A Blog About Language

Dec. 4 2014 1:49 PM

Why Do Hawaiians Say “Mele Kalikimaka” on Christmas?

"Mele Kalikimaka is the thing to say / On a bright Hawaiian Christmas day"

What makes Bing Crosby's classic Christmas tune (well, the other one anyway) so endearing? At least part of the appeal is "Mele Kalikimaka" itself, which sounds tantalizingly close to "Merry Christmas" and yet not quite the same. So how did the Hawaiian language end up with this phrase?

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Nov. 25 2014 5:28 PM

Demons and Supervillains: The Language of Darren Wilson’s Grand Jury Testimony

What did Michael Brown’s face look like when, according to police officer Darren Wilson, Brown charged him? “It looked like a demon,” Wilson told the grand jury in his testimony. This is a highly unusual way to talk about someone in an official legal context, and so it’s useful to unpack the specific words Wilson used. When religiously charged language enters a courtroom, it is almost always meant literally. A handful of defendants in the past 50 years or so have blamed demons for inciting them to kill: Most famously, the “demon murder trial” of Arne Cheyenne Johnson involved a man who stabbed his landlord after claiming that the evil spirits expelled when his son underwent an exorcism took up residence in his own body. (He was convicted.) In one recent case, from South Florida, the defendant argued that the victim “gurgled and it sounded like demons”—sufficient grounds, in his mind, to stab her.

Of course, Wilson’s characterization of Brown doesn’t really fall into this tradition of literal, deranged belief. Instead it emerges, if unwittingly, from a long history of equating blackness with devilry. Literature is rife with examples: In Othello, the Moorish antihero is relentlessly compared to a demon. (When he swears that Desdemona has “gone to burning hell” for her unfaithfulness, another character rages: “O, more the angel she/ And you the blacker devil!”) Rudyard Kipling’s odious poem “La Nuit Blanche” has the narrator recount a ghastly dream in which “a huge black Devil City”—possibly representing Africa—“poured its peoples on my path.” Nor is contemporary culture immune from the association: In 2013, the History Channel infuriated liberal viewers for airing a miniseries, The Bible, that cast Satan as a Barack Obama lookalike.

Wilson’s testimony referred again and again to how insignificant he felt during the encounter. “I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” Wilson told the grand jury. “The gun,” he concludes at one point, “was my only option.” It might seem strange that an armed police officer facing an unarmed kid on the street in broad daylight believed himself so powerless, but powerlessness is exactly what this testimony evokes. Twice Wilson introduces a detail with the phrase “The only way I can describe it is …” The gloss makes whatever comes next sound inevitable (and gives the officer’s words an aura of trauma, unforced spontaneity, or of struggling to express something horrible).

This language, too, comes from somewhere. For a recent Slate article, Matthew Hutson spoke to researchers whose findings suggest that white people are likely to envision black people as preternaturally strong, fast, and immune to pain. “You hear these stories of virtually superhuman black males charging toward the police office or posing a larger-than-life physical threat,” one scientist told Hutson.

“I know if he reaches me, he’ll kill me,” Wilson testified on Sept. 16, remembering the fatal encounter with Brown. “When he gets about 8 to 10 feet away, I look down … all I see is his head and that’s what I shot.” What the officer “knows”—that a teenager who, according to some accounts, had his hands up in surrender, is going to kill him—seems like a function of that reductive, inevitability laden phrase: “all I see.” We can’t pretend his vision wasn’t shaped by the world he grew up in. Darren Wilson saw a beast, a fighter, and a demon in Michael Brown. In his mind, he didn’t have a choice.

Nov. 25 2014 1:20 PM

The Judge Who Coined “Indict a Ham Sandwich” Was Himself Indicted

In the aftermath of a grand jury's decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, commentators have noted that such an outcome is quite rare. "A grand jury could 'indict a ham sandwich,' but apparently not a white police officer," wrote the U.K.'s Independent. "If a jury can indict a ham sandwich, why is it taking so long?" asked Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson. Where did that delicious, evocative phrase come from?

Nov. 25 2014 12:57 PM

What’s the Word for Turkey in Turkish?

You've probably noticed that a certain seasonally appropriate bird and a country on the Mediterranean have strikingly similar names. Is this a coincidence or is there some deeper funny business going on?

Let's start with the simple part: The word for turkey in Turkish is hindi.

Wait, what? OK, so what’s the Hindi word for turkey?

