Today is a Holiday in Honor of the World’s Most Remarkable Alphabet

Wikimedia Commons/Erin McCarthy
Wikimedia Commons/Erin McCarthy

Happy Hangul Day! October 9th is a South Korean national holiday held in honor of the invention of the Korean writing system, which experts have called the most “scientific” (plus the most “ingenious,” “rational,” “subtle,” “simple,” “efficient,” and “remarkable”) writing system ever devised.

It was created in the 1440s by a committee of scholars commissioned by King Sejong. King Sejong, also known as Sejong the Great, was a fervent supporter of literature, science, and technology in his day. Some 200 years before the founding of the first scientific academy of the enlightenment, Sejong convened a group of handpicked scholars for his “Hall of Worthies.” One of their major assignments was to come up with a writing system to represent the Korean language.

At that time, Korean was written with Chinese characters. Learning to use Chinese characters, along with the adjustments required in adapting them to the Korean language, was an arduous process, requiring years of education and training. This meant that literacy was only available to a tiny elite. Sejong wanted to open literacy to the general population, but that would require a system that was easier to learn.

The system Sejong’s worthies devised used a combination of alphabetic and syllabic approaches. There were independent symbols for consonants and vowels, but they were grouped into syllables when written. You can see this in the modern form for the word “hangul” (pronounced ‘hangeul’):

Each syllable is grouped into a square character

한 (han) 글 (geul)

Each of those characters is composed of symbols for individual sounds

ㅎ h + ㅏ a + ㄴ n =  한 (han)
ㄱ g + ㅡ eu + ㄹ l = 글 (geul)

The system provides a simple, compact packaging of information, easy to read and to learn. According to the postscript of the original description of hangul, "a wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of 10 days."

What makes the system especially scientific is that it only distinguishes those sounds which are important for the language. Its symbols reflect psychologically relevant features. For example ㄱ g and ㅋ k are basically the same sound, a consonant formed by a closure at the back of the mouth, except that there is a stronger burst of air with the k. (This distinction holds in English as well. Try pronouncing them one after the other.) In hangul, they are also the same symbol, with the air-burst difference represented by an additional line. The same kind of difference holds between ㄷ d and ㅌ t. They are both formed by contact between the tongue and area behind the upper teeth, but t has a stronger burst of air, which is represented by the same extra line in the symbol. Other distinctive features of the language are represented with similar consistency.

Unlike most writing systems, which developed over long periods of time and took on various inconsistencies in the process, the hangul system was consciously engineered and handed down all at once by a royal proclamation in 1446. The date of that proclamation, October 9th, became a national holiday in 1945 (North Korea celebrates it on January 15th, which is considered the creation date). In 1991, because of economic concerns about workers having too many days off, the holiday was eliminated.

But in 2013, for the first time in 22 years, Hangul Day was reinstated as a national holiday. Celebrate by learning to read hangul. You can also play with this hangul generator, but if you use it to see how you might write your name, please do not run off to the tattoo parlor with the result. The proper use of hangul requires a proper knowledge of Korean, the language for which it was specifically, and quite perfectly, designed.

11 Versions of “Average Joe” From Other Countries

santypan/iStock via Getty Images
santypan/iStock via Getty Images

Average Joe, Joe Schmo, John Doe. He’s bland and average. Faceless, but not nameless. Every country needs a way to talk about just “some guy.” Here’s what 11 countries call that typical guy, who might have no specific qualities, but is still “one of our own.”

1. Germany: Otto Normalverbraucher

Literally, Otto “normal consumer."

2. China: Zhang San, Li Si

This translates to “Three Zhang, Four Li”—a reference to some of the most popular Chinese surnames.

3. Denmark: Morten Menigmand

"Morton Everyman."

4. Australia: Fred Nurk

Sounds pretty normal to me.

5. Russia: Vasya Pupkin

With a name like that, it’s hard not to be a typical schmo.

6. Finland: Matti Meikäläinen

Meikäläinen looks like a typical Finnish surname, but it also means “one of us.”

