15 Things You Didn't Know About Madeleine Albright

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Getty

Perhaps Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as the U.S. Secretary of State, best described her historic appointment in her 2003 memoir, Madam Secretary: “It was almost…inconceivable that someone who had not held a government job until she was thirty-nine years old and the mother of three would become the highest-ranking woman in American history. Well into adulthood, I was never supposed to be what I became."

Her impressive credentials include professor, ambassador, New York Times best-selling author and current chairperson of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs as well as the chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy business. Famously known for saying, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women,” the perseverance she has demonstrated throughout her career is inspiring for anyone, man or woman. In honor of her 79th birthday, here are a few things you should know about Albright and her unconventional path to U.S. politics.

1. “MADELEINE” ISN’T HER ORIGINAL NAME.

Marie Jana was born in Prague on May 15, 1937, to Anna Spieglová and Josef Korbel. But the name “Marie” didn’t stick for long; various family members called her Madla, Madlen, or Madlenka throughout her youth. When Albright began to study French, she decided she liked that language’s version of her nickname: Madeleine. Still, Albright never legally changed her name and is officially Marie Jana.

2. HER FAMILY FLED TO ESCAPE THE NAZIS.

Her father’s role at Czechoslovakia’s Belgrade embassy and deep respect for democracy put his family’s safety in question when the Nazis invaded. As her parents arranged for the family to go to London, Albright lived with her grandmother in the country. Her mother wrote of that time, “With all the possible and impossible planning and with the help of some good friends and lots of luck and little bribes the last plan worked...” Albright and her family left for England 10 days after the Nazis invaded the capital.

3. SHE APPEARED IN A FILM ABOUT REFUGEES.

While in England, Albright was selected to appear in a movie about the war’s refugee children, and was given a stuffed animal as payment for her starring role.

4. THE FAMILY’S RETURN TO CZECHOSLOVAKIA WAS BRIEF.

Albright (who speaks fluent Czech) would return to Czechoslovakia many times as an adult, including in October 2003, when she traveled there to launch her autobiography. Image credit: David Nekk/ AFP/ Getty Images

Though her family was grateful to return to their home country after the war, they weren’t there for long. A series of ominous political moves found the Communist party taking over Czechoslovakia, forcing Albright’s family to once again flee for their safety. Albright, along with her mother and two siblings, arrived in the U.S. aboard the SS America on November 11, 1948.

5. HER FAMILY BEGAN A NEW LIFE IN DENVER.

After her father arrived stateside, the family lived on Long Island while waiting to be granted political asylum. Once Josef secured a teaching position at the University of Denver and the family was settled in their new city, Albright began attending Kent Denver School and founded the school’s international relations club. (She wasn’t the only secretary of state who benefited from her father’s teachings on diplomacy and international affairs; years later, he taught Condoleezza Rice as a student.)

6. HER COLLEGE YEARS WERE MARKED WITH MAJOR MILESTONES.

Albright studied Political Science at Wellesley College, graduating with honors in 1959. In the years prior to graduation, she became a naturalized citizen (in 1957), and met her future husband, Joseph Medill Patterson Albright, during a summer internship at the Denver Post. In her 2009 book Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box, Albright says it was tradition for Wellesley women to get married on graduation day. Despite this, she waited three days after receiving her diploma to marry Joseph.

7. SHE WAS ON THE MOVE THROUGH THE 1960S.

The Albrights moved several times for Joseph’s career. By 1961 the couple had already lived in Rolla, Missouri and Chicago before moving to Long Island, where their twins, Alice and Anne, were born. In 1962 the family moved to Georgetown, where Madeleine studied Russian and International Relations at a division of Johns Hopkins University. When they moved back to Long Island in 1963, Albright continued her studies at Columbia University and earned a certificate in Russian and an M.A. in 1968, and a Ph.D. in 1976. Her third daughter, Katharine, was born in 1967.

