The lost speech and other words of Martin Luther King, Jr.


On September 12, 1962, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech at the Park-Sheraton Hotel in New York City to commemorate the centennial of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. It was thought that the only record of the speech was a typewritten script annotated by an audio engineer, but 41 years later — in November 2013 — an intern at the New York State Museum in Albany uncovered the only known recording, which can be heard here.

Some other words of the great civil rights leader whose birth we commemorate today follow below.

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It’s Friday 13th: a day for paraskevidekatriaphobia, friggatriskaidekaphobia or triskaidekaphobia



It’s Friday 13th, and for some people that’s a day when their triskaidekaphobia kicks in big time. Triskaidekaphobia? It means “fear of the number 13”. Also sometimes spelled triskaidecaphobia, it’s a slightly strange word deriving from two different languages: it combines the Greek treiskaideka (“thirteen”) with the Latin word for “fear of”, phobia. The first known written citation is in a book by Isador Coriat, Religion and Medicine: the Moral Control of Nervous Disorders, published in 1908, so this superstition linked to the number 13 is probably quite a recent phenomenon. But is there also a word for the fear of the date itself? Continue reading

Kompromat, and polezni durak

The Kremlin / Wikimedia Commons

The Kremlin / Wikimedia Commons

Kompromat (Russian: компромат; short for компрометирующий материал, literally “compromising material”) is the Russian term for compromising materials about a politician or other public figure. Such materials can be used to create negative publicity, for blackmail, or for ensuring loyalty.

Will kompromat be 2017’s word of the year?

And while we’re on the subject of Russian turns-of-phrase: a “polezni durak” is how Michael Hayden, a former head of both the CIA and NSA, has described President-elect Donald Trump. Translation: a “useful fool.” This term (полезный дурак, tr. polezni durak) has been attributed to Lenin by some Russian writers (e.g. Vladimir Bukovsky in 1984) and Western commentators. However, in 1987 American journalist William Safire noted that a Library of Congress librarian hadn’t been able to find the phrase in Lenin’s works. The book They Never Said It also suggests the attribution is false.



Closeup of family warming feet at fireplace, by kedusource / Flickr

Closeup of family warming feet at fireplace, by kedusource / Flickr

Have you enjoyed some hygge this holiday season?

“Hygge — pronounced to sound somewhere between “booger” and “hooker” — is an apparently untranslatable concept which embodies the Nordic art of cosiness.” So explained the Financial Times in a recent article about this trendy and enviable state of well-being that apparently eludes most of us non-Nordics. “This year hygge has become a global publishing pandemic. The Danish art of cosiness has been co-opted as the latest lifestyle trend to make us feel our disorganised, overworked, over-digital and under-curated lives are utterly inadequate. It is now, after bacon and wind turbines, Denmark’s biggest export.”

The word hygge hasn’t quite yet broken the Danish-English language barrier and taken its official place in any of our official dictionaries. Perhaps that’s because, as the Financial Times argues, it’s simply untranslatable — both culturally and linguistically. Last year Justin Parkinson in the BBC’s news magazine observed: “The Danish word, pronounced “hoo-ga”, is usually translated into English as “cosiness”. But it’s much more than that, say its aficionados – an entire attitude to life that helps Denmark to vie with Switzerland and Iceland to be the world’s happiest country.”

Although the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t yet have an entry for hygge (but do keep an eye on those new official word lists coming up in the New Year), the online Oxford Living Dictionaries does offer a relatively succinct and evocative definition for the Danish word and concept, which has definitely made its way into our lexicon: “a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being (regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture).” But do note that there are two quite different pronunciations offered up here — scroll down to the bottom of OD’s hygge page to hear them articulated. So if you are able to achieve this particular state of twee chill that seems to elude most Americans and Brits, it seems you can choose to call it either “hooker” or “hewger” — whichever kind of hygge sounds like your kind of bliss.


The Queen’s Speech

The Queen pictured at the microphone during her inaugural Christmas message in 1952; Daily Mail

The Queen pictured at the microphone during her inaugural Christmas message in 1952; Daily Mail

As many of us tune in on Christmas Day to hear The Queen delivering her Christmas message to her subjects around the world, some of us might be focusing less on the words she speaks and more on the way she says them. Every year my ears delight in the music of her voice itself: her plummy accent — the quintessential example of received pronunciation, or what we used to refer to as “BBC English” — harks back to an earlier age when Englishmen and women, especially those in the upper echelons of society, spoke very differently. (Scroll to the end of this post to watch the Queen’s first televised Christmas message, broadcast in 1957, and a speech given by her second oldest grandson earlier this year.) Continue reading

Separated by a common (Christmas) language


Reposting Glosso’s perennial favorite: a Brit-Chriss-Ameri-mas glossary …

Merry/Happy Christmas to all, on whatever side of the pond you’re on!


