Thursday, January 31, 2013


(This article appeared in  the Feb 2013 edition of Lexpert)

                 The Greatest Invention Since Beer



                                         Howard Richler

If you ask people to name the most consequential inventions of world history, you’ll likely hear a list that includes the telephone, the computer, the wheel and among some of my rowdy crowd – beer. In fact, the creation of the alphabet should be on this list if we measure the extent of its use in modern daily life. (I concede that in terms of longevity it pales in comparison to the wheel's inception in 3500 B.C. and to beer's in 6000 B.C.)

While it is widely known that the word alphabet is an amalgam of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta, not as well known is the Greeks copying the Phoenicians’ Semitic letters and using them to write their own language. Sometime before 1000 B.C., the Phoenicians began writing their language in a 22-letter alphabet. They didn’t invent the alphabet ex nihilo, but inherited their 22-consonant alphabet from a prior Semitic tradition that was developed around 1700 B.C. in Canaan and Phoenicia. In fact, 19 of the letters of the alphabet can be traced back in their shapes, sequence and sounds to their Phoenician counterparts. The innovation of the Greeks was the invention of the vowels by reassigning certain Phoenician letters to symbolize vowel sounds. Around 700 B.C., the Etruscans of Italy copied the Greek letters, from which derived the letters of the ancient Roman alphabet, and ultimately all western alphabets. Most alphabets contain 20-30 symbols, but the relative complexity of the sound system leads to alphabets of varying size. The smallest alphabet is Rotokas, used in the Solomon Islands, with 11 letters while the largest is the Khmer of Asia, with 74 letters. In any case all modern alphabets have far fewer characters than the approximately 1000 characters (based on the 214 traditional root characters) that the young Chinese student must learn or the hundreds of hieroglyphics that the ancient Egyptian student had to memorize.

This is not to imply that knowledge of the alphabet has always been widespread. In a medieval precursor to Sesame Street, Giovanni de Genoa, writes in Catholicon in 1286: “You must proceed everywhere according to the alphabet. So, according to this order you will easily be able to find the spelling of any word here included. For example, I intend to discuss amo before bibo. I will discuss amo before bibo because a is the first letter of amo and b is the first letter of bibo and a is before b in the alphabet.”

Knowledge of the alphabet among adults was still restricted in Elizabethan England. In the first English dictionary published in 1604, Robert Cawdrey cautions in Table Alphabeticall that “to profit by this Table then thou must learne the Alphabet, to wit, the order of the letters as they neere the beginning, about the middest, and toward the end.”

Have you ever wondered why so many words different languages words for “mother” have an “m” sound to start the word ? We have Basque ama, Finnish emo, Hebrew ema, Hindi maa, Serbian majka, Malay emak, German mutter, Mandarin and Quechua ma and Vietnamese me, to name but a few. This is probably due to the letter M belonging to the category of consonants known as labials, from the Latin word for “lip.” This sound is formed at the lips and it does not require any deft use of the tongue, and no need of teeth. Also, it is simple enough to be made by an infant as young as three or four months. While this baby articulation is just for play, it is interpreted universally as an attempt by the infant to address the mother.

Other alphabet musings may include: Why is an O round? Its distinctive shape goes back to ancient Egypt where its painted image was a human eye. This was later adopted by Semitic people calling it ayin. “eye” in their languages. Why does X symbolize an unknown quantity? This process began when Réné Descartes wrote his treatise La Géométrie in 1637. While he assigned the letters X, Y and Z to symbolize any three unknowns in a geometric equation, he favoured X and when other mathematicians started to use the letter X to designate an unknown varaible, this practice became entrenched.

Of course, any discussion of the letters of the alphabet should end with a discussion of why we say “zed” in Canada, Britain and other Commonwealth countries whereas the Americans say “zee.” The Romans called this letter zeta and it has been passed into modern Italian. Although “zed” became the official designation in England, other variants such as “zad, “izzard,” and “zee” crop up in British writings into the 19th century. Both “zee” and “zed” were exported to American with “zee” dominating in the North and “zed” in the South. The matter was fairly decided when New Englander Daniel Webster wrote his American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828. Webster ordained that henceforth the letter was to be pronounced “zee.”

Howard's book from Happy to Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published in March 2013.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Facebook Word Puzzles-201-250

218-Name these anagrammatized musicians: oral sex-sectarians-Presbyterians

219-What do these words have in common? pedigree-helicopter-Alcatraz

220-What do these words have in common? aileron-limousine-chassis-detente

221-What do these words have in common? lord-lady-companion

222-What do these words have in common? history-geography-gymnasium-mathematics-cataclysm

223-Who is this musician/actor? “I'm a jerk, but listen.”

224-Name a word of at least 20 letters that doesn't have an “e.”

225-What do these words have in common? ombudsman-tungsten-aquavit

226-Name a word of at least 20 letters that doesn't have an “i.”

227-What do these words have in common? hippopotamus-chagrin-curtail

228-What do these words have in common? cole slaw-cookie-Santa Claus

229-Name these Jan 1 babies- debunked rum(philosopher) free storm(author) heape dmeat(director)

230-Decipher this country - steamier turban idea

231-Aside from starting with m what do Madras/Manila/Micronesia/Minnesota/Minsk-have in common

232-Decipher these baseballers- loaners-tragedy-alkaline-versatile-Laetrile

233-Name these actors - cherimoya-truisms-grainery

234-Name a word of at least 20 letters that doesn't have an “a.”

235-Name a word of at least 20 letters that doesn't have an “o.”

236-Name a volcano that is found in Vietnam?

237-Decipher these actors: semolina-bludgeon-hominal

238-Decipher these musicians: waterfalls-narcoleptic-retrogradely

239-What do these words have in common? feisty-fizzle-petard-partridge

240-What do these words have in common? penicillin-orchid-testify

241-Decipher these musicians : treescape-reenabled-oscillates-gleaner

242-What do these words have in common? hysterical-vanilla-exuberant

243-What do these words have in common? caucus-tuxedo-squash

244-Decipher these actors: seamed-streamingly-truisms

245 Decipher these NFLers : nickered-blanketers-mordantly

246-Decipher these “antigrams.” nice love-mad policy- no moon starers- untied

247-What do these words have in common? pygmy-pleurisy-gargoyle

248-What director's name is anagram to “On set,scream sir.”

249-What do these words have in common? bowel-sycophant-bupkes

250-Macaque &quagga are 2 “odd” animals with at least 6 letters. Name one with 8.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Blackmailing the Blackmailers

(This article appeared in the January Lexpert under the title Blackmailing the Blackmailers).

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.

Thankfully, 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” or “multitude” 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, sloghorne 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 smartleather 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 assocaition 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 (usually to the harp) 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.

Notwithstanding the etymologies already expalined, there are suggestions that the Celtic languages of Roman Britain had hardly any influence on the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons. For example, linguist 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.” She also points out that many Celtic words are quite similar to English words. “Three” in Irish is tri, “boat “ is bad, and cat is rendered the same in Irish. Therefore, these words could just as easily be from the Celtic languages as from Anglo-Saxon. The point here is that we are dealing with a common linguistic occurrence of multiple etymologies where one can’t really exclude the etymological contribution of a particular language.

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 book from Happy to Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published next spring.