ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

8 Things I’ve Learned from mental_floss Readers

ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

It’s my Flossaversary! It’s been a year since my first piece for mental_floss was posted. Since then, I’ve posted over 120 articles about everything from ABC songs of the world to the origin of “OK” to dog naming trends.

I’m a language person. I’m interested in every aspect of it. I’ve studied various languages. I have a Ph.D. in linguistics. I’ve edited and copyedited; I know how to use a semicolon. But like everyone, I make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes get published, and when they do, they are sure to be found. Nothing brings out the usage/spelling/punctuation commenters like an article about language. Sometimes the corrections are just plain wrong (not so much here on mental_floss, of course). Sometimes they are helpful, but boring (a typo, a repeated “the”). But every once in a while, they hit on something I probably should have known, but for whatever reason didn’t. We are always learning. Or should be, at least. Here are 8 things I’ve learned from being corrected by the wonderful commenters on mental_floss

1. Vocal chords vs. vocal cords

In this piece about kids’ language mistakes, I characterized a speech sound with the phrase “the vocal chords kick in sooner.” It didn’t take long before someone pointed out that it should be “vocal cords” not “chords.” But of course! The vocal folds are like strings (cords) that vibrate, not combinations of simultaneously produced pitches (chords).

Still, even after the correction, “vocal cords” looked strange to me. Surely in my linguistics education I had written about “vocal chords” before. Had I never been corrected? My initial embarrassment was soothed by this Language Log post explaining the odd “reciprocal swap” that left us with the the word “cord” from the Latin chorda (rope, string, cord), while we got “chord” (originally spelled “cord”) from “accord.” I was at least etymologically justified. Not that any of that matters now. “Vocal cord” is considered the correct spelling (at least in American usage.) 

2. In tact vs. intact

In this piece explaining how an exception can prove a rule, I talked about rules remaining “in tact.” It wasn’t just a typo. In fact, I made the same mistake twice. What can I say. It’s straight-up wrong. Fortunately for me, the correction, from a commenter called “stickler,” was the perfect model of what a grammar comment should be, beginning with a compliment on the content of the article (“I've always wanted to see this explained; thanks”) and continuing with a gentle reminder (“‘intact’ is of course one word”) that assumes I knew the correct form already. Stickler, you are a shining beacon of internet civility, and I salute you.

I probably have been corrected on “in tact” before, but it didn’t stick because I failed to update my idea of the meaning, which I formerly had as follows: tact is from the Latin for touch, and something is “in tact” because all the parts are touching each other, i.e., it hasn’t fallen apart. Now I have updated to the correct idea: tact is indeed from the Latin for touch, but here “in” means “un” (as in “inaccurate”), so “intact” means “untouched,” i.e., unaltered. I will always remember this now, for I will always remember the honorable kindness of Stickler.

3. Pyjamas vs. pajamas

The word “pyjamas” in this piece about nouns that only have plural forms inspired another wonderful example of how commenting should be done. The commenter “ATxann Chris” wrote “I've never seen pajamas spelled 'pyjamas' before. Until I saw it spelled the same way the second time in the article, I assumed it was a typo. But when I looked it up online after reading your comment, it appears to be primarily a British usage, while the American usage is usually ‘pajamas.’”

The commenter looked it up. Before commenting. You, ATxann Chris, on the strength of your commenting principles alone, could be the salve that heals this fractured nation. 

You go on to say, “now I'm really confused because the author of this piece says she lives in Philadelphia, but speaks with a Chicago accent. I have plenty of friends and relatives in the Chicago area—they all sleep in pajamas, not pyjamas. ;)” Your confusion is warranted. I’m not sure what happened. “Pajamas” looked weird to me that day (though I have used it in other articles). I think I was reading a British biography that week? My kids had a French test with that word (pyjama in French)? Honestly, I didn’t realize that “pyjamas” was British when I used it, but now I know. 

ATxann Chris concludes, “anyway, the article is interesting, and as a big Britcom fan, I'm delighted to learn this variation of how to spell those sets of things we sometimes sleep in.” I can only hope that all my future errors in applying consistent style rules are viewed so charitably, and with such delight. 

