April 29, 2011

Fascinating fascinators, not all from Milan

Today is the day of the big Royal Wedding. Some people will remember it for Kate Middleton's elegant dress (a comeback for sleeves?), some will remember it for little Grace van Cutsem, who wasn't too impressed with the royal kiss, and some will remember it for the crazy hats, many of them created by milliner Philip Treacy (the occupation -- first listed in the 16th century -- was named after the city of Milan -- a place where fashionable wares for women were sold).

More precisely, decorative objects atop of ladies' heads made with feathers or beads are referred to as "fascinators" (from the Latin verb for "to enchant") or "cocktail hats." According to the OED, a fascinator was originally (in the 18th century) "a head shawl worn by women," and if we look at the creation worn by Princess Beatrice today, the word has come a long way.

(As of tonight, the Facebook group "In loving memory of the deer that gave its life for Princess Beatrice's hat" has more than 4500 fans.)

April 15, 2011

Fewer phonemes -- newer language

It is not often that linguistic news that involve counting phonemes make the front page of The New York Times:
Dr. Atkinson, an expert at applying mathematical methods to linguistics, has found a simple but striking pattern in some 500 languages spoken throughout the world: A language area uses fewer phonemes the farther that early humans had to travel from Africa to reach it. Some of the click-using languages of Africa have more than 100 phonemes, whereas Hawaiian, toward the far end of the human migration route out of Africa, has only 13. English has about 45 phonemes. This pattern of decreasing diversity with distance, similar to the well-established decrease in genetic diversity with distance from Africa, implies that the origin of modern human language is in the region of southwestern Africa, Dr. Atkinson says in an article published on Thursday in the journal Science.
You can listen to click sounds here (at about 0:58 in).

April 09, 2011

An unlikely hero

Animal abuse is everywhere. Sometimes, it helps to put a face on it -- and on the many people who care for its victims. Read about "Braveheart" and his journey from a dumpster in Kentucky to the critical care unit at the University of Wisconsin-Madison veterinary hospital here.

April 04, 2011

i [heart] oed

The Oxford English Dictionary has posted a list of the newest words added to its electronic version. Among them are initialisms like "OMG" (classified as interjection and adjective) and "LOL" (classified as interjection and noun), both "strongly associated with the language of electronic communications" (note the plural). The really interesting entry, however, is a symbol ♥, as in "I ♥ NY." I was delighted to see that the earliest quote that is given involves a dog!

The new sense added to heart v. in this update may be the first English usage to develop via the medium of T-shirts and bumper-stickers. It originated as a humorous reference to logos featuring a picture of a heart as a symbol for the verb love, like that of the famous ‘I ♥ NY’ tourism campaign. Our earliest quote for this use, from 1984, uses the verb in ‘I heart my dog’s head’, a jokey play on bumper stickers featuring a heart and a picture of the face of a particular breed of dog (expressing a person’s enthusiasm for, say, shih-tzus) which itself became a popular bumper sticker.  From these beginnings, heart v. has gone on to live an existence in more traditional genres of literature as a colloquial synonym for ‘to love’.