Archive for the ‘the evolution of words’ Category

The commentators are a wealth of knowledge of arcane factoids:

For instance, we’ve all taken a “Jitney”. Some are ferries, some are buses but have you ever wondered where the name came from? Back in the beginning of the 20th century, it cost 5 cents to ride public transportation. A “jitney” was slang for a nickel. The name stuck for the short route transports even though today it costs a hundred times more to ride them!

And have you ever wondered what a group of butterflies are called? They are known as a “Kaleidoscope”.


Here’s a new word: “stream cheating”. This is when you can’t wait for your significant other to stream your favorite TV show.

It has also been dubbed by New York Magazine as “Netflix Adultery”. A Harris Interactive survey on behalf of Netflix said that 51% of those in a relationship would do just that. And gasp, some revealed that they would even watch it a second time and pretend they haven’t seen it.

You’ve used them texting or tweeting in order to save time or characters. But why on earth would anyone create restaurant names like “Thir13en” or a theatre “2econd Stage Theatre” or title for a TV show “Numb3rs”? When reading it silently to yourself, no problem. But how do you pronounce it if, say, you’re on the phone: “Meet me at <?>” you usually wind up spelling it out. 

OK, they are clever, they substitute numerals for letters in a way that looks original and ties the meaning of the numerals to the concept of the name. When you see them you can grasp their originality or playfulness. But when you have to speak them or spell them to someone, usually the explanation creates more confusion that the creator took into consideration.

Urls have used them for years as a way to get around already taken domain names. But in the real world, yes, this might create an original name for your business but is it memorable? Will it last the test of time? What kind of image does it give your brand? Don’t let visually oriented people on your team fall in love with this cutesy way out of a naming problem. And if you think only urls and business names have become victim to this trend, I hear that people are going the numword route in naming their kids! That to me is “dumwords”.

“Shorthand” the writing of common English words eliminating letters has been around for decades. So has jargon and slang that use words specific to an industry or social group. But with the advent of texting, and Twitter, you could say new modern “languages” have been born.

Twitter is really more like a word game. It challenges you to communicate within the confines of its 140 character limitation. Sort of like a journalist having to come up with a good short headline for a story. Only on Twitter you can contract words, leave out letters, or use words that are familiar with your readers but which other groups wouldn’t understand. (Read some of Lady Gaga’s Tweets and you’ll get the idea – who the heck are “little Monsters”???!)

Texting doesn’t put a limit on characters or the number of words but like old fashioned shorthand, it is easier to type a message using special words or leaving out letters. I believe this grew from the fact that your keyboard is so tiny, eliminating keystrokes makes typing the message easier. It took me forever to learn how to “thumb” a message (using my other fingers was a nightmare) and I still am amazed when I see a man with huge “paws” entering a message quickly on a tiny device!

 The result is that people have become so used to communicating in this “shorthand” language, that even at a full sized computer keyboard they don’t want to type out full words. Young people have an especially hard time switching from shorthand to normal English. This, of course, impedes communications such as work related correspondence or creating a job search cover letter that sounds professional.

It has also created what used to be called “slang”, words specific to a certain subculture, that are not in the dictionary. First is was using letters to describe things like the infamous LOL. Then it morphed into respelling words so they were shortened like substituting the numeral 4 instead of spelling “for”. Or getting real cre8tive just for the heck of it. Of course there are the totally new words like “hash tag” that in itself spawned “bashtagging” (bashing a company on Twitter using its own hash tag). Or giving a word another meaning for example a “Tweet” once meant only the sound a bird makes! Good or bad? Well, it’s always been said that language is a living thing and changes over time. We don’t speak the way they did in Shakespeare’s day, so why not #change?

Here are a few websites that will have you laughing, (or should I say twittering) or teach you a thing or two about these new “languages”:

Mashable’s Twitterspeak

A dictionary of Twitter words

For texting there are just too many good ones. So type “texting vocabulary” into your search engine of choice and have fun surfing the results!


In the March/April issue of Saudi Aramco World there was a fascinating article about falconry “A Heritage Takes Wing”. It is the traditional (not just in the Middle East) practice of keeping falcons and other birds of prey to hunt in cooperation with humans and is a centuries old sport. Like any other sport or cultural endeavor, it has its own terminology. But I was fascinated to discover that some of our common English words and phrases have their roots in falconry. 

Here are a few:

Musket – the word for a male sparrowhawk, which flies quickly from the hand. This bird was likely the inspiration for the name of the muzzle-loaded infantry gun when it was invented, since the sparrowhawk was a familiar fast-flying object at that time. 

