How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk: The New York Times Dialect Quiz

This is a very cool interactive quiz you can take on New York Times‘s website to see how your dialect compares to the rest of the United States. There are twenty five questions in all. I answered “I have no word for this” to five questions. This is what my heat map looked like at the end:

My dialect per New York Times's quiz.

My dialect per New York Times’s quiz.

So of course, I am most similar to speaking like a Southerner (I do say “y’all” when referring to a group of two or more people, after all), but it’s strange that the two cities I am most similar to are Baltimore and Newark.

How about you?

A History of Meh, from Leo Rosten to W.H. Auden to The Simpsons

I’m loving the new Slate blog on words and vocabulary. It’s got a great name: Lexicon Valley. In their most recent post, they trace the development of the now-common “meh” to signify boredom or indifference:

First, a consideration from the early 1990s:

A variant of meh, namely mnyeh, famously appears in the works of the late academic and humorist Leo Rosten, with extended treatment in his Hooray for Yiddish. But Rosten’s work is often disparaged by experts in Yiddishology, and, in any case, there’s no evidence that mnyeh is even a Yiddish word.

The British poet W.H. Auden didn’t think much of the first lunar landing, and he wrote a poem about it (but used “Mneh”):

Worth going to see? I can well believe it.
Worth seeing? Mneh! I once rode through a desert
     and was not charmed: give me a watered
     lively garden, remote from blatherers

Finally, the tracing of “meh” to The Simpsons:

Though Swartzwelder is the most prolific of all Simpsons writers, he has led a reclusive lifewriting novels since leaving the show in 2004. After finding a way to send him a message, I was amazed to actually get a response from the man called “the J. D. Salinger of comedy writing.” He didn’t recall putting meh on the show before his “Hungry Hungry Homer” episode, which aired in 2001, some seven seasons after meh began to be used by Simpsons characters. Oakley, though, suspects meh might have appeared in an early Swartzwelder-penned scene that never made it to air. And Swartzwelder did have a memory of where he first came acrossmeh, though it wasn’t in Mad. “I had originally heard the word from an advertising writer named Howie Krakow back in 1970 or 1971 who insisted it was the funniest word in the world,” he told me. So let’s thank Mr. Krakow for his unwitting role in the spread of the meh meme.

 

Wikipedia has this to add about “Meh“: the word’s first mainstream print usage occurred in Canadian newspaper the Edmonton Sun in 2003: “Ryan Opray got voted off Survivor. Meh.”

On the Origin of the Picnic

I am having one myself this weekend, so it seems apropos to read this short piece in The New York Times on the origin of the picnic:

The word “picnic,” however, is of more recent vintage. An early mention can be traced to a 1649 satirical French poem, which features the Frères Pique-nicques, known for visiting friends “armed with bottles and dishes.” In 1802, the term made a hop to Britain after a group of Francophiles in London formed a Pic-Nic Society to gorge, guzzle and perform amateur theatricals. Participants drew lots to determine who would supply which dish — from calf’s-foot jelly to blancmange.


Read the rest here.
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When Lawyers and Courts Rely on Urban Dictionary

What do lawyers do when a witness or a defendant uses slang that can’t be found in the Webster’s Dictionary? Why, rely on the online site Urban Dictionary, as The New York Times reports:

The online site, created by a college freshman in 1999, has found itself in the thick of cases involving everything from sexual harassment to armed robbery to requests for personalized license plates, as courts look to discern meaning and intent in the modern lexicon.

Last month, Urban Dictionary was cited in a financial restitution case in Wisconsin, where an appeals court was reviewing the term “jack” because a convicted robber and his companion had referred to themselves as the “jack boys.”

The court noted, however, that according to Urban Dictionary, “jack” means “to steal, or take from an unsuspecting person or store.” It then rejected the convicted man’s claim that he should not have to make restitution to the owner of a van he stole to use in a robbery.

Awesome. Can’t tell you how often UD saved me from embarrassment.

Linguists Identify 15,000-year-old Ultraconserved Words

You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!

According to this Washington Post piece summarizing this study, many of the words in the above sentence would have been understood by someone living 15,000 years ago:

That’s because all of the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in the four sentences are words that have descended largely unchanged from a language that died out as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age. Those few words mean the same thing, and sound almost the same, as they did then.

