The evolution of living languages (guest post at According To Hoyt)

[SUMMARY:] My guest post at Sarah Hoyt’s blog on how living languages evolve and words undergo shifts in meaning — especially when imported from other languages. This is even more rampant in English than in other major European languages, owing to English language standards being descriptive [linguistic “field workers” describing how people actually speak and write] rather than prescriptive [a language academy laying down rules for how people should be speaking and writing it].

Origin of the expression “to encourage the others” (pour encourager les autres)

Anybody who has been reading war fiction or military history — or, to a lesser extent, crime fiction — likely has seen expressions like:

“A few of the mutineers were shot pour encourager les autres.”


“As executing all those who had refused the order to attack would have been impossible, a few of the ringleaders were made an example of, to encourage the others.”

The meaning of the expression is obvious from context. But the other day I stumbled onto its exact origins.

To cut a long story short: during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), an admiral named John Byng was ordered to relieve the besieged British garrison on the island of Minorca. He sailed in a hastily assembled fleet of ramshackle vessels, then after an inconclusive sea battle with the French returned to Gibraltar — probably figuring that, if he pressed on, he’d sacrifice his men for no tangible result.

He was court-martialed, found guilty of “failing to do his utmost” (Articles of War 12), and sentenced to death — under Article 12, as written, the court could not reach another outcome. As the court-martial were clearly troubled by this, they unanimously recommended that King George II should exercise his royal prerogative of clemency.
Several senior politicians, including Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder, were also willing to intercede for Byng, as they (rightly) suspected he was being made a scapegoat for the appalling state of readiness of his fleet.
Unfortunately for Byng, he had three factors working against him:
(a) as junior officers had been sentenced to death and executed for similarly not doing the impossible with defective means, there was pressure on the court martial to apply the law with the same severity to senior officers.
(b) King George II (grandfather of “Mad King George” III from whom the American colonists declared independence) clearly placed a great premium on personal bravery: he was, in fact, the last British monarch to personally lead his troops in battle (at the 1743 Battle of Dettingen).
(c) There was bad blood between George II and Pitt, who had pressured the king to relinquish his hereditary position as Duke and Prince-Elector (Kurfürst) of Hannover as it created a conflict of interest.
In the end, George II denied clemency, and Admiral Byng was executed by a firing squad aboard a ship at Portsmouth harbor.

Byng’s execution was satirised by Voltaire in his novel Candide. In Portsmouth, Candide witnesses the execution of an officer by firing squad and is told that “in this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others” (Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres).[26]

As a postscript, this blatant error juris (miscarriage of justice) eventually, 22 years later, prompted a revision of Article 12 to allow for alternative punishments such as the court-martial deems appropriate in view of the details and circumstances.

But Voltaire’s idiom is with us to this day, even as its origins have gotten somewhat lost in the mists of time.

Why English is not a Romance language

A few days ago, a friend of mine (herself ABD in English literature) was told that it’s only natural that she writes English like a native, since her mother tongue is Spanish “and English is a Romance language after all”.


OK, jokes aside: it is undeniably true that if you go by vocabulary origins, the vocabulary of an educated native speaker, or the 80,000-odd entries in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary will have a plurality or even a majority of words of Romance origin.


But remember: many Latin- (and Greek-)derived words are actually part of the educated speaker vocabulary in most Indo-European languages—particularly scientific, medical, and legal terms. This is not unique to English.


The “operational definition” of a Romance language, according to most mainstream linguists, is a direct descendant of Vulgar Latin — the colloquial counterpart to the classical written language. After the [West-]Roman Empire fell apart, the various dialects spoken in Italia, Gallia, Hispania, Lusitania, Dacia evolved into separate languages that we now call Italian, French, Spanish/Castilian, Portuguese, and Romanian, respectively.

In contrast, Old English developed mostly from Germanic sources — the speech of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, with later the addition of Old Norse from the invading Vikings. If you read Beowulf in the original, you (a) will need a dictionary or a parallel translation; (b) if you’d mistake it for any language other than English, it’d likely be something Scandinavian.

Hence, the oldest and most commonly used words — what in Hebrew we call the Elef Milim [“One Thousand Words” language primer] vocabulary — are about 83% Germanic in origin.

What about the Celtic language spoken by the ancient Britains? It used to be received wisdom that the Britons were wiped out by the invaders, but recent genetic studies have shown a surprisingly small percentage of Anglo/Saxon/Jute genetic material. John McWhorter, in his book Our Magnificent Bastard Language, explains that in all probability, the invaders were (nearly) all male, took wives from the Britons, lorded it over them — and the Britons assimilated into the new society. Now as he explains: usually when you learn a new language as an adult (through immersion rather than formal schooling, at that), even if you learn the vocabulary fairly quickly, the grammar and syntax of your native tongue tend to stubbornly persist. As a result, English to this day has some grammatical peculiarities that are unique among the Germanic languages but can be found among the Celtic ones: for example, the interrogative, emphatic, and negational uses of  “do” (“Do you like chocolate?”, “I did do my homework”, “I don’t like mondays”.)

The transition from Old English to Middle English — from the English of Beowulf to that of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, if you like — is conventionally marked at 1066, the Norman Invasion. And yes, as you can see from the pie chart above, William the Conqueror/Guillaume le Conquérant and his nobles did leave their linguistic imprint on English with a vengeance. It took until Henry V for England to have a monarch who was more comfortable speaking and writing (Middle) English than French!

But, crucially, the core of English remained—both in vocabulary and in grammar. For instance, English proudly sports three grammatical genders — male, female, and neuter — unlike all Romance languages (except Romanian, sort-of) who appear to have inherited their dual gender from Vulgar Latin. (Classical Latin of course did have a neuter gender.) And what typically happened when the Old English word met its Norman French counterparts, is that the language has preserved both — sometimes as synonyms, sometimes as different nuances or usages (e.g., sheep/cow/pig for the animal, mutton/beef/pork for the meat).

Early Modern English — the idiom Shakespeare wrote in — was ushered in by two phenomena.

First there was the introduction of the printing press to the British Isles by William Caxton: after the Reformation, this enabled the first widely spread printed books, namely the Book of Common Prayer and later the King James Bible. This greatly accelerated the process of standardizing the written language, like it did in other European countries (cf. Statenbijbel for Dutch, Lutherbibel  in the Protestant parts of Germany,…).

Second, during the English Renaissance, authors seeking to show off how well-read they were imported Latin and Greek words by the galleon load. (This happened to other languages as well, but perhaps less egregiously so.) Oftentimes, the “learned” synonyms coexist to this day with plainer English words—in some cases making the latter ones “quaint” and “archaic”.

Of course, words were absorbed later from English colonies (veranda, pajama,…) and from foreign professionals (e.g., many nautical terms in English are Dutch imports, like schooner, lee, starboard, keel,…) But in the larger scheme of things, these have affected only English vocabulary, and only at the sub-percent level each.

Structurally and in core vocabulary, English is and remains a Germanic language that just happens to merrily assimilate extended vocabulary from any and all sources — the two main ones undeniably Romance. I really like McWhorter’s term “Magnificent Bastard Tongue”.

