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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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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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language
Here's the Right Way to Pronounce Kitchenware Brand Le Creuset

If you were never quite sure how to pronounce the name of beloved French kitchenware brand Le Creuset, don't fret: For the longest time, southern chef, author, and PBS personality Vivian Howard wasn't sure either.

In this video from Le Creuset, shared by Food & Wine, Howard prepares to sear some meat in her bright orange Le Creuset pot and explains, "For the longest time I had such a crush on them but I could never verbalize it because I didn’t know how to say it and I was so afraid of sounding like a big old redneck." Listen closely as she demonstrates the official, Le Creuset-endorsed pronunciation at 0:51.

Le Creuset is known for its colorful, cast-iron cookware, which is revered by pro chefs and home cooks everywhere. The company first introduced their durable pots to the world in 1925. Especially popular are their Dutch ovens, which are thick cast-iron pots that have been around since the 18th century and are used for slow-cooking dishes like roasts, stews, and casseroles.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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