Crème fraîche is not "fresh cream"

Certain food items borrowed from European traditions are readily translated in English, while others are not, and at times the translations themselves can refer to something entirely different. The vanilla-flavored whipped cream known as crème Chantilly may also legitimately be called "Chantilly cream" in English without any change in meaning. The custard sauce Crème anglaise, which is French for "English cream" (despite the dubiousness of the sauce's English origins) may be called "English cream" in English but usually retains its French name.

In contrast, crème fraîche should never be called by its literal translation "fresh cream," especially since it is most akin to what English speakers generally know as "sour cream." Indeed, the dairy product is essentially fresh cream that has been matured or soured. The French name persists in English. By the same token, the French name crème brûlée is almost always used in English instead of the translation "burnt caramel" for the dessert that is not just burnt caramel, per se, but a rich custard served cold and topped with a warm layer of hard (perhaps burnt) caramel.

Similarly, the "croissant," which literally means "crescent" (due to the shape of the buttery pastry) is occasionally (albeit somewhat rarely) called a "crescent" or "crescent roll" in English. However, in some English-speaking countries, this could cause confusion, as a crescent roll may generally refer to a different type of crescent-shaped, often savory pastry that is made with far fewer layers of dough than a typical croissant.

The pastry known as the "mille-feuilles" in French is generally not translated in English literally as "thousand-leaf" or "thousand-leaf pastry." In Australia and the UK, it is often called a vanilla slice. In New Zealand, it is a custard square. In South Africa, it is a custard slice. In the USA (and, incidentally, in a number of non-English-speaking countries), it is called a napoleon, not derived initially from the emperor but from the city of Naples, Italy. Interestingly, in French, a "Napoléon" refers specifically to a "mille-feuilles" pastry filled with almond paste. Canada proves to be an exception, however, as it is often called a "mille-feuilles" in French and in English there as a viable alternative to the term napoleon in English.

And as we are speaking of pastries frequently served in cafes, what to call coffee drinks made with milk can be confusing. A café au lait is a "French-style beverage made with drip coffee and boiled milk". A café con leche is a "1 1/2 ounce espresso with enough steamed milk to fill an 8-ounce cup." A caffè latte is "a shot of espresso, with a healthy covering of hot steamed milk and up to a quarter inch of foamed milk on top" (references taken from here). Yet they all mean "coffee with milk" in French, Spanish, and Italian, respectively! To complicate the issue, there is an entirely different drink, "coffee milk," which is cold milk mixed with coffee syrup and is the state drink of Rhode Island!

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)


This movie is horrible

I decided to watch the movie "I Really Hate My Job" from the free on-demand feature of my cable TV package, and it was AWFUL! Avoid it! It's about nothing and is not the least bit satisfying or meaningful in any way. Now I know why writers use plots and include likeable characters and other characters who we can identify with, because this movie had *none* of that. I couldn't relate to any of the characters, they all seemed like jerks, most of them were lazy, self-indulgent, and went on about obscure intellectual concerns that no one cares about. I can't believe well-known people were involved in this project. And I'm sure that there are people out there who think I'm pedestrian in my taste, but I don't care. The movie had no focus and nothing to offer other than whining women who all had hangups that only mattered to them and the pretentious writer. Serious thumbs down, not worth the rental price (or time).


Craciun Fericit

I learned how to say "Merry Christmas" in Romanian when Cristina said it on her Facebook status, so I will use it here as well: Craciun Fericit!


Mayumi Heene's name in katakana instead of kanji

The Japanese woman who is going to jail for using her son in a balloon hoax is still a Japanese citizen, but instead of the Japanese press using kanji for her name (as either 真由美 or 真弓), they're using katakana (マユミ). In a CNN/Yahoo article they say:
虚偽通報の罪に問われた妻の マユミ 被告は禁固20日を言い渡されたが、子供たちの面倒を見るためにとの配慮で、リチャード被告が刑期を終えた後の服役となる。
And in an article from the Mainichi newspaper they say:
夫のリチャード・ヒーニー被告(48)を禁固90日(うち60日間は日中に建設労働)、妻の マユミ 被告(45)を禁固20日とした。
This is significant because katakana usually represents foreign names, words, and concepts. But she's not a foreigner. She hasn't become an American citizen, and there was actually a possibility that they were going to deport her. But from the Japanese media's perspective, her name is foreign. Is that because she's lived in the US for years and is married to an American? Or did the crime make her even more distant in their eyes? I'd be curious to know why these news outlets spelled her name that way.


a belated Joyeux Hanouka

Chanukah is over, but I wanted to share this cool image from France (that I just saw at The Paris Blog). So next year people will be able to enjoy it on time :D



When I found out about a petition against crowdsourcing translations, I thought, "Oh great, another unfair labor issue." Then I had to make sure I knew what crowdsourcing was, because it's used in both positive and negative ways, especially now that it's been used a lot in the design profession.

Crowdsourcing is, according to Wikipedia (which seems like a successful crowdsourcing project): "the act of taking tasks traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing them to a group (crowd) of people or community in the form of an open call." So it's like outsourcing, though most of the time companies don't want to pay for the crowd to create something.

Basically, there are a lot of people who are very worried that crowdsourcing is killing their livelihood, just as outsourcing has done. But it's inevitable, especially because the Internet is everywhere and there are a lot more options. Why pay someone when you can just post a request online and a bunch of people will respond and work together to create what you want? It's just another example of L.I.F. "Life Isn't Fair".


I have a podcast

I've recently created a podcast called Radiogirl, and I post a new episode each week. Each pod is around 10 minutes, so it's easy to digest :D

A recurring "guest" is Simon Badinter, an interesting French guy who I interviewed this past summer. I met him at a Chicago radio station and we got along, so I took a risk by asking him to join my podcast, and he agreed.

I also talk to other interesting folks, including some snowboarders I met at another Chicago radio station. In my most recent podcast, after I talk to Simon about breakfast in Paris, the snowboarders explain what some snowboarding words mean in plain English. I also read an email from the seemingly nice translator and language blogger Sarah Dillon, who complimented me on the podcast and has even subscribed (thanks for that!).

In the future, you might see some posts here relating to my podcast if I cover language-related stuff over there.

My podcast is on iTunes and you can also subscribe to get free updates.

Enjoy and feel free to let me know what you think.


Holy days and holidays

As the holiday season is upon us, I feel that it is timely to give some thought to some of the diverse origins of words associated with Christian holidays in English. Christmas, of course, is derived from Christ mass (i.e. a mass for Christ) akin to other holidays, which have waned in relative importance over the years, such as Michaelmas (the mass for the Feast of St. Michael), Candlemas (the Candle Mass on the Feast of the Purification), and Childermas (Children's Mass or the commemoration of the Massacre of the Innocents).

However, Christmas is often synonymous with Yule as in such expressions as "Yuletide cheer" and "Yule log." Yule is the pagan Germanic winter festival celebrated before the Germanic peoples were converted to Christianity (and elements of Yule were incorporated into the celebration of Christmas in these regions). In fact, in Scandinavian languages, cognates of Yule (such as "Jul" in Swedish) are still used to refer to Christmas itself.

As for the term "Noel," which has traditionally been a name given to baby boys born in December and appears in the Christmas carol "the first Noel," that is the French word for Christmas (Noël). Similarly, "Natalie" has often been given to girls born around this time, as "Natalie" is derived from "Natal," which, along with its cognates, is the word of Christmas in a number of Romance languages, such as Portuguese ["Natal") and Italian ("Natale"). It is not surprising that "Natal" refers to the birth of Christ (analogous to terms such as pre-natal or ante-natal care) and is related to words such as "nativity" (as in "nativity scenes" that depict the birth celebrated at Christmastime).

