12 English Words Derived from an Extinct Caribbean Language

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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A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo
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The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

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How to Craft the Perfect Comeback, According to Experts
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In a 1997 episode of Seinfeld called “The Comeback,” George Costanza is merrily stuffing himself with free shrimp at a meeting. His coworker mocks him: “Hey, George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” George stands humiliated as laughter fills the room, his mind searching frantically for the perfect riposte.

It’s only later, on the drive home, that he thinks of the comeback. But the moment has passed.

The common human experience of thinking of the perfect response too late—l’esprit de l’escalier, or "the wit of the staircase"—was identified by French philosopher Denis Diderot when he was so overwhelmed by an argument at a party that he could only think clearly again once he’d gotten to the bottom of the stairs.

We've all been there. Freestyle rappers, improv comedians, and others who rely on witty rejoinders for a living say their jobs make them better equipped to seize the opportunity for clever retorts in everyday life. They use a combination of timing, listening, and gagging their inner critics. Here are their insights for crafting the perfect comeback.

LISTEN TO YOUR OPPONENT’S ARGUMENT.

The next time you’re in a heated conversation, be less focused on what you're about to say and more attentive to what you're actually responding to. When you spend more time considering what your sparring partner is saying, “you’re deferring your response until you’ve fully heard the other person," Jim Tosone, a technology executive-turned-improv coach who developed the Improv Means Business program, tells Mental Floss. Your retorts may be more accurate, and therefore more successful, when you’re fully engaged with the other person’s thoughts.

DON’T THINK TOO MUCH.

According to Belina Raffy, the CEO of the Berlin-based company Maffick—which also uses improv skills in business—not overthinking the situation is key. “You’re taking yourself out of unfolding reality if you think too much,” she tells Mental Floss. It’s important to be in the moment, and to deliver your response to reflect that moment.

TRAIN THAT SPONTANEOUS MENTAL MUSCLE.

History’s most skilled comeback artists stored witticisms away for later use, and were able to pull them out of their memory at the critical time.

Winston Churchill was known for his comebacks, but Tim Riley, director and chief curator at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, tells Mental Floss that many of his burns were borrowed. One of his most famous lines was in response to politician Bessie Braddock’s jab, “Sir, you are drunk.” The prime minister replied, “And you, Bessie, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.”

Riley says this line was copied from comic W.C. Fields. Nevertheless, it took quick thinking to remember and reshape the quote in the moment, which is why Churchill was thought of as a master of timing. “It was an off-the-cuff recall of something he had synthesized, composed earlier, and that he was waiting to perform,” Riley says.

But in some situations, the retort must be created entirely in the moment. Training for spontaneity on stage also helps with being quicker-witted in social situations, New York City battle rap emcee iLLspokinn tells Mental Floss. It’s like working a spontaneous muscle that builds with each flex, so, you’re incrementally better each time at seizing that witty opportunity.

MUZZLE YOUR INNER CRITIC.

Anyone who has been in the audience for an improv show has seen how rapidly performers respond to every situation. Improv teaches you to release your inhibitions and say what drops into your mind: “It’s about letting go of the need to judge ourselves,” Raffy explains.

One way to break free of your internal editor might be to imagine yourself on stage. In improv theater, the funniest responses occur in the spur of the moment, says Douglas Widick, an improv performer who trained with Chicago’s Upright Citizens Brigade. By not letting one’s conscience be one’s guide, actors can give into their “deepest fantasies” and say the things they wouldn’t say in real life.

IF YOU HAVE AN EXTRA SECOND, HONE YOUR ZINGER.

The German version of Diderot’s term is Treppenwitz, also meaning the wit of the stairs. But the German phrase has evolved to mean the opposite: Something said that, in retrospect, was a bad joke. When squaring up to your rival, the high you get from spearing your opponent with a deadly verbal thrust can be shadowed by its opposite, the low that comes from blurting out a lame response that lands like a lead balloon.

That's a feeling that freestyle rapper Lex Rush hopes to avoid. “In the heat of the battle, you just go for it,” she tells Mental Floss. She likens the fight to a “stream of consciousness” that unfolds into the mic, which leaves her with little control over what she’s projecting into the crowd.

It may help to mull over your retort if you have a few extra seconds—especially if you’re the extroverted type. “Introverts may walk out of a meeting thinking, ‘Why didn’t I say that?’ while extroverts think, ‘Why did I say that?’” Tosone, the improv coach, says. Thinking before you speak, even just briefly, will help you deploy a successful comeback.

And if it doesn’t go your way, iLLspokinn advises brushing off your missed opportunity rather than dwelling on your error: “It can be toxic to hold onto it."

THROW DIGITAL SHADE ACCORDING TO THE SAME RULES—BUT BE QUICK ABOUT IT.

Texting and social media, as opposed to face-to-face contact, give you a few extra minutes to think through your responses. That could improve the quality of your zinger. “We’re still human beings, even on screens. And we prefer something that is well-stated and has a fun energy and wit about it," Scott Talan, a social media expert at American University, tells Mental Floss.

But don't wait too long: Replies lose their punch after a day or so. “Speed is integral to wit, whether in real life or screen life,” Talan says. “If you’re trying to be witty and have that reputation, then speed will help you."

Some companies have excelled in deploying savage social media burns as marketing strategies, winning viral retweets and recognition. The Wendy’s Twitter account has become so well known for its sassy replies that users often provoke it. “Bet you won’t follow me @Wendys,” a user challenged. “You won that bet,” Wendy’s immediately shot back.

George Costanza learns that lesson when he uses his rehearsed comeback at the next meeting. After his colleague repeats his shrimp insult, George stands and proudly announces, “Oh yeah? Well, the jerk store called, and they’re running out of you!”

There’s silence—until his nemesis comes back with a lethal move: “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time best-seller.”

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