess Demeter. Demeter was associated with fertility and harvest, so the Eleusinian Mysteries seem to have been aimed at ensuring that farmers would have a good growing season.

Many years after the mysteries of Ancient Greece  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began writing about the mysteries of Sherlock Holmes. In the Sign of Four, Holmes says, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” For solving mysteries, this would seem to be a very useful rule of thumb. Unfortunately, conspiracy theorists have reworked this along the lines of, “when you have eliminates the improbable, whatever remains, no matter how impossible, must be the truth.” So in the current bird-death mystery, one theory put forward was that the birds had been damaged during a New Year’s firework display, which is at least a testable hypothesis. However, because it seems very improbable that 5000 birds could be affected by a few fireworks, lots of commentators have eliminated the improbable and taken this as proof for God, Mayans, UFOs, Men in Black, government secret testing, phosgene gas, and the magneto-acoustic-gravity-wavelet weapon.

It is, of course, probable that no answer will be found. Mysteries happen every day and it’s only because of the way in which the global media can act as a focusing lens for a single incident that we hear about them. Out of the billions of slices of toast made in a month, what are the chances that ONE of them might have a burn pattern that looks a little like the virgin Mary? And if just ONE person gets a picture of this, how easy is it to post this to the world?

Doubtless in a week or so, there will be an official response that provides a reasonable theory as to why, like the ball in Times Square, the birds dropped over the New Year. But equally, those who have already made their minds up will find ways to ignore it and shore up their present erroneous theory. After all, if everybody loves a mystery, then no-one will like a spoil-sport who ruins it.

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Instead of tripping the light fantastic and celebrating the new year with lots of hootin’ and a hollerin’ I was baby sitting my grandson, which is actually quite entertaining as he’s 16-months-old and learning to talk. Once he was in bed, my wife decided to watch “Troy,” possibly because she hasn’t read The Iliad and wanted to learn more about classical history, or perhaps because of the combination of Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom, Sean Bean, and Eric Bana.

In the movie, the Greeks build the famous “Trojan Horse” that was used to hide a bunch of Greeks who, once the horse had been taken inside the walls of Troy, snuck out and opened the gates to allow the rest of the Greek army to conquer the city.

The notion of the Trojan Horse has been used for many year by computer programmers to describe a piece of malicious software that appears safe but contains viral, destructive code. The modern-day Troy – your computer – opens its gates -firewall – and let’s in the Greeks. Or geeks.

The original text for Homer called this the Δούρειος Ἵππος, or “Wooden Horse,” and not a “Trojan Horse.” The first mention in English for the Trojan adjective appears to be in 1574 in a treatise by a Roman Catholic priest called Richard Bristow.

What niggles me is whether it really should be called a “Trojan Horse” because it was quite clearly a “Greek Horse.” It was built by Greeks, manned by Greeks, and offered by Greeks to the Trojans ostensibly as a peace offering. The fact that the Trojans took it into Troy is hardly justification to switch the adjective.

Yorkshire pudding

Proper adjectives that indicate where a noun comes from usually refer to the origin not the destination. After all, when you ship a Yorkshire pudding to your friend in the bordering county of Lancashire, it doesn’t magically become a Lancashire pudding – in the same way your Lancashire hotpot doesn’t become a Yorkshire one post transit.

Lancashire hotpot

Technically, therefore, talking about a “Greek Horse” to describe “…a person or thing intended secretly to undermine or bring about the downfall of an enemy or opponent” is accurate, but seeing as the phrase has been around for almost 500 years, I’m not confident it’s going to change.

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It’s Road Trip time once again and your sun-loving Word Guy has gone north to Chicago. Although I try to ensure all my trips are to areas warmer than Cleveland, inevitably I have to “take one for the team” and go from cold to colder. So in lieu of my regular ramble around a specific word, I’m breaking into an older article that looks at how many times you can put the same word consecutively in a sentence.

So how often have you found yourself in a situation where you’re writing a letter or article and as you review it, you see you’ve written the same word twice? If you use a word processor, a good one will pick this up and highlight it for you. But how often is it actually correct to use multiple instances of a word?

