Monday, May 9, 2011

"Sunday" Trivia 15

Well, it's Monday again, and you know what that means... Sunday trivia! (Sorry for the tardiness. I have no excuse beyond enjoying the first few days of summer vacation.)

Metathesis is the rearrangement of sounds in a word. Besides being a common feature of casual speech, metathesis also plays into the etymology of many words in English. Bird, for example, comes from the Old English bryd, and horse comes from hros. Ask, which is commonly said as "aks" in some dialects, was present in Old English as ascian and acsian, which were both acceptable variations until the 1600s. In some cases, both forms remain in the written spellings, as with three and third. And sometimes a word will undergo metathesis back and forth over the centuries, as crud derived from curd which derived from crud.

And some words have been so scrambled they're unrecognizable. Walrus is from Dutch, and probably derives from the Old Norse rosmhvalr, hrosshvalr, or rostungr. And the rosm in rosmhvalr may come from Finnish mursu, so the sounds are even more tangled. Leprechaun comes from the Old Irish luchorpan, literally "a very small body."

Your trivia question today is about metathesis. Name two words in modern English from the same Latin source, but one of which has metathesized heavily, ending up with (almost) the same four consonants but with the last three in reverse order.

Hint: both words relate to communication.

(One consonant has been altered over the years but is still very similar.)

(Thanks to Becca Cheney for giving me walrus on last week's trivia!)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

"Sunday" Trivia 14

Late again! Final projects have been occupying my brain. Here's some trivia for you.

(Spoiler alert.) The answer to last week's trivia question was pineapple, a fruit which is called ananas in a huge variety of languages other than English. The etymology of pineapple is interesting as well - the term originally referred to pine cones, and was used for the fruit because of their similarity in shape. Pine cone emerged as a replacement a few centuries later.

English has a lot of weird little compound nouns like this, especially as names for plants and animals. Some are very transparent, like jellyfish, groundhog, or firefly. Others used to be transparent but are a little hazy now, like kiwifruit, which was named after the flightless bird but is just known as kiwi to some cultures with less interesting wildlife. Or horseradish - in Old English, horse was often used to mean "strong" or "large." Still others seem transparent on first glance, like greyhound, which actually derives from Old English grig-, "bitch," not the color.

But some are extremely opaque. Butterfly, for example, may come from myths about witches disguised as insects who steal butter, or the color of the bug, or the color of its excrement. (Butterflies have funky names in many languages, including psyche, "soul," in Ancient Greek and mariposa, "Mary rests," in Spanish.) Or cockroach, which uses the folk etymology of cock, "rooster," and roach, a type of fish, but is actually derived from Spanish cucaracha.

Your trivia question today involves compound nouns. No hyphens or spaces are allowed for any answer. Name:

1. An animal whose name is a compound noun with a religious etymology.
2. An animal whose name is from a Dutch compound noun.
3. An animal whose name derives originally from the names of two animals in Greek, because in ancient times it was thought to be a hybrid of the two.

(Update: Turns out there are a few answers to number 2! Can you name an example from Netherlands Dutch and from Afrikaans Dutch?)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sunday Trivia 13

Some words manage to take root as loanwords in languages across the world. Probably the most famous example is okay, which is also interesting because of its debatable etymology. The four major claims are:

1. Initialism for a deliberate misspelling of "all correct" as "oll korrect." In the mid-19th century there was a fad for using abbreviations with obvious misspellings, like OW for "oll wright."
2. Abbreviation of Old Kinderhook, a nickname for Martin van Buren after his hometown.
3. The Choctaw word okeh, meaning "it is so and not otherwise." The spelling okeh was common in English until the 1960s or so. This etymology was popularized around 1885 and carried some weight until modern etymologists offered opposing theories.
4. A word or phrase from an African language like the Wolof or Bantu waw-kay or the Mande o ke. This possibility has been largely debunked.

Whatever its true origin, okay has been adopted all over the world, in languages including Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, and German.