Easter has a similar multilingual and multicultural background. Easter is derived from the Anglo-Saxon "Eostre-monath," a month honoring the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre (a cognate of the continental form Ostara). The Greek form "Pascha," derived in term from the Hebrew word "Pesach" ("Passover") found its way into Latin as "Pascha" and hence not only into most modern Romance languages (such as "Pascua" in Spanish), but also a number of Celtic languages (such as "Pask" in Breton) and even some Germanic languages ("Pasen" in Dutch), although German uses "Ostern." In English, occasionally, the form "Paschal" is used to refer to the feast celebrated with Easter. For the most part, Slavic languages (with the exception of Russian) have remained outside this influence, with some Slavic languages opting for the equilavents of "Great Day" or "Great Night" (such as "Velikonoce" in Czech) and the South Slavic languages occasionally borrowing terms (such as "Uskrs," meaning Resurrection, in Serbian and Croatian) from Old Church Slavonic.

And finally, some Christian churches celebrate the "Eucharist" (Holy Communion) every Sunday. The word is derived from Greek eucharistía (comprised of roots for "good" and "grace"), with "Eucharistéō" being the verb "to thank" in New Testament Greek. It comes as no surprise that "Eucharist" is directly related to "efharisto," which is Modern Greek for "thank you."

Happy holidays!

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)


Countries that have visited here

I said in my previous post that I'd list the countries that have visited this baby blog, so I've pasted them below. There are other countries that have visited here, but due to severe lack of sleep, I'm too lazy to seek them all out. At least 150 countries have visited here. And sorry the list is in a long line instead of in a table format, but that's also due to my sleep deprivation.

United States
Great Britain
Hong Kong
South Korea
Russian Federation
Czech Republic
Saudi Arabia
South Africa
United Arab Emirates
New Zealand
Slovak Republic
Costa Rica
European Union
Ivory Coast (Cote D'Ivoire)
Puerto Rico
Sri Lanka
Former Czechoslovakia
Brunei Darussalam
El Salvador
Trinidad and Tobago
Dominican Republic
Cayman Islands
Northern Mariana Islands
Netherlands Antilles
Faroe Islands
Samoa Islands
New Caledonia (French)
Palestinian Territories
Saint Lucia
Antigua and Barbuda
Virgin Islands
British Indian Ocean Territory
Papua New Guinea
Solomon Islands


Over five years

I just want to say THANK YOU to the thousands of people from all over the world who have visited this baby blog. I've been here for over five years and I had no idea that I'd get so many visitors (well over a couple hundred thousand unique visitors) or that I'd still be writing here. A lot has happened since I started this blog: when I started, I was working at home a lot, doing translations, editing, and proofreading, and I needed some kind of outlet to express my love for language. Then eventually I ended up working in radio and teaching ESL (both which I love doing) and meeting some people in the media who I'd only known from afar. Now I write about Chicago-related TV for Gapersblock.com and of course have published a book (click the link on the right for a full preview).

There's more I want to say, but I don't have much time because I have to work all day and night today (first helping with English class registration and then doing radio stuff). When I get back, I'll post some of the countries that have visited here. But for now, I want to say THANKS again and feel free to tell your friends :D


Depeche Mode keep their British accent

I was listening to Depeche Mode (one of my favorite bands that I luckily saw at Lollapalooza last summer) much of the day today, and it occurred to me that they don't do what other British bands do: they don't drop their British accent when they sing to take on an American one. Note how they pronounce their R's--not like Americans!


Give blood

I would like to interrupt this language blog to give a public service announcement: please GIVE BLOOD. A few years ago, I saw someone's life saved through a blood transfusion, and it inspired me to start giving blood regularly until for some reason the hospital where I gave it said some number was too low (I forgot what they were talking about, but it was after they put it in a spinner). Then I gave early this year and even though I felt light-headed and had to lie there a while, I was glad to do it.

Several months passed, and I never made the time to give blood again until I went to the hospital recently to visit someone who got SEVEN pints of blood. That's a lot! So I thought, "Hey, I should give blood to help someone else get better," so I made an appointment and went today.

Again, I didn't feel too good afterwards and made the stupid mistake of going to the library instead of going straight home to rest, so even now I still feel funny. But I'm very glad I donated blood and I'd like to urge you to do the same.

If you've ever seen someone in the hospital after they've received blood, or if you've ever seen someone go from the brink of death to life, you know what I'm talking about. That's what blood does--it really saves lives and helps people get better!

So eat lots of food, give blood, drink juice and eat cookies afterwards, and then rest. It may not be the most comfortable thing in the world, but it is VERY important. I'll be going again in a couple of months to give some more.


Of Navy Beans and Haricot Beans

Gourmands beware: vegetables can go by many different names throughout the English-speaking world.

For instance, the North American vegetable "squash" takes its name from "askutasquash" (literally "green thing eaten raw") courtesy of the indigenous Naragansett Indians of the New England region. However, in the United Kingdom and in parts of the British Commonwealth, the vegetable is called a "marrow" (due to comparisons between the cooked flesh of the squash and bone marrow, although this hardly sounds terribly appetizing). To add to the confusion, the vegetable (or at least one variety) is called a "marrow squash," including in the USA.

French influences seem to be more evident in names of vegetables in British and some varieties of Commonwealth English (but not others). What North Americans and Australians call a "zucchini" (taken from the Italian) is called a "courgette" by Brits, the Irish, South Africans, and New Zealanders. What North Americans, New Zealanders, and Australians call "snow peas" are called by the Brits as "mangetout" (literally, "eat everything"!), although I have read that there is technically some difference between true snow peas and true mangetout peas.

Furthermore, what North Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders call an "eggplant" is called an "aubergine" by the Brits, "brinjal" (derived from Sankrit and Persian and also the distant root of "aubergine") by South Africans, Malaysians, and some Indians. In Trinidad, the vegetable is called a "meloongen" (a Latin derivative).

Beans appear to be especially vulnerable to variation across the Atlantic. "Navy beans" in the USA are called "haricot beans" (taken from the French word "haricot" for bean) in the UK. "Lima beans" in the USA are "butterbeans" to Brits, and "fava beans" in the States are "broad beans" in Blighty. Moreover, "stringbeans" in the USA are "runner beans" in Britain.

The term "corn" is rather interesting since, traditionally, in British English "corn" has meant nearly any type of grain, so the Brits have often called this vegetable (or grain, if you wish) "maize," descended from a Taino Indian (Caribbean) word by way of Spanish. Nowadays, the Brits and Irish seem to have largely supplanted "maize" with "sweetcorn," whereas Americans and most of the rest of the English-speaking world call the vegetable simply "corn." In South Africa, however, it is often called "mielie" (derived from the Portuguese word for corn: "milho").

There are some vegetables with acceptable alternates. What Brits call a "gherkin" (descended from Dutch and referring to the vegetable) is usually called a "pickle" (also derived from Dutch, but referring to the salty liquid in which the vegetable is pickled) by Americans, although "gherkin" is occasionally used in the United States. What Brits call "coriander" is generally called "cilantro" by Americans, although there appears to be some interchangeability (and some debate as to whether they are technically the same!), and the terms "garbanzo" (derived from old Spanish) and "chickpea" (with "chick" derived from the French word for the vegetable "pois chiche," descended in turn from Latin "cicer," the origin of the Roman name Cicero!) sometimes used interchangeably within various dialects of English, with Brits tending to prefer "chickpea."

