Talky Tuesday: Punctuation

One of the side-effects of people texting and posting online — particularly if they do the latter with their phones — is that punctuation and, often, capitalization go by the wayside. I can understand this if you are using a phone, because the keyboard can be tiny, even on our modern oversized smart phones.

Generally, messages and posts done this way are short enough that missing punctuation, as well as regular paragraphing to indicate changes in thought, can’t hinder the meaning from getting through, at least not that much. Everyone is going to know what you mean in a short text, right?

But the longer you go and the more you write, the more you really do need to punctuation and paragraph your text. For example:

one of the side effects of people texting and posting online particularly if they do the latter with their phones is that punctuation and often capitalization go by the wayside i can understand this if you are using a phone because the keyboard can be tiny even on our modern oversized smart phones generally messages and posts done this way are short enough that missing punctuation as well as regular paragraphing to indicate changes in thought cant hinder the meaning from getting through at least not that much everyone is going to know what you mean in a short text right

How much harder was that paragraph to read than the two that opened the article? Same text exactly, just without any punctuation marks, so no road map. Which one would you rather be handed to read out loud with no preparation?

That’s pretty much the raison d’être of punctuation in any language — to clarify meaning, and especially to facilitate reading the words, whether out loud or in one’s head. But did you ever wonder where those punctuation marks came from?

Today, I’m going to focus on English, so we won’t be dealing with things like cedilla, which you see in the word façade, or the tilde, which is common in Spanish words like mañana. I’ll even pass on the French punctuation seen above in the italicized expression which just means “purpose” — literally, reason for being.

Depending upon the source, there are either fourteen or fifteen, but I’ll be focusing on fewer. I don’t agree with the latter list’s fifteen, which is a bullet point. I consider it more of a formatting tool than a punctuation mark. In a numbered list, while the numbers may or may not have period after them, nobody thinks of the numbers as punctuation, right?

I’ll also be skipping brackets and curly braces because they really aren’t in common use. And, finally, lists of more than five items tend to get cumbersome, so I’m going to stick with the most common ones and take a look at where they came from.

By the way, missing from both of the above lists: our friend the ampersand (&) which I definitely consider a punctuation mark, but which actually used to be the 27th letter of the alphabet. In fact, under its original name, you can’t spell alphabet without it, but those two letters eventually morphed into the pretzel or, as I see it, Panda sitting down to eat bamboo, that we all know and love today. And yes, you’ll never un-see that one.

Here are the origin stories of five heroic punctuation marks.

  1. Period: While the period, known in British as the “full stop,” is probably the most common punctuation mark in European languages, it came from the same forge as all of the other “dot” punctuations, including the comma, colon, semicolon, and ellipsis. The concept of the period was originally created by a Greek playwright, Aristophanes, who had grown tired of the published works of the time having no breaks between words, making the scrolls very hard to read.

Originally, his system involved placing dots either low, in the middle or high relative to the heights of the letters, and the position indicated the length of the pause, much as a period, comma, and colon indicate different lengths of pauses nowadays. However, his system did not pass directly to us. The Romans were not big fans of punctuation, and a lot of their works were copied down in so-called scriptio continua, or continuous writing.

Ironically, punctuation didn’t come back into it until Christianity began to take hold in the crumbling Roman Empire. Monks tasked with copying manuscripts by hand brought back the marks they knew from the classical Greek of Aristophanes’ era, largely to preserve the meaning of the frequently biblical texts they were copying.

And, again, if they were working to translate the Old Testament, which was largely written in Hebrew, they were going from a language that lacked punctuation, word spacing, and vowels, with the added bonus of only being written in the present tense. Yeah, that must have been a hair-puller. And, no doubt, the New Testament stuff they were working with probably had many of the same issues, since it was written in the Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic of the late 1st century.

These were the people instrumental in writing down the first official version of that bible in the early 4th century, starting with the Council of Nicea, and over the next 1,100 years, they also kind of invented emojis of a sort. What? They were bored college-aged dudes who weren’t allowed to get laid. What else could they do?

So things proceeded on the punctuation front without a lot happening until that dude Gutenberg got to printing in the 15th century. And that was when all of the existing punctuation got locked down because it had to be. That’s what standardization via mass manufacturing does, after all. Not necessarily a bad thing by any means.

  1. Question mark: This was another punctuation mark created by a person, Alcuin of York, an English poet and scholar who was invited to join the court of Charlemagne, who was first King of the Franks, then King of the Lombards, and finally Emperor of the Romans from the late 8th to early 9th centuries. If you have any western European blood in you, he is probably an ancestor.

Alcuin was a prolific author and very familiar with the old dot system of the Greeks, but he sought to improve it, so he created the punctus interrogatives, which is pretty much the Latin version of what we call it now, although his probably looked more like this: .~.

And while you may think that the question and exclamation marks are connected, with the latter just being the unsquiggled version of the former, you’d be wrong. In fact, no one is really sure where the exclamation mark came from, and it didn’t even appear on typewriter keyboards until the relatively late date of 1970.

  1. Hyphen: In the present day, hyphens pretty much exist only to join words that haven’t quite become full-on compounds But once upon a time, before computers had this wonderful ability to justify text and avoid breaking one word across two lines, hyphens did exactly that. They told you whether a word had been broken and to look for more of it on the next line. In practice, it would look something like this:


He contemplated the scene, not sure what he was going to find, but fully ex-

pecting it to be something dangerous; something he’d rather not have to con-

front on his own.

Yeah. Messy and awkward, isn’t it? And yet, if you read any published material from earlier than about the late 80s, this is what you get and, honestly, it’s as annoying as hell.

