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Confessions of an imperfect vocabulary

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Neuroscientists believe we have about 100 to 500 trillion individual synapses firing in our adult brains. So although our desire to continually stuff our minds may be earnest, brain capacity is finite--about one to ten terabytes, and it's estimated that the average person's vocabulary treads water well under 100,000 words.

When I was growing up, road trips meant I was frequently captive audience to certain kinds of niche talk radio programs—which were bad enough without those commercial breaks in which the hosts proselytized for ointments, powders, or self-help devices. One product in particular haunted me: it was some kind of vocabulary building system, and there was Rush Limbaugh intoning from a script that a person's vocabulary stops growing at the age of 25.

At the time, 25 seemed like such a geriatric age that it seemed feasible and somehow appropriate that that language acquisition should cease. It also seemed to me that there was no way that at 25 there'd be any words I'd have left to master! This was at the height of my draconian spelling bee training, so a little arrogance should be forgiven.

So here I am, fully two years past the so-called vocab rigor mortis age, and I'm still learning new words! Most of them seem to be unnecessarily impenetrable (and thus more fun) synonyms for words I'll probably keep using (e.g. "prestidigitation"). And I could fill a month's worth of posts on how many words I spent many happy years mispronouncing or worrying I was mispronouncing--an invocation of "palimpsest" was heavy on the "limp" until I finally learned either way (i.e. "pal" or "limp") was okay, and my favorite grammar school vocab years was always "deSULtory." I find it either takes a good friend or a bad job interview to correct such things. But back to acquisition: any other brave flossers want to out themselves on words they've learned post-25? And if you're under 25, a) how cute! and b) just kidding, please regale us with any $5 words you've picked up lately.

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Language App Can Now Help You Learn High Valyrian From Game of Thrones
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HBO

The language-learning app Duolingo is a helpful tool for preparing for a Japanese vacation or brushing up on your high-school Spanish. But soon there will a new reason to download the app: In addition to the “real” languages it teaches, Duolingo will be offering High Valyrian to enhance your Game of Thrones-watching experience, SFGate reports.

In the acclaimed HBO series, High Valyrian is the dialect spoken by Daenerys Targaryen, one of the last surviving descendants of Old Valyria. As is the case with Dothraki, Valyrian was invented by conglanger (language constructor) David J. Peterson. He thoughtfully composed both languages to mimic organic linguistics, so that viewers could learn to speak the languages at home.

Now Game of Thrones fans will be able teach themselves High Valyrian without studying a digital dictionary. A beta version of Duolingo’s High Valyrian lessons will launch for web browsers on July 13 and eventually make its way to the iOS and Android apps.

The seventh season of Game of Thrones premieres July 16 on HBO. While you may not be able to reach Daenerys-level fluency by then, you’ll have plenty of time to learn the basics, like Valar morghulis, or ”All men must die.”

[h/t SFGate]

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15 Words That Aren’t As Straightforward As They Look
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There’s an etymological old wives’ tale that suggests the “step” in stepmother and stepfather comes from the fact that they're added onto genealogical charts one step away from your biological ones. Unfortunately, it’s completely untrue.

Despite appearances, the “step” in these words stems from an Old English term, steop, which was once used to indicate loss or bereavement. Way back then, “stepchild” or steopcild meant orphan, not just the offspring of a second spouse.

Here are 15 more words whose true origins and meanings aren’t quite as straightforward as they seem.

1. THE “QUICK” IN QUICKSAND DOESN’T MEAN FAST.

Despite what you might think about the stuff sucking people to their deaths before they have time to escape, this word isn’t a synonym for speedy. It doesn’t mean “fast” in the word quicksilver—an old name for mercury—either. Instead, these adjectives both mean “alive” or “living,” a reference to the moving, animated ground in a patch of quicksand, and to the fact that quicksilver, as a liquid, can move and be poured.

2. THE “LOLLI” IN LOLLIPOP DOESN’T MEAN LOLLING.

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The old story that the word refers to popsicles and ice-lollies that droop as they melt just isn’t true. In fact, this lolly is an Old English dialect term for the tongue.

3. THE “MID” IN MIDWIFE DOESN’T MEAN MIDDLE.

For that matter, the “wife” in midwife doesn’t mean, well, wife. The word wife originally meant “woman,” while mid stood in for “with”—making a midwife a woman who is literally with a woman as she gives birth.

