So the other week, Anagram Manager was looking around for our chief tech officer (the Code Commander) to ask him a nerdy question. The question? Why the Save button still has a disk image even though there is no more floppy disk in the equation.
We talked about the idea of an item made to have characteristics that are old, expensive or obsolete...Turns out it's called a skeuomorph, which refers to the new object that has these features of the old. A tangible skeuomorph might be a metal cafeteria table with artificial wood finish, or a chandelier might have flame-shaped light bulbs. There is no functional use for the flame shape in a light bulb.
Skeuomorphism has also been applied to digital design – as a symbol that communicates something's function based on existing understanding. Fake knobs and sliders, fake textural backgrounds, etc.. mimic the real thing (This guy calls them digital metaphors).
The upside is that we recognize these objects in real life, so that we'd find it comforting or at least less abstract than some unrelated gesture. In Adobe InDesign, for print publishing, there are times when mousing over images in certain ways will give you focus semicircles like in the viewfinders of classic film cameras.
But instead of swiping your finger to turn the page, would it ever be OK to turn a dial? What if your clock showed time in the form of colored squares? What if instead of scroll bars, your browser showed you a less useful metaphor – such as a percentage, a scatterplot, or a game of hangman? It makes me wonder: First of all, what is the threshold of abstraction at which a metaphor does not communicate the creator's intent? Secondly, is the relevance or functionality of a metaphor socially constructed? Do we expect scroll bars simply because that's what's always been there, or are they really that logical? Thirdly, is abstractness relative? (Do different people feel differently about metaphors, influenced by our personal experiences with abstraction?)
Then again, skeuomorphs also take up space and provide functions that are sometimes unnecessary. Blogger and software developer James Higgs wrote in one of his posts, "I detest these new apps. Why? Simply put: it's because they are lies. They attempt to comfort us (to patronise us) by trying to show how they relate to physical objects in the real world when there is no need"... Here's more discussion about Apple software UI, written by the founder of MacStories.net.
When I moved from Texas to Seattle one summer in the late '80s, among other impressive sights was that of large numbers of geese on a Lake Washington beach and pier.
“Wow. Look at all those wonderful geese!” I exclaimed earnestly – and naively – seeing the birds for the first time. In my utter ignorance of the details of my new environs, I would make many other equally earnest and daft remarks, about raccoons for example (“How cute! Should we feed them dog food?”) and non-native blackberries (“Let’s plant some in the front yard too!”) my first few months in the Emerald City.
“Yes, Canada geese are partial to this spot,” said my companion.
“Shouldn’t it be ‘Canadian geese’?” I asked as politely as I could, trying not to sound too much like the pedantic English teacher that I sometimes unwittingly channel.
There you have it. Plus I looked it up in a bound dictionary (late ‘80s, remember?). Case closed.
The population of Canada geese in urban areas has increased over the past 25 years, and while I still smile when I see them – unlike when I see raccoons and blackberry bushes – I can’t say they truly impress me anymore.
But their name still does. Why isn’t it “Canadian geese” anyway? Was the person in charge of naming the species unfamiliar with the rules governing adjectival formation? It's probably not “the exception that proves the rule,” the handy default explanation of any and all linguistic and grammatical oddities. It's a no-fault and simple response if ever there was one, though it is certainly as unsatisfactory a response as the parental reply, “Because I said so.”
The flexibility and adaptability of the English language are some of its most endearing and exasperating qualities. Elementary school students in English-speaking countries – and students of English as a foreign language – are taught that the job of an adjective is to describe a noun or pronoun, and that an adjective usually comes before the noun or pronoun it is modifying: the “white house”, for example.
We are taught that colors are adjectives and taught how to recognize the adjectival forms of words we know; the noun adjective becomes the adjective adjectival, for example. In addition to the -al ending, other suffixes serve the same purpose of creating adjectives from existing words: -ing or –ed, e.g. interest + ing/ed = interesting, interested; -able/-ible, - ful, -ic, -ive, -less, -ous are all common adjectival endings, as is – (i)an, e.g. Canada + ian = Canadian.