4. Guerilla vs. Guerrilla

In an article about why English spelling is so weird, I discuss how English got many difficult-to-spell words from our habit of borrowing words from other languages without changing their spellings, even when we do change their pronunciations. So, I said, “we do our best with guerilla, piñata, llama, angst, kitsch, fjord, Czech, gnocchi, and zucchini, even if we don't always remember exactly how to spell them.” Guerrilla is supposed to have two ‘r’s in it; it comes from the Spanish guerra, “war.” I could have pretended my misspelling was a subtle joke—see how hard it is to get these right!—but it was just a mistake. At least I didn’t spell it “gorilla.” It was also pointed out to me that, except in Tuscany, zucchine (the plural of zucchina) is what most Italians call zucchini.

5. Swedish “lost”

I took a semester of Swedish a long time ago and figured it should be enough to put together this list of Swedish words that conflict with the Ikea products they name, but there was a distinction I wasn’t aware of until commenter “Haha” politely alerted me to an error. Under “VILSE” (lost), a square glass vase, I wrote, “It was here a second ago…” It turns out that where we use the same English word “lost” to describe either an object that has been lost by someone (“I lost my keys. The keys are lost!”) or a person that can’t find their way (“Where am I? I’m lost!”), in Swedish you’d use vilse for the second sense, but borta for the first. This is a good reminder of the pitfalls of dictionary translation. Luckily, all that was at stake here was a weak punchline. 

6. e.e. cummings vs. E. E. Cummings

The poet E. E. Cummings sometimes used unconventional capitalization and punctuation in his poems, and in the 1960s some publishers, believing him to be generally anti-capitalization, printed his name in lowercase on the covers of his books. Despite the fact that, according to Cummings scholar Norman Friedman, he preferred others to refer to him as E. E. Cummings, the lowercase version of his name spread, probably because it somehow seemed the more “in the know” thing to do. But it is actually less “in the know,” as I discovered after “Leigh” pointed that out to me in the comments on this piece about “screw you” book dedications.

7. Guadaloupe vs. Guadalupe

Guadaloupe is French. There is an island of that name in the French West Indies. Guadalupe is Spanish. There are towns all over the Spanish speaking world by that name. Our Lady of Guadalupe is a catholic icon of great importance in Mexican culture. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo is the agreement that ended the Mexican-American war in 1848. It was signed in the town of Guadalupe Hidalgo, now a neighborhood of Mexico City, where the vision of Our Lady of Guadalupe was said to have appeared. In this post on the top ten viral hits of the pre civil war years I note that the seventh most reprinted article of the time was about the Treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo. Of course, as commenter Armando Gutierrez pointed out, it should be the Spanish “Guadalupe” instead.

However, in the pre-civil war years (and through the early 1900s) U.S. newspapers overwhelmingly called the treaty “Guadaloupe Hidalgo.” This is why the researchers whose work on viral hits I was citing used that spelling, and why I, in turn, used it too. Why was that the popular spelling then? Was it a war-induced anti-Spanish bent, a fancy French affectation, or just the fashion of the times? Maybe I’ll look into it some day.

8. ??

I’ve looked over this post, How Many Languages is it Possible to Know, dozens of times, but I still can’t find any misspelled words. Why, then, did a commenter write, multiple times, “Is anyone going to point out the spelling mistakes in this article?” Nobody has, including the commenter. Perhaps it’s just garden variety trolling, but I like to think there’s a more subtle philosophical point hidden in this commenter call to arms. It says “look, this is an article about language. Therefore there must be language mistakes to find. It was ever so, and it will ever be thus.”

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Beyond Wanderlust: 30 Words Every Traveler Should Know
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For those who travel, wanderlust is a familiar feeling. It’s that nagging voice in your head that says, “Yes, you do need to book that flight,” even if your bank account says otherwise. Regardless of how many passport covers this word may adorn, it doesn’t begin to cover the spectrum of emotions and experiences that can be revealed through the act of travel. Here are 30 travel words from around the world to keep in your back pocket as you're exploring this summer.

