Category Archives: Language

Double triple

The judgment that that that is is is a true judgment.

— Aristotle (freely translated)


Filed under Language, Silliness

“Regular Joe” surnames



Mr. Blow has been the frontrunner all along, ever since generic Joes first rose to prominence and began to compete with generic Johns (Doe, Q. Public). Joe Bloggs enjoyed his quarter-hour of fame in the nineties but ended up falling as quickly as he had risen. Shmoe has always been my Joe of choice, so I’m gratified to see him gaining steadily, playing tortoise to Bloggs’s hare. If current trends continue, he’s set to surpass Blow within the next 10 years or so.



In Britain, on the other hand, Bloggs is unstoppable


Filed under Language, Silliness, Statistics

Whence “towering infernos”?

The most common sense of inferno in English, when used as a common noun rather than with reference to Dante’s poem, is “large conflagration.” But why? Because of the traditional (and biblical) image of hell-fire, of course — but why is the Italian word inferno, which entered English through Dante, used this way when hell so rarely is? Those who have read Dante’s Inferno know that fire hardly figures in it at all; and of course etymologically inferno simply means “underworld” (related to inferior and infra-). No one would dream of calling a conflagration a “towering underworld.”

Nevertheless, the word inferno is inextricably linked with the idea of a conflagration — so much so that some publishers simply must have a fire on the cover of Dante and aren’t too picky about what kind of fire it is. Here’s the Collins Classics edition:


Notice anything strange about that picture? Why is a horse burning in hell? Because this wasn’t originally meant to be a picture of hell at all. It’s Johann Georg Trautmann’s painting View of the Burning Troy. You will search Dante in vain for anything resembling this scene. But it shows “an inferno” — a conflagration — and was thus deemed appropriate.


My theory is that English-speakers are subconsciously influenced by the phonetic resemblance of inferno to furnace, with perhaps echoes of fire, burn, and incinerate as well.


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Filed under Language, Oddities

Excerpts from The Grand and Gray Pig-Latin Dictionary

beau v. omplycay

foe n. Eynmanfay

powers n. ixtysay inutesmay agesway

Rex n. adiographray

ripe interj. easeplay

sigh interj. onpay imay ordway!

so interj. ancay ouyay eesay?

Suez n. ethay Atesstay

sun v. ecantray

wonder adj. inway ogresspay

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Filed under Language, Silliness

Bilingual limerick

There once was a rhyme, not a long one,
Comprising both English and 中文。
I wrote it, but how?
I haven’t a clue, so 不用問。

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Filed under Language, Poetry, Silliness

Stereotypes according to Google

A few years ago I thought it would be interesting to type “why are ____ so” into Google (filling in the blank with various races, religions, nationalities, etc.) and see what suggestions the autocomplete function provided. I filed the results away and forgot about them, just finding them now as I was cleaning out some old folders.

You can’t replicate these results now. Google has apparently changed the autocomplete algorithm so it blocks such things, presumably because it makes Google look bad if they helpfully suggest that you might want to search for “why are Africans so ugly” or “why are Jews so cheap.” Since this information is no longer available to anyone who searches for it, I thought I’d share the results I got:

  • black people: loud, athletic, funny, angry, cool, mean, good at sports, muscular, good at basketball, religious
  • white people: fake, mean, rude, smart, attractive, rich, good looking, lame, skinny, annoying
  • Asians: smart, rude, thin, short, good at math, cheap, annoying, quiet, rich, perfect
  • Hispanics: rude, short, loud, religious, lazy, family oriented, fertile, proud, smart, annoying
  • men: lazy, mean, shallow, insecure, controlling, visual, immature, moody, annoying, complicated
  • women: emotional, crazy, difficult, mean, beautiful, confusing, needy, shallow, selfish, irrational
  • gays: gay, obnoxious, sensitive, in your face, powerful, feminine, hated, rich, angry
  • Christians: weird, arrogant, happy, nice, fake, annoying, narrow minded, angry, rude
  • atheists: hateful, mean, rude, arrogant, intolerant, smug, annoying, mean to christians, hated in america, aggressive
  • Muslims: angry, strict, sexist, sensitive, intolerant, radical, barbaric, cruel, nice, touchy
  • Mormons: pretty, successful, wealthy, awesome, fake, conservative, pushy, boring, annoying, arrogant
  • Buddhists: happy, selfish, peaceful, annoying, nice
  • Protestants: arrogant, stupid, anti catholic, annoying, ignorant, mean, conservative, bitter, dumb, judgemental
  • Catholics: mean, arrogant, strict, liberal, judgemental, annoying, rich, nice, interested in mary, conservative
  • Jews: cheap, smart, rich, powerful, intelligent, rude, funny, arrogant, persecuted, liberal
  • Republicans: stupid, evil, angry, mean, hateful, greedy, crazy, selfish, religious, paranoid
  • Democrats: stupid, angry, racist, dumb, ignorant, lazy, evil, awesome, ugly, blind
  • liberals: stupid, smug, arrogant, angry, mean, annoying, hateful, racist, naive, ugly
  • conservatives: stupid, hateful, angry, racist, crazy, afraid of obama, paranoid, ignorant, close minded, afraid
  • old people: mean, grumpy, racist, stubborn, cute, slow, angry, boring, dumb, cold
  • young people: stupid, lazy, rude, tall, selfish, depressed, mean, liberal, violent, shallow
  • Americans: stupid, rude, loud, ignorant, religious, tall, patriotic, lazy, paranoid, weird
  • Indians: smart, arrogant, annoying, skinny, short, creepy, good at math, corrupt, successful, loud
  • English people: arrogant, cold, mean, stuck up, funny, boring, skinny, tall, smart, reserved
  • French people: rude, mean, thin, attractive, gay, dark, short, annoying, hot, healthy
  • Africans: ugly, tall, strong, violent, fast, loud, stupid, dark, rude, good at running
  • British people: pale, smart, cool, cold, tan, skinny, polite, rude, lazy, sarcastic
  • Chinese people: rude, loud, smart, weird, short, heartless, cheap, rich, small, annoying
  • Russians: rude, strong, badass, good at chess, angry, rich, tall, weird, crazy, cold