And let's not forget the "avocado" (descended from the Spanish "aguacate"), which has been known colloquially in various regions as an "alligator pear," which is what the English in Jamaica first called it due to the avocado's rough skin!

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)


this New Zealander speaks good American English

I just saw the excellent movie "Star Trek" again (which I saw earlier this year with a very disillusioned hardcore Trekkie) and I have to say that I had no idea that the actor who plays Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) is from New Zealand. His portrayal of Bones isn't just good, but his American accent is as well. And I didn't realize until I did a search online that he was also in "Lord of the Rings", which is one of my favorite movies.

Check out the clip below--you'll agree that he's a good actor and sounds American.


French Thanksgiving Quiz

Today is Thanksgiving, and I've been informed that we're going to be eating a lot of delicious food (I'm going to my sister's house to celebrate). I got some French wine for the occasion, and interestingly enough, I found a French Thanksgiving vocabulary quiz. American Thanksgiving is not connected to the French, so it's sort of odd that someone would create a quiz for the holiday, but who cares--I love languages and Thanksgiving, so it works out for me :D

There are 50 questions, but you can take shorter versions of the quiz. I took it and got a "pas mal" so maybe my French isn't as bad as I thought. Good luck and Happy Thanksgiving!


I can see why this book is a bestseller

I spent a weekend tearing through the book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man by Steve Harvey, who seems to be able to do everything. Seriously--he's a successful comedian, has also made lots of money on TV, and can even do great radio. A lot of people aren't good on the radio, even famous people who've found success elsewhere before trying it out. But just like other things he's done, he's aced it (and has gotten rich from that as well).

His book was so well-written and so informative, I couldn't put it down. But he didn't write it alone--he had a coauthor. Still, you can tell it's his voice--he just probably had help to clarify his thoughts and make them flow nicely.

So I can see why this book is a bestseller. I highly recommend it, though it's written for women who aren't married. But I still found it informative and entertaining.


Executive producer

I see the title "executive producer" thrown around the radio biz, but most of those people are "just" producers (I put "just" in quotes because there's nothing wrong with being a producer without the "executive" in front of it). I've stayed silent about this embellished title, but I've seen it so often, I can't help but talk about it now.

It seems that the TV and film industries have lots of executive producers, and there are several sources of the definition out there. One site says "an executive producer is someone who is either financing a film, or is representing a studio or party that is financing a film." And other sites mention films and TV too, but I don't see any definitions for radio executive producers. Even Wikipedia doesn't mention radio in their list of types of executive producers.

I know a very successful producer of a top morning show who doesn't call himself "executive producer," even though he has a few people working below him. He just says "producer". I think because he cares more about the quality of work he does than the title. But I've noticed that people who have *no* people working for them will call themselves "executive producers" on their resume, in their voicemails, and wherever else they can broadcast their importance.

So if you see that title, ask them what they're executive of, and who they supervised. Chances are that very few of them actually called the shots on the show or worked alone, except for the occasional intern.


The Mystique of Double Consonants

Double consonants can be confusing in English because often they are pronounced exactly the same as single consonants. In this regard, it would perhaps be much easier for those who are writing in English were like Italian, which has double consonants, although the consonants are lengthened when they are doubled. Hence, speakers can hear the doubling. Curiously, although the doubling of English consonants cannot usually be heard, often doubling (or lack thereof) can affect the pronunciation of the preceding vowel. For instance, "a" is pronounced differently in "scarring" and "scaring," even though the "r" is pronounced identically in both words.

Spanish tends not to have double consonants except in the case of "r" and "l." "rr" is treated as a separate letter of the Spanish alphabet, pronounced as a longer, more strongly trilled version of the singular "r." Furthermore, "ll" is pronounced entirely differently from "l," with the former sounding very similar to "y" and the latter sounding similar to the English "l." Consonants that are doubled in French, Portuguese in German tend to sound the same as the singular counterparts, with the notable exception of "s," which often sounds like an English "z" in the singular and an English "s" in the plural.

There are so-called rules that govern the doubling of English consonants in verb stems when followed by "-ing" or "-ed." For instance, one-syllable words ending in a "consonant-vowel-consonant" sequence (such as "rub" or "stun") undergo doubling ("rubbed," "stunned"). In two-syllable words, if the stress is on the second syllable, then the consonant in which the root ends is also doubled ("admit">"admitting"). The rules are described in greater detail here.

But this is not the whole story, as there are dialectal variations. For instance, "final -l is always doubled after one vowel in stressed and unstressed syllables in (Commonwealth) English but usually only in stressed syllables in American English". Hence, while most, if not all, dialects of English have "rebel">"rebelled," American English has "travel">"traveled" and Commonwealth English has "travel">"travelled." To confuse matters, American English occasionally doubles "l" in roots where Commonwealth English does not. Thus, American English has "skillful," 'enroll," and "fulfill," while Commonwealth English has "skilful," "enrol," and "fulfil" (although "skill" remains "skill" in most, if not all dialects).

With all of this orthographical chaos, it should come as no surprise, then, that "misspell" is commonly misspelled as "mispell" even by native English speakers!

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)


I just saw this good French movie tonight

I'll be honest: I don't go to movies much because they seem crass and shallow, or have too much violence or the stars are so self-indulgent and obnoxious, it's hard for me to shell out the 11 bucks (!) to support them.

But I saw a really good movie tonight: Coco Before Chanel. It's in French, so it was especially interesting for me to read the English subtitles while trying to figure out what they were saying.

Here's the French trailer for the film, and below that is the English trailer. I'm putting the French one first because, of course, I'm a language fan :D


What "pissed" means in American English

I'm sure there are tons of people defining the word "pissed" online, but I'd like to add my take here, because recently I exchanged emails with a Brit who needed some clarification.

To Americans, the word "pissed" means really angry. Like "I'm so pissed that jerk got the job I wanted!"

But to Brits, "pissed" means drunk. It never means drunk to us. We simply say "drunk". Or if we're not at the drunk level, we say "tipsy" or "buzzed". And if we're very drunk, we say "wasted".

So when a Brit asks me if they seemed "pissed", at first I think I made them angry, but then realize they're talking about drinking too much.


Kanji practice site

Wow, Dartmouth has some really nice Japanese resources. They built a kanji site where you can practice reading, listening, and even watching someone write the kanji in a mini video! And the person who is voicing the Japanese sentences sounds excellent--obvious a native speaker who knows how to read beautifully. It has up to 400 kanji, and you can listen to the on-yomi and kun-yomi readings of each character and follow along with the transcription of what is being said. A very good site--one of the reasons why I'm glad universities have lots of money.


Talking with my friend George about Japanese and Hong Kong

My friend George, a really nice guy who I met in Japanese class a few years ago, moved to Hong Kong and was back in town visiting family and friends before starting a new teaching gig over there. I asked him about Hong Kong and learning Japanese, because he plans to move back to Japan one day. So here's the audio (it's 4 minutes), which includes a recommendation for Japanese Pod 101.

Listen to the interview at this link (mp3 file).


The voice of Mythbusters

I've been watching Mythbusters for a while, and I've assumed the narrator is American. But tonight I heard the word "against" pronounced "a-GAIN-st". Americans say "a-genst"--NEVER pronounce the "gain" literally--ie, use the long "a" sound that you think would be applied to the "ai" combination.

So I thought the narrator was Canadian, since I've heard Canadians pronounce some words in a more British way. (Canadians' accent is between British and American, though I'd say they sound way more American than British). So I did a quick search, and found out on a fan site that he was born in England, "grew up in North America" and now lives in Australia. It sounds like he probably spent at least part of his time in Canada, because otherwise they'd specifically say that he grew up in the United States or Canada, unless he wants to be vague about his background.

