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.

English Words from Scotland

Are the original blackmailers being blackmailed?


Howard Richler

On August 21, 2012 the headline in The Scotsman read, Scottish independence; Navy frigate contract will be held after UK split vote. This story related how lucrative contracts to build the next generation of Royal Navy frigates would only be announced after the Scottish referendum on independence scheduled for autumn 2014. Not surprisingly, this announcement elicited this response from an irate reader: “So now the bastards are trying blackmail.” 'Twas not the first time the charge of blackmail has been levied against 10 Downing Street. In October 2011, Scottish Finance Secretary John Swinney averred that Scots “should be able to take our decisions without the financial blackmail of the U.K. Government.”

These two comments are etymologically ironic because the original blackmailers were Scots. The first definition of blackmail in the OED states, “A tribute due to farmers in Scotland.. by freebooting Scottish chiefs in return for protection or immunity from plunder.” The “mail” part of blackmail derives from a Scottish word meaning “rent.” The “black” part of the equation comes not only from the age-old association of black with evil but also from the fact that the tribute paid to the extortionists came in the form of cattle, known as “black mail” as opposed to coins known as “white mail.” In fact, in modern Scotland, “mailer” remains a term for a tenant farmer.

Mercifully, the Scots have given us other words aside from blackmail. If your favourite slogan is “Make love - not war” you are etymologically off base. The word slogan comes from the Scottish Gaelic sluagh for “army” and ghairm for “shout” and originally referred to a war cry of the old Scottish Highland clans in the 16th century that usually consisted of a personal surname or of a gathering place. Originally, in Scottish English, it appeared as slughorne and slugurn and its modern spelling surfaced only in the 17th century. Its sense became generalized in the early 18th century to refer to a distinctive cry or phrase of any person or group of people. By 1859, Thomas Macaulay was using “slogan” in its modern meaning when he says in his History of England, “The popular slogans on both sides were indefatigably repeated.”

Along with the two above, there is a whole host of words that have Celtic origins and it is impossible to say with great accuracy whether the word originated in Scotland or in another part of the ancient Celtic world. For example, in Scottish Gaelic and Irish the word brogue referred to a shoe or sandal. When the word made its English debut in the 16th century it referred to a rudimentary shoe made of untanned leather worn by inhabitants of the Scottish highlands and Ireland. Today it designates a leather shoe with tooling patterns in the leather. Similarly, the word galore is also Celtic in origin; in Scottish Gaelic and Irish it meant “sufficient.” From here it was hardly a large leap when it appeared in English in the late 17th century with the sense of “abundant.”

Despite its association with the very English Shakespeare, another word that has a Celtic lineage is “bard.” The OED tells us that it originally referred to an “ancient Celtic order of minstrel-poets, whose primary function appears to have been to compose and sing verses celebrating the achievements of chiefs and warriors, and who committed to verse historical and traditional facts, religious precepts, laws, genealogies, etc.” Bard still remains the word for “poet” in modern Celtic languages.

Some linguists claim that the Celtic languages of Roman Britain had hardly any influence on the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons. For example, David Crystal claims in The English Language, “Only a handful of Celtic words came into English at the time such as crag,.. brock (badger) and tor (peak).” Linguist Loreto Todd, however, believes that the number of Celtic words in English is underrepresented. According to Todd, the view that Anglo-Saxons borrowed few Celtic words is “particularly strange if we remember that few of the Germanic invaders would have brought wives to England with them. We are asked to accept that Celtic-speaking mothers passed on only Anglo-Saxon and perhaps Latin words to their children.”

In any case to commemorate Robert Burns Day on January 25th, I propose we raise our glasses not only to the fine single malts the Scots have distilled but also to the colourful words they've contributed to the English language.