Unpack your adjectives
So why not a Canadian goose? Well, one answer is nouns can themselves play the role of adjectives: a car race, a wedding dress, a grammar lesson. In all cases, the plural form consists of pluralizing the noun being modified: car races, wedding dresses, grammar lessons, Canada geese.
What about “notary public”, though? Isn’t the adjective, “public”, supposed to come before the noun?
Ah, well, that’s where the adverb “usually” [see above] comes in handy. While an adjective usually precedes the noun it modifies, it doesn’t always, our “notary public” friend being a case in point. Another example is “attorney general”, which refers to a practitioner of the law, not a high-ranking military officer.
The preferred plural form of these “postpositive adjectives” – Yes! We have proof positive: an entire subcategory of exceptions that prove the rule! – is usually (there’s that pesky adverb again…) created by making the modified noun plural: attorneys general, notaries public. Other examples include heir(s) apparent and poet(s) laureate. But, you guessed it, there are exceptions – for example, the correct plural form of professor emeritus is professors emeriti.
The seemingly simple function of the adjective as a descriptive complement preceding its subject was too simple, in fact, to be true. Since time immemorial – or at least since English could be classified as a language – from pronunciation to syntax, there have been examples aplenty of quirky “exceptions” to grammatical rules in the English language, and odd conventions galore.
The rules, subcategories and exceptions to the use and formation – and even pronunciation – of adjectives seem downright subversive, grammatically speaking, at times. We have, for instance, the adjective baked but it doesn’t rhyme with naked, nor does kicked rhyme with wicked, though of course blessed can be correctly pronounced two different ways...
Adjectives of many types have also been engaging in another subversive activity: replacing adverbs. Our mothers may have tried to instill in us the necessity of using adverbs such as slowly and badly instead of their adjectival cousins (it’s “You are walking too slowly!” not “You are walking too slow!” and “I think she performed badly” not “I think she performed bad”), but they failed in their efforts by following up the lessons with statements like “You did a real good job using adverbs instead of adjectives, honey. A real good job…”
When I decided to write an article for Glyph blog readers on the etymology of “serendipity”, I had no idea I would be entering into the study of a word whose origins were far less straightforward than I’d bargained for – and into the fray of some linguistic controversy…
The assertion that serendipity is notoriously difficult to translate from English into other languages will often turn up while conducting research on the word serendipity; “voted one of the top 10 most difficult English words to translate by a British translation company” is a ubiquitous passage on the web.
The translation company Today Translations had conducted a survey of translators to determine what they considered to be the most difficult non-English words to translate into English, and vice versa. The results of the survey were published in a 2004 The Times of London article by Robin Young, entitled, “The special words that are somehow lost in translation”. Here are the results reposted on a discussion thread of a forum.
For translators involved in English translation, serendipity was indeed among the top 10. Others included words used chiefly in British English, for example, googly (a term used in cricket), but a classic American culinary contribution made it on the list: Spam.
A word search
As I delved further into the origins and definitions of the word serendipity, I began to see how the word might have made the top 10 list...
In fact, my assumption was that serendipity’s etymology would be relatively easy and include the word “serene”. Perhaps the last half of the word “-dipity” might yield something interesting, something to do with the word “dip”, or perhaps, if I was lucky, something more mysterious, something that would have made the creators of the hair-styling gel of the 1970’s, Dippity-do, choose to name their product after it…
One search tells me that “serene” comes from the Latin serenus which means “cloudless”, and by extension, calm and peaceful. Another tells me that the English language gets its version from the Old French serain, meaning “dusk” from the Latin “sērus“, meaning “late”. Collins English Language Dictionary has “serein” as an entry in English and defines it as follows:
The fine rain falling from a clear sky after sunset… Sounds pretty serene, doesn’t it? And may even be a description of a serendipitous meteorological phenomenon. So let’s look a little more closely at the etymologies of two other possibilities, “sērus” and “serēnus”. From an email correspondence with Dr. Tyler Lansford, Classics instructor at University of Colorado at Boulder:
According to the Oxford Latin Dictionary, the etymology of serēnus ('clear', 'bright', 'fair', 'tranquil') is unknown. The short ĕ in the first syllable of serēnus means that it's etymologically unlikely that it's related to sērus (late). A possible cognate is the Greek xēros ('dry', as in 'xeroscape'), although the quantity of vowels (short versus long) is one of the most persistent characteristics in Indo-European words and is unlikely to vary between two cognates.
