The Weird, Embarrassing, Fascinating Things People Asked Librarians Before the Internet
Before Google came along to offer us confidential answers to our most embarrassing, random, and incriminating questions, librarians roamed the earth. They fielded anonymous queries by phone and in person; transcribed on index cards, some of those scraps of curiosity (in both senses) were customarily filed and stored away. The New York Public Library’s archive of batty inquiry languished until Tuesday, when staff announced on Instagram that they had unearthed an old recipe box while cleaning out a desk. It was full of “Interesting Reference Questions” from the 1940s to the 1980s. Some entries were scholarly (“Did Jules Verne write Alice in Wonderland?”) and some desperate (“Any statistics on the lifespan of the abandoned woman?”). Gothamist and BuzzFeed picked up the story, fascinated by the window into the private bedevilments of New Yorkers past. And folks at the NYPL said they would start unveiling their favorite questions every Monday with the hashtag #LetMeLibrarianThatForYou.
Meanwhile, something even weirder was happening at Slate. Cleaning out our own storage room, we discovered a box that contained … a dusty, omniscient librarian! We ran some of the NYPL queries by her, and are pleased to publish the results.
Q: Has the gun with which Oswald shot President Kennedy been returned to the family?
Q: I just saw a mouse in the kitchen. Is DDT OK to use?
Q: Do mice throw up?
A: They do if you spray them with DDT.
Q: Is it possible to keep an octopus in a private home?
A: Yes, but make sure your medicine and liquor cabinets are extra childproofed.
Q: What percentage of all bathtubs in the world are in the U.S.?
A: 28 percent. Is this about the octopus?
Q: Are Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates the same person?
A: No. They all have different ideas about snack mix.
Q: Where can I rent a beagle for hunting?
A: Victorian England.
Q: What does it mean when you dream of being chased by an elephant?
A: You are President Obama.
Q: What is the life span of an eyelash?
A: You want to know why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong women the man?
A: Yes, send a thank you note. As for figuring out the name of the 27 million dollar Bahrainian heir, let me Google that for you.
What Can Popular Presents Tell Us About Linguistics? A (Metaphorical) Gift Guide.
Mele Kalikimaka may be the Hawaiian way to shine your linguistic star this holiday season, but how can us word-nerds and language-curious types share our passion in a more tangible way? Is there anything to spin our dreidels and jingle our bells that isn’t yet another grammar guide? Of course there is! While they may not make actual languages up at the North Pole, sometimes the greatest gift is understanding, so let's reach deep into Santa's sack and see what the goodies in there can tell us about how language works.
Why the F Aren’t You Reading This New Blog About Swearing?
If you aren’t reading Strong Language, a new “sweary blog about swearing” from linguists James Harbeck and Stan Carey, you really fucking should. This cheerful temple to the vulgar and profane has only been around for a few weeks, but the roster of contributors—which includes friends of Lexicon Valley Ben Zimmer and Gretchen McCulloch—is already killing it. What is the syntactic role of the in what the fuck? (The construction is called a “vexation interrogative,” as in who the hell knows what the tar a vexation interrogative is?) How many damns, shits, and fucks do we give today versus in 1762? (That’s a trick question: No one ever actually gives a “negative polarity item”—you only don’t give them, unless you are literally pooping.) Why are boobs more decorous than tits? (The first “sound rounder” and conjure up a pleasing “overall shape,” writes Harbeck, whereas the auditory resemblance between tits, nipples, and tips “brings to mind pointy nipples … the one thing to conceal.”) Plus, there are immortal cinematic obscenities. Illegal shit-ins. The most offensive words in the U.K., the U.S., Denmark, Spain, and Brazil, as revealed by the uncontrollable blurting of coprolaliacs, or people who can’t help swearing. (Are we all to some degree coprolaliac? The amount I cackle in delight while reading Strong Language suggests yes.)
My favorite post so far is by Iva Cheung and asks: “Is shit a contronym?” In other words, does the noun embrace its own opposite—either as something awesome (“that song’s the shit”) or stupid (“that song is shit”)? What role do definite articles play in deciding which variety of feces is on hand?
Also, come to Strong Language for sentences like the following:
The fuckin’ in “You gotta be fuckin’ kidding” is surplus to compositional meaning but crucial to the moment and the encounter. Its trochee supplies essential force to the line’s measured disbelief, extending Palmer’s (and by extension the group’s) appalled bewilderment at the boggling form of their alien enemy.
Stay for the, you know, balls.
Is It Kosher to Talk About the “Pot Calling the Kettle Black”?
Welcome to Lexicon Valley’s new feature, “Is That Kosher?” A fuller linguistic arsenal leads to richer, chewier, more diverse expression—but when is the usefulness of a piece of language outweighed by the pain it causes? In “Is That Kosher?” we’ll reflect on certain words or phrases that lie in the margins of acceptability. Today’s idiom: “the pot calling the kettle black.”
Language Travel Tips: How to Talk to Someone Who Doesn’t Speak Much English
People travel a lot these days—and they're often speaking English when doing it, even if it's not their first language. If you're already fluent, you've definitely got an advantage talking to someone who's not very proficient in English, but you may still find yourself at a loss. If you just keep on chatting like you would with anyone else, you're probably not going to be understood, but what should you do instead?
