Monday, March 31, 2014

Enough With The Yiddishisms

(This article first appeared in the April 2014 Lexpert)

Enough with the Yiddishisms Already!


Howard Richler

Fewer than one-third of English words stem from the original Anglo-Saxon word stock and to some extent the language's ascendancy lies in the internationality of its words. Even with its grammatical irregularities and illogical pronunciation and spelling, English is best suited to be the world’s bridge tongue due to its welcoming, absorbent nature. From aardvark which comes from Afrikaans to zebra which we received from Bantu, English has taken words from virtually every language in the world. While other languages treasure chastity, the English language tends to sleep with whomever it finds most attractive. In the 20th century, one of is most common bedmates has been Yiddish. Countless Yiddishisms, such as “bagel” and “kibbitz” now pepper the mainstream vernacular.

Still, even as a Jewish person, I am sometimes surprised by the extensiveness of these Yiddish inroads. Last month in this column I touched on the ubiquitous use of “chutzpah” ; actually this is but one of many Yiddishisms that have wormed their way into English. The following are but a few examples.

A February 2005 edition of Time magazine featuring a story written by JFO Mcallister on the upcoming marriage of Charles and Camilla said, “Last week there were a few signs of apathy in the sea of schmaltz (sentimentality) about enduring love.” Montreal Gazette staffer Don MacPherson wrote on August 21,1999, “Perhaps {Lucien} Bouchard was just trying to avoid unnecessary tsuris (worries) at the next meeting of the PQ national council.” Last year, in an interview in the New York Times, Robert Deniro characterized Silver Lining Playbook director David O. Russell's “lovable craziness” as messhugas. Some years ago, I phoned a non-Jewish Gazette editor to see if he had received the controversial book I wanted to review. He told me he had and that in his opinion “it looked like a bunch of dreck.” This surprised me, but not because I held a contrary view of the book. What surprised me was the editor’s knowledge of the word “dreck” - a word of Yiddish derivation that means “crap” or ”worthless thing.”

Ultimately, “dreck” is a word of German derivation where it referred to excrement. According to Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish, In English, the word “dreck” has a particular application to the arts. So the editor's use of the word to describe a book was bang-on. I was amazed to learn that “dreck” found its way into English dictionaries as far back as 1922. The first OED citation is from James Joyce’s Ulysses: “Farewell. Fare thee well. Dreck!”

Occasionally, we even see a word with Yiddish pedigree achieve lexicographic recognition that conveys a concept not having an English synonym. Such is the case with naches which was added to the OED in 2003, where it is defined as “Among Jews, a sense of pleasure or pride at the achievements of one’s children.” (I would add “or grandchildren.”)

I suspect, however, that many Yiddish words get absorbed into English not because they introduce a new concept in English but because they’re fun to say. After all, English has many derogatory words for people but, “schlemiel,” “schmo,” “schmuck,” “schmegegge,” “nudnik” and “meshugenne” roll off the tongue with glee.

Yiddish terms have found surprising English homes. We see the word nosh being used in England in the 1870s but with the idea of it being a meal not a snack; this usage only became prevalent in North America in the 1940s. The term shicker, “drunk.” is also listed in the OED as an Australian and New Zealand coloquialism. A 1970 citation from the New Zealand Listener says, “After midnight, Jerry got so shicker that he was quarreling with everyone.” Up to twenty years ago, the term shicker was a very common term for a drunk Down Under.

Israel Zangwill’s 1892 work Children in the Ghetto is the most prolific source of cited Yiddish words in the OED. Along with nosh and shicker, all the following words are first mentioned in Zangwill’s work: schnorrer, “beggar”; shlemiel, “blunderer”; nebbich, “non-entity” ; shiksa, “gentile girl”; schmuck “contemptible person” ; rebbitzin, “rabbi’s wife”; narrischkeit, “foolishness”; chutzpah, “gall” and the interjections nu and oy.

A century later the program Saturday Night Live made popular the usage of two unlikely Yiddish candidates. In a segment entitled Coffee Talk, Canadian Mike Myers played the character Linda Richman who was prone to using the words shpilkes, “nervous energy” and farklempt, “all choked up.”