The traditional view is that words can’t survive for more than 8,000 to 9,000 years. Evolution, linguistic “weathering” and the adoption of replacements from other languages eventually drive ancient words to extinction, just like the dinosaurs of the Jurassic era.

A new study, however, suggests that’s not always true.

A team of researchers has come up with a list of two dozen “ultraconserved words” that have survived 150 centuries. It includes some predictable entries: “mother,” “not,” “what,” “to hear” and “man.” It also contains surprises: “to flow,” “ashes” and “worm.”

Fascinating.

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Full paper from The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesultraconserved_words.

Did Geoffrey Chaucer Coin the Word Twitter?

The Oxford English Online tweeted the word cloud below to showcase a few of Geoffrey Chaucer’s contributions to the English language, among them, womanhood, fattish, caterwaul, sluttish, poppet, dotard, and crude. But also, the word twitter:

Chaucer word cloud

The Atlantic Wire summarizes:

Chaucer provides our earliest ex. of twitter, verb: of a bird: to utter a succession of light tremulous notes; to chirp continuously.” On their Oxford Words blog they add that though Chaucer is frequently considered “the venerable but crude uncle of English poetry, always ready with an inappropriate story, quite likely, even when it seems as if his tale can’t get any funnier or more scurrilous”—that bawdy poet our high school English teachers assigned us to read—he was much more.

Dryden dubbed him ‘the Father of English Poetry,’ and while it’s debatable whether he really did invent English poetry as we know it, Chaucer remains considered one of the formidable, formative masters of English language and literature. He’s the man behind expressions like “Love is blind,” “Love conquers all,” “Time and tide wait for no man,” and “shaking like a leaf” or, Right as an aspen lefe she gan to quake. Also, “Marriage is a wonderful invention; but, then again, so is a bicycle repair kit.” Like Shakespeare, he was unafraid to play with words, and to create new ones: “There are around 2,000 words for which the works of Chaucer currently provide evidence of first use in the Oxford English Dictionary. Just over half of these borrowings are from French or Latin roots (mostly French), almost all the rest are new formations based on existing English words,” they write. We still use quite a lot of those words today, tweeting or not, and others are just kind of great: messagery, mishappy, whippletree, corny, poop, Martian, bodkin, bragget, vulgar, snort, scissors, and more.

Interesting.

You should follow me on Twitter here.

The Life and Death of Words

An intriguing new paper by Alexander M. Petersen et al. presents the findings of Google’s digitization project (scanning millions of books). From their abstract:

We analyze the dynamic properties of 107 words recorded in English, Spanish and Hebrew over the period 1800–2008 in order to gain insight into the coevolution of language and culture. We report language independent patterns useful as benchmarks for theoretical models of language evolution. A significantly decreasing (increasing) trend in the birth (death) rate of words indicates a recent shift in the selection laws governing word use. For new words, we observe a peak in the growth-rate fluctuations around 40 years after introduction, consistent with the typical entry time into standard dictionaries and the human generational timescale. Pronounced changes in the dynamics of language during periods of war shows that word correlations, occurring across time and between words, are largely influenced by coevolutionary social, technological, and political factors. We quantify cultural memory by analyzing the long-term correlations in the use of individual words using detrended fluctuation analysis.

How many words are in the English language? The paper gave the best-yet estimate of the true number of words in English—a million, far more than any dictionary has recorded (the 2002 Webster’s Third New International Dictionary has 348,000). More than half of the language, the authors wrote, is “dark matter” that has evaded standard dictionaries.

The paper also tracked word usage through time (each year, for instance, 1% of the world’s English-speaking population switches from “sneaked” to “snuck”). It also showed that we seem to be putting history behind us more quickly, judging by the speed with which terms fall out of use. References to the year “1880” dropped by half in the 32 years after that date, while the half-life of “1973” was a mere decade.

Finally, the authors identified a universal “tipping point” in the life cycle of new words. Roughly 30 to 50 years after their birth, words either enter the long-term lexicon or fall off into oblivion. How that’s for a half-life?

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(via Wall Street Journal)