7. Sweden: Medelsvensson

Just your average Svensson.

8. France: Monsieur Tout-Le-Monde

“Mr. Everyone.” Also goes by Jean Dupont.

9. UK/New Zealand: Joe Bloggs

Still an average Joe (but can also be a Fred).

10. Italy: Mario Rossi

In Italy they just use a common name.

11. Latin America: Juan Pérez

The same is true in various Spanish-speaking countries in Central and South America.

A version of this list first ran in 2014.

15 Pairs of Words That Surprisingly Come From the Same Source

Both flour and flower come from the same root word
Both flour and flower come from the same root word
Lena_Zajchikova/iStock via Getty Images

We take for granted that many English words have counterparts that sound related, but aren’t. Even though know and no sound the same, their meanings are so different we assume they have different etymological sources (which the spelling differences also suggest). However, sometimes words we might not expect to have anything in common historically do in fact go back to the same source. They’re called etymological doublets; here are 15 of them.

1. Flour/Flower

Flour, just like flower, came from French fleur. It was named that way because the part of the plant used to make it was considered the “flower of the grain,” the best part of it, taking away all the chaff and other impurities.

2. Lobster/Locust

Both go back to Latin locusta, for locust, which also turned into the French langouste and Old English lopustre. The lobster is the locust of the sea.

3. Inch/Ounce

Though one measures length and the other weight, they both go back to Latin uncia, meaning a twelfth part. The original ounce was 1/12th of a pound.

4. Of/Off

Of and off were once the exact same word but in a stressed vs. unstressed pronunciation. It wasn’t until the 17th century that they developed different uses to the point where they were considered different words.

5. Etiquette/Ticket

Etiquette was a French word for a note attached to something that listed its contents. It was borrowed into English as ticket and into Spanish as etiqueta, where it came to be associated with the listed rules of protocol for the Spanish royal court. It then came back into French and English with the social protocol meaning.

6. Costume/Custom

Both come from Latin consuetudinem, meaning "accustomed to," or "habituated." Both referred to the general habits of a group, including how they dress, among other things. Costume wasn’t explicitly connected to just the dress sense until the 1800s.

7. Species/Spices

Both come from Latin specie, for "appearance" or "form." Spice came into English first, from Old French espice. Species was later borrowed directly from Latin.

8. Reward/Regard

In Anglo-Norman, reward and regard were alternate pronunciations of the same thing. While the g version took on the senses of "to look at," "give attention to," and also "to merit, esteem, or respect," the w version settled into the current sense of giving something on merit.

9. Dainty/Dignity

The Latin word dignus meant "worthy." While dignity refers to a sense of "worthy" that includes serious notions of honor, respect, and rank, in dainty, dignus lives on in the sense of being worthy for being delightful, precious, and pleasing.

10. Naïve/Native

Both come from Latin nativus, meaning innate, natural. Naïve is "natural" in the sense of being unspoiled and native is an innate belonging to an origin.

11. Shirt/Skirt

The ancestor of the Old English scyrte developed into a word for the upper part of an undergarment in many Germanic languages, but it’s not entirely clear how it also developed into the skirt word for a lower garment in English.

12. Tradition/Treason

Tradition is from the Latin tradere, for the act of handing over or handing down. Treason also comes from tradere, with the sense of handing over or delivering. The tray in betray also goes back to this sense of tradere.

13. Tulip/Turban

Both are approximations of the Persian word for turban, dulband, which a tulip was said to resemble.

14. Maneuver/Manure

Maneuver comes from the Latin manu + operari, to work by hand. But so does manure, which was originally a verb meaning to "till the land."

15. Grammar/Glamour

Grammar goes all the way back to Latin and Greek, where it referred to all aspects of the study of literature. In the Middle Ages, it came to be associated with just the linguistic parts, and particularly with the study of Latin. The fancy, educated class studied Latin, and also things like magic and astrology, so the word grammar sometimes referred to that aspect too. A mispronounced version, glamour, went on to stand for the magical, enchanting quality we use it for today.

This list was first published in 2015 and republished in 2019.