Finally, there are researchers who have sought to quantify the degree of kinship between languages — see, e.g., this non-paywall overview paper by Maurizio Serva. The metric used is typically the Levenshtein Distance between lists of the most frequently and universally used words  — these 100-word or so “I have a little list”s are still an order of magnitude smaller than the 1,000-word corpus mentioned above. A “family tree” of Indo-European languages constructed in this matter firmly places English in the Germanic group—nearest to the Scandinavian languages, in fact. This is Fig. 1 from Serva’s paper:




Language registers, diglossia, and the Greek language struggle

Many languages are spoken in different registers for different levels of formality. For instance, Martin Joos recognizes the following five “registers” in English:

  • Static: the most formal register reserved for laws, contracts and other legal documents, religious ceremonies. Highly reliant on fixed (static) phrases, which may be archaic in their wording;
  • Formal: one-way participation (nonfiction book, academic article, lecture). Most extensive vocabulary, precise/pedantic use of technical vocabulary, precise definitions;
  • Consultative: two-way professional communication, e.g., teacher/student, senior/junior researcher, doctor/patient,…;
  • Casual: ordinary informal speech;
  • Intimate: between close family and friends. Nonverbal communication (gestures, facial expression), intonation, and private/insider vocabulary and references may make speech hard to understand to an outsider.

English may have an enormous vocabulary, but it is a “weak-grammar” language. In languages with more complex grammars, the same five basic settings of course exist, but the distance between the registers becomes a matter of more than just vocabulary and the (dis)use of some formal expressions. For instance, in German, there is a noticeable difference — even in “High German” regions — between the standard literary language and the Mundart (spoken vernacular). In Flanders, older people still speak West-Flemish, Limburgish,… dialects to each other, while in formal settings even they will revert to standard Dutch (which used to be known by the rather politically incorrect name of ABN or Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands/Common Civilized [!] Dutch).

In extreme forms, the distance between Dachsprache (lit. “roof language”, umbrella language) and spoken vernacular may reach the point of diglossia — the coexistence of two distinct languages. In the parts of Germany closest to Holland, Plattdeutsch (Low German, or Plattdüütsch, if you like) coexists with standard [High] German (Hochdeutsch). In fact, the Plattdeutsch and Dutch dialects across the border are a classic example of a dialect continuum. In the Arabic-speaking world, different local vernaculars (e.g., Moroccan and Syrian Arabic) are sometimes not even mutually intelligible: hence, a permanent state of diglossia exists between the local vernaculars and their common Dachsprache, Modern Standard Arabic (based on the classical literary language).

Ancient Rome knew a similar state of diglossia, between the literary Latin that we learned in school and so-called Vulgar Latin (sermo vulgaris, i.e., common speech).[*] After the fall of the West-Roman Empire, provincial dialects of Vulgar Latin diverged into the separate languages we now call French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian,… (In fact, the very definition of a Romance language is its descent from Vulgar Latin.)

Without going down the rabbit hole of the evolution of ancient Greek, suffice to say that the classical (Attic) Greek some of us still learned in school existed in diglossia with Koine Greek (common/vernacular Greek). Unlike for Vulgar Latin, there is a substantial written corpus of written Koine Greek, above all the Christian New Testament and the Septuagint (the Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible/Tana”kh/Christian Old Testament).

Over time, with the rise and fall of the Byzantine/East-Roman empire followed by Ottoman and other foreign rules, Koine Greek evolved into the vernaculars of different parts of the Hellenosphere.

The emergence of Greek nationalism in the late 18th-early 19th Century culminated in  Ioannes Kapodistrias becoming the first Prime Minister (1827-1831) of a newly independent Greece. Obviously, the Greek nationalist intelligentsia was keen on establishing a standard Greek language — but which Greek language?

One school of thought, led by Greco-French linguist Ioannis Psycharis, argued in favor of refining and unifying the cluster of vernacular Greek dialects into one standard Demotiki Glossa (“people’s language”, i.e., Demotic Greek). Another school, led by Prof. Georgios Hatzidakis, considered Demotic to be little more than an argot and instead strove to create/reconstruct  an archaic, neo-Classical Greek which they called Katharevousa (“purifying” [form], originally conceived by Greek Enlightenment figure Adamantios Korais). Thus, they hoped to recapture the splendor of the ancient literary language in a modern idiom.

Tempers grew hot between the groups, occasionally reaching the level of literal fistfights rather than mere literary “battle” between Demotic and Katharevousa poets, authors, and playwrights. After the 1912-3 liberation of Macedonia and later the establishment of the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, the latter would become a stronghold of the Demotic faction, as against the Katharevousa faction at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.

One might naively expect the most conservative and nationalistic element of society to have embraced Katharevousa. In fact, things were not so simple: Psycharis himself was an early proponent of the Megali (Greater [Greece]) idea, and the at least somewhat anticlerical Korais associated both Demotic Greek and its direct ancestor Koine with the “corrupt” Byzantine church establishment. The pre-WW II dictator Metaxas appears to have favored Demotic, as he considered the complexity of Katharevousa to be an obstacle to his goal of cultural Hellenization of all minorities.

A third, pragmatic (ahem) middle view took hold in parts of the political establishment (most notably with the great Liberal politician Venizelos): namely, a form of institutionalized diglossia. As per Venizelos’s 1917 school reforms, early schooling of children would be in the much easier Demotic form, while once they advanced beyond the first few grades of primary school, the instruction would switch to the more demanding Katharevousa.

What tipped the scales permanently in favor of Demotic appears to have been the great influx of Greek refugees following the Greek-Turkish War and the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which both set the borders and mandated a forced population exchange.  Many of those refugees had spoken Turkish all their lives and needed to be taught Greek nearly or completely from scratch. The obvious approach, if they were to be acculturated quickly, was to teach them “easy Greek” first and “high Greek” later. “Later,” in most cases, never came.

One last push for Katharevousa was made during the Colonels’ Regime (1967-74): a 1972 official pamphlet dismissed Demotiki as a mere “jargon” that “doesn’t even have a grammar” but appears to have had limited appeal at best.

Upon the restoration of democracy, one final language reform took place. On 30 April 1976, Article 2 of Law 309  defined Modern Greek as:

.. the Demotic that has been developed into a Panhellenic instrument of expression by the Greek People and the acknowledged writers of the Nation, properly constructed, without regional and extreme forms.

and stipulated that it be the language of instruction in schools starting with the 1977-8 school year. Finally, the polytonic accent/diacriticals system was abolished in 1982.

This “Standard Modern Greek” (as linguists call it) is recognizably different from the classical language taught in European secondary schools. You immediately notice the “h” being dropped, the “eta” being pronounced as “i”/”ee” rather than nasal é, the “beta” almost invariably being pronounced as “v”, and in general a disregard of much of the declensions, cases,… and other grammatical intricacies that those of us who went to a continental European Atheneum or Gymnasium, or a British “public school”, wracked our brains learning.

All the same, proponents of Katharevousa won the argument in one major area: the replacement of foreign loan words in Demotic by “native” Greek neologisms (ahem). A computer, for instance, became ypologistí in Standard Modern Greek, a router dromologití, and a printer an ektypotís  (unless you mean the profession, which is a typographos).