Howard's most recent book is How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts. He'll be speaking about this book at the Westmount Public Library on January 15th.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Facebook Word Puzzles-501-550


(For the convergent words puzzles there are 4 categories: animals, food & beverage, body parts, items of clothing,)

501- Name a 2 word palindrome phrase that refers to beer fit for a king

502-Discern the convergent words: a)law-legal-eye b)fight-food-gone c)burger-berry-jaw

503- Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to an ivy league race

504- Discern the convergent words a)bag- box-elevator b)id-in-king c)bath-dis-ward

505- Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to daredevils

506-Discern the convergent words: a)meat-on-out b)brave-worm-rate c)ad-venture-custody

507- Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to the foot of an elk

508-Discern the convergent words: a)corn-earner-flat b)ball-drop-tree c)cake-hermit-complain

509-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to a tv premiere

510-Discern the convergent words: a)old-kosher-lick b)nest-fried-white c)clear-closet-color

511-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to an Alaskan devil

512-Discern the convergent words: a)need-got-mock b)chocolate-bone-whole c) fly-cup-salad

513- Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to a Nevada recluse

514- Discern the convergent words: a)wag -a-strap b)leader-letter-light c)reading-leaf -sunday

515-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to cats with Alzheimers

516-Discern the convergent words: a)rack-red -rod b)bra- in-maker c)blue-car-rain

517- Name a 2 word city comprised of an animal + a body part.

518-Discern the convergent words: a)fish-iron-let b)cocktail-jumbo-boat c)hole-toe-dropping

519-What do these words have in common? martinet-decadent-apricot-octagon

520-Discern the convergent words: a)disease-fish-iron b)bad-motor-sore c)mass-sore-stiff

521-What do these words have in common? divers-canard-court

522-Discern the convergent words: a)drops evil-glass b)type-work-young c)ball-drop-tree

523-What do these words have in common? panglossian-pollyanna-luddite-braggadocio

524-Discern the convergent words: a)away-potato-wood b)man-girl-cotton c)kidney-black -pole

525-What do these words have in common? piazza-manager-appeal

526-Discern the convergent words: a)lashing-mother-piercing b)blue-buck-eye c)cad-boot-tar

527-What do these words have in common? shotgun-rabbit-genital

528-Discern the convergent words: a)hold-hills-light b)start-stone-strong c)tragically-cat -wars

529-What do these words have in common? outer exist needles

530-Discern the convergent words: a)flying-urine-leaf b)jelly-net-pig c)cracker-pea-shell

531-What do these words have in common? diabetes-ligament-hypertension-diseased

532-Discern the convergent words: a)white-wooden-racing b)wolf-blood-elk c)flying-hole-news

533-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to unworldly health food

534-Discern the convergent words: a)oil-eyes-bite b)trained-navy-imprimatur c)under-leg-tag

535-What do these words have in common? Sky-skirt-skill, aside from starting sk -

536-Discern the convergent words: a)chair-dis-fire b)brave-broken-burn c)bone-cap-numb

537-What do these words have in common? cent-due-once-seize

538-Discern the convergent words: a)games-gear-hammer b)color-cut-dresser c)bone-man-red

539 -Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to avian cartilage

540-Discern the convergent words: a)few-are-in b)soup-island-shell c)tail-cote-love

541-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to bread from Vietnam

542-Discern the convergent words: a)cap -soup-cloud b)arm-floss land c)see-tree-up

543-What do these words have in common? tycoon-ramen-tsunami

544-Discern the convergent words: a)back -whip-out b)symbol-warming-worm c)middle-beat-eye

545-What do these words have in common? bidet-tragedy-easel

546-Discern the convergent words:a)flip-ground-half b)gold fore-food c)roll-saddle-seat

547-Provide a 2 word palindromic phrase that in Spanglish means “very tasty.”

548-Discern the convergent words:a)cap-deep-sock b)bad-motor-sore c)shirt-spray-style

549 -Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to an aggressive tennis shot

550-Discern the convergent words: a)sun-top-trick b)puppet-stretch-sweat c)skull-white-ability

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Semantic Change

(excerpted from my book How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts.)

The Times (& Meanings of Words) are A- Changin


Howard Richler

Although in the Middle Ages it is unlikely that gold fetched over $1500 an ounce, we still should pity the Middle Ages alchemists who futilely endeavoured to turn lead into gold. For all they had to perform such a metamorphosis was to create a simple series of synonym chains. Let me explain how this black art can be completed. For example to turn black into white we follow the following steps: Black-dark-obscure-hidden-concealed-snug-pleasant-easy-simple-pure-White Macbeth's witches must have been on to something when they realized that fair is foul and foul is fair because in the same manner ugly transmogrifies into beautiful: Ugly-offensive-insulting-insolent-proud-lordly-majestic-grand-gorgeous-Beautiful. This legerdemain doesn't appear as impressive when we reveal that the word pretty originally meant cunning and that came to mean beautiful through these set of stages: Pretty-cunning-clever-fine-nice-Beautiful. In fact, we can empirically “prove” the veracity of postmodern theory by showing how true is indeeed false: True-just-fair-beautiful-pretty-artful-artificial-fake-False.

