Eye on the Hog! Nine of our Favorite Winter Olympics Words

opening ceremony of the XXIV Winter Olympic Games in Beijing.

CC BY-4.0, via Wikimedia

The 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing wraps up today. Over the past two weeks, we’ve watched athletes and teams from 91 nations skate, ski, and sleigh their way to Olympic glory (including 25 medals for Team USA!) and learned plenty of new words in the process. Here, our nine favorite Winter Olympics terms and their origins:


Unlike spins, which are stationary, twizzles require rotation while moving across the ice. The synchronized twizzle is one of the most fundamental, and difficult, parts of ice dancing, and definitely the most fun to say. 

Kiss & Cry

The term kiss & cry was coined by Finnish figure skating official Jane Erkko, who popularized the sport in Finland in the 1980s. It’s since been expanded to other sporting events to mean any area where competitors wait to receive their scores. 

Death Spirals

Unlike in aviation, insurance, or life in general, death spirals in figure skating can—if executed correctly—be a good thing. The death spiral is an element of pairs figure skating in which the man, in a low pivot position, rotates the woman low to the ice. The name was apparently inspired by the popularity of air show stunts in the 1920s.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates - 2019 Internationaux de France

CC BY-SA 3.0. By David Carmichael, via Wikimedia


The axel, one of the seven types of jump in figure skating, has nothing to do with the type of axle around which a wheel rotates; it’s actually an eponym, named after Norwegian figure skater Axel Paulsen. 


Bobsledding, or Bobsleigh, has been a part of the winter Olympic games since their inception in 1924. Unlike with axel, there is no eponymous “Bob”: the sport gets its name from the way early participants bobbed back and forth to increase speed. 


Bobsledding is traditionally performed with teams of either two or four. A one-person bobsled is charmingly deemed a monobob, which is also the name of the newest Winter Olympic sport. Women’s monobob debuted at the 2022 Olympics, where Americans Kaillie Humphreys and Elana Meyers Taylor took the gold and silver, respectively. 


Skeleton involves going headfirst down an ice track on a sled, unlike its sister sport luge, where competitors go feet first. The term skeleton is of uncertain origin: some say it takes its name from the bony appearance of the early metal sleds, while others think it might be a mistransliteration of the Norwegian word kjaelke, meaning toboggan or sled. 

Hog line

Watch a game of curling, and you’ll notice a lot of hog terminology: the hog line is the line by which players have to release the stone. If a rock is hogged, it’s taken out of play. Since the early 2000s, hog line violations have been enforced by an electronic sensor called “eye on the hog.”

Why all the porcine language? According to curling.ca, the phrase derives from Scottish agriculture, where straggling baby lambs and other livestock were called hogs. 


From 1912 to 1992, Olympic Games included demonstration sports: non-medal events meant to popularize new or underappreciated sports with the goal of their eventual inclusion in the Olympics. Some sports, like ice dancing, speed skating, and curling, became full-fledged Winter Olympic events.

One that didn’t is skijoring, a sport that involves skiers being drawn over ice by dogs, vehicles, or—in the case of the Olympic demonstration—horses. Skijoring, which has its roots in Scandinavia, debuted at the 1928 Winter games in St. Moritz, but never returned as a demonstration or medal sport.

"Skijoring": people on skis pulled by a horse, dogs or a motor vehicle. Saint-Moritz, 1928.

Public Domain, via Wikimedia

Got a favorite winter sports word that we missed? Let us know on Twitter!

Five Words From … Matrix, by Lauren Groff

Welcome to the latest installment of “Five words from …” our series which highlights interesting words from interesting books! 

The hottest Matrix of 2021 had nothing to do with white rabbits, red pills, or Keanu Reeves. This Matrix, Lauren Groff’s latest novel, tells the story of Marie de France as she progresses from ungainly orphan to powerful abbess in 12th-century England.  

