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AWADmail Issue 587A Weekly Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Tidbits about Words and Language
From: Anu Garg (words at wordsmith.org)
On the boat to Miyajima island (literally, Miya island island), near the
stairs leading to the open air section on the upper deck, I came across a
sign that said "Smoking cessation" (photo).
Something about the sign didn't seem right. I theorized that the sign
could have meant one of three things:
I liked option 1. As one who is not particularly fond of secondhand smoke, I welcome any program that helps people quit smoking, even if it's on a ten-min boat ride. Option 2 was ruled out since I figured they would have chosen a simple "No" over a three-syllable "cessation", if that's what they meant. That left me with "Smoking section" which I'm glad was on the open-air upper deck.
Back in Seattle, I asked a Japanese friend and it turns out it does mean "No smoking". So much for over-analyzing a sign.
At any rate, reading English language signs is one of the delights of travel. From the sign on the door of a shop listing business hours followed by the term "Use it willingly" (photo) to a giant billboard exhorting us to "Life it!" (I couldn't capture a picture from a moving taxi).
In the gift shop of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, I came across a note on the door requesting visitors to "Please close a door" (photo). Outside a restaurant the attractive sign invited people to "Please enjoy some menu" (photo). In a temple, a sign near an exit explained that "It's possible to go out of here." (photo). Well, good to know.
In a shop, a sign near packaged food assured us that "I can preserve it at room temperature and do storable duration." (photo) I'm not sure what they meant by "No smorking in bed" (photo) but I don't smoke or snorkel (and certainly not at the same time), in or outside the bed, so no worries.
Some are best left unexplained. Consider these product names.
see the second listing on the sign), Here's another photo.
There's a bottled water with the brand name Sweat (photo) in one of those ubiquitous vending machines.
It's easy to discount how strong a word can be in a foreign language and blithely wear it on your hat. (photo).
While all these English signs may not be what we consider to be idiomatically correct language, it never held back the communication. I was reminded of it when I chatted with a retiree who now volunteers on the grounds of Hiroshima Castle. He showed me a eucalyptus tree that was hit by the nuclear blast but is now thriving. At the end of conversation he told me "Hate war, not hate people."
If an auxiliary verb or something was missing from that sentence I didn't notice it. What he said came through to me with perfect clarity.
From: Anu Garg (words at wordsmith.org)
More than 1300 readers responded to the shibboleth contest. It was truly difficult to choose winners from so many excellent entries. The prize-winners are:
So far as I know, native New Yorkers are the only ones who wait or stand
"on line" instead of "in line". This certainly wasn't a problem before the
Internet, but today can lead to some confusion! "I waited on line for half
an hour for this coffee!" "How do you get coffee through the Internet?"
They get to choose from the following prizes:
My favorite shibboleth in Vermont is "So don't I." It means "So do I." I
boarded an airplane and saw that someone was in my seat. I asked her what
seat assignment she had and she replied 2D. I said, "So don't I" and she
stood up immediately to take her correct seat, which was 2C.
Shibboleth...it is sad that some words never disappear, and how timely
is your publication of this word, as it is still happening even as I
type. Gunmen are still fighting in the mall in Nairobi, where 69 people
have died, so far, and it is not over. When the gunmen took their hostages,
they separated, Moslem, from non-Moslem, by using a shibboleth: What was
the name of the mother of the prophet Mohammed?
Local pronunciation for Norfolk is NAW-fuk -- to put it simply, if it
sounds dirty, you're saying it right.
In Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds
(video), someone impersonating
a German officer requested three beers by holding up his index, middle
and ring fingers. A real German would have used his thumb as 1, the
index finger as 2 and the middle finger as 3, and so he was found
The best known shibboleth in Holland would be Scheveningen, a small
town near The Hague. The word dates from the first days of May 1940,
when the Germans invaded our poor country, and was used to distinguish
between friend and foe. Germans were not able -- and I think they still
are not able -- to pronounce the "sch" properly with a "hard g", as we say
(too difficult to explain, now), but pronounce it as sh). The Americans,
by the way, who liberated my home town Heerlen in September 1944 (many
thanks, again), probably couldn't pronounce the word properly, too, but
the Dutch didn't mind.
Whenever asks where in Michigan do you live we tend to hold up our right
hand palm out and point to our location. Also everyone knows what you mean
when you say you are going up north.
[See this and
Charming little fishing harbour town in Cornwall is named Mousehole, which
the locals pronounce Mowzel. They say if you pronounce it Mousehole than
you are an arzel.
Texas has enough place names from a mix of languages that pronunciation
is a giveaway. Several years ago a new radio announcer here in Austin
gave the weather for Bexar County. A few minutes later he had to stop the
program to say "You can stop the calls now folks." It's pronounced "bear".
