How do you translate a colloquial, nonliteral expression like Trainwreck—the title of the new Amy Schumer feature film—into non-English languages? IMDb has a list of global akas; Mashable has helpfully re-translated some of them. (Not included in the Mashable list: Y de repente tú (“And suddenly you”), probably the most romantically inclined of the bunch. In France, by the way, the official title is Crazy Amy—yes, in English.
Translation of the French Canadian title, Cas désespéré.
Three guys were watching HBO’s “Silicon Valley” when it occurred to them to create a dictionary of jargon used on the show. The result is Silicon Valley Dictionary, where you’ll find definitions for terms like This changes everything (“Nothing has changed. Pure marketing”) and Awesome journey (“used when a startup has failed”).
Rogue: Scoundrel, knave, scamp, mischievous person (noun; usually a man); aberrant, corrupt, uncontrollable, mischievous (adjective). Also a verb used in horticulture and agriculture: to weed out inferior or untypical (“rogue”) plants.
Rogue has been in the news because of the U.S. theatrical release, on July 31, of the fifth installment in the Mission Impossible series, subtitled Rogue Nation. Like its four predecessors, the film stars Tom Cruise.
“Rogue Nation follows IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise) and his team as they battle the titular rogue nation, an organisation of assassins and criminals called The Syndicate.”—TV Tropes. The film brought in $56 million over the weekend in the U.S., making it the #1 box-office earner.
My new column for the Visual Thesaurus looks at the shifting and varied meanings of special—a word that can mean particular, extraordinary, dear, and having an intellectual disability. I consider special delivery, BlueLight Special, Afterschool Special, and more.
By the time Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a sister of President John F. Kennedy, founded the Special Olympics in 1968, the association of “special” with “mentally challenged” was firmly established. If anything, it was the word “Olympics” that was controversial: the U.S. Olympic Committee holds a tight grip on the word, but in 1971 it granted official approval—a special dispensation, you might say—to the Special Olympics.
Special Olympics, special needs, and special education are just a few examples of the exceptional flexibility of special. Since it first crossed the English Channel from France in the 13th century, special has taken on multiple meanings—particular, remarkable, dear—and become part of dozens of idioms and expressions, from special relativity in physics to special magistrate, special pleading, and special prosecutor in law; from special effects in TV and movies (earliest usage: 1909) to special teams in US football. Its literal meaning, from Latin specialis, is “individual” or “particular,” as opposed to “general.” (Compare the related words species and genus.) But its extended meanings range far and wide.
The fourteenth Special Olympics begins July 25 in Los Angeles. Its theme song, “Fly,” was written and performed by Avril Lavigne, who has said “her struggle with Lyme disease inspired her to work on the project.” The singer was bedridden for five months. She does not, however, have any lingering mental or intellectual disabilities.
Blog bonus #2:
“Isn't that special”: Dana Carvey as Church Lady, “Saturday Night Live.”
Mayhem: Violent behavior, physical assault, or disorder. In criminal law, mayhem is the infliction of physical injury on a person so as to impair that person’s capacity for self-defense. The word entered English in the late 15th century from Anglo-French maihem, which means “injury, harm, damage”; it’s related to maim.
Nest Labs, makers of “smart devices” for the home—including a thermostat and smoke detector—last week introduced a new product, the Nest Cam video camera. (The product is the result of Nest’s 2014 acquisition of Dropcam.) Ads for the product put a cozy spin on “mayhem”:
“Witness the mayhem in glorious HD.” Outdoor ad, Fourth Street, San Francisco, June 21.
Nest Cam has a security function: according to a Nest.com blog post, it can help you see “if an intruder turns on a flash light, or if headlights flash across your window.” But Nest Labs downplays the scare factor. Rather, the device helps you “save the stuff you want to remember” and be prepared “every time your kid or pet does something cute.” Muddy footprints on the carpet, a toilet-paper trail across the lawn—that’s the domesticated “mayhem” Nest hopes you’ll record and view.