This latter phenomenon has a parallel in modern Hebrew. Going back to the first modern Hebrew lexicographer, the intrepid Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, linguists tried to coin Hebrew neologisms for modern concepts and artifacts that Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew had no words for, rather than import foreign loan words. This process (to which I will dedicate a separate blog post) continues to this day at the hands of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. Some of these coinages are universally accepted (machshev/thinking machine for computer, tzag or masach for display or screen, monit for taxi, kinor for violin, …), others never caught on (sach-rachok, itself a calque of the German Fernsprecher, never displaced telefon), yet others coexist as formal terms with informal vernacular (meteg with the English “switch” [in IT contexts] or the German Schalter [for a light or power switch], teka with the German Stecker [plug], natav with “router”,…)  [**]

And of course, the French Language Academy succeeded in displacing (at least outside slang) “franglais” terms like “le computer” with “l’ordinateur”, “le printer” with “l’imprimante”, “un file” (the English word, not the French for a traffic jam) with “un logiciel”, etc. and even “Email” by “courriel” (a portmanteau of “courrier électronique”) …


[*] Vulgus=the common people, hence the derogatory meaning of “vulgar” (EN) or “vulgair” (NL, DE, FR,…) in other languages.

[**] Amusingly, native Israelis often stare at me when an immigrant like myself refers to “do’al” (short for doar elektroni, the proper word for Email) instead of “mail”…


Cato the Elder: ancient Rome’s broken record and his famous use of the gerundivum

Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 BCE), generally known as Cato the Elder or Cato the Censor, was a Roman soldier, senator, and statesman at the time of the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage.

He was famous (or notorious, depending on one’s point of view) for interjecting into every speech, regardless of the subject — even if it were the price of vegetables, so to speak — the phrase:

Ceterum censeo Carthaginem delendam esse

(often slightly ungrammatically misquoted as)

Ceterum censeo Carthago delenda est

In plain English: “Otherwise, I opine that Carthage is to be erased”. Countless Latin students remember this phrase, as it is a memorable example of the Latin gerundivum — a form of the verb that indicates necessity, timeliness, or desirability of an action. Another, more prosaic example: bibere = “to drink”, nunc est bibendum = “now it’s [time to] drink”.

The phrase “Carthago delenda est” (Carthage is to be erased) would be grammatical on its own, but in the original, the entire phrase is the direct object of the verb “censeo” (I opine, I hold, it is my opinion) and hence has to be in the accusative case.

People who barely remember anything about Cato or the Punic wars may remember two things about the era: Hannibal’s elephants and Cato’s “broken record phrase”. The latter is sometimes paraphrased in jest, as “Ceterum censeo ___ delendam esse” (substitute Barney the dinosaur, Hollywood, …)





On consciously and unconsciously knowing


A Facebook friend of mine, very articulate, a sharp thinker, and with multiple academic degrees in “hard” subjects, was discussing his frustration with only speaking one language, and even so, “don’t ask me about the rules of grammar. On good days, I know what a gerund is.”

Now his written communication is always flawless in spelling and grammar, so he clearly knows how to apply grammar — which illustrates the difference between knowing something and knowing the words for it. Or, if you like, between having internalized a skill and being able to explain it.

Richard Feynman, in “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” recalls how his father taught him that knowing the name of, say, a species of bird in several languages still doesn’t teach you anything about  the bird. That is true enough, of course, except for one thing — if I know what the bird is called, I can go look it up — trudge to the library for the Britannica or a handbook of ornithology when I was young, or just search in Google or Wikipedia nowadays.

I write a fair amount of highly technical nonfiction in my day job — well enough that I’ve been asked to teach others — and frankly didn’t consciously know any of the grammatical rules until I realized I was able to teach people how something was done, but not why. “This is how it goes, it just sounds wrong otherwise, don’t ask  why,” isn’t how thinking people like to be taught. Consequently, I was forced to hit the textbooks myself just so I could “tell people what the bird was called so they could look it up”. I imagine this is a similar situation to people who are self-taught as jazz or rock musician but need to go learn theory just so they can be more effective teachers.

In an interview shortly before he passed away, the legendary jazz trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis reminisced about a meeting with Jimi Hendrix, planning a recording session that sadly never came to pass due to Jimi’s untimely death. He recalled mentioning a “diminished seventh chord”, and Jimi looking blank. He then took his trumpet and arpeggiated the four notes — Jimi of course immediately played the chord that he’d never known the name of. In fact, Jimi would have stared the same way at the mention of a “major-minor chord”, a.k.a. “dominant seventh-sharp ninth chord” — even though it’s nowadays often referred to as the “Purple Haze chord” or “Hendrix chord” due to its prominent use in one of Jimi’s best-known compositions.

Hendrix “spoke music like a native”, but didn’t consciously know the grammar, if you like — he just could apply it in his sleep. A very different intuitive musician, Evangelos Papathanassiou — world-famous among electronica and soundtrack lovers by the Greek nickname Vangelis — had classical piano lessons but never properly learned to read music: blessed with a prodigal ear and memory, he could reproduce what his teacher showed him just fine. While he apparently took some college classes in music (as did his more meditative German college, Klaus Schulze), he kept an intuitive, “feel” attitude toward music his whole life. When an interviewer in Keyboard magazine asked him how he composed, he answered tellingly: “it’s like breathing: if you think about how to breathe, you choke”.

Now while some of Vangelis’s more ambitious compositions (such as “Heaven and Hell”) clearly draw inspiration from Western classical music (Klaus Schulze even wrote a brief orchestral fugue in the studio version of “Ludwig II”), it would be hard for a musician to “function” in the classical world without the musical equivalent of “knowing your grammar”. (To be sure, at least one famous classical organist needed to learn most of his repertoire by ear — Helmut Walcha had been totally blind since age twelve — but he surely knew his theory, and taught for many years at the Frankfurt Conservatory.) Likewise, in some of the more ambitious, through-composed realms of jazz and progressive rock, a thorough conscious knowledge of music theory is a great asset—though you may be able to get by just fine with an unconscious one, as long as your fellow band members are comfortable learning by ear.

Conversely, knowing the rules without being able to apply them in real time may get you a job as a critic, but won’t get you far as a musician — or a writer.



Abstraction layers and learning

The other day I heard an interview (in French) with electronic music megastar Jean-Michel Jarre (who is, incidentally, the estranged son of film composer Maurice Jarre and the ex-husband of actress Charlotte Rampling).

Paraphrasing one segment of the interview from memory: “Some people tell me that electronic music is abstract. On the contrary! Especially with analog instruments, it’s visceral, hands-on. I twist this knob or push that pedal, and I immediately hear the sound change in response. It’s classical music that is more abstract! They play off a score, which is an abstract representation of the music.”

Bingo. To borrow a term from information technology, the score is one “abstraction layer” above the music. A jazz music “lead sheet” would be one more abstraction layer above: it specifies the lead melody, the chord progression, and the meter — and the details on how to translate the progression into notes are left to the performer!
The next higher abstraction level is sometimes seen when experienced musicians are jamming together, and all the lead player needs to say is “slow 12/8 blues in G minor”: everybody else knows what to do and fills in the details on the fly, according to their best musical judgment. (Fixed chord progressions like “the blues” as improvisational frameworks are not a recent invention: suffice to mention “La Folia” in Renaissance and Baroque contexts.) An Indian raga is, likewise, a meta-structure for improvisation.

