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Six Examples of Sex Hidden in our Language

The English word “avocado” comes from the Spanish word aguacate, which comes from the Aztec word ahuacatl, which means “testicle”. This is most likely because the avocado, growing in dangling pairs, resembled the body part.  Fresh guacamole, anyone?

Grand Tetons is French for “big tits”.  Presumably the French voyageurs who first ran across this mountain range in western Wyoming were missing their wives.  As they paddled up to these perky peaks, they named them after what was foremost on their minds.

Some decades later, the US Park Service named a new national park after cleavage.  The Big Boobs Back Forty!  I hear it’s a great place to bring your motorboat…

Do you live in a cul-de-sac?  Well, the word “cul” is French for behind, bottom, rear end.  It’s more street-wise than, say, derriere.  In short, “cul-de-sac” literally means “ass of bag”.

Think about that the next time you see a realtor’s ad which says “this house is in a desirable location”.

Maidenhead is a town outside of London, England.  It’s also the classic and relatively polite term for the unbroken hymen of a female, which was taken as a sign of virginity (though an unreliable one, as it turns out).

The tie between town and tissue is more complex, though.  The term “maidenhead” dates to 1200 or so, when “hede” meant “condition or state of being”.  This is starting to make more sense, right?

The town’s name was originally “Maiden-hythe”, where hythe was Saxon for “wharf”.  No one knows exactly how the “Maiden” part got in, but eventually the whole thing got contracted to Maidenhead and the name stuck.

I find it funny how our straight-laced ancestors were scandalized over the sight of a lady’s ankle, but were open enough about virginity to name a town after it.  Hell, early American colonists named a state after it (Virginia) in honor of their virgin queen (Elizabeth I).  Apparently the first Queen Liz was very proud of her maidenhead, even though its maintenance necessarily meant the end of the Tudor dynasty.

Think you know about Columbus?  You probably don’t — most of what we learned about that tale is wrong.

One myth is the names of his ships.  Columbus’ lonely sailors nicknamed these ships after women.  The real names are forgotten by all but historians; it’s the nicknames we know today.

Two ships were named after what these sailors missed the most — prostitutes.  Maria was a well-loved prostitute, and Pintada, or “the painted one”, was local slang for same.  Naturally, church and elementary school officials sanitized those details over the years.

There are undoubtedly others out there… know of any?

Avoiding a Catapostrophe

The apostrophe.  Often misused and maligned, but here to stay.  For now.

What is this little piece of punctuation used for?  Only three things.  It’s actually pretty simple:

(1) an apostrophe takes the place of a missing letter.

The primary example here is contractions.  As examples, “you are not” becomes “you aren’t”, and “he is not” becomes “he isn’t”.

What about a contraction for “I am not”?  Why are we missing the first person singular?  Actually, it is not missing, just forgotten: ain’t.  For some reason, ain’t has devolved to become improper English while all the other contractions have survived… including shan’t, of all things.  It just ain’t right.

In English, contractions are a contradiction.  Written language is generally modified to fit spoken language, because people read aloud in their heads.  Why else would you write “an” instead of “a” before a vowel?

So why is it that contractions are used constantly in spoken language, to the extent that not using them makes you sound stuffy — but contractions are considered improper when written?  That is starting to change… I mean… that’s starting to change.

Similarly, the apostrophe is used to indicate regional speech.  Where would Eliza Doolittle be without “all I want is ‘Enry ‘Iggins’ ‘ead”, or Bob and Doug McKenzie without “How’s it goin’, eh?”  And let’s not forget the ubiquitous and universally applicable Southernism — y’all.

Unfortunately, as the language continues to devolve through the influence of texting, the apostrophe-s is becoming a ‘z’.  For example, “Where’s the beef?” has become “Yo grrlz wherez the lolz?”

(2) an apostrophe indicates possession.

This is a shortcut that doesn’t exist in many languages, and is actually pretty handy.

For example, if you want to say “this is Bob’s blog” in French, you must use the roundabout “this is the blog of Bob”.  You can say that in English too, of course, but why would you?

Use of an apostrophe in this way is a leftover from the ancient Saxon (Germanic) influence on English.  Danke Vortigern!

There is a weirdness here.  If whatever you are pluralizing already ends in “s”, you don’t add another one, such as “my parents’ house”.  Else it would look weird.

There is an even bigger weirdness that occurs when possession conflicts with contraction.  There is only one case of this in the English language, as far as I know.  It’s it’s.

People screw this up constantly, not just in emails and blogs but in big expensive things like signs and menus.  Seriously, the rule is really simple:

  • if it’s a contraction, use the apostrophe.  For example, “it’s a contraction”.
  • if you are showing possession, don’t use the apostrophe. For example, “remember to subscribe to my blog so you won’t miss its fascinating facts and perspicacious prose”.

(3) use an apostrophe to pluralize lowercase letters.

This is a strange one, which comes about for clarity.  For example, if you write “the word kerbopple has two ps in it” this would make people try to spell it “kerbopspsle” or something.

So you write “the word kerbopple has two p’s in it” and the meaning is clear.

This practice has also survived in the phrase “mind your p’s and q’s”.  If you wrote “mind your ps and qs” it would change the meaning entirely.  So, um… mind your p’s and q’s.

Note that people used to use an apostrophe to pluralize uppercase letters, numbers, and symbols as well.  This practice has mostly disappeared but it’s still a grey area.

For example, you can write “I love the 80s” or “I love the 80’s” and no one will complain.  However if you write “I just bought two iPod 5’s” you will look so 2000’s.

This is similar to the grocer’s comma, or more correctly, the grocer’s apostrophe (though in this context being correct is missing the point).  It got its name by the greengrocer’s habit of using an apostrophe when they want to indicate a plural, e.g. “fresh tomato’s” or “banana’s by the pound”.

Personally, I have never seen that in my local grocery store, but I have seen it in many other place’s.  I mean, places.  It drive’s me bonker’s.

Wait!  You say.  What about the use of apostrophes to indicate speech, or to set off words for ’emphasis’?  Well, technically those are not apostrophes, they are quotation marks.  Different animal entirely.  The fact they often look the same is purely because of limitations of font.

Bonus fact: did you know apostrophe can also mean “the rhetorical address of a usually absent person or personified thing“, as in: “O Liberty, what things are done in thy name!”  Me neither.  It smacks of Shakespeare.

Strangely, this meaning doesn’t appear to be related at all to the punctuation mark.  O English, thou art a fascinating subject!

Bonus the second: there is (was?) a movement to remove the apostrophe from the English language.  It was once led by the great author George Bernard Shaw, who hated the thing.  What would he think of the grocer’s comma?  Then again, there are some people who love the apostrophe.  Who knew punctuation could be so divisive?

Which side do you fall on?  Personally, I dig the apostrophe, but I’m a language nerd / nazi (and proud of it).

Writing from a strong foundation

Writing — any kind of writing — is like building a brick house:

(1) start with bricks;
(2) lay them across to make floors;
(3) stack them on the floors to make walls;
(4) arrange the walls to make rooms;
(5) dress the rooms up with electricity and plumbing and posters of Erik Estrada.

So I don’t really know how to build a house.  So it reads more like Minecraft than Extreme Makeover.  Hang with me for a moment.

If the bricks of our artificially simplified house are crap, the floors fall down.  If the floors fall down, the walls fall down.  If the walls fall down, the rooms fall down.  If the rooms fall down, the posters of Erik Estrada get buried in rubble, and what a tragedy that would be.

Everyone has a basic understanding of what keeps a house from falling down.  If you see a house with crumbly bricks, would you enter it?  If was leaning like a palm tree in a hurricane would you even walk up to it?  Assuming you weren’t Pisani.

Now let’s build a story.  Note this applies to any kind of writing you expect people to read, even a friggin’ email, except for step 4 which is pretty much tied to fiction:

(1) start with words;
(2) lay them across to make sentences;
(3) stack the sentences to make paragraphs;
(4) arrange the paragraphs to make scenes;
(5) add posters of Erik Estrada.

If you see a bunch of misspelled words, would you read it?  If the grammar looked like it came from a preschooler, would you take it seriously?

I’m not talking about style here.  Writers can misspell words on purpose or chop sentences for effect.  Breaking rules occasionally makes writing interesting.  Breaking rules constantly makes writing unreadable.

I have a strange affliction that makes it worse for me.  My brain identifies spelling mistakes in any piece of writing, even if I’m not reading it, and they immediately leap from the page and dance in front of my eyes.  I have a hard time reading anything with errors in it.  I would seek treatment for this disease but frankly, I don’t think it’s my problem.

Our writing skills have been degenerating for decades.  People blame texting, emails, bulletin board flame wars, influence of non-English speakers, reliance on spellcheckers and grammar checkers, not enough emphasis on writing in school, et cetera.  These all contribute to the problem, but the root cause is apathy.

Yes, apathy.  We just don’t care enough about spelling and grammar anymore.  Anyone who does is called a Grammar Nazi.

Well, I say we need a little more verbal fascism.  Not 100% all of the time, but if you don’t follow the rules of a language, how do you expect people to understand you?

So let’s call it verbal feudalism.  Everyone must maintain his or her own demesne in a presentable state, but we can overlook a few drunken peasants or tumbledown shacks.  We keep our main roads free of debris and practice a common language so we can trade with our neighbors.  We can all be Grammar Lords!

Actually that is kind of silly.  Let’s all just agree to take better care of our English, okay?  Language is beautiful.  It needs love and protection.

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