Turns out that the word for turkey in Hindi is टर्की. And that, if you don’t know Devanagari, is transcribed ṭarkī in the Latin alphabet. Which looks an awful lot like turkey again.

What the heck is happening here?

Nov. 24 2014 2:30 PM

Sounding Gay, Punk, or Jock: What Language Says About Your Social Group

People tell me I sound gay. And I totally do.

Eh? What does "gay" even sound like? Really, when you think about it, how could there possibly be a correlation between who we sleep with and how we talk?

The way someone uses language can tell us a lot about who they are. When you hear a person talk, before you even see them, you can probably guess their age, gender, ethnicity, social class and level of education, and maybe even where they're from (or at least whether they're from the same place as you or not).

But what about sounding gay? 

Nov. 20 2014 2:54 PM

Sorry Not Sorry: The Many Names for Non-Apologies

This week’s 14-tweet "apology, of sorts" from Uber’s Travis Kalanick is the latest reminder of public figures’ unhappy habit of putting their foot in it. It’s a familiar news cycle intensified by social media, which can focus attention on a story and sustain pressure on its players until the cycle of anger forces a public apology—too often reluctant or insincere.

Writing in 2012 about the nature of apologies, I said that being sorry is about more than just saying the words, "but the words, as an explicit admission of wrongdoing or shortcoming, can be an important part of reconciliation." With a non-apology the aims and effects are wholly different.

Nov. 18 2014 1:20 PM

Why Swearing Is Just Like Saying “Please” (Sort Of)

There's a memorable scene in Tarantino's cult classic, Pulp Fiction. It's just after John Travolta's trigger-happy character, Vincent Vega, ham-handedly shoots the kid in the car. "The Wolf" is sent to fix the mess, stalks in, and immediately starts firing staccato orders. But at some point, Vincent interrupts his volley of imperatives with a sullen "A 'please' would be nice"—and stops The Wolf cold.

Now this is the cool part, linguistically speaking. What could Vincent have possibly found so unpalatable? Not the content of The Wolf's orders, surely: They were clear as could be. Not the intent: The Wolf was there to save his ass, and he knew it! No, the real problem was The Wolf's no-nonsense and brusque tone.

Terms like "please" don't actually add more information to the sentence, they provide commentary on it.

Nov. 17 2014 2:28 PM

Selfie, One Year Later, Still Going Strong

There can be few people who don't know that a selfie is a photograph that you take of yourself, typically with your smartphone. The Editors at Oxford Dictionaries started tracking the word back in April 2012, at which time it was noted that there were 36 examples on the newspaper database Nexis "mainly in reference to recent use by Hillary Clinton," who had apparently used the word in a text message to the owner of a Tumblr blog consisting solely of images of her sending texts. Our own Oxford English Corpus featured only two instances of the word.

By the following spring, databases of language use showed that selfie was becoming increasingly common in mainstream media sources and it was chosen for inclusion in the August 2013 update of OxfordDictionaries.com. Three months later, the evidence on the Oxford Corpus reflected such a dramatic explosion of usage that we chose selfie as our Word of the Year for 2013.

Nov. 14 2014 1:44 PM

What Do the Glyphs at Chipotle Mean? They’re Mayan—Sort of.

Like most people, I enjoy burritos. Unlike most people, I also enjoy learning about ancient hieroglyphic writing systems, because I’m Indiana—er—Language Jones. A while back, I bought Andrea Stone & Marc Zender’s Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture, and checked out a number of similar books from the library. I skimmed and enjoyed them, and then returned them. Stone & Zender took a place on my bookshelf and I moved on to other things, not anticipating I’d be able to see the Mayan ruins in Mexico any time soon.

Then it happened.

I went to a Chipotle in Philadelphia, looked at the wall, and realized their design was more than just decoration. There, looking back at me, was K’awiil, also known as God K, the "most ubiquitous god in Classic Maya art."

Nov. 12 2014 11:42 PM

How a Crossword Puzzle Gets Made

The first question asked of many crossword makers: “Do you write the clues first?”

To help explain why that wouldn't make sense, Slate’s Mike Vuolo, an occasional crossword writer for the New York Times and others, walks us through the process of creating a new puzzle in the video above. The art isn’t very complicated, but you do have to follow a few rules.

We recommend watching this video in full-screen mode.

Correction, Nov. 14, 2014: Due to an editing error, this video originally contained a crossword puzzle that did not actually have rotational symmetry. A corrected version of the video has been uploaded to replace it.