However, regardless of the origins of serēnus, serendipity’s etymology has neither Latin nor Greek roots, much to my surprise.
A vogue word
So where does the word “serendipity” come from? In this case, “where” ends up being the perfect question.
In fact, there is no real controversy surrounding the origins of the word. Horace Walthrop is credited with coining the term. From Wikipedia:
The first noted use of "serendipity" in the English language was by Horace Walpole (1717–1797). In a letter to Horace Mann (dated 28 January 1754) he said he formed it from the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, whose heroes "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of". The name stems from Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka (aka Ceylon), from ArabicSarandib, from Tamil "Seren deevu" or from SanskritSuvarnadweepa or golden island [...]
The controversy surrounding Walthorp’s formation, definition and usage of serendipity has perhaps best been described by Richard Boyle in a book review titled "Serendipity: How the vogue word became vague." Boyle, author of Knox's Words: A Study of the Words of Sri Lankan Origin, contends that the entry for serendipity in the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is lacking because it makes no mention of the key element necessary for a fortunate event to be an instance of serendipity. From the OED:
Pronunciation: /sɛrɛnˈdɪpɪtɪ/ Etymology: < Serendip, a former name for Sri Lanka + -ITY suffix. ...
The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. Also, the fact or an instance of such a discovery. Formerly rare, this word and its derivatives have had wide currency in the 20th century.
The missing element in the OED definition is that the “unexpected discoveries” need to occur “while looking for something else.” Otherwise, what distinguishes a serendipitous event from plain old luck?
Another key element of serendipity is essential to the end result of discovery, “sagacity”, or wisdom; if your mind is not alert to the possibility of there being value in something you’ve encountered while looking for something entirely different, you will not see it. While looking for India, Christopher Columbus unexpectedly ran into what would become known as the Americas; while culturing germs, Alexander Fleming inadvertently grew mold that would become penicillin (video below); while attempting to get my French “green card” [carte de séjour], I instead met my future husband.
The aforementioned examples roughly illustrate the contemporary understanding of the word. Now let’s look at the mention of serendipity and an example from the original story of the Three Princes, as transmitted by Walpole to Mann, where we are likely to meet with some confusion:
"As their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right - now do you understand serendipity?”
Uh, no. Please try again, Horace.
Horace, trying again…
"One of the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description) was of my Lord Shaftsbury, who, happening to dine at Lord Chancellor Clarendon's, found out the marriage of the Duke of York and Mrs. Hyde, by the respect with which her mother treated her at table."
That didn’t really help much, Horace. Thanks anyway.
In his review, Boyle quotes the authors of the book in question, The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science by Robert K. Merton and Elinor Barber: "The complexity of meaning with which Walpole endowed serendipity...was permanently to enrich and to confuse its semantic history."
So is serendipity what you thought it was? Do you have any serendipitous personal examples you’d like to share?
In 2006, I found a brilliant ad online that helped me explain to a group of Korean business folks that practicing the listening and pronunciation skills of a foreign tongue, in this case English, was an important, nay, vital element of language study. At times, as the humorous and well-known Berlitz ad illustrates so well, listening skills and correct pronunciation can be a matter of life and death.
The more advanced English language speakers in the group were tickled and convinced that they should spend more time building up both their speaking and listening skills; the less advanced speakers, like the German Coast guard trainee in the Berlitz commercial, wondered what the British crew members were “sinking about”, and why they sounded so excited about it – the British were meant to be quite calm and reserved, weren’t they?
A particularly astute student in the group of Koreans then thought to ask another question about something she’d heard in the ad: Why do English speakers use “May Day! May Day!” as a distress call? What does a day in May have to do with needing help? And isn’t May Day another way of referring to May 1st, in fact? Is the Maypole frightening?
Or maybe it’s frightening that May 1st is Labor Day and a holiday in most industrialized countries in the world, with the exception of the United States?