In fact, many words have undergone changes in meaning that allow us to trace a similar process. For example, the word “nice” originally meant “foolish” or “stupid” in the 14th century. Since then it has gone through the following progression in meaning:nice- loose-mannered-foolish-wanton-lazy-effeminate-tender-delicate-shy-refined-fine-agreeable-kind- pleasant. The word “shrewd” originally meant “foolish” and went through this semantic transformation: shrewd-depraved-wicked-naughty-abusive-calculating-artful-cunning-wise. “Sad” went through this metamorphosis: sad-satiated-settled-mature-serious-unhappy. Also, “gay” went through a transformative process from its original sense of “happy” to today's prevalent sense of “homosexual.”

It can even be explained how the same word can evolve contradictory meanings. For example with the word “fast” we start off with a sense of “immovable” or “firm” as in “standing fast.” From the sense of “standing fast” we developed the concept of “running fast” and hence the rapid sense of the word. Similarly “fine” originally denoted

something “slender” and this led to a sense of “highly finished” that in turn led to a

sense of “beautiful.” In situations where large growth is appreciated, this allows “fine” to be seen as “large” notwithstanding that the word started its life as “slender.”

In his book The Broadcast Word (1935) Welsh linguist Arthur Lloyd James wrote: “A language is always changing: we are not looking at a lantern-slide, but at a moving picture.”To demonstrate the turbulence in word meanings I have concocted the following alphabetically-arranged über short story which I have entitled The Admiral and the Juggler:

(The italicized words represent the original meaning of the word).

“The admiral (emir), while visiting Bedlam (Bethlehem) captivated (captured) a divan (council of state in Turkey) and entreated (treated) the fickle (treacherous) grub (short person) to a spectacle by an honest (comely) impudent (immodest) juggler (jester and musician). The juggler while but a knave (boy), was able to make lingerie (linen items) disappear and meat (food) appear out of thin air. He then had the emir's niece (granddaughter) occult (hidden) as a prank (malicious trick) and the bereft admiral thinking his niece had been quelled (killed) was about to order a raid ( military foray made on horseback) to make a sample (example) of the juggler's perfidy, however the knave had no talent (inclination) to challenge the admiral and ended his uncouth (malicious) performance and had the virgin (unmarried girl) re-appear. The mollified admiral advised the lad in future to be witty (sensible) and the relieved performer, with a yawn, (open mouth) devoured some zest (orange peel).

Apparently, there is no word in English beginning with an “x” that has changed its meaning significantly. Even “xenophobic” Madame Marois

This article is excerpted from Richler's latest book How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts

Our Sanskrit Legacy

(this article appeared recently in the legal magazine Lexpert).
The Hindi/Sanskrit legacy to our language


Howard Richler

November 3rd this year marks the onset of the five day Hindu “festival of lights” called Diwali. For Hindus, Diwali is one of the most important festivals of the year and is celebrated in families by performing traditional activities together in their homes. Diwali is an official holiday in India and ten other countries.

The most common language among Hindus is Hindi and it is the fourth most common first language spoken, only surpassed by Mandarin, Spanish and English. Hindi has also supplied many words to the English language, some whose exotic etymology will surprise you.

Take thug. It derives from the Hindi thag “cheat,” “swindler” and its first definition in the OED makes it sound like a ghoulish tax-deductible organization: “Association of professional robbers and murderers in India who strangled their victims.” The actual name of this fraternal order was P’hanisigars, “noose operators,” and the British euphemistically bequeathed them the name Thugs, from the Sanskrit word sthaga meaning “cheater” which dated back to at least the 13th century. These Thugs were said to be honouring the Hindu goddess of destruction Kali through their mayhem. The British eliminated the Thugs in the 1830s, when they hanged over 500 of them and sentenced close to 3000 to life imprisonment.

