Posted Without Further Comment

Na ja?


The Imize-day of Ig-pay Atin-lay?

How many of you read that aloud and smiled? Congrats, you’re “of a certain age.” Very few of the younger set speak Ig-pay Atin-lay, or at least will admit to speaking it.

When I was growing up, hink-pinks and ig-pay Atin-lay were common in grade school and still used by the time we got to high school. And yes, a few jokers tried to use Pig Latin on actual Latin class exams or worksheets, meaning you got lunked-fay. Pig Latin, or “hog Latin” as it was apparently referred to first, back in the mid to late-1800s, was a schoolyard argot. The name is a corruption of “dog Latin” which is the Latin used in spells at Hogworts, and by people who are deliberately making Latin jokes or abusing the language. Dog rhymes with hog (very common English pattern), thence to pig.

An argot, or cant, is an insiders dialect. Adults rarely use it with kids. Kids use it with each other, or used to. A few terms slid into common usage, or what was once common usage – Ixnay, meaning “no way” and “amscray,” go away, preferably right quick pronto.

I’d like to blame the internet for the apparent demise of Pig Latin, but I suspect it will return. Kids will always seek ways to talk without grown-ups following along, and adults will use something to keep kids or pets from knowing. Athena, before she lost her hearing, recognized “bath” and the name of her groomer. We went to “spa” or “appointment” or just pointing to the calendar and tipping the head toward the cat, eyebrows raised.

If Only English Were Fonetik . . .

but it’s not.

I could not figure out why spell checker kept flagging “tournaquit.” That’s because it is “tourniquet.” Around here, instead of an “i” sound in the second syllable, we say more of a “uh” sound, sort of a schwa e. Since I spell by ear, I get red flagged every time I try to write the word as pronounced.

Part of the problem is my limited available memory. By the time I load 1) the idea, 2) the words, 3) grammar, 4) how to hold the pen and write, or type, I’ve run out of active memory. Something has to go. So I never learned to apply spelling to writing. To complicate life, I learned spelling and basic grammar during the phonetics craze in the late 1970s-early 1980s, when you were supposed to learn the letters in words that went with the phonics codes, like the upside-down e for the terminal “uh” sound and so on. Some I remember, the sound codes that is. The rest? Did not help me at all. I ended up writing like someone from the latter 1500s-mid 1600s, that is to say, partly phonetically.

I have no problem spelling Spanish, German, Latin, or even Hungarian, once I learn letter combinations (like “sz” for “s” in Hungarian.) Grammar, that’s different, but spelling causes me no, keine, 0 problems. Alas that I have to function in English 95% of the time.

Spill chuck is knot my fiend. I know what words should look like, most of the time, ish. But sometimes my “it sounds like” spelling is so mangled by dialect and regional pronunciation that even on-line dictionaries run screaming. OttoCorrupt on the phone? Oh lordy. Once you get past “it’s never duck. Never, ever ‘oh duck’?” Some very odd things have been sent before I could catch the “correction.”

I have the most difficulty with words English borrowed from French. Germanic, Anglo-Saxon, Persian, Russian, or Japanese or Spanish? Far fewer difficulties. So of course English absorbed French with wreckless abandon.

Dictionaries require at least getting close to the proper spelling. Oops.

A Little Too Clear a Comparison

For reasons unknown to any but my hind-brain, I started thinking about metaphors and similes that rural people used to use, and that urban folks might not understand. And a few that need no translation like “We call him Blister because he only shows up after the work’s done.” You might not do manual labor, but you’ve probably crossed paths with that person.

One that stuck in my memory was the phrase, “as cute as a cancer-eyed cow.” Right away you know the speaker is not paying the subject a compliment. Hereford and Hereford-cross cattle are more prone to skin cancer of the face than are darker-colored breeds, so the phrase is used more often when you have a goodly number of white faced cattle. I’d never seen an afflicted cow when I first heard the term. A few years later, I was on the I-40 East frontage road in Amarillo, at a stoplight. A pickup with a livestock trailer pulled up beside me. I glanced over and beheld a Hereford (red and white cow) with a very large and ugly tumor around the left eye. No, not cute at all. There was a large-animal vet nearby, so I presume that’s where the rancher was going.