A paradigmatic example of abstraction layers in information technology — one that many readers will be familiar with — are network addresses. Individual network cards have a permanent, unique “MAC address” or “hardware address”, six bytes in hexadecimal notation: something like 4c:33:73:9d:40:42 We do not use such addresses directly to send Email or access web servers though, since everytime a server or even network card would go on the fritz, you’d have to update directories.
So one abstraction layer above that, we have the numerical addresses of the form These can be defined manually on a device, or (this is what happens in most home WiFi networks) assigned using a DHCP (dynamic host configuration protocol) service. You replace a server or swap out a network card? Update the DHCP configuration table, and you’re good to go.
But if you moved to another provider, you’d still have to change addresses. Or you may have so much traffic that you need to deploy multiple servers, and load-balance traffic between them. Which is why we have yet another abstraction layer above that: the more conventional, human-readable addresses like or A domain name server (DNS) keeps track of which name corresponds to which number (or knows which other DNS to ask if it can’t resolve the query from cache), and hence you only need to deal with the “link”: you can leave the concrete details on how to translate this into an actual connection to the “abstraction layers” below.

The above puts me in mind of the laments of a friend of mine (a college lecturer in a humanities subject) about the atrocious writing of his students. Effectively, he says, the students have only learned the English language by imitation: they parrot words and phrases, rely on their spelling checker to fix spellings (sometimes coming up with unintentionally hilarious malapropisms as they do so), and often display a disregard for grammar and syntax that has non-native speakers like myself flabbergasted. The thing is, grammar and syntax are abstraction levels above the words: they can be learned by immersion — but that would have to be by “neural network training” from a very large corpus of high-quality written text. (I frankly didn’t know most of the grammatical rules in English consciously — but could apply them just fine on autopilot, as I’d been a voracious reader from a young age. Only when I found myself needing to explain edits to scientific papers — and of course learned that “it sounds wrong otherwise” is not an acceptable answer to thinking people — did I end up hitting the grammar and usage books.)
Prose style and essay structure are, of course, yet further abstraction levels above. But the problem is much broader than language: at one research institution where I was a guest faculty member, I saw distressing levels of learning by imitation in the lab — newer grad students basically being shown “this is how it goes” by the older ones. Now if this is just a matter of “kickstarting” then this is fine — the real problem was that only a few had any desire to actually understand what they were doing. (This became painfully clear when they attempted to write a paper — which in practice usually boiled down to compiling tables and graphs as required, and the professor or his amanuensis writing the actual paper—or rewriting the sorry excuse for a manuscript so thoroughly as to qualify as writing from scratch.)

Pretty much everybody who lives near a Jewish community has heard of Chabad (a.k.a. the Lubavitch movement): Chabad (חב׳׳ד) is, however, originally the Hebrew acronym for a much broader concept: the three levels of understanding. This is how I see them outside a religious context.
D (ד) stands for the lowest layer: da’at ([factual] “knowledge”)
B (ב) stands for the layer above: bina (“insight”) or, if you like, analytical understanding. That which is required for the higher “abstraction layers” of learning.
Ch (ח) stands for the highest layer: chochma (“wisdom”), or, if you like, synthetic understanding, creativity. The levels of “meta-insight” that allow you to apply the structural principles of that which exists, for creating something new.

Our current educational system effectively sacrifices insight on the altar of creativity (or, worse, the students’ self-esteem) — while at the same time, perversely, ensuring that students only have quite shallow knowlegde by declaring a kind-of war on memorization at exactly the ages children most easily learn by rote. The end products are students that have never progressed beyond some nuts-and-bolts knowledge picked up by imitation—and even that is not to be taken for granted.

The system stunts students while claiming to empower them, and it boosts a brittle, hollow self-esteem that shatters on the first contact with reality. It “creates a desert, and calls it peace.” Or self-esteem, “or something”

Origin of a famous literary put-down: not Balfour


I remember seeing the following priceless put-down in a review:

There is much here that is new, and much that is true. However, the true stuff is old hat, and the new stuff is false.

This appears to have been a paraphrase. Winston Churchill, in Great Contemporaries (London & New York, 1937) p. 250 quotes Arthur Balfour as having said:

…there were some things that were true, and some things that were trite; but what was true was trite, and what was not trite was not true…

Did Balfour actually say this? A similar phrase, in a different context, appears in an 1877 theological tract called “The Down Grade” by the English Baptist preacher Robert Shindler, published in his friend and mentor C. H. Spurgeon‘s journal The Sword and the Trowel (March 1887, p. 122):

But commonly it is found in theology that that which is true is not new, and that which is new is not true.

Tthe “Prince of Preachers” Spurgeon was legendary in his day and remains influential in Baptist circles to this day. It is quite possible that Balfour read the tract and absorbed the original phrase from there.

Happy Chanuka!


Why Romance languages aren’t “gender-neutral”

Somebody forwarded me a derposaurus item about the “sexism” of the French language. The argument, such as it was, primarily proves Orwell’s Law, but an interesting linguistic curiosum occurred to me. Why does French have no neuter gender, and neither do Spanish and Italian — while their common ancestor Latin clearly does?

English, of course, has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. The gender of English nouns is also extremely regular: pretty much every inanimate object or concept is neuter. (In literary and poetic usage, countries or (star)ships can be female.) Compare German, which also has three genders. (Neuter gender is actually called sachlich, lit. thing-like, objective, business-like in German.) Who would have guessed that a carpet is male (der Teppich), a page is female (die Seite) — as is physics (die Physik) — while a boat is neuter (das Boot). [There are actually some, fairly complex, rules that allow you to guesstimate correctly about 4 out of 5 times. More here.]

In Hebrew (or Arabic), for instance, there is no neuter gender, so anything is male or female. As a rule, in Hebrew, unspecified gender defaults to male. So a dog is a kelev, plural klavim — except if you want to specifically point out it’s a she-dog, then kalba (which also can mean “bitch” as a pejorative), plural kalbot. A donkey is a khamor, except if you specifically mean a she-ass, atonAvot (the plural of av) literally means “fathers” but also can generally mean “ancestors” of both genders.

Back to French now, and Romance languages in general. Classical Latin obviously had three genders. In nouns of the second declension, they are quickly identified by the endings -us for male (dominus, domus), -a for female (domina, ancilla), -um for neuter (museum, ferrum). But of all the major Romance languages, only Rumanian seems to have a neuter gender at all — and even that is a strange beast that behaves like male in the singular and female in the plural. What gives?

The thing is: Latin existed in different “high”/formal/literary and “low”/informal register variants, and the differences were so pronounced that they amounted to two dialects of the same language. (Linguists call this situation diglossia. It is also seen with classical vs. demotic Greek, Sanskrit vs. Prakrit, and — in the modern era — literary Arabic vs. its regional dialects.) The classic Latin works we learned in high school were all written in easier or more difficult forms of classical Latin: the language spoken (and to some extent written) by the common people (Latin: vulgus) was called vulgar Latin. All Romance languages descend from vulgar Latin, rather than classical literary Latin.