Anyway, he's a very successful voiceover guy in Australia--he's probably one of the go-to voices for people over there who want an American accent. But from my perspective, his English sounds more international than just American. If you listen to the demos on his site, you'll hear him say "bean" for "been" (whereas we say "bin" for "been"). And he seems to slip into slight non-American accents when he says other words.

Well whatever his accent is, he's probably making a great living from speaking, so congrats to him!


Writing "awhile" for "a while"

For some reason, I have trouble wrapping my mind around "a while" vs. "awhile." The rule is simple enough, according to daily writing tips:

"A while is a noun meaning “a length of time”

“I slept for a while.”
- (compare with “I slept for a bit” and “I slept for three hours”)
“I was away from my desk for a while.”
- (compare with “I was away from my desk for two minutes”)

Awhile is an adverb, meaning “for a time,” or literally, “for a while”.

“I slept awhile before dinner.”
(compare with “I slept deeply before dinner” and “I slept badly before dinner”.)
As you can see, the words can be used almost interchangeably in some cases – but a while needs to be accompanied by a preposition, such as “for” (“I slept for a while”) or “ago” (“I left work a while ago”). Awhile always means “for a while”.

Logically, this makes sense, with prepositions, "a while" is used, while "awhile" is used as a stand-alone adverb. I am not sure why "a while" looks so wrong to me even when it is used correctly. It is also curious because English lacks analogous pairs like "alot" and "a lot" or "akimbo" and "a kimbo." Usually only one choice applies to most, if not all, situations. Hence, the "awhile"/"a while" dichotomy may strike my eyes as strange, especially since, as the description states, "the words can be used almost interchangeably in some cases."

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)


I was actually responsible today

I've had a strange schedule lately, so today I decided to take it easy while it was raining outside. I was quite lazy, though I did manage to do a bit of work, but I didn't do laundry or clean or even read any of my books.

Then I thought, "Hey, I should study Japanese today since there was no class last night," but I didn't want to read anything online because I'd already killed lots of time watching various episodes of comedians and stupid sitcoms, and I'm not one of those folks who likes to spend a ton of time online.

The option was to go to the Japanese Consulate, where they have a library that's open to the public every weekday. I figured if I went there, surrounded by Japanese books and magazines, and even some Japanese people, it would force me to study. So after I managed to break through my laziness, I actually went there, got a kanji dictionary and Japanese-English dictionary off the shelf, grabbed a manga, and got to work.

Since I got there not too far before closing time, I didn't study as long as I wanted, but at least I did! So I'll be going back next week because I've discovered that I *can* be responsible and disciplined when Japanese beckons :D


Obama as a Japanese verb

Mad Minerva told me about a blog about Japan that reports the use of Obama as a verb:

obamu: (v.) To ignore inexpedient and inconvenient facts or realities, think “Yes we can, Yes we can,” and proceed with optimism using those facts as an inspiration (literally, as fuel). It is used to elicit success in a personal endeavor. One explanation holds that it is the opposite of kobamu. (拒む, which means to refuse, reject, or oppose).

I pasted this sample sentence ほら、何落ち込んでいるんだよ。オバめよ、オバめ。that he used in his blog into Popjisyo (which is now my homepage) and they had no translation for オバめ ("obame"). So it's a really new, and possibly obscure, phrase...until now, because it looks like a lot of people are blogging about it :D


Reading tonight!

The Down the Block reading is happening tonight: Friday, October 23, from 7 to 8 PM, at Quimby's Bookstore, 1854 W. North Avenue in Chicago. Four people will read their contributions, and the event is free. Hope to see you there!


Why use "some"?

I've noticed that people use the word "some" quite often when they offer statistics. For instance, I was watching a documentary, and the narrator said, "There were some 30 million gallons of water." That doesn't sound like "some" to me--that's a lot!

I know that they don't literally mean "some" as in "not many", but they don't need to use that word at all. Why not say, "There were 30 billion gallons of water."

If you listen to various narratives, news reports, or commentaries carefully, you'll hear people use the word "some" when they're about to offer information. And you'll also notice that it's not necessary. I wonder when this trend started.


Is It All Right To Use "Alright"?

English is notorious for its baffling spelling rules and its seemingly capricious and arbitrary differentiations as to what is correct and incorrect. I am thinking specifically of "all right" and "alright."

Native speakers of English often spell "all right" as "alright." For instance, the British group the Who released a song called 'The Kids are Alright' (also used as the title of a British-made documentary about the group). Nevertheless, many people (including me) have been taught that "alright" is not a word and that it should always be written "all right."

For instance, an article intended to prepare candidates for the SAT university entrance exam advises that "Alright is all wrong. Use the two-word form, all right." Similarly, a website listing commonly confused English words dictates "All right. NEVER alright."

It's not that simple, though. After all, English has the acceptable pairs "all together" and "altogether," as well as "all ready" and "already." So why not "all right" and "alright"? Apparently "alright" and "all right" have both had a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't existence, and despite the efforts of prescriptionists to banish "alright" to the linguistic corner, it frequently creeps up in well-respected journalism and literary works.

The SAT Prep article continues:

this requires a bit of explanation. Alright is now widely used, particularly in informal settings such as blogs, emails, text messages, instant messages, tweets, and even some classrooms. Many well-known writers, including James Joyce and Langston Hughes, have used it in literature. It is ubiquitous in written dialog and, sadly, in student papers.

In fact, according to Merriam-Webster Online, the single word alright has been in use since 1887.
The two-word phrase all right was used more than five hundred years ago, spelled al right by Chaucer around the year 1385. The word fell out of favor, then returned to common usage later, when Percy Bysshe Shelley employed it in Scenes from Goethe's Faust.

In any case, all right is the much older form. It remains the standard for use in formal writing today. Alright should be used, if at all, only in informal writing.
I scratch my head and wonder about this logic. If "all right" (written as "al right") was used in the 14th century, only to vanish for roughly 400 years and subsequently reappear as "all right," followed a mere few decades later by "alright," how did "alright" become entirely incorrect instead of just a less common variant? Was it simply a case of "the fastest spelling wins the race"?

There does not, to my mind, seem to be a rational reason why one spelling should be regarded as incorrect especially since both have been widely used by English speakers of varying levels of education and literacy. The notion of incorrect vs. correct seems due to narrow-minded convention ("we spell it this way to not offend any fussy English teachers out there") rather than being founded on any linguistic basis. The flimsiness of the "alright" ban may be why such dictionaries as the American Heritage Dictionary now (as of 1996) list "alright" as an alternate spelling rather than a misspelling. Still, "old-school" teachers and editors may wince and continue to perceive it as incorrect, hence prompting the word of caution in the SAT Prep article.

It makes me wonder who decides the rules of natural language-average speakers who actually speak and write natural languages or small groups of elitist prescriptionists who have an idealized view of how we "should" speak and write, whether the issue is "alright" vs. "all right," a split infinitive, or a preposition precariously placed at the end of a question.

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)


Some language excitement

I've been using the Cyberduck ftp client, and I want to donate something, so I went to the donate page. He asks for either financial donations, or a purchase from his Amazon wishlist, so I went there, and saw that it's in German!

Okay, it doesn't seem like a big deal, but it is to me because I always go to the English Amazon site, and that's just normal for me. But to see "Wunschzettel" and all the directions and listings in German is just exciting. So is the explanation:

Ein Wunschzettel ist eine persönliche Liste all der Dinge, die Sie oder Ihre Firma gerne hätten und die wir auf unserer Website für Sie anbieten. Freunde, Verwandte und alle anderen, die es gut mit Ihnen meinen, können damit das perfekte Geschenk für Sie finden.
But what's weird is that when you click on the "wunschzettel" link, the url is www.amazon.de/gp/registry/wishlist, ie, it's the extension ".de" instead of ".com", but the rest is in English: "registry/wishlist".

