Sunday, 6 November 2016


Seen on Facebook: samhain means "summer's end".

Samhain is a Gaelic word meaning summer's end

This seems misleading. I can't find any dictionaries that say it means "summer's end".

The Royal Irish Academy's dictionary of medieval Irish says "The first of November, the festival held on that date, in relig. contexts All Saints' Day, All Hallows."

Dwelly says "November".

Ó Dónaill says "November".

Where did this idea that it means "summer's end" come from? Maybe from McBain's An Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language which says of Scots Gaelic samhuinn:

Hallow-tide, Irish samhain, Early Irish samuin, samain, samfhuin: usually regarded as for *sam-fuin, "summer-end", from sam, summer, and fuin, end, sunset, fuinim, I end, *vo-nesô, root nes, as in còmhnuidh, q.v. (Stokes). For fuin, Kluge suggests *wen, suffer (Gothic winnan, suffer); Zimmer favours Sanskrit van, hurt (English wound); and Ascoli analyses it into fo-in-. Dr Stokes, however, takes samain from the root som, same (English same, Greek ὁμός, like, Latin simul, whence English assemble; See samhuil), and makes *samani- mean "assembly" - the gathering at Tara on 1st November, while Cét-shamain, our Céitein, was the "first feast", held on 1st May.

In other words it means "Hallow-tide", but it might be derived from words for "summer" and "end", or it might be derived from a word for "assembly".

I don't think much of the pronunciations either. Is there a Welsh cognate of samhain? If there is, it wouldn't begin with /s/. The Welsh cognate of Old Irish sam "summer" is haf.

Saturday, 13 August 2016


Thanks to Language Log, I learn that Venezuelan Spanish has a word that has "no English translation".
Can you pass me that vaina.
What vaina?
The vaina on top of the tiny vaina.
The vaina in the fridge?
The vaina we drank at Lele's vaina.
Of course this word has no English translation. It's not like there's an English word, like thing, that is used the same way.

The most interesting thing about vaina is that it seems to be the same word as vaina "sheath", derived from Latin uāgīna "sheath", as in vagina and vanilla.

Saturday, 25 June 2016


In The Sound of Drums, the Master says:
Shall we decimate them? That sounds good. Nice word, decimate. Remove one tenth of the population!
Clever right? Chalk one up for the peeververein! He used decimate in its correct meaning!

Except decimate has hardly ever been used to mean “destroy one tenth of”.

I know it's in some dictionaries with this meaning. And you can find many usage writers who claim it. But where's the evidence?

The notion that it means “destroy one tenth of” seems to have started with James Murray. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage suggests that Murray added this definition because he wanted to make a semantic link between the word’s etymology and its use in English:
Sir James Murray inserted a definition in the OED, "To kill, destory, or remove one in every ten of" before the extended sense just discussed ["destroy a large part of"]. He presumably did this to provide a semantic bridge from the earlier senses (and especially the Roman sense) to the extended sense, but he produced no citations to indicate its actual use. Apparently decimate has never been so used in English.
OED editor at large Jesse Sheidlower agrees:
The only sense that's ever been common in English is the figurative 'to destroy a great number, proportion, or part of', first found in the mid seventeenth century. Despite repeated claims that this sense is erroneous, on the grounds that decimate should only refer to a destruction of one-tenth, that is how the word is used. In fact, it seems to be the only way the word is used; despite the insistence of various usage critics, a real example of decimate meaning 'to destroy one-tenth of' has never to my knowledge been found in actual running text.
Ammon Shea seems to agree.

On the other hand, when I looked in the OED Online recently, I saw that the entry has been changed. It now says
1b. To kill, destroy, or remove one in every ten of. In later use usually with an indication that the more general sense 1c is not intended, esp. by use of literally.
In the 7 citations that follow, I see 3 which clearly mean "remove one in every ten of":
1846 Addr. of Trustees (Burlington Coll.) (ed. 2) 51 Suppose that one in ten be found, after fair trial, and long patience, quite impracticable... There will still be seventy-two. And these, if needful, may again be decimated.

1921 Youth's Compan. 5 May 279 There are at least 3,000,000 fewer French people than there were in 1911, and the loss may prove to be almost 4,000,000. That would mean that France has been literally decimated.

1998 P. Gourevitch We wish to inform You 3 Decimation means the killing of every tenth person in a population, and in the spring and early summer of 1994 a program of massacres decimated the Republic of Rwanda.
This change was part of OED3. So at least 3 uses in the past 400 years have been found and added to the OED. But these citations were not there when the “remove one in every ten of” definition was originally written. And if you have to add “literally” after the word, that's a sign that it's not the usual meaning.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Dalek translation

There are some interesting Sapir-Whorfy things happening in the latest season of Doctor Who.