The word “juggernaut” is now employed metaphorically to refer to a “crushing force” but originally the “crush” was literal. In Hinduism, Jagganath, is a title of the god Krishna. The OED states that “the..idol of this deity at Puri (in India) (is) annually dragged in procession on an enormous car, under the wheels of which many devotees are said to have formerly thrown themselves to be crushed.”Jungle” was originally rendered in Hindi as jangal and meant “desert” or “waste.” The same metamorphosis in meaning has occurred with the word “forest” which also referred to an unenclosed tract or waste before taking on the sense of area covered with wood.

If you massage your scalp when you give yourself a “shampoo,” you are performing the proper etymological activity. Shampoo comes from the Hindi word campo, the imperative of campna “to press.” The first sense recorded in the OED is “to subject (a person, his limbs) to massage.” The first citation in 1762 from a travel journal reflects this hands on activity: “Had I not seen several China merchants shampooed before me, I should have been apprehensive of danger.” The common sense of shampoo to refer to the washing of hair emerges in the mid 19th century.

Ultimately, Hindi derives from Sanskrit. For almost two millennia, Sanskrit has been maintained as the literary language of the priestly and learned castes in India and it retains this position in the 21st century. The western world’s Sanskrit legacy is apparent in many kinship words. The Sanskrit word for “father” is pitr, very similar to the Greek and Latin pater; “mother” in Sanskrit is matr, almost identical to Latin mater. Sanskrit bhratr became Old English brodor, German, Swedish and Danish broder and modern English “brother.” Svasa in Sanskrit bequeathed us the Old English sweoster, the German schwester and the modern English “sister.” Sanskrit has also bequeathed the western world many of its numbers. For example, the number “two” in Sanskrit was rendered as dwau which became the Old English twa and “three” was rendered in Sanskrit as trayas and bequeathed our number as well as the Norwegian, Swedish and Danish tre and the Dutch drie. The number “four” in Sanskrit is rendered as catvar, quite similar to the Latin quattuor and the French quatre.

Sanskrit has literally sweetened our language. The troops of Alexander the Great enjoyed a Persian delicacy which was composed of a sweet reed garnished with honey, spices and colouring. This Persian treat was called kand and this word derived from the old Arabic word for sugar, quand. Ultimately, candy comes from the Sanskrit khanda, “piece of something,” or “sugar in crystalline pieces.”

On the other hand, Sanskrit is ultimately responsible for “swastika.” This is a word for an ancient good-luck symbol , deriving from the Sanskrit svastí, “well-being, fortune, luck.” This word is a blend of su,”good,” and asti, “being.” The first definition in the OED is “a primitive symbol or ornament of the form of a cross with equal arms with a limb of the same length projecting at right angles from the end of each arm, all in the same direction and (usually) clockwise.” This symbol was adopted by the Nazi Party and in German was referred to as the Hakenkreuz. A 1932 citation states that “Thousands flocked to his standard the ‘Hakenkreuz’ (swastika), the ancient anti-semitic cross in a color scheme of red-white-black in memory of the colors of the old army.” It is the karma of Sanskrit to have provided us both the sweetness of “candy” and the bitterness of “swastika.”

A happy Diwali to all.

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

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Facebook word puzzles 451-500

What do these expressions have in common/ 451-What do these expressions have in common? That great charmerI mourn blarney

Hated for ill

452-Discern the convergent words: a)plains-wings-saber b)market-bag-bite c)net-coast-screen

453- What do these words have in common? helipad nonosecond zucchini

454- -Discern the convergent words: page-hem-protest reporter-an-by race-ion-lab

455-What do these expressions have in common/?bacon-appalling-father

456-Discern the convergent words: -candy-pop-private gun-held-left put-quarter-room

457-What country anagrams to a vehicle

458--Discern the convergent words: fruit-nuts-juice old-girl-all beef-cheese-knife

459-name these “odd “places & people

an odd city in North America of at least 10 letters with population of minimum 500,0000

an odd radio personality kasem

an odd onetime Yankee pitcher

an odd character featured in over 20 movies (10 letters minimum)

an odd member of a 60s singing quartet mama

460--Discern the convergent words: scissors-salon-biting close-fight-iron shadow-shut—sore