Your trivia question today is about a word which appears in many languages. There is a fruit which has the same name in Armenian, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Icelandic, Italian, Latin, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Swedish, and Turkish, but a very different name in English. What is it?

(Additional details: In the Roman alphabet, the name of this fruit is written identically in the languages listed. It is written identically but with diacritics or accents in Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Macedonian, Persian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sunday Trivia 12

All right, this is really Tuesday trivia. It totally slipped my mind to post on Sunday - the end of the semester has kicked me into a different gear. So, as meager compensation, here's a piece of trivia from my suitemate Justus:

What common English word consists of six letters in alphabetical order?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunday Trivia 11

English is a language fond of borrowings. As James Nicoll once said, "The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary." By most estimates, only a quarter of modern English words have Germanic roots. About 30% are French, 30% are Latin, 5% are Greek, and the remaining 10% are from other languages. (Of course, many of the most common words are Germanic, so this statistic can be misleading.)

But people are resistant to change, and throughout the history of English there have been movements to avoid borrowings and stick to words of Anglo-Saxon origin. The resulting constrained language has been called Anglish, Saxonised English, and even Blue-Eyed English. Understandably, it can get a little hairy. Terms like birdlore to replace ornithology or tonesmith to replace composer are cringe-worthy even though they're analogous to handbook and manual, which we use interchangeably. My favorite piece of Anglish writing, and a great example of why it's so hard in modern English, is the essay "Uncleftish Beholding" by Poul Anderson. (Uncleftish beholding means atomic theory.)

Your trivia question today concerns borrowings of the most impure sort. Name a word that modern French has borrowed from English and which English originally borrowed (in part) from Norman French.

Monday, April 4, 2011


Thanks to my suitemate Justus for this bit of trivia.

Hybrid words are words that have roots in more than one language. For example, hexadecimal, from Greek (h)exi- for six and Latin decimus for tenth, might have been sexidecimal if purely Latin or hexidektal if purely Greek, but the ubiquity of decimal in English and the dominance of hexa- (consider hexagon, hexameter, Hexameron) yielded the word we know today.

Another interesting example is aquaphobia, which utilizes the Latin word for water but the Greek for fear, and is associated only with a general trepidation over water. Its Greek-only cousin, hydrophobia, normally refers to rabies.

Your challenge: Give a place name that is a hybrid with one root in a Native American language and the other in Greek.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sunday Trivia 10

Suppletion is when a word's different forms have different etymologies, leading to inflections ranging from translucent to completely opaque. For example, in English, good and better have different roots, as do bad and worse. It's really interesting to track the strange ways different forms of words gain popularity or fall out of use. To be in English is a really funky case because it comes from three different Old English verbs: beon, "be, become," eom, "remain," and wesan, also roughly "remain." As late as the 1500s, we used these verbs separately in certain forms: "I be," "thou beest," "they beth," before our tenses crystallized into the totally standardized but deeply weird set of be, being, been, am, are, is, was, and were.

In a looser sense, suppletion can refer to words that are related in meaning but not in origin. Obviously we have a boatload of these in English because of the different languages we've borrowed from. In the case of collateral adjectives, the adjective normally used with a given noun is etymologically unrelated: moon and lunar, horse and equine, brother and fraternal. These examples are all nouns derived from Proto-Germanic and adjectives from Latin, which is very common.

Your trivia question today is about (loose) suppletion. Name two collateral adjectives in English that correspond to two mysterious nouns: they appeared in Old English inexplicably, with no plausible root in Proto-Germanic, Latin, or any other language linguistic historians have explored.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sunday Trivia 9

Etymologies that have multiple steps are extremely interesting and opaque. Some go through several changes in meaning along the way. Colors, for some reason, can be especially tangled.

One of my favorites is cardinal (the bird), which is named after the color, which is named after the robes worn by the clergy rank, which comes from Latin cardo, which originally just meant "door hinge." Chartreuse is named after the liqueur, which is named for the monastery where the liqueur is made, which is named for the mountain range, whose etymology I wasn't able to uncover. Scarlet derives from cloth marked with symbols; purple originally comes from the shellfish used to make dye; blue comes from an Indo-European root which led to terms in various languages for white, yellow, and gray as well as blue. Other colors are interesting because of the number of languages they came through on their way to English, like lilac, which derives from French, from Spanish, from Arabic, from Persian.