I had planned to do similar searches for several other nationalities, but I didn’t get around to it — and now, as I’ve said, it is everlastingly too late.

Most of the results are no surprise, but I thought some of them were pretty funny. I love how the first result for “why are gays so…” is “…gay.” Also, notice how the British are apparently pale, tan, polite, and rude. (But perhaps some of those suggestions are sarcastic?) Above all, it is most heartening to see how much the Right and the Left have in common.


It really makes you wonder why politicians choose to focus so much on divisive issues instead of on the many important things that unite us.


Filed under Language, Politics, Statistics

Two Clouds of Unknowing

Several months ago I picked up a Modern English translation of The Cloud of Unknowing (an anonymous Middle English work of Christian mysticism) at a used bookstore in Taichung. It sat on my shelf for some time unread, and then suddenly I felt moved to read it. I finished in on April 19.

On May 4 — just fifteen days later — I went to the same used bookstore, and near the checkout counter there was a stack of fliers advertising an upcoming exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum called — Cloud of Unknowing. (This latter Cloud is being promoted on the museum website as “a themed exhibition on the subject of urban spatiality and issues pertaining to space” in commemoration of the 130th anniversary of the founding of Taipei, so the choice of the that particular name would be a bit of a mystery if we didn’t know the synchronicity fairies were behind it.)



Incidentally, much is lost in Clifton Wolters’s translation of The Cloud of Unknowing. I’ve never read the original, but I was tipped off to its poetic superiority by a page header in the translation.


Where the original had “a beam of ghostly light” (or, rather, “a beme of goostly liʒt”), Wolters replaces the gentle moonlight of “beam” with the more martial connotations of “shaft” — and then nixes the eerie, numinous “ghostly” in favor of the namby-pamby New-Agey “spiritual.”

The perfection of that one phrase, “a beam of ghostly light,” led me to look up the original text online. It opens with:

Ghostly friend in God, thou shalt well understand that I find, in my boisterous beholding,…

versus Wolters’s

My friend in God, it seems to me, in my rough and ready way,…

Really? “In my rough and ready way”? (“Boisterous beholding,” on the other hand, is so perfect that I decided to appropriate it as a new name for this blog.) And what happened to “ghostly” and “thou shalt well understand”? This is a pretty Zeppo-Marx approach to translation! (“Now, eh, you said a lot of things here that I didn’t think were important, so I just omitted them.”)

While the first word of the book is “just omitted,” elsewhere Wolters generally replaces every instance of ghostly with spiritual. While this is probably a perfectly defensible choice, given the way the meaning of ghostly has changed over time, I find that it annoys me to no end and seriously detracts from the quality of the book.

The truth is that neither ghostly nor spiritual is really an adequate rendition of the Middle English goostly. The Modern English ghostly has acquired unwanted connotations, having become too exclusively associated with apparitions of the dead, as opposed to spirits more generally. But spiritual, too, has suffered; it most often means simply “figurative” these days, or else “half-assedly non-religious.” Spiritual light sounds pedestrian, not at all supernatural, and leaves the reader blasé. Ghostly light has more the ring of authentic revelation, the sort of thing that “often times maketh my bones to quake while it maketh manifest.” It carries the connotation that every angel is terrible (and yet, alas, I invoke you, almost-deadly birds of the soul).* Neither is perfect; each adds or detracts something from the original; but I think ghostly is much to be preferred and comes closer to the spirit in which the Cloud was written. The 21st century is awash in spirituality (I, alas, am no exception), and a strong injection of medieval ghostliness is much wanted.