461-What do these expressions have in common/? child-guild-pawned

462--Discern the convergent words: libel-life-line gay-around-bleed ail-smart-kick

463-What do these expressions have in common/? lilliputian-google-blurb

464--Discern the convergent words: loo-main-proof face-oven-delivery blood-agent-crush

465-What do these expressions have in common/?priest created-condo

466--Discern the convergent words: ash-rod-part desert-her-dirty mother-heat-mud

467-What do these words have in common? diver-landing-pierce-sales

468--Discern the convergent words: leopard -buck -head back -whip-out piercing-red-idle

469-What do these expressions have in common/?weighty-boner-stent

470--Discern the convergent words: saw-second-set door-down-draft cows-hare-id

471-What do these expressions have in common/?studio bandit-ballot

472--Discern the convergent words: or-ox-cur ides-hide-ford cart-clothes-play

473-What’s the a)only number that has the same number of letters as the number b)only number whre the letters appear in alphabetical order? c)only number in reverse alpabetical order

474--Discern the convergent words: bar-arm-eye big-pie-love butter-spring-mock

475-What do these expressions have in common/?denim-donnybrook-jeans

476--Discern the convergent words: storm-wash wave a-red-feed pug-ring-hairs

477-What do these expressions have in common/?cookie-cole slaw-yacht

478- -Discern the convergent words: fin-imp-wife club-cream-jerk field -flour-a

479-What do these expressions have in common/? fez-tulip-horde

480--Discern the convergent words: heaven-wild -wash pole-wild-skills shine-spider-wash


481-Discern a twelve letter word via this equasion: T = T

482-Discern the convergent words: -uncle-boy-bot white-big-blue dead-evade-orange

483-What do these expressions have in common/?tangerine-raincoat-animal

484--Discern the convergent words: ham-club-shop bowl-meat-tomato moon-bee-well

485- What do these expressions have in common/? comment-location-champ

486--Discern the convergent words: led-are-few keeper-seal-shrew seal-medic-hole

487-Name a beer brand that backward spells an item of clothing

488--Discern the convergent words: western-sauce-dinner Indian-meal-sweet ball-market-white

489-Aside from being school subjects what do these words have in common?history-geography-mathematics

490--Discern the convergent words: roast-pie-fat face-thrash-soda favor-paste-powder

491-Name a 7 letter word that is not a garment that is comprised of 2 garments.

492--Discern the convergent words: down-head-ball chicken-pocket-bone rubber-great-red

493-Name a word that features 2 astrological signs

494--Discern the convergent words: hedge-line-tied acid-eater-page hunt-conclude-able

495-Name a 7 letter word comprised of 2 animals that isn't an animal.

496--Discern the convergent words: butter-bar tough digger-ping bake rotten-salad-bad

497- Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to a type of animal excrement

498--Discern the convergent words: butter-bone-breast dark-nuts-root field-fried-sticky

499 – Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that refers to a malevolent fruit

500- -Discern the convergent words: stain-stream-work fore-genius-pea under-wear-note

Friday, October 4, 2013

excerpt from How Happy Became Homosexual

 Current Issue  
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Robert J. Lewis
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Bernard Dubé
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David Solway
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Diane Gordon
 Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Chantal Levesque Denis Beaumont Marcel Dubois
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Mark Kingwell
Naomi Klein
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Evelyn Lau
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Margaret Somerville
Mona Eltahawy
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Navi Pillay
Ernesto Zedillo
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward
from the ronsdale press

