Category Archives: Language history

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OK, Okay, Happy 178th Birthday!

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 3.51.37 PMThis Thursday, March 23, 2017, is the 178th birthday of America’s (and the world’s) greatest word.

OK?

Yes, OK is the word. And it was born on Page 2 of the Boston Morning Post on Saturday, March 23, 1839.

Actually, OK was so successful from the beginning that its birthday couldn’t be discerned until more than a century later, when the Columbia University professor Allen Walker Read published a series of articles on OK in the journal American Speech. Perusing nearly every page of every newspaper…

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The ‘Boom!’ Boom

I’ve been seeing this commercial a fair amount:

The thing that strikes me is how Neil Patrick Harris says, “They said it was impossible to have a great-tasting light beer. Boom!”

The onomatopoeic word boom has done an awful lot of service over the years: for example, the nickname of Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, David Rabe’s play In the Boom Boom Room, and the 1968 Liz Taylor-Richard Burton film Boom! In music, there’s Eddie Cantor’s 1929 novelty number “I Faw Down an’ Go Boom” and Randy Newman’…

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Thinking in Mayan

wicked-mayan-hieroglyphs-mexico-cityI am writing this in Mérida, Mexico, where my husband and I lucked out in avoiding the snowstorm that hit the Northeast this week. We are baking in the Yucatán sunshine and visiting nearby Mayan sites. Our second day here, in a city park, we bumped into a professor of Mayan studies at a nearby college who wanted to practice his English. Many of the edifices in Mérida were built from the five pyramids of the Mayan city that once occupied this site, and he pointed out to us a series of hierogly…

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‘Done and Done’

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Maria Edgeworth

I texted my wife the other day asking whether she had walked the dog. She answered, “Done and done.” I was like, “Wait — what and what??”

The truth is, the expression, indicating a task accomplished, did have a bit of a familiar ring to it. Going to Google News, I find these examples just in the last 10 days:

  • “I also believe it’s a particularly good match for the free-weekend treatment. You get in, you hopefully have a good time, and you get out. Done and done.” –Destructoid, on…
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Just Try That With Your Bootstraps

Dr_Martens,_black,_oldIdioms mean what idioms mean. I get that. So at this point, “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” means to improve one’s situation or succeed through one’s own efforts, without outside help. But the fact that pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps is, in reality, impossible, is too telling a part of this phrase’s origins to ignore.

I mean, try it. If you have boots with bootstraps, hold onto those loops at the top of the heel and try to launch yourself upward. You can’t do it. You need …

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An OK Day in March

imagesOn March 23, 1839, a funny little abbreviation that would greatly affect all our lives was born. Though it was destined for influence and long life, its beginning was anything but auspicious. It appeared Page 2 of the Boston Morning Post in a long humorous story about Boston’s Anti-Bell-Ringing-Society, a group of young men who opposed legislation prohibiting the ringing of dinner bells. (That’s right. Don’t ask.)

In the midst of that complicated, supposedly humorous story, the author and editor…

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Recovering My Heritage

RobertBurns

It’s January 25, and as everyone knows, that is the birthday of the Bard of Ayrshire: Robert Burns.

And since a small conference on the Scots language is being held today at the University of Edinburgh, there is surely only one possible choice for what to do tonight: We’re having a traditional Burns Night Supper.

A Burns Supper, though the format is informal and flexible, typically involves certain rituals, and of course certain characteristic foods. The food at our gathering will be fully in l…

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Why Did the Van Gogh Brothers Write in French?

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The Yellow House at Arles in letter 691, to Theo Van Gogh, September 1888. (Image courtesy of Christie’s and Wikimedia Commons.)

“The limits of my language signify the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” – Charlemagne

Zundert. Borinage. Paris. Arles. Auvers-sur-Oise. These names boom through art history like reports from a distant cannon. When it was too dark to paint in them, Vincent Van Gogh read prodigiously and compiled a tr…

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Seeing Through the Gaslight

manipulate-e1462292001507A confession: Before this political season, I had not understood the term gaslighting, so eloquently explained on Friday by my colleague Ben Yagoda. I may have heard it, but only as a conniving manipulation by some politician of whom the writer didn’t approve. Not knowing its provenance, I thought maybe it had something to do with leakage from old-fashioned lighting, such that those who inhaled it sort of lost their minds.

In fact, as Ben points out, the term gaslighting originated with Patrick …

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Homeland Generation: What’s the Word?

millennials-gen-why-5-638At a time when Americans seem more conscious than ever of the separate categories to which they belong — race, gender, ethnicity, religion, political, urban or rural, occupation, native language, etc. — there has emerged a very different  way of categorizing that appears to obliterate all the others: by generations.

Much of the time we are concerned about the divisions in society. Somehow these disappear — e pluribus becomes unum — when we talk about generations. It’s a notion that was introduce…