Actually, the quirky expression May Day as a call for help has nothing at all to do with the month of May. Usually written “Mayday”, it is defined by my Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language as follows:
n. the international radiotelephone distress signal used by ships and aircraft. [1925-30; < F (venez) m’aider (come) help me!]
Instead, Mayday is an attempt by English speakers to correctly pronounce a French expression; it is a transliteration of sorts.
The original French expression “Venez m’aider!” or “Come (to) help me!” became shortened to “M’aider!” The pronunciation of Mayday very closely replicates the sound of “M’aider!” (to help me). The imperative form “Aidez-moi!”, approximately pronounced “AY-day-mwah!”, might have had a harder time being so seamlessly integrated into the English language.
Be all that as it may, the month of May is indeed here. The Maypoles and May Day manifestations have come and gone for another year. But may all of you currently living in the Northern hemisphere enjoy the remainder of the month and all the other manifestations of springtime renewal that surround us. And may none of you have a reason to use the expression “Mayday! Mayday!” in the near future – except to share a bit of etymological trivia with friends.
In a 1998 interview, Marvin Minsky takes Noam Chomsky to task for the lack of good machine translation systems: "Prof Noam Chomsky is to be faulted why we don’t have good machine translation programs. He is so brilliant and his theory of generational grammar is so good, that for 40 years it has been used by everyone in the field, shifting the focus from semantics to syntax."
It is unlikely that any one person is to blame for the inadequacies of machine translation – or, conversely, to be praised for how much better it works today in 2011 than back in 1998.
In fact, despite its limitations, machine translation has improved so much that I began to wonder if I could use my browser's automatic machine translation to study other languages. How? Let’s use the Newspaper Index website as an example.
Newspaper Index is a simple, yet fascinating, collection of links to renowned international newspapers from all over the globe – and according to the ‘Why’ section on this website, its journalist creator needed such an index as a ‘tool in (his) daily work.’ "I collect and maintain links only to newspapers and publications containing local, free and independent news from each country in the world," he writes.
The website, does boast 72 countries in its list, though the official count is closer to 195 countries worldwide – changing to 196 in July 2011 when South Sudan became an official country. And there may be dispute as to whether or not all the countries listed would be considered ‘official’. Regardless, it’s an impressive list.
When I do a name search for any one of these publications, there is an ever-increasing number of offers of machine translation that automatically appear any time a webpage in a language, other than English, is displayed on my computer. Generally speaking, I am well aware that my search term will likely turn up on a page in another language.
For example, if I do a Google search for the Spanish word ‘nación’, I fully expect the resulting websites to be in Spanish. However, I am offered many opportunities to have a Spanish-to-English translation done. Perhaps because most of my interactions online are in English, the automatic offers for machine translation are ‘just trying to help’. I’ve stopped being offended at having my language choices being second-guessed, after all I really do appreciate it when spell-check programs create their own mistakes: “Showing results for noam chomsky linguistics. Search instead for noam chompsky linguistics”…
If I take a different route and take the auto-translate bait, I stumble upon something very interesting. If I choose the country France, for example, from the country list on Newspaperindex.com, and then select the French daily Le Monde, its online version will appear. Almost just as quickly, I’m told that the site is in French and asked if I want it translated into English. Choosing to translate the French to English, however, doesn’t make the French disappear entirely: when I run my cursor over a translated sentence, the original text appears in a pop-out speech bubble. Brilliant! That way I can ‘study’ an article in a different language, sentence by sentence. A short cut? Eureka!
But wait, I already know French…hmm…maybe that’s why it was so easy…
So let’s try Korean, of which I have a very rudimentary understanding. Basically, I can approximate the correct pronunciation of the phonetic writing system – Hangeul.
Going back to the Newspapers Index choice of 56 languages in which to view the list of 72 countries, I find and choose 한국어, which means “Korean language”.
Then, I accept the machine translation offer to translate the page into English for me and now see the list of countries in English. However, since the ‘original’ is in Korean, when I run my cursor over the country name Ghana, for instance, the Korean translation appears in a dialog box above it:
And so, I just learned the Korean for Ghana, 가나. I found a shortcut to language study, thanks to Google Chrome's translator! I’m confident that this is not the original intention of the programmers – nor is it a means to become fluent in a new language. But this machine translation tool clearly has an unintended benefit that I intend to take advantage of to further my language studies; this machine translation tool, combined with the access to the international newspapers provided by Newspapersindex.com, can facilitate my language study. All I have to do is use it.