Howard Richler
HOWARD RICHLER ___________________________
Howard Richler is a Montreal-area word nerd and author of these seven books on a variety of language themes: Dead Sea Scroll Palindromes, Take My Words, A Bawdy Language, Global Mother Tongue, Can I Have a Word With You?, Strange Bedfellows and his most recent book, How Happy Became Homosexual and Other Mysterious Semantic Shifts ( May 2013, Ronsdale Press, Vancouver). From his latest.
Although in the Middle Ages it is unlikely that gold fetched in the vicinity of $1500.00 an ounce, we still should pity the Middle Ages alchemists who futilely endeavoured to turn lead into gold. For all they had to perform such a metamorphosis was to create a simple series of synonym chains. Let me explain how this black art can be completed. For example to turn black into white we follow the following steps: Black-dark-obscure-hidden-concealed-snug-pleasant-easy-simple-pure-White Macbeth's witches must have been on to something when they realized that fair is foul and foul is fair because in the same manner ugly transmogrifies into beautiful: Ugly-offensive-insulting-insolent-proud-lordly-majestic-grand-gorgeous-Beautiful. This legerdemain doesn't appear as impressive when we reveal that the word pretty originally meant cunning and that came to mean beautiful through these set of stages: Pretty-cunning-clever-fine-nice-Beautiful. In fact, we can empirically “prove” the veracity of postmodern theory by showing how true is indeeed false: True-just-fair-beautiful-pretty-artful-artificial-fake-False.
In fact, many words have undergone changes in meaning that allow us to trace a similar process. For example, the word NICE originally meant “foolish” or “stupid” in the 14th century. Since then it has gone through the following progression in meaning: nice- loose-mannered-foolish-wanton-lazy-effeminate-tender-delicate-shy-refined-fine-agreeable-kind- pleasant. The word SHREWD originally meant “foolish” and went through this semantic transformation: shrewd-depraved-wicked-naughty-abusive-calculating-artful-cunning-wise. SAD went through this metamorphosis: sad-satiated-settled-mature-serious-unhappy. Also, GAY went through a transformative process from its original sense of “happy” to today's prevalent sense of “homosexual.”
Let us take it as settled: the meaning of words is dictated by popular usage and words are always changing meanings through a variety of processes. The first, and most important, process is metaphor.
Metaphor in semantic change involves the addition of meanings due to a semantic similarity or connection between the new sense and the original one. The semantic change of “grasp” from “seize" to “understand” can be seen as a leap across semantic domains, from the physical sphere, i.e, “seizing” to a mental one, “comprehending.” In the same way when we refer to a person as a “rock” or a “pillar of the community,” we are using the words in a metaphorical fashion. Similarly, football adopted the term blitz, a sudden massive military attack to refer to a sudden charge into the offensive backfield by defensive players. Broadcast originally meant “to cast seeds out” but with the advent of radio and television, the word was used metaphorically to refer to the transmission of audio and video signals. (In agricultural circles, the original sense of broadcast is still employed). Magazine originally referred to a storehouse (still prevalent to refer to ammunition) and the periodical sense of magazine sees the word metaphorically as a storehouse of words and information. The word “myopia” surfaced in 1693 to refer to an inability to see distant objects clearly. By 1821, poet Charlotte Smith used it metaphorically in the phrase “myopia of the mind.”
We also have a process of generalization. For example, at one time the word fabulous meant resembling a fable; then it meant incredible because what is found in fables is incredible. Now it has weakened even more and you can use it to describe a dress you like. Awful is another example, it originally meant “inspiring awe” but since what inspires awe isn’t always so pleasant, it came to mean something negative. The original sense of awful doesn’t even exist anymore. This process also works for nouns and verbs. Originally a barn was a place you stored barley. It was a compound of bere (barley) and aern (place). A mill referred to specifically a place where you made meal. Once manufacture was made by hand, saucers held sauce, pen knives fixed quill pens.
Originally assassin and thug referred to murderers who belonged to Eastern religious sects only. Through the miracle of globalization westerners too can be members of the fraternities of thugs and assassins.
Words also become narrowed. Deer once referred to any animal, meat to any food, accident to any incident, actor to any doer, liquor any fluid, hound any dog, meat any food, flesh any meat, fowl any bird, doctor any learned person, garage any storage space and starve just meant to die, not die due to lack of food.
Also because of the capricious nature of people, words are subject to value judgements and go through processes of pejoration and amelioration. Often this process is due to changes in society. So knave once meant any boy, lewd referred only to the laity, boor any peasant, vulgar only meant common. The movement away from a feudal, agrarian lifestyle facilitated the deterioration of these words. The value of words is often determined by groups that possess power and boors and knaves drew the short stick. On the other hand, noble that at first only referred to accident of being born into an aristocratic family ameliorated to imply one with a virtuous character. Women being relatively powerless through most of the English language's recorded history have seen its share of the pejoration process. Observe mistress, governess, majorette to name just a few examples. They may have commenced as equivalent to mister, governor, and major but all have picked up negative or downmarket senses along the way.
Many words also go through what can be called a weakening process in which the sense
of the word is toned down. Examples of such are adjectives such as awful, dreadful, horrid, terrible; verbs such as annoy, baffle, bruise and confound and the nouns scamp and friend, thanks to Facebook. Less often, some words strengthen. One sees this process with censure, disgust and gale. Originally censure meant any opinion, disgust merely meant “not like” and gale meant “light wind.”