I wonder if German speakers are bothered by the fact that their url is in English instead of their language. Maybe there are some indignant people out there nodding their heads right now.


Flash torch?

Well I guess I keep learning new English words from British TV because I was watching another episode of Inspector Lewis last night (which makes that two nights in a row of Lewis enjoyment) and Lewis' sergeant said "flash torch" instead of the American English word "flashlight".

I've often heard Brits say "torch" when referring to "flashlight" but I hadn't heard the word "flash torch" until last night. Honestly, I think that using the word "torch" for a battery-operated item seems odd because a "torch" has a flame, so it needs no batteries. Like the Olympic torch. If an American used the word "torch" for a flashlight, people would think they're really weird, or at least a British wannabe. And "flash torch" sounds almost sci-fi.

Do the Brits come from such an ancient civilization that they had to refer to a modern device using an older term? It's like technology evolved and someone said, "Hey, let's just call it a torch--we don't have much time to think of something else!" If only they could've looked to us Americans to provide a good word for it. Then they wouldn't be walking around using elemental concepts for evolutionary instruments.


A language lesson from Inspector Lewis

I was watching the excellent Mystery series Inspector Lewis, and he actually taught us something about British English: he said the word "colleague", and then said that people in the north use the word "workmate" instead.

Thanks Inspector! I had no idea. No wonder they use that word a lot in the British press.


This is authentic?

Food companies must think consumers are really stupid because they use words such as "gourmet" and "authentic" to convince people that their products are the "highest quality", even though their ingredients tell a different story. Such as this company: they say that they've been offering "authentic foods since 1908".

Take a look at these ingredients from one dinner. Do they seem "authentic"? And have they really been using these ingredients since 1908?

Enchiladas: Tortilla: Corn flour (ground corn, trace of lime), water. Filling: Water, dehydrated cheese powder (corn syrup, American cheese [milk, culture, salt, enzymes], food starch-modified, whey, partially hydrogenated oil [coconut and/or soybean], salt, butter [milkfat], nonfat milk, buttermilk, disodium phosphate, sodium caseinate, mono & di-glycerides, citric acid, sodium stearoyl lactylate, sodium citrate, dipotassium phosphate, natural flavor, natural and artificial colors [annatto, paprika, FD & C Yellow #5, FD & C Yellow #6, Beta Carotene], and carrageenan), Cheddar Cheese: (cultured pasteurized milk, salt, enzymes, annatto [color]), modified food starch, imitation cheddar cheese (water, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, casein, modified food starch, contains 2% or less of: salt, kasal, sodium citrate, lactic acid, cellulose powder, sorbic acid [to preserve freshness], artificial flavor, artificial color), contains 2% or less of: dehydrated onion. Red Chile Sauce: Water, shortening (beef fat and cottonseed oil, BHT added to improve stability), Bleached wheat flour enriched (niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), flavorings including paprika, contains 2% or less of: modified food starch, chili powder (chili pepper, salt, spices, garlic powder), dehydrated soy sauce flavor (soy sauce [soy bean, salt, corn syrup], yeast extract and partially hydrogenated soybean oil), salt, beef base (salt, soy sauce[Naturally fermented wheat & soybeans, salt, maltodextrin and caramel color], maltodextrin, yeast extract, dextrose, modified food starch, caramel color, dehydrated onion, silicon dioxide, corn oil, natural flavor), lactic acid, guar gum. Beans: Water, pinto beans, contains 2% or less of: shortening (beef fat and cottonseed oil, BHT added to improve stability), salt, flavorings, modified food starch, chili powder (chili pepper, salt, spices, garlic powder). Spanish Rice: Cooked rice (water, rice), water, tomato paste, bell peppers, contains 2% or less of: flavorings including paprika, modified food starch, salt, dehydrated onion, vegetable oil (canola and/or soybean), sugar and citric acid. Topping: Imitation Cheddar cheese (water, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, casein, modified food starch, contains 2% or less of: salt, kasal, sodium citrate, lactic acid, cellulose powder, sorbic acid [to preserve freshness], artificial flavor, artificial color).


When Alice's White Rabbit becomes a White Kangaroo

As an adult, I read Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and marveled at the use of puns, inversions, and other types of wordplay such as the following dialogue:

"Why did you call him tortoise, if he wasn't one?" Alice asked.
"We call him Tortoise because he taught us," said the Mock Turtle angrily. "Really, you are very dull." (Chapter IX)


"That's the reason they're called lessons," the Gryphon remarked: "because they lessen from day to day." (Chapter IX)
While I found Carroll's writing to be witty, as a translator, I wondered how on earth Carroll's classic could have been translated into other languages, and, according to Wikipedia, the work has been translated into 125 languages. For instance, the play on "Tortoise" and "taught us" would be completely lost in French or Spanish, as would the play on "lesson" and "lessen." An exceptional pun or rhyme might be dealt with neatly with a footnote, but so much of the novel consists of these clever linguistic maneuvers that would seem to only work in English.

I recently did a Google search to find out how translators may have handled this particularly tricky work. In 1999, Sílvia Mas interviewed translator Salvador Oliva in An Interview With Salvador Oliva: Translating Alice in Wonderland into Catalan. In the interview, Oliva states that

Sometimes the content itself is not so important because it is not referential language. Therefore, it can always be replaced. The fundamental aspect for me is the rhyme. not referential language. Therefore, it can always be replaced...the translator has to alter the meaning. It is unavoidable.
Essentially Oliva creates new puns that keep the tone and basic suggestion of the original text, even if the “translation” is not literal.

Vladimir Nabokov, perhaps best known for his infamous work Lolita, produced a Russian translation of Carroll's classic. Leigh Kimmel writes that

while most of the earlier translators of Alice in Wonderland had simply given up on trying to preserve the humor of the puns and had simply translated the words as they were, Nabokov instead tried to find pairs of near-homophones in Russian which would be equally humorous for the Russian reader.
In Exploring Translation and Multilingual Text Production: Beyond Content (Erich Steiner and Colin Yallop, 2001) discuss (pp. 232-238) Nancy Sheppard's translation of Carroll's work into the Australian aboriginal language Pitjantjatjara. Not only does Sheppard have to deal with all the wordplay, but also a very English context that is decidedly out of place in the central Australian desert. Hence the concept of Alice in Wonderland has been translated as "Alitji in the Dreamtime." Instead of seeing a white rabbit, Alitji sees a white kangaroo. The dormouse becomes a koala. Furthermore, l ike Oliva and Nabokov, Sheppard creates new puns that are intended to suggest the spirit of the original puns to readers even if the actual content has been changed.

Translators are, by nature, given the task of rendering the meaning, tone, and spirit of a source text in one language faithfully into a target text in a second language. Often this does not pose a problem and can be accomplished by skilled professionals. However, sometimes in more creative texts, such as poetry or in documents involving the use of wordplay exclusive to the source language, a choice must be made, and either the literal meaning or the spirit must be sacrificed. This represents a gray, murky area in the dynamic field of translation and also underscores the need for qualified human translators to carry out such translations. Indeed, as faulty as "computerized" translations (such as those offered by Babelfish) of straightforward documents might be, it would, at this point, seem nearly impossible for such a work as Alice to be translated effectively by such software.

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)


Pink castle!

