“It was Greek to me”

July 31, 2009

This line from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar has become the catch-all English phrase for when something is totally incomprehensible.  They are also the same words (translated of course) used by the Norwegians, Swedes, Persians, Spanish, and Portuguese.  Shakespeare casts a wide net.  The question raised, however, is what do the Greeks say when they don’t understand something (“this reads like Shakespeare,” maybe)?

This brings me to a wonderful entry in a wonderful blog called Strange Maps.  A while back they posted “a map of mutual incomprehension.”  I had forgotten about it until recently when reading The Terra-Cotta Dog by the Italian mystery writer Andrea Camilleri.  One of the characters asked, “am I speaking Turkish?” which is a non-poetic translation of “parlo Italiano o turco ottomano?” It is just one of the ways that cultures have defined others as foreign.

The Greeks, according to the map, think gibberish sounds or looks like Chinese.  In fact, most countries seem to hold Chinese as the paramount of incomprehensibility.  I’m not terribly surprised considering how different the language can sound and certainly appear.  Even the Chinese seem to recognize that their language is daunting in comparison to all others, and they refer to things they don’t understand as “heavenly script.”

There are other great gems on this chart, particularly in the notes on the bottom.  Make sure to take a look at them.



July 30, 2009

Recision is the act of rescinding and is specifically used to refer to the policy of health insurance companies revoking health care from clients once they become diagnosed as ill. Last weekend’s This American Life had a segment on this very issue.  Last month, a House sub-committee interrogated representatives from three major insurance companies to investigate their policies of actively searching for excuses to deny health coverage for the sickest of patients.  For example, allegedly insurance applications contained difficult to understand language on purpose with the hope that a patient might make a mistake on them.  If said patient then becomes very ill, the company has the grounds to deny coverage (even though they accepted payments all along from this patient).  In the culmination of this hearing, all three companies were asked to commit to not rescind any policy unless there was “intentional fraudulent behavior” on the part of the client.  All three companies refused on the grounds that state laws did not force them to do so.  There it is, EMAIL YOUR  REPRESENTATIVES.

I recently spoke to Jess Roney, a history professor at Ohio University, about her research on Colonial American voluntary organizations in Philadelphia.  These included some of the earliest insurance companies in the country, including the fire insurance company popularized by Benjamin Franklin.  “They were more like mutual-aid societies,” she said.  That’s exactly the concept that has been lost: a group of people concerned about a the possibility of a catastrophe (in this case, fire), pool their money together so as to aid any one of them on whom that catastrophe falls.  It had the added benefit, Jess told me, of creating a mutual responsibility.  If you saw a house on fire that was protected under your insurance, you would rush to the aid of putting it out because you knew that it was in your economic interest to reduce the damage.  To be sure, some houses, particularly wooden  ones, were denied coverage — this was not a charity.  The reason was, however, that coverage was denied because it was an undue burden on the other members.  Under this system, recision would have been a bad policy because your vote to deny a fellow contributor today could easily be turned on you tomorrow.

Modern insurance companies have lost that sense of being a mutual-aid society, and recision is only one example of that.  The problem is that the company itself, formerly just a money-management tool, has now become an interest in itself.  What used to be an agreement between a group of contributors is now a corporate entity that is built, not upon redistributing wealth to those in need, but upon making a profit.  The day that insurance companies became profit-seeking organizations was the day recision became an effective policy.  It is also the day that an insurance company ceased to be a mutual-aid society.


July 29, 2009

There is an entire genre of words that seems to exist for the sole purpose of getting the writers of crossword puzzles out of jams.  Second rate atheletes and actors are enshrined in memory, not for their work, but because their short three or four letter name makes them a perfect fit.  UMA Thurman will be remembered long after Pulp Fiction.  MILO O’SHEA (who apparently is not second rate but I couldn’t recognize him) is known to me only as Actor Milo, or Actor O’Shea.  Giants great, Mel OTT, will be known by as many crossword fans as baseball fans.

Just as people live on, so do words.  Why do I know what an etui is? Have I ever seen one before? yes, but not knowingly.  Only when I was stymied by Will Shortz three times in the New York Times Crossword Puzzle, did I finally learn what this is.

An etui is a fancy name for a fancy case designed to hold needles and other sewing supplies. They come in many different shapes and forms, but commonly seem to open like a flower as this one can demonstrate.

Interestingly enough, such a cute little thing comes from the French word estui, or prison.  While the origin comes from a case that shuts up or imprisons sewing material, I like to imagine a similar etui full of torture implements maybe used on prisoners in this chair.  Also interesting, according to the Oxforad American Dictionary, the plural of etui used to be etweese, which was shortened to tweeze, whence we gain the term tweezers.