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Words from Law-Part 2

This article that appeared in the October Lexpert is the conclusion of words from began their lives as legal words before being generalized into our lexicon. Excerpted from my book How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts.

The thing is, “thing” once referred to a judicial assembly


Howard Richler

Last month we looked at some words that centuries ago were born in the field of law and eventually developed a more general sense. This month we will look at some other terms whose legal roots might surprise you.


While engaging in mayhem will sometimes land one in front of a court of law, we probably associate the word more with a hockey match than a trial. However, the OED informs us that mayhem has proper legal bona fides: “Criminal Law. The infliction of physical injury on a person, so as to impair or destroy that person's capacity for self-defence; an instance of this.” The word's first citation is found in the Rolls of Parliament (1447): “Where apon growith ofte times‥Roberies, Murthers, mayehemes, and manslauter.” Its first usage to refer to violent behaviour and particularly physical assault is found in Mark Twain's Territorial Enterprise (1870): “This same man‥pantingly threatened me with permanent disfiguring mayhem, if ever again I should introduce his name into print.”


This word in Old English had a specific legal meaning. It referred to a trial in which an accused person was subjected to a test, usually involving physical pain or danger. If you overcame these crucibles it was regarded as divine proof of your innocence. These tests were ordeals by fire, (e.g., carrying heated metal) hot water, (plunging your hands into boiling water) cold water, and combat. It wouldn't be until 1215 that these legal methods were abolished. As in modern-day reality television, these ordeals were somewhat rigged. To be declared innocent one would have to accomplish the impossible, such as carrying red-hot coals without being burned. It was only in the 17th century that ordeal acquired its metaphorical and less painful meaning of a “trying experience.” For example, John Cleveland wrote in The Works of John Cleveland (1687),“The Ordale of the Sword justified Caesar and condemned Pompey not his Cause.”


This long word was one of the favourites of former great hockey announcer Danny Gallivan, but I doubt that even erudite Gallivan knew the word's original sense: “Articles of personal property, especially clothing and ornaments, which (exceptionally at common law) did not automatically transfer from the property of the wife to the husband by virtue of the marriage.” The other segment of her property, her dowry was transferred to her spouse. In his novel The Eustace Diamonds, ( 1871) Anthony Trollope uses the word in a legal sense when the heroine accepts a diamond necklace as a wedding gift from her husband and later tries to keep it as part of her paraphernalia, i.e., “bride's goods.”

In the 18th century the sense was extended to refer to various belongings or accessories, such as what hockey sticks and goalie pads. In the 20th century, the word was often modified by the word drug to refer to the equipment that drug users require.


The OED tells us that in the 14th century engross meant “to write in a peculiar character appropriate to legal documents,” i.e. large lettering. In the 15th century the word meant to buy “in gross,” i.e., “to buy up wholesale; especially to buy up the whole stock, or as much as possible, of (a commodity) for the purpose of .. retailing it at a monopoly price.” (A grocer originally was a dealer in gross). At the end of the 16th century, engross came into its modern sense of absorbing totally.


This king of non-specific word is one of the oldest ones in our language but originally it enjoyed a rather specific meaning a a meeting or an assembly and specifically a judicial assembly. (This judicial sense is seen in the name of the Norwegian Parliament, Storting that means “great thing”). From there it came to refer to a cause brought before such an assembly and soon thereafter to any cause in general. From here it was only a small step for the word to refer to any matter to which one is concerned and later to any deed, circumstance or phenomenon. Its sense, however, to refer to an activity that attracts a particular group, e,g., “'its a guy thing” is fairly modern and the OED's first citation of such only goes back to Nov 9,1967 in the New York Times: “Few whites are travelling to Harlem for entertainment. It's a black thing now.”