It is difficult to escape one’s roots. I had used the phrase “go know” several times to a non-Jewish business associate before he informed me that he had never heard the expression . I checked in a phrase book which showed ”go know” as Yinglish, from the Yiddish expression gey vays (meaning, “go know.”) It explained that the expression could mean “How could I know?”, or “How could you expect me to know?” So go know, I had been using the perfect Yiddishism unknowingly!

Go figure?

Howard Richler's book How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts was published in May 2013.

Friday, March 14, 2014


601-What do these words have in common? ketch-insolent-relies
602-Discern the convergent words: house-i -night man-car-woman free-black-camp
603-What do these words have in common? manger-cinerama-tangerine-raincoat
604-Discern the convergent words: bottle-tie-broken back-bag-basket master-mast-a
605-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that means exchanged paintings.
606-Discern the convergent words: hill-station-sting electric-skin-spin net-shrimp-stroke
607-Name a 3 word palindrome phrase that could describe the physician to a former president or a mayor of one of North America's 5 largest cities.
608-Discern the convergent words: ad-up-over rod-bow-break red-pin-high
609- Name a 2 word palindromic phrase for a possible description of February 1 Polish weather.
610-Discern the convergent words: bag-party-green rubber-sitting-soup big-sauce-golden
611-What do these words have in common? stray-baby-arts debases-pale-elapses-abed
612-Discern the convergent words: bush-ears-keeper book-heart-hole mother-bumps-bay
613-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that means seduce a socialite
614-Discern the convergent words: swindler-infested-white times- brain-lip holy-lick-milk
615-Name at least 2 palindromic brand names
616-Discern the convergent words: house-ice-cup green-oil-palm king.moose-cheese
617-Name a commercial product that spells a different English word in reverse order
618-Discern the convergent words: let-need-bone big-silver-sticks mar-twist-be
619-What do these words have in common? government-budget-jeopardy-pedigree
620-Discern the convergent words: run-devil-running hug-baiting-tolerate pro-tail-con
621-What do these words have in common? bloodthirstiness-coughing-menopause
622-Discern the convergent words: tie-red-break brother-cold-libel out-running-in
623-Name an animal that is an anagram to a food
624 -Discern the convergent words: cereal-ding-flake pie-wild-wood small-barrel-ginger
625-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase for a dexterous government agent
626-Discern the convergent words: bend-jerk-wounded bender-bird-right hot-on-cold
627-Change 2 parts of the body to another part by changing 1 letter
628-Discern the convergent words: money-ginger-sweet kosher-pork-water top-tree-boat
629-What do these words have in common? laity-flu-ale
630-Discern the convergent words: skin-hot-sweet alphabet-can-duck apple-bald -chart
631-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that means veteran pro athlete representing a city in Ohio .
632-Discern the convergent words: tar-French-boot blue-ski-flak mother-less-false
633-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that means gloomy destiny
634-Discern the convergent words: bed-doodle-hum weather-pea-ball work-meat-opera
635-Name a 3 word palindromic phrase that means beer that you might get on a Mideast airline
636-Discern the convergent words: peas-fire-hem cake-stone-complain amount-skills-fat
637-a)Name a composer whose surname is an anagram to a resident of a middle east country b)Name a nickname for a resident of this Mideast country that is an anagram to residents in the Mideast and a city in the Gulf states.
638-Discern the convergent words: bling-ash-part all-hunt-sea bow-bot-ford
639- What do these words have in common? Pilates-Gentile-Islam
640-Discern the convergent words: face-crazy-around book-wood-hole mimic-fish-king
641-Name a novel with a palindromic title.
642-Discern the convergent words: inter-cream-down rest-be-jar game-oil-care
643-Name a 3word palindromic phrase that means gender of sly animals
644-Discern the convergent words: hole-holy-well glass-iced-kosher boat-bonus-train
645-Name 2 words that are anagrams to each other that can form a phrase that means exacting cooking formulas
646-Discern the convergent words: dive-gay-red off-bad-watering dumb-wipe-bone
647-Name 2 words that are anagrams to each other that can form a phrase that could refer to lying pleasure seekers.
648-Discern the convergent words: up-or-bake bell-salad-stand color-bed-main
649-Name 2 words that are anagrams to each other that form a phrase that means oily Middle East German cars..
650-Discern the convergent words: on-gas-brain id-zen-vest ace-head- scoff

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Many Moods of Chutzpah

(This article first appeared in the March 2014 Lexpert.)