Is there anyone out there who knew this word outside of crossword puzzles? What are your other favorite Crosswordese words?

P.S. For those of you who are crossword puzzle fans, I recommend Rex Parker’s daily review of the Times’s crossword puzzle.  It is one of the best ways to actually improve your puzzling.


July 28, 2009

n. An older, close-in suburb

Walking home in the rain in Riverdale, I was already in a bad mood.  The scenery made it worse.  Having spent last weekend in Philadelphia, I missed the excitement and activity of large city streets.  Ever since I lived in Williamsburg, Virginia, however, I have missed the charm and peacefulness of small towns.  The streets I walked now had neither excitement nor charm.  It lacked the sublimity of a city skyline, or the beauty of from lawns and porches.

What do you call these inner city sections?  Neither city nor suburb, they have no other name to me, as a New Yorker, other than the boroughs.  The exist where ever cities do, however.  Usually, the started as separate cities and where absorbed into the growing metropolis.  As a result, they have lost the independent feel of a separate town (e.g. city buses still cruise by blowing smog), but they do not have the vitality of downtown.

I went to my latin – urb means city and sub means at the foot of.  Exurb is another interesting phrase for a particular type of suburb, the commuting town.  The answer seemed obvious.  I did a search of “inurb.”  It does not show in any dictionary, but I did find a reference in the Double-Tongued Dictionary.

Double-Tongued Dictionary “records undocumented or under-documented words from the fringes of English, with a focus on slang, jargon, and new words. This site strives to record terms and expressions that are absent from, or are poorly covered in, mainstream dictionaries.”  Looks pretty good, but you can imagine that many of the words recorded are rather offensive.

Back to the point: inurb was used in the Weekly Standard in 2006 by Fred Barnes.  He wrote “Older, close—in, inner suburbs-or “inurbs,” as Kirk calls them-began to vote Democratic in the 1990s, and the trend has continued into the new century.”  I’m not sure if that is exactly what I want, but it will do.  Start using it

The All-Purpose Pronoun

July 27, 2009

William Safire’s On Language this weekend addressed the massive argument of English’s lack of a gender neutral singular pronoun. I’d say just read his article, but I’ve dedicated today’s entry to a synopsis. Some argue that to use “he” or “him” for anyone is sexist. Others blow a casket at the proposal that “they” might be used instead. He or she, or his or her, has always been cumbersome, and, as Safire points out, brevity is essential in a Twitter world limited to 140 characters per message.

Safire’s article makes two very important points. First, he explodes the idea that using the first person masculine to mean anyone is an age old tradition of English, dating it back to the mid-1700s by a female linguist. Originally, Safire points out, the use of the plural was always acceptable. Chaucer is his prime example of authors who used the “they” for “he or she” regularly.

Second, on a side note, Safire points outs that we have no problem using “you” to first person and nominative, when orignially it was a plural objective pronoun, as opposed to “thee” and “ye.” The purists, he argues, are barking up the wrong tree.

I never think that we should change the English language out of ignorance, and I do feel that we loose valuable rules that truly hurt the language. Here is a case where adherence to a “rule” continues to hamstring English. Let it go, people. All we need now is to come up with a distinct and widely accepted second person plural.

Disorderly Conduct

July 25, 2009

For a special Saturday post, an interesting Time article on the history and understanding of disorderly conduct.


July 24, 2009

adj. misty, dim, obscure, dark (from Oxford American Dictionary)

I’d like to believe that every idea has a perfectly suited word, but the problem would be that no man could remember them all. Sometimes there is a word that simply uses its utility because we would never use it enough to burn it into memory. Therefore, even if the speaker could recall it, it would be unlikely that the listener would know it. This seems to be one of those words.

It came to me via Patrick Burns, who found it from the interesting linguistic site, languagehat.com. They found it in a Roberts Graves quotation, precisely about people who use words that “one expects to meet only in books.”:

Professor Edgeworth, of All Souls’, avoided conversational English, persistently using words and phrases that one expects to meet only in books. One evening, Lawrence returned from a visit to London, and Edgeworth met him at the gate. “Was it very caliginous in the Metropolis?”

“Somewhat caliginous, but not altogether inspissated”, Lawrence replied gravely.

From what I can tell, languagehat.com is written by a very well educated polyglot. It can be very dense, but it certainly is evidence that there are intelligent blogs on the internet.