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The Origin of the Word Slang Has Been Found

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Let me put this right up front. The headline to this post is slightly misleading, but not dishonest. For the origin of the word slang indeed has been found, just not recently. It has been found for more than 100 years. The occasion for bringing this fact up now, and for the misleading headlinese, is that people still persist in presenting the origin as disputed. Anatoly Liberman, a highly respected etymologist who is in no way averse to hedging when warranted, tries to put the practice to rest in a recent Oxford University Press blog post titled "The Origin of the Word SLANG is Known!" That important exclamation point says not "exciting discovery!" but "Sheesh! Stop acting like it isn't known already!"

As Liberman explains, it goes back to an old use of slang for “a narrow piece of land running up between other and larger divisions of ground.” It's related to Scandinavian terms having to do with free movement and wandering, and the word's "route was from 'territory; turf' to 'those who advertise and sell their wares on such a territory,' to 'the patter used in advertising the wares,' and to 'vulgar language' (later to 'any colorful, informal way of expression')."

Liberman has made his life's work the thorough investigation of words marked "origin unknown" in etymological dictionaries. Though the explanation of slang laid out above appeared in his 2008 dictionary and is often credited to him, he gives credit to John Sampson, who set it forth in 1898. It was overlooked at the time, and Liberman laments,

"Few English words of disputable origin have been explained so convincingly, and it grieves me to see that some dictionaries still try to derive slang from Norwegian regional slengja 'fling, cast' or the phrase slengja kjeften 'make insulting allusions' (literarally 'sling the jaw'), or from the old past tense of sling (that is, from the same grade of ablaut as the past tense of sling), or from language with s– appended to it (even if the amazing similarity between slang and language helped slang stay in Standard English, for many people must have thought of some hybrid like s-language). All those hypotheses lack foundation. The origin of slang is known, and the discovery made long ago should not be mentioned politely or condescendingly among a few others that stimulated the research but now belong to the museum of etymology."

If you're still not convinced, read the more involved explanation in his blog post or dictionary.

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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

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Designer Reimagines the Spanish Alphabet With Only 19 Letters
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According to designer José de la O, the Spanish alphabet is too crowded. Letters like B and V and S and Z are hard to tell apart when spoken out loud, which makes for a language that's "confusing, complicated, and unpractical," per his design agency's website. His solution is Nueva Qwerty. As Co.Design reports, the "speculative alphabet" combines redundant letters into single characters, leaving 19 letters total.

In place of the letters missing from the original 27-letter Spanish alphabet are five new symbols. The S slot, for example, is occupied by one letter that does the job of C, Z, and S. Q, K, and C have been merged into a single character, as have I and Y. The design of each glyph borrows elements from each of the letters it represents, making the new alphabet easy for Spanish-speakers to learn, its designer says.

Speculative Spanish alphabet.
José de la O

By streamlining the Spanish alphabet, de la O claims he's made it easier to read, write, and type. But the convenience factor may not be enough to win over some Spanish scholars: When the Royal Spanish Academy cut just two letters (CH and LL) from the Spanish alphabet in 2010, their decision was met with outrage.

José de la O has already envisioned how his alphabet might function in the real world, Photoshopping it onto storefronts and newspapers. He also showcased the letters in two new fonts. You can install New Times New Roman and Futurysma onto your computer after downloading it here.

[h/t Co.Design]

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