Category Archives: The History of Language

Darn you, King James!

Attention Citizens of Earth!

The passage from the King James Bible that says “Suffer the little children to come unto me” — often unfortunately abbreviated to “Suffer the little children” — does NOT mean that little children do, will, should, or must suffer!

Way back in the day, “suffer” meant “allow” — in current parlance, one might equate it to “put up with.”

So the gospel writer reports Jesus saying, presumably to their parents, “Allow the little children to come over here.” That’s all!

The truly sad part? I most recently saw this in not one but TWO different volumes of a mystery series I otherwise enjoyed very much so I won’t tell you the author’s name. But it’s set in 1560, and the character who says it is an educated man who would certainly have known what “suffer” meant in that context. Fie, for shame, churl!

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Filed under DfW Holds Forth!, Etymology, Fancy Words, The History of Language

The Ampersand: 27th letter of the English alphabet. And then not. Because, come on. | Find Synonyms and Antonyms of Words at

This strange punctuation mark has a fascinating past. The ampersand emerged over 2,000 years ago as the Latin word et meaning “and.” The cursive writing of Latin scribes often connected the “e” and “t,” giving rise to the shape of the ampersand. The name did not appear until the 1830s when “&” was the 27th letter of the English alphabet. The mark concluded the alphabet with “X, Y, Z, and per se and” with “and per se” meaning “and by itself.” This final phrase was slurred by English school children during recitation and reborn as “ampersand.”

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Filed under The History of Language

Pariah Words

The fifth annual “day of awareness” was held recently, in a national campaign to stop the use of the word “retarded” and its variants. As a medical label for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the R-word used to be neutral, clinical, incapable of giving offense. But words are mere vessels for meaning, and this one has long since been put to other uses.

via A Word Gone Wrong –

I find this debate utterly fascinating.

I don’t have strong feelings about the word “retarded” one way or the other. A lot of people have said, “Hey, please don’t use that word just willy-nilly; we find it insulting.” And my response is, “Okie dokie!” Same thing with “midget”, which the Little Peoples’ Association has very politely asked that we avoid using to describe people of short stature. No problem; have a nice day.

What’s fascinating about the word “retarded” is not clearly stated in the article, and it is this:  the word “retarded” has been retired from clinical applications. As of this May, when the 5th editon of the  Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-V) comes out, people will no longer be diagnosed with “mental retardation”. There has been a debate over what term will be used instead: “intellectual disability” or “intellectual developmental disorder” are the contenders. But either way, nobody is “retarded”.

Technically, there are other legitimate uses for the word: one might say that one’s profits had been retarded by the budget debated. Except one wouldn’t, would one? English having one of the largest vocabularies in the world (oo-er!) and “retarded” being the charged little number that it is, one would be much more likely to steer clear. It’s still scientifically valid to talk about “retarded growth”, I think, but the word “growth” has to be in or around there: it is most definitely a compound.

And of course, calling people “retarded,” whether they have a disability or not, is simply not ok. As many organizations for the disabled have argued, using it as an insult perpetuates the common representation of intellectual disability as pathetic or repellant.

So… the word “retarded” has no official medical use. And it has largely moved out of use in other fields because of its now-taboo common usages.

And here’s the question:

How is a word forcibly removed from a language?

Some words just fall out of usage because they are ridiculous. Thee and thou? Yeah, people just started feeling like goobers saying thee and thou, so they stopped. (Yes, yes, I know it’s more complicated than that. Shut up: my blog, my rules.) But when a word becomes, quite suddenly, meaningless?

It happened in my area in the late 80s/early 90s, with certain uses of the word “rubber.”  When AIDS education picked up, the word became “condom”. Now, before that, any other uses of the word “rubber” had become too charged to bother with. Tell someone you’re putting on your rubbers (galoshes) or use the word in reference to a flat, pink eraser and you’d earn yourself a nice chorus of Beavis and Butthead: “Heh… heh heh… she said ‘rubber’!”

Just as with “retarded,” “rubber” persisted in compound uses: “rubber tree,” “rubber boots” (rain boots, aka gum boots), “rubber band,” etc. But in common parlance, “rubber” came to mean ONLY condom. Until people started saying “condom” ONLY — and then what? Well, then did “rubber” join the shoddy, haggard company of the Pariah Words that roam the earth. And that is never good:

“I am a Word. Hath not a Word letters? Hath not a Word vowels,
consonants, syllables, pronunciations; spoken with the same
mouths, written with the same pens, subject to the same grammatical rules,
bludgeoned by the same accents as any other Word is? If you misspell us, do we not grate? If
you capitalize us, do we not YELL? If you reframe us in a negative connotation, do we not die?
And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the
rest, we will resemble you in that.”

What does revenge look like for a word? It’s not pretty, I’ll tell you that: language is tenacious.  I’m not saying we should be using a word that people find insulting. I’m just saying don’t be too surprised the next time you mean to text “bug spray” and it mysteriously autocorrects to “buggery.”


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Filed under The History of Language, The Politics of Language, The Power of Language, The Science of Language

Ancient language discovered on clay tablets found amid ruins of 2800 year old Middle Eastern palace – Archaeology – Science – The Independent

Evidence of the long-lost language – probably spoken by a hitherto unknown people from the Zagros Mountains of western Iran – was found by a Cambridge University archaeologist as he deciphered an ancient clay writing tablet unearthed by an international archaeological team excavating an Assyrian imperial governors’ palace in the ancient city of Tushan, south-east Turkey.The tablet revealed the names of  60 women – probably prisoners-of-war  or victims of an Assyrian forced population transfer programme. But when the Cambridge archaeologist – Dr. John MacGinnis – began to examine the names in detail, he realized that 45 of them bore no resemblance to any of the thousands of ancient Middle Eastern names already known to scholars.Because ancient Middle Eastern names are normally composites, made-up, in full or abbreviated form, of ordinary words in the relevant local lexicon, the unique nature of the tablet’s 45 mystery names is seen by scholars as evidence of a previously unknown language.

via Ancient language discovered on clay tablets found amid ruins of 2800 year old Middle Eastern palace – Archaeology – Science – The Independent.

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Filed under Extra! Extra!, The History of Language