“Kellyanne Conway says Donald Trump’s team has ‘alternative facts.’ Which pretty much says it all’,” reported the Washington Post recently. Well, these ‘alternative facts’ issuing from our new President’s administration might be wrong, but at least the adjective Conway uses to describe their facts is correct on both sides of the Atlantic. She could easily have used the alternative adjective and called them ‘alternate facts’.
“Alternative facts” are the new lies. And at least in America, they can also technically be known as “alternate facts,” which will grate on many an Englishman’s ear. Take the following examples:
The day before the inauguration, the New York Times reported that “around the country, an unusual number of alternate activities are planned to coincide with weekend events surrounding the inauguration of President-elect Donald J. Trump and the Women’s March on Washington.” And in the same article, discussing her own event that she hosted up in Washington Heights, the actress Ellen Burstyn explained: “It’s not a protest,” “It’s an alternate reality.”
Yes, in America we don’t just have alternative facts, but we also have alternative words for alternative. On this side of the pond, alternate is a synonym of alternative (as well as being an adjective describing things that are alternated). This is presumably a case of linguistic evolution, in which a word frequently confused with and substituted for its similar-sounding colleague has been absorbed into the vernacular with the ‘wrong’ meaning becoming standard and legit.
As Oxford Dictionaries explains succinctly: “In both British and American English the adjective alternate means ‘every other or every second’, as in they meet on alternate Sundays, or ‘(of two things) each following and succeeded by the other in a regular pattern’, as in alternate layers of potato and sauce. Alternative means ‘available as another possibility or choice’ (an alternative route; some European countries follow an alternative approach). In American usage, however, alternate can also be used to mean ‘available as another choice’: an alternate plan called for construction to begin immediately rather than waiting for spring. This American use of alternate is still regarded as incorrect by many people in Britain.”
As my friend Clyde recently, idly, commented on Facebook: “4am thought. It’s pretty random that the paper fragment created when you three-hole punch paper is called a “Chad” and the brass fastener you put through that hole is called a “Brad”. Why do these stationery terms have the most bro-y names (ironically, possibly names of people most likely to generally punch holes in things)?” Jacob B had some more bro-y names to add to the toolbox: Continue reading →
“Inauguration planners rushed to wipe away a potential controversy Friday after porta-potties on the National Mall happened to be adorned with the President-elect’s first name. Workers were spotted Friday morning covering the “Don’s Johns” logo with blue masking tape. … Trump, whose middle name is John, will be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States at the US Capitol next Friday, an event expected to draw thousands of onlookers onto the National Mall who will use the facilities, of which there are about 2,000. The company [Don’s Johns] is the number-one provider of sanitation services in the Washington area.” So reported CNN a couple of weeks ago, before the country started going down the lav (or the toilet, or the WC …). Oh, where to start …
Perhaps surprisingly, the language of loos is something Glosso hasn’t yet addressed. It’s such a mess of expressions that stream from our mouths and tongues when we refer to that little room of excretion, and yet it’s a topic that no-one can really avoid, even if only when you have to ask how to get to the lav — or the john. With their various whiffs and odors of place, class and manners — from the perfumery of hair powder in the 17th-century French toilet to the stench of Don’s Johns in dirty D.C. — the words for our potties plastic and porcelain and where we house them are teaming and flowing with linguistic innuendo. Let’s dive in … Continue reading →
A dildo, you might think, is a modern contraption and a word of our times — something that sprang to life with the advent of battery-operated toys and women’s lib and all that. But you would be wrong to believe that. It was alive and healthy and serving its perky purposes way back in heady Elizabethan times, and it found its way not only into the bawdy boudoirs of the 16th century, but also into the rhyme and verse of the period’s literary and musical fare. Continue reading →
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(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 TheyNeverSaidIt also suggests the attribution is false.
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 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!)”