Use it? Wait, maybe the ‘shortcut’ analysis of the situation was a bit premature…
The word ‘etymology’, in its most common usage, means the origin of a word. A quick web search offers a more complete definition:
The origin and historical development of a linguistic form as shown by determining its basic elements, earliest known use, and changes in form and meaning, tracing its transmission from one language to another, identifying its cognates in other languages, and reconstructing its ancestral form where possible.
The branch of linguistics that deals with etymologies.
For an example of the first definition, let’s take the word ‘ready’. Online Etymology Dictionary, notes the following etymology for the word ‘ready’:
O.E. ræde, geræde, from P.Gmc. *garaidijaz "arranged" (cf. O.Fris. rede, M.Du. gereit, O.H.G. reiti, M.H.G. bereite, Ger. bereit, O.N. greiðr "ready, plain," Goth.garaiþs "ordered, arranged"), from PIE base *reidh-. Lengthened in M.E. by change of ending.
If we were to translate the above abbreviations into more basic English, they would tell us that the origins of ‘ready’ are Germanic as opposed to Latin or Greek, and they include some fairly logical linguistic transformations both in meaning – e.g. ‘arranged’, ‘ordered’, ‘ready’, ‘plain’ – and in phonemic changes, for example, the fact that the letters ‘r’ and ‘d’ appear consistently throughout different forms.
But what about the word ‘etymology’ itself? What is its etymology?
Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language entry states the following:
L. etymologia, from Gk. etymologia, equivalent to etymology(os) studying the true meanings and values of words;etymo “true”, logos, “word”.
A logical derivation and explanation, and this time the roots are Greek. So does Modern Greek use a form of etymo? The answer is yes, but its meaning – not surprisingly – has evolved. It now means ‘ready’. Here are a few examples of the Modern Greek sentences followed by the English translation:
Ο καφές είναι έτοιμος
The coffee is ready.
Είμαι έτοιμος να φύγω τώρα
I'm ready to go now.
Ετοιμαζόμαστε για το δείπνο
We are getting ready for dinner.
The etymology of ‘ready’ includes the concept of ‘ordered’, while the Greek usage of etymo is now ‘ready’. The parts have shifted like musical chairs.
Dictionary.com defines "grinch" as "a person or thing that spoils or dampens the pleasure of others" and dates its origin between 1965 and 1970, "from the Grinch, name of a character created by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel)."
Indeed, the Grinch as we know him first appeared in the book "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" in 1957, followed, just under a decade later, by the animated film of the same name. However, the devoted Seuss fan would know that the word appears earlier in Seuss' 1953 book "Scrambled Eggs Super!," about Peter T. Hooper, a boy who collects eggs from a number of exotic birds to make scrambled eggs. One of these exotic birds is the "Beagle-Beaked-Bald-Headed Grinch," and he looks like a real sourpuss.
Could one therefore not surmise that the idea of a grouchy Grinch had been festering in the back of Seuss' mind for some time, surfacing now and again in name or in likeness, as so many classic Seuss characters whose lineage can be traced back through Seuss' earlier works from his advertising and cartooning days, before taking their final and enduring forms? It would seem quite plausible.
But back to our Grinch. His name is seemingly endowed with a perfect phonemic-semantic harmony: the sound "gr" connoting the very meaning of the word "grinch" itself–semantically tainted by so many English words beginning with a similar sound and denoting a similar idea of unpleasantness.
The Seuss corpus contains scores of words invented in a similar fashion. It is no surprise, then, that reputable sources trace the word back to the very imagination of the good doctor himself. However, it is quite possible that Dr. Seuss was influenced by a very similar French term, "grincheux."
The adjective "grincheux" comes from a dialectal form of the term "grincer," to screech, grind or squeak, and can be translated into English as "grouchy" or "grumpy." In fact, the French version of Walt Disney's Snow White, used "Grincheux" to translate the name of the similarly-tempered dwarf – Grumpy. Snow White debuted in France in the spring of 1938, shortly after its late 1937 release in the American market, some twenty years before "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." This is the French version of "Heigh-Ho!"