Folium 028v from the Psalter of Eleanor of Aquitaine (ca. 1185) from the collection of the Royal Library of the Netherlands. The illumination shows Donor portrait - A noble lady kneeling.

Public domain – via Wikimedia


“The coleworts are the size of three-month babies.”

Colewort, or cole, is the medieval ancestor of the Brassica oleracea species of vegetables, which today encompasses cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collard greens, and brussels sprouts. Although the colewort of the twelfth century was smaller and more loose-leafed than its contemporary cultivars, it survives today in the word coleslaw



“Temporale, the proper of time, the cycle of Christmas, the cycle of Easter. Sanctorale, the proper of the saints.” 

Proper as a noun (not to be confused with a proper noun) is an ecclesiastical term that refers to the Catholic liturgical calendar: the proper is the portion of the liturgy that corresponds to each season or occasion. The Temporale is the proper of time because it consists of moveable feasts like Easter; the Sanctorale is the cycle of holy days with fixed dates, like Saints’ days and Christmas.



“Marie has become a great old monocerous. Hide of iron, single vicious horn, or so she hears.”

Monocerous (more commonly spelled monoceros or monocerus) comes from the Greek roots “monos”, single, and “keros,” horn, making it an etymological sibling to unicorn, which has the same roots, but in Latin. Depending on the context, monocerous can either be a synonym of unicorn or refer to a similar, but related creature. Monocerous far predates its Latin synonym, though: the creature is mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, where he described it as having “the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar… and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits in length.” 

Today, the word survives in the scientific name for the narwhal, Monodon monoceros. 

Monoceros - Bestiary Harley MS 3244, ff 36r-71v. Late 12th century-Early 13th century.

Public domain – via Wikimedia


“The abbess is not unlike a freemartin, that strange genre of virago ox not one thing or the other but both at the same time.”

Groff uses the word virago several times to describe her protagonist, including in Marie’s own thoughts of herself. Virago, literally a woman who behaves like or has the bearing of a man, comes from the Latin root vir, meaning man, from which we also get virile and virtue. The connotation of the word has changed over time: in ancient and early medieval contexts it would have meant a strong female warrior, but by the late middle ages it came to mean a harsh, unattractive and scolding woman.  

The novel gives us a little bit of both senses: it’s negative when Marie reflects self-deprecatingly on her own appearance, but a backhanded compliment when the diocesan addresses her as a “noble virago … exalted above all other exemplars of your sex.” It’s part of the deliberate contradiction that the novel explores: Marie’s self-professed “mannish” nature is the very quality that allows her to attain a position of power from which she can uplift other women. 



“Without the first matrix, there could be no salvatrix, the greatest matrix of all.” 

One thing you notice in reading Matrix is all of the words ending in -trix or -rix: cantrix, cellatrix, infirmatrix, hostellerix, scrutatrix, and so on. Each of these words, along with a host of -ess words like almoness and prioress, describes a position in the abbey. Groff never lets the reader forget that each of these roles is performed by women. 

The word matrix is itself a -trix word, from the same Latin root that gives us mother. In the novel, it’s used in (at least) two senses: as a personalized seal for inscribing books, and, in the sentence above,  as a now-obscure word for womb. 


Bonus: alaunt, spavin, mizzling, and a list of 77 other Matrix words here


Got a book you’d like to see given the “five words from” treatment?   Nominate it through this form, or DM us on Twitter!

The Wordnik 2021 Gift Guide for Word Lovers

Wondering what to get this year for the logophile in your life? Here’s a list of books, games, art, and other goodies for word nerds of all ages. 

Adopt a word

What better gift for a word lover than… a word? For $25, you can adopt a word—(almost) any word—in someone’s honor. The recipient will receive a certificate, Wordnik stickers, and other perks, and the money goes toward supporting Wordnik. Wordnik, $25.

Calligraphy Prints

Fans of illumination and typography will be impressed by these prints from the Public Domain Review that feature beautifully rendered letters, such as selections from Joris Hofnagel’s “Guide to the Construction of Letters” or the 18th century satirical “Alphabet de la Bourbonnoise.”  Public Domain Review, $25.00 and up.

