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8 Things I’ve Learned from mental_floss Readers

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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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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
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      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]

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