1. n. The love of language

Talking Music: Philharmonic or Symphony?

by Louise


This week Glossophilia starts a new series of posts, “Talking Music”, in which we’ll try and demystify some of the confusing and often misunderstood terminology of classical music.

First off: are symphony and philharmonic synonymous? Read the rest of this entry »

Capitalizing and pronouncing Ebola (and the naming of other diseases)

by Louise


There’s an epidemic in West Africa, and the dreaded “E” word is on everyone’s lips and keypads. But here’s a question: does the devastating disease deserve its capital E, and if so, why? When we write about salmonella or influenza (or flu for short), diabetes or rabies, we don’t crown the names of these deadly scourges with capital initial letters. Why does Ebola get special treatment?

The AP Stylebook explains it simply: “Capitalize a disease known by name of person or geographical area: Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Ebola virus.” Ebola was named after a tributary of the Congo River in Zaire (now called the Democratic Republic of the  Congo), near which the virus was first identified, so it can claim its status as a proper name for life.

And how should we pronounce the name of this awful virus? According to NPR’s standards and practices editor, Mark Memmott, as posted on NPR’s Tumblr, it should be “ee-BOH-luh” (rather than “eh-BOH-la”). But as Memmott advised in his internal memo to NPR colleagues: “It’s important to note that this is guidance, not a dictate from on high. We want to say things correctly, but we also realize that we have correspondents from around the world and that when they speak they may say some things differently. In this case, NPR’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is from Ghana. She says ‘eh-BOH-la.’ It’s natural to her. We wouldn’t want to try to force her to say ‘ee-BOH-luh’.” Ebola means “Black River” in Lingala, the language of the DRC’s northwestern region where the tributary can be found. But since Zaire was a Belgian colony between 1908 and 1960, the name of the river has probably been pronounced historically in a French way — i.e. “ay-BOH-luh” (with the sound of an acute accent on the initial E), so “eh” probably best approximates how the name’s first syllable sounded when the virus was first identified and named in the early ’70s. Oxford Dictionaries lists both pronunciations (“eh” and “ee”) in its pronunciation guide.

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While we’re on the subject of naming diseases, here’s another question: is it necessary to keep the apostrophe and possessive ‘s’ in diseases named after those who discovered them? Down’s syndrome, Asperger’s syndrome, Parkinson’s disease and Crohn’s disease are a few examples; is it now more common to refer to them as Down syndrome or Crohn disease? The blog Separated by a common language explains that this actually depends nowadays on which side of the Atlantic you’re on: it’s a little-known British-American usage difference. Quoting Len Leshin, MD from the Down Syndrome: Health Issues site, Separated clarifies the thinking behind this curious usage development:

“Many medical conditions and diseases have been named after a person; this type of name is called an eponym. There has been a long-standing debate in the scientific community over whether or not to add the possessive form to the names of eponyms. For quite a long time, there was no established rule as to which to use, but general usage decided which form is acceptable. So you saw both possessive and non-possessive names in use.”In 1974, a conference at the US National Institute of Health attempted to make a standard set of rules regarding the naming of diseases and conditions. This report, printed in the journal Lancet, stated: “The possessive form of an eponym should be discontinued, since the author neither had nor owned the disorder.”(Lancet 1974, i:798) Since that time, the name has traditionally been called “Down syndrome” in North America (note that “syndrome” isn’t capitalized). However, the change has taken longer to occur in Great Britain and other parts of Europe, for reasons that aren’t quite clear to me.”

For a fascinating history of Down’s syndrome and how it got its name (it was originally called “Mongolism”), read this post on Virtual Linguist.

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Epidemic or endemic?

What exactly is the difference between epidemic and endemic? Although they’re often confused with each other, they have distinctly different meanings.

Epidemic – although it sounds more like an adjective and can be used as such — is more widely heard in its noun form, meaning “a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time” or “a sudden, widespread occurrence of a particular undesirable phenomenon” (OED). So the word is completely appropriate to describe the current outbreak in West Africa, while we can also talk about the epidemic of sexting in teenagers or the epidemic of online identity theft.

“A fashion is nothing but an induced epidemic.” — George Bernard Shaw

Endemic is more often heard as an adjective, despite being a noun too, but it is not the adjectival form of epidemic, as is often mistakenly thought. It describes a disease or condition “habitually present in a certain area as a result of permanent local factors; of common occurrence; rife.” And when describing a plant or animal, it means “native to, and especially restricted to, a certain country or area” (OED). So a condition or disease that is endemic isn’t necessarily widespread, rampant or epidemic: the word is focused more on the common and localized nature of the phenomenon than on its prevalence or severity, which might indeed be slight.