Typically, the informal language variants have a simplified grammar compared to the literary form. For example, this is the case with spoken informal German (Mundart, lit. “the way of the mouth”) vs. the written language, and with “street Hebrew” vs. the formal language (e.g., the use of “[noun] sheli” for the possessive instead of inflecting the noun). Vulgar Latin was no exception to this rule: among other things, the neuter gender was absorbed into the masculine.


Et voilà. As vulgar Latin fragmented into dialects, which ultimately evolved into Old French etc., those descendants retained the binary gender.

In contrast, while classical Greek existed in a similar state of diglossia, both classical Attic Greek and demotic Greek had three genders —  and hence modern Greek (which descends from Demotic) retains the neuter gender.retains it as well, even if many other grammatical features of literary Greek were discarded.


Who first said: “We must keep an open mind, but not so open that our brains fall out”?

I have heard the quote in the title attributed to all sorts of people, ranging from mathematician Alan Ross Anderson to Mark Twain to Prince Charles [OK, the sophomoric jokes write themselves]. But who really said this?

Quoteinvestigator did the legwork and also cites another article researching the origin of the quote.

Let us keep our minds open, by all means, as long as that means keeping our sense of perspective and seeking an understanding of the forces which mould the world. But don’t keep your minds so open that your brains fall out! There are still things in this world which are true and things which are false; acts which are right and acts which are wrong, even if there are statesmen who hide their designs under the cloak of high-sounding phrases.

— Walter Kotschnig November 8, 1939

Now, who is Walter Kotschnig? This American academic and diplomat of Austrian-Jewish origin has a fairly detailed bio in the German-language Wikipedia, but none in the English version. A brief summary:

He was born in the historical town Judenburg in Steiermark/Styria, Austria as the son of a school principal. The town name is first documented in 1074: it was an important commercial center at the time and, as the name suggests, had a significant Jewish community (which was expelled in 1496). During the Third Reich, there were attempts to change the “embarrassing” name, but a decision was postponed until after the “Endsieg” (final victory), which thank G-d never came.

Kotschnig started his university studies in nearby Graz. As he became ill with tuberculosis, he was briefly cared for by an American relief organization based in the Netherlands: the experience made him passionate about international collaboration. Upon obtaining his doctorate in political science at the U. of Kiel, Germany in 1924 and marrying (to psychologist Elinid Prys), he took a position with the International Student Service in Geneva, and from 1927 until 1934 served as secretary-general of the organization. Subsequently, he worked for the League of Nations (the interbellum predecessor of the UN) as director of the High Commission for German Refugees. In 1936 he emigrated with his family to the USA, where he took up teaching positions at two of the “Seven Sisters” women’s colleges, Smith College and Mount Holyoke. In addition, he published scholarly papers on education policy planning. He became a US citizen in 1942, published a book with proposals for democratic education reforms in formerly fascist countries, and in 1944 was involved in the planning of the Dumbarton Oaks conference, which was the cradle of the UN. In 1947 he became the head of the International Organizations desk at the US State Department, to eventually rise to the position of Assistant Secretary of State (1965-1971).

At any rate, on November 8, 1939, he gave a speech at Smith College in honor of the upcoming Armistice day, where he made the above remark. The manuscript of his speech has been found in his collected papers at SUNY Albany.

The speech was later reported on in an article in the Smith Alumnae Quarterly [“Chapel and Assembly Notes”, Vol. 31(2), p. 153 (1940)] where the quote first appears in print in that form.

Tim Farley in his article does, however, note an earlier quote in a Yale Law Journal article by law professor Max Radin, “On Legal Scholarship,”  ) that may have been a direct inspiration.

[Practical gentlemen] have a number of bitterly sarcastical comments on persons whose minds are so open that their brains fall out.

Radin may have borrowed it in turn from somebody else, but Kotschnig is clearly the first documented person to use the quote in substantially its present form.


Palookas, palookaville, the palooka party, and etymology of the word


Commenter “buzzsawmonkey” posted the following in a discussion on PJMedia. Agree or disagree, the metaphor is rather colorful.

“The Republicans are what Orwell called “a permanent and pensioned opposition.” They are the inflatable doll in the passenger seat that enables the Democrats to drive in the carpool lane.

More properly, they are the Palooka Party. They see their role as taking dives for the Democrats for the guaranteed short money, as a palooka fighter in a 1930s pulp-fiction story would take a dive for [the] kid being groomed by the gambling syndicate for a shot at the title. The Republicans’ job, as palookas, is to make it look good—put up a flurry of opposition before getting showily knocked out in the sixth round.

Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan don’t want to govern—nor do the other palookas in their party who voted to put them where they are. They want to go back to the safe business of taking dives for the guaranteed short money.”

The last sentence echoes this quote from the movie “On The Waterfront” (1954):

Terry: It wasn’t him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, “Kid, this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson.” You remember that? “This ain’t your night”! My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money.

Charlie: Oh I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.

Terry: You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. […]

The word “palooka”  appears to have been coined in the 1920s by Variety sports writer Jack Conway, as a term for “a mediocre prizefighter”. Wikipedia (caveat lectorclaims it was derived as a kind-of spoonerism from the ethnic slur “Polack”. However, the talk page for the article suggests a much more plausible etymology: the Italian word pagliuca (a Southern dialect diminutive of paglia=straw or chaff), i.e. “little straw [guy]”. It’s hardly a stretch to assume that Mafiosi engaged in match-rigging would have referred to the designated loser as a pagliuca —which an English speaker unfamiliar with Italian would have transliterated as something like palooka.

A more modern form of “designated loser” would be the Washington Generals against the basketball exhibition team, the Harlem Globetrotters. Indeed, that very metaphor can be found online in a US political context, in both directions.


Colorful Dutch idioms and expressions, Part 3

In the final installment of this series, a few more expressions that didn’t make it into Part 1 and Part 2, most of them inspired by the animal kingdom.

Waiting for roast chickens to fall into your mouth. (wachten tot de gebraden kippen in je mond vallen.) Awaiting success and prosperity without making adequate effort toward them.

Which the dogs won’t eat bread of. (Waar de honden geen brood van lusten.) Said of an acrimoniously worded letter or speech, etc.

Having as much understanding of [something] as a cow of eating saffron/of painting. (Evenveel verstand van [iets] hebben als een koe van saffraan eten/van schilderkunst.) Knowing jack all about [something], being clueless about [something].

[looking] Like a cow that sees a passing train (als een koe die een trein ziet voorbijrijden): (1) looking clueless; (2) being taken by surprise, “like a deer in the headlights”. (More Flemish/”Zuidnederlands” than standard Dutch usage.)

Two guys and a horse’s head. (Twee man en een paardekop.) A[n audience/turnout of a] handful of people; ten people and a dog. Also “one and a half guys and a horse’s head” (anderhalve man en een paardekop).

[That fits/matches] like pliers and a pig. (Dat past als een tang op een varken.) Spectacularly, garishly mismatched.

Like a dog [walking though] a bowling game. (Als een hond in een kegelspel.) Unwelcome or unwanted; like a fifth wheel; spare organ at a wedding.