I sometimes read the Japanese Yahoo site to practice my reading skills, and I found this pretty pink castle. The Japanese caption says that the Nagoya Castle was lit up pink to raise awareness for the early detection of breast cancer. The castle is located within the city, and it's being restored, so that's why there's a construction site there.



Will be we be saying "Parabéns" to Rio? I hope so, and I live in Chicago. Take the Olympics, please.

Update: Parabéns!


Freelance worker

I was talking to someone about what working "freelance" means, and I found a good definition at About.com, which lists four categories: Independent Contractors, On-Call Workers, Temporary Help Agency Workers, and Workers Provided by Contract Firms. I think the "independent contractors" definition is good for a freelance worker, and the source is reliable (the IRS):

The U.S. Internal Revenue Service defines the role of independent contractors this way: "A general rule is that you, the payer, have the right to control or direct only the result of the work done by an independent contractor, and not the means and methods of accomplishing the result."

Also, freelance workers have to pay all their taxes, unlike part-time workers, whose taxes and social security are partly paid by the employer. And part-timers have to show up at certain times and the employer controls them more.

Many people freelance, but definitely more people would love to have a decent full-time job where they don't have to worry about getting work. But a lot of people are finding out that it's hard to keep such jobs now.


Invented languages

I found an online artificial language lab with a list of invented languages and various data and commentary. There's no "about" section, so I don't know why the guy set up the site, but it's interesting and he really seems to love language!

There's also a faq page, including explanations on why artificial languages are "useful and interesting".


Why mix?

I ended up watching a show from India called Bollywood Unlimited, which is in English even though it covers the Indian film industry. They even have English subtitles when an Indian language (Hindi?) celebrity is talking to the media.

What I noticed, other than how different it is from American Hollywood shows, is that when the actors were being interviewed, they'd speak mostly in Hindi, but would occasionally throw English words in. Why do they mix languages? Why not just go for 100% Hindi? Is that common in India? I have no idea.

After a while, it was fun to listen to them speak while reading the subtitles, and try to figure out which English words they were using and how long they'd stick with them before slipping back into Hindi. I think switching between languages is technically called code-switching.

I can't find an extensive site for the show, but I did find a blog that has the same name, and it seems to have some good info (at least according to the poster's self-opinion) about what's going on there.


Ought we to use "the Aughts"?

With only a few months left of this decade, there seems to be a lack of consensus on what this decade should be called in English. The 1990s were nicely summarized as "the nineties," the 1980s as "the eighties," and so on. However, English, despite its seemingly legendary flexibility, has seemed unable to produce a decisive term for the years 2000 to 2009.

In The Age of the Aughts, Mark Peters discusses the use of "aughts" to refer to the 00s and writes:

A gold star for word-predicting should go to Visual Thesaurus Editor Ben Zimmer, who speculated on OUP Blog in 2007 that "aughts" had a good chance of winning the race, despite the fact that "aught" isn’t exactly a common word for zero. Zimmer noted that the archaic-sounding word is commonly used in the United States to describe the years 1900 to 1909, and that "mid-aughts" was already starting to pick up steam, potentially sparing us the silliness of no-naming, which Zimmer explained was "…when a radio station announces that it plays ‘hits from the ’80s, ’90s… and today!’
Despite the success of "aughts," recent tweets show some people are still paralyzed--or at least amused--with uncertainty as to how they will linguistically look back on 2000 to 2009:

"Amazing how 9 years into this decade there’s still no consensus on what to call it. Can we just go with @maddow’s ‘two-thousandsies’?"
Aug. 21, 2009 Mike McCaffrey

"So we had the 60’s, 70’s 80’s, and 90’s. But what will we call this decade? I'm gonna vote for the Zero’s!"
Aug. 19, 2009 shaythai

"Considering its focus on terror and uncertainty, I propose we call this decade ‘The Dread Naughts’"
Aug. 18, 2009 Fred Zelany

"@rands I propose we call this decade ‘The Holes."
Aug. 18, 2009 rstevens
Wikipedia writes:

Determining a name for the decade has been problematic, especially in the United States. In 1999, anticipating the upcoming awkwardness, a U.S. group calling itself "Project Naughtie" ran a viral campaign in an attempt to popularize "the Naughties" as the decade's name. The term is a portmanteau of naught, meaning "nothing" or "zero", and the names of other decades such as the eighties and nineties, with the intentional implication of naughty as being uninhibited. A limited number of the media has made some use of the term as well, including the BBC (using the common British spelling, nought). The Naughties version was also broadcast regularly in morning news bulletins on UK radio station Atlantic 252 between the end of 1998 and Christmas 1999. An Australian website used the name from 1998. The Noughties is also used in the UK Both spellings have gained some currency among the legitimate press in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Australia, but there still remains no consensus on what term to use.
In some other languages, such as French, this would appear to be less of a problem. The "sixties," for instance, are known as "les années 60" (the '60 years). Analogously, this decade is "les années 2000." In Spanish, as well, the "sixties" are "los años 60" (the '60 years), and this decade is "los años 2000."

Perhaps, in true dramatic fashion, a "silver bullet" will arrive this December 31, with the suggestion of a perfect term that pleases everyone. As this is unlikely to happen, we will probably be left with a multitude of options, such as those that Peters proposes:

Other names suggested over the years have included the "diddly-squats," "the double naughts," "the double nuts," "the double ohs," "the double zeroes," "the goose eggs," "the naughties," "the naughts," "the nillies," "the nots," "the oh-ohs," "the pre-teens," "the uh-ohs," "the unies," "the zeds," "the zero zeros," and "the zilches." "The aughts" feels like an antique by comparison, a verbal relic like "thou" or "fishmonger". But some antiques still get the job done.
(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)


The "its" is wrong

woodlands its sign

Cristina said the " its' " on this sign is "driving me crazy every day on my way to work", and when I saw the picture (which isn't completely clear because she took it with her cell phone), I just had to post it here.

Dear historical sign people: if it's possessive, it's supposed to be ITS (ie, no apostrophe)!


They're probably planning for a hit

There's a lot of news about the murder of the Yale student, and there's so much drama and frequent updates about it, I'm guessing that the publishing folks in New York and the TV/movie folks in Los Angeles are already writing or at least planning a story about it. They can probably see the potential of such a story, and would be dumb to not take advantage of it.

So I wonder how many professional story tellers are writing their treatment right now. How many studio execs or producers are doing a basic outline, just in case this murder case is resolved? And I'm sure someone will be able to write a book quickly just by using news reports to do the outline.

When some type of TV drama or book comes out, I'll just say I told you so.


English that's probably been translated from Japanese or that's just odd

I ended up at the website of Zoom, a Japanese company that makes sound gear. The Japanese version of the site is interesting, of course, but what's even more interesting is the English version.

The writing is a little stilted. It's not just wordy, but seems rigid, so I've concluded that it's probably been translated from Japanese. At least some of the site has probably been translated, because going from Japanese to English is VERY hard and sometimes people get so caught up in translating, they forget to check if the English sounds natural, not Japanese-Englishy (yes, that "y" at the end was intentional).

On one part of the Zoom site, they have this odd sentence that I had to read twice because I wasn't sure why they used the word "some" in front of "engineers":

The company was so named by a group of founding some engineers who chose "Zoom" for the simple reason that it would stand out in an alphabetical listing by starting with the letter "Z."

Another odd thing I noticed is that one of the links on the right and the title of the page say "The Zoom History". Usually an English site would say "Zoom's History" or "The History of Zoom" ie, there would be no "the" at the beginning. The difference between "the" and "a", and the correct use of articles, are hard for non-native speakers to figure out, which is another sign that the site wasn't at least checked by a native speaker.