Perhaps Seuss heard the word "grincheux" during the time he spent in Paris in the 1920s after dropping out of Oxford. Perhaps he came across it at some other point. Perhaps it is simply a chance lexical coincidence. We may never know for sure. All we do know is that the Grinch has joined the ranks of Dickens' Scrooge as one of the most beloved humbugs in American Christmas tradition.
Cin cin! (pronounced cheen cheen) is used much like “Cheers!” in English when toasting, and it is an expression that has attained global recognition.
But a lot of people speculate about its origins (Read a travel forum discussion). Many English speakers consider the word to come from Italian, though some sources cite the usage of cin cin to be international and used “primarily in Italy and Libya.” The expression also made it into an Italian vermouth advertisement (near the end, in this case).
Various etymological explanations are in circulation; for instance, cin cin is said to be an onomatopoeia representing the sound of glasses touching. (Cin cin is also the sound of mice, according to this massive chart of foreign-language animal sounds).
Perhaps cin cin came to Italy via Portuguese sailors traveling back from the Orient, although certainly not from Japan because in the Japanese language, the expression pronounced “cheen cheen” [writtenちんちん ] is a childlike way of referring to the penis, according to a glossary entry near the bottom of this list. Any Italians toasting their Japanese counterparts with "Cin cin!" have probably brought many confused – then bemused – smiles to the faces of the Japanese folks present. “What exactly are we toasting to again?”
The most likely scenario is that it did come from the Orient, but specifically China – and even more specifically, ports where 18th-century British sailors frequently spoke Cantonese. The phrase, written as 請請 in traditional Chinese characters or 请请 in the simplified, is roughly pronounced ch'ing-ch'ing and means “please, please,” much as the Italian “prego, prego!” sometimes means “Please, go ahead!” Go ahead and drink, eat, etc. Perhaps non-Chinese speakers took it to mean “Cheers!”
Many Italians today consider its origin onomatopoeic, and it is possible that the sailors did as well. The pleasant, light sound of clinking glasses during a toast does seem like a perfect aural accompaniment: the eyes are satisfied looking at the drink in hand and the dinner guests; holding and sipping from the glass satisfies the sense of touch; the taste of the beverage pleases the tongue and the aroma pleases the nose. In the space of a few seconds, all five senses are engaged in a joyous shared endeavor.
Today, the well-wishing intent behind the saying is clear, regardless of its nebulous, pidgin Anglo-Italo-Luso-Sino origins. Cin cin!
Among the many marvels of Rome, one of the most remarkable – and least remarked – is the fact that the Latin language has been in continuous use there for at least 2,500 years. The following specimen – a commemorative plaque of a type frequent in Rome – furnishes a good example of both the difficulties and the riches to be encountered in the study of Rome’s Latin inscriptions. A glance suffices to render the difficulties instantly apparent: Aside from the fact that it is composed in Latin, only five words of twenty are written out in full; the rest are either abbreviations or symbols for numerals:
an sal m vd tiberis sereno aere ad hoc ― sig crevit non decembr alex vi p m an iii
In addition to its abbreviations the inscription includes a ‘nesting’ ligature that can’t easily be represented typographically (the C in the word HOC is inscribed within the O). Expressed in full, the text reads:
Anno salutis millesimo quadringentesimo nonagesimo quinto, Tiberis sereno aere ad hoc signum crevit Nonis Decembris Alexandri sexti Pontificis Maximi anno tertio.
‘In the one-thousand four-hundred ninety-fifth year of Salvation under clear skies, the Tiber rose to this mark, on the Nones of December, in the third year of Alexander the Sixth, Supreme Pontiff.’