To send one’s cat. (Zijn kat sturen.) Not showing up.

Sparing the cabbage and the goat. (De kool en de geit sparen.) Having one’s cake and eating it too.

Forward the goat! (Vooruit met de geit!) Get on with it!

You can’t pluck a bald chicken/You can’t skin a pebble. (Je kan een kale kip niet pluimen/Je kan niet van men key het vel afstropen.) You can’t skin a stone/extract money from somebody who has none.

We’re lodged at the Monkey Inn. (We zijn in den aap gelogeerd.) We’ve been had/we’re hosed.

A donkey that poops money. (Een ezeltje dat geld schijt.) (1) a source of “rent”/easy money; (2) Ironically, the nonexistent finance of a fiscally unsustainable plan: “What’s going to pay for this, a donkey that poops money?”

That’s goat’s b-llocks. (Dat is kloten van de bok.) This sucks big time. [Dutch can get pretty graphic. “Kloten”/”b-llocks” plays a similar ‘all-purpose expletive’ role in Dutch as the f-word in English.]

Calling a cat a cat. (Een kat een kat noemen.) Saying it like it is, calling things by their name without sugarcoating.

When they want to beat a dog, a stick is readily found. (Als men een hond wil slaan vindt men licht een stok.) If they’re out to “get” somebody, they’ll find some pretext or another.

Little Barber must hang. (Barbertje moet hangen.) His fate’s already been decided: the trial is just for show, and even if he’s found innocent they’ll trump up another charge. From a parable in the classic 19th Century novel Max Havelaar by Multatuli (more in Dutch); said parable was itself inspired by a scene in Act IV of the German Enlightenment play “Nathan The Wise” by Lessing.

A more Pythonesque version:



He knows where Abraham found the mustard. (Hij went waar Abraham de mosterd gevonden heeft.) (1) He has the straight dope; (2) he knows what it’s all about. The “mosterd” is a corruption of the archaic Dutch word “mutsaard” for a pile of firewood (or shrub wood collected for the same purpose)—both of which appear in the Biblical story of the Binding of Isaac (Gen.22:1-19).


Colorful Dutch idioms and expressions, Part 2

The slightly more serious sequel to yesterday’s post.

Choosing eggs for your money. (Eieren voor je geld kiezen.) Choosing the best of a bad bunch; choosing the least unpalatable alternative. Compare French: choisir entre le mal et le pire.

Fitting a sleeve to something. (Een mouw aan iets passen.) Make something work; come up with a workaround for something.

Rowing with the oars you’ve got. (Roeien met de riemen die je hebt.) Making do with available resources; making the best of the situation.

[looking] Like a cow that sees a passing train (als een koe die een trein ziet voorbijrijden): (1) looking clueless; (2) being taken by surprise, “like a deer in the headlights”. (More Flemish/”Zuidnederlands” than standard Dutch usage.)

That’s still standing in children’s shoes. (Dat staat nog in de kinderschoenen.) This is still in its infancy; that’s not yet ready for prime time; that [technology] is “for early adopters only”.

Childhood diseases. (Kinderziekten.) Metaphorically, “teething troubles” of a new technology or device.

Hanging something off the big bell. (Iets aan de grote klok hangen.) Shouting something from the rooftops, publicizing something all over. From the days when church bells were rung to announce great tidings or calamities.

Turning over every dime. (Elk dubbeltje omdraaien, kwartjes in twee bijten.) Being very frugal.

Biting quarters in two. (Kwartjes in twee bijten.) Being excessively frugal (even by alleged Dutch standards).

Hopping out of the dance. (De dans ontspringen.) Escaping in the nick of time.

He’s been hit by the mill. (Hij heeft een slag van de molen gehad.) He’s a few sandwiches short of a picknick/a few bytes short of a valid checksum; he’s addle-brained.

[Tastes] like a little angel peeing on my tongue. (Alsof een engeltje over mijn tong piest.) Tastes awesome (usually said of beverages).

Living like G-d in France. (Leven als G-d in Frankrijk.) Living carefree and in the lap of luxury.

Living on a big foot. (Leven op grote voet.) Living high on the hog.

Putting the flowers out. (De bloemetjes buitenzetten.) Go out celebrating.

Holding a hand over someone’s head. (De hand boven iemand’s hoofd houden.) Covering for somebody, keeping somebody as a protégé.

Breaking a lance for somebody. (Een lans voor iemand breken.) Going to bat for somebody, standing up for somebody. From medieval jousting tournaments, presumably.

Putting somebody in the little sun. (Iemand in het zonnetje zetten.) Singling someone out for public praise.

Can be glued with a wet finger (is met een natte vinger te lijmen). Is very gullible. “Lijmen” (to glue) is also used metaphorically for “to butter up”.

When the shepherd is astray, his sheep will wander. (Als de herder verdwaalt dolen de schapen.) When leadership is weak or indecisive…

We’ve been kosher-slaughtered. (We zijn gesjochten.) Our goose is cooked; we’re done; we’re f—ed. From Yiddish shoichet or shechter [Jewish ritual slaughterer]. I will dedicate a separate post to the many Yiddish-derived idioms in Dutch.

Getting a fresh nose. (Een frisse neus halen.) Going out for some fresh air.

Always mourning and marrying. (Altijd rouwen en trouwen.) Life always has good and bad times; we have to take the good with the bad.

Sucking something out of his thumb. (Iets uit zijn duim zuigen.) Making something up out of whole cloth; pulling something out of his behind.

Cat in the box. (Kat in ‘t bakkie.) Easy-peasy.

Like a penny whistle. (Als een fluitje van een cent.) (1) Easy-peasy; (2) “like a walk in the park” [compared to something more serious].

It runs like off a slate roof. (Het gaat van een leien dakje.) Everything is going smoothly. Conversely: Het gaat niet van een leien dakje: this ain’t easy.

What do I have hanging off my bike? (Wat heb ik nou aan mijn fiets hangen.) What am I dealing with this time?

Needed like bread. (Broodnodig.) Highly necessary, crucial, essential. I remember a joke about some losing soccer team supposedly having hired two new Danish coaches: Høgnødig and Brødnødig.

Working oneself into nests. (Zich in nesten werken.) Getting oneself into trouble; getting caught up in (needless) complications. From what bird’s nests can do to the mechanics of a windmill.

Being well-beaked. (Goed gebekt zijn.) Being eloquent; having the gift of gab.

Too many notes in his tune (Teveel noten op zijn zang.) Making too many demands, too big for his britches.

When Easter falls on a Friday/When Easter and Pentecost fall on the same day/On St.-Juttemis [nonexistent].) (Als Pasen op een vrijdag valt/Als Pasen en Pinksteren samenvallen/Op Sint-Juttemis.) When Hell freezes over; never.

Getting Spanishly anxious. (Het Spaans benauwd krijgen.) From the Spanish occupation of the Lowlands in the 16th Century, culminating in the Eighty-Year War and the split between (Catholic) Flanders and the newly independent (Protestant) Netherlands.