Left: Guide for Constructing the Letter R (Joris Hoefnagel, ca. 1595) /Right: Bourbonnoise Alphabet (Unknown, 1789)

Public Domain Review

Heck Yeah, Descriptivism!

Lingthusiasm has a great selection of linguistics-themed merchandise, including kiki/bouba t-shirts, schwa pins, and everything IPA. We’re partial to these zippered pouches that “push back against language peevery.” Redbubble, $15.89

"Heck Yeah Descriptivism!" Pouch in white on green

Designed and sold by Lingthusiasm. RedBubble

Ideal Bookshelf Pins

These enamel pins by Jane Mount feature hand-drawn book covers you can display on your lapel, with dozens of classics from Middlemarch to Infinite Jest rendered in delightful miniature. Etsy, $11.

Book Pin: A Wrinkle in Time

Janemount on Etsy

Dictionary Subscriptions

Why not supplement the Wordnik experience with a subscription to a specialized dictionary, such as DARE, the Dictionary of American Regional English ($49/year)?

826 Merchandise

826 is a nonprofit that provides writing workshops and after-school tutoring to communities in nine cities across the US. Each location also doubles as an imaginative retail store, which means you can get vintage-inspired posters ($19.99) from LA’s Time Travel Mart, cans of antimatter ($8.00) from the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company, or an eyepatch ($5.00)and doubloons ($0.75 each) from the Valencia Pirate Supply Store. All proceeds from these shops go to support 826.  

Time Travel Posters: Pangaea (Left) and Tokyo 2.0 (Right).

Time Travel Mart, 826la.org


Litographs take the full text of a book and make it into word art in the form of posters, blankets, jigsaw puzzles, shower curtains, and more. It’s a cool way to show off your love of literature, plus a guarantee you’ll never be bored in the shower again. Litographs.com, $24-$74.  



Originally created through the NYU Game Center Incubator and funded through Kickstarter, Rewordable is a “uniquely fragmented” card game in which players arrange letter combinations to build increasingly longer and more complex words. It’s a great way for kids to build their vocabularies and linguistic skills, or for adults to flex theirs. Barnes & Noble, $15.99.

Rewordable game


Scrabble Fridge Magnets

If the word-lover in your life prefers word gaming at a more leisurely pace, these magnets are a fun twist on the classic fridge poetry formula. Etsy, $20.09-$33.26.

Wooden Scrabble letter fridge magnets by MagnificentMagnetsUK



There are just too many books to list—word lovers tend to like books, after all—but we’re making an attempt with our Bookshop.org lists. There’s one for word lovers and an even-more-specific list for folks who love dictionaries. Check them out!

Wordnik Swag

Who wouldn’t want a t-shirt – or a tote bag, or a notebook, or a throw pillow – that says “I 🧡 words?” 

We also have a limited number of the Wordnik Kickstarter poster left—US$40, including Priority Mail shipping (to US only). Language is the Dress of Thought poster Get them while you can, as we won’t be reprinting these!

To Arrakis and Beyond: The Language of Dune

Dune, CC-BY 2.0 Shawn Allen

The fictional universe of Frank Herbert’s Dune saga is incredibly expansive, with each book in the series accompanied by a glossary of more than 100 terms. With the release of Denis Villeneuve’s latest film adaptation, some moviegoers have set to frantic Googling, desperate to tell their sardaukar from their shai-hulud. Herbert dug into a deep well of far-ranging influences, especially from the Muslim world, in creating the language and mythology of the Dune-iverse; here, we dig into some Dune words and their unusual origins.



Dune’s most obvious etymological influences are from Arabic, with Herbert drawing inspiration not just from the language but from the history of Islam and the geography of the Arabian peninsula. Dozens of terms from the books and movies are borrowed wholesale from classical and colloquial Arabic; dozens more are loosely adapted from Arabic words and phrases. Blogger Khalid Baheyeldin has attempted to catalogue all the Islamic and Arabic influenced words in Dune; Herbert himself spoke at length about the saga’s Islamic influences in a 1978 interview.