The Many Moods of Chutzpah


                  Howard Richler

I don’t know what Arkansan is for chutzpah, but this is a gigantic case of it.” White House Press Secretary Tony Snow July 5, 2007

(In reference to Bill Clinton’s criticism of George Bush for pardoning Scooter Lobby, given that Clinton spent his final hours as President issuing 140 pardons.)

For Mr. Salmond {leader of Scotland's pro-independence party} to act dismayed by anti-English grumbling requires a degree of political chutzpah bordering on performance art.” The Economist, January 21, 2012

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's economic update of one year ago almost brought about a coalition of the opposing parties and the defeat of the government. Now, one year later, the Conservatives are tossing off another quarterly report en route to the Prime Minister's latest overseas excursion. Chutzpah, my boy, chutzpah.” John Ibbitson, Globe and Mail, Sept 10, 2012

Judging from the above, the word “chutzpah” has become a favourite word for commentators to describe the failings of political leaders in many areas of the globe.

In case you are not familiar with the word, it is defined by the OED as “brazen impudence, gall,” and its etymology is given as “Yiddish.” Chutzpah's first OED citation is the following from Israel Zangwill's Children of the Ghetto: “The national Chutzbah which is variously translated enterprise, audacity, brazen impudence and cheek.” It is worthwhile noting, however, that the OED adds that “this entry has not been fully updated.” We see a more updated definition in Merriam Webster Online Dictionary (MWOD) which defines it as “supreme self-confidence: nerve, gall.” As an example, MWOD provides this sentence: “He had the chutzpah that he be treated as a special case and be given priority in settling his insurance case.”

Needless to say, the above commentators were accentuating the hypocrisy and gall sense rather than the positive sense of ballsiness, but increasingly the lukewarm approving sense seen in the MWOD definition is employed by many. In fact, when Alan Dershowitz wrote his book Chutzpah in 1992, he defined the word as “a boldness, a certain aggressiveness, a certain willingness to assert one's rights.” We also see the word's positive sense in a January 9, 2013 story in The Philly Post that was entitled “I admire Chuck Hagel's chutzpah.”

While the OED shows a Yiddish etymology, ultimately the Yiddish term came from Hebrew where it has the same negative meaning of “impudence” or “insolence.” There is no positive connotation to the word in either Yiddish or Hebrew. In an article in Tablet Magazine, Michael Wex states that chutzpah in these languages is an “unambiguous negative quality characterized by a disregard for manners, social conventions, and the feelings of others.” This being said, in the Talmud tractate Sanhedrin, written over 15,000 years ago, there is a reference where the word seems to get grudging respect: “Chutzpah against heaven is of avail.”

Chutzpah if often defined by wags with the aid of an example. Two of my favourites are:

  • A 14 year-old boy deliberately murders his parents with a meat-axe. He's found guilty by a jury, and the judge asks him if he has anything to say before sentencing. The boy replies, “ I hope your Honour will show mercy for a poor orphan.”

  • Reporting your landlord for building-code violations when you’re six months behind with the rent.

In The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten tells us that chutzpah is “pronounced khoots-pah; rattle the kh around with fervor; rhymes with foot spa. Pronounce the ch not as in “choo choo” or “Chippewa, but as the German ch in Ach! Or the Scottish in loch.”

This sound does not come easy to every Gentile tongue and in 2011, as a prospective Republican nominee for president, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann gave a speech in Charleston, South Carolina in which she accused Barack Obama of having “chootspa.” Unfortunately, her pronunciation of this last word was rendered in the “choo choo” manner Rosten advised avoiding. Her rendition, however, was more authentic-sounding than one that graced the Canadian Parliament in the 1990s. Then Reform Party (later renamed Canadian Alliance) backbencher Lee Morrisson from Saskatchewan wanted to refer to Liberal Human Resource Minister Jane Stewart’s gall, but felt that the word gall wasn’t strong enough. So he said “You got to admire the jutsper of the Minister.” Parliament realized a linguistic travesty had been committed and convulsed in laughter. Being Jewish, Liberal Minister Herb Gray was delegated to respond to Morrison's bastardization and characterized it by these two Yiddish words, gornisht (nothing) and absolute narishkayt (nonsense).” This again greatly amused the distinguished members notwithstanding the fact that hardly anyone had a clue what Gray had uttered causing Speaker Gib Parent to pronounce, “Order please, I have no way of knowing whether these words are unparliamentary.”

