Font designer Mark Simonson does an occasional blog piece called Typecasting (or more recently Son of Typecasting) in which he skewers films for the anachronistic foibles in their fonts. Did you know, for instance, that the steam pressure gauge on James Cameron’s Titanic was set in Helvetica? Crikey! That font was sinking 45 years before it was invented!

It’s a professional hazard. Just as Mark Twain could never look at the Mississippi the same way once he became a riverboat captain, Simonson can’t look at the tombstone in a Western without thinking How did Helvetica (1957) and Eurostile (1962) end up on a tombstone in the year 1885?

When it comes to language, regular readers of the Star Chamber will know that frequent contributor Alan Kennedy is the local expert. This week he has a few thoughts to share about actors and accents.

Continue reading “GIMME SOME CAW-FEE!”


A widely traveled friend of mine tells me that there are dozens of countries that pride themselves on having the hottest cuisine in the world. You think you’ve had hot peppers before, my friend? That’s only because you’ve never been to _____. Similarly, people like to believe that their native tongue is the zaniest, most mixed-up and implausible language on the planet. And why not? All languages have their weirdness, and local chauvinism is a satisfying brew. My friend Mike lived in Japan for a few years and got used to having the locals tell him Japanese is wicked hard because, get this, the words for bridge and chopsticks are the same: hashi. He had very little luck explaining that homonyms can be found in English too. Mike liked to point out that, while the writing system and politeness levels are tricky, simply learning to speak Japanese well enough to be understood actually isn’t that hard.

Does it make sense to try to figure out which language is truly the hardest? This is the question that an entertaining essay in the Economist by Robert Lane Greene tries to answer. As you might expect, he doesn’t produced a single answer, but he does give some remarkable facts about languages with difficult sounds (!Xóõ in Botswana has more than twenty clicking sounds) and grammars (Bora in Peru has 350 genders).

My friend Alan, the famous Star Chamber guest author on all matters linguistic, forwarded the article to me with a note that he’d come across it on the Language Log. I recommend reading both the article and the Language Log commentary, because watching linguists argue is almost as much fun as watching statisticians argue, and there many fine points here up with which for discussion to be put.

I especially liked Greene’s comment on long words: “Agglutinating languages—that pack many bits of meaning into single words—are a source of fascination for those who do not speak them.” I am certainly guilty of this. Language Log commenter Bill Poser elaborates as follows.

A point that frequently arises is the idea that languages that pack a lot of information into words are difficult. Is it really self-evident that it is harder to deal with complex words than with multi-word phrases that convey the same information? If a language puts a lot into a word but does so in a transparent way, so that words are easy to parse, interpret, and construct, why should this be difficult? It may well be that the perception of difficulty here merely reflects unfamiliarity, which is likely true of quite a few of the features often cited as leading to difficulty.

Doubleplusgood pointgespoken! Nothing is more contemptible than familiarity, nor more exotic than something that is exoticnessful. Nevertheless, I can’t help but be tickled by a comment from a reader of the Economist article that in Inuit, one can say “it can be very slippery on the deck” with the assertion Quasartupilussuusinnaavoq.

Can I Borrow a Cup of Déjà Vu?

French and English have been tied together since William the Conqueror made French the language of royalty in England. Traces of that linguistic shotgun marriage persist. For example, when the peasants fetch the beast from the barnyard, it’s pig, cow and sheep, but by the time Monsieur sees it spiced and steaming on the table, it’s pork, beef, and mutton. This low-rent/high-rent juxtoposition can be striking, as with house and mansion, horseplay and chivalry, freedom fries and french fries, and so on.

Now sit back and enjoy as our very own Star Chamber Language Maven (quick: maven… what language is that from?) Alan Kennedy regales you with still more language yarns, this time on borrowed words in English.


Can I Borrow a Cup of Déjà Vu?

by Alan Kennedy

Linguists use the term “borrowed” to refer to words that come into one language from a second, and get used frequently enough that they become like a first language word. As an example – we don’t really feel like we are speaking Swahili when we say we went on a safari (even though that is a word borrowed from Swahili; it means “journey”). You can often tell that a word has been borrowed from another language because the spelling seems non-English (e.g. tsunami, gesundheit, déjà vu) – but sometimes the non-English origin is not as evident.

When I first mentioned the linguistic notion of “borrowed words” to my wife Karen, she pointed out that it’s kind of a stupid term, because the language users are not planning to give the word back, nor have the originators been left without the word. [Queen Elizabeth to the President of Tanzania: “thanks awfully for letting us use the word safari. It has been ever so useful, but we’re quite done with it now, you may have it back”.]

Similarly, another term for this phenomenon, “loan words” is inaccurate. [We like saying karaoke, and we refuse to give it back to Japan, goddammit! Take baseball in exchange. You’re welcome.]

Nevertheless, linguists use the term “borrowed word” or “loan word” this way, and it is a useful concept, despite the misnomer.