Points of linguistic interest include the way in which Latin expresses dates: the Christian year is given in ordinal numbers (the one-thousand four-hundred ninety-fifth year). It is interesting to compare this style with our English equivalent 1495 (‘fourteen ninety-five’) – so immediately comprehensible yet so resistant to grammatical analysis. As for the day of the month, the inscription shows a hybrid of classical and medieval conventions. The ancient Romans cited dates with reference to three ‘cardinal’ days of the month – the Kalends, Nones and Ides; in December, the Nones corresponded to the fifth day of the month. The Romans would have cited this date as Nonis Decembribus (‘on the December Nones’ – the name of the month is an adjective in grammatical agreement with the word Nonis). The medieval convention, on the other hand, was like the English: to assign a number to each day of the month and to treat the names of the months as nouns. In a medieval inscription, consequently, it would usual to find this date expressed: Quinto die Decembris (‘on the fifth day of December’). In our present case, the ancient and medieval styles are combined: Nonis is classical while Decembris – a possessive form – is medieval; the formula reads: ‘On the Nones of December’.
The plaque on which the inscription appears is mounted on the façade of the church of Sant’Eustachio, located near the Pantheon. It serves as a reminder that through the many centuries before the Tiber embankments were built, the whole of Rome’s historical center was subject to periodic flooding on a scale comparable to the catastrophe on the Gulf Coast of the United States during Hurricane Katrina: we know, for example, that the catastrophic floods of 1530 and 1557 each caused some 3,000 deaths. As for Pope Alexander VI: he was the notorious Rodrigo de Borja y Borja – a Spanish cardinal who Italianized his name as Borgia. Before his election, he fathered four children on his Roman mistress, Vanozza Cattanei: Juan, Jofré, Lucrecia and César – the latter more familiar as Cesare Borgia, inspiration for Machiavelli’s Prince. Vanozza, for her part, went on to manage a very successful inn in a building just off Campo de’ Fiori: her bourgeois family arms – audaciously quartered with those of the aristocratic Borgia! – are still to be seen on a small cartouche mounted on the facade. Indeed, her very interesting epitaph survives to be read in the Basilica of San Marco … but that’s a story for another time.
Tyler Lansford is a co-owner of Glyph Language Services. He teaches Latin and Greek at the University of Colorado and maintains a blog on the Latin inscriptions of Rome (http://www.romeinscribed.blogspot.com).
Most native English speakers are aware of the Latin and Greek roots of many of our words. Though structurally speaking a Germanic language, in a linguistically happy consequence of the French invasion of England in 1066, a.k.a. the Norman Conquest, the English language would dramatically change. The adoption of French vocabulary would eventually double the actual number of English words, making it the arguably most lexically rich language in the world today. It is through this French connection that much, though not all, of English lexicon containing Latin and Greek language roots comes.
However, French and other Romance languages do not include vocabulary derived solely from Latin or Greek. Let’s look at another major cultural-linguistic contributor to the French, Spanish and English languages: Arabic.
What’s interesting about many of the words having Arabic roots is that most English speakers have no idea of their origins. Spanish is the European language containing the largest number of words traceable to Arabic (1000- 5000, according to many sources), thanks to another happy linguistic consequence—that of the Moorish invasion of the Iberian peninsula in 711, a.k.a. the Umayyad Conquest.
Sometimes the Arabic roots of words in Western European languages have taken on an entirely different meaning; for example, alcohol comes from the Arabic language الكُحولal-kuHuul,meaning “kohl,” a fine metallic powder used as a cosmetic to darken the area around the eyes.
Sometimes the words came into Spanish, French and English through Turkish;صفّةsuffa, bench in Arabic, gave us “sofa”.
Sometimes the Arabic words are themselves derived from Persian (بازهرbāzahr, “bezoar” – medical, veterinary term, indigestible material, often a hairball – from Persian pâdzahr) or Greek (الإكسيرal-'iksīr, from the Greek xērionplus “al” from the Arabic, now “elixir” in the major European languages). Sometimes there is a traceable link from the Arabic language to Sanskrit, e.g. نارنجnāranj, orange, from Sanskrit नारङ्ग(nāraṅga) = orange, and sometimes the words are hard to trace.
Because so much cultural and linguistic exchange has gone on for so many centuries amongst Indo-Mediterranean peoples, it is not surprising to find that even today we share many common words. Below is a very partial list of close “linguistic cousins” in 3 major European languages and in Arabic.
Enjoy looking for more global interconnectivity – lexical, cultural and otherwise!