*Joseph Smith and Rilke, respectively


Filed under Anecdotes, Coincidence / Synchronicity, Language, Translation

Default genders of animals

Several animals have a “default gender” in English — by which I mean that the word for either the male or the female also serves as the word for the species in general. The word man, which can (or could until very recently) mean either a human being in general or specifically a male human being, is an example.

My initial assumption was that, while most animal species do not have a default gender, those that do would be overwhelmingly default-male, in line with traditional “sexism.” In fact, they turn out to be pretty evenly split.

Default-male animals: dog (vs. bitch), fox (vs. vixen), lion (vs. lioness), tiger (vs. tigress), and of course man (vs. woman).

Default-female animals: cow (vs. bull), duck (vs. drake), goose (vs. gander), and hawk (vs. tercel). Interestingly, these are almost all bird species. The only exception is cow, which technically refers only to the female but in practice is used more inclusively.

The above are the only animals I can think of which have a default gender. If you know of one that I missed, leave a comment.

Among mythical creatures, most are default-male — dragon (vs. dragoness), giant (vs. giantess), ogre (vs. ogress), etc. The only exception I can think of is griffin; heraldry distinguishes between the griffin (winged, without horns or spines) and the male griffin (horned, spiny, and wingless). Perhaps not coincidentally, the griffin is a bird-like monster.


Filed under Language

Calling things by their correct names is an aspect of self-control

From a comment by Bruce Charlton on this post (emphasis added):

Somebody who was married once told me that he was always ready to ‘commit adultery’ (he did not use those words) if ever the opportunity presented itself (plus of course he sought such situations), and that not to do this would be crazy.

From William James’s Principles of Psychology:

[I]n describing the ‘reasonable type’ of decision, it was said that it usually came when the right conception of the case was found. Where, however, the right conception is an anti-impulsive one, the whole intellectual ingenuity of the man usually goes to work to crowd it out of sight, and to find names for the emergency, by the help of which the dispositions of the moment may sound sanctified, and sloth or passion may reign unchecked. How many excuses does the drunkard find when each new temptation comes! It is a new brand of liquor which the interests of intellectual culture in such matters oblige him to test; moreover it is poured out and it is sin to waste it; or others are drinking and it would be churlishness to refuse; or it is but to enable him to sleep, or just to get through this job of work; or it isn’t drinking, it is because he feels so cold; or it is Christmas-day; or it is a means of stimulating him to make a more powerful resolution in favor of abstinence than any he has hitherto made; or it is just this once, and once doesn’t count, etc., etc., ad libitum – it is, in fact, anything you like except being a drunkard. That is the conception that will not stay before the poor soul’s attention. But if he once gets able to pick out that way of conceiving, from all the other possible ways of conceiving, from all the other possible ways of conceiving the various opportunities which occur, if through thick and thin he holds to it that this is being a drunkard and is nothing else, he is not likely to remain one long. The effort by which he succeeds in keeping the right name unwaveringly present to his mind proves to be his saving moral act.

Of course no one speaks of “being a drunkard” now, nor of “committing adultery.” Drunkards have been superseded by “alcoholics” (a medical term), and no one would be so gauche as to commit adultery when it is so much more civilized to simply have an “affair” or an “indiscretion.” (See documentation here and here.) Examples of such euphemistic treatment of vice and sin (two words which are themselves on the way out) could easily be multiplied.

We may think we are doing the drunkard and the adulterer a favor by finding gentler, less judgmental terms for their vices, when in fact the opposite may be true. Without confession — that is, admitting that a sin is a sin and refusing to call it anything else or make excuses for it — repentance is nearly impossible. Modern “sensitive” language makes it harder to think the thoughts which lead to reform. In shying away from judging others, we make it harder to judge ourselves.

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Filed under Ethics, Language, Psychology

How to use thee, thou, and other King James pronouns

Second-person pronouns

In modern English, you can refer to one person or to a group of people. King James English distinguishes between the singular (thou, thee) and the plural (ye, you).

The singular word for “you” is thou (subject) or thee (object). The possessive determiner corresponding to “your” is thy or thineThy is used before a word beginning with a consonant, and thine before a word beginning with a vowel. Either form is acceptable for words beginning with the letter “h”; thine is generally more common for h-words in the Bible, but both forms are used, sometimes even in the same verse (for example, Numbers 5:20 includes both “thy husband” and “thine husband”). Thine also serves as the possessive pronoun corresponding to “yours.” The sentences below illustrate the use of these four forms.

  • Thou hast a sword.
  • The sword belongeth to thee.
  • It is thy sword. (but: thine axe, thy/thine horse)
  • The sword is thine.