Your trivia question today is about colors, and complicated etymologies, and animals, and places. Name a color that derives from an animal that derives from a place that derives from an animal.

(Thanks to my linguistics professor Larry Horn for many of these.)

Monday, March 21, 2011


Sunday Trivia 7 was about nationalities, and a friend of mine mentioned that what we call going Dutch (splitting a bill evenly) is referred to as American in some languages and some parts of the world. It turns out that the full story is a little more complicated: some South American countries use pagar a la americana, "pay American style," and Thailand uses อเมริกันแชร์, "American share," but worldwide there are several nationalities associated with this practice. In Turkey, they say Alman usulü, "German style"; in Egypt, Englizy, "English style." This reminded me of a great graphic I once saw, originally from Language Log. It's a map of mutual incomprehensibility:

In this image, an arrow from one language to another signifies an expression like "It's all Greek to me," which is the arrow from English to Greek. (This is a phrase that Shakespeare coined, although the idea of Greek being hard to understand is much older.) Some great patterns emerge here, like the global inability to understand Chinese, or the more subtle geographic trends that govern certain areas, like English → Greek → Arabic → Hindi. It's nice to know that as messy and convoluted as English can be, there are other languages that the world has deemed much more inscrutable.

Of course, I also have some trivia for you guys. The answer is (sort of) a reversal "Greek to me." Name a term in English which derives from an onomatopoeic Greek word for foreigners.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sunday Trivia 8

I'm back from spring break and back to fully fledged trivia.

Last week's Sunday trivia had an answer involving an eggcorn, a respelling based on a misinterpretation or mishearing of a word or phrase. Often these can be pretty funny, like power mower instead of paramour or old-timer's disease for Alzheimer's disease. Eggcorn is itself an eggcorn from a misinterpretation of acorn.

Misinterpretations longer than a single word or phrase, like those from lines of songs, are called mondegreens. This term is another self-reference, based on Sylvia Wright's childhood understanding of a 17th-century ballad:
They hae slain the Earl O' Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.
Which actually reads:
They hae slain the Earl O' Moray,
And laid him on the green.
Some mondegreens from popular songs are common but nonetheless hilarious: "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy" from Hendrix's Purple Haze and "There's a bathroom on the right" from Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival. (The lyrics are actually "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky" and "There's a bad moon on the rise.") Reverse mondegreens are nonsense which has been derived from normal language, like the Iron Butterfly song In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, which comes from "In the Garden of Eden." Intentional reinterpretation of foreign song lyrics has its own special charm, and is known as soramimi. (You could call Mots d'Heures soramimi.)

Less transparent and not quite as funny are misinterpretations that have shifted into normal usage through folk etymology, in which a word is reshaped to something the speaker is more familiar with. So, the Latinate asparagus becomes sparrowgrass to some speakers because they are familiar with sparrows and grass, or the Spanish cucaracha becomes cockroach because the speaker already knows cocks and roaches (back then a type of fish.) In some sense these are just eggcorns that have gained credence.

Today's answer comes from an old and opaque folk etymology. Name an herb whose spelling was altered to match a familiar flower and a familiar name.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sunday Trivia 7

Here's another somewhat brief trivia question for your enjoyment.

Continuing with the current theme of places and names, today's trivia is about phrases that carry a nationality, like Dutch uncle. These are decently common in certain registers of English, and often carry some sort of insult to the country involved. Dutch uncle, along with Dutch courage and some more obscure examples, comes from the 17th-century Anglo-Dutch Wars, when anti-Dutch sentiment was running high. Other such phrases have more obscure etymologies, like Russian roulette. (These terms are an interesting opposition to freedom fries, a euphemism in which the nationality was dropped due to anti-French sentiment.)