The term borrowing is not usually applied to words with roots from other languages (like Latin and Greek). It refers more to words that not only didn’t come from Old English (a Germanic family language) but which have been taken, whole hog, from some other language and eventually find their way into English dictionaries. Sometimes the words are borrowed just as they are, and sometimes they are modified in spelling or pronunciation to make them more “English-like”. Let’s take cocktails as an example. Vodka comes to us directly from Russian, водка, pronounced quite similarly in that language, and letter-for-letter transliterated into English letters. Whisky, on the other hand, comes from the Gaelic word uisge which means “water” and is pronounced “oosh-kyuh”. (I will make no jokes here about how Scots drink/consider/treat whisky like water, in deference to my hard-working immigrant ancestors).

The language from which English has borrowed the most, by far, is French. A quick glance at a selection of fairly common words which we all know, and which are in the dictionary, makes the case:

adjectives nouns expressions
petite rendezvous debris bon voyage c’est la vie
blasé ballet entrepreneur bon appetite double entendre
gourmet debut mirage déjà vu en masse
beige cliché memoir en route ménage à trois
macabre entourage coup faux pas tour de force
unique genre entrée avant-garde film noir
chic ensemble buffet au contraire carte blanche
risqué> encore protégé cul-de-sac à la carte
sautéed niche boutique encore! nouveau riche
brusque chauffer mystique maître d’ savoir faire

… and this is just a partial list. Note that in almost every case, we English speakers are not pronouncing these words using usual English pronunciation rules. No one rhymes “buffet” or “chalet” with “get” by mistake (or “Chevrolet” for that matter); no one rhymes “corsage” or “sabotage” with “luggage”. We know these French rules so well, that they have become almost like alternative English pronunciation rules. Why do we English speakers borrow so much from French? Well, the Norman Conquest of England has a lot to do with it. And besides that, look at a map – France is England’s close neighbor. In that situation, linguistic borrowing frequently results.

Like all languages, English has borrowed many food words. The reason is perhaps self-evident. Which is easier to say: “I like sliced raw fish placed atop portions of sticky vinegared rice” or “I like sushi”? If people in some foreign locale have created an awesome dish with many ingredients or a specific recipe, it’s convenient to just take their word. Like any other words, some food words are borrowed fully (spaghetti, croissant, baklava) and some are modified a bit as they come into English (pretzel comes from the German bretzl; saffron from the Arabic زعفرانza’faran“). Because food words are so culturally rooted, English speakers have a sense that that they are using borrowed words when they say things like shish kebab (Turkish), smorgasbord (Swedish) or dim sum (Cantonese).

For non-food words, English speakers (according to my informal poll) tend to be less clear about where a loan word has come from. I’m not talking about obvious ones like karaoke or boomerang or aloha. I’m thinking more about words like cobra (Portuguese), robot (Czech), and boondocks (Tagalog). Even if you know a word is a loan word, you may not be able to guess which language. Can you guess where we get the words maven, chimpanzee, or yacht? Give yourself a minute.

O.K., the answers are Yiddish, Bantu (Southern Africa), and Dutch. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know. This stuff is really not considered common knowledge.

Native American Indian languages have contributed many words – not just in place names, but in words that seeped into American English and then became part of English at large. Aside from the culturally rooted terms like moccasin, teepee and tomahawk that we all tend to know, there are many words for animals (e.g. chipmunk, moose, coyote, possum, raccoon, jaguar, cougar) and foods (e.g. pecan, squash, persimmon, avocado) that English speakers did not likely know about until they came to the Americas. Well-known concept words from native American languages include totem (Ojibwa), kayak (Inuit) and pow-wow (Narragansett).

Here’s a little story using borrowed words. Take minute to read it and, if you want, underline words that you think probably came into English directly from another language.

I’m going on vacation next month, and this time I’m really gung-ho to head northward to satisfy my wanderlust. I have visions of cruises in and out of icy fjords, maybe stopping to sled across the tundra. I’m staying in an ice hotel – which even has an indoor health center; I can’t imagine a sauna in an igloo! The last trip I took was a fiasco, really a catastrophe. We went to Bali, thinking it would be a relaxing, angst-free time. The brochure for our resort showed guests in turquoise silk pajamas, eating caviar, shopping in colorful outdoor bazaars and feeding orangutans and giraffes. The reality was a run-down place which bordered a kind of jungle canyon. We had a feeling there was something less than kosher about the place as soon as we drove up. For one thing, it was covered with graffiti. The little kiosk which sold shampoo and things was always closed. Our bungalow was tiny; the bed was more like a futon with a saggy mattress. The room was stuffy but we couldn’t go out onto our patio to get a breeze because the weather seemed to veer between monsoon, typhoon and tornado the entire time.

Ready? here’s the answer:

Word Language Origin
gung-ho, typhoon, silk Mandarin
wanderlust, angst German
cruise Dutch
fjord Norwegian
tundra Russian
sauna Finnish
igloo Inuit (Eskimo)
fiasco, graffiti Italian
catastrophe Greek
turquoise, caviar, kiosk Turkish
bazaar Farsi
orangutan Malay
giraffe, mattress, monsoon Arabic
pajamas, jungle, shampoo, bungalow Hindi
kosher Hebrew
futon Japanese
patio, breeze, canyon, tornado Spanish

I leave you with this final thought: hakuna matata.