8. MOVING BACK TO D.C. SPARKED HER POLITICAL CAREER.

Albright became more involved with politics when her family moved back to D.C. in 1968. From 1976 to 1978, she served as Senator Edmund S. Muskie’s chief legislative assistant. And in 1978, Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of her professors from Columbia and then National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, chose Madeleine as Brzezinski’s liaison to Congress.

9. SHE FOLLOWED IN HER FATHER’S FOOTSTEPS TOWARD ACADEMIA.

After her 22-year marriage ended in divorce in 1982, Albright joined Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service as a research professor of International Affairs, where she taught undergraduate and graduate courses. She also served as director of the Women in Foreign Service program.

10. BEING A U.N. AMBASSADOR CHALLENGED HER TO SPEAK UP AND MAKE DIFFICULT CALLS.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Albright voted in favor of a UN resolution on August 10, 1995.
Image credit: JON LEVY/AFP/Getty Images.

Albright’s work in international affairs led to her working as foreign policy adviser to both Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988, but she was unable to work for Clinton’s 1992 bid. Despite this, after Clinton won, he nominated Albright to be the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Though she was often one of the few women in the room (and many times, the only one), she did not sit silently; she realized that if she only observed and listened, she wouldn’t get a chance to speak, which meant the voice of the United States wouldn’t be heard.

11. HER ROLE AS SECRETARY OF STATE MADE HISTORY.

As President Bill Clinton looked on, Albright was sworn in as the new US Secretary of State in January 1997.
Image Credit: Joyce Naltchayan/ AFP/ Getty Images)

On December 5, 1996, President Clinton nominated Albright to be the 64th Secretary of State. She was unanimously confirmed by the Senate and sworn in on January 23, 1997. Albright wrote of the experience that Clinton “… gave me the opportunity that no other individual, male or female, has had to serve full terms both as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and as U.S. Secretary of State.” At the time of her appointment, Albright was the highest-ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government.

12. HER TRIP TO NORTH KOREA WAS A FIRST FOR U.S. GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS.

US Secretary of State Albright met with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il (right) on October 23, 2000.
Image credit: David Guttenfelder/ AFP/ Getty Images.

In October 2000, Albright made a diplomatic visit to North Korea to meet with the country’s leader, Kim Jong Il. Her trip marked the first time an American secretary of state—and the highest level official ever—had visited the country.

13. SHE LEARNED ABOUT HER JEWISH ANCESTRY IN AN UNEXPECTED WAY.

Albright was raised Catholic after her parents converted in 1941, though she was unaware of any previous religious affiliations. (She later converted to Episcopalianism.) During her vetting process for secretary of state, she mentioned that she might have Jewish ancestors. During his research on a profile about Albright, Michael Dobbs, a Washington Post reporter, discovered that three of her grandparents died in Auschwitz and Terezin. Her family conducted further research and learned that 25 members of her family died in concentration camps.

14. HER SENSE OF HUMOR HAS BROADENED OVER TIME.

Albright has said that she tended to be a little too serious as a child. Young Madeleine would be happy to learn that as an adult, she has developed quite a sense of humor. She once engaged in a humorous Twitter war with Conan O’Brien and has appeared in popular TV shows as herself, including Parks and Recreation and Gilmore Girls.

15. HER CREATIVE JEWELRY SELECTIONS GARNERED INTERNATIONAL ATTENTION.

On September 29, 2009, Albright visited the New York City exhibition, "Read My Pins: The Madeline Albright Collection,"
which featured over 200 of her pins and their stories. Image Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Albright is famously known for wearing pins that express her thoughts on the diplomatic proceedings she attends. After she was compared to a serpent by the Iraqi media, Albright chose to wear a large snake pin for her next meeting on the country. The jewelry quickly became one of Albright’s trademarks. Though she is fond of all the pieces in her collection (she says her favorite is a heart made by her youngest daughter), one of them nearly betrayed her. On the day of her swearing-in ceremony for Secretary of State, her newly acquired eagle pin nearly fell off while she took her oath.

10 Fascinating Facts About the Thesaurus for National Thesaurus Day

iStock.com/LeitnerR
iStock.com/LeitnerR

Writers often turn to a thesaurus to diversify their vocabulary and add nuance to their prose. But looking up synonyms and antonyms in a thesaurus can help anyone—writer or not—find the most vivid, incisive words to communicate thoughts and ideas. Since January 18 is Thesaurus Day, we’re celebrating with these 10 fascinating facts about your thesaurus.

1. Its name comes from the Greek word for treasure.

Greek lettering.
iStock

Most logophiles consider the thesaurus to be a treasure trove of diction, but the word thesaurus really does mean "treasure." It derives from the Greek word thésauros, which means a storehouse of precious items, or a treasure.

2. You can call them thesauruses or thesauri.

Row of old books lined up.
iStock

How do you refer to more than one octopus? People say everything from octopuses to octopi to octopodes. Similarly, many people have trouble figuring out the correct plural form of the word thesaurus. Though thesauri is technically correct—it attaches a Latin suffix to the Latin word thēsaurus—both thesauri and thesauruses are commonly used and accepted today.

3. Early thesauruses were really dictionaries.

Close-up of the term 'ideal' in a thesaurus.
iStock

Ask a French scholar in the 16th century to see his thesaurus, and he'd gladly give you a copy of his dictionary. In the early 1530s, a French printer named Robert Estienne published Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, a comprehensive Latin dictionary listing words that appeared in Latin texts throughout an enormous span of history. And in 1572, Estienne's son Henri published Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a dictionary of Greek words. Although the Estiennes's books were called thesauruses, they were really dictionaries comprised of alphabetical listings of words with their definitions.

4. A Greek historian wrote the first book of synonyms.

Stacks of books surrounding an open book and a pair of glasses.
iStock

Philo of Byblos, a Greek historian and grammarian, wrote On Synonyms, a dictionary of synonyms that scholars consider to be the first ancient thesaurus. Dating to the late 1st century or early 2nd century CE, the book lists Greek words that are similar in meaning to each another. Sadly, we don’t know much more about On Synonyms because copies of the work haven’t survived over the centuries.

5. An early Sanskrit thesaurus was written in the form of a poem.

Sanskrit lettering.
iStock

In the 4th century CE, an Indian poet and grammarian named Amara Sinha wrote The Amarakosha, a thesaurus of Sanskrit words. Rather than compile a boring list of similar words, Amara Sinha turned his thesaurus into a long poem. Divided into three sections—words relating to the divine, the earth, and everyday life—The Amarakosha contains verses so readers could memorize words easily. This thesaurus is the oldest book of its kind that still exists.

6. A British doctor wrote the first modern thesaurus.

Portrait of Peter Mark Roget.
Thomas Pettigrew, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Peter Mark Roget is the British doctor credited with authoring the first modern thesaurus. In 1805, he began compiling a list of words, arranged by their meaning and grouped according to theme. After retiring from his work as a physician in 1852, Roget published his Thesaurus of English words and phrases; so classified and arranged as to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition. Today, Roget’s Thesaurus is still commercially successful and widely used. In fact, we celebrate Thesaurus Day on January 18 because Roget was born on this day in 1779.

7. The thesaurus has a surprising link to a mathematical tool.

Image of a vintage log log slide rule.
Joe Haupt, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The division between "words people" and "numbers people" is deep-seated. Many mathematicians may try to steer clear of thesauruses, and bibliophiles may avoid calculators, but the thesaurus is actually linked to a mathematical tool. Around 1815, Roget invented the log-log slide rule, a ruler-like device that allows users to easily calculate the roots and exponents of numbers. So while the inventor of the thesaurus was compiling words for his tome, he was also hard at work on the log-log slide rule. A true jack-of-all-trades.

8. The Oxford English Dictionary has its own historical thesaurus.

Synonyms for
iStock

In 1965, a professor of English Language at Glasgow University suggested that scholars should create a historical thesaurus based on entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. The project was a massive undertaking, as people from multiple countries worked for 44 years to compile and classify words. Published in 2009, the Historical Thesaurus to the Oxford English Dictionary contains 800,000 words organized by theme and date. The thesaurus covers words and synonyms from Old English to the present day and lets readers discover when certain words were coined and how long they were commonly used.

9. One artist turned his love of words into a series of thesaurus paintings.

Mel Bochner,
Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004. Francesca Castelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2014, the Jewish Museum in New York showed a survey of conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s art. Bochner had incorporated words and synonyms in his paintings for years—which were collectively referred to as the thesaurus paintings—featuring word paintings and lists of synonyms on canvas. The brightly colored paintings feature different groups of English and Yiddish synonyms. According to Bochner, Vietnam and Iraq war veterans cried after seeing his thesaurus painting Die, which features words and phrases such as expire, perish, succumb, drop dead, croak, go belly up, pull the plug, and kick the bucket.

10. There's an urban thesaurus for all your slang synonym needs

Copy of an Urban Dictionary book.
Effie Yang, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Urban Dictionary helps people decipher the latest slang terms, but where should you go when you need a thesaurus of slang? Urban Thesaurus, of course. The site, which is not affiliated with Urban Dictionary, indexes millions of slang terms culled from slang dictionaries, then calculates usage correlations between the terms. Typing in the word money, for example, gives you an eclectic list of synonyms including scrilla, cheddar, mulah, coin, and bling.

This story originally ran in 2017.

10 Endangered Alphabets You Should See Before It's Too Late

The Glagolitic script carved into wood
The Glagolitic script carved into wood
Courtesy of Tim Brookes

The Arabic and Simplified Chinese scripts aren't in danger of going anywhere anytime soon, but the same can't be said for Balinese, Mali, Pahawh (or Pahauh) Hmong, and the other 100-some alphabets that Vermont-based writer Tim Brookes has cataloged in his online Atlas of Endangered Alphabets, which is set for a soft launch on January 17. The featured alphabets—which Brookes has loosely defined to include writing systems of all sorts—are vanishing for varied reasons, including government policies, war, persecution, cultural assimilation, and globalization.

“The world is becoming much more dependent on global communications and those global communications take place in a relatively small number of writing systems—really something between 15 and 20,” Brookes tells Mental Floss. “And because that’s the case, all the others are to some degree being eroded.”

The atlas will include a bit of background information about each alphabet as well as links to any organizations attempting to revive them. By creating a hub for these alphabets, Brookes hopes to connect people who want to preserve their language and culture, while also showing the world how beautiful and intricate some of these scripts—including the 10 below—can be.

1. Cherokee

Although the Manataka American Indian Council says an ancient Cherokee writing system may have existed at one point but was lost to history, Cherokee was more or less a spoken language up until the early 19th century. Around 1809, a Cherokee man named Sequoyah started working on an 86-character writing system known as a syllabary, in which the symbols represent syllables. Most remarkably, Sequoyah himself had never learned how to read. At the time, many Native Americans deeply distrusted writing systems, and Sequoyah was put on trial for witchcraft after tribal leaders caught wind of his new creation. However, once they realized that written Cherokee could be used to preserve their language and culture, they asked Sequoyah to start teaching the syllabary. “The Cherokee achieved 90 percent literacy more rapidly than any other people in history that we know of,” Brookes says. “[Sequoyah’s syllabary] is one of the greatest intellectual achievements of all time.”

After a period of decline in the years following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Cherokee language education saw somewhat of a revival in the late 20th century. The predominance of English and the Latin alphabet has made these efforts an uphill battle, though. Brookes says it’s difficult to find people who can teach the script, and even among Cherokee translators, few are confident in their grasp of the writing system.

2. Inuktitut

A stop sign containing the Inuktitut script
A stop sign in Nunavut, Canada
Sébastien Lapointe, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Nine different writing systems are used among Canada’s 59,500 Inuit. Many of these are based on the Latin alphabet, but the one shown above uses syllabics that were first introduced by European missionaries in the 19th century. Since it’s difficult and costly to represent each of these writing systems in official documents, many Inuit officials write and hold meetings in English, all but ensuring the demise of their mother tongue. However, Canada’s national Inuit organization, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, is now in the process of developing one common script for all Inuit. “Our current writing systems were introduced through the process of colonization,” the organization writes on its website. “The unified Inuktut [the collective name for Inuit languages] writing system will be the first writing system created by Inuit for Inuit in Canada.” It remains to be seen what that script will look like.

3. Glagolitic

A tablet containing the Glagolitic script
The Baška tablet, which was made around the year 1100
Neoneo13, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

It’s widely believed that Glagolitic, the oldest known Slavic script, was invented by missionaries Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius around 860 CE in an effort to translate the Gospels and convert the Slavs to Christianity. The name Glagolitic stems from the Old Church Slavonic word glagolati, meaning to speak. Some of the symbols were lifted from Greek, Armenian, and Georgian, while others were entirely new inventions. Nowadays, academics are typically the only ones who can decipher the script, but some cultural institutions have made efforts to preserve its legacy. In 2018, the National and University Library in Zagreb launched an online portal containing digitized versions of Glagolitic texts. In addition to being a source of Croatian heritage and pride, the alphabet has also become an object of tourist fascination. Visitors can view monuments containing Glagolitic symbols along the Baška Glagolitic Path on the Croatian island of Krk. And in Zagreb, the capital city, it’s not hard to find gift shops selling merchandise adorned with Glagolitic writing. However helpful this may be to the tourism sector, it's no guarantee that more Croatians will want to start learning the script.

4. Mandombe

The Mandombe script
Moyogo, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

This African script is unusual for several reasons. For one, the Mandombe alphabet reportedly came to David Wabeladio Payi—a member of the Kimbanguist church in the Democratic Republic of Congo—in a series of dreams and spiritual encounters in the late ‘70s. One day, he was looking at his wall when he noticed that the mortar between the bricks seemed to form two numbers: five and two. He believed these were divine clues, so he set out to create a series of symbols based off those shapes. Eventually, he assigned the symbols phonographic meaning and turned it into an alphabet that could be used by speakers of the Kikongo and Lingala languages. Perhaps most remarkably, the pronunciation changes depending on how the symbols are rotated. “It’s one of about three writing systems in the world where that’s true,” Brookes says. Unlike most of the other alphabets on this list, Mandombe is growing in popularity rather than declining. However, because it’s primarily being taught in Kimbanguist schools and used only for religious texts, it will be a challenge to convince the rest of the population to start using it. Elsewhere in the country, the Latin alphabet is used (French is the official language). “What it’s up against is, in essence, exactly the same forces that a declining script is up against,” Brookes says. For this reason, many new alphabets can be considered endangered.

5. Ditema tsa Dinoko

In a similar vein, Ditema tsa Dinoko is also a minority script, and it's too new to tell if it will stick around. A team of South African linguists, designers, and software programmers invented this intricate, triangular-shaped alphabet in just the last decade in hopes of forging a single script that could be used by speakers of indigenous languages in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. Because the symbols were inspired by artworks and beadwork designs that are typical of the region, the alphabet is also a celebration of culture. “One of the really interesting features of African alphabets is how deeply embedded they are in what we would call graphic design,” Brookes says. “Instead of imitating the shapes or structures or layout of other writing systems, such as our alphabet, they often start from a completely different point of view and draw on designs that are found in war paintings, weaving textiles, pottery, and all of those other available graphic elements.” The colors used in the alphabet aren't necessary to understand the script, but they hark back to the alphabet's artistic origins while also functioning as a kind of font. For instance, different writers may use different colors to give their text "a certain feel or emotional resonance," Brookes says.

6. Mandaic

The Mandaic script
Courtesy of Tim Brookes

This ancient, mystic script dates back to the 2nd century CE and is still being used by some Mandaeans in Iraq and Iran. According to mythology, the language itself predates humanity, and the script was historically used to create religious texts. Charles Häberl, now an associate professor of Middle Eastern languages and literatures at Rutgers University, wrote in a 2006 paper that Mandaic is “unlike any other script found in the modern Middle East." And unlike most scripts, it has changed very little over the centuries. Despite its enduring quality, many of the speakers in Iraq have fled to other countries since the U.S. invasion in 2003. As these speakers assimilate into new cultures, it becomes more challenging to maintain their linguistic traditions.

7. Lanna

The Lanna script
Courtesy of Tim Brookes

According to Brookes, the Lanna script was primarily used during the time of the Lanna Kingdom in present-day Thailand from the 13th century to the 16th century. It’s still used in some regions of northern Thailand, but faces stiff competition from the predominant Thai script. The word Lanna translates to "land of a million rice fields." The script is one of Brookes’s personal favorites as far aesthetics are concerned. “It is so extraordinarily fluid and beautiful,” he says. “They developed this script to indicate not only consonants, but then the consonants have vowel markings and other consonant markings and tonal markings both above and below the main letters, and so you have this amazingly joyous and elaborate writing system, and it’s like a pond of goldfish. Everything is just curving around and swimming in all these different directions.”

8. Dongba

The Dongba script
Courtesy of Aubrey Wang

Members of the Naxi ethnic minority in China’s Yunnan province have been using this colorful pictographic script for well over 1000 years. The pictures stand for tangible objects like mud, mountains, and high alpine meadows, as well as intangible concepts such as humanity and religion [PDF]. Historically, it was mainly used by priests to help them remember their ceremonial rites, and the word Dongba means "wise man." However, the script has undergone something of a revival in recent years, having been promoted by people working in the arts and tourism industries. It’s also taught in some elementary schools, and it remains one of the few pictographic scripts that’s still in use today. At the same time, Brookes says he's seen little evidence of efforts "to create a circumstance where the script is actually used in a functional, everyday fashion." With the predominant Chinese script looming large throughout much of the country, Dongba's days may be numbered.

9. Tibetan

A student writes the Tibetan script
China Photos/Getty Images

Some of the world’s alphabets and languages are endangered for political reasons. Tibetan is perhaps the best-known example of that. The Chinese government has cracked down on language instruction in recent years, with the aim of promoting Mandarin, the predominant language—although some have argued this policy comes at the expense of minority languages. In Tibet, many schools now conduct the bulk of their lessons in Mandarin, and Tibetan might be taught in a separate language course. Chinese officials put a Tibetan activist on trial in January 2018 for “inciting separatism”—partly because he criticized the government’s policies on Tibetan language education. He was sentenced to five years in prison. In general, “the story behind endangered alphabets is almost never a pleasant or cheerful one, so that’s the human rights side of it,” Brookes says.

10. Mongolian

The Mongolian script

Anand.orkhon, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Some have likened the appearance of the traditional Mongolian script to a kind of vertical Arabic. The script traveled to Mongolia by way of a Turkic ethnic group called the Uighurs in the 1100s. Beginning with Genghis Khan, Mongol leaders used the script to record historic events during their reign. Later, when Mongolia became a Soviet satellite state, the country started using the Cyrillic alphabet in the 1940s, and the traditional script was largely cast aside. The traditional alphabet is still used in inner Mongolia and is returning to Mongolia, and the renaissance of Mongolian calligraphy has bolstered its usage to some degree. Nonetheless, it, too, remains endangered.

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