Yes, we’re separated by a common language — and it’s no different when it comes to the subject of Yuletide yacking: the Brits and the Yanks just aren’t on the same page when they’re talking Chrimbo*. (And just what might that be, old chap?) Ever wondered what a mince pie really is? Or what an Englishman is doing when he’s pulling a cracker? What is the name of the fat man who comes down the chimney? And which is it: happy or merry Christmas?

Here’s a Brit-Yank Christmas glossary for your entertainment and amusement. Merry happy Chrimbo, and go pull a cracker!

*   *   *


Brits: Father Christmas. We know who Santa Claus is, but really: isn’t our Yuletide père more distinguished-sounding?

Yanks: Santa Claus, or simply Santa. Father who? And isn’t Santa easier for a 3-year-old to say and understand? According to the OED, the name originated in the U.S. in the late 18th century: “An imaginary person said to bring presents for children on Christmas Eve.” The Online Etymology Dictionary dates it to 1773 — as St. A Claus in “New York Gazette”; originally from the dialectal Dutch Sante Klaas, from Middle Dutch Sinter Niklaas “Saint Nicholas,” the bishop of Asia Minor who became a patron saint for children. Now a worldwide phenomenon (e.g. Japanese santakurosu).

*   *   *


Brits: Happy Christmas. Merry is just too, well, merry …

Yanks: Merry Christmas (or, more safely and politically correctly, Happy Holidays. You just can’t risk making any assumptions here, can you?). And save the Happy for New Year.

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Brits: Father Christmas lives in Lapland.

Yanks: Santa lives in the North Pole. Where’s Lapland?

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Brits: drink snowballs (advocaat and lemonade) as their Yuletide tipple. What’s egg-nog, and why does the idea of an egg-nog hangover sound particularly unpleasant?

Yanks: choose to drink egg-nog (spiced egg-based drink with rum, bourbon or brandy) . What’s a snowball when it’s being imbibed and not thrown? Do the Brits really add alcohol to everything?

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Brits: love to indulge in mince pies over Christmas — small pastry pies filled with dried fruit mix and brandy. Yes, the Brits really do add alcohol to everything. (Legend has it, dating back to the Middle Ages, that if you eat a mince pie every day from Christmas to Twelfth Night (Jan 6), you will be happy for the following 12 months.)

Yes, mince pies did originally contain meat — and hence its name (from the “mincemeat” that constitutes its filling).  The Online Etymology Dictionary explains its colorful history in more detail: “1660s, originally in the figurative sense of what someone plans to make of his enemy, an alteration of earlier minced meat (1570s); from mince (v.) + meat (n.). Mince-pie is attested from c.1600; as rhyming slang for “eye” it is attested from 1857.” Back in those days, because of its meatiness, mincemeat was more akin to what we now call stuffing (or what the Americans sometimes call dressing): here’s an earlier Glossophilia post explaining that history.

Yanks:  Er ….  Is that a hamburger pie? Pass the pumpkin pie left over from Thanksgiving …

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cracker     party hat

Brits: pull Christmas crackers and wear the silly hats that come out of them. They’re cardboard tubes wrapped in paper to look like giant wrapped sweets, and they go pop when you pull them. And that’s because Brits like to add alcohol to everything.

Why is it called a cracker? The OED dates cracker bonbons and the pulling of crackers to the early 1840s. According to Wikipedia, Tom Smith of London invented crackers in 1847 as a variation on his bon-bon sweets, which he sold in a twist of paper. First he introduced “love messages” into the wrappers of the sweets (like fortune cookies), and then he added the “crackle” element when he heard the crackle of a log on a fire. The size of the paper wrapper had to be increased to incorporate the banger mechanism, and the sweet itself was eventually dropped, to be replaced by a trinket. The new product was initially marketed as the Cosaque (i.e., Cossack), but the onomatopoeic “cracker” soon became the commonly used name.

Yanks: er …. Isn’t cracker pejorative slang for a white person?

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Brits: kick back and watch lots of sports on TV on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas: see earlier Glossophilia post to find out why it has that name).

Yanks: er …. Why do the Brits get to have a special weird name – and even a national holiday — for the day after?

*   *   *


For Brits, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without going to see a pantomime.

A what? the Yanks ask …

It’s a sort of family-friendly musical comedy stage production that includes slapstick comedy, interaction between the actors and the audience, singing and dancing, gender-crossing actors, topical contemporary humor, and a story loosely based on a well-known fairy tale. And lots of very tired (or wannabe) celebrities doing their theatrical dues… You’ve really got to see one to believe one.