Oy vey!

Next month I will discuss some other prevalent Yiddishisms.

Howard Richler's latest book is How Happy Became Homosexual and Other Mysterious Semantic Shifts.

Monday, February 3, 2014

A Word About Dying

(A version of this articled first appeared in the Feb Lexpert).
A Word About Dying


Howard Richler

To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness.” Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

I recalled this droll quip that highlights the inexact language associated with death after listening to a CBC podcast entitled “A Word About the Deceased” last October.

The main thesis of the podcast was that in our modern society most people have difficulty dealing with death. Its narrator Katherine Ashenburg, author of The Mourner's Dance, What We Do When People Die bemoaned the use of terms such as “lost,” “gone,” passed” and “passed away” to replace “died.” I too dislike such terms (and would add “departed” to her list) because they are imprecise. Ashenburg mentioned that she offered condolences to a woman who had told her that her husband had “gone” only to be informed that he had merely skipped town rather than died. The term “passed,” I believe should be restricted to gall or kidney stones and intestinal gas. But does “passed away” even qualify as euphemistic any more given its ubiquitous use? Ashenburg also used the adjectives “vague,” “amorphous, ” and “prettifying” to describe the term “passed way.” I, for one, don't believe it is in any way unclear. Frequently euphemisms come to embody so fully the thing being euphemized that they demand replacement. I think “passed away” is in this category. While it may have originally been imbued with religious significance of “passing to heaven,” it is now used by most people devoid of this content. Also, Ashenburg's point that a century ago people got sick at home and died at home whereas nowadays we often delegate these functions to professionals is undoubtedly true. However, this doesn't translate into an increased number of euphemisms for death, for in earlier eras there were even more circumlocutions for our final passage.

So, what exactly qualifies as a euphemism? The OED defines a euphemism as a “figure of speech which consists in the substitution of a word or expression of comparatively favourable implication or less unpleasant associations, instead of the harsher or more offensive one that would more precisely designate what is intended.” Insofar as “passed away” involves a substitution, even though one that isn't misleading, it qualifies as a euphemism. But former OED editor Robert Burchfield once observed that “a language without euphemism would be a defective instrument of communication.” While in previous eras people accepted the inevitability of death more gracefully than nowadays, every epoch has used euphemisms associated with death, such as the term “grim reaper” widely used in the Middle Ages. Often death has been seen as a master competitor we try vainly to defeat in a variety of activities, e.g., “jumped the last hurdle” (fox-hunting and steeplechase), “went to one's last roundup” (cowboys) and “cashed in his chip.” (poker).

Some common euphemisms for death merit more explanation. Most etymologists believe that “kick the bucket” derives from the process of slaughtering a pig. A pig's throat would be cut while hanging upside down during this process. The bucket referred to a wooden block and the rope thrown over the pulley that hoisted the animal up. Because hoisting the block was akin to raising a bucket from a well, the wooded block was called a “bucket.” It is open to conjecture as to whether the dying animal would actually kick the bucket or whether the action just refers to the animal's feet being lashed to the wooden block. Another mysterious death euphemism, quite prevalent in northern England, is “popping one's clogs.” A clog is a wooden-soled shoe that was worn by poor millworkers in 19th and early 20th century England. The verb “pop” here refers to “taking something to a pawnbroker,” as the dead person would no longer have any need for his shoes.

And who would have thought that the band Queen was effectively quoting Homer's The Iliad in the song “Another One Bites the Dust”? In 1870, American poet William Cullen Bryant translated The Iliad into English where we find this line in Homer's epic poem, “ His fellow warriors, many a one, fall round him to the earth and bite the dust.”