4. THE “WILDER” IN WILDERNESS DOESN’T MEAN WILD.

At least not in the sense of the “woods and wilds.” This wilder is a corruption of the Old English wild deor, meaning wild deer or animal—which you will definitely find in the wilderness.

5. THE “CUT” IN CUTLET DOESN’T MEAN TRIMMED.

This prefix has nothing to do with cutlets being “cut” from a larger joint of meat. In this case, cutlet descends from the French word costelette, meaning little rib.

6. THE “BEL” IN BELFRY DOESN’T MEAN BELL.

A belfry isn’t necessarily a bell tower. The original belfry was actually a mobile siege tower that could be wheeled up to castles and town walls by invading armies to gain access from outside. In that sense, the word derives from bercfrit, the old Germanic name for this piece of equipment.

7. THE “HAM” IN HAMBURGER DOESN’T MEAN MEAT.

The beginning of the word has nothing to do with meat of any kind. You probably know this one already: Hamburgers are people or things that come from Hamburg, Germany. The hamburglar, on the other hand, comes from Des Plaines, Illinois.

8. THE “JERUSALEM” IN JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE DOESN’T REFER TO THE CITY.

A bag of Jerusalem artichokes
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The adjective for this unassuming tuber is a corruption of girasole, the Italian word for sunflower. The Jerusalem artichoke is not an artichoke—it’s actually a member of the sunflower family. It's also called a sunchoke or sunroot.

9. THE “PIGGY” IN PIGGYBACK DOESN’T MEAN PIG.

Piggyback is believed to be a corruption of pick-a-pack or pick-pack—a 16th-century expression for carrying something on your shoulders. It might derive from the old use of pick to mean “pitch,” and pack, meaning a sack or satchel.

10. THE “SAND” IN SANDBLIND DOESN’T REFER TO THE BEACH.

Sandblind is a 15th-century word, seldom encountered today outside of literature and poetry, for being half-blind. It is often said to allude to the poor visibility experienced during dust storms and sand storms. But it’s simpler than that: sandblind derives from its Old English equivalent samblind, the “sam” of which means the same as “semi” does today.

11. THE “CURRY” IN CURRY FAVOR DOESN’T MEAN STEW.

A chestnut horse eating hay
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There’s an old myth that currying favor with someone alludes to slowly working your way into their social circle, just as the flavors in a curry or stew mingle together as it cooks. Instead, the true story behind this one is even more peculiar. In this case, curry derives from a Middle English word meaning “to groom a horse,” while favor is a corruption of Fauvel, the name of a chestnut-colored horse that appeared in an old French poem and folktale about a horse that wanted to usurp its master and take over his kingdom. In the tale, Fauvel succeeds in his quest and ends the story being fawned over and “curried” by all the obsequious members of his master’s court. Currying favor literally means “sycophantically grooming a chestnut horse.”

12. THE “FACE” IN SHAMEFACED DOESN’T MEAN VISAGE.

Shamefaced was originally shamefast, with -fast in this sense meaning fixed or constant, as it does in steadfast or stuck fast. Presumably the word changed over time because the shame of a shamefaced person can be seen in his or her expression.

13. THE “CHOCK” IN CHOCK-FULL DOESN’T MEAN A WEDGE OR BLOCK.

Being chock-full has nothing to do with being rammed as tightly as a chock is below a door or the wheels of a vehicle. Instead, chock in this context is derived from choke, in the sense of something being suffocatingly crammed or crowded.

14. THE “D” IN D-DAY DOESN’T STAND FOR DISEMBARKATION.

It also doesn’t mean deliverance, Deutschland, doomsday, decision, or any of the other D-words popular history might have you believe. In fact, D doesn’t stand for anything at all: just like (albeit less common) expressions like H-hour, D-Day was just an alliterative placeholder used during the planning of the Normandy landings for the unspecified day on which the operation would take place. As further evidence, the earliest use of the term comes from 1918, a full 26 years before Allied troops stormed the beaches. The French name for D-Day, by the way, is J-Jour.

15. THE “GOOD” IN GOODBYE DOESN’T MEAN GOOD.

Goodbye is a contraction of “God be with you,” an expression of departure or best wishes in use in English from the medieval period. As the phrase simplified over time, “God” drifted toward “good” in other similar expression likes good day and good morning. By the late 16th century, we were left with the word we use today.

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