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?