This isn’t the first appearance of mayhem in advertising. In 2010 insurance company Allstate introduced a character called Mayhem, played by the actor Dean Winters, who personified every catastrophe that could befall your house or car. Also contributing to the cuteification of “mayhem” was the 2012 debut, at Universal Studios Florida and Universal Studios Hollywood, of Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, a simulator ride based on the animated film(s) Despicable Me.
There is no Minion named Mayhem, but there’s a minionesque aspect to the Nest Cam.
Minion. Nest Cam.
From another corner of the culture comes Mayhem Parva (literally “small mayhem”), a fixture in British crime fiction. Here’s how the OED defines it:
Mayhem Parva n. [ < mayhem n. + classical Latin parva, feminine singular of parvus little (see parvi-comb. form), after English village names with this as second element (e.g. Ash Parva, Shropshire, Ashby Parva, Leicestershire, etc.)] (esp. in critical writing) the genre of mystery stories set in a rural English village; (the generic name for) a typical English village as the setting for a violent crime; freq. attrib., as Mayhem Parva school, etc.
The OED’s earliest citation for Mayhem Parva is dated 1971, from Snobbery with Violence, a murder mystery by Colin Watson set in the fictional village of Mayhem Parva, “where amateur lady sleuths competed with seasoned Scotland Yarders to nab the least likely suspect.”
A December 5, 2009, story in SF Luxe about “the Pacific Heights dream house,” a seven-bedroom Victorian at 2311 Broadway, had this gushing comment about a pent room:
The bright and airy pent room on the top level features soaring cathedral ceilings, sparkling views sweeping across the City and Bay, a wet bar with refrigerator and an abundance of skylights and windows. It works beautifully as a combination media and family/game room –– and is a perfect spot to enjoy sunsets over the Golden Gate Bridge*.
*On fog-free days.
Listed at $6,950,000, this house sold in 2010 for $6,500,000. A current Zillow estimate places its value at more than $10.5 million.
“For the adults, Jeff Schlarb of Green Couch Interior Design created the ‘Pent Room,’ a space for gathering, gaming, entertaining and relaxing.”
A pent room is the smaller cousin of a penthouse (first documented use: 1921), now defined as a luxury apartment on the top floor(s) of a skyscraper. According to a Wikipedia entry:
One of the earliest penthouse apartments in [New York] was publisher Conde Nast’s duplex penthouse at 1040 Park Avenue. The original 1923 plan for the building provided three units on each floor with additional maids’ rooms on the roof, but in 1924 the building’s upper spaces were constructed to provide a grand duplex for Nast. Connected by a staircase to the rooftop entertaining salons, the corner unit at the top floor was redesigned to be private family quarters.
But penthouse wasn’t coined in the 20th century. It first appeared in the early 14th century, when it was spelled pendize and referred to any attached building, often a simple structure. (According to Online Etymology Dictionary, in some Middle English homilies Jesus’ birthplace was called not a manger but a penthouse.)
The pent- of penthouse and pent room is unrelated to the pent in pent-up (confined), which is a past participle of pen. In fact, penthouse is an example of a false etymology’s influence on spelling. Here’s Daily Etymology:
The Middle English word “pendize” was changed over time to a combination of the more familiar English word “house” (a natural assumption since the original word indicated a somewhat house-like structure) and the Middle French “pente” meaning “slope.” In other words, the penthouse was originally an attached building with a sloping roof.
So a pent room is actually an appendage room – what might, in a less frenzied market, have simply been called a bonus room, attic, or garret.
There’s evidence of even further pent- drift in a 2011 listing for a Telegraph Hill (San Francisco) house with a “view pent level family room & spacious deck.” “View” is intended here as an adjective, and “pent” may be a shortening of “penthouse.” In Brooklyn, “pent level” can refer to something far more modest, as in a recent Craigslist listing for a “large pent level studio flat!!” with “modern flare [sic].” Rent: $1,925 a month. In San Francisco, that would be considered a bargain.
