Trivia refers to obscure or useless information, but this definition is a far cry from the word's etymology. Trivia, or tri-via, literally means "three roads," and in Ancient Roman times, it referred to three-way intersections. These heavily trafficked intersections were places where common people would chat, trade, gossip, and bicker, and it is in this context that the seeds of our modern sense of the word were first sown.
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In this episode, I speak with Tracey Weldon, linguist and board advisor on the Oxford Dictionary of African American English project. We discuss the origins of AAE, the role of code switching within its speech community, AAE's contributions to mainstream English, and more.
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What does "standing under" have to do with "understanding?" Nothing at all, which is why most of us probably overlook the obvious fact that "understand" is actually a compound word comprising "under" and "stand." In our exploration of this confusing etymology, we look at some archaic meanings of the preposition "under" in addition to words with similar semantic constructions in other languages.
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In Old English, the word "world", or weorold, did not refer to a place. It was a compound word comprising wer, meaing "man", and ald, meaning "age". "World" literally meant "the age of man", and in many of its earliest usages, it's more closely related to a man's "lifetime" or "lifespan" than the earth he inhabits. We also look at some unlikely cognates of "world", all of which share etymologies related to "manliness".
Have you ever wondered how writing was invented - or, how many times it was invented? How many undeciphered scripts has the ancient world left us, and is there any hope in eventually deciphering them? In this interview with Silvia Ferrara, author of The Greatest Invention, we explore these questions and many more.
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In Ancient Greece, an "idiot", or idiotes, was a "private person", which meant someone who did not hold a political office. In this episode, we explore how the word's modern pejorative connotation emerged. We also look into the word's 19th and early 20th century association with the IQ test.
Though people of extraordinary talents and intellect have always existed, the modern sense of "genius" didn't emerge until the relatively recent 18th century. In Ancient Rome, a "genius" was neither a person nor their brilliant works, but a mythological deity whose function within society evolved over the course of antiquity.
Most Malay loanwords in English describe the local flora, fauna, and food of Southeast Asia. "Amok", however, is different. Amok, which describes a violent killing spree, is ultimately a Malay word that entered European languages during the era of European colonial expansion. Did Europeans encounter something unique in Southeast Asia that prompted them to adapt this word?
"Hyperbola" and "ellipse" are geometrical curves, while "hyperbole" and "ellipsis" are rhetorical terms. At face value, it's not clear how the meanings of "hyperbola" and "ellipse" relate to those of "hyperbole" and "ellipsis", but the history of these pairs of cognates are indeed closely intertwined.
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The meanings of "parabola" and "parable" have very little to do with one another, yet these words are etymological doublets of a single Greek work, parabole, which meant "a throwing aside". In this episode, we explore how this literal meaning connects to the literary and mathematical developments of this Greek word.
This month's bonus episode explores the syntax of predicate adjectives. Become a member on Patreon.com for to every WFG bonus episode.
Before Google was the name of one of the world's biggest tech companies, "googol" was an obscure math term that meant "ten to the one hundredth power". Five decades before the founding of Google, the word "googol" emerged spontaneously out of a conversation between an American mathematician and his nephew.
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The word "average" has anything but an average etymology. If the leading theory is correct, "average" ultimately derives from an Arabic word meaning "defect". In this episode, we explore how this Arabic word made its way into European languages through sea trade and how, given this unlikely origin, its mathematical sense emerged over time.
English may be spoken by a whopping 1.5 billion ESL speakers around the world, but that doesn't mean it's an "easy" language to learn. For native English speakers, it's easy to take for granted just how irregular the English language is. In this interview episode, I chat with Arika Okrent about her new book, Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don't Rhyme and Other Oddities of the English Language.
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In many English works printed before the late 19th century, a letter unfamiliar to us today, ſ, is often used in place of the letter S. However, that unfamiliar f-looking letter is actually just an archaic form of the letter S called "long s". In this episode, we explore the origins and decline of this odd orthographical relic. As a coda to our series on lost letters, we also explore the history of the ampersand (&), which up until the late 19th century was often listed as the 27th letter of the alphabet.