“Even modern English people are imperious, superior, ridden by class. All of the hypocrisy and the difficulties that are endemic in being British also make it an incredibly fertile place culturally. A brilliant place to live. Sad but true.”
— Pete Townshend

Pandemic describes “a widespread epidemic that might affect entire continents or even the world: e.g. the Black Death in Europe and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.” Thankfully Ebola isn’t yet in this category, although the fear is that it could spread to other parts of Africa (and further afield), becoming the first great pandemic of the 21st century. We all hope fervently that this will not be the case.

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TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky (Oct 10)

by Louise



TGIF. In language usage and abusage news this fortnight: Hugh Grant’s new character offers an English lesson; David Remnick talks about the New Yorker‘s copy-editors; a French MP is fined for using sexist grammar; a new documentary about grammar; and the superiority of paper over digital in book-reading …

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Do you know what assonance means? Or alliteration? Hugh Grant does, and he explains all in his role as an English teacher in his new rom-com movie, The Rewrite. Cosmopolitan has the exclusive clip (but listen carefully, since he has a mouthful of French fries and he’s more focused on flirting than teaching at this point …)

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David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, joined WNYC’s Brian Lehrer to discuss the upcoming New Yorker Festival. He spent some time talking about the magazine’s legendary fastidious proofreading processes, and his fabulous copy-editors (“they’re kind of geniuses at what they do”). Oh, and they discussed the Oxford comma.

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Will “cisgender” survive? As Paula Blank writes in The Atlantic, “the linguistic complement to “transgender” has achieved some popularity, but faces social and political obstacles to dictionary coronation.”

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“A French MP has been reprimanded and fined for using allegedly sexist grammar in the Paris parliament. In a bizarre case which will be of particular interest to British people who have struggled over ‘le’ and ‘la’ during torturous French lessons, Julien Aubert called a senior colleague ‘Madame le President’. ‘Madame le President’ is technically correct, because all nouns in France have a sex, and ‘president’ is a male word.” The Daily Mail reports.

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The Los Angeles Times reports that a new documentary, Grammar Revolution, is now out, featuring star grammarians such as Columbia University professor John McWhorter; Brad Hoover of the website Grammarly; Harvard linguist Steven Pinker; Lucy Ferriss, writer in residence at Trinity College; and Noam Chomsky, the 85-year-old political activist who began his career as a linguist. “Why is grammar a controversial subject? Why has it faded out of many schools? Hear from teachers, students, grammarians, CEOs, and linguists, and discover why grammar is an important subject that needs to be reconsidered, reconceived, and revived”.

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Rock, paper, Kindle? Paper seems to trump Kindle when it comes to “good” reading, and here’s some scientific proof. A 2014 study found that readers of a short mystery story on a Kindle were significantly worse at remembering the order of events than those who read the same story in paperback. Lead researcher Anne Mangen of Norway’s Stavanger University concluded that “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does.” has the story.

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And here’s a bit of fun:

Take the “How good is your British English?” quiz brought to us by Oxford University Press.

Check out all the different names for French fries around the world on mental_floss

Are you called Nigel or Nigella? Hermione or St John? If so, you’re almost certainly living in — or an import from — England’s green and pleasant lands. BBC America brings us 10 British boys’ names and 10 girls’ names that haven’t made it successfully across the Atlantic. Eat your hearts out, Basil and Poppy …

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Ish, esque, or y? They’re a lot like each other — ish

by Louise


Peter Paul Rubens: The Three Graces (Wikimedia Commons)

When someone describes an experience as “Kafkaesque”, we get that it must have been nightmarish. “Orwellian” we understand as totalitarian in a futuristic kind of way, à la Orwell’s novel 1984. But why “-esque” for Kafka and “-ian” for Orwell? (And, indeed, why “ish” for nightmare and “istic” for future?) Why don’t we say Kafkaish, or Orwellistic? Read the rest of this entry »

Gender: the labels and language of transition

by Louise


In Netflix’s hugely successful prison drama Orange Is the New Black, the trans actress Laverne Cox plays a prominent role as the transgender hairstylist inmate Sophia Burset — a role that has brought not just fame to Cox but also an insight for many of us into the transgender world, which until Orange hit our screens wasn’t much to be found in mainstream popular culture. Last week our horizons were broadened further when Amazon Studios gave us its new transgender comedy-drama series, Transparent, which is raking in rave reviews and ravenous binge-watchers around the world.