My January column for the Visual Thesaurus looks at how smart came to be attached to so many inanimate objects, from phones to skin lotion, from bombs to highways, from quotation marks to fabric. Along the way, I consider the multiple senses of this very old word, which can mean “stylish,” “cheeky,” or “to cause pain,” as well as “witty” or “intelligent.”
No subscription needed to view the column this month (not always the case!). Here’s a taste:
The sense of smart = shrewd extends to the slangy smart-ass, which first appeared in print in 1951 in an American detective novel. (OED on smart-ass: “orig. and chiefly U.S.; characterized by an overly clever or smug display of intelligence or [esp. professional] knowledge.”) The term’s mild vulgarity might seem to preclude its incorporation into branding and advertising, but that’s not the case at all.
Blog extra: A smart gun is one that uses biometrics to recognize its user. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about one such gun for the January 18, 2015, Sunday Review:
Doesn’t it seem odd that your cellphone can be set up to require a PIN or a fingerprint, but there’s no such option for a gun?
Which brings us to Kai Kloepfer, a lanky 17-year-old high school senior in Boulder, Colo. After the cinema shooting in nearby Aurora, Kloepfer decided that for a science fair project he would engineer a “smart gun” that could be fired only by an authorized user.
“I started with iris recognition, and that seemed a good idea until you realize that many people firing guns wear sunglasses,” Kloepfer recalls. “So I moved on to fingerprints.”
Smart guns are “smart” in at least two senses of the word: clever and connected. And yet, Kristof writes, “The National Rifle Association seems set against smart guns, apparently fearing that they might become mandatory.”
Cornell University, in addition to asking for the slow dance music proviso, forced an agency to include a clause which would prohibit the ork [orchestra] from smoking on the bandstand.
Bracketed definition supplied by the author.
Curious about the term, which was new to me, I emailed Ben Yagoda* and asked him whether it was a Billboard coinage. He replied that he thought it came from Variety, the daily paper, founded in 1905, that coined or popularized a lot of show-biz lingo, including B.O. (box office), cleffer (songwriter, from musical clef), and biopic (biographical picture). But when I did a little independent digging, I was unable to find a link between ork and Variety. Instead, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, ork first appeared in print not in an industry journal but in a New York scandal rag called Brevities;the magazine favored illustrations of what were probably called scantily clad cuties and headlines like “Fair Gals Grab Stiffs!” The OED’s earliest citation for ork is from the April 24, 1933, issue of Brevities: “Joe Haymes’ Nut Club ork..has been compelled to take on a few Noo Yawk musicians.” The other citations are from the American jazz magazine Down Beat (1935) and Billboard (1949), and from a couple of British sources: Colin MacInnes’s 1959 novel Absolute Beginners and a 1988 article in the UK jazz magazine Wire.
Ork is also, of course, the home planet of TV’s Mork, played by the late Robin Williams. And orc is either “any of various whales, such as the killer or grampus,” or “one of an imaginary race of evil goblins, esp in the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien.”
The pluralized form of ork has a separate history in British slang. The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, published in 2005, gives orks as a truncation of orchestra stalls, rhyming slang for “balls” (testicles). (“Orchestra stalls,” often shortened to “stalls,” are what American theatergoers would call “orchestra seats”—that is, seats not in the mezzanine or balcony.)
If you know your botanical etymology, you’re probably thinking what I thought: Wait a minute, doesn’t orchid mean testes? (Yes, it does, from the Greek orkhis.) So couldn’t orks = balls have a Greek source? Well … maybe. The OED gives separate etymologies for orchestra (from orkheisthai, to dance) and orchid. But in A Garden of Words, published in 2005, Martha Barnette, co-host of public radio’s “A Way with Words,” notes that orkhis—or orchis—comes from the Indo-European root ERGH- (“to mount”), and that “some scholars link orchis and ERGH- to the Greek word orkhein, which means “to dance” … the orchestra in an ancient Greek theater being the area where the chorus danced.”
And that’s as far as I got – I never located those mysterious orchestra-orchid scholars.
Toddy: A beverage made from distilled spirits (especially whiskey), with hot water, sugar, and (usually) lemon juice. Also spelled tottie and totty.