The plural for “you” is ye (subject) or you (object). The corresponding possessive forms are your and yours as in modern English.

  • Ye have a kingdom.
  • The kingdom belongeth to you.
  • It is your kingdom.
  • The kingdom is yours.

By the way, many people seem to have the idea that ye is “formal” and thou is “familiar.” That may be true of other European languages, and even of archaic English usage elsewhere, but it is not true of the language used in the Bible. In the King James Version, singular vs. plural is the whole story. Thou and thee are used even to address kings, and ye and you are always plural in meaning. This means, for example, that when Jesus says “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat” (Luke 22:31), the word “you” is plural and thus refers not to Simon (as most modern English speakers would assume) but to the disciples as a group.

My and mine

The possessive forms my and mine follow the same pattern as thy and thine. That is, my is used before a word beginning with a consonant, and mine before a word beginning with a vowel. (Both forms are okay before a word beginning with “h.”) Mine is also the possessive pronoun, as in modern English. Psalm 108:8 illustrates all of these rules: “Gilead is mine; Manasseh is mine; Ephraim also is the strength of mine head; Judah is my lawgiver.” (It would also be acceptable to say my head, a phrase which also occurs frequently in the KJV.)

Ways to say “its”

The possessive determiner its does not exist in King James English. Instead, the word his does double duty as the possessive form of both he and it — at least in theory. In practice, neuter his is rarely used; other structures such as thereof and of it are usually preferred. Here are some examples:

  • it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel (Genesis 3:15) — This example makes it clear that his is to it as thy is to thou.
  • the boards of the tabernacle, and the bars thereof, and the pillars thereof, and sockets thereof (Numbers 4:31)
  • that the brass of it may be hot, and may burn, and that the filthiness of it may be molten in it, that the scum of it may be consumed (Ezekiel 24:11).

Subject-verb agreement: -eth

In modern English, a verb with a third-person singular subject takes the -s ending. In King James English, the corresponding ending is -eth.

  • The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth (John 3:8)

Two verbs are irregular in this regard: have and do. The third-person singular of have is hath. The verb do has two different third-person singular forms, doth and doeth. We use doth when it is an auxiliary verb, as in the following examples:

  • Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider (Isaiah 1:3)
  • Doth God pervert judgment? or doth the Almighty pervert justice? (Job 8:3)
  • For his God doth instruct him to discretion, and doth teach him (Isaiah 28:26)

The form doeth is used when it is the main verb of the sentence, as in the following examples.

  • He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God (3 John 1:11)
  • Cursed be he that doeth the work of the Lord deceitfully (Jeremiah 48:10)

Subject-verb agreement: -est

If the subject of a sentence is thou (second-person singular), the verb takes the -est ending. Unlike -eth (and unlike its modern counterpart -s), this ending is required for all verbs, including even modal auxiliaries (such as will, can, may, etc.) and past-tense forms.

A few verbs have irregular -est forms:

  • are → art
  • were → wast / wert
  • have → hast
  • do → dost / doest
  • can → canst
  • will → wilt
  • must → must (no change)
  • shall → shalt

The normal second-person singular past form of “to be” is wast. The form wert is the so-called past subjunctive, used primarily in if-clauses and in sentences expressing wishes. It corresponds to were as in “If I were you…” or “I wish I were…”

  • Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day that thou wast created (Ezekiel 28:15)
  • If thou wert pure and upright; surely he would awake for thee (Job 8:6)
  • I would thou wert hot or cold (Revelation 3:15)

The distinction between dost and doest is the same as that between doth and doeth, discussed above. The shorter form is used as an auxiliary verb; the longer, as the main verb of a sentence.

  • But why dost thou judge they brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? (Romans 14:10)
  • If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door (Genesis 4:7)

For most past forms ending with the letter “d,” the ending is -st rather than -est. Exceptions include the past modals wouldest, couldest, and shouldest. (The forms wouldst, couldst, and shouldst are also used, but not in the Bible.)

  • Wherefore then didst thou not obey the voice of the Lord, but didst fly upon the spoil, and didst evil in the sight of the Lord? (1 Samuel 15:19)
  • O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments! (Isaiah 48:18)
  • I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me (Matthew 18:32)

A note on direct address

The subject forms, ye and thou, are used in direct address.

  • Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? (Matthew 23:33)
  • Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee (Luke 12:20)

(However, note that the King James equivalent of “Hey, you!” is not “Hey, thou!” but rather “Ho, such an one!”)

Also note that if a relative clause modifies a vocative phrase (as in, “Our Father which art in heaven”), the verb agrees with thou even if the word thou is not actually used. This is different from modern English, which uses third-person verb forms in such structures (modern translations have “Our Father who is in heaven”).


Filed under Language, Scripture