In particular, the language of the Fremen, the natives of the desert planet Arrakis, borrows heavily from Arabic. For example, Muad-dib is the Fremen name that protagonist and eventual messiah figure Paul Atreides chooses for himself. In the Fremen language, muad-dib is a type of desert mouse (and also a constellation shaped like the mouse – as with so many elements and symbols in Dune, it’s complicated). In modern Arabic, muad’dib (مؤدب) means ‘teacher’.


Lisan al-Gaib 

Lisan al-Gaib is the Fremen word for a prophet or messiah from another world (Spoiler alert: it’s Paul). In Arabic, lisan al-gaib (لسان الغيب)  translates to ‘hidden tongue’ or ‘unseen tongue’, possibly signifying the power of a prophet to give voice to things unseen. Another Fremen word for messiah, mahdi, is directly cribbed from an analogous concept in Islamic eschatology: the word mahdi (ٱلْمَهْدِيّ‎) translates to ‘the guided one’.



Perhaps the most well-known Arabic loanword in Dune is one that didn’t make it into the movie. Jihad (جِهَاد), usually translated as ‘struggle’, is a concept that majorly factors into the books’ mythology and plot. The Butlerian Jihad, which occurred thousands of years before the events of Dune, was a pivotal event that saw humanity overthrowing computers and banning any intelligent technology. Thousands of years later, Paul foresees another jihad committed in his name, which eventually comes to pass in the sequels.

Villeneuve’s Dune omitted the loaded word, presumably wanting to avoid associations with contemporary Islamic terrorism. Instead, the film calls the story’s prophesied holy war a crusade—arguably an equally loaded word that carries historical anti-Islamic associations. 



The world of Dune is an imagined far future of our own world: therefore, the religious and philosophical ideas presented in Dune are canonically related to those from history. This becomes obvious in terms like Zensunni, the Fremen religion that is a mix of—you guessed it—Zen Buddhism and Sunni Islam. 

Sunni Islam is one of the two main branches of Islam, and comprises up to ninety percent of Muslims worldwide. The word sunni comes from the sunnah (سنة‎), the practices and traditions of Islam as documented in the records of Muhammad’s life and teachings, the hadith

While the word Zen is Japanese, Zen Buddhism originated in China, where it is called Chán (禪), a word which in turn derives from the Sanskrit dhyāna, usually translated as ‘meditation’ or ‘training of the mind’. And while actress Zendaya stars in Dune (where her character, Chani, is an adherent of Zensunni religion), her name comes not from Zen Buddhism but from the word Tendayi, Shona for ‘to give thanks’. 


Bene Gesserit

The Bene Gesserit (pronounced with a soft g, at least in the 2021 film) are a matriarchal religious order that has been orchestrating events in the Dune universe for millennia before the story begins, including a carefully manipulated messiah-breeding program and a system, called the Missionaria Protectiva, of sowing their religious beliefs throughout the universe. Unlike some of the terms Herbert borrowed from Arabic, the etymology of Bene Gesserit is unclear, if indeed it has an etymology beyond Herbert’s imagination. 

In Latin, bene gesserit roughly translates to ‘borne well’ or ‘carried well’. Gesserit is a verb form of gerere, from which we get the Latin root gest, found in words such as digest, gesture, and—most relevant here—gestation. Other terms associated with the Bene Gesserit, such as missionaria protectiva and panoplia propheticus, are also derived from Latin.

However, there are other theories on the origins of bene gesserit: Frank Herbert’s son Brian suggested the word was meant to evoke Jesuit, recalling the prestige of that real-life religious order. Baheyeldin suggests that the term is yet another borrowing from Arabic: a rough transliteration of the Arabic bene jazira (بني جزيرة), meaning ‘sons of the island/peninsula’. 


