How ‘Cape Fear’ got its name

August 19, 2018

Last weekend, driving to the Burren in County Clare (just south of Galway, where I live, and an endlessly interesting place to explore), a friend and I picked up the relevant Ordinance Survey map to get a better sense of the terrain.

Maps are a reliable source of pleasure, firing the imagination as we pore over their flattened geography, their special codes and symbols. Digital maps are ubiquitous now, but I still love to use paper maps when the opportunity arises.

Photo of the Clare landscape, with hills in the distance, green fields and hedgerows and mixed forest in the middle-ground, and patches of granite in the foreground, at the edge of Mullaghmore. The sky is bright and cloudy.

View of Co. Clare from Mullaghmore (‘Great Summit’ or ‘Big Summit’)

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Linguistic contagion and detox

February 14, 2018

Sludge: the word’s connotations range from unsavoury to downright toxic, radioactive. But we produce a huge amount of it (multiple shit-tons, you might say), and we have to deal with that. And so we resort to code, euphemism, and other linguistic tricks.

Portobello UK cover of Rose George's book "The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste". The design is minimalist, dominated by male and female icons like those used to indicate public toilets‘When sewage is cleaned and treated,’ writes Rose George in The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste, ‘the dirt that is collected and removed is called sludge, except in the US, where it’s called biosolids by some people and poison by others.’ George devotes a chapter of her superb book to the nature of this ‘blandly named product’ and the bitter controversy over its use on land.

The Big Necessity, dubbed a ‘tour de feces’ by Nancy Friedman, lists five options for disposing of sludge: landfill, incineration, gasification (these three are expensive), ocean dumping (illegal), and land application. ‘It was not a difficult choice,’ George writes, and for the fifth option there was precedent:

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The linguistics of colour names

May 16, 2017

The news website Vox has produced some good videos on linguistic topics, which can be found amidst their many other clips. Its latest one looks at the vexed question of colour names and categories in different languages, and in 6½ minutes it offers a decent summary:

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Kinship terms around the world

March 31, 2017

It’s often assumed that when babies say mama or papa (or similar) they are addressing or referring to their mother or father explicitly. Not so. In a 2012 post on mama/papa words around the world, I wrote:

Before I knew anything about language acquisition, I assumed that babies making these utterances were referring to their parents. But this interpretation is backwards: mama/papa words just happen to be the easiest word-like sounds for babies to make. The sounds came first – as experiments in vocalization – and parents adopted them as pet names for themselves.

These pet names, or nursery forms, in turn gave rise to our grown-up terms like mother and father – or rather, their ancient predecessors – according to Roman Jakobson’s 1959 paper ‘Why “Mama” and “Papa”?’ (PDF). The striking correspondence of nursery forms cross-lingually can be seen in a table from Larry Trask’s ‘Where do mama/papa words come from?’ (PDF):

The Great Language Muster is a project collecting data from hundreds of languages in an effort to update our knowledge of these and other kinship terms – how we address and refer to parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. It’s being run by UCL linguistics professor Andrew Nevins, whose research assistant Evan DeFrancesco emailed me about it.

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Siblings with identical names

August 4, 2016

I don’t know a family personally that has siblings with identical names. But I know of some anecdotally, and the phenomenon occasionally appears in the news or discussion forums for one reason or another. George Foreman famously has five sons named George (‘so they would always have something in common’). In my culture it’s unusual, but it happens.

Toni Morrison treats this familial anomaly with comedy and flair, albeit with non-biological siblings, in her acclaimed novel Sula (1973). In Medallion, Ohio, in 1921, when Sula is eleven years old, her grandmother Eva – ‘operating on a private scheme of preference and prejudice’ – takes in three boys and disregards their given names:

They came with woollen caps and names given to them by their mothers, or grandmothers, or somebody’s best friend. Eva snatched the caps off their heads and ignored their names. She looked at the first child closely, his wrists, the shape of his head and the temperament that showed in his eyes and said, ‘Well. Look at Dewey. My my mymymy.’ When later that same year she sent for a child who kept falling down off the porch across the street, she said the same thing. Somebody said, ‘But, Miss Eva, you calls the other one Dewey.’

toni morrison sula book cover triad granada owen wood‘So? This here’s another one.’