Another that is very regional is “He lives at 8th and Plum.” Meaning he’s at least eight miles from pave and plumb in the middle of nowhere. I’m not sure anyone now days in the cities says, “I work from can’t see to can’t see,” given how well lit many urban areas are. “Rainin’ like a cow peeing on a flat rock” is another that needs a leeeeetle familiarity with livestock and their habits to make sense of, if you’ve never seen that kind of rain or that kind of, ah, output.

Cabbaging onto a New Leaf

It is one of those phrases I never think about until someone else boggles. I was talking about maps and navigational charts, and observed that I had possessed one for the area under discussion, “but a student cabbaged onto it and I haven’t gotten a current one.” The instructor blinked hard, and observed that my dialect and my accent did not match. And added that he understood the meaning, but had never heard “cabbage” used as a verb.

When I was growing up, at least within the Red family, “to cabbage onto” something was to steal, often by borrowing and somehow never returning it. I never thought about it being somewhat unusual. “Took a cotton to her,” is common in the US South, or was. “Turn over a new leaf,” even though it didn’t refer to plants. But “to cabbage?” Apparently it is a Midwesternism, found in Nebraska and parts of the Dakotas. Now, these are states settled by people who grew and stored and consumed large amounts of cabbage as part of their native cuisines (Germans, Bohemians, Scandinavians, Irish, Poles, Mennonites and Hutterites). So my guess is that cabbage theft was known, and disapproved of, and so “to cabbage” meaning “to steal” became part of the regional dialect. However, the OED says that the oldest usage of cabbage as a synonym for “to steal” goes back to 1793, and England, so who knows.

Cabbage onto. “To take a cotton to” meaning to like, which might come from how sticky short-staple cotton fibers are (they cling to everything because of static). “To tree” means to chase some animal or someone up a tree, literal or otherwise.* English doesn’t seem to have many other instances where a plant is verbed. Perhaps “to tomato” in the sense of to pelt someone with rotten produce, perhaps. I’ve never come across “to turnip,” or “to cucumber.” As metaphors and similes, sure. “Cool as a cucumber,” “red as a beet,” “he’s in a pickle,” which originally referred to the keg, barrel, or vat of brine used to preserve whatever was being pickled.

English is strange.

*”To pine” as a verb goes back a ways, but traces to Latin poena meaning a punishment, not pinus (also Latin) as in the tree.

Terms of Confusion

I was reading an older (1980s) summary history of the German-speaking lands in the Early Modern period, and tripped over terms. What did he mean by Hohenstaufen? It took a bit for me to catch on that it mean the Staufer/Staufen dynasty, rather than the secondary branch of the family. You see, terms change, and I’ve been reading this period (so to speak) in German or with the current terminology, which uses the German. So I tripped.

Usually it is a technical term that causes the “confused puppy head tilt.” Stall is one. Not where horses stay, not a market booth, but when something quits. In the case of what I was immersed in this past weekend (17 hours worth, plus), it means “the moment when airflow over the wing detaches, flow ceases to be laminar, and the wing loses lift.” When most people hear “stall,” they think of what happens when a vehicle’s engine quits (drive into hood deep water, for example, or when the fuel lines become filled with air.) In an airplane, the engine can be turning quite loudly, there may be multiple obnoxious horns going off, an equally obnoxious flight instructor [yo!] saying, “Hold it, hold it, more right rudder, more right rudder,” and so on. In other words, not quiet at all! Or it can be quiet indeed, aside from the obnoxious horn going off. Aerodynamic stall vs. engine stall. Something quit, in both cases, but that’s about the only similar thing. They have rather different remedies.

Part of this is that terms do change over time. When I was first reading about paleo-mammals, the large wild bovine of Europe that lived until the 1700 was an auroch, and many of them were aurochs. Now one is an aurochs, and multiple are aurochsen. It’s a German plural, at least to my eyes. Instead of calling a dynasty Hohenstaufen, we use the preferred (and somewhat clearer) German term Staufen or Staufer. The Welfs are still the Welfs. Were the events of 1642-49 in England a revolution or a civil war? Both terms are used, and both could be considered accurate, depending on the political interpretation of the writer. So you can tell how the historian sees the event by which term is in the book’s title.