The Online Etymology Dictionary explains the history of the word pantomime: “1610s, “mime actor,” from Latin pantomimus “mime, dancer,” from Greek pantomimos “actor,” literally “imitator of all,” from panto- (genitive of pan) “all” + mimos “imitator”.
Meaning “drama or play without words” first recorded 1735. The English dramatic performances so called, usually at Christmas and with words and songs and stock characters, are attested by this name from 1739; said to have originated c.1717.”

Update in January 2014: watch the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja making an impromptu appearance in a pantomime this Christmas. And he’s not singing opera …

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Happy Chrimbo!

And to see how to say Happy (or Merry) Christmas in 119 different languages, visit Freelang. Here are the first 50 …

AFRIKAANS geseënde Kersfees
ALBANIAN gëzuar Krishtlindja
ALSATIAN gleckika Wïanachta
ARABIC ميلاد مجيد (miilaad majiid)
ARMENIAN Shnorhavor Surb tsnund
AZERI Noel bayraminiz mubarak
BASQUE Eguberri on
BELARUSIAN З Божым нараджэннем (Z Bozym naradzenniem)
BENGALI subho baradin
BOSNIAN sretan Božić
BRETON Nedeleg laouen
BULGARIAN весела коледа (vesela koleda)
BURMESE Christmas nay hma mue pyaw pa
CATALAN bon Nadal
CH’TI joïeux Noé
CHEROKEE ulihelisdi danisdayohihvi
CHINESE 圣诞快乐 (shèng dàn kuài lè)
CORNISH Nadelek lowen
CORSICAN bon Natale
CROATIAN sretan Božić
CZECH veselé Vánoce
DANISH glædelig jul
DHOLUO bedgi sikuku maber
DUTCH vrolijk Kerstfeest
ENGLISH merry Christmas
ESPERANTO gojan Kristnaskon
ESTONIAN häid jõule
FAROESE gleðilig jól
FILIPINO Maligayang Pasko
FINNISH hyvää joulua
FRENCH joyeux Noël
FRISIAN noflike Krystdagen
FRIULAN bon nadâl
GEORGIAN gilocav shoba axal wels
GERMAN frohe Weihnachten / fröhliche Weihnachten
GREEK Καλα Χριστούγεννα (kala christougenna / kala xristougenna)
HAWAIIAN mele Kalikimaka
HEBREW חג מולד שמח (hag molad saméa’h)
HINDI Krismas ki subhkamna
HUNGARIAN boldog karácsonyt
ICELANDIC gleðileg jól
IGBO annuri Ekeresimesi
ILOCANO naragsak a paskua
INDONESIAN selamat Natal
IRISH GAELIC Nollaig shona
ITALIAN buon Natale
JAVANESE sugeng Natal
JAPANESE merii kurisumasu

* a quaint English shortening of the word Christmas 

Political jargon 5: “Hear, hear!”

The House of Commons at Westminster; Plate 21 of Microcosm of London (1808) / Wikimedia Commons

The House of Commons at Westminster; Plate 21 of Microcosm of London (1808) / Wikimedia Commons

As the Grammarly blog explains: “The phrase hear, hear seems to have come into existence as an abbreviation of the phrase hear him, hear him, which was well-established in Parliament in the late seventeenth century. The UK Parliament prides itself on its lively debates, and saying “hear him, hear him” was a way to draw attention to what a person was saying. …  Sometime during the eighteenth century hear him, hear him acquired its short form, hear, hear, and that form is still used today.”

A contributor to StackExchange noted that the phrase must be older than this entry in Pearson’s Political Dictionary from 1792:


What was originally a parliamentary call for attention has turned into a phrase the OED describes as being “used to express one’s wholehearted agreement with something said, especially in a speech.” As Yahoo! News recently reported about Samantha Bee: “She was also recently her hilarious self on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, talking about how she cannot wait for the election to end (hear, hear!)”


TGIF: That Gerund Is Funky (Friday, Oct 21)

Portrait of Cod; Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Cod; Wikimedia Commons

In grammatical and usage news this past month: a political email scandal involving risotto and apostrophes; some fishy regional accents, literally; how we’ll all be talking in 50 years’ time; Trump gets it wrong yet again; a British supermarket with a name that’s already been taken (by Iceland, for itself); a dictionary goes online; and those familiar experiences and concepts that desperately need a word or name to describe them  … Continue reading

Political jargon 3: “Filibuster”

Wendy Davis during her famous filibuster

Wendy Davis during her famous filibuster

Continuing our exploration of American political jargon, here’s a look at the word filibuster, which to British ears sounds more like a horse-trainer than an obstructive political process. Here’s an explanation from an earlier Glossophilia post. Continue reading