Kwisatz Haderach

One of  the most remarked-upon etymologies in Dune, kwisatz haderach is the term that the Bene Gesserit use to refer to the prophesied figure they have been trying to engineer for generations. In-universe, it is translated as ‘the shortening of the way’. 

Herbert borrowed both the term and the meaning from the Zohar, a foundational text of Kabbalah, in which the Hebrew Kefitzat Haderech (קְפִיצַת הַדֶּרֶךְ) refers to a shortened road or journey, a miraculous leap between locations. Indeed, Herbert seems to have taken inspiration from Kabbalistic thought in many respects when writing Dune, a story that delves deep into themes of messianism and esoteric or mystical knowledge, both important concepts in Kabbalah. 



In the Dune-iverse, characters travel short distances by air via ornithopters—’thopters for short—aircraft that have flapping wings like birds, rather than helical rotors. Ornithopter shares the Greek root -pter with its real-world analogue the helicopter, plus ornith-, a Greek root meaning ‘bird’. 

While you aren’t likely to see one flying around, ornithopters aren’t Frank Herbert’s invention. Leonardo da Vinci actually designed a machine to mimic avian flight in 1485, and since then there have been ornithopters powered by humans, rubber bands, and engines. Funnily enough, the ornithopters in Villeneuve’s Dune don’t look like birds at all, but helicopters whose rotors have been replaced by dragonfly wings. It might be more accurate, then, to call them anisopters, after anisoptera – literally, unequal wings—the scientific term for dragonflies.

Tasty Morsels from Groovy Hubs: Our Favorite Words from Succession

Matthew Macfadyen, Nicholas Braun from Succession

Photograph by Graeme Hunter/HBO

Whether you’re a con-head or a slime puppy, fans of HBO’s Succession know that no one can turn a phrase—especially a profane one—like the show’s writers. The drama, which features the members of the Roy family plotting for control over the family media empire, won awards for the whip-smart, hilarious dialogue of its first two seasons, going way beyond the strings of emphatic “f*ck off”s the show is known for. (Although there are quite a lot of those: in fact, star Brian Cox wore the signature phrase on a mask to the season premiere.) After a hiatus of over two years, Succession will be back for its third season on Sunday; in anticipation, we’ve gathered some of our favorite words and phrases from the show so far. 


Greg: What’s ortolan?

Tom: It is a deep-fried songbird, eaten whole.

Season 1, Episode 6, “Which Side Are You On?” 

As Tom explains to a deeply uncomfortable Greg, the ortolan is a small songbird native to Europe that, for centuries, was a delicacy of French cuisine. While Tom is incorrect about the method of preparation – the birds are traditionally roasted after being drowned in armagnac brandy(!) – he is correct about the way they are eaten: with a napkin placed over the diner’s head and eyes, possibly to concentrate the eating experience, or to shield the diner from the judgment of God at such a shameful act. 

The killing and eating of ortolans is banned in the E.U., which has made the experience all the more rare– and, for some, more exclusive. In recent years, ortolan has been featured in the shows Billions and Hannibal as well as Succession.  The bird, its exclusivity, and the ritual around eating it are all ripe for symbolic usage: in Succession’s case, it represents the callous indulgences of the ultra-rich, and also echoes the way its characters turn a blind eye to wrongdoing at the Waystar/Royco corporation.

closed-loop system

Tom: It’s cool though, because it’s like I didn’t cheat, because all the sperm stayed in my own body. Like a closed-loop system

Season 1, Episode 8, “Prague” 

In engineering, a closed-loop system refers to electro-mechanical control systems that incorporate feedback in their own operation, like cruise control. In Succession, it’s Tom’s euphemism for a certain act (we won’t go into detail here) that’s definitely “a thing, there’s a word for it.” 

bear hug

Logan: This is a fucking bear hug?

Kendall: That’s right.