1. VAGARY

From the Latin vagari, meaning “to wander,” this 16th-century word originally meant a wandering journey. Nowadays, "vagaries" refer to unpredictable or erratic situations, but that doesn’t mean the old sense of the word can’t be invoked from time to time.

2. SELCOUTH

An Old English word that refers to something that’s both strange and marvelous. It's a great way to sum up those seemingly indescribable moments spent in an unfamiliar land.

3. FERNWEH

Who hasn’t felt a strong desire to be somewhere—anywhere—other than where you currently are? That’s fernweh, or “farsickness," and this German word has been described as a cousin of wanderlust, another German loan word.

4. DÉPAYSEMENT

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Anyone who has traveled abroad will recognize this feeling. The French word refers to the sense of disorientation that often sets in when you step outside your comfort zone, such as when you leave your home country.

5. DÉRIVE

Another gift from the French, this word literally translates to “drift,” but thanks to some mid-20th century French philosophers, it can also refer to a spontaneous trip, completely free of plans, in which you let your surroundings guide you.

6. PEREGRINATE

To peregrinate is to travel from place to place, especially on foot. Its Latin root, peregrinus (meaning “foreign”), is also where the peregrine falcon (literally “pilgrim falcon”) gets its name.

7. PERAMBULATE

Similar to peregrinate, this word essentially means to travel over or through an area by foot. So instead of saying that you’ll be walking around London, you can say you’ll be perambulating the city’s streets—much more sophisticated.

8. NUMINOUS

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This English word could appropriately be used to describe the Grand Canyon or the Northern Lights. Something numinous is awe-inspiring and mysterious. It's difficult to understand from a rational perspective, which gives it a spiritual or unearthly quality.

9. PERIPATETIC

The young and the restless will want to incorporate this word into their lexicon. The adjective refers to those who are constantly moving from place to place—in other words, a nomadic existence. It stems from the Greek word peripatein (“to walk up and down”), which was originally associated with Aristotle and the shaded walkways near his school (or, according to legend, his habit of pacing back and forth during lectures).

10. WALDEINSAMKEIT

You’re alone in a forest. It’s peaceful. The sun is filtering through the trees and there’s a light breeze. That’s waldeinsamkeit. (Literally "forest solitude." And yes, Germans have all the best travel words.)

11. SHINRIN-YOKU

In a similar vein, this Japanese word means “forest bathing,” and it's considered a form of natural medicine and stress reliever. There are now forest bathing clubs around the world, but you can try it out for yourself on your next camping trip. Take deep breaths, close your eyes, and take in the smells and sounds of the forest. Simple.

12. SOLIVAGANT

In those moments when you just want to run away from your responsibilities, you may consider becoming a solivagant: a solo wanderer.

13. YOKO MESHI

This Japanese phrase literally translates to “a meal eaten sideways,” which is an apt way to describe the awkwardness of speaking in a foreign language that you haven’t quite mastered, especially over dinner.

14. RESFEBER

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You just booked your flight. Your heart starts racing. You’re a little nervous about your journey, but mostly you just can’t wait to get going. The anticipation, anxiety, and excitement you get before a big trip is all rolled into one word—resfeber—and you can thank the Swedes for it.

15. FLÂNEUR

Taken from the French flâner, meaning to stroll or saunter, this word describes someone who has no particular plans or place they need to be. They merely stroll around the city at a leisurely pace, taking in the sights and enjoying the day as it unfolds.

16. GADABOUT

This could be construed as the traditional English equivalent of flâneur. Likely stemming from the Middle English verb gadden, meaning “to wander without a specific aim or purpose,” a gadabout is one who frequently travels from place to place for the sheer fun of it. In other words: a modern-day backpacker.

17. HIRAETH

Sometimes, no matter how amazing your vacation may be, you just want to come home to your bed and cats. This Welsh word sums up the deep yearning for home that can strike without warning. As Gillian Thomas put it in an interview with the BBC, “Home sickness is too weak. You feel hiraeth, which is a longing of the soul to come home to be safe.”

