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11 Words Coined 100 Years Ago

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On September 9, 1917, a British naval officer named John Arbuthnot Fisher wrote a letter to Winston Churchill, who at that time was serving as Minister of Munitions in the British government. Lord Fisher had been First Sea Lord in the British Navy at the outset of the First World War, but had resigned in 1915 amidst growing frustration over Churchill’s handling of the Gallipoli Campaign. Frustrated once more with the ongoing events of the war, he wrote:

"My Dear Winston … Headlines in the newspapers have utterly upset me! Terrible!! 'The German Fleet to assist the Land operations in the Baltic.' … We are five times stronger at Sea than our enemies and here is a small Fleet that we could gobble up in a few minutes playing at great vital Sea part of landing an Army in the enemies’ rear and probably capturing the Russian capital by Sea! … Are we really incapable of a big Enterprise? I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis—O.M.G. (Oh! My God!)—Shower it on the Admiralty!!'

Fisher’s letter, which resurfaced in 2012, is now credited with providing the oldest written evidence of the abbreviation O.M.G.—but that isn’t the only surprisingly contemporary-sounding word that’s celebrating its centenary this year. Here are eleven more words and expressions that are turning 100 this year.  

1. ENVIRONMENTALISM

Environmentalism hasn’t always meant, well, environmentalism. Originally, it referred to the theory that the environment in which a person grows up can have a more significant impact on his or her personality and development than hereditary factors. In that sense, it was introduced in a eugenics paper in 1917; the ecological sense followed in the mid 1960s.

2. AUTOPILOT

The earliest known reference to “automatic pilot” technology dates back to 1916, but it would be another year before the blended word autopilot first emerged in an American engineering journal.

3. AUTOFOCUS

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest record of an autofocus camera also dates back to 1917, in an advertisement listed in the “Bargain List” section of Photographic Review magazine.

4. JUSQU’AUBOUTISME

By 1917, the First World War had been continually escalating for three years, and victory—or indeed a conclusion of any kind—seemed just as far away. In response, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau advocated a policy he called jusqu’auboutisme: derived from a French expression essentially meaning “to the very end,” Clemenceau sought to continue the war until a fitting conclusion, either good or bad, was assured.

5. DEFEATIST

While Clemenceau was pushing for jusqu’auboutisme, an opposition minister named Joseph Caillaux advocated brokering a peace deal sooner rather than later, regardless of any losses incurred. His and his supporters’ willingness to throw in the towel early led to a headline in The Times denouncing “M. Caillaux and the ‘Defeatists’”—and the word has remained in use ever since. Other words that first emerged in the third year of the Great War included enlistee, parachuter, home front, and Bolshevism.

6. DOBERMAN

Doberman pinschers are named after the German breeder Ludwig Dobermann, who first bred the dogs in the late 19th century. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the dogs began to become popular outside of Germany, however—and it wasn’t until 1917 that the dogs were first described in English, in an article in Policeman’s Monthly magazine that listed the Doberman as one of four breeds currently “being used for police purposes.”

7. CATWALK

Beatrix Potter might have figuratively described the gardens of Devonshire House, the London home of the Duke of Devonshire, as a “cat walk” way back in 1885, but in reference to an intentionally narrow walkway or platform, the earliest record of a catwalk is credited to a Glossary of Aeronautical Words and Phrases published in 1917 that defined it as the “narrow passage in the interior of an airship.” The earliest recorded reference to a fashion industry catwalk, meanwhile, dates from 1970.

8. HEATH ROBINSON

W. Heath Robinson was an English cartoonist and illustrator known for comic pictures of ludicrously complicated machines seemingly designed to carry out mundane tasks. His name has since come to be used allusively for any equally complicated or impractical mechanical device. The earliest record of any machine being labeled as a Heath Robinson contraption was “the movable mounting for the observer’s gun in the rear cockpit” described in An Airman’s Outings, or Cavalry In The Cloudsthe 1917 memoirs of WW1 flying ace Alan “Contact” Bott.

9. HOME MOVIE

The February 1917 edition of Popular Mechanics magazine featured an advertisement for “the Movette,” an early portable movie camera. The advert provides us with the earliest known record of the expression home movies: Describing the Movette as “a real moving picture camera,” the advertisement proudly exclaimed, “Home Movies! That’s what you and everybody can have now.”

10. PEP PILL

Another advertisement—this time in an edition of The Decatur Review dated August 30—introduced the pep pill to the English language in 1917. “‘Pep’ Pills will make you more efficient,” the advertisement claimed, and “will make most thin people take on weight, will nourish starved nerves that are on edge, [and] will tone up your sluggish system.” Referencing something that enlivens or stimulates a person or thing, the “pep” of phrases like pep pill and pep talk is an abbreviation of pepper.