Toddy is one of the many common English words imported from Hindi during the centuries of British trade and, ultimately, rule in the subcontinent. (Other imports from Hindi include bungalow, chutney, dinghy, jungle, khaki, loot, pajamas[or pyjamas], mogul, shampoo, and verandah.) Toddy was originally tari, pronounced with a “cerebralized” r that resembles d. According to the OED, toddy originally referred to
[t]he sap obtained from the incised spathes of various species of palm, esp. Caryota urens, the wild date, the coco-nut, and the palmyra, used as a beverage in tropical countries; also, the intoxicating liquor produced by its fermentation.
It was borrowed into English in the early 17th century; by the early 18th century it had taken on its contemporary hot-whiskey meaning. The earliest citation in the OED is from Robert Burns in 1786:
The lads an’ lasses, blythely bent To mind baith saul an’ body, Sit round the table, weel content, An’ steer about the toddy.
Hot toddies are sometimes prescribed for the sore throats and congestion that accompany colds, but they’re also seen on cocktail menus in the winter months. Berkeleyside cocktail reviewer Risa Nye, aka Ms. Barstool, recently sampled five toddies served at Bay Area restaurants, including a Haitian toddy made with dark rum and served in a teacup; and a Fanny Tellier toddy that’s named after Picasso’s Girl with a Mandolin and made from apple brandy and bitters.
Toddy isn’t the only Indian beverage word that’s frequently encountered during the winter holidays. Punch is believed to derive from Hindi panch, meaning “five,” a reference to the “five nectars” of the gods that went into it: milk, curd, butter (or ghee), honey, and sugar (or molasses). When punch first appeared in written English, in 1600, it was spelled paunche and referred to a mixture of alcoholic and nonalcoholic ingredients. This punch is unrelated to the verb to punch, which came into English from Old French ponchonner in the late 14th century.
Furcifer: A yoke-bearer; a fork-user; a rascal or scoundrel. From Latin furca, a fork.
Furcifer is archaic enough to be ignored by the online OED, which gives definitions only for some of its relatives (furcate: to divide into branches; furciferous: descriptive of certain butterflies that bear a forked process). Furcifer’s heyday was the early 17th century, when English travelers to the Continent noticed that the Italians used a curious pronged implement at table. One of those travelers, Thomas Coryat (or Coryate), visited Italy around 1608, when forks were virtually nonexistent in England. He wrote about this odd custom at some length in a book published in 1611.*
Bee Wilson tells Coryate’s story in Consider the Fork (2012), her informative and amusing “history of how we cook and eat”:
The typical Italian, noted Coryate, “cannot endure to have his dish touched with the fingers, seeing all men’s fingers are not clean alike.” Although it seemed strange to him at first, Coryate acquired the habit himself and continued to use a fork for meat on his return to England. His friends—who included the playwright Ben Jonson and the poet John Dunne—in their “merry humour” teased him for this curious Italian habit, calling him “furcifer” (which meant “fork-holder,” but also “rascal”). Queen Elizabeth I owned forks for sweetmeats but chose to use her fingers instead, finding the spearing motion to be crude.
In the 1970s, real men were said not to eat quiche. In the 1610s, they didn’t use forks. “We need no forks to make hay with our mouths, to throw our meat into them” noted the poet Nicholas Breton in 1618.
Breton was on the wrong side of English history. “By 1700,” Wilson writes, “ a hundred years after Coryate’s trip to Italy, forks were accepted throughout Europe. Even Puritans used them. … Not wanting to dirty your fingers with food, or to dirty food with your fingers, had become the polite thing to do.”
Furcifer literally meant, in Latin, a slave who for punishment of some fault was made to carry a fork or gallows upon his neck through the city with his hands tied. Hence it came to signify generally a rogue or villain.
* The book’s full and splendid title is Coryat’s Crudities, Hastily Gobbled Up in Five Months’ Travels in France, Savoy, Italy, Rhaetia (commonly called the Grison’s Country), Helvetia (alias Switzerland), Some Parts of High Germany and the Netherlands.