Only lawyers close their angry emails with "Govern yourself accordingly."
A very exclusive shibboleth, to me, is "My fellow Americans..." means that
limited fraternity known as the US President is speaking.
If someone numbers a list starting with 0, they are a computer programmer.
Many years ago, during officer training in the Royal Air Force (and long
before being allowed near Her Majesty's heavier-than-air flying machines),
an exercise to familiarise us with routine office procedures was to simulate
dealing with a wayward airman. There were a number of hidden traps to catch
out the unwary but the most insidious was that the name of the airman was
"Featherstonehaugh". The upper-class officer cadet would know that it was
pronounced as "Fanshawe" whilst those who were what Nancy Mitford would
describe as non-U would
generally try to pronounce it as written. It was one of the more insidious
ways of assessing whether a cadet could be safely let loose amongst the
higher strata of the British "Establishment".
I work for the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians. The shibboleth that I
submit is not a word at all, but an action. Traditional Indians do not
point with the finger but with the lips, as finger pointing is considered
a bit rude. They tilt their head in the direction of the item or person
to draw attention to while pursing the lips similar to that of a kiss
before quickly returning to the original position. A smile almost always
accompanies it if the other person recognizes the gesture.
"If you don't care to..." In our immediate region, people who come from
here (as opposed to folks who do not go back generations in this area)
use the phrase "If you don't care to" in a way that appears to mean the
opposite of what outsiders assume. For example, when they are asking for
a favor of someone else such as picking up something for them from the
grocery, they might say "If you don't care to, pick up a loaf of bread
for me when you go to the store." One of the linguists in our English
department at the university (Morehead State), the late Dr. Terry Irons,
has documented this idiom. When any of us non-natives hears someone say
this, we know they are from Rowan County or really nearby.
I bet you could tell immediately that I was a Canadian, eh?
I currently live in the US, but I am originally from the south of France. In
France, the number of "bises" or kisses on the cheek people exchange when
they greet each other is a form of a regional shibboleth, with a range of
one to four. In my neck of the woods it is five! Fewer than that, and you
betray your foreignness or, even worse, your status as a tourist.
An Austrian shibboleth is "Gruß Gott"
translated 'God greet (you)', its cousin is "Guten Tag" (Good day).
Women living west of Hershey, Pennsylvania say "My hair is frizzy
today." Women living east of Hershey say "My hairs are frizzy today."
Devil's strip, noun, the strip of vegetation between the sidewalk and
the street curb. Used only in and around Akron, Ohio to my knowledge.
Not far from here, near Dalton, a speeder was stopped a few years ago by
a state trooper, who asked the driver where he was from. The man said,
"Doll-ton". The trooper knew he was lying, because the town's name is
pronounced with a short a. The mispronunciation led to the arrest of a
I had a friend who once worked at a motel in southern Utah. A customer
tried to use a check to pay the bill. She asked the man how he liked living
in the small Utah town listed as his address on the check. "Hurricane is
a great place", he said, pronouncing the name just like the storms. She
called the cops and reported the stolen checks. If you really live there
you say it HER-u-kun.
When you say the word "airplane" to anyone in the airline industry, they
know you're a novice. They would say aircraft.
In the American South it's not the "Civil War" (that's Yankee). It's
"the recent unpleasantness with the North".
-Steve Stevenson, Clemson, South Carolina (steve clemson.edu)
A common word to say "clothes hanger" in Ukrainian is "plechyky", or "plechiki"
in Russian. However, if a Ukrainian or Russian-speaking person calls it
"trempel" instead, they obviously come from Kharkiv, a city in Ukraine! This
is because in the past a businessman named Trempel (from Germany, I
believe) established a clothes hanger factory in the city of Kharkiv in Ukraine,
and cloth hangers have been named trempels in Kharkiv ever since. By the way,
even in the neighboring regions of Ukraine nobody knows what trempel a is,
this is particular only to Kharkiv residents!
I lived in Wisconsin for about two years after leaving the military. What I
had always grown up thinking of a water fountain, a machine which generally
delivers a stream of cold water for you to drink, is known as a bubbler in
Wisconsin. Why a bubbler? I never did receive a reasonable explanation... So
I moved to Miami.
In my area of Ohio, everyone of my generation and older call green peppers
Florida West Coast fishermen have a few piscatorial shibboleths. One local
fish, the Mangrove, or Grey Snapper is refered to as a "mango" by natives.
The river Arkansas in Kansas is pronounced Kansas, not Arkansaw.