The use of thing in a sexual context has deep historical roots. In Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath opines “Our bothe thynges smale/Were eek to knowe a female from a male.” Shakespeare used the word thing often in a bawdy sense even in some seemingly innocuous places. For example when Rosalind uses the phrase “too much of a good thing” in As You Like It, “thing” was also being used as a euphemism for genitalia as it had been in Chaucer's era.

This article is adapted from Howard Richler's recently released How Happy Became Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts published by Ronsdale Press. It is available both as a print and as an ebook.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

New Britishisms in North America

(The following article first appeared in the Sept 2013 Senior Times).

Crikey, the Bloody Britishisms are Coming!


Howard Richler

A couple of years ago the BBC asked its indigenous population to relate which barbaric Americanisms most infuriated them. This plea drew countless entries from Brits angry about the bastardization of Shakespeare's tongue.

Here is but a soupçon of the vituperative replies:

  • Can I get a..” It infuriates me. It's not New York. It's not the 90s. You're not in Central Park with the rest of the Friends. Really.
  • What kind of word is “gotten.” It makes me shudder.
  • The next time someone tells you something is the “least worst option,” tell them that their most best option is learning grammar.

It would appear that North Americans can now equally complain about an inundation of Britishisms. Some months ago I wrote in this column how prevalent the word “bespoke” has become in North American circles to refer to high-quality items and services. After all, it wasn't so long ago that its usage in our continent was virtually non-existent. And bespoke is hardly the only British word or expression making inroads in the North American vernacular. Here are two others making inroads on the west side of the pond.

chav – The OED defines chav as, “In the United Kingdom (originally the south of England): a young person of a type characterized by brash and loutish behaviour and the wearing of designer-style clothes (esp. sportswear); usually with connotations of a low social status. ”

This term is increasingly being used in North America probably due to the insidious (and sometimes invidious) influence of You Tube videos. Here are two examples stemming from the USA that I spotted on the Internet: “Nah I'm not buying those sneakers man, they are so chavvy.” Someone from Boston, Massachusetts posted the following on a language newsgroup: “Chav is gaining currency as Americans understand that not all British people are posh. Boston/Cambridge is rife with international college students, so it may just be a blip, but I've heard it in a suburban grocery store to refer to some hooligans outside the store.”

piece of kit –When American science-fiction author John Scalzi wrote on his blog last year that the latest IPad was a “lovely piece of kit,” he was deluged by many followers who thought his using the expression was highly pretentious. Scalzi retorted: “Apparently being an American, I should have settled on “Dude, this tablet is bananas,” or something else equally comporting with my nation of origin.” This usage appears to be popular with American techies. For example, Zach Whitaker on ZDNet writes, “It doesn’t matter where you are in the world: a media on-the-go bag has to have every piece of kit you may or may not need.” The term kit in British English since the late 18th century has referred to equipment or a uniform.

So why are we seeing an upsurge in Britishisms in North America? First of all, it should be mentioned that the trend is most prevalent in northeast parts of the continent, particularly among media commentators According to American linguist and language columnist Ben Zimmer, whereas in the past it was a British-sounding accent that conveyed prestige in certain North American milieus, now it is Britishisms that area considered classy. Zimmer states that the emphasis nowadays is not on sounding aristocratic but on sounding intellectual. I think, however, we can't understate how globally connected the world has become and as a result English is undergoing a process of ever-increasing internationalization. For example, although many words were Americanized when J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series first surfaced in 1997, the term ginger to refer to redheads was not and as a result of the millions of North American Potterheads, the term gained currency Media influence also was in play with the term metrosexual, a fashion conscious heterosexual. This word which blends metro and heterosexual first surfaced in England in 1994, but the American television program Queer Eye for the Straight Guy so popularized it that by January 2004 it was declared the American Society's word of the year for 2003.


Howard's book How Happy Became Homosexual and Other Mysterious Semantic Shifts was published in May by Ronsdale Press of Vancouver, B.C.