There are also either typos, as in "Nearly all of Zoom products..." (there has to be a possessive there) or lack of plurals. On the FAQ page, they say "Common Question"--but there is more than one! So obviously it should be "questions". And what about the top navigation area? One of the buttons says "Product", as in "We only offer one product". English sites would probably never keep it singular unless they were literally offering just ONE product.

There are plenty of native English speakers in Japan who know how to write English well, and Japanese companies usually have the money to hire good English copywriters and editors (as opposed to companies in poorer countries that just plop a non-native English speaker in front of a computer and tell them to translate or write the English themselves because it's a lot cheaper than hiring a foreigner who would definitely do it a lot better). It's just too bad that they don't make sure their English looks good.

But at least they had the incredible talent to create both an English and Japanese site--that's hard to build!


Save the date!

I've mentioned in other posts and in my profile that I put an anthology together with contributions from bloggers and good writers that I know in Chicago and elsewhere. Well I've organized a reading next month. Here's the info:

When: Friday, October 23 at 7:00 PM
Where: Quimby's Bookstore, 1854 W. North Avenue in Chicago
Cost: FREE

So far, four of the contributors are going to read: John Banas, Sharyn Elman, Hugh Iglash, and Peter Zelchenko. If you want to hear audio of them, listen here. A full preview of the book is below.

Down the Block


I just ate some Indonesian bread

A friend came over whose parents are visiting from Indonesia, and they gave him some Indonesian bread, which he graciously shared with me. It was very good, though had zero fiber, I'm sure, and was tasty enough to be considered dessert, because it was totally soft and a little sweet. It actually tasted like challah, which is so good, I have to refrain from getting a loaf lest I eat it for every meal until it's gone.

When I think of Indonesia, I don't think "bread", and I've even been there and bread is not what I saw all around. I remember eating a lot of things that aren't common in the West, and it never occurred to me to even look for bread.

The bread I ate was from Saint Anna bakery, and I even found a description of it, though it's in Bahasa Indonesia, which looks cool but I can't understand.


A Boy Named Anne, A Girl Named Laurence

On the sitcom "Friends," a joke was made about Louisa May Alcott's 19th-century novel Little Women in which there is romantic tension between the characters Jo and Laurie, as the genders of the characters may not be readily apparent to many modern US readers. Indeed, Jo (which sounds like the frequently male name "Joe") is a female, while Laurie is a male. In Alcott's time, and at least into the 20th century in some parts of the English-speaking world, Laurie was a not uncommon nickname for "Laurence," although in the modern US, "Laurie" (akin to "Laura") is used almost exclusively as a female name. To further complicate things, while English speakers will likely identify "Laurence" as a male name, in French, "Laurence" is often used as a girl's name, the feminine form of the male name "Laurent."

English speakers are often used to the gender ambiguity of unisex names such as "Pat," "Alex," "Chris," "Robin" (although in some English-speaking countries the female version is commonly spelled "Robyn"), and "Jamie," as well as names like "Kelly" and even "Marion" (macho US movie star John Wayne's real name was Marion Mitchell Morrison). And over time, some predominantly male names, such as "Taylor," "Adrian," and "Shawn," are used with increasing frequency for baby girls, although, curiously, the reverse happens only rarely.

Because of the infrequency, for whatever reason, of women's names being used for men, it may be confusing or startling to see the use of men's names for women even in a cross-cultural context. "Dominique," used occasionally in English as a female name, may be a man's name or a woman's name in French. The name "Jean," a woman's name in English, is used, although pronounced differently, as a man's name in French (the French form of John). Similarly, "Joan," also used as a woman's name in English, is used, although again pronounced differently, as a man's name in Catalan (the Catalan form of John). "Nicola" and "Andrea," identified primarily as women's names in English, are often used as male names in Italian. Furthermore, "Anne," used as a female name in English, is a man's name in Frisian (a language, closely related to English, spoken in the Netherlands), primarily a woman's name in English, is often used as a male name. And "Marie" or "Maria" have sometimes been given to baby boys as a middle name in parts of Europe, generally traditionally Catholic regions.

This all brings to mind the classic Johnny Cash song A Boy Named Sue. Is it really so far-fetched?

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)


Good band I saw last night

I went to the Gapers Block fifth anniversary party last night, and enjoyed the ethereal music of Panda Riot, which is even better live than what you can hear here.

I ended up meeting the lead singer after their set, and she was nice and even seemed sort of shy. I'd say she's more concerned with the quality of their music than dominating the stage or trying to manipulate the crowd to adore them.

You can hear more of their music at their site.

Click the orange "play" word below to hear the track.


Perplexing sentence

I was reading an article about working artists, and I saw this perplexing sentence about one of the artists who was lecturing about how to make a living doing art:

She has a glow about her, like someone who has seen enlightenment but turned away because she has a successful art career.

If she saw enlightenment but turned away, then why does she have a glow? There are other questions I have, but really, this is the type of sentence that is like art or a good novel: we can interpret different ways, because it's quite puzzling.


Best literal video (with subtitles of course)

Legions of people have seen this video, but I just want to share it here because I've seen a lot of literal videos, and this one is the best. I was laughing so hard, I was almost crying. There are also other good ones at his YouTube channel (though Dustfilms is the true inventor of literal videos).


another meaning for PR

When I think of "PR", I think of "public relations" or "Puerto Rico", but I just found out from an American who recently spent some time in Singapore that "PR" means "permanent resident". So when a Westerner is seen frequently walking around Singapore or regularly goes to stores or restaurants, people will ask him if he's a "PR" or just visiting. I've been to Singapore, but I guess I wasn't there long enough to be asked this question. But then again, I don't know if there are as many Western females there as men, since I think it's more common for guys to marry the women from there and stay.


Full preview of the book

Here's a full preview of the anthology I put together. You can get a really nice-looking paperpack edition (people say they like the cover and even text fonts) from Amazon or Barnes & Noble (and other booksellers online) or via the ISDN number at any bookstore, or you can get a download for half the price.

And if you want to hear what some of the authors sound like, you can listen to the audio here (each lasts around a minute or two).

Mary Beard did the Foreword, which is pretty cool since she's an established writer and thinker :D

Down the Block


Universal computer language

I was wondering what non-English speakers (and other language speakers who don't use the same alphabet) do when they want to build websites. Well I found out that they use UTF-8:

UTF-8 encodes each character (code point) in 1 to 4 octets (8-bit bytes), with the single octet encoding used only for the 128 US-ASCII characters.

I have no idea what they're talking about. And the more detailed description is even more baffling:

The UTF-8 encoding is variable-width, ranging from 1-4 bytes. Each byte has 0-4 leading 1 bits followed by a zero bit to indicate its type. N 1 bits indicates the first byte in a N-byte sequence, with the exception that zero 1 bits indicates a one-byte sequence while one 1 bit indicates a continuation byte in a multi-byte sequence (this was done for ASCII compatability). The scalar value of the Unicode code point is the concatenation of the non-control bits.

Well here's something that's comprehensible, if your screen can display it all: a web page that has been "encoded directly in UTF-8", which explains why you might not be able to see some of the languages.

Anyway, it's pretty cool that people are able to program in a universal computer language. Too bad my brain isn't big enough to understand it :(


Looking askance at "-ence" and "-ance"

A few weeks ago I wrote about the trickiness of English words that end in "-ible" and "-able." Another pair of English suffixes that, in my opinion, appears equally troublesome is "-ence" and "-ance" or "-ent" vs. "-ant." For instance, English has the word "independence." It may be traced back to Latin "independens," but it entered English from French, which spells the word "indépendance." To complicate matters, why is "independence (and "independent") spelled the way it is "while the related word "pendant" is spelled "pendant"?