The wages of the world are ingratitude. (Ondank is ‘s wereld’s loon.) Also: gratitude is a little flower that grows in few gardens. (Dankbaarheid is een bloemetje dat in weinig hoven bloeit.) Compare:

Colorful Dutch idioms and metaphors, Part 1

In honor of April Fools Day, here is a post on some colorful and/or humorous idioms in the Dutch language. The Dutch sense of humor is very earthy — often venturing into the unprintable, but not always so. Being historically a nation of seafarers and merchants, as well as of farmers reclaiming land from the sea, nautical, agricultural, and trade metaphors often recur in idioms.

Note I am not making any of these up, despite the day: Rest assured even the drollest idioms below were still in common use as I was growing up, and most of them still are.


Animals and agriculture

Talking about little cows and calves. (Over koetjes en kalfjes praten): engaging in smalltalk.

The odd duck in the raft (De vreemde eend in de bijt.) The odd man out.

Now the monkey pops out of the sleeve. (Nu komt de aap uit de mouw.): now we find out what’s really going on; now they show their true colors.

We’ll wash that little pig. (We wassen dat varkentje wel.): We’ll take care of that.

Watching for the cat to come down from the tree. (De kat uit de boom kijken.) Waiting for the other party to make a move. From the behavior of a dog who’s chased a cat into a tree.

Pleasing somebody with a dead sparrow. (Iemand blij maken met een dode mus.) Placating somebody with a concession or benefit of no real value.

You can get rid of your egg here. (Hier kan je je ei kwijt.) Here you can speak freely, say what’s on your mind.

That one won’t lay him any wind eggs. (Dat zal hem geen windeieren leggen.) This will be a lucrative investment. “Wind eggs”, i.e. eggs with missing or defective shells, obviously cannot be gathered and sold.

Now my clog is breaking. (Nou breekt mijn klomp.) Now I’m completely stumped, now I really don’t get it.

Why are bananas bent? (Waarom zijn de bananen krom?) Metaphor for a pointless question nobody needs to know the answer to. Also: Why does a donkey have two long ears? (Waarom heeft een ezel twee lange oren?)


The best helmsmen are always ashore. (De beste stuurlui staan altijd aan wal.) Those who don’t do always know better than you; those who can’t, teach.

Fishing behind the dragnet. (Achter het net vissen.) Being on a wild goose chase; wasting futile efforts. Like trying to fish behind a trawled dragnet, where there would be no fish left.

This adds no sods to the levée/dike. (Dit zet geen zoden aan de dijk.) This doesn’t help any/doesn’t add anything/isn’t helpful. A large portion of Dutch landmass has been patiently reclaimed from the sea since the Middle Ages, and dikes as well as windmills were a central part of that.


Handing out the sheets. (De lakens uitdelen.) Being in charge. From medieval days, when textile manufacturing was a cottage industry.

He didn’t eat any of that cheese. (Daar heeft hij geen kaas van gegeten.) He doesn’t know jack about the subject.

Wanting ringside seats for a dime/to sit in the front row for a dime. (Voor een dubbeltje op de eerste rij willen zitten.) Demanding or expecting an unrealistically good deal.

Getting a cookie of your own dough. (Een koekje van eigen deeg krijgen.) Getting a dose of your own medicine.

It’s for the baker. (‘t Is voor de bakker.) That’s essentially done/taken care of. (When the kneaded dough is handed to the baker, most of the work has been done.)

Every little cheese has its little holes. (Elk kaasje heeft zijn gaatje.) Nobody/nothing is perfect.


Struggling like a devil in a holy water basin. (Zich weren als een duivel in een wijwatervat.) Resisting like mad.

The bullet went through the church. (De kogel is door de kerk.): the decision has been made, the parties are committed. Historically, there was a tacit agreement that churches were not fired upon in battle: when this did happen, it meant the belligerent was going for broke.


Disappearing like snow under the sun. (Verdwijnen als sneeuw voor de zon.) Metaphor for supplies, resources, or cash reserves being depleted rapidly.

Tall trees catch a lot of wind. (Hoge bomen vangen veel wind.) (1) Successful people generate a lot of envy. (2) Tall poppies stick out and catch flak.

For free, you get the sunrise. (Voor niets gaat de zon op.) TANSTAAFL — There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.




“Deplorables” as a “geuzennaam” (linguistic reappropriation)

Today the 45th President of the United States will be inaugurated. I did not vote for him, and many of my friends voted not for him as much as against his opponent. I wish the new POTUS strength, guidance, and clarity of vision, as any POTUS has his work cut out for him right now.

His supporters, both the enthusiastic and the reluctant, are referring to themselves as “Deplorables”, or even, with a pun on a musical and classic novel, “Les Déplorables“. This is actually a classic example of “linguistic reappropriation” at work: Trump’s opponent, Hilary Clinton, had referred to Trump supporters — or indeed to the half of the country that doesn’t vote D — as “a basket of deplorables”. Trump supporters rallied around the insult and took it up as a “nom de guerre” (battle name). [I still believe that was the moment she lost the election.]

This phenomenon is actually quite old, and the Dutch language even has a word for such an insult reappropriated for self-identification: “geuzennaam“. The term goes back to the 16th Century, during the Spanish rule over the Lowlands.

In Brussels, on April 5, 1566, a group of several hundred minor nobles marched to the palace of the Spanish governor, at the time Margaretha Duchess of Parma (an illegitimate daughter of Charles V), in order to present a writ of grievances against the Spanish administration in general, and its brutal repression of Protestantism in particular. (Protestant public sermons, so-called “hagepreken” [hedge preachings], were a capital offense.)

When the Duchess was upset at this disturbance — the wedding feast for her son being in progress at the time — her counselor, Charles de Berlaymont, is supposed to have said, “fear not, Madam, they are nothing but beggars” (N’ayez pas peur Madame, ce ne sont que des gueux.). The petitioners got wind of the term, and promptly called themselves “les Gueux” in French, “de Geuzen” in Dutch. The term stuck and quickly carried over to all opponents of Spanish rule. The bloody repression of the Geuzen by the Duke of Alba would bring on the Eighty-Year War as well as the Dutch Revolt (in which the modern Kingdom of the Netherlands was born).

Some prominent historical examples of “Geuzennamen” in English are “Tories” and “Yankees”. In Middle Irish, Toraidhe meant “outlaw, robber”, and the term was applied as an insult to English loyalists and royalists of various stripes. Somehow the name stuck, and since the 19th Century “Tory” is used by friend and foe to refer to a member or supporter of the Conservative Party.

In the US colonial era, “Yankee” was originally a derisive term for Dutch Americans. Several etymologies are possible: “Jan Kees” (pronounced Yan Case, informal name for “Johannes Cornelis” [John Cornel], two very common Dutch first names), “Janneke” (little John), a corruption of “Jonkheer” (Dutch for “squire”, cf. the German cognate Junker and the origin of the town name Yonkers, NY). During the American Revolution, the British and loyalists made fun of the revolutionaries as “Yankee Doodles”: the song (based on a much older melody) predictably became a revolutionary anthem, and is now a staple of the US military marching band repertoire. Later the term was, of course, reappropriated again…

“Redneck” is another such term. Originally it referred to the sunburns people with light skin color acquire when working fields in the Southern US without adequately protecting themselves from the sun (cf. the cognate Afrikaans term “rooinek” used by the Boers for South Africans of Anglo origin). It then became an insult to Southern whites and their allegedly retrograde ways, then was reappropriated by them as a self-identification.