As we all know, Daleks are bubbling lumps of hate in Mark 3 travel machines. The organic part is wired to the machine part, and controls the machine through thought. It seems that when a Dalek's machinary tries to interface with a non-Dalek, it can only interpret the thoughts in Dalek terms.

In The Witch's Familiar, Clara is hooked up to a Dalek travel machine, and whatever she says is repeated in a Dalek voice.
(NB The DALEKS voice is always a tiny fraction behind CLARA's. Also we only hear CLARA if we’re INSIDE the DALEK. While outside the DALEK, we just hear the DALEK voice.) 

But Clara and the Dalek don't always say the same thing.
Now say your name.
Just say it.
Inside the DALEK.
Clara.          Dalek.
CLARA frowns. What?
Try again.
CLARA                    DALEK
Clara Oswald.        Dalek. Dalek.
One more time!
CLARA.                                DALEK

(Visibly frustrated now).        I am a Dalek. I am a Dalek.

I am Clara Oswald. I am Clara Oswald!
Say “I love you”. Those exact words - don’t ask why, just do it.
CLARA            DALEK

I love you.            Exterminate!

Say “You are different from me.”
CLARA                                     DALEK

You are different from me.            Exterminate! Exterminate!
The machine is translating Clara’s English into Dalek, and Dalek has no way to say certain things. So are Daleks prevented from saying these things by their machines? Or are the organic and machine parts of the Daleks joined to form one mind? Thinking about how Dalek language must work gives me a headache of Embassytown proportions.

do Daleks just want to befriend other races, but their translation machines don't have the vocabulary?

This leads to a tense moment when the Doctor confronts the Dalek that Clara is trapped in, and she can't tell him that she is inside. She says her name, but the Dalek just says "Dalek".
THE DOCTOR, insensibly, raising the gun, levelling it at the DALEK.
Is Clara dead?
Inside the DALEK:
CLARA.                                                     DALEK

I’m Clara, I’m not dead, I’m right here.     I am a Dalek. I am alive.

 Those words cause a savage look of anger to cross THE DOCTOR's face.
Inside the DALEK:

CLARA (cont'd)                               DALEK (cont'd)
I’m your friend. Your friend!             I am your enemy. Your enemy.
THE DOCTOR steps forward, jamming the exterminator against the eyepiece.
CLARA (cont'd)                                                  DALEK (cont'd)
No, please, not don’t.                                              Mercy. Mercy.
... and THE DOCTOR pauses. What?

Frowns. What??

... you shouldn’t be able to say that.
That word shouldn’t exist in your vocabulary. How could Davros have taught you that?
This makes the Doctor think about how the Dalek machinery was able to say "mercy". Daleks can't understand mercy, therefore they can't say the word:

When you were in the Dalek, you made it say “mercy”. It shouldn’t have understood the concept, it shouldn’t have been able to say it. How did a tiny piece of mercy get into the DNA of the Daleks?
That's right, there is no word for "mercy" in Dalek. I bet they have a hundred words for "exterminate".

And the fact that the Dalek said a word it should not have known is all the Doctor needs to know in order to go back in time and teach a young Davros that concept. Is there a purer expression of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

Of course, we've known about the Daleks' vocabulary limitations since 1975:
DALEK: All inferior creatures are to be considered the enemy of the Daleks and destroyed.
DAVROS: No, wait! Those men are scientists. They can help you. Let them live. Have pity!
DALEK: Pity? I have no understanding of the word. It is not registered in my vocabulary bank. Exterminate!
And then, in the very next episode, Under the Lake, four alien letters can rewrite your brain:
DOCTOR: Everything we see or experience shapes us in some way. But these words actually rewrite the synaptic connections in your brain. They literally change the way you are wired.

Saturday, 2 January 2016


Seen on Facebook: Yule is derived from the Old Norse word for wheel.

In reality, yule is from Old English geōl, geohol "Christmas Day". It is cognate with Old Norse jól, "a heathen feast lasting 12 days" (OED). Its further etymology is unknown.

Wordorigins has more on yule.

The idea that it is from the Old Norse for "wheel" probably originates in the Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, which says

Yule is derived into modern English from Jól deriving from Old Norse hjól, wheel, referring to the moment when the wheel of the year is at its low point, ready to rise again (compare to the Slavic karachun).

Skeat's Concise Dictionary of English Etymology says of yule "The attempt to connect this word with wheel is perfectly futile, and explains nothing."