Season 1, Episode 10, “Nobody is Ever Missing”

Succession is, at least ostensibly, a show about business dealings, and for some viewers (including your author) the show serves as a crash course in corporate jargon. 

The end of Season 1 sees Kendall and Stewy attempting a hostile takeover of Waystar/Royco via bear hug, a move that is not at all cuddly as its namesake, and far more akin to the wrestling move of the same name. In business terminology, a bear hug is an acquisition strategy in which the offering company tries to buy the target company’s shares at a price well beyond market valuation. 


Stewy: Fuck you too, you pusillanimous piece of fucking fool’s gold.

Season 2, Episode 1, “The Summer Palace”

When Stewy Hosseini hurls the above insult at former partner Kendall, he’s understandably mad after being double-crossed; in true Stewy fashion, though, he doesn’t miss a beat. 

The word pusillanimous, meaning ‘weak-willed and cowardly’, comes from the Latin pusillus, ‘weak’, and animus, ‘spirit’. It’s a good word to hurl at political opponents, as Spiro Agnew did in 1970, calling critics of Nixon’s Vietnam policy “pusillanimous pussyfooters”. 


Connor: I hyperdecant. You don’t hyperdecant? You’re just doing regular decanting?

Season 2, Episode 3, “Hunting”

Leave it to Connor, the out-of-touch eldest Roy sibling, to deploy one-percenter lingo in a way that was probably intended to be sophisticated, but just comes off as embarrassing. 

Decanting refers to transferring a liquid—usually wine—from one receptacle to another. In oenology and viticulture, decanting aerates the wine and separates it from any sediment it may have formed. Hyper-decanting—yes, it’s a real thing!—is a controversial method of putting wine in a blender, which supposedly has the effect of softening the tannins and speeding up the aging process. Does it work? Well, the jury’s out

attack child

Greg: A person can definitely fit through that window. A small person. An attack child.

Season 2, Episode 4, “Safe Room” 

You’ve heard of attack helicopters, attack dogs, and attack ads. Attack children, however, are a newer (and hopefully imaginary) concept cooked up by Greg in a moment of panic. The word attack—whether used as an adjective, verb or noun—has its roots in the Old Italian stacca, meaning ‘stake’: a weapon of questionable efficacy against an attack child, unless the child is also a vampire. 


Greg: My grandpa has made it clear that if I want to secure my future, then I need to sever my links. Negotiate a bit of a “Grexit“.

Season 2, Episode 8, “Dundee”

Succession loves its puns and portmanteaus almost as much as its insults: a (poorly) rapping Kendall is dubbed Ken-W.A., Frank is Bore Vidal, and everyone knows that “You can’t make a Tomelette (or Tomelet?) without breaking a few Greggs. 

Grexit, as Cousin Greg deems his own potential departure from the company, is clearly a reference to Brexit, the informal term for the United Kingdom’s departure from the E.U. Funnily enough, the words Brexit and Grexit were coined around the same time, though the word Grexit IRL referred not to Cousin Greg but to a potential Greek withdrawal from the Eurozone (from ‘Greece’ + ‘exit’). 

In fact, many Eurosceptic movements have since followed Britain’s lexicographic lead, dubbing their own anti-E.U. efforts Czexit (Czechia), Nexit (The Netherlands), Frexit (France), and more. Outside of politics, British tabloids and social media coined Megxit as a catchy term for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s break from the royal family.

funge me

Logan: You’re fungible as fuck.

Rhea: Fine. Then funge me. Go ahead. Try. 

Season 2, Episode 9, “D.C.”

Thanks to the NFT craze, the word fungible is having a bit of a moment. While the first non-fungible tokens have been around since as early as 2014, this episode aired well before the NFT buying surge of 2021, of which Logan Roy would no doubt disapprove. 

Fungible means ‘flexible’, ‘exchangeable’, or ‘easily substituted’, and usually appears in legal and economic contexts. The word comes from the Latin fungi, ‘to perform’—the same root that gives us function. Unlike many words that end in -ible, and a lot more that end in -able, fungible doesn’t have a corresponding verb (e.g. edible and eat, or dispensable and dispense). At least, not until now. 