Your challenge: name a two-word phrase starting with a nationality which is also an eggcorn - a term whose etymology includes some kind of misinterpretation.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Sunday Trivia 6

I'm on spring break, so Sunday Trivia might be a little less in-depth for a couple of weeks. Bear with me.

Snowclones are clichéd phrasal templates that allow endless variation: for example, the classic "gray is the new black" can be changed to any "X is the new black" or "X is the new Y," and has been used with almost any combination of colors you can think of. The Kings of Convenience have an album called Quiet is the New Loud.

Snowclones are named after the original example cited, "If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z."

Your challenge: name a snowclone coined by Saddam Hussein.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sunday Trivia 5

Hey guys,

A couple of weeks ago the Sunday trivia question was about toponyms, words that come from place names, so just to cover all the bases, this week's is about eponyms, words that come from people's names. Like toponyms, they're all over the place, especially the boring ones which are capitalized and completely transparent: degrees Fahrenheit, the Adam's apple, the Gatling gun. Others are now extremely opaque, and the people they reference often forgotten: boycott, diesel, silhouette, and sideburns, to name a few.

Julius Caesar has spread his name around with incredible success, possibly more than anyone in history. Along with being the source of the month of July, he also lent his cognomen to historical titles including the Czar and the Kaiser, a cipher, and a cocktail. (The Caesar salad, however, is named after restauranteur Caesar Cardini.) Don't get me started on Rome, whose culture dominates us more than most people realize, in our alphabet, calendar, architecture, government, religion, and, of course, language - all roads, after all.

Anyway, your trivia question today is about an eponym. Name an extremely common, opaque eponym that's just one syllable.

(My hint, hopefully just as opaque: Never forget.)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sunday Trivia 4

Tom Swifties are some of my favorite puns. Essentially, they use wordplay shared between a quote and its attribution, in the verb, the adverb, or some other description. For example:
"I can't believe it's Monday again," Tom said weakly.
"I dropped my toothpaste," Tom said, crestfallen.
"Who discovered radium?" asked Marie curiously.
They're a parody of the adverb-heavy writing style of the long-running Tom Swift series of juvenile adventure books, and they are amazingly open-ended. Tom Swifties are a subclass of Wellerism, named after Sam Weller from The Pickwick Papers, a pun which normally includes a quote and an action related by wordplay, such as:
"We'll have to rehearse that," said the undertaker as the coffin fell out of the car.
"I can see!" said the blind carpenter, as he picked up the hammer and saw.
And Wellerisms are themselves a type of paraprosdokian, a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence forces a reinterpretation of the first part, like the following from Dorothy Parker and Groucho Marx, respectively:
"If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn't be a bit surprised."
"I've had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn't it."
Your trivia question today is about adverbs. Serious bonus points if you answer in the form of a Tom Swifty or Wellerism, however forced.

Along with adverbs, English also has a pile of adjectives that end in -ly: friendly, ugly, deadly, lonely, and lively, to name a few. It also has a bunch of words that can be adjectives or adverbs that end in -ly, but they follow a pretty strict pattern with units of time: daily, nightly, weekly, monthly, and so on. Your task: Name a word in English ending in -ly that can be an adjective or an adverb, but does not refer to a repeating interval of time.

(As far as I've found, there are only two such words in the whole English language. One is extremely common and the other is not, although both are found in any standard register.)

(Scratch that: there are several, with varying degrees of use. But the rarer one I originally thought of has yet to be found.)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sunday Trivia 3

Words that derive from place names are omnipresent in English, with varying degrees of transparency. Bikinis are named after the Bikini Atoll, from an analogy between the atomic bomb tests there and the explosive effect the swimsuit can have on a man's libido. Bungalows are Bengalese, Damask is from Damascus; spas, tuxedos, and coaches all have corresponding spots on the map; Bohemians, Lesbians, Siamese twins; the list goes on.