And then there’s the greatest technical term laden mass of confusion ever filmed, in my opinion:

Gee, any wonder someone pulls it up whenever there’s a continuing ed session about FAA terminology?

Everyone Knows that the Word Comes From . . . Popular vs. Actual Etymologies

Tucumcari. Karabela. Canadian as in the river name. Where do these come from? “Everyone knows that . . .” doesn’t always match what the language people, or historians, know. Or think they know, because English isn’t the only language to borrow bits and pieces from other tongues. It’s just the most likely to. German translates, English steals.

“Karabela” is the name of a type of Polish cavalry sword. It’s a form of saber, but works better when used on foot than do many sabers. There are at least four possible sources for the name. One is that it comes from Turkish and means “black curse.” Many of the surviving examples do have black hilts, and it would fit the Polish attitude toward the Turks and vice versa (not best friends). Another source claims that it is a corruption of “Karbala,” the city in what is now Iraq that was known for sword making. Or it could come from Italian meaning “precious beautiful thing [cara bella].” Perhaps a Polish noble or sword maker named Karabeli introduced the sword to common use, because there are other weapons that bear the names of their creators or popularizers. Or none of the above. I’m inclined toward option number one, but that doesn’t mean much. Polish is not one of my languages, nor is Turkish.

When I moved to Texas, I was told that the Canadian River was named for French-Canadian fur trappers, or named by them. And there were beaver in the main river valley and tributaries, so OK, sounds good. Except the name appears before Canada existed, and as far as anyone can tell, no one familiar with northern beaver would bother coming down here. The pelts are not as good for what people wanted beaver for. No, the name comes from Spanish, from a term meaning a sheep path so worn that it has raised sides, a cañada. The term can also mean a box-canyon, which is what part of the valley looks like when approached from the west. So it was a rio cañadian.

Tucumcari is another term that has a wildly off-kilter folk etymology. A certain local tourist bureau used to spin a tale about an Indian princess (or chief’s daughter) named Tucumcari, or her lover named Tucumcari, and doomed love, and how one or the other of them plunged off a butte (Tucumcari Mountain) because of a broken heart, and so on and so forth. Alas, the Comanche language doesn’t work quite like that, and the name in Comanche probably means something like “high alone in a low place.” The Comanche named places for what they looked like, thus the “hills like prairie dog mounds” and “the river that flows near the hills that look like prairie dog mounds.” Or “the red muddy river.” Not quite what the Chamber of Commerce wants to use in their tourism pamphlets, alas.

Smite, Smote, . . . Smitten?

So, frustration reached the point earlier this week that I had to either kill something (on paper) or write about someone who had been asking for it getting a lesson in “why you stop arguing before your hair stands on end and the sky turns black.” I chose option B, since it would go into what I’m supposed to be working on anyway.

Which led me to trying to decide what the passive past tense of “to smite” should be. And I found it, but it has become one of those words that, at least in American English, doesn’t mean that anymore.

“To smite” comes from the same family of verbs as “to write.” Everyone is aware of:

I write, I wrote, I had written. Or “The letter was written with a quill pen.” No one blinks at the construction.


The gods will smite him. Lightning smote the tree. He was smitten by the wrath of Zeus.

To begin with, most of us don’t use “to smite” in everyday speech. It is somewhat archaic, often considered formal, and we’re more likely to use strike or hit to describe the action, unless a deity is involved, or we are being poetic.

When we use “smitten,” it most often refers to a romantic infatuation, or a quasi-romantic infatuation. “He was totally smitten with her.” Sort of like “besotted,” but with a milder, less negative sense. At core, the meaning is the same. One person is struck with an emotion the same way trees are struck by lightning. The modern sense is restricted to love, infatuation, puppy-love, and the like. “She was smitten by his charms” calls to mind a young woman sighing dreamily as an attractive young man walks past her table at the cafe, completely unaware that she’s staring at him. Or more humorously, a young man staring at a bar-maid, and the rest of his table knows darn well that he doesn’t have a prayer of getting her phone number.

So back to the original problem. I can’t end the scene with one character staring at a pile of ash and declaring in awe filled tones, “He was smitten by the gods!” My readers are going to fall out of their chairs (or off their couches) laughing, because the modern meaning collides with the scene in the book.

Oh, the trials and tribulations of being a writer!

Those Who Don’t Know History (or Linguistics)

So, the tempest-in-a-teapot this week is a teacher of pallor announcing that she will no longer teach Spanish. This will help “decolonize” the language and empower students to take back their heritage. Or something. Apparently only people of non-European ancestry speak Spanish. And Spanish did not originate in Europe. Or something along those lines.


The former-teacher has a right to not teach, for her own reasons, and a right to follow whatever political philosophy she wishes. She does not have a right to change the history and structure of a language to suit how she believes the world to be, or would prefer it to be. Spanish, in all its dialects, comes from a blend of Latin, Visigothic, Berber, and Arabic. The country of Spain, when last I checked, was still attached to the European continent. The men and women (but mostly men for a long time) who introduced Spanish (and Portuguese) to the Americas and Africa would be appalled, amused, or enraged to be informed that they were not of European ancestry. There was a reason for the Casta charts and rules about marriage.

It’s been a heck of a week for language departments getting into the news. Princeton University’s classics department announced that it will no longer require Classics majors to learn Latin and Greek in order to major in the Classics. They can do all their coursework with translations of the texts. The stated goal is to make the course more friendly for “students from previously underserved communities,” as the academic euphemism phrases it. Already critics of the idea are pointing out that if you don’t read Latin or Greek, you can’t teach Latin or Greek. You can’t read new-to-you texts. You can’t read works that have not yet been translated into your native language. So you will have a very hard time getting a job in the field. Graduate work in Classics, outside of Princeton, will be impossible. I leave the implication that certain populations can’t learn to read Classical Greek and Latin on the floor. For generations of seminarians from all over the world to use as a soccer ball.

If you were to argue for a modern-language major using only translated texts, you’d get thrown out of the university (or high school for that matter.) A German major who can’t read or speak German? A Slavic-Studies major who reads no Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Czech, Slovak, or Serbo-Croatian? Get real. Not happening.

When you work with other languages besides your mother tongue, part of the process is learning the history of the language, how it came into being, what its roots are (to a certain point), and why it works the way it does. There are ideas and phrases that “don’t translate.” There are grammar structures that don’t appear in unrelated languages (English and Hebrew, or English and Hungarian, or English and . . . ) There are loan-words that don’t fit (Czech has a lot of Germanic and Latinate bits). You can’t rip a language out of context, once you get past a certain point in learning it.

Yes, today there are more Spanish speakers out of Spain than inside of Spain. I can understand why someone without a good background in the language, or who learned Spanish in Mexico or parts of Central and South America, would act as if the language originated in the Americas. And that only people from the Americas, especially people of Mestizo ancestry, are real Spanish speakers. And (I suspect) in the former teacher’s view, only Latinos/as should be teaching Spanish, because they are the only real Spanish speakers and only true carriers of Spanish-language culture.

It’s the same argument that bubbled up in academic history decades ago. “Only women should do women’s history. Only Native Americans should do Native American history. Only military veterans should do military history.” In which case John Keegan could never have kick-started military history into a very broad discipline that goes far beyond battles and beans. And who would write environmental history? Or ancient history (OK, that’s easy – archaeologists claimed that one a century ago, spoil-sports.) I don’t like the theoretical constructions* currently required in “women’s history,” thank you. Let me see the documents, see archaeological materials and dig reports, and them make my own conclusions, please? I’d rather do environmental or military, or even economic history.

I’m more mutt than German, but I speak and read the language pretty well. I speak OK Spanish, and can survive in a few other languages even though I don’t belong to those cultures. I can parse some Greek if it is written with Latin characters, especially theological Greek. (Heck, I can even suss out a lot of theological, Greek-letters Greek if I have some English or German context around it.) I hit a wall with Russian, but that had as much to do with how it was taught as with the language.

Tl;dr: Anyone who wants to learn a language should do it. If they want to teach it, and can do it well, more power to them. And watering down the class doesn’t help anyone.

*I don’t like theories-of-history in general, even though I read them and use them when necessary.

If I were in charge of the dictionary . . .

I would toss it with great force at the next person who says “impactful.” Apparently this is the new word of choice to describe anything that the news reader or weather forecaster feels will be: important, serious, grave, looming, highly effective, critical, dangerous, or make major short or long term changes to a situation. Continue reading