Lesson #411: Why September Is Not the Seventh Month

I was doing some things with larger numbers this week. Septillion through decillion large. Which got me onto how September’s name implies it is the seventh of something, but it’s the ninth month in the Gregorian calendar. October is not the eighth month, November is not the ninth month, and December is not the tenth month.

So how did we get here, misnaming our months?

The answer is actually pretty simple. In the ten-month, lunar-based Roman calendar, September was the seventh month of the year and was followed by October, November, and December. Then, when the Roman calendar was replaced by the Julian calendar in the first century BCE, no one thought, “hey…this doesn’t really follow anymore”. Or, more likely, no one listened to the pedants who no doubt raised the very logical question of why we were mis-numbering months.

More on the Roman Calendar here and here.


Lesson #405: Creole Languages

Sometimes I arrive at a lesson in a very roundabout way. I’ve been preparing to transition at work tomorrow, so my learning has been limited this week to finding out the physical fitness requirements for Survivor contestants.* (There was context for this, but it’s inconsequential.)

That’s not so interesting, so I sat down today, decided to mess around on Wikipedia (completely unsuccessfully) and eventually got to thinking about Belgium, which took me to Flemish, which took me to Afrikaans, which took me to creole, which is apparently not just a French thing.

I think most people’s understanding of creole is the French-based creole languages of the Caribbean — particularly Haiti, but also Guadeloupe — and/or Louisiana. But creoles are actually any stable language (meaning it has native speakers) with an advanced vocabulary and grammar structure (not pidgin) that emerged suddenly at a specific point in time and is influenced by another language or languages. Creole languages exist almost exclusively in former colonial territories and developed, necessarily, as lingua francas. Linguists estimate around 100 creoles have emerged since 1500. Technically speaking, Afrikaans is a creole language, developed in South Africa in the late 17th century and incorporating aspects of Southern African languages into Dutch, though it is more typically considered a daughter language to Dutch.

For academic sources (journal articles) on creole languages, see here,  here, and here.

For quicker, less detailed reading on creole languages, see herehere, and here.

*For the record, the best information we could find came from the Australian incarnation of the show and involves surprisingly little — mostly, the ability to carry a small amount of weight over a short distance, to get up from a prone position on your own power, to squat and recover…basically everyday motions we all execute without much thought.

Lesson #94 Redux: Being Linked

This blog has never been anything more than a way for me to just vomit random information for about a dozen people who know and love me to read if they’re interested. I teach you things because I like to know things. Because my parents like to know things.

Apparently, though, I’m only mostly just a tiny little internet blip vomiting knowledge and good research. I’m super late to the game on this — mostly because this little endeavour lay dormant for three years while I did my second master’s and then didn’t have a need for this sort of intellectual stimulation in the following year and a half. But here we are just into 2018, and I’m looking at the stats page and notice a weird referral.

Most people who wind up here came either because they’re subscribed to it (Hey, guys! Thanks for still being here!) or because they’re googling whether a. they can legally go to Paraguay for that dual they’re itching for (Put the gun down!) or b. their untreated syphilis will make their nose fall off (There are drugs for this! Go see your doctor! And wear a condom next time!) However, since 2015, a perplexing number of people have ended up here thanks to…The Guardian?

Like…the reputable British news site, The Guardian. As you can imagine, this was confusing. How on earth did so many people end up here because of a British newspaper to which I have zero affiliation? It turns out that in 2015, someone writing over there went to the Google machine whilst writing an article on the revival of Manx Gaelic and found my post on the same. What I find hilarious is that the statistic to which I’m linked is pulled from the fifth chapter of a book from a 1990 conference on Minority Languages that literally took me all of about 90 seconds to find, in full, from the moment I clicked off my blog to the citation.*

But…I rather suspect I was linked because I’m much more concise and easier to read than the author of the original paper (one Dr. Wilf Gunther of Lancashire Polytechnic in Preston, about whom a cursory search reveals surprisingly little outside of acknowledgements by other authors, which makes me think he may not still be alive), which is heartening. The original article is interesting, but dense. I’ve broken the information down into just a few paragraphs, and being linked by a source like The Guardian means the work I’m putting into learning about these things and making them digestible pieces of knowledge for non-academics is effective and useful.**


*It would have been faster if the initial citation to which I linked had been more complete. What should have been a two-step process turned into a five-step process. So it took a minute and a half instead of 15 seconds.