Languages changes constantly — even as human nature is remarkably unchangeable. And speaking of change: Today we celebrate the end of what has arguably been the most dysfunctional and divisive presidency in the history of the US. As I wish his successor well, I do remember Pete Townshend’s classic lyrics:

I tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We won’t get fooled again…

Neologism of the day “peacock issues”

“Mr. Open Source Software”, Eric S. Raymond, penned this must-read open letter to the D party to please get its act together , lest they consign themselves to complete irrelevance.

I’m starting to be seriously concerned about the possibility that the U.S. might become a one-party democracy.

Therefore this is an open letter to Democrats; the country needs you to get your act together. Yes, ideally I personally would prefer your place in the two-party Duverger equilibrium to be taken by the Libertarian Party, but there are practical reasons this is extremely unlikely to happen. The other minor parties are even more doomed. If the Republicans are going to have a counterpoise, it has to be you Democrats.

Donald Trump’s victory reads to me like a realignment election, a historic break with the way interest and demographic groups have behaved in the U.S. in my lifetime. Yet, Democrats, you so far seem to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

The whole long essay is a must-read that I cannot do justice by selective quoting. Unfortunately it will fall on deaf ears among those who need it most.

In passing, ESR coins a new term:

Speaking of virtue signaling, another thing you need to give up is focusing on peacock issues […] while ignoring pocketbook problems like the hollowing out of middle-class employment.

Again, this advice has nothing to do with the rights or wrongs of individual peacock issues and more with a general sense that the elites are fiddling while Rome burns. For the first time since records have been kept, U.S. life expectancy went down during the Obama years, led by a disturbing rise in suicides and opiate addiction among discouraged unemployed in flyover country. A Democratic Party that fails to address that while it screws around with bathroom-law boycotts is willfully consigning itself to irrelevance.

“Peacock issues” are related to Thomas Sowell’s use of the term “mascots” and to “virtue signaling“, as ell as to the psychological concept of a proxy. They are issues that affect only a very small number of people (and that could be addressed ad hoc with fairly little effort) but are priceless as feathers to preen, and flags to wave to ‘rally the troops’ and instead push a sweeping agenda. Any actual benefit to the people involved in the peacock issues is secondary, if not outright irrelevant.

The use of “peacock issues” is of course not limited to the Brahmandarin political left  — they have just become egregiously addicted to the tactic in recent years.


Forget “antisemitism”: call it what it is, “judeophobia”

Arab and Islamic apologists have in the past tried to claim that they cannot be anti-Semites, since they themselves are Semites. Of course, the word was originally coined by the German anti-Jewish agitator Wilheim Marr as a pseudoscientific-sounding alternative for “Judenhass” (Jew-hatred), when he founded his Antisemitenliga in 1879. Marr was only concerned with Jews and not at all with any other Semitic people, and in practice the word has never meant anything other than bigotry against Jews. 

I have always preferred the unambiguous alternative “judeophobia”. My daughter wondered if it was patterned on the word “homophobia”. In fact, the word “judeophobia” was first proposed in 1882 by the physician and proto-Zionist activist Leon Pinsker, in his pamphlet Selbstemanzipation (Auto-Emancipation):

A fear of the Jewish ghost has passed down the generations and the centuries. First a breeder of prejudice, later in conjunction with other forces we are about to discuss, it culminated in Judeophobia.[…]

Judeophobia is a psychic aberration. As a psychic aberration it is hereditary, and as a disease transmitted for two thousand years it is incurable.

He goes on to explain the irrational character of judeophobia (a phobia, medically speaking, being exactly that: an irrational fear), its foundation on superstition, and the futility of any attempt to “cure” people of it by rational argument. He then goes on to make the same case as Theodor Herzl would so famously do fifteen years later.

Pinsker has been nearly forgotten outside Israel and well-read Zionist circles (as he never commanded the readership and contacts of Theodor Herzl) but he is remembered by the many Pinsker Streets in Israeli towns.




OUP neologism of the year: “unfriend/defriend”

See here. (As in “defriend” on FaceBook.) Several political neologisms made the shortlist, such as “birther” , “death panel”, and… “teabagger”, where the editors clearly needed to be told that this term is actually a sexual slur popularized by Tea Party opponents.

Kosher computers and happy Purim!

Here is another of the many hi-tech inventions to come out of Israel recently:

So you wanted a kosher computer?

I don’t know if you know this but they are now selling Kosher computers (Made in Israel) called DELLSHALOM. It is selling at such a good price that I bought one. Mine arrived yesterday.

If you or a friend are considering a kosher computer, you should know that there are some important upgrades and changes from the typical computer you are used to, such as:

The cursor moves from right to left.

It comes with two hard drives–one for fleyshedik [meat] business software and one for milchedik [dairy] games.

Instead of getting a “General Protection Fault” error, my PC now gets “Ferklempt.”

The Chanukah screen savers include “Flying Dreidels”

The PC also shuts down automatically at sundown on Friday evenings [and Jewish holidays, presumably].

After my computer dies, I have to dispose of it within 24 hours.

The “Start” button has been replaced with “Let’s go!! I’m not getting any younger!” button.

When disconnecting external devices from the back of my PC, I am instructed to “Remove the cable from the PC’s tuchus”.

The multimedia player has been renamed to “Nu, so play my music already!”.

Internet Explorer has a spinning “Star of David” in the upper right corner.

I hear “Hava Nagila” during startup. Microsoft Office now includes “A little byte of this, and a little byte of that.”

When running “scandisk”, it prompts with a “You want I should fix this?” message.

When my PC is working too hard, I occasionally hear a loud “Oy Gevalt”

There is a “monitor cleaning solution” from Manischewitz that Advertises that it gets rid of the “schmutz und drek” on your monitor.

After 20 minutes of no activity, my PC goes “Schloffen.”

Computer viruses can now be cured with some matzo ball chicken soup.

The Y2K problem has been replaced by “Year 5761-5762” issues.

If you decide not to shut down the computer in the prescribed manner, the following message appears: “You should be ashamed of yourself.”

When Spellcheck finds an error it prompts “Is this the best you can do?

Happy Purim!

Neologism: “nom de bloguerre”

Over at C2, we had a discussion about Facebook, and I blurted out in passing that I did not do Facebook, neither under my real name nor under my “nom de bloguerre”.

“kenneth” and “Lucius Septimius” on the thread seemed to like this spur-of-the-moment neologism. It is really a portmanteau word of “nom de blog” (an established derivative of “nom de plume”, i.e., pen name) and “nom de guerre” (battle name). The main reason why the portmanteau works so well in this case is that “bloguerre” sounds like how a Frenchman would mispronounce “blogger” 🙂

I was sure many others had beaten me to it, but a Google search only revealed three hits on “nom de bloguerre”….

In case you are wondering why I have two “noms de bloguerre”: on C2 I registered as Finally Free, which I picked after joining the Lizard Diaspora. But after I registered this blog, it turned out there already was a “Finally Free” on, with a Christian-themed blog. Thus I became “New Class Traitor”, itself a portmanteau of “New Class” and “class traitor“.