1. n. The love of language

Poetry in Motion: 8

by Louise


Seen on the NYC subway B train, 22 January 2015.

Two tattoos, one taboo …

by Louise


When you hear the word tattoo, do you think of skin pictures or of marching band extravaganzas? Maybe both, if you’re a British drumming soldier with a body-load of tats … Curiously, the two meanings of this unusual word have completely different origins in both time and place — and quite interesting stories behind their respective definitions. It’s not too surprising that they have nothing to do with each other (except perhaps that they’re both, loosely, forms of artistic expression, and soldiers often have lots of tattoos), but it is odd that they evolved eventually into the same word. And did you know that tattoo and taboo have more in common with each other than the fact that they rhyme? Here’s the scoop on tattoo, tattoo and taboo.  Read the rest of this entry »

An American-British usage experiment: please participate!

by Louise


Glosso readers: may I ask for your help and input for a little usage exercise? It’s fun, and it shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes. (And I mean that in the British rather than the American sense.) I’m trying to determine whether a certain usage trend is disappearing in the UK while remaining healthy and robust in the U.S.

Please read these four sentences, which are nearly but not quite identical, and then answer the questions that follow (in the comments section below). There’s no “right” or “wrong” here: just answer honestly and without too much thought. Next week we’ll look at the results and what they might suggest.

Many thanks for your participation!


A) “Looking at the three designs, I was most drawn to the round one that bled outside the page border; however, I liked the square one too.”

B) “Looking at the three designs, I was most drawn to the round one which bled outside the page border; however, I liked the square one too.”

C) “Looking at the three designs, I was most drawn to the round one, that bled outside the page border; however, I liked the square one too.”

D) “Looking at the three designs, I was most drawn to the round one, which bled outside the page border; however, I liked the square one too.”


Q1: Are you American or British? (Or Australian, Canadian or other English-speaker?)

Q2: Do any of the sentences look strange or “incorrect” to you? (Let’s not give any explanations until we’ve gathered some reactions; we’ll examine the whys and wherefores in a follow-up post.) If so, please specify which sentence(s) you’d be inclined to edit.

Q3: Can you tell from any of the sentences how many of the three designs are round? If so, please identify the sentence and the number of round designs.

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Je suis X, we are Y: the power of identification and the rule of three

by Louise


On that fateful September day in 2001, in the aftermath of the attacks on the U.S. that would change history, an anchorwoman on France’s main TV news show, Nicole Bacharan, uttered these words: “Tonight, we are all Americans.” It was a sentiment felt and understood keenly around the world, and the phrase was printed on the front page of the French newspaper Le Monde the next day. Almost 40 years earlier, in June 1963, U.S. President John F. Kennedy declared during a speech in West Berlin his country’s support for the new western nation now standing in the shadow of the recently erected Berlin Wall. “Ich bin ein Berliner,” Kennedy stated. “I am a Berliner.” The 1960 epic movie Spartacus reaches its emotional climax when a multitude of slaves, asked by Crassus to give up their leader by pointing him out from the crowd, each stands up to proclaim: “I am Spartacus.” Now fast-forward to the present day, after an unthinkable massacre in Paris that took the lives of 12 journalists, and we all stand together in disgust and protest by uttering three simple French words: “Je suis Charlie.” Read the rest of this entry »

It’s as cold as …

by Louise


As the mercury strains to inch above its frozen winter threshold, and we breathe steam from behind our mittened hands guarding scarf-garlanded faces, we reach for words, similes and metaphors to describe the frigid temperatures that govern our daily minds and deeds — as centuries of cold humans have done before us. Here are some of those gelid turns of phrase, both enduring and outmoded, that have issued from numb lips and frosty quills — some vulgar, many artful — in all their icy eloquence. Read the rest of this entry »

TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky – Jan 9

by Louise


That Gerund Is Funky: words, grammar, usage and language in the news this month.

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As cartoonists and demonstrators around the world raise and wield their pens in protest against the recent atrocities in France, the BBC asks the question: who first wrote or uttered the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword”? Read the rest of this entry »

Slang: the most esoteric and quintessentially human form of language?

by Louise


Why do we talk slang? Is it like an inside joke, which makes us feel more connected with others in the know? Is it useful for covert communication, to hide wrong or bad stuff from prying ears? Are slang words and expressions the equivalent of linguistic toys, injecting some fun and humor into our normally drab verbal discourse? Can it fulfill a need for verbal economy, providing one word or phrase to capture a paragraph’s worth of meaning and suggestion?  Can slang be a proverbial ice-breaker, offering a sense of informality or even affection to an otherwise frosty exchange?

The answer is yes: any one of these factors can come into play when slang is on the linguistic menu, and some of these factors are at the heart of a particular slang’s very existence. Slang in its many forms can represent the most nuanced, potentially ambiguous, socially delicate and subtle of human utterances, depending as much as it does on the social context and culture in which it lives and thrives.

A fascinating article in The Guardian last year asked the question: Is slang the last frontier for artificial intelligence? Read the rest of this entry »

Icelandic fare from Icelandair

by Louise


Read the rest of this entry »

Did Benedict Cumberbatch (aka Alan Turing) coin the term “digital computer”?

by Louise


Did Alan Turing coin the term “digital computer”? There’s a heady set of questions here: when was the modern-day computer invented, and was Turing its father — in its conception, its realization and/or its naming? The movie The Imitation Game, set in England during the Second World War, is all about the British mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, philosopher, mathematical biologist, pioneering computer scientist, and marathon and ultra-distance runner, and it does give us a clue. There’s a significant moment in the movie when Turing (played by the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch) explains to his friend and fellow code-breaker Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) his theory of computing and his new invention — a machine called Christopher. (Watch the movie to find out the reason for the name, and what exactly Christopher was built to do.) Here’s that moment, and it isn’t really a spoiler:

Read the rest of this entry »

Auld Lang Syne

by Louise

“Auld Lang Syne” is one of Scotland’s greatest gifts; sung around the world from Times Square to Tokyo, the song recalls those we’ve loved and lost and beloved memories of days gone by, as well as giving those who sing it a sense of belonging and togetherness that looks forward to better times. Robert Burns wrote a poem in 1788 and set it to the tune of a traditional folk tune. Soon after the song was penned, it became a Scottish custom to sing it on New Year’s Eve (or what the Scots call “Hogmanay”) — a tradition that soon spread to other parts of the British Isles. Then, as the Scots and Brits started to emigrate around the world, so the song and the tradition travelled internationally. “Auld Lang Syne” translates into English as “old long since” or, more colloquially,  “long long ago”, “days gone by” or “old times”. So the first line of the chorus — “For auld lang syne” — can be loosely translated as “for (the sake of) old times”, and indeed those words are often added to the final line of the chorus (ie. “for the sake of auld lang syne”) for this reason.

Here is Burns’s original poem, and below is the song as we sing it around the world today.

Auld Lang Syne

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind ?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne ?

CHORUS: Read the rest of this entry »