11. NOWHERESVILLE

As a word that Merriam-Webster defines as “a location lacking identifying or individualizing qualities” or “a place or state denoting failure or relative obscurity,” nowheresville was introduced to the English language by a poet named Thomas Harkness Litster in 1917. The poem “Tell It Out Unto the Crossroads,” which appeared in Litster’s anthology Songs In Your Heart And Mine, opens with the line “I came from back of Nowheresville / From Concession number three.”

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8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words
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Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.

1. BREF

Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.

2. SANTIGUADORA

Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”

3. HELLHÖRIG

The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.

4. VORSTELLUNG

Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.

7. TERTULIA

Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.

8. PAN/PANI

Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to Culture.pl, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.

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What Is Foreign Accent Syndrome?
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One night in 2016, Michelle Myers—an Arizona mom with a history of migraines—went to sleep with a splitting headache. When she awoke, her speech was marked with what sounded like an British accent, despite having never left the U.S. Myers is one of about 100 people worldwide who have been diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a condition in which people spontaneously speak with a non-native accent.

In most cases, FAS occurs following a head injury or stroke that damages parts of the brain associated with speech. A number of recent incidences of FAS have been well documented: A Tasmanian woman named Leanne Rowe began speaking with a French-sounding accent after recovering from a serious car accident, while Kath Lockett, a British woman, underwent treatment for a brain tumor and ended up speaking with an accent that sounds somewhere between French and Italian.

The first case of the then-unnamed syndrome was reported in 1907 when a Paris-born-and-raised man who suffered a brain hemorrhage woke up speaking with an Alsatian accent. During World War II, neurologist Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn compiled the first comprehensive case study of the syndrome in a Norwegian woman named Astrid L., who had been hit on the head with shrapnel and subsequently spoke with a pronounced German-sounding accent. Monrad-Krohn called her speech disorder dysprosody: her choice of words and sentence construction, and even her singing ability, were all normal, but her intonation, pronunciation, and stress on syllables (known as prosody) had changed.

In a 1982 paper, neurolinguist Harry Whitaker coined the term "foreign accent syndrome" for acquired accent deviation after a brain injury. Based on Monrad-Kohn's and other case studies, Whitaker suggested four criteria for diagnosing FAS [PDF]:

"The accent is considered by the patient, by acquaintances, and by the investigator to sound foreign.
It is unlike the patient’s native dialect before the cerebral insult.
It is clearly related to central nervous system damage (as opposed to a hysteric reaction, if such exist).
There is no evidence in the patient’s background of being a speaker of a foreign language (i.e., this is not like cases of polyglot aphasia)."

Not every person with FAS meets all four criteria. In the last decade, researchers have also found patients with psychogenic FAS, which likely stems from psychological conditions such as schizophrenia rather than a physical brain injury. This form comprises fewer than 10 percent of known FAS cases and is usually temporary, whereas neurogenic FAS is typically permanent.

WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING?

While scientists are not sure why certain brain injuries or psychiatric problems give rise to FAS, they believe that people with FAS are not actually speaking in a foreign accent. Instead, their neurological damage impairs their ability to make subtle muscle movements in the jaw, tongue, lips, and larynx, which results in pronunciation that mimics the sound of a recognizable accent.

"Vowels are particularly susceptible: Which vowel you say depends on where your tongue is in your mouth," Lyndsey Nickels, a professor of cognitive science at Australia's Macquarie University, wrote in The Conversation. "There may be too much or too little muscle tension and therefore they may 'undershoot' or 'overshoot' their target. This leads to the vowels sounding different, and sometimes they may sound like a different accent."

In Foreign Accent Syndromes: The Stories People Have to Tell, authors Nick Miller and Jack Ryalls suggest that FAS could be one stage in a multi-phase recovery from a more severe speech disorder, such as aphasia—an inability to speak or understand speech that results from brain damage.

People with FAS also show wide variability in their ability to pronounce sounds, choose words, or stress the right syllables. The accent can be strong or mild. Different listeners may hear different accents from the speaker with FAS (Lockett has said people have asked her if she's Polish, Russian, or French).

According to Miller and Ryalls, few studies have been published about speech therapy for treating FAS, and there's no real evidence that speech therapy makes a difference for people with the syndrome. More research is needed to determine if advanced techniques like electromagnetic articulography—visual feedback showing tiny movements of the tongue—could help those with FAS regain their original speaking manner.

Today, one of the pressing questions for neurologists is understanding how the brain recovers after injury. For that purpose, Miller and Ryalls write that "FAS offers a fascinating and potentially fruitful forum for gaining greater insights into understanding the human brain and the speech processes that define our species."

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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