Not suprisingly, some of the death euphemisms of yesteryear have a strong religious content and some are even biblical quotes. For example, “to rest in Abraham's bosom” comes from this passage in Luke 16:22, “ And it came to pass that the beggar {Lazarus} died and was carried by the angel into Abraham's bosom.” Also the expression “way of all flesh” derives from a translation in the 1609 Douay Bible from 111 Kings 2:3.

Let me conclude by hoping you a long innings before you shuffle off this mortal coil.

Howard's latest book is How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts.

Friday, January 24, 2014



551-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to superior weed.

552-Discern the convergent words: a)for-bug-fore b)net-sparrow-sticks c)eye-black-winter

553-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to a lewd Oklahoman woman.

554-Discern the convergent words: a)a-age-ball b)orange pressure-bad c)room-work- piano

555-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that means watch umpires.

556-Discern the convergent words: a)barrel-safe-animal b)man-night-rape) c)pie-grinder-smoked

557-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to laconic snares.

558--Discern the convergent words: a)end-iron-pant b)ball-buck contact c)butt-cheese-crack

559- Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to an impertinent peasant

560-Discern the convergent words: a)jelly-monk-net b)thief-white-wooden- c) mule-slayer-skin

561-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to a spring potato

562-Discern the convergent words: a)an-heads-pop b)jack)-net-stew c)black -pole -town

563-Name the only palindromic winner of a major marathon

564-Discern the convergent words: a)hug-skin gummy b)mobile-her-ding c)tail-ride-express

565-Name a 3 word palindromic phrase that refers to a cloudy Nebraskan sky

566-Discern the convergent words: a)stab-street-stretch b)plug-broken-blue c)) test-thinner-true

567-a)Name as many 5 letter words as you can,each starting with different letters, that have 4 vowels.

b)Name at least 4 rivers in Europe with 4 letters, 3 of which are vowels

c)Provide a 4 letter word comprised of 3 vowels for the following: 1)needle case/

2)2 Indian tribes/3)debauched man/4)musical instrument/5)pelvic bones/6)acute fever

7)in the place of/8)very small quantity/9)alcoholic beverage/10)eternity

568-Discern the convergent words: a)hind-nation-reich b)clay-stool-hole c)sex-in-pat

569-Name a 2 word phrase that refers to what a butler might sat to awaken his master

570-Discern the convergent words: a)green-hard-light b)wipe-bone-lard b)picked-rail-right

571--Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that means playboys who work alone

572-Discern the convergent words a)dinner-pepper-sandwich b)fortune-smart-cutter c)trade-cabinet-rack

573--Name a former palindromic Asian leader

574-Discern the convergent words: a)short-top-tory b)bra- in-maker c) ad-age-coat

575--What do these words have in common? frittata-saturated-monosodium

576-Discern the convergent words: a)pea-as -heat b)trap-field-proof c)new-gloves-around

577-Name a 3 word phrase that means similar identical theatres,

578-Discern the convergent words: a)nail print-sucking b)bottle-broken-leather )yard-bacon-bare

579 -What do these words have in common? wordplays-astern-ought

580-Discern the convergent words: a)marble-flour carrot b)waste-way-well c)sea-ship-tea-

581-What do these words have in common? quagga-gamecock-wigwam

582--Discern the convergent words: a)wild-wood -under b)ass-ride-cart c)bowl-cold-devil

583-What do these words have in common? internet-carter-stance

584--Discern the convergent words: a)war-way-wind b) ally-bow-ate c)dress-egg-fat

585-What do these words have in common? light-sour-owe

586-Discern the convergent words: a)-hill-pick-wild b)honey-johnny-pan c) micro-per-ahoy

587-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that means extremely angry

588-Discern the convergent words: a)cramp-damage-injury b)off-on-out c)seal-cancer-dive

589-Name a 3 word palindromic phrase that is a possible slogan for a soft drink maker?

590-Discern the convergent words: a)hide-lick-slip b)killer-worker-line c)timber-pack-cub

591- Name a 3 word palindromic phrase that means a more confident America

592-Discern the convergent words: a)dictators cat-bone b)bet-bone-dig c)bad-bank-bath

593-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that means annoy Biden ?