The hyphen itself goes back, again, to ancient Greece, where it was a sort of arc drawn below the letters of the words to be joined. It was still common enough when Gutenberg got around to creating his moveable type that it was adapted. However, since he couldn’t figure out how to include punctuation below the baselines of his letters, he moved the hyphen to the medial position we all know today.

  1. Parenthesis: These most useful of marks were a product of the 14th century, and also brought to us by the creativity of monks copying manuscripts. And, again, I’ll remind you that these geniuses happened to be a part of their era’s version of what we’re currently calling Gen Z. You know. The ones after the Millennials that you should be paying attention to.

Anyway… in their wisdom, these monks decided to draw half circles around certain parts of the text (mostly to indicate that it was connected to but not part of the main idea) in order to set it off from the rest. In a lot of ways, parentheticals became a mental aside for the reader — hear this in a different voice.

And, like tits and testicles, parentheses are intended to always travel in pairs. (Yes, I know that not everyone has two of either, but note the “intended” part. Nature tries. Sometimes, she fucks up.)

  1. Quotation marks: These are yet another thing that the Greeks created, the Romans ignored, and medieval monks brought back. Originally, Greeks in the second century B.C. used sort of arrows to indicate that a line was a quote, and they stuck them in the margins. This form of quotation mark is still visible in modern languages, for example in the Spanish «quotation marks», which are pairs of little arrows.

When we got to the sixteenth century, they became a pair of commas before a line and outside of the margins, and indeed to this day, you’ll see this in ,,German quotes,‘‘ which have two commas before and two open single quotes after. Nowadays, you can’t say he said, she said without quotation marks.

So there you go. The origins of five-ish common punctuation marks. Which one is your favorite, and why? Tell us in the comments!


Sunday Nibble #8: Beware the what of when now?

Caesar’s wife Calpurnia may well have told him “Cave idibus martiis” — “Beware the Ides of March” — and history proved her to be right, whether or not her warning was made up later. In fact, the real warning may have come from a politically astute seer named Spurinna, who gave a general warning with no specifics.

There are a lot of myths around Caesar’s assassination, many of them attributable to Shakespeare taking dramatic license.

And the part that always gets left out is that Caesar was just about to declare himself dictator for life, so contrary to Shakespeare, perhaps the murderous Senators really were the heroes in this scenario.

Hm. Heroic Senators. What a concept… Except that they probably acted entirely in their own self-interest, since Caesar went more after their own corruption than after the common citizen or the slave.

But forget all that. The real question is “What exactly is an ‘ides’ that Caesar had to bewar?”

Well, for one, it’s a thing you’ve been pronouncing wrong since forever, and “ides” isn’t even the original Latin. It’s “idibus Martiis.” In this case, the endings of the words basically say that the first one belongs to the second. That’s how Latin works. No apostrophe stuff for them. They had an entire case, called the genitive, which could be read in shorthand as “thing of.”

It differs even more in English in that the owned object comes before the owner. I guess the most direct, yet cumbersome, rendering in English of idibus Martiis might be “the ides which belong to March.”

Oh yeah. Extra complication. More likely than not, the thing would have been rendered in classical Latin like this: “IDIBVSMARTIIS” or, to make it even more confusing, “IDBSMRTS.”

But what you’re probably really wondering about is that whole “ides” thing, which btw is pronounced “ee-dayce” and not “eyeds.”

First off, we need to look at the history of the Roman calendar and, like many calendars from that time and place, it was lunar, not solar. It was basically a hot mess and necessitated the addition of leap month every two or three years to keep things in synch. Q.V. the Jewish calendar, which adds a leap month every… it’s complicated.

Meanwhile, terms like the ides were basically meant to pin down the phases of the moon.

The Romans had three special words for days in their calendar, one of which gave us the name for the thing. That would be kalends, which indicated the day of the New Moon, i.e. no moon visible. The ides, then, indicated the day of the full moon, which would be two weeks after the kalends. Finally, the nones designated the 1st quarter moon.

What this meant to the Romans was that the kalends was always the first of the month, the nones could be on the 7th or 5th of the month — the former in March, May, July, and October, the latter in all others; and the ides would be on the 15th of the same months mentioned above, or the 13th of the others.

What this also tells us is that Caesar was assassinated under a full moon on the 15th of March.

When it came to time-keeping ancient cultures naturally latched onto the Moon. And, in fact, in many languages, the words for moon and month are very similar. This is pretty self-evident in English.

Judaism, the religion of Rome, and (later) Islam all came to settle on the same time-keeper, choosing the Moon over the Sun. At first glance, that might seem weird. After all, the Sun definitely creates our days and nights, so why shouldn’t it have been the primary calendar starter from the beginning?

Simple. The Sun seems to be constant. The Moon is not. In fact, Shakespeare even commented on it in Romeo & Juliet:

O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,

That monthly changes in her circled orb,

Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

Ironically, it was the apparent inconstancy that led us to use the Moon to mark time. And why did the Moon seem the better choice? Because the Sun was the really inconstant one.

Let’s say that humans have already divided a day into 24 hours, but it can be any arbitrary number. Then they try to figure out another arbitrary measure, let’s call it an hour, based upon how long daylight lasts. “Okay,” they say. “Half of that day length will be light, and half dark.”

So they get about measuring, only to realize that it’s a moving target. If they use some physical constant to measure, like how long it takes X amount of water to drain from one bucket with a hole in it to another, then they may notice over time that while it’s daylight for sixteen buckets in June, it’s somehow only daylight for eight buckets in December.