Food and drink are obviously a huge part of this group: frankfurters, wieners, and hamburgers; kiwis, sardines, and martinis; an immense selection of cheese and wine. Some are oddly intertwined, like port wine, which comes from the city of Oporto in Portugal, which comes from o porto, "the port." (Interestingly, Portugal derives from the same city's Roman name, Portus Cale, and, of course, these all trace back to Latin portus.) And a special part of the lexicon is devoted to England's old neighbor across the channel, with French cities and regions giving us Dijon mustard, champagne, cognac, and many more.

So, your trivia question today concerns words that come from place names. A few weeks ago, the trivia question was about etymological redundancies. Today's answer is the opposite: an etymological oxymoron, a phrase in which each part's source contradicts the other.

Name a common two-word phrase in which each word derives from a different place name.

(If you're stuck, this list might help.)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

More Homophony

Last week I had a post about Mots d'Heures and other interesting examples of homophonic translation. Today in my poetry class, I was introduced to Christian Hawkey's book Ventrakl, which is in part an English homophonic translation of the work of Austrian poet Georg Trakl. This reminded me of a homophonic translation of Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal by David Cameron, titled Flowers of Bad. Here's a sample from the latter, courtesy of galatea resurrects #6:
Cowards! Chimpanzees each interview
Bluffing fell-out crash investigators
Over soups. Whores matching grasslands
With thuggery, lisp astride me as gulls pass!
This is from Baudelaire's poem "L’Irrémédiable" (which stanza, I'm still not sure.) These works are definitely bizarre, and they stand in interesting opposition to Mots d'Heures: they are homophonic translations of other languages into English, rather than English into another language, yet all of these are meant for an English-speaking audience. In the case of Ventrakl or Flowers of Bad, though, the goal is to show the beauty of something unfamiliar which is twisted into readability, rather than twist something familiar out of readability.

And just for fun, I have another "bilingual" pun (although it's really just bi-accentual.) An Englishman is walking in the New Zealand countryside and comes across a man cutting wool off a sheep with a large pair of scissors. The Englishman says, "Excuse me, are you shearing that sheep?" and the New Zealander replies "No, get your own!"

(This is reminiscent of the internet meme about the similarity between "beer can" with a British accent and "bacon" with a Jamaican accent. Or the Flight of the Conchords scene in which the New Zealanders keep repeating that Jemaine "may be dead," while their American friend Dave says "Maybe he did, maybe he didn't. What did he maybe do?")

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sunday Trivia 2

Spells and incantations are supposed to be potent, so the words they employ often have some zing. They can also have really funky origins because they've reached us through the magical backwater of etymology.

Abracadabra, for instance, is thought to either come from the Aramaic עַבְדָא כְּדַברָא or avda kedavra, "what was said has been done," or from the Greek Gnostic term Αβρασαξ or Abrasax, which carried mystical significance as the name of a supreme being or god, each letter representing one of the seven known planets. The first known use of Abracadabra was in the second century, when it was used in triangular inscriptions on Roman amulets to ward off malaria. The incantation Open Sesame from the story of Ali Baba is thought to refer to the fact that a ripe sesame seed pod bursts open, the same way, for example, a magical cave's entrance does.

J.K. Rowling's spells in the Harry Potter series are an interesting blend of pseudo-Greek, near-Latin, English, and the occasional odd language. Avada Kedavra, the Killing Curse, comes from the same Aramaic as Abracadabra, and also seems to play off the sound similarity between Kedavra and cadaver. Alohomora, the Unlocking Charm, comes from Malagasy, specifically in a system of geomancy called Sikidy, and means "friendly to thieves," among other things. Several other Harry Potter terms may come from the same source, including the plant Alihotsy, the Gryffindor passwords Caput Draconis and Fortuna Major, and the names Rubeus and Albus. (Although all these except Alihotsy are straightforward Latin, not Malagasy.)

So, your trivia question for today is about magic words.