Feel like binge-watching? Check out our other posts on television words.

Q&A with Arika Okrent, author of Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don’t Rhyme—and Other Oddities of the English Language

image of Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don’t Rhyme – and Other Oddities of the English Language

Image credit: OUP

Why is the English language so complicated, so illogical, and so weird?

Everyone has thought it, from the most seasoned writers to the newest English language learners. In her new book, Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don’t Rhyme—and Other Oddities of the English Language [Bookshop.org, Amazon, OUP], author and linguist Arika Okrent sets out to explain some of the language’s most notorious contradictions—and, along the way, paints a delightfully engaging picture of the language’s history, from its Germanic origins to the latter-day pedants who insist on keeping English irrational.

Dr. Okrent spoke with us about working on the book, and about English past, present, and future.

Your book addresses the questions people like to ask about the English language: things like “why do we park on a driveway and drive on a parkway?” Of all these questions, were there certain ones that you heard again and again, even before you started writing Highly Irregular? Do you think that people are actually interested in learning the answers, or do we just like complaining and asking rhetorical questions about English?

The only ones that I heard more than once were the joke ones, like driveway/parkway, no egg in eggplant, or “why do noses run and feet smell,” and no, people don’t bring those up really wanting to know the answer. The winking complaining is the point. But the thing they’re complaining about, that English can be so illogical and unsystematic, is important, as any person trying to learn it as a second language (or child learning it as a first language) can tell you. It’s also very interesting! There is a “why” and it tells you something about how languages develop. The really good questions came from kids or non-native speakers. Why don’t we spell “of” with a v? Why do we order a “large” drink and not a “big” one? It takes a bit of an outsider perspective to even see these.

A man in a tuxedo smoking a cigar and holding a wad of cash says "I'm a large spender, make it a BIG pizza" to a cashier wearing a baseball cap and a ponytail

image credit: Sean O’Neill

One thing that makes Highly Irregular so much fun to read is the accompanying cartoons by artist Sean O’Neill. How did that collaborative process work, and how did you decide which examples were going to be illustrated?

We started working together on a series of whiteboard videos for Mental Floss, little two or three minute explanations of various language topics. I would write a script, he would come up with some drawings to go with it, film himself drawing them on a whiteboard, and then I would edit it
together and record the script as a voiceover. In the very beginning, I would write the script with some idea of what he could use to make things visual, trying to pick examples that were drawable, but he would always come up with something great that I hadn’t thought of at all. So I stopped thinking of things visually when writing (I’m totally a word person, not a picture person!) and just trusted him to find the way into the drawing.

I did the same for the book. I just gave him the sections as I finished them and he would come up with three or four drawings for each one. I love how he really brings people to life. I think we language folks have a tendency to think about the history of language very abstractly–the movement of sounds, lexemes, meanings, grammatical templates–but it’s all people, real people using those things, in 400 AD, in 1476, in 1890, and today. It’s nice to see them in action, even in [a] cartoon version, a reminder that it’s not words themselves that change meaning, but people using those words.

Highly Irregular addresses a lot of the specific particularities of the English language, but it also does a great job of dispelling myths about English, and about language in general: how languages develop, how they get standardized, and so on. Are there particular takeaways you really wanted to impart on your readers, or broader philosophical ideals that inform the work?

I think people generally know, and accept, that language changes, but a lot of the illogical bits in language come from the fact that language also stays the same. Certain parts resist the change around them and they become fossils, part of the language today, but stuck with the forms of a previous era. Language is two opposing things at once: an infinitely creative tool for expressing any kind of meaning that comes along in the world, and a very conservative tradition that must be stable enough to pass from one generation to the next. We are able to say things that have never been said before, while most of the time repeating the same things over and over again. The repetition embeds and entrenches habits. The creativity introduces departures from the habits. It needs to be both. It’s amazing that it’s both!