Looking for an explanation of this irregularity, I found the following:

The suffixes are usually applied to verbs that have survived the journey from Latin through Old French, Norman French, and Middle English into Modern English. In addition, there are several words derived directly from Latin which have been recently added to English as scientific and technical terms. Frequently, the verbs themselves didn't survive, but the nouns and adjectives formed from them did.

As some of you may know (and somewhat fewer care), Latin verbs fall into four basic classes describing their conjugation. In one of these classes of verbs (in fact called the "first conjugation"), the infinitive forms end in -are. In another class, infinitives end in -ere. This forms the basis of the suffix rules for most verbs: words derived from first conjugation verbs usually get -ant and -ance, the rest get -ent and -ence. But there are exceptions, even to this!

To add to the confusion, there is a class of words (which we will not list here) which end in -ment.

In the long run, we will have to throw up our arms and proclaim "there are no rules here!"
Indeed, as with "-ible" and "-able," this is essentially a question of "Well, you should know how the original Latin verbs are categorized and then be aware of the exceptions." This isn't terribly helpful.

To complicate matters, sometimes both "-ant" and "-ent" possibilities are acceptable, and others are not:

Spellings with in words such as independence (Latin dependere) are due to later qualms by English scholars. But etymological respectability did not always weigh heavily with the public, and so the dictionary makers have had to allow both spellings in some common words, notably dependent, dependant, dependence, dependance. To allow free variation like this in some particular words only serves to confuse spellers still further. These relaxations are not, however, very consistent: *independent, unlike dependant, is not permitted. The speller may feel entitled to ask: if I am allowed in dependent/dependant, why is this choice not allowed in independent, resplendent, and abundant? An out and out free thinker might even wonder: if a Romance language such as French, regulated as it is by a fearsomely conservative Academy of scholars, can fix the spelling in French as , , , , very conveniently but quite unetymologically, why cannot it be done for English?

(taken from A Survey of English Spelling by Edward Carney (1994), p. 422)
Indeed, why cannot it be done for English?

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)


A very long title!

I was looking at info about Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Kidnapped (which you can read online or download for free!), and I noticed the very long title, which seems to be typical of 18th century literature:



Maybe they used long titles because that was the only way for people to know what the book was about, since their press was a lot tinier than what we have today (we probably have the most fractured outlets ever). Plus, language has become more concise in modern times, especially since literacy is more widespread than a few hundred years ago.

Now I'm interested in reading about Stevenson's life. I wouldn't be surprised if end up reading a biography of him (if I can find a juicy one).


I finally read The Tipping Point

I finally read The Tipping Point, which came out almost a decade ago. Yes, it took me that long to find it intriguing enough to read. I guess I avoided it because there was so much hype surrounding it, and so many people in the media talked about it, I figured it probably didn't have much substance, and it seemed like a fad.

But that book is very important--I'd say it's going to go down as one of the most important books of this century. I even think that a lot of people have taken it and have either profited from its ideas, or they've used it as a basis to spin their own theories.

On a side note, I'd like to say that Malcolm Gladwell is blessed because he's making a [very good] living from using his brain and having an effect on the culture. He's also probably met a lot of interesting people too, and has gotten to write and speak about his ideas. That's a rare opportunity that probably makes life a lot more fulfilling and interesting :D


Hebrew site

A guy living in Israel set up a Hebrew site called Milayomit that includes a word of the day and other info. There's one page in English that contains an introduction, including an explanation of the site:

What if it were possible to subpoena the internet to the task of reforming language not in the Orwellian vein of a higher authority dictating prescriptions from above but in a collective, interactive spirit encompassing all levels of society? The goal of milayomit.co.il is to do just that: to harness the vast capacity of the internet with a mind to make Hebrew a richer language, to allow Hebrew speakers to contribute and share innovations relating to their language, and in so doing to make communication between Hebrew speakers both more intelligible and more intelligent. It is a more ambitious goal than that of word-of-the-day websites in other languages in that milayomit endeavors to serve as a communal, collaborative nexus, an organic, user-driven interface between language and the people using it.

When I was growing up, I studied Hebrew and ended up knowing it well enough to actually be able to speak it when I visited Israel when I was a teenager. Before I went there, I had no idea that I could speak it until one day I was talking to a guy in Hebrew about trees and other stuff, and then I thought, "Hey, I'm speaking Hebrew!" But now, I can't speak it at all! I can only read it with the vowels, but I don't understand what I'm reading. I guess my speaking ability was a tiny blip on the radar within my language history.


Ukraine's war in sand

This video is quite popular because it won first place in "Україна має талант" (Ukraine’s Got Talent), and it probably wouldn't win a similar competition elsewhere because she's telling the sad story of war through sand. I can imagine that a lot of Americans wouldn't think too highly of sand art on mass-market TV.

I noticed that various people are crying, including a judge, during a song which I think is by Mark Bernes, who captured the sadness about World War II in Ukraine.

Also, according to various online sources, the final words mean "You are always near". There's a short discussion about the video in the comments section at Chicago Boyz (which isn't a blog about Chicago).

And here's a link to a Ukranian TV/entertainment/media site that I can't understand, but looks interesting because it's really different to me :D


Japanese guy shocked by large American drink

I found a Japanese site that gives information about the US, and was amused by the post: 映画館でこのコーラはMサイズ(WHAT!?). [Translation: this cola at the movie theater is an M size (WHAT!?)]

Here's the short blog post in Japanese, and below it is my translation. I've just tried for over an hour to upload the picture, but for some reason, Blogger isn't able to upload images, so you'll have to see the photo at the site.



My translation:

I went to the movie theater on Friday. I wanted to drink something, so I got a drink, and I was surprised! The M size was bigger than my head (my head is big). This cola was five dollars (about 500 yen), but I couldn't drink it! The drinks and food at the movie theater are very big--that's dumb.

Next time, I'm going to get the L size to see what it's like. Is it going to be a bucket?

And to that guy I say: ようこそアメリカへ! Welcome to America!


Our Fine-Feathered and Four-Legged Verbs

Throughout human history, humans have had to interact at some level with animals, whether for food sources, companionship, study, repulsion, or fascination. Given the close coexistence of humans and animals, it is not surprising that words for animals have entered natural languages. For instance, Portuguese speakers, at least in Brazil, may refer to objects of affection as "gatinho" or "gatinha" (little cat). French speakers may call twilight the period "entre chien et loup" (between the dog and the wolf).

Animal metaphors abound in English, including such adjectives as "catty" and "foxy." Verbs represent one part of speech that is particularly rich in animal inspiration. The verb "lionize" ("to treat as a celebrity") suggests the idea that lions are deserving of attention, perhaps very fitting for the King of the Jungle.

Animal names that are used directly as verbs are plentiful in English. Among a few are "to chicken out" (to lose courage, suggesting that chickens are cowardly," "to fox" (or "to outfox") (to trick someone, suggesting that foxes are wily), "to ape" (to imitate, suggesting that apes are frequent mimics), and "to ram" (to hit something hard, suggesting the a ram's combative motion with its horns).

An extensive, but probably not exhaustive, list of animals used as verbs appears here.

In some cases, such as "to tomcat" (to be promiscuous, used of men) the link between the verb and the animal seems self-explanatory. In other cases, the link appears to be coincidental, such as as "to yak" or "to swallow." I doubt that yaks are notorious chatters or that swallows have exceptionally talented throats.

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)