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Human Parts
A publication about humanity from Medium: yours, mine, and ours.

Language

In Human Parts. More on Medium.

Express Yourself

Language’s sordid history with words that contradict themselves

I’m not going to try to convince you that black is white, but…

Have you ever wondered why the words “black” and “blank” are so similar, despite having virtually opposite meanings? It’s not a coincidence. They actually derive from the same word: the Old Norse blakkr, which in turn comes from the Proto-Indo-European root bhleg-, meaning “to burn” or “to singe.”

It’s been suggested that the two contrasting descendants are simply different interpretations of the same concept: burning something turns it a bright color and then black. The same ancestor has given us other decidedly non-black words in English, like…


Express Yourself

A linguist explains how our “conversational style” changes the way we interact

Life in the pandemic would be very different without video calls. We are exceedingly lucky to have unbridled access to technology that even 20 years ago was only familiar to most people by way of NATO knockoffs in Hollywood movies. The convenience that the video call affords us, too, is not to be underestimated. [Insert customary joke about crunching numbers with a colleague while soaking your toes in a foot bath here.] But as a replacement for a face-to-face meeting? I think I speak for a lot of people when I say, ain’t nothing like the real thing.

Among other…


Express Yourself

Oxford says the origins of ‘yikes’ are unknown, but could it be traced back as far as Latin?

A dilapidated one-story building with “yikes” graffittied over a window, behind a chain-link fence.
A dilapidated one-story building with “yikes” graffittied over a window, behind a chain-link fence.

It’s a yikes from me, dog. That aging comedian’s most recent tweet is a big yikes in my book. Excuse me, sir, could you please refrain from being so extremely yikes? That’s the way (aha aha) I yikes it.

Yikes is an Internet 101 word. And, as often happens when a word becomes inescapable, it has broken out of its original niche; ask anyone who positions themselves among the “extremely online” and they’ll tell you it’s so much more than just a cry of horror or surprise. The sentences I give above (alright, maybe bar the last one) demonstrate the…


Express Yourself

Why we should take a red pen to ‘The Elements of Style’ and other writing guides

Dimly lit desk with an open notebook with pencil illuminated by a lamp.
Dimly lit desk with an open notebook with pencil illuminated by a lamp.

There are a handful of dates in history that mark watershed moments for the English language. The year 1066: the beginning of the Norman Conquest of Britain, which would introduce a wealth of French borrowings into what was then a purely Germanic tongue. The year 1590: Shakespeare’s first foray into playwriting. And 1959: the year that E.B. White published his revised version of William Strunk Jr.’s The Elements of Style, a work that, in the decades to come, would inform popular opinions about how to competently express oneself in writing. In particular, it triggered the phenomenon of “which-hunting,” the systematic…


This Is Us

On the twee language of pregnancy and motherhood

Closeup shot of an person holding a sonogram in front of their pregnant belly.
Closeup shot of an person holding a sonogram in front of their pregnant belly.

Like many areas of life, pregnancy has its own jargon. In corporate America, we think outside the box. In the tech world, we’re all about seamless integration. In pregnancy, we inquire about Baby. Not the baby. Not your baby. Just Baby, like this is Dirty Dancing. We might ask who else is preggers, or if there are any other preggos in the house. We request bump pics. We provide encouragement with Mama, you got this!

It’s embarrassing to admit, but one of the things that always put me off the idea of becoming pregnant was the language. I felt the…


Express Yourself

Our need to give things simple names leaves out a lot of nuance

Fish illustration by melissa toldy
Fish illustration by melissa toldy

“When you actually examine the range of life on Earth, it takes a lot of acrobatics to sort it into a single hierarchy with humans at the top.” — Lulu Miller, Why Fish Don’t Exist

I wonder how many of humanity’s mistakes stem from using the wrong words. Language is our superpower, but it’s also a weapon. These days, a prominent person can simply tweet a message and chaos can follow.

Words help us arrange our thoughts into a meaningful pattern. The trouble is, every word we know is a word created over time. …


Express Yourself

Humans have a habit of bending words to meet their needs — and defying dictionary definitions in the process

Remember how, in the 2010s — yes, that’s right, the decade that gave us Snapchat, “Gangnam Style,” one good Adam Sandler movie, and Covid-19 — everybody was losing their marbles over the word “literally”? Remember how long it took for pedants to give up trying to keep its meaning neatly segregated from that of “figuratively”? I, for one, am literally over the moon that’s behind us.

But people always need some new coinage or turn of phrase to pick on. In his 1755 dictionary, Samuel Johnson reportedly expressed familiar-sounding frustration with “clever,” describing it as “a low word, scarcely ever…


Express Yourself

Redundant letters and inconsistent spelling. How does anyone get anything done with this?

Sometimes, I have this wild idea about updating English — taking it apart, tidying it up, and making it all a bit more consistent. Do we, for example, really need C, K, and Q? Three variants of the same sound, like remnants from an earlier draft that should be edited out. “Tick” and “duck” contain C and K, as if we had to invite both in case one felt left out.

Languages emerge organically as ideas from other cultures are grafted onto existing structures. We owe much of our alphabet to the Romans who took it from the Etruscans in…


Express Yourself

The English language continues to be inconsistent and bewildering

For all of English’s maddening complexities—including an illogical spelling system, a plethora of irregular verbs, and inconsistent stress patterns being — one way the language is comparatively simple is that it lacks grammatical gender. Unlike their counterparts in France, for example, English grammarians aren’t saddled with the task of deciding whether newly coined words like “Covid” should be encoded in the language as masculine or feminine (it’s the latter, by the way, according to the French academy). And contrary to French, English has no “manly breasts” or “womanly beards,” no “boyish hair elastics” or “girlish combine harvesters.” You won’t hear…


Past Is Prologue

And other examples of why more is more in Italy

In Italy, you’ll find signs about face masks with 40 words in bureaucratic language. No smoking signs consist of 109 words of legal text, and simple toilet signs can be made up of 122 words. What reasons can we find for this in Italian society?

Among the novelties the Covid-19 pandemic has given us—in addition to face masks and awkward elbow bumps—is a variety of new signs instructing us how to behave. …

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