Over one particular weekend, my daughter and I were deciding on when to go to the movies. She said she wanted to go to the late show, to which I responded, “Do you want to go to the early late show or the late late show?” For a few moments, we looked at each other wondering if there was anything wrong with either the notion of an “early late” show or even the double-barreled “late late” show. “It’s OK,” I said, “to have ‘early late’ and ‘late late’ so long as we understand that ‘late show’ is actually a single noun meaning ‘a showing that is held in the evening at some indeterminate time, but such that it would not be considered early.’”

Before you stop reading, I should explain that yes, we do talk like that, especially when we’re having breakfast and just “chillin’” or “shooting the breeze” – though how you can shoot a gentle waft of air is probably best left for a future column. The more ridiculous the topic, the more we talk.

“Of course,” I continued, “If the late show in question were no longer in existence, we could have the sentence ‘We used to go to the late late late show,’ because this new use of ‘late’ refers to something now passed on.” This triple play of “lates” got us to thinking about how many such words you could get into a sentence legitimately. Examples such as “Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes!” as said by an excited child who’s just been asked if he wants a trip to Disney or a free bucket of ice cream would be excluded. The sentence has to be coherent and valid.

So we moved on to the notion of a city having a “down town” area. If that area had a region that was depressed and unappealing, you could use the word “down” (as in “I’m feeling a little down today”) as a descriptor. You can thus have a “down down town.” Then, if that city were built on a slope – Seattle, for example – you could conceivably have a physically higher area described as the “up down down town” and a correspondingly lower region called the “down down down town.” Finally, you could use the word “down” again to describe the action of going somewhere, forming the sentence “Let’s go down down down down town.”

At that point, we were finding it hard to keep up with ourselves, and as I was writing this article, my word processor was having a real hard time with so many multiples of the same word, drawing many red lines under them screaming “Stop it, that’s not allowed!”

This is not the longest word run of which I am aware. Stephen Pinker, in his book The Language Instinct, gives the following example: “The Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.” Frankly, if you can work this one out, you’re way too smart to be reading this column! But if you can’t, let me know and I’ll send you the reference.

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Next time you receive a piece of spam from someone offering you drugs, sex, enhancement, or Nigerian dollars, take a look at the bottom to see if you have any hash buster text. This is a collection of random words that can range from the purely random to the curiously poetic. For example, take the following snippet from one I received just a few weeks back:

“Certainty idealistic attain procedural mount unscripted bodies friend threat then falsified claret timebrand certainty wraiths occurs species waste youthful demandeth massacre silences predicts readers integrated gather hung traffic millennia foolishly strives dogmatism noosphere rail goal equalized”

With a little help by some judicious punctuation, we can extract wonderful phrases that wouldn’t be out of place in a poety competition. “Mount unscripted bodies,” “Threat, then falsified claret,” “Silences predicts readers,” and “”Millenia foolishly strives.”

These words are generated by spamming software to confuse spam-detecting software. There’s a war going on between programs and we humans don’t even need to take part – we can just sit back and watch it happen!

The term hash buster comes from the way in which some spam detectors work. One form of detection os to use what are called hash filters – a way of counting letters and words and compatring them with previously received spam. By adding lots of strange words, the spammer hope to fool hash filters into saying “aha, you are NOT like the other 10 spam messages so you must be legitimate!” So the garbage words serve to “bust the hash filter.”

It’s fascinating to me that the words spam and hash both have food connotations and both are used to indicate e-mail excess! Spam comes from an old comedy sketch in the BBC series Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It is NOT, as folk etymology has it, an acronym for “stupid, pointless, annoying messages” or any other such derivation.

Hash comes from the Old French, hacher, and as a verb it means to cut up into pieces (c.f. hatchet) and so as a noun it refers to something cut p into small bits – like a corned beef hash. The notion of cutting up or slashing is where the notion of calling the symbol “#” the hash mark. The lines are intersecting lines. In a hash filter, programmers use the actual hash sign as a character in coding to represent a wild character.

Hash character

Hash character

You can also take about a service hash, military markings to indicate years of service. Again, the common theme is the use of lines.

Service hash

Service hash

And hash is also slang for hashish, which has a completely different derivation. This word comes from the Arabic hashish, which means dry herb or the dry leaves of the hemp plant.

Hashish

Hashish

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