594-Discern the convergent words: a)counter-string-salad b)fish-mint-petroleum c)spear-tea-unused

595-What do these words have in common? freeing-car-one

596-Discern the convergent words: a)like-snow-pink b)hammer-white-pool c)bed -off -stink

597-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that means kennel

598-Discern the convergent words: a)hops- up-led b)fingers-jerk-lemon c)madame-stroke-net

599-What do these words and phrases gave in common? accounts receivable-abandonment-coal-fed- electric battery

600-Discern the convergent words: a)rest-strong-supply b)guard-pad-to c) push-true-hound

Monday, January 6, 2014

Centenary Crossword Puzzle Article

(This article originally appeared in the Jan 2014 Lexpert under the title Crosswords Hit a Hundred).

Puzzling how fanatical puzzlers used to be


Howard Richler

We have just passed the centenary of the creation of the crossword puzzle. For on December 21, 1913 the New York World featured a new type of word puzzle constructed by journalist Arthur Wynne. Wynne's puzzle differed from today's crosswords in that it was diamond shaped and contained no internal black squares.

Wynne recalled a puzzle from his childhood in Liverpool, England called Magic Squares, in which a given group of words had to be arranged so their letters would read the same way across and down. He designed a larger and more complex grid, and provided a clue for each word. New York World published Wynne's “word-cross puzzle” as a “mental exercises” on the Fun Page. Before settling on a rectangle shape, Wynne experimented with different shapes, including a circle. The word-cross became known as a cross-word, and as with many hyphenated words, the hyphen was eventually dropped.

In 1921 Margaret Petherbridge Farrar took over editorship of this newspaper's crossword. Among her innovations was the single number clue and puzzles became regular in pattern with the words interlocking instead of in several different blocks.

A crossword craze began in 1923. Simon & Schuster published their Crossword Puzzle Book, their very first publishing venture. They printed 3600 copies and were told this was an exremely high number that would lead to their bankruptcy. Within three months sales exceeded 40,000 and within one year three volumes were produced with total sales of 400,000.

During the early 1920's other newspapers, such as Toronto's The Globe on December 10, 1924, picked up the newly discovered pastime and within a decade crossword puzzles were featured in almost all North American newspapers. It was in this period that crosswords began to assume their familiar form. Ten years after its rebirth in the USA, it crossed the Atlantic.

The first appearance of a crossword in a British publication was in Pearson's Magazine in February 1922, and the first Times crossword appeared on February 1,1930. British puzzles quickly developed their own style, being considerably more difficult than the American variety. In particular the cryptic crossword became established and rapidly gained popularity.

The New York Times was the only American major daily newspaper to refuse to include such puzzles but it soon relented. In 1924 its editor wrote: “All ages, both sexes, highbrows and lowbrows, at all times and in all places, even in restaurants and in subways, pore over the diagrams.” Eighteen years later, the New York Times' Sunday edition printed its first crossword, and in September 1950 the puzzle became a daily feature as well.

Crossword puzzlers, on the whole, are a staid, functional lot. Yet, it was not always so. In the year 1924, Canadian Forum referred to puzzledom as an “epidemic obsession'” and in the same year, the London Times was even more scurillous in its labelling, crossword puzzles as a “menace making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society.” In its November 1924 edition, Canadian Forum featured an article entitled The Psychology Of The Cross-Word Puzzle where the author charged the psychological world to explain the regressive behaviour found in crossword puzzlers: “Psychology should at least attempt some explanation of what may be regarded as the epidemic obsession of the cross-word puzzle.” No call for outside help should have been made for by our self-styled Jungian editorialist. He went on to conclude, “it is obvious from the similarity of the cross-word puzzle to the child`s letter blocks that it is primarily the unconscious which is expressing itself in the cross-word puzzle obsession.”

A legacy of the crossword madness was on display at the New York Public Library in 1937 because frenzied puzzlers were desecrating valued library tomes in an attempt to gain an edge over competitors. There a prohibitive sign commanded in glaring block letters: THE USE OF LIBRARY BOOKS IN CONNECTION WITH CONTESTS AND PUZZLES IS PROHIBITED.