Well, that’s not a great way to measure things. But, on the other hand, here’s this thing up there that changes in a regular and predictable pattern, and it shouldn’t have taken too much observation to realize that the regular change took about 28 days — regardless of how long day or night were relative to each other.

So we have a winner. Start with the day the Moon disappears, mark off a point when it has fully reappeared, then put a pin in a point between invisible and totally there. That’s your regular and easy cycle, and the source of your lunar calendar.

It wasn’t until people who were keeping track of the longer phenomena — basically, how the Sun’s position and the apparent angle of the Earth’s axis also changed consistently, but over years, not months — that we also finally realized, “Crap! A lunar calendar is going to throw us off of what time it ‘really’ is.”

But… is that a valid question or concern? Does anybody really know what time it is?

How many phases of the Moon have passed since your birth? How many years on the Jewish or Muslim calendar? Is your birthdate now still in the same month it was then?

Ultimately, does it matter? We’ve come to consider the number of times the Earth circles the Sun to be the important measure, hence birthdays based on solar time. But that is totally anthropocentric, meaning to measure everything about the world based on human terms.

But… what about all the dogs I’ve known and loved who have gone from infancy to advanced senior citizen and death in about as many orbits as it took me to go from birth to driver’s license? What about the few pet rats I’ve had and loved who lasted about as long as it took me from birth to say my first words?

And what about all those turtles that look at us humans and think, “You retire at 65? Lazy-ass bitches. Grow a shell!”

In physics, time really is just what a clock reads, nothing more nor less. After all, a clock here on Earth will read a quite different time from the same clock launched into space at a large fraction of the speed of light.

Here are the salient points: While the ides of March, 44 BCE, is the date on which Julius Caesar was assassinated, all we really need to remember for practical purposes is that this day was March 15th. His wife never predicted his doom on this day, and the one seer who gave warning only said that Caesar was moving into a politically dangerous month, and he did that back in February

The real heroes in the story were kinda sorta the Senators who stabbed him to death with daggers (not swords) in an antechamber off of the Senate (not on the floor), in order to save everyone, except that they were totally acting in their own self-interest in a way that only inadvertently benefited the Plebes, Soldiers, Citizens, and Slaves.

Finally, everything got distorted to turn a dude who was probably a power-hungry and dangerous asshole into a martyr. At least his first successor, Augustus, had it a bit more together.

Getting back to calendars, though, our Roman calendar got more modern when what was originally the fifth month was renamed in honor of Caesar after his assassination, and so we got July.

Meanwhile, August was renamed for Augustus Caesar in 8 BCE. In this case, the Senate decided to make it happen, and so the sixth month took on what wasn’t even his real name, just his title. And so September, October, November, and December made sense for a while, since they meant seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth.

It wasn’t until the winter months got names again and March was no longer new year’s month that the last four months of the year lost touch with the origin of their names.

And, finally, we had a calendar that aligned more closely with the more meaningful solar year, and only needed to be adjusted by stuffing an extra day into February every four years, and omitting that same stuffing if said leap year happened to occur on a century year (one ending in 00) that was not divisible by four.

So far, it’s worked out pretty well. And, in modern America, the only real warning we need to heed on the Ides of March is that it’s one month until tax day. Otherwise, carry on!

Talky Tuesday: Uncommon language

As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Canterville Ghost, “Indeed, in many respects, she was quite English, and was an excellent example of the fact that we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.” (This was an observation by the narrator, by the way, concerning an American woman who has been in England so long that she has gone native, so to speak.)

Wilde wrote his tale 133 years ago, and you might think that in all that time, the interconnectedness of the world, the exchange of media and culture, and the common language would have brought British and English (okay, sigh, American English, if you insist) closer together, but you’d be wrong.

Okay, so the big divide happened a couple of centuries ago, when British dictionary guy Samuel Johnson decided to go all fancy and pretentious and base spellings on where words came from, so that British English wound up with ridiculous things like flavour, colour, tyre, kerb, programme, and so on.

Meanwhile, a couple of generations later, Noah Webster got busy with his real English dictionary, and he preferred simplified spellings — flavor, color, tire, curb, program, etc.

But the differences go beyond that, and it comes down to word usage, with some of the differences being unfortunate. For example, it might be quite common in Britain to ask a co-worker or schoolmate, “Can I borrow a rubber?” or “Did you wear your rubbers today?”

In America, not so much. Instead, we’d ask, “Can I borrow an eraser?” or “Did you wear your galoshes today?”

Bit of a difference, eh?

If you’re American and you hear “cooker,” what do you think? Most likely, it’s some large, specialized device, frequently found in a backyard, and used to smoke or cure meat, and not something that everyone has. In Britain, there’s probably one in every kitchen, and you cook on it because it’s a stove.

Also note that stove, oven, and range are not the same thing. A stove is generally just the cooktop, meaning the bit with the burners (also known as a hob in the UK); an oven is the enclosed box that cooks stuff without open flame; a range is the combination of both — presumably because it covers the full range of options.

Meanwhile, in America, you’d assume that a gummy band is some sort of German candy that’s maybe in the shape of One Direction or some other group. In the UK, you’d wrap it around your newspaper, or use it to tie off a plastic bag.

Of course, our rubber bands probably sound like something made out of erasers to them.

One of my favorite weird British expressions is “dummy.” It has nothing to do with ventriloquists and everything to do with babies. In America, it’s called a pacifier. There’s  a wonderful British expression, “spit the dummy,” which specifically means for an adult to react in an overblown, angry, and infantile manner to a situation.

Actually, when it comes to babies, this is where there are a lot of differences in standard terminology between the two variations of English. For example, what’s called a diaper in America is called a nappy in Britain, while nappy in America happens to be a very derogatory adjective used to describe black people’s hair in a negative way. The two words have very different derivations, with the diaper version not appearing until 1927, and being slang for “napkin,” presumably because folding a diaper around a baby’s ass is as complicated as folding a napkin for a formal dinner.

The word diaper, by the way, goes back to the 14th century, and refers to a very expensive cloth. To hear parents tell it, diapers of either the cloth or disposable variety are still expensive. Damn. Just like feminine hygiene products and razors, that shit should be heavily subsidized and practically free.

Two more that are also odd because the British words exist in American but mean something completely different: cot and flannel. In America, a cot is a light, simple, and portable bed, quite often consisting of a foldable frame, often in metal, that locks into place to keep a piece of canvas taut enough to support a sleeping adult. American’s would expect to see cots in summer camps, military barracks, field hospitals, and emergency evacuation shelters.

In Britain, a cot is what a baby sleeps in — an enclosed bed designed for infants too young to not be trusted to roll out of a regular bed. In America, that’s called a crib. Oddly enough, in Britain crib can refer to what Americans would call a crèche (we cribbed that from French, see what I did there?) which is the traditional nativity scene commonly set up around the holidays.

As for flannel, in America it’s most associated with a gray material that was commonly used to make suits in a bygone era — and, slight detour, having only known the expression because I’m a film nerd, looking up its origin gave me an “oh, wow” moment. Definitely check out the book that the movie The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit was based on, because it continues to speak to now even though it came out in the 1950s and its protagonist would have been the parent of a Boomer.

But I do digress. The American flannel is a British washcloth.

One that’s a really big difference is pram. In America, that sounds like a mispronunciation of an annual high school tradition, the prom. Ironically, Britain, proms are what the BBC does every year to introduce their new programs. In the U.S., those events are called upfronts. The British pram is the American stroller (or baby carriage if you’re fancy), and it’s basically short for the word perambulator.

One of the more unfortunate British words that really doesn’t cross the pond well is the colloquial term for a cigarette, although as that filthy habit dies out, maybe the word will, too. That word, of course, is the other F-word: fag. “Bum me a fag, mate,” is an innocuous request to borrow a smoke over there. Here, in America, not so much.

But note how both slang terms — fag and smoke — use synecdoche, with a part standing in for the whole. Now, to Americans it’s obvious that “smoke” refers to what comes from a cigarette. Another slang term that uses the same literary device is “butt.” So how does “fag” come to be a partial stand-in for a whole cigarette?

Well, simple, but you have to go back to an older expression and a meaning that predated its derogatory and homophobic intention. The expression was originally fag-end, and this referred to any sort of loose bit or remaining piece still hanging around.

While no one is definite on it, the conjecture is that it could have referred to the loose bits of tobacco sticking out of the end of a hand-rolled cigarette. Alternatively, it could refer to the part left over when most of the cigarette has been smoked, and this is what would have been bummed, so the query would literally mean something like, “Hey, can I have the rest of that?”

Or not. And probably the most interesting thing about these linguistic differences is that context is everything, and an uninitiated American who can get over the accents (apparently, that’s hard for a lot of Yanks to do) will pick up on the meaning of these strange words, and it works vice versa.

Still, I think that Wilde’s observation was as spot-on over a century ago as it is now. The U.S. and the British Common wealth have everything in common… except for the language.

Talky Tuesday: Compound interest?

Like several other languages, English uses compound words to create new concepts by sticking two other words together. This can actually be done in one of three ways: open compounds, which are separate words (hang glider); hyphenated compounds, which are what it says on the tin (life-size); and closed compounds, which happen when the words are fused together (superstar).

The latter shouldn’t be confused with a portmanteau word, which is one word shoved into another. That is, the separate words merge to form one that doesn’t contain a complete version of either. A famous example is smog, which comes from smoke and fog.

These kinds of words are named for a portmanteau, which is a large suitcase or trunk that opens into two equal parts, as opposed to a regular suitcase, which pretty much has a shallow lid and a deep storage area. Fun fact: portmanteau is itself a portmanteau, derived from the French words porter, “to carry”, and manteau, “mantle.” They’re very common in English, but not today’s subject, although you can find lists of them online.

Another thing that compound words are generally not is agglutinative, although that depends upon what you’re agglutinating. Broadly speaking, an agglutinative language is considered a “synthetic language,” but that does not mean made up. In this case, synthetic refers to synthesis, which is the creation of a whole from various parts.

English can show agglutinative propensities in word pairs like teach and teacher. The former is a verb, the latter is a noun describing a person who does the verb. Farm, farmer; game, gamer; preach, preacher; account, accountant; debut, debutante; and so on. These are all agglutinative words in English, short and simple, but they really aren’t an essential or sole feature of how words are built in the language.

A good example of simple agglutinatives are the classical versions of the Semitic languages Hebrew and Arabic, which both work in similar ways. They start with a simple word root, and then add prefixes, suffixes, and infixes to change the meaning, basically building a root outward into various concepts. (The modern versions are apparently more analytical, less agglutinative.)

Complicated agglutinative languages will pile on the prefixes and suffixes until a speaker winds up with a ridiculously long word that expresses a concept in great detail, but which a lot of other languages would have achieved through separate words and parts of speech.

What analytical and inflected languages do is build meaning through things like articles, nouns, adjectives, verbs, prepositions, pronouns, adverbs, conjunctions, interjections, and interrogatives. A language spoken (at them) loudly and — wow! — what?

If you really want to go hog-wild with an agglutinative language, then check out Turkish. It’s a hot mess, but that probably explains why Recep Erdoğan is always so cranky.

But let’s get back to those compound words, because they are also a feature of Spanish and German, which both do them in very different ways, not only from each other, but from English.

English compound words tend to just go for it, jam the words together, and done. Examples: Airport, baseball, windfall, extraordinary, worldwide, sailboat, stockbroker, etc.

Spanish compound words are a little more practical, since they tend to pretty much describe what the thing does, which English compounds don’t always do. Also, they tend to be masculine words regardless of the second half so that, for example, the word for umbrella is masculine despite the second half of the word being feminine (and plural): el paraguas.

Other great examples in Spanish: abrelatas, can opener, literally open cans; autopista, highway/freeway, literally automobile trail; bienvenido, welcome, literally the same in Spanish; cumpleaños, birthday, literally complete years; horasextra, overtime, literally extra hours; lavaplatos, dishwasher (the machine) and also literally washes dishes; matamoscas, fly swatter, literally kills flies.

I think that gives you a good general idea, and you can find lists online as well. But when it comes to the granddaddy of ridiculous compounds that give agglutinative languages a run for their money, look no farther than German.

English may rarely stick three words together to make one compound, but that seems to be our limit. The Germans? Well, they do seem to have a knack for sticking words together to describe things they couldn’t be arsed to come up with single words for, like literally calling gloves hand shoes (die Handschuhe.) I don’t think we get quite that lazy in English.

But the Germans transcend that. Are three words a compound limit for them? Oh hell noes. They’ll go on shoving words together all day long to express a specific concept. I guess the idea of sentences is too much for them.

I kid! A big chunk of my ancestry is German — well, at least the quarter that came down from my paternal grandfather  — and it is the third language, besides Spanish and English, that I have actually studied beyond a passing interest. But, c’mon. Some of their compound words are ridiculous.

Here’s a good one, made up of no less than eight separate words: rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz. A literal word-for-word translation into English is “beef meat labeling monitoring tasks transfer law.”

The Week made a great compilation of ten of the worst offenders, but I have to share a couple of them here.

Hey, this one is only three words! Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften, legal protection insurance companies, as in companies that will indemnify your ass against lawsuits.

Again, only four little words but one huge result: Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän. It literally means Danube steamship company captain, and wouldn’t you hate to have to shoehorn that word into your resume? But let us take a moment to look at the unfortunate word in there, and you know exactly which one I mean: dampfschiffahrts. Dampf means steam, and that should be pretty obvious after two seconds of realizing that it’s similar to the English word damp. Likewise, schiff for ship should be a no-brainer.

This leaves us with fahrts and no, it does not mean what you think it does. It comes from the German word fahren, to drive, and tends to wind up in anything involving a vehicle or journey. For that other word referring to the gas driven out of your ass, you want to use der Furz. And yes, it’s a masculine noun, because of course it is.

What? We all know that women never fart. It just isn’t done.

And, finally, there’s another four word jam slam: Bezirksschornsteinfegermeister. It refers to the master of chimney sweeps in a district, but breaks down to district (bezirks) chimney (schornstein) sweep (feger) and master (meister).

Talky Tuesday: More misused words

It can be a chore sometimes trying to convince people that spelling and grammar are important. And FSM knows I can be a hypocrite in that I roll my eyes and say, “Oh, hell no” every time someone laments the inability of people nowadays to write or read in cursive.

Then again, I really don’t see the point of cursive, especially not when we can do most things by keyboard. Although the flip-side of that advantage is that it lends itself to text speak and emojis — which is fine in the context of messaging, where it works. But if you’re attempting anything more formal, and that includes arguing about shit in social media, then for the moment you still want to go for the good spelling and grammar.

Why? Because to do otherwise really undercuts your argument. If you have sloppy grammar or bad spelling, it tells us one of two things, depending upon your attitude about it.

First, if you misspell or misuse words and don’t care, or spell them like you hear them instead of like they are (e.g. caught in the wild: “riddens” instead of “riddance”) then it tells us that you are intellectually lazy, so that means we don’t have to bother listening to anything you have to say, because you haven’t bothered to research it, you’re only parroting what you’ve been told, thank you and good night.

And if you misspell or misuse words because you just can’t remember the difference between things like your and you’re, that tells me that you really can’t retain easily learned information, and probably are not the best choice for trusting with anything complicated.

Hint: At those times when I’ve been in charge of hiring, cull trick number one was to dump any résumé with an unforced error in either of these areas. Note that this doesn’t include typos. For example, if I see “the” where you clearly meant “they,” that gets a bit of a pass. But if you mix up words or spell things wrong, then… b’bye.

That said, here are some more heinous abuses of the language that I’ve seen in the wild in just the last couple of weeks.

Raindeer instead of reindeer

I suppose this might make sense since these noble creatures are associated with Santa Claus and winter and a time when it might rain, except that reindeer and Santa are associated with the North Pole (or at least Finland and Lapland), so if they were being named because of the weather, they’d probably be snowdeer.

Not to mention that they’re more elk-like. But the whole idea of the “rein” in “reindeer” is that reins are things you put on animals to steer them.. The most famous example of reined animals are horses, although you can rein cattle. You don’t rein oxen, though, you yoke them, and they seem to figure it out from there.

Nobody puts Bambi in a yoke. Or reins. Or a corner. But as for those fabulous Lap cervidae with the fabulous antlers… better rein them in so that they can lead Santa’s sleigh.

Adieu instead of ado

Most often seen in a phrase like “with no further adieu (sic)…”

This is an interesting example of ignorance trying to appear more intelligent, since there’s the appropriation of a French word there — adieu, for good-bye, which is a cognate of the Spanish adios, both of which literally mean “to god!” And if you take them in the context of when and where they originated, they were basically saying, “Hope to see you again, but if you die of plague before that, which is really likely old friend, may you go to heaven.”

Whoa. Heavy. So saying “Much go to god” makes no sense at all. Instead, we have the early middle English word (thanks Willy Shakes) a-do, which takes that old Romance pronoun “a,” meaning motion toward, and sticks it on that definitely English verb “do,” which is such a powerful auxiliary verb in the language that it steps in for most translations of direct questions in romance languages.

“¿Hablas español?” “Do you speak Spanish?”

“¿Quién lo hagas?” “Who did it?”

 “¿Sabes qué hora es?” “Do you know what time it is?”

I guess the only trick here is to think of the “a” in the negative as “nothing more to,” and then naturally sticking it on the verb to do, dropping the to. Or, in other words, why not the phrase “With nothing more to do” or “No more to do before…”

With no further ado…

Per say instead of per se

This one is simply an example of never having seen the word in print and pushing English onto it. Except, if you’ve ever studied any Romance language or Latin, this form makes sense, because the pronoun “se” will immediately hit your eye as a thing that’s used to create the passive tense, at least in Spanish.

You’ve probably seen “Se habla español,” and what it means is “Spanish is spoken here.” Well, at least in English translation. A more literal translation that is not as English friendly would be something like “it is spoken, Spanish.”

As for “per” it’s a well-used word in English, and you see it in prices all the time. “How much are the lemons?” “It’s $1.25 per pound.”

In other words, “per” in English means “for” or “for each.” Pretty much the same as it means in Latin or, shift it to “por,” in Spanish.

Put the two together and, in Latin, it makes total sense: per se, for itself. In Spanish, not so much, and “por se” is not a thing. But the important thing on top of that is that “say” is not a word in Spanish, Latin, French, or Romanian.

Which brings us right back to the original and only translation. Something noted with “per se” is by, of, for, or in itself. So… “I’m not saying that all Romans will know this expression per se, but I think a lot of them will…”

Complimented instead of complemented

This one is not as hard as it might seem. Compliment means to say something nice about someone. Complement means to go together. So here’s the reminder: In order for you to get a compliment, I have to do it. Well, someone has to, but the point of the mnemonic is that compliment has an I in it. Complement doesn’t.

As for “complement,” it all goes together, as in the word has one O, two E’s, and no other vowels. Or you can think of the word complete, and remember that when one thing complements another, it completes it.

When in their adjectival forms, complimentary and complementary, you can remember which is which in pretty much the same way. As for the other meaning of complimentary — something received for free, like a hotel’s complimentary buffet — remember the I because it’s a gift.

Breaking instead of braking

The trick here is in the vowels. Well, sort of. If you’re talking about a car — or an auto or any vehicle stopped by gripping the wheels or other things — then the only vowel is an “a.” Ergo, the word is braking. Hit the brakes. Brake to a stop. Brake the car. Or… brake the automobile, which starts with A.

Now, you’d think that the name for a light-weight jacket often made of synthetic materials should then be a “windbraker” becase it stops the wind, but it’s not. It’s a windbreaker. Now why is it called that? If it’s because it breaks wind, that would be a really neat trick for a jacket to pull off, not to mention either amusing or alarming, depending upon your sense of humor. (Personally, I’d find it hilarious.)

The real answer is that Windbreaker® is a registered trademark of the company John Rissman & Son, so in reality we should really use the alternate name windcheater. However, Windbreaker is going the way of Kleenex and Xerox, both trademarks that have basically become generic in common usage.

Or, in other words, a lot of people probably ask for a Kleenex instead of a tissue, or use the Xerox machine even if it’s a Canon or Brother, and we all google stuff even if we’re using Bing — but, really, why would anyone be? What we don’t see are companies releasing things like “Billy Johnson’s kleenex” or “FlurfingtonCo xerox machine,” because those would still violate the law.

Oops. Let me put the brakes on that digression. The other word, “break,” basically means to divide, shatter, ruin, wreck, interrupt, or make something useless or incomplete. Break-up, prison break, break dishes, break the mold, break a record, and so on.

It can also mean to suddenly start something — break into a sweat, break into a run, break out in song — or to prepare something for use — break in the car.

One use that simultaneously interrupts one thing and starts another is going to be the key to remembering this spelling, and that’s breakfast. If you’ve never really thought about it, that word may seem weird, but let’s break it down (see what I did there?) so that we get break and fast.

Fun fact: the word is exactly the same in Spanish: desayunar, to breakfast, combines the verb ayunar, to fast, with the prefix des-, which means to remove. The noun form is desayuno. And yes, in English it is entirely possible to say, “Let us breakfast this morning” and use the word as a verb.

Now where did fasting come into it the equation? Simple. You haven’t eaten anything since before you went to bed the night before, which should have been at least eight hours ago. So when you have your morning meal, you are interrupting, or breaking, that fast. At the same time, this meal is the start of your day. So you get two interpretations of break for the price of one. And since you do it by eating, there you go. This version of the word that sounds like braking has “ea” in it. And you can’t eat or break without them.

Talky Tuesday: Listen up!

Words are wonderful things in any language because they can communicate so much. Even more so, at least as far as English is concerned, the words themselves don’t have to make much sense and yet can still convey so much.

Just look at the two opening stanzas of Lewis Carroll’s brilliant Jabberwocky. Most of the words aren’t real words, and yet the thing still makes sense in its own way:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

Now, why does it make such sense? Mainly because here Carroll is mostly just playing with the nouns and verbs. He mostly leaves the other parts of speech alone. This tells us a lot about how English works, because if I said, “Did those mamleplompers from the widget fiskers over in Nimblebleck caravel up the shashandy yet, or do I need to frelgoik the yerpers in the warehouse,” wouldn’t it sound like it made some sort of sense, and you only didn’t get it because you didn’t know the jargon yet?

Real world example: “So if we go with the birthday rule, you can update your supplement next May, but there’s nothing we can do about your Part D until open enrollment, and as for your spouse, since they’ve already qualified for Part A but had prior coverage, it comes down to whether they fall under IEP or ICEP, which all depends on when Part B became effective.”

In that case, all of the words are English, but that probably made not a lick of sense to most of you and, six months ago, it wouldn’t have made any sense to me either. Yes, jargon is a foreign language as well, and English (and all other languages) has many jargons.

But the fuckery can go a lot further than Carroll ever took it, and if we jump into the 20th century, we meet James Joyce, who wrote an entire novel, Finnegans Wake, using multi-lingual puns to create a language that almost did and didn’t make sense. And yet, somehow (to those of us who’ve braved it) it does somehow communicate meaning. The trick, I think, is to read it out loud, which turns it into an hallucinogenic experience. That’s right. Reading this book will make you trip balls.

Here’s just a taste from the first chapter:

Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe.

Really, read it out loud a few times, and it will start to make sense. Trust me.

Another author who played with language in a different way was William S. Burroughs (one of my influences), but rather than making up words, he instead broke up narrative coherence through a rather brute-force physical technique called the cut-up technique. This literally involved cutting pages apart and then sticking them back together in random order.

It’s not prevalent in his early works beyond the galleys for Naked Lunch being sent to the printer separately and then put together and published in the order they were returned, which wasn’t the order they were written in. But in his later works in the 60s, he published his Nova Trilogy, three books created using this method. This article has an excerpt from the second book in the trilogy, The Ticket that Exploded.

The next one to play with language was Samuel Beckett, and while I don’t think he used the cut-up method, he did manage to create endless staircases of words that always seemed to be going somewhere but then which would hit a landing and start over. In his case, there weren’t really any cut-ups and all of the words and sentences made sense, but the ultimate effect was always a frustrating trek that dragged us along without taking us anywhere.

Well, at least not anywhere in terms of story, but good Beckett moments like this done with commitment by a talented actor can get us to exactly what he was aiming at. A great example of his style is the famous speech by Lucky in Waiting for Godot. He’s a character who is mostly mute for the entire show, led around by a noose around his neck, but when he gets his moment, well… you can watch for yourself.

Of course, the key to each of these authors is to actually listen to what they have written, and I see people constantly not do that. In fact, most people I know dis Joyce, Burroughs, and Beckett because they’ve tried to read or see their stuff and just didn’t get it. Meanwhile, they love Carroll as long as it’s Alice, but go beyond that and their eyes roll back faster than an odometer on a sleazy used car lot — especially when he was writing about math.

And that is a shame. Because, really, none of them are that hard to understand if you just take the time to read it, experience it, and ignore the literal while letting everything else wash over you. And, ultimately, Joyce’s intent was to recreate the experience of a dream, which only ever makes sense to the dreamer, because the cast and metaphors and everything else only have meaning to them, screw you Freud.

Honestly, I think that the main reason that all of these works by all of these authors are not appreciated is because the public takes half a second to try to understand, then throws up the, “Nope, sorry. Hard. Bye!” flag, and that’s it.

And, honestly, that is one of the biggest failings of society. It’s certainly one of the things that makes me cull my friends if they don’t have it. Mainly… be at least a bit curious about the world around you, and try to learn one or two new things. Or more. But, most important of all, your reaction to a new thing or bit of information should never, ever be, “Oh, no. That is way too hard for my little brain to learn.”

Instead, it should be… “Oh, cool. Opportunity.” Maybe you’ll get it, maybe you won’t. If you do get it, maybe you won’t be into it, or maybe you will — but you won’t ever know if your first response is “No.”

Image: John Tenniel’s illustration of the Jabberwock, 1871

Like a prayer

This began as an attempt at a Sunday Nibble, but then I took such a deep-dive that it turned into a full article. Riffing on language does that to me.

Pop quiz. Can you identify this fairly well-known piece and the language it’s in?

Fæder ūre, ðū ðē eart on heofonum,

Sī ðīn nama gehālgod.

Tō becume ðīn rice.

Gewurde ðīn willa

On eorþan swā swā on heofonum.

Urne gedæghwamlīcan hlāf syle ūs tōdæg.

And forgyf ūs ūre gyltas,

Swā swā wē forgyfaþ ūrum gyltendum.

And ne gelæd ðū ūs on costnunge,

ac alȳs ūs of yfele.

It may look like something very foreign, and it both is and isn’t. It’s also a good clue as to why one of the biggest barriers to time travel might not be the technology, but rather the language. Jump in your time machine, set it for 1,025 years in the past, and that’s the language you’d have to figure out… in what would eventually become England. c. 995 C.E.

Yep. That quote above is in Old English and it’s the Lord’s Prayer. Whether you’re religious or not, or if the religion you grew up with was not Christianity, if you grew up in the west, you’ve been exposed to it, so you probably kind of know the words.

Notice, too, that a few words stand out as being completely unchanged:  and, on, and of. Everything else, nope. This was the original native language of the British Isles — at least the parts with the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, because the Gaelic tribes were doing their own thing — and it didn’t even begin to resemble what we speak know until the French came along.

A couple of centuries after the Norman Conquest in 1066, the text had changed to the following, which should seem a lot more familiar. This is the version as of 1389:

Our fadir that art in heuenes,

halwid be thi name;

Thi kingdom cumme to;

be thi wille don

as in heuen and in earthe;

giv to vs this day our breed ouer other substaunce;

and forgeue to vs oure dettis,

as we forgeue to oure dettours;

and leede us nat in to temptacioun,

but delyuere vs fro yuel.


Other than the v/u swapping going on and the strange spelling, it’s mostly readable to a modern audience. Also notice that there are now a lot more words that are unchanged to this day, and not just short ones. But jump ahead to 1526 and see how much more modern it sounds:

O oure father which arte in heven,

halowed be thy name;

let thy kingdom come;

thy wyll be fulfilled

as well in erth as hit ys in heven;

geve vs this daye oure dayly breade;

and forgeve vs oure treaspases,

even as we forgeve them which treaspas vs;

leede vs not into temptacion,

but delyvre vs ffrom yvell.

For thyne is the kingdom and the power,[4]

and the glorye for ever.


Finally, there’s the King James version which was quite understandable, and which was written near the end of Shakespeare’s life, after he had almost single-handedly created Early Modern English.

Our father which art in heaven,

hallowed be thy name

Thy kingdome come.

Thy will be done,

in earth, as it is in heaven.

Giue us this day our daily bread.

And forgive vs our debts,

as we forgive our debters.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver vs from evill:

For thine is the kingdome, and the power,

and the glory, for ever,


By this point, we’re only a hop, skip, and a jump away from the modern version:

Our Father, who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy Name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done,

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses,

As we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power,

and the glory, for ever and ever.


And now circling back to the original topic of language and time travel, this is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen tackled in any depth, but more than anything, language could be the biggest barrier to any time travelers, even if they’re going back in time in their own country, or at least in their own culture — and traveling back five hundred or a thousand years wouldn’t be the only difficulty. Ironically, jumping back to any point prior to a decade ago and after the American Civil War would also be fraught with language problems.

Why? Because language evolves at the speed of communication. In the 10th century, English remained its own isolated thing and didn’t begin to change until French soldiers under William the Conqueror came in and took over. They brought in both a lot of new vocabulary and a class division in language. The nobility spoke French. The peasants spoke English. Where the two met — i.e. where the peasants served the nobility — vocabulary bled into each other. That is why we have two distinct classes of food words, one set old English and the other French.

Basically, the living animal got the English and the cooked version got the French, so we have cow and beef; chicken and poultry; lamb and mutton; and pig and pork, to name a few.

Once the age of exploration kicked in at the end of the 15th century, English also began to take on a lot of words from other languages. At first, these came from Spanish, Dutch, and more French — the big colonial powers of the time — but eventually also began to come in from the places colonized. This era was the lead-up to the acceleration of change and the development of modern English after Shakespeare’s time, which ended when he died at the beginning of the 17th century.

Now there’s one thing to keep in mind, and that’s the phenomena of regional dialects and slang, which were common in English in both Britain and the U.S. up until the early 20th century. Again, it came down to communication, and people living in isolated pockets didn’t really communicate that much with people in others. Only the upper classes got to do that kind of traveling, but they were also not prone to speaking in slang.

This led to things like completely different accents even across as small a space as England, which is about the size of California. And in other countries, it was even more extreme. In what eventually became Germany, people from the west could not understand people from the east and vice versa, since dialects there turned into a continuum. Likewise, in Spain, things broke down into Castilian (i.e. “real” Spanish), Catalan, Galician, and Occitan.

Back to English in the 20th century, though, and once movies with dialogue and radio became a thing, boom. That speed of communication accelerated, and the rate of evolution and homogenization of the language took off. For a while between the 1930s and 1950s, there was even such a thing as the “Mid-Atlantic” accent, which was a hybrid of British and English designed to resemble neither but be understandable by both. Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and James Mason used it a lot.

During this era, dialect and slang became national, accents started to smooth out, and the new defining feature of vocabulary went from being location to cohort.

Or, in other words, the quickest way to give away your approximate age rapidly became the way you spoke. At least up until a point, and that point was when communication became immediate and instant with the rise of the internet. Over the last decade, the evolution of language has become a constant, with new words being created and old words being dumped every single moment. And every neologism instantly propagates and is adopted or dropped.

In modern terms, then, the separators have gone beyond location and cohort, or have at least landed on a different definition. No, instead of where you are and how old you are, it has more to do with where you are online and what you’re aware of. This still doesn’t help with time travel, though, because even with the internet, you can’t prepare enough.

Go on. Jump into your time machine and go back, say, fifty years, to 1970, and land in Manhattan. Try to have a conversation with a local and see how long you can go without saying something that makes them say, “What?” Or, conversely, how long it is before they say something that makes no sense to you at all.

Try various intervals back to a century ago, or more. Feeling out of your depth? That is the rapid evolution of our language in action. It’s also why complaining about changes in it is futile, and yes I’ll flag myself for this one, because I do love to bitch about abuse of grammar. Although I will contend that abusing grammar and creative or novel uses of words are two very different things. Give me a clever neologism, hooray you! Fuck up the use of an apostrophe? Fifty lashes!