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.