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12 English Words Derived from an Extinct Caribbean Language

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Reconstruction of Taino village, via Michal Zalewski//CC BY-SA 3.0

When Columbus landed in the New World in 1492, the first humans he encountered were the Taino, an Arawak people, then the most numerous group in the Caribbean, inhabiting what are now Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. They were skilled navigators and farmers with complex social systems, art, music, and poetry. But within half a century, diseases brought by the Spanish wiped out most of the Taino population. Traces of their civilization are preserved in words adopted by the Spanish that passed into English and other languages.

1. BARBECUE

In a 1526 account of life in the Indies, Spanish explorer Gonzalo Fernández De Oviedo y Valdés describes something called barbacoa, which was either a raised platform for storing grain and occasionally cooking food, or the particular method of cooking meat on that device. More than a century later, “barbacu’d” first appears in English, as a verb, in Edmund Hickeringill’s Jamaica Viewed (1661). Other travelers to Jamaica helped popularize barbecue cookery in England, and the word was adopted without reference to its other meanings.

2. CARIBBEAN

The region takes its name from the indigenous people called in English Carib, from Spanish caribe, which comes from a word in the Arawakan language group (probably Taino) meaning human being.

3.CANNIBAL

Since different dialects of Taino interchanged l, n, and r sounds, when Columbus heard the name of the Caribe in Cuba, it sounded like "Caniba." The fierce tribe was believed to eat human flesh and the word—anglicized as “cannibal”—was generalized to mean man-eater.

4. CANOE

Canoe, originally meaning a dugout like those used by the natives of the West Indies, entered English in the mid-1500s. It comes from Spanish canoa, which Columbus picked up from the Taino of modern day Haiti.

5. CAY

Confused about the difference between cay, key, (like the Florida Keys), and quay? You’re not alone. English speakers have been muddling them for centuries. The first two refer to a low bank or reef of coral, rock, or sand. Quay (pronounced “key”) is an artificial bank or landing stage, typically built of stone. Quay entered Middle English from Anglo-Norman. English got both cay and key from Spanish cayo. The Spanish word may come from Taino kaya or from French quai (which is pronounced “kay” and means quay). Originally, “cay” and “key” were the same word, sometimes spelled one way but pronounced the other.

6. GUAVA

Guava derives from Spanish guayaba, which comes (essentially unchanged) from Arawak wayaba.

7. HAMMOCK

Spanish colonists learned about hammocks from the Taino, who were protected from crawling critters in their suspended woven-bark beds. Hamaka is Haitian Taino for “fish net.” In the late 16th century, the British Royal Navy fitted out the gun decks of their ships with hammocks, which allowed sleeping sailors to sway with the motion of the ship instead of being pitched out of stationary bunks.

8. HURRICANE

Speaking of things that could dislodge a sailor from his bunk, "hurricane" comes from Spanish huracán, from Taino hurakán, “god of the storm.”

9. MAIZE

The Spanish word for what speakers of American English call “corn,” mahiz (now maíz) first shows up in 1500 in Columbus’s diary. The Taino word was mahiz or mahís.

10. POTATO

How could "potato" be of Taino origin? Potatoes don’t grow in the tropics; they’re from Peru, right? Right. But "potato" comes from the Spanish word patata, which comes from Taino batata, and refers to what we now call the sweet potato. Columbus introduced the plant to Spain in 1493. Later, Spanish explorers in the Andes encountered what we call potatoes. Spanish adopted the Quechua word papa for those tubers. English speakers used modifiers for the different kinds of “potatoes,” but confusion ensued anyway.

11. SAVANNAH

The word "savannah"—meaning an open plain of long grass, frequently with scattered drought-resistant trees—may bring East Africa to mind, but such grasslands also exist in the tropical West Indies. The Taino word zavana was adopted into post-classical Latin in 1516 as zauana and into Spanish in 1519 as çavana (now sabana). In the late 1600s, savannah began to be used in the English colonies of North America to mean a marsh, bog, or other damp or low-lying ground.

12. TOBACCO

According to Oviedo (the explorer mentioned above under "barbecue"), the Spanish word tabaco comes unchanged from a Haitian Taino word for the pipe used for smoking, but in a 1552 work, Spanish historian Bartolomé de las Casas says the word applied to a roll of dried leaves that was smoked like a cigar. The American Heritage Dictionary says Spanish may have been influenced by a similar Arabic word for a Mediterranean medicinal plant.

Sources: American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.); Library of Congress, Exhibits…Columbus and the Taino; Barbecue: a history; Oxford English Dictionary Online;  New Oxford American Dictionary, (2nd ed.)Wikipedia, Taíno language.

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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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