Despite how often you see it in popular culture, simply speaking louder, (a.k.a “translation by volume”), doesn’t help much. But there are certain features of English that are surprisingly difficult to learn as an adult, but which you're probably completely oblivious to if you learned it as a child. Here are 9 linguistically-informed tips for communicating interculturally in a meeting, at a conference, or travelling abroad.
Don’t Stay Classy
Occasionally a word wends its way into the cockles of whatever the Internet has instead of a heart. Classy, the adjectival equivalent of a graceful, pearl-draped woman in a ball gown, is one example. It joins the ranks of such preprogrammed Web responses as “SMDH,” “this,” and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
This (THIS!) is a shame (SMDH). English has so many alternatives to “classy” that are at once more precise and less offensive: elegant, stylish, sophisticated, courteous, brave, distinctive, swanky, ravishing, comely. When L.A. Times fashion critic Booth Moore tweeted last week that, “shrugging off [its] Kim Kardashian and Kanye brand image,” Givenchy had cast “Julia Roberts in a classy spring ad campaign,” she conveyed something uglier than what (we hope) she intended. Her point—change-up!—was obscured beneath waves of implied racial and socioeconomic bias. A subtweeter, perhaps riffing on Sheryl Sandberg’s imprecations against the word bossy, implored, “#banclassy.”
Classy is, of course, classist, wearing its snobbery on its sleeve. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the modifier dates to 1891; it’s a spinoff of class, which originally hailed from a Latin term for “fleet” or “division.” As words that carve up humanity go, class used to be neutral and descriptive. When Servius Tullius, the sixth king of Rome, conducted the first census for taxation purposes, he separated the populace into six orders, each a classis. Class entered the English language in the 17th century, blandly denoting “a number of individuals … possessing common attributes” or “a rank or grade of society.”
The Plague of Fake Paraphrasing
Countless foreheads hit countless keyboards at 11:23 on Dec. 16, when Wolf Blitzer, reacting to Jeb Bush’s Twitter teasing of a Facebook announcement that he “will actively explore the possibility of running for President of the United States,” perpetrated this tweet.
There was a chorus of “Wolf” and “delete your account.” The dismay had something to do with Wolf’s attempt to sex up presidential politics by borrowing from pop culture, and also with the genre of groaner wordplay, and also with the fact that others had already test-driven this joke before subjecting themselves to penitential swirlies. Reviews from Slate’s Twitter criticism desk included: “It’s not even a worthwhile insight,” “would have worked without overexplaining ‘GOP’ ” and “should have been ‘all about the baes.’ ” A more sympathetic soul countered that Blitzer had issued the best possible PSA for “those of us of a certain age”—that one must “avoid youthspeak at all costs,” regardless of how “down” one feels.
Young Women Shouldn’t Have to Talk Like Men to Be Taken Seriously
If you're a young woman, you've probably been told there's something wrong with your voice.
It seems like there are always new features of women’s speech that need to be corrected, be ituptalk, vocal fry, higher pitch, swoopy intonation (believe it or not, that is the technical linguistic term), using discourse markers like “like,” or simply speaking too much. One woman even made a movie just to tell young women all the things they should change about their voices.
And I've been told the same thing. Last week, I gave an interview on NPR, and while most of the reactions were overwhelmingly positive, I also received several messages suggesting I change my voice so that people will take me seriously. Why? Well, I uptalk. But I'm not ashamed of it, and no one else should be either.
Dumbwatches, Pinch-to-Zoom, and Glanceability: New Words via Technology
Even the least tech-savvy lexicographer understands that technology is a robust source of new words. As technologies move from the realm of science fiction into our everyday realities, new words and meanings spring up around them. While it is expected that names for these new technologies and the words describing our interaction with them are regularly entering the language, there are less obvious coinages that grow out of technological advancement. Old technologies get rebranded to disambiguate them from newer ones, and more abstract terms enter the lexicon to characterize how our world has been shaped by innovation.
The Stimulating History of Coffee: Why You Hear This Word Around the World
Imagine that you’re flying Turkish Air. The beverage cart bumps down the aisle. A flight attendant holds up that little carafe and asks, kah-vay?
You travel a lot. Now you’re flying Finnair. The beverage cart bumps down the aisle. A flight attendant holds up that little carafe and asks, ka-vee?
Still racking up the frequent flier miles. It’s Air China today. The beverage cart makes its weary way down the aisle. The flight attendant holds up that little carafe. Ka-fay?
You don’t speak Turkish. You don’t speak Finnish. You don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese. None of these languages is remotely related to English. In fact, none of these languages are even in the same language family. Yet you can recognize, within the two quick syllables of kah-vay, ka-vee, and ka-fay, the word you know as coffee. As a frequent flier, you’ve picked up Kaffee in Berlin and caffè in Rome. You travel to Lagos and pick out kofi on the menu; you order kŏfī in Delhi and кофе in St. Petersburg. In Seoul you’re brought something that sounds like ka-pee, and in Tehran you’re served gah-veh. It’s always recognizable: the two reliable syllables, the seesaw of vowel sounds punctuated by velar stopsand fricatives. Why is that?