Yearly Archives: 2011

  1. Twinkle, twinkle: The hidden purpose behind the silliness of nursery rhymes

    Nursery rhymes rely on meter and rhyme to stick into our memories. When we remember them, we do not remember just the words; we remember them in time, sometimes even with their pitch. Before children acquire words and syntax, parents naturally talk to them in a particular style. In the late 1980s, psychologist

  2. Netherlands, Dutch, demonym

    Why Are People from the Netherlands Called Dutch?

    As we’ve discussed before, if you live in Michigan, you may consider yourself a Michigander or a Michiganian. (Check it out.) But why are demonyms so various and seemingly random? A demonym is any name derived from a place. The word “demonym” was coined by Paul Dickson, an editor at Merriam-Webster, in his 1997 book Labels for Locals. Californian, Frenchmen, New Yorker, and Swiss are …

  3. Why did “noon” used to mean 3:00?

    The biggest surprises tend to hide in plain sight. We’ve found this to be true with the origins of words like hello (check it out), and especially the somewhat naughty roots of Miss (read about that here.) With noon, we’ve uncovered a remarkable fact that will change how you think of 12:00. First, some essential background. Clocks and watches are relatively

  4. How does classic children’s novel, The Phantom Tollbooth, use words themselves as a plot device?

    Every work of literature relies on the dictionary. Many writers would say that the goal of fiction is to use powerful words to tell a story without calling attention to the words themselves. A small number of books, however, actually make words, meaning, and language their plot or even transform the workings of language into characters. This practice is called meta-fiction, and today we pay …

  5. Why is a new element named after a suburb of San Francisco?

    On Saturday the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry proposed the names of two new elements. Currently element number 114 and element number 116 do not have official names in the periodic table of elements. The elements were previously known as ununquadium and ununhexium. Those long, unpronounceable words were the temporarily used systematic element names. The names are generated from their atomic number, but …

  6. What parts of the brain distinguish words from sentences?

    In English class, your grade doesn’t differentiate between how large your vocabulary is and how well you write a sentence. But recent research shows that your brain does! This evidence may mean that increasing your vocabulary won’t necessarily influence fluency when learning a new language. Two parts of the brain, Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, play a large part in processing language. Broca’s area has been linked …

  7. Why Tergiversate Is Our 2011 Word of the Year

    There are essentially two ways to pick a “word of the year.” One common approach is to select from words whose common usage reflects some quality of the year past. Expect to see “occupy,” “winning,” etc., on many selections this December. Another way involves actually using the dictionary. Is there a word that captures the character of 2011, regardless of its popularity or ubiquity? In …

  8. Where Words Come From

    The study of words is called lexicology—not to be confused with phraseology, philology, syntax, morphology, lexicography or semantics. How do lexicologists create new words? Actually, they don’t—think how ridiculous it would be if a deranged lexicologist had the power and desire to create hundreds of new words! In reality, they observe the way English is used and choose words from their findings.

  9. Why is Catholic Church changing its official Mass?

    This weekend the Catholic Church is changing the required English-language Mass. This is a big deal because it is the third time in the 1700-year history of the Church that the Mass is being formally changed, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. First let’s review a brief history of the Catholic Church. The Church and its sacred documents were codified at the Council of Nicaea in …

  10. Is pizza really a vegetable?

    You may have heard that the U.S. Congress recently reaffirmed that pizza is a vegetable. Of course, the situation is more complicated than that. The U.S. Department of Agriculture—which regulates the school lunches served to millions of American children—proposed a new standard for school lunches. Specifically, they suggested reducing the amount of sodium in school lunches, and they also wanted to cut down on french …