Sometimes when I have trouble figuring out what to blog about, I peruse my most popular tags for some idea of what’s actually getting read on this thing. Surprisingly, my most popular post isn’t about books or movies or any of those exciting things that you might expect to attract attention. Instead, it’s about grammar. Who says word nerdery isn’t interesting? Give the people what they want, right?
With this in mind, I offer one of my favorite hobbies: linguistics and etymology. More specifically, some examples of it from Internet sources that are both informative and hilarious. Linguists have a cheeky sense of humor. It appeals to my tastes. I think you will like it also. Let’s get linggy with it.
1. Rise of the Portmanbro – Oxford Online’s etymological study of the word “Bro”
The first place you should go on the Internet if you are interested in words is the Oxford Online Dictionary blog. Despite a long and storied history, the purveyors of the Oxford English Dictionary are about as un-stuffy as you can get, and the things they post on their blog are fascinating. Most of the content focuses on etymology–the history and evolution of words over time–which can teach you all kinds of fascinating things that are sure to make you popular at parties. That sounds like a joke, but it isn’t; you’d be surprised how excited people get about language history. I once befriended a man in a wine shop when he made an off-handed comment about how weird it is that Americans use so many French words when we don’t actually seem to like the French very much, and I got to explain the Battle of Hastings and all its ensuing history to him. Explaining the history behind why we call them “cows” when they’re alive but “beef” when they’re dead is a game that never gets old.*
This most recent installation of the OOD blog had me giggling like a five year old immediately after somebody says “duty.” It is the best example I have so far come across of the odd mixing that happens in linguistics where informal, silly language concepts get discussed in a serious, academic tone to hilarious effect. In this case, they’re tracing the very recent history of the term “bro,” which I am sure y’all are familiar with as both a term of endearment and a derisive descriptor for dudes who are particularly self-centered and loudly irritating. The article is littered with wonderful sentences like, “This suggests a certain element of metonymy**: by being the sort of person who says “bro,” a person becomes a bro.” That right there is a beautiful sentence.
I suspect you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who doesn’t know who Kanye West is, so I’ll cut right to the chase on this one. In Kanye’s new album, he mentions a made-up language called “Swaghili.” Esquire Magazine was so enamored with this concept that they hired David Peterson (the man who invented the Dothraki language for HBO’s Game of Thrones) to build it. And that’s exactly what he did.
Swaghili is a delightfully bouncy creole of English, Swahili, and African American Vernacular English (AAVE) that is impossible to speak without rapping. The verb conjugations are easy enough to learn, and the pronouns all relatively straight-forward–it’s clearly designed with English speakers in mind, and thus goes quite light on the Swahili–so you could become quite proficient at it in an afternoon, if you were so inclined. Despite having no practical application whatsoever, Swaghili is maybe my favorite invention ever. I can only hope that Kanye agrees.
My final favorite Internet linguistic gem is quite old–I remember coming across it back when AIM had only recently become a thing–but still as charming as ever. It does, however, require two immediate disclaimers. The first is that it is not, in fact, a history of the word “fuck” (though the word does have a pretty interesting history, which for the record has nothing to do with acronyms); rather, it’s a particularly colorful demonstration of the versatility of the word. Secondly, whoever made this video was clearly not much of a speller. However, the example sentences still hold, and it’s true that “fuck” is one of the most versatile words in the English language, as it can do the work of almost any part of speech.
Interestingly, one of the examples in this video–“abso-fucking-lutely”–is what’s called an infix, or more technically a tmesis, and English is one of the only languages in which they exist. An infix is a word/syllable that can be inserted into the middle of another word. We pretty much only do this with swear words like “fucking” or “goddamn” (or, if you’re British or Australian, “bloody”), or with softened versions of them like “freaking,” making it a unique linguistic trait only possessed by swear words***. Thus, “fuck” is actually incredibly valuable as a linguistic tool. Keep that in mind next time someone tells you swearing demonstrates stupidity.
“Language is my whore, my mistress, my wife, my pen-friend, my check-out girl. Language is a complimentary moist lemon-scented cleansing square or handy freshen-up wipette.” -Stephen Fry
*Basically, the English lost the Battle of Hastings to the French, which lead to several centuries of French aristocracy ruling over English peasant folk. English being the shameless robber language that it is, much of Old French was adopted into English, which is why we have so many latinate words. The reason we call them “cows” and “pigs” and “sheep” when they are alive is because the peasant folk who took care of the livestock spoke English, and therefore referred to the animals with their words, while the French noble folk who only ever saw the animals on the dinner table used French words like “beef” and “pork” and “mutton.” Similar divisions exist all across English; for example, a “reception” is more formal and polite than a “welcome.”
**That’s when you use a part of something to stand in for the whole. For example: “Nice wheels” can mean “nice car;” you’re using part of the car–the wheels–to refer to the whole car. Other examples include asking for somebody’s hand in marriage (presumably you’re interested in the rest of them, as well), or thinking someone is a hot piece of ass (they would probably not be nearly so attractive if they were literally a severed chunk of human ass, as Hal Sparks points out in one of my favorite comedy routines of all time).
***Non-swear word examples do exist, but they’re mostly limited to single characters on television. Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother‘s “legen-wait for it-dary” and Ned Flanders on the Simpsons‘ “hi-diddly-ho” are both examples of tmesis.