1. Name a common magical term which derives from a Christian phrase.
2. Name a common noun that derives from the magical term, which describes trickery of a different sort.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Mots d'Heures

At some point when I was little, my mom showed me some strange French poems from a collection called Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames. I don't speak French, but that's beside the point. Here's a sample of one:
Un petit d'un petit
S'étonne aux Halles
Un petit d'un petit
Ah! degrés te fallent
Notice anything odd about it? If not, try reading it aloud a few times. Still nothing? This might help.

This is a writing technique called homophonic translation, in which words in one language approximate the sounds of words in another. Here, the author, Luis d'Antin van Rooten, claims that the poems are a lost French manuscript, and writes copious notes attempting to explain the bizarre and archaic vocabulary and syntax. But the poems always make at least some effort at coherency; the translation of the first two lines is roughly "A child of a child was surprised at Les Halles." The story of Ladle Rat Rotten Hut uses a similar technique, but in English only, replacing every word or phrase with a near-homophone.

Bilingual puns are of course a glorious tradition even when less extreme. My mother once saw a cheese shop called C'est Cheese ("it is cheese" in Franglais.) My high school Latin teacher told me he thought the greatest pun of all time was from a cartoon about Sir Charles James Napier's conquest of the province of Sindh in India: his hypothetical message to his commanding officer was simply Peccavi - Latin for "I have sinned." And of course, my favorite joke about the Olympics: A spectator sees an athlete training with a long pole, and says "Are you a pole vaulter?" The athlete responds, shocked, "No, I'm German, but how did you know my name?"

So, in lieu of trivia today, I have a riddle based on a terrible French-English pun. Why do the French never have two eggs at breakfast?

Monday, January 31, 2011

Eunoia, etc.

Hey guys,

Through a couple of classes here, I've been introduced to the work of Christian Bök, who is an amazing experimental poet. My favorite project of his is Eunoia (literally "beautiful thinking"), a book which, along with some other miscellany, has five chapters, each of which uses only one vowel. I just ordered it online and I'm pretty excited to read it. Bök prepared for it rigorously, and tried to use as many words that obeyed the one-vowel rule as he could find.

I'm probably partial to it because univocalic writing is something I've attempted before in prose, which you can find on my small site for constrained writing from my younger days, OtherWORDly. I only did it for E and O, my acumen not as quite as honed as Bök's (note dramatic understatement.) Also on that site are some abecedarian stories, where each word starts or ends with the next letter of the alphabet; some "counting stories," in which each word has an ever-increasing number of letters; a story without E; and a sort of prose riddle.

Texts which leave out letters are more generally called lipograms. One of the most famous of these is Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright.

Anyway, I can't let this go without giving you some trivia. Bök chose the title Eunoia at least in part because it's the shortest word he could find in English that contains all five vowels. So, the answers to all the trivia below are words that also contain all five vowels.

Can you name:

1. A word with all five vowels that rhymes with eunoia?
2. A country with all five vowels?
3. A nine-letter word with all five vowels in order?
4. A scientific term consisting only of the five vowels?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sunday Trivia 1

Hello all,

This blog is a compendium of linguistic trickery. I'm a lover of puns, etymology, constrained writing, and wordplay, and I'm using this as an outlet. I also love trivia and especially trivia questions, so both will appear frequently here. In fact, I plan to have at least one major trivia question each week (hence the title of this post.) Often these will require some linguistic sleuthing. Post your answer in the comments - correct answers will at the very least receive some praise or recognition.

For a while now, I've been collecting what I call "etymological redundancies": phrases whose constituent parts share a meaning somewhere along their etymological paths. For example, the Milky Way Galaxy is an etymological redundancy because galaxy comes from the Greek gala, "milk." Another favorite of mine is prayer beads - bead derives from the Old English gebed, "prayer." (Bead shifted in meaning because of phrases like count one's beads.) Or the White Album, album originally being a "white tablet."

Your first trivia question is this: Name a very common etymological redundancy often used in Mediterranean cooking.

Some additional hints:

1. The phrase is two words, and they both begin with the same letter.
2. The words derive their meaning from the same Greek word, which came to English through Latin and then Old French.
3. This product has had a huge economic effect on Mediterranean civilization for at least a few thousand years.