It’s been nearly two years since I’ve last posted. A lot has happened since then—personally and professionally for me, of course, but that’s not interesting or important right now. What’s important is what has been happening in the world.
Amid this change, one thing has remained constant: words, and the many ways we use them to reflect, register, and even revolutionize reality.
Today, Americans celebrate their brave declaration of independence from British rule on July 4th, 1776 with plenty of red, white, and blue, the colors of its star-spangled banner.
As a nickname for the flag of the United States, the red, white, and blue is found by 1853. But what about those individuals words red, white, and blue? Let’s have a look at their origins, whose ancients roots make the US’s 242 years as a nation this year look ever so young.
This week, US President Donald Trump’s policy of separating families seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border, well, separated our hearts. We’ve seen the cruel ironies of etymology on this blog before. The word separate, alas, is no exception.
Comedian Samantha Bee sparked controversy this week when she called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” for her political complicity. The obscene remark, which Bee has since apologized for, had some wryly observing: why is everyone up in arms over feckless?
I think feckless and cunt are due for the etymological treatment.
This past week, TIME magazine’s talented Katy Steinmetz interviewed me for a fantastic piece on the challenges of using words that have offensive histories, such as bulldozer. (Steinmetz also interviewed me back in 2016, you may recall, about the fascinating Japanese linguistics behind words like Pokémon and karaoke.)
Catch up on my writing for the wonderful Emojipedia, too. This month, I wrote about 😏, or Smirking Face emoji, ever smug and suggestive in its many applications in our digital communication.
The verb smirk, for its part, dates back to the Old English smearcian, which was the go-to word for smile until the latter took over in Middle English. Smirk survived, but with a connotation of self-satisfaction. Cognates to smirk are not found in other Germanic languages, but smirk and smile do appear to be related in some way.
The recent arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks while waiting for a business associate has sparked outrage, protests, a national conversation on racism, and efforts from Starbucks to address implicit bias among its employees.
It has also sparked, from me, an etymological consideration of two words that have frequently come up in discussion of the troubling incident: trespass and loiter.
I could have written about Zuckerberg today, with the Facebook CEO in the congressional hot seat. His surname literally means “sugar mountain” in German—and I don’t think that’ll be the next Farmville or Candy Crush any time soon.
I thought to write about raid, which the FBI did to Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen on Monday. Raid originates as a Scottish variant on road.
Instead, I settled on pet. April 11th is, apparently, National Pet Day, “celebrating pets and encouraging adoption” since 2005, according to the organizer’s website. The day, as quirky and numerous as these random unofficial holidays are in our social media feeds, also invites some welcome etymological escapism.