In the south, shibboleths have long been used for racial
discrimination. African-Americans can often be identified on the phone
by their pronunciations of ask, "aks", "two", "tuh", and an emphasis on the
last -MENT of any word, such as paveMENT, stateMENT, etc. CBers in trucks
on the highway could tell what race they were talking with.
At least in Utah, which is a desert state, in majority Mormon communities,
all precipitation is referred to as "moisture" when one is grateful for
it (as in, "Thank you, Lord, for the moisture we are receiving"). Also,
Utah is the only place a Jew is called a Gentile -- gentiles are those
who don't belong to the LDS church.
An example of a shibboleth hit national network television in the United
States in early 2009. Mark Mudd, a contestant on American Idol, had a
disappointing audition in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. On his
way out of the audition, he said, "Take care and be careful." The judges
took this as a threat, with Paula Abdul telling the contestant that,
"You don't say that to people, 'Be careful.' That's just not a normal
thing to say." (video)
"Take care and be careful" is a common valediction in Louisville and
in other parts of the South. After the audition aired (and likely after
some viewer feedback), American Idol posted an apology.
Read more shibboleths on our website.
And now a few sign-offs:
My favorite is taken from letters written by an intestate relative for an
uncle's estate that were signed, "I remain."
Within the labour movement, individuals close letters/emails with "In
Solidarity" or "IS" -- guaranteed someone is a union member/activist if
a letter is signed this way.
When I receive an email signed off with "Yours frightfully," I know it's
from a recently deceased relative.
While working for a sales team covering customers in Asia, a bizarre
shibboleth came into being: "Best Regards & Up Yours!" (or just "BR &
UY!"). "Up Yours!" evolved from a drinking session in Korea during which
"Bottoms Up!" got poorly translated ... the greeting stuck, and today
reveals anyone who was part of that team.
From: Jo Beth Speyer (espeyer bellsouth.net)
I lived in Spokane for a couple of years and quickly learned the pronunciation. I (respectfully, although I am not in the military) beg to differ slightly on the pronunciation. The accent is on the second syllable, not the first, as your explanation would imply: spo-KAN, not SPO-kan. Jo Beth Speyer, Miami, Florida
Thanks for writing. You're correct. We've updated it on the website.
From: Ellie Weld (ellieweld gn.apc.org)
I wish I'd known this word when my Uncle Geoff was alive. He was incapable of addressing any relative by his or her real name; among the pet names he invented were Chick for my mother Elsa, Potch for my aunt Dot, Hokey for my aunt Helen and Mab for me. His son Stephen was Mudbug. I loved him dearly, but I would have liked the chance to tell him that he was a hypocorist.
Ellie Weld, Twickenham, UK
From: M.P. Chevrette (chevy_trivia hotmail.com)
George W. Bush was an incorrigible hypocorist.
M.P. Chevrette, Holyoke, Massachusetts
From: Peter Frisk (petefrisk gmail.com)
I remember a comment from my days in grad school, related to polysemous technical terms: "You know you are a mathematician when you can think of more meanings for "normal" than is, well, normal." Those with a mathematical background will understand.
Peter Frisk, Rockford, Illinois
From: Laura Burns (laurab12 sbcglobal.net)
My first encounter was this phrase was as a child reading Little Women. Amy calls Laurie on horseback a Cyclops, meaning centaur, and when Jo admonishes her, replies: "You needn't be so rude, it's only a `lapse of lingy', as Mr. Davis says", retorted Amy, finishing Jo with her Latin.
Laura Burns, Galveston, Texas
From: Edel O'Hara (e.ohara qub.ac.uk)
And surely that regrettable event -- hitting 'send' on the first draft of a frustrated email, you know, the one where you tell your boss exactly what you think of them -- a slip of the mouse, is lapsus mus.
Edel O'Hara, Belfast, Northern Ireland
From: Dennis Lynch (dlynch1 nyc.rr.com)
I first heard this term from our Greek professor in college. He assured us that what he said in error was owing to a lapsus linguae not a culpa mentis (literally "a fault of the mind"), which could probably be rendered today as "mental deficiency".
Dennis Lynch, Queens Village, New York
From: Luis Vallespín (lvallespin ono.com)
Bush's lapsus linguae became so famous here in Spain that immediately our then Prime Minister was mockingly called "Ansar" by anybody who disliked him. Even today, twelve years later, it is not uncommon to hear somebody calling him that way.
Luis Vallespín, Madrid, Spain
A THOUGHT FOR TODAY:Languages, like our bodies, are in a perpetual flux, and stand in need of recruits to supply those words that are continually falling through disuse. -Cornelius Conway Felton, educator (1807-1862)
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