Cadger – the man who carried the wooden rack, called a cadge, for falcons to perch on during hunts. Often an older falconer, he’d usually stand off to the side of the action, trying to cadge tips by spinning good stories. A likely description of an old babbler that we call a codger. 

Bousing – When a hawk takes a deep drink. When a person drinks too deeply, it’s called boozing!

Hoodwinked – deceiving someone is like the slipping of a hood over a falcon’s head plunging the bird into a darkness. 

“Under your thumb” or “wrapped around your finger” describes securing jesses, the ties that keep a bird upon the falconer’s arm and fully in his control and thus when used today means controlling someone.


This is the first in a series of posts about how ordinary words morph into something else.

Remote…What’s the first definition that springs to mind? Something physically far way. Or something in the past. Right?  Or it can mean controlling something from a distance, as in NASA controlling from earth the rover, Curiosity, on Mars. But to most us, there is an even more common usage of this word: the remote, as in never having to get up and manually change a tv channel, or the music player, or the wall heater, or the ceiling fan or your table lamp! 

I suppose it’s sort of like the Pharoah’s snapping of his fingers and a slave running up to fetch food. But snapping fingers couldn’t lift a stone to build a pyramid, or automatically light a torch. Today we have that small genie at our fingertips. One push of the button and voila, something happens as soon as it’s pushed. That is until the battries die!

The first remotes were large and bulky and tethered by a cord to the tv set. Back then they made use of radio waves to transmit a signal. Of course that caused problems when your tv was on the wall next to your neighbor’s set of the same make! Technologists, ever trying to make our lives easier, reinvented the remote to utilize infrared light and all those problems vanished. The next step up was the creation of the universal remote that could be programmed to send and receive the codes from any of a multitude of devices. No more grabbing the wrong remote and wondering why it wasn’t working. Oh, there even is a device where you can stick a small tag on your remotes that sends out a special RFID (radio frequency id) signal to that the special remote that came with them and it will then make the tag beep. A remote for a remote!

Thus the remote has gone beyond the pushbuttons for changing channels or playing a DVD. Cars now can be started by special remotes, their doors can be locked or unlocked by remotes, and yes, you can even put a tag on your kid, that when you press a remote will locate him!  Now if only they would invent a remote that could instanly dump a bag of money on our livingroom floor!

“The moving hand has writ and moving on…” The Rubiat of Omar Kyam

An article  I recently read in The Star-ledger newspaper stated that children are no longer required to learn “cursive” writing. Some educators believe that handwriting, especially the cursive type, will become obsolete given that we use electronic devices these days from taking notes to writing books. I think that this is a terrible turn of events in the cultural history of the human race. Writing by taking a pen to paper is what has distinguished us from other species for millennium. Not only that but the beauty of a handwritten alphabet cannot be surpassed by sterile marks on a printed page. If you don’t think writing is beautiful (maybe because like me yours is “chicken scrawl”) do some research on the cursive scripts of Arabia, Persia, Miramar. Or the character based Chinese and Japanese ones. Yes, they now can be computer generated but there is something in script written by hand that produces a unique beauty. Top of the line is the illustrated manuscripts of the middle ages, their beauty is breathtaking. And even now, in the 21st century, some cultures still revere words written by hand: the sacred Torahs of Judaism are lovingly recreated, letter by letter by hand!

It’s that infusion of the human spirit in the creation of writing that sets it apart from a personal laser or digital press printing. Someone took a thought, and from brain it traveled through the hand through the writing instrument, until it left its mark on the paper.

A year ago a friend of mine lost her husband of 60 years. Recently she talked to me about all the cards and notes she had received after his funeral. How rereading them was such a comfort to her. All in the distinctive handwriting of the sender. A little bit of that person was embedded in that card and will live on as long as the paper has substance. She also talked about coming across some of his notes and lists and how seeing his script brought tears to her eyes. Indeed, after 9/11 one consistent comment was how the notes, lists, and journals that those who had passed away had written by hand gave such great solace to the loved ones reading them.

The following is a quote from an essay I wrote weeks after 9/11: “For it is in the reading and re reading of a writing that the deeper meanings slowly bubble to the surface. And I will hope that all those grieving will read and reread all the letters, and lists, and writings that their loved ones had left behind. For it is in …both the banal and sublime, that the ultimate meaning becomes clear: I loved you enough to put words to paper. I left a little part of myself for you to hold in the dark of night.” Where do you stand on the importance of “handwriting”? Let me know.