As we learn and understand more about the trans experience and community — thanks in part to this developing profile and popularity on our entertainment screens — let’s take a look at the language etiquette of gender transition. It’s an area of terminology that is still in a state of flux and sensitivity, and that evolving state itself both reflects and makes us examine the complicated social, psychological and biological factors that determine what defines, describes or identifies a transgender person. Has transgender replaced transexual, or is one an umbrella term that embraces the other? Does the latter refer only to those who have had gender-reassignment surgery, or is it simply an outdated term that has been superseded? Is trans acceptable as an abbreviation? Is transgender both an adjective and a noun, and should it be capitalized? Is cisgender simply the opposite of transgender? A lot of these questions don’t have simple answers. Read the rest of this entry »

John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” on National Poetry Day (UK)

by Louise

John Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale, read by Benedict Cumberbatch


Ode to a Nightingale

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease. Read the rest of this entry »

Glossophilia’s top 21 posts

by Louise


Celebrating its 70,000th visitor earlier today, Glossophilia brings you its 21 most popular posts so far. Subjects include Cockney Rhyming Slang and other quirky Englishisms; contranyms and homophones; when to use which and when to use that; British tea – when is it low and when is it high? and British school – when is it public and when is it private?; some modern words like yolo and like, and a not-so-modern one: dildo. And, of course, some American-British differences that we can never get enough of — this time in the kitchen pantry  …

Enjoy (them)! Read the rest of this entry »

TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky (Sep 26)

by Louise

TGIF. In language and usage news this fortnight: a school that teaches in Manx Gaelic; an emergency poet; costly slips of the tongue; zombie nouns; an ominous auto-correct error; punctuation problems in a pre-K campaign; and can Benedict Cumberbatch not say penguinRead the rest of this entry »

Freudian slips, and other Freudisms

by Louise


You’ve seen it and said it many times: that wasn’t just a mistake, it was a “Freudian slip”. They intended to write or say something else, but their fingers or voices revealed what they were really thinking. And haven’t you observed on occasion that someone’s speech, behavior or work of art — with all its sexual overtones  —  is very “Freudian”? In fact, isn’t Freudian just another way of saying “sexually suggestive”?

Freud died 75 years ago yesterday, and it’s not just his name that lives on in the form of a meaningful slip of the tongue. No, the father of psychoanalysis might go in and out of fashion in the lecture halls of psychological academia, but whether or not we agree with his teachings and writings, his concepts are here to stay — in the words and language of our daily lives. And it’s not all about sex, even if Freud would have wanted us to believe otherwise. We complain about our friend being anal — and we’re not talking about his toilet habits; we’re happy to blame our own or someone else’s flaws on the unconscious. We wonder if she’s projecting her own fantasies onto him, or whether he’s in denial. Our ids get us into trouble (and I don’t mean fake IDs), and we hope our superegos will keep those naughty urges in check. “I hope you’re not psychoanalyzing me”, we say fearfully when we meet a psychology student for the first time, however ridiculous that reaction might be. And who hasn’t hypothesized about someone repressing their true feelings, or regressing emotionally? Freud gave us all these words, whether he invented them or just gave them a popular psychological sense or meaning. Read the rest of this entry »

Latin littlies, i.e. e.g., cf., P.S., vs., & q.v., etc. etc. etc.

by Louise


Latin is technically dead: no-one speaks it any more. But we would be so lost if we couldn’t use Latin’s littlies — those handy abbreviations that pepper our written and spoken communications, i.e. e.g., cf., P.S., n.b., etc. etc.

As seemingly benign as they are tiny, these shortcuts actually carry their own little interesting confusions and usage questions, which we don’t usually stop to think about. Since the abbreviations are there to save time and keystrokes, why waste any more time on them?

Let’s take Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which prompted a hugely important national debate that continues to this day: how should we abbreviate the word versus, and how do we pronounce it when we’re saying it aloud? Should it be written as Roe v. Wade, Roe vs. Wade, Roe v Wade, or Roe vs Wade? Or even, possibly, Roe versus Wade? And should it be said aloud as “Roe versus Wade” or “Roe vee Wade”? These are big questions… Read the rest of this entry »