What about your takeaways—has writing Highly Irregular changed the way you speak, write, read, and listen to the English language? Do you notice things you wouldn’t have before?

Of course I’ve become much more attuned to the questions, the moments of “wait, what’s up with that, English?” I love hearing “mistakes” from kids or non-native speakers because they usually brilliantly capture what the rule should be but for some reason isn’t. And then I want to know the reason.

Finally, how is English going to continue becoming even more irregular? Might we soon have to add new categories of blame: “Blame the Internet,” for example?

It’s really hard to predict what might be irregular in the future. Like, could a speaker of Old English even imagine that we would totally change the way we do past tense verbs? Would a typesetter in the early days of the printing press ever think that we might come to fret so much about spelling when it really wasn’t considered very important at the time? I do think the internet and social media are having a major effect on language in the way that connectivity speeds up the pace of spread of language innovations and in the way it has made possible a written version of real time, spontaneous, casual communication. What sort of mistakes might kids of the future, just learning to communicate online, make in this area? The question doesn’t even make sense, because when it comes to online communication we accept that whatever the kids are doing is what it is. It’s the older generations who don’t get the rules quite right.

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Soap Opera Slang: From Horses to K-Dramas

Do you enjoy your stories? Today’s the perfect day to celebrate them. 

On this day in 1949 premiered what’s considered the first daytime soap opera on television. These Are My Children (no relation to All My Children, which debuted 21 years later) centered on the struggles of an Irish widow raising her three children in a Chicago boarding house. While the series was short-lived, ending a scant three months later, it kicked off a long tradition of melodramatic pauses, supercouples, and soap opera diseases. It also gave us some soapy slang. Here’s a brief look.

From horses to suds

Before there was soap opera, there was horse opera. Horse operas are Western films, TV shows, or radio programs. The term originated around 1927, says the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), first appearing in a magazine called Motion Picture Classic: “Horse Opera … is an opus of the West where men are cowboys.”

The phrase soap opera is from 1939, also according to the OED. The name come about because early sponsors of the shows included soap and detergent manufacturers, which were aimed at the target audience of stay-at-home wives.

Soap opera got shortened to soap in 1943, says the Online Etymology Dictionary. Meanwhile, the OED attests North American soaper to 1946; Australia, New Zealand, and South African slang soapie to 1964; and U.S. lingo sudser to 1968.

Plot twist!

Sometimes devices are used to help along a soap opera storyline. One is known as SORAS, “soap opera rapid aging syndrome,” in which a baby or small child grows offscreen at the speed of light, returning just in time to better remember their lines or spark a teenage romance.

Another plot device, not necessarily particular to soap operas, is the retcon, or retroactive continuity, “in which a new storyline explains or changes a previous event or attaches a new significance to it.” The OED’s earliest citation is from a 1989 posting in a Usenet newsgroup: “Wow! Talk about a retcon by another name! … Okay, so Superboy never existed; we’d already figured that.” The dictionary’s earliest one regarding a soap opera is from the New Hacker’s Dictionary published in 1993: “Revealing that a whole season of ‘Dallas’ was a dream was a retcon.” 

Soaps around the world

Of course drama happens in every language. A Spanish- or Portuguese-language soap opera is known as a telenovela, which first appeared in English in 1961, says the OED. A teleroman is the equivalent in French Canadian (first attested in English in 1964) while teleserye is a soap opera in Philippine English. The earliest appearance is from a November 2000 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

ABS-CBN has coined a new term, ‘teleserye’, to hype up its latest project, ‘Pangako Sa ‘Yo’… The teleserye combines ‘the magnitude of a continuing series and the sophisticated artistry of filmmaking’.

A soap opera blog post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning K-dramas or Korean dramas. The earliest citation we could find was from 2006: “The series is a lively drama with fun and silly characters and content that is not nearly as soapy or melodramatic as most other K-dramas.”

Feel like binge-watching? Check out our other posts on television words.