No, that saying was not an invention of the Disney Corporation. It’s real Swahili language.

But you knew what it meant, didn’t you?

Color My World

Which word is more colorful: color or colour?

If you’re American, do you ever color your “colors” with an occasional “U” to lend your prose a sense of savoir faire? At any rate, have you ever wondered where the U went? A lovely blog called COLOURlovers addresses this question with an informative post called Color vs. Colour – The Great Spelling Battle. The short version is that when Noah “Dictionary is My Last Name” Webster saw colour he saw red. If you know what I mean.

By the way, from the COLOURlovers site, I also recommend the Color Legends posts (Part I and Part II).

When it comes to teasing apart the idiomatic weirdness of language, no one is better than Rambles contributor Alan Kennedy. So we are tickled pink this week to have Alan tell us about the strangely liberal and incoherent use of color across cultures. Take it away Alan…

Continue reading “Color My World”

Everything is a myth

Good stories always trump facts. A good story is like brain glue. It stabilizes loose piles of memory inventory, thereby relieving some of your mental strain. This is why we have famous people say the things they should have said: because your brain is always trying to relax.

For example, did Galileo, while being tried in the Vatican for his heretical astronomy, say Eppur si muove (nevertheless, it moves)? Answer: no. But he should have. So he might as well have. Let’s just agree that he did and save ourselves a bunch of trouble, eh?

You’ve probably come across the “famous Goethe quote” that goes like this.

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

Sadly, Goethe said no such thing. My friend Bill (a Star Chamber contributor from way back) sent me this debunking link: German Myth 12 – The Famous Goethe Quotation. It’s a fascinating story. As the piece says, “Far too many online quotation sites have been slapped together and seem to ‘borrow’ quotes from each other, without much concern as to accuracy.” I’ve run into this phenomenon before myself, so I wasn’t surprised to find the “Goethe quote” here, here, here, here, and here.

It’s too bad, because it’s still a great quote, and a great quote looks better when it hangs off a big name. How disillusioning to learn that what Goethe really said (in Faust: Der Tragödie zweiter Teil) was “I am a jam doughnut!”*

Must all our favorite stories turn out to be untrue? It reminds me of that old line from Mark Twain: “Everything is a myth.”** Or was it Winston Churchill*** who said that?

* Not true.
** Also not true.
*** There never was a “Winston Churchill”

What is Final Jeopardy?

Friend of the Star Chamber and regular commenter JMike is the guest author today. He wrote this in an email to me some time ago, and I asked him if I could post it. I’ve been meaning to put it up on the site for a while, and when I saw his recursive Billy Crystal comment on the surprisingly long comment thread kicked off by my JetBlue post, I knew it was time.

This is the way they play Jeopardy in JMike’s imagination. Count all the quotes and make sure it compiles. And watch your step!

Today’s final Jeopardy! category is “Needless Verbal Cleverness” and the answer is:

It is the correct way to phrase the question when the answer is “The opening semi-rhetorical question posed in ‘Atlas Shrugged’ by Ayn Rand.”

Alyssa, you’re in third place with $3000, what is your response?

Who is John Galt?

No, I’m sorry, that is incorrect. And what did you wager? $3000. That puts you at zero.

Our reigning champion, Barney, is in second place with $11500. Barney, what is your response?

What is “Who is John Galt?”

Again, I’m sorry, that is incorrect. And your wager? $11500. There seems to be some unwarranted confidence on the part of our contestants to be needlessly verbally clever, and that puts you down to zero as well.

Carl, you’re in first place with $14000. And your response?

What is “What is ‘Who is John Galt?'”

That is the correct answer. And your wager? $9001. That puts you at $23001 and you are today’s champion.

Thanks for viewing, everyone. Come back tomorrow!

Thanks JMike!

X is the new Y, the network diagram

We’ve had a few interesting discussions here about snowclones. Snowclone is the unlovely name given to the notion of phrasal templates, or what might be called do-it-yourself cliché kits. One of the great snowclones of our age is “X is the new black“, a construction that generalizes into “X is the new Y”.


Search engines can give us a sense of the vast destructive power of a rampaging snowclone. A search for “is the new black” returns just over a million documents. I propose a Saffir-Simpson style scale for snowclonic power based on Google reach and associated cultural damage. For instance, Category One snowclones are not dangerous and generally reach no further than the speech of unimaginative mouth-breathers and bloggers. Prose and newscast copy are affected in a Category Two outbreak. A Cat Five snowclone can rip the tongues from unwary media figures and warp the cultural institutions of an entire generation.

I mention all this because I came across this dandy visualization today: is the new at One small corner of which reads: asleep sleep <= sex <= to text.

Note: points will deducted from Gryffindor House for any mentions of our new overlords in the comments.