Examples from the episode:
1. Us'd, Clos'd
2. Always puffs, offset, satisfaction; never puffſ, offſet, satiſfaction
3. 17th century: mask, disbelief; 18th century maſk, diſbelief
4. Confuſ-ed, diſ-appearance
If you've ever encountered the ligatures æ and œ in old texts, you may have wondered: what are they called? Where do they come from? How exactly are they pronounced? Why don't we use them any more? The ligatures ash and ethel are rare in English writing today, but in previous centuries, they were common. (In Old English, the sound we today associate with "short A" was actually not represented by the letter A, but by æ!)
F*ck. Sh*t. C*ck. These are some of the most profane words in the English language, but what exactly makes them profane? Is there something about profanities that makes them different from ordinary vanilla words? In this interview, I speak with John McWhorter, preeminent linguist and author of Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever.
Before the letter W was invented, the rune wynn was borrowed into the Latin AngloSaxon alphabet as a way of representing the /w/ sound. The letter yogh evolved out of Insular G, an Irish variation of the traditional letter G. The phonetic value of yogh varied. It could represent the /y/ sound, the guttural /x/ sound as in the Scottish "loch," and others. Many Modern English words spelled with GH digraph (laugh, though, night, etc.) were once spelled with the letter yogh.
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In Modern English, we use the TH digraph to represent the voiced and voiceless dental fricative sounds. However, English previously had two unique letters that did this same job: eth and thorn. In this episode, we look at the origin and decline of eth and thorn in English in addition to some places outside of the English alphabet where these ancient letters have survived. Also, check out these links:
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The International Phonetic Alphabet interactive chart: https://www.internationalphoneticalphabet.org/ipa-sounds/ipa-chart-with-sounds/
Ticket link to Intelligent Speech 2021: https://www.intelligentspeechconference.com/
The International Phonetic Alphabet interactive chart:
You can't have the English language without the ABC's, right? Wrong. In this overview episode, we look at the history of the alphabet and the many changes it has undergone from its Phoenician origins to today. We also consider the significance of the runic alphabet known as futhorc, the first alphabet used to write English. Two of the lost English letters, thorn and wynn, were directly adapted from this older Germanic script.
Lingthusiasm Episode 52: Writing is a Technology
Runic alphabet (futhorc):
‘Pasta’ is first attested in English during the 1800's, which is later than one might expect. However, in prior centuries, a handful of its closely related cognates such as ‘paste,’ ‘pastry,’ ‘pastel,’ and others were borrowed into English. We consider how these words relate historically and etymologically to the beloved Italian food. We also examine the semantic relationship between the words pasta, macaroni, and noodle.
In today's episode, we look at the etymologies of our meal words––not to mention "meal" itself. (As it turns out, "meal" has a long history of usage as a measurement word.) The meanings of our meal words have shifted over time in concert with the standard time at which these meals are eaten. Spoiler: "Dinner" was the original "breakfast," and etymologically, the two words mean almost the same thing.
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In this interview episode, I speak with Tim Brookes, founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project. Among many other things, we discuss why preserving endangered writing systems is so important to the cultures that use them, how writings systems become endangered in the first place, and Tim's fundraiser to raise awareness about the Mongolian script through an original board game.
You can learn more about Tim and his work at the links below.
In ancient Greek botanical literature, there is a reference to a spiny plant called a kaktos. This word would pass into Modern English as "cactus," though the kaktos itself was certainly not a cactus as we know it. More likely, it was an undomesticated "artichoke," a plant whose name ultimately comes from Arabic. In this episode, we take a look at the intertwined history of these two words and the plants they designate.
In this episode, we explore the etymology of the most culturally ubiquitous fruit, the apple. Etymologically, the ubiquity of the apple is fitting, since it originally used to refer to apples and all fruits in general. We also explore the Latin and Greek words for ‘apple,’ the derivatives of which are hiding in plain sight in a handful of modern English fruit and vegetable words.