18. YŪGEN

The karst peaks of Guilin, China
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This Japanese word can be taken to mean “graceful elegance” or “subtle mystery,” but it’s much more than that. It's when the beauty of the universe is felt most profoundly, awakening an emotional response that goes beyond words.

19. SCHWELLENANGST

Translating to “threshold anxiety,” this German word sums up the fears that are present before you enter somewhere new—like a theater or an intimidating cafe—and by extension going anywhere unfamiliar. The fear of crossing a threshold is normal, even among the most adventurous of travelers—but it often leads to the most unforgettable experiences.

20. COMMUOVERE

Have you ever seen something so beautiful it made you cry? That’s commuovere in action. The Italian word describes the feeling of being moved, touched, or stirred by something you witness or experience.

21. HYGGE

This Danish word refers to a warm feeling of contentedness and coziness, as well as the acknowledgement of that feeling. Although not explicitly related to this term, author Kurt Vonnegut summed up the idea behind this concept quite nicely when he said, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'"

22. HANYAUKU

Here's one for those who have a beach trip coming up. Taken from Kwangali, a language spoken in Namibia, hanyauku is the act of tiptoeing across hot sand.

23. SMULTRONSTÄLLE

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This Swedish word translates to something along the lines of “place of wild strawberries,” but its metaphorical meaning is something along the lines of a "happy place." Whether it’s a hidden overlook of the city or your favorite vacation spot that hasn’t been “discovered” yet, smultronställe refers to those semi-secret places you return to time and time again because they’re special and personal to you.

24. DUSTSCEAWUNG

This Old English word describes what might happen when you visit a place like Pompeii or a ghost town. While reflecting on past civilizations, you realize that everything will eventually turn to dust. A cheery thought.

25. VACILANDO

In some Spanish dialects, the word vacilando describes someone who travels with a vague destination in mind but has no real incentive to get there. In other words, the journey is more important than the destination. As John Steinbeck described it in his travelogue Travels With Charley: “It does not mean vacillating at all. If one is vacilando, he is going somewhere, but doesn't greatly care whether or not he gets there, although he has direction. My friend Jack Wagner has often, in Mexico, assumed this state of being. Let us say we wanted to walk in the streets of Mexico city but not at random. We would choose some article almost certain not to exist there and then diligently try to find it.”

26. LEHITKALEV

Backpackers and budget travelers, this one is for you: The Hebrew word lehitkalev translates to “dog it” and means to deal with uncomfortable living or travel arrangements.

27. KOMOREBI

Sun shining in the woods
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This beautiful Japanese word is a good one to save for a sunny day spent in the woods. Komorebi translates to “sunshine filtering through the leaves.” Does it get any lovelier than that?

28. RAMÉ

This Balinese word refers to something that is simultaneously chaotic and joyful. It isn’t specifically a travel word, but it does seem to fit the feelings that are often awakened by travel.

29. TROUVAILLE

Translating to a “lucky find,” this French word can be applied to that cool cafe, flower-lined street, or quirky craft store that you stumbled upon by chance. Indeed, these are the moments that make travel worthwhile.

30. ULLASSA

Just in case you needed another reason to plan that trip to Yosemite, here's one last word for nature lovers. The Sanskrit word ullassa refers to the feelings of pleasantness that come from observing natural beauty in all its glory.

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25 Words That Are Their Own Opposites
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Here’s an ambiguous sentence for you: “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” Does that mean, "Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression," or does it mean, "Because the agency was inattentive, they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default"? We’ve stumbled into the looking-glass world of contronyms—words that are their own antonyms.

1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean "give official permission or approval for (an action)" or conversely, "impose a penalty on."

2. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.” Oversee, from Old English ofersēon ("look at from above") means "supervise" (medieval Latin for the same thing: super-, "over" plus videre, "to see.") Overlook usually means the opposite: "to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to disregard, ignore."

3. Left can mean either remaining or departed. If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left? (The gentlemen have left and the ladies are left.)

4. Dust, along with the next two words, is a noun turned into a verb meaning either to add or to remove the thing in question. Only the context will tell you which it is. When you dust are you applying dust or removing it? It depends whether you’re dusting the crops or the furniture.