Helene Hovanec in Creative Cruciverbalists recounts some stories found in US neswpapers in 1924-25 that highlight puzzle mishugass that occurred at the time. Here are two examples:

Mrs. Mara Zaba of Chicago, complaining that she was a 'cross-word' widow, sued her husband for non-support. Mr. Zaba was so engrossed in solving crosswords that he didn`t have time to work. Judge Sabath ordered Zaba to limit himself to three puzzles a day and devote the rest of his time to domestic duties.”

Theodore Koerner of Brooklyn asked his wife for help in solving a crossword. She begged off, claiming exhaustion. Koerner shot her (superficially) and then shot himself (fatally).”

As we commemorate one hundred years of crossword puzzles it might be wise to remember that lurking in the depths of the next passive puzzler you spot lies a wordstruck maniac just waiting to break out.

Crossword nut Howard Richler's latest book is How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts.

Monday, December 9, 2013

SAving Endangered Languages

(This article appeared in the November Senior Times)

What we lose when we lose a language


Howard Richler

The adjective “endangered” is usually twinned with the noun “species” as the onslaught of civilization has brought about a diminution in the planet's biodiversity.

But not only are many species on the verge of extinction, many languages are teetering towards oblivion. Of the approximately 7000 languages spoken on our planet, it is estimated that anywhere from 50% to 90% will not survive the end of the century. So whereas the largest 80 to 100 languages in the world such as English, Chinese, Urdu and French are spoken by 4.5 billion people, there are around 3500 languages whose total number of speakers equals no more than ten million; an average of less than 3000 speakers each. Generally speaking a language is regarded as secure if it has over 100,000 speakers. However, many of the languages spoken today are on the abyss of extinction having fewer than 100 speakers.

Not surprisingly, many of the native languages in Canada fall into the endangered camp. Only Cree, Ojibway ans Inuktikut are regarded as relatively secure. In many of the 53 Canadian aboriginal languages, more than half of the population can't communicate at all in their mother tongue and fluency declines drastically among the youth of the tribe. Hilda Nicholson, a spokesperson for the Mohawk band of Kahnawake, told me that the fluency rate in the 65 year and older category was around 75%, but in the 6-15 age group, this rate drops to under 20% So, there is a clear sign when a language is in danger. Parents stop teaching it to children and children stop wanting to learn the language of their ancestors. Unfortunately, the obvious role of schools is limited no matter how great the effort of the school program, the ultimate fate of the language is determined by whether it is used on a daily basis in casual conversation.

So, why should we care? Several things are lost when we lose languages. First, we lose cultural knowledge. Since there are around only 200 written languages, when a non-written language vanishes we lose the beliefs and stories that may provide insights into our humanity. These oral histories could possibly inspire us by providing a new way to perceive the world.

More concretely, the loss of languages is also a loss for science because a language represents an adaptive technology. For example, the Inuit language possesses approximately 100 words for sea ice and this instructs one about complexities not generally known in other languages. According to Mark Pagel, a biomathematician at Oxford, different languages have “particular habits of mind” and learning a specific language can possibly alter the brain. For example, Pagel interprets the inability of Japanese adults to differentiate between “la” and “ra” sounds as meaning that on a physiological level there may be brain distinctions based on language.

The difference, however, between Japanese and English pales compared to some nuances we find in other languages. For example, it was once assumed that certain sentence structures were not possible. So while one can say “I will eat this kangaroo” it was believed that in no langauge would some rational person utter “This will eat kangaroo I.” But then linguists “discovered” the Waripiri of the Australian Outback. Not only do tribesmen state in Waripiri, “This will eat kangaroo I.” They also say “Kangaroo will this eat I” and “Eat will kangaroo this I.” By observing which rules hold and which do not (e.g., “will” always comes in the second position in the sentence), linguists have been better able to set parameters for universal grammar. But in order to test and refine universal grammar, linguists require a myriad of examples from the grammars of diverse languages. Unfortunately, until recently the data base has been shrinking drastically.

“Until recently” is used in the last sentence because hope is on the horizon. This year Google introduced the “Endangered Languages Project,” (ELP) a website that allows people and organizations involved in language preservation to find and share the most current and comprehensive information about endangered languages. With ELP, Google provides its technology and vast storage capacity to create a headquarters where data can be shared in a variety of forms, such as text, audio and video files.

Howard's latest book is How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts.