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8 Things I’ve Learned from mental_floss Readers

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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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What's the Longest Word in the World? Here are 12 of Them, By Category
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Rebecca O'Connell

Antidisestablishmentarianism, everyone’s favorite agglutinative, entered the pop culture lexicon on August 17, 1955, when Gloria Lockerman, a 12-year-old girl from Baltimore, correctly spelled it on The $64,000 Question as millions of people watched from their living rooms. At 28 letters, the word—which is defined as a 19th-century British political movement that opposes proposals for the disestablishment of the Church of England—is still regarded as the longest non-medical, non-coined, nontechnical word in the English language, yet it keeps some robust company. Here are some examples of the longest words by category.

1. METHIONYLTHREONYLTHREONYGLUTAMINYLARGINYL … ISOLEUCINE 

Note the ellipses. All told, the full chemical name for the human protein titin is 189,819 letters, and takes about three-and-a-half hours to pronounce. The problem with including chemical names is that there’s essentially no limit to how long they can be. For example, naming a single strand of DNA, with its millions and millions of repeating base pairs, could eventually tab out at well over 1 billion letters.

2. LOPADOTEMACHOSELACHOGALEOKRANIOLEIPSAN …P TERYGON

The longest word ever to appear in literature comes from Aristophanes’ play, Assemblywomen, published in 391 BC. The Greek word tallies 171 letters, but translates to 183 in English. This mouthful refers to a fictional fricassee comprised of rotted dogfish head, wrasse, wood pigeon, and the roasted head of a dabchick, among other culinary morsels. 

3. PNEUMONOULTRAMICROSCOPICSILICOVOLCANOCONIOSIS

At 45 letters, this is the longest word you’ll find in a major dictionary. An inflated version of silicosis, this is the full scientific name for a disease that causes inflammation in the lungs owing to the inhalation of very fine silica dust. Despite its inclusion in the dictionary, it’s generally considered superfluous, having been coined simply to claim the title of the longest English word.

4. PARASTRATIOSPHECOMYIA STRATIOSPHECOMYIOIDES 

The longest accepted binomial construction, at 42 letters, is a species of soldier fly native to Thailand. With a lifespan of five to eight days, it’s unlikely one has ever survived long enough to hear it pronounced correctly.

5. PSEUDOPSEUDOHYPOPARATHYROIDISM

This 30-letter thyroid disorder is the longest non-coined word to appear in a major dictionary.

6. FLOCCINAUCINIHILIPILIFICATION

By virtue of having one more letter than antidisestablishmentarianism, this is the longest non-technical English word. A mash-up of five Latin roots, it refers to the act of describing something as having little or no value. While it made the cut in the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster volumes refuse to recognize it, chalking up its existence to little more than linguistic ephemera.

7. SUBDERMATOGLYPHIC

At 17 characters, this is the longest accepted isogram, a word in which every letter is used only once, and refers to the underlying dermal matrix that determines the pattern formed by the whorls, arches, and ridges of our fingerprints. 

8. SQUIRRELLED

Though the more commonly accepted American English version carries only one L, both Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries recognize this alternate spelling and condone its one syllable pronunciation (think “world”), making it the longest non-coined monosyllabic English word at 11 letters.

9. ABSTENTIOUS

One who doesn’t indulge in excesses, especially food and drink; at 11 letters this is the longest word to use all five vowels in order exactly once.

10. ROTAVATOR 

A type of soil tiller, the longest non-coined palindromic word included in an English dictionary tallies nine letters. Detartrated, 11 letters, appears in some chemical glossaries, but is generally considered too arcane to qualify.

11. and 12. CWTCH, EUOUAE

The longest words to appear in a major dictionary comprised entirely of either vowels or consonants. A Cwtch, or crwth, is from the Welsh word for a hiding place. Euouae, a medieval musical term, is technically a mnemonic, but has been accepted as a word in itself. 

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12 Things Called ‘French’ In English and Whether They're Actually French
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Happy Bastille Day! To celebrate this French holiday, let’s take a look at some of the things we call "French" in English that may not be French at all.

1. FRENCH TOAST

They don’t eat French toast in France. There, it’s called pain perdu ("lost bread," because it’s what you do with stale bread) or pain doré (golden bread). In the 17th century French toast was a term used for any kind of bread soaked and then griddled: In a 1660 citation, it refers to bread soaked in wine with sugar and orange and then cooked.

2. FRENCH VANILLA

Vanilla is a bean from a tropical plant not grown in France, so what’s so French about French vanilla? French vanilla was originally not a term for a type of vanilla, but a type of vanilla ice cream, one made using a French technique with an eggy, custard base. It’s since detached from ice cream and become a flavor with a certain rich profile.

3. FRENCH DRESSING

Originally the phrase French dressing referred to the type of dressing people might actually eat in France: oil, vinegar, herbs, maybe a little mustard. But somehow during the early 20th century it came to be the name for a pinkish-red, ketchup-added version that’s totally American.

4. FRENCH PRESS

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In France, the French press coffeemaker, a pot for steeping coffee grounds with a plunger for filtering them out, is called a cafetière à piston or just a bodum after the most common brand. It may have been invented in France, but the first patent for one was taken out by an Italian in 1929. The style of coffee became popular in France in the 1950s, and was later referred to by American journalists as "French-press style coffee."

5. FRENCH KISS

The term French kiss, for kissing with tongue, came into English during World War I when soldiers brought the phrase—and perhaps the kissing style—back from the war with them. French had long been used as a common adjective for various naughty, sexually explicit things like French letters (condoms), French postcards (naked pictures), and French pox (VD). In French, to kiss with the tongue is rouler un patin, “roll a skate” (having to do with gliding?), but in Québec they do say frencher.

6. FRENCH HORN

In French, a French horn is a cor d’harmonie or just cor, a name given to the looping, tubed hunting horns that were made in France in the 17th century. French became to the way to distinguish it from other horn types, like the German or Viennese horn, which had different types of tubes and valves.

7. FRENCH FRIES

The phrase French fries evolved in North America at the end of the 19th century out of the longer “French fried potatoes.” The dish is said to be more properly Belgian than French, but it was introduced to America by Thomas Jefferson after he brought a recipe back from France. In French they are simply pommes frites, fried potatoes.

8. FRENCH MANICURE

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The French manicure, a pinkish, nude nail with a bright, whitened tip, was apparently invented in Hollywood in the 1970s. It began to be called a French manicure after the look made it to fashion runways. The style isn’t as popular in France, but women there do tend toward a groomed look with a natural color. In France, the term has been borrowed in from English: It's called la French manucure.

9. FRENCH BRAID

The term French braid (or French plait in British English) has been around since the 1870s, but the braid style itself, where hair is gathered gradually from the sides of the head over the course of braiding, has been around for thousands of years, according to archeological artifacts. It may have become associated with France simply for being seen as high fashion and French being equated with stylishness. In French, they also call this specific style of braid a French braid, or tresse française.

10. FRENCH TWIST

The vertically rolled and tucked French twist hairdo also came to be in the 19th century, and was also associated with French high fashion. In French it is called a chignon banane for its long, vertical shape.

11. FRENCH MAID

Housemaids in 19th-century France did wear black and white uniforms—though they were not quite as skimpy as the French maid costumes you see today. The French maid became a trope comic character in theater and opera, and the costume, along with other titillating characteristics, came to define what we now think of as the classic French maid.

12. FRENCH BREAD

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These days French bread has come to stand for any white bread with a vaguely baguette-like shape, whether or not it has a traditional, crusty exterior. It has been used as a term in English as far back as the 15th century to distinguish it from other, coarser types of bread.

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