When the third one was brought and Eva said ‘Dewey’ again, everybody thought she had simply run out of names or that her faculties had finally softened.

‘How is anybody going to tell them apart?’ Hannah asked her.

‘What you need to tell them apart for? They’s all deweys.’

It’s as if Dewey had gone beyond the conventional function of a name (if it ever really had it, here) and become the word for a certain category of people. The first Dewey is a dewey, the second is ‘another one’, and by the third even Morrison is lowercasing them on Eva’s behalf.

And yet:

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The need to name everything

March 30, 2016

The act of naming was described by Elias Canetti as ‘the great and solemn consolation of mankind’. Replace the anachronistic last noun with humankind or humanity and it fits an entry in Eve Ensler’s book The Vagina Monologues:

I have always been obsessed with naming things. If I could name them, I could know them. If I could name them, I could tame them. They could be my friends.

It’s not clear who the narrator is. Ensler says some of the monologues that constitute her book are ‘close to verbatim interviews’, some are composite, and with some she ‘just began with the seed of an interview and had a good time’.

eve ensler - the vagina monologues book coverThe unnamed naming obsessive mentions a collection of inanimate frogs she had as a child, each of which she named in a ‘splendid naming ceremony’ involving song, dance, frog noises, and excitement – though not before she had spent time with the frog, getting to know its nature. One was called ‘Froggie Doodle Mashie Pie’, so perhaps we should drop the ‘solemn’ part of Canetti’s line.

Soon, the narrator says, she ‘needed to name everything’ – rugs, doors, stairs, furniture, the flashlight (‘Ben’). Then she looked closer to home, so to speak:

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Link love: language (60)

November 30, 2014

It’s been almost three months since the last collection of language links: definitely time for another. There are lots, so get comfy and don’t read them all at once.

The Historical Thesaurus of English is now online. Bookmark this one.

A lovely language family tree.

The outstanding Psycho Babble blog winds down.

How to draw syntax trees.

16thC manuscript of very ornamental calligraphy.

Family communication.

Bats jam each other’s sonar.

The improbable muses of 18thC poets.

To Siri, with love. From the mother of an autistic boy.

Ireland’s Book Show meets Clive James.

The rapid evolution of emoji.

Begging the question of acceptability.

Language features that English could do with.

The role of language in the Hong Kong protest movement.

Korean is diverging into two languages.

Get one’s goat is an etymological mystery.

Linguists’ thoughts on vape.

The purposes of language.

An antidote to terrible grammar quizzes.

A comparative library of Beowulf translations.

Search word use and trends in thousands of films and TV shows.

What happens in the brains of simultaneous interpreters.

Why we have so many terms for ‘people of colour.’

Inversion and fronting in English syntax.

Nigga? Please.

The history of the chapter.

In praise of mechanical pencils.

Notes on translation.

US/UK English ‘untranslatables’.

The dangerously dull language of TTIP.

On accent diversity in the UK, and the status of RP.

How prehistory  – the idea and the word – developed.

Swedish Sans, a new national typeface.

The history of football’s rabona.

11 facts about the umlaut.

An interview with Steven Pinker on style.

The art of theatre captioning.

The internet is no barometer of illiteracy.

Words for book around the world.

Chirping, popping, humming, blaring. The sounds fish make.

A linguist decodes restaurant menus.

Affirming the origins of yes.

A brief history of typeface naming.

Language is fundamentally communal.

The languages shaping the world’s economy.

A new database of Saints in Scottish Place-Names.

Language use is gloriously complex, not gloriously simple.

The acronyms that aren’t.

How –isms became -phobias. On the framing of oppression.

A history of women changing their names, or not, in marriage.

What’s wrong with ‘America’s Ugliest Accent’.

The secret life of passwords.

The etymology of allergy and related words.

Research suggests the sleeping brain can understand words.

A brief bibliography of -ass as a colloquial intensifier.

Slang often has old and venerable roots.

How English became the language of science.

A new living dictionary for British Sign Language (BSL).

Finally, a short animated video on language evolution:

Want more? I’ll try not to wait so long till the next batch. In the meantime, you can always browse the language links archive at Sentence first.