5. Seed can also go either way. If you seed the lawn you add seeds, but if you seed a tomato you remove them.

6. Stone is another verb to use with caution. You can stone some peaches, but please don’t stone your neighbor (even if he says he likes to get stoned).

7. Trim as a verb predates the noun, but it can also mean either adding or taking away. Arising from an Old English word meaning "to make firm or strong; to settle, arrange," trim came to mean "to prepare, make ready." Depending on who or what was being readied, it could mean either of two contradictory things: "to decorate something with ribbons, laces, or the like to give it a finished appearance" or "to cut off the outgrowths or irregularities of." And the context doesn’t always make it clear. If you’re trimming the tree are you using tinsel or a chain saw?

8. Cleave can be cleaved into two homographs, words with different origins that end up spelled the same. Cleave, meaning "to cling to or adhere," comes from an Old English word that took the forms cleofian, clifian, or clīfan. Cleave, with the contrary meaning "to split or sever (something)"—as you might do with a cleaver—comes from a different Old English word, clēofan. The past participle has taken various forms: cloven, which survives in the phrase “cloven hoof,” “cleft,” as in a “cleft palate” or “cleaved.”

9. Resign works as a contronym in writing. This time we have homographs, but not homophones. Resign, meaning "to quit," is spelled the same as resign, meaning "to sign up again," but it’s pronounced differently.

10. Fast can mean "moving rapidly," as in running fast, or "fixed, unmoving," as in holding fast. If colors are fast they will not run. The meaning "firm, steadfast" came first; the adverb took on the sense "strongly, vigorously," which evolved into "quickly," a meaning that spread to the adjective.

11. Off means "deactivated," as in to turn off, but also "activated," as in the alarm went off.

12. Weather can mean "to withstand or come safely through" (as in the company weathered the recession) or it can mean "to be worn away" (the rock was weathered).

13. Screen can mean to show (a movie) or to hide (an unsightly view).

14. Help means "assist," unless you can’t help doing something, when it means "prevent."

15. Clip can mean "to bind together" or "to separate." You clip sheets of paper to together or separate part of a page by clipping something out. Clip is a pair of homographs, words with different origins spelled the same. Old English clyppan, which means "to clasp with the arms, embrace, hug," led to our current meaning, "to hold together with a clasp." The other clip, "to cut or snip (a part) away," is from Old Norse klippa, which may come from the sound of a shears.

16. Continue usually means to persist in doing something, but as a legal term it means stop a proceeding temporarily.

17. Fight with can be interpreted three ways. “He fought with his mother-in-law” could mean "They argued," "They served together in the war," or "He used the old battle-ax as a weapon." (Thanks to linguistics professor Robert Hertz for this idea.)

18. Flog, meaning "to punish by caning or whipping," shows up in school slang of the 17th century, but now it can have the contrary meaning, "to promote persistently," as in “flogging a new book.” Perhaps that meaning arose from the sense "to urge (a horse, etc.) forward by whipping," which grew out of the earliest meaning.

19. Go means "to proceed," but also "give out or fail," i.e., “This car could really go until it started to go.”

20. Hold up can mean "to support" or "to hinder": “What a friend! When I’m struggling to get on my feet, he’s always there to hold me up.”

21. Out can mean "visible" or "invisible." For example, “It’s a good thing the full moon was out when the lights went out.”

22. Out of means "outside" or "inside": “I hardly get out of the house because I work out of my home.”

23. B**ch can derisively refer to a woman who is considered overly aggressive or domineering, or it can refer to someone passive or submissive.

24. Peer is a person of equal status (as in a jury of one’s peers), but some peers are more equal than others, like the members of the peerage, the British or Irish nobility.

25. Toss out could be either "to suggest" or "to discard": “I decided to toss out the idea.”

The contronym (also spelled “contranym”) goes by many names, including auto-antonym, antagonym, enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy and Janus word (from the Roman god of beginnings and endings, often depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions). Can’t get enough of them? The folks at Daily Writing Tips have rounded up even more.

This piece originally ran in 2015.

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