**I’m sure there’s a discussion to be had on the decline of our attention spans to the point where valuable academic information needs to be broken down into a few easily digestible paragraphs, but I’m not here for that right now. Or ever, really, I guess, given that this entire blog is easily digestible knowledge designed for people who aren’t inclined to spend an hour or two or three (depending on the lesson) reading up on a subject for no reason other than “I was curious”.

Lesson #404: Order of Definitions

Happy 2018, everyone! I’m a bit late to the game, in part because I’ve been a bit all over the place with other things going on last week. Monday was a holiday. Everyone I know had a birthday (not literally speaking, but there was much birthdaying to be done). The World Juniors hockey tournament was happening. The Swede had a baby — well, his wife actually *had* the baby. The swim team I help with were back from break. I was busy just trying to keep up with life, you guys! But my goal for the year is to make weekly posts. I’ve got a post backdated for last week that’s still kind of spastic, so I may or may not post it…we’ll see. Moving on to week #2…

A friend in a major city in the Northeast sent me a message today asking if I knew the order for dictionary definitions. I thought she was going to enlighten me. She did not. She was asking because she didn’t know.

So, naturally, I went looking.

My initial guess was chronological, but that seemed not-quite-right, given the ever-changing nature of language.

It turns out that most major dictionaries, such as the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster do, in fact, list definitions in chronological order. Which is apparently done for exactly the reason I expected it wouldn’t — to maintain a timeline for the way we use language. Others, like the American Heritage Dictionary use a commonality order, which lists definitions based on usage in language.

For the OED, see here, under Chronology and the Historical Method

For the M-W dictionary, see here, under Order of Senses

For the American Heritage dictionary, see here, under Order of Sense

Lesson #387: Amok

Because you probably don’t live in isolation, you’re likely familiar with the phrasal verb “to run amok”. Our friends Messrs. Merriam and Webster have four related definitions for amok. The second, the one we know best, “in a wild or uncontrolled manner”, is of Malay origin and dates to the early 1670s.

However, the earlier (1665) definition,  “a murderous frenzy that has traditionally been regarded as occurring especially in Malaysian culture”, is apparently a thing that still exists that is bound almost entirely to Malaysian culture, but has also shown up in cases in the Philippines and Puerto Rico. It’s a rare madness — and is therefore classified as a mental illness — where someone will just completely lose his (or her) mind and causes serious bodily harm or straight up murders someone for no reason.

I can’t be the only person to notice that all three of these places are islands, right?

You can read more on Amok here.

M-W definition here, Etymology here.

Lesson #377: Pramen

This comes by way of the fact that while I was back in the motherland, I picked up two bottles of Zlatý Bažant, a Slovak beer I can’t get in America, but really quite like.* As a rule, I’m down with Eastern European lagers, but my selections are somewhat limited here. I was able to find a couple (pricey) bottles of the Croatian beer Karlovačko in the spring, which was a nice treat. And I can get Żywiec and Tyskie — both Polish, the former better than the latter — and a whole slew of Czech beers, including — only very recently — my very favourite beer of all time, Budvar’s dark lager (černé or tmavý ležák, depending on how formal you want to be — the former means black, the latter is what’s on the label and means dark lager). But if I want Slovak or Hungarian lagers, I’m SOL. Which is why I brought a couple bottles of the Bažant back with me.

This led me to a conversation with The Swede about language, the Swedish phonemic pronunciation, and how Zlatan Ibrahimović‘s given name literally means “golden.” He wanted to know how I knew that; I told him to look at the Eastern European beers. Zlatý Bažant translates to “golden pheasant.”** I also mentioned the Czech beer Zlatopramen. And my general knowledge that zlat- is the Slavic root for gold.

But then I realized…I know what zlat- means, but I have no idea what pramen is. This will make more sense to you if you know that Staropramen is a beer that exists (it isn’t my favourite, but I’ll drink it if my options are that and pretty much any American/Canadian/British lager). Now, I know what the root star- means (old), but I’d never thought to look up pramen before. Two beers, different root word, same ending. It obviously means something.

It means spring — of the water variety, not the season. In case you’re ever quizzed on it.

If you were curious, my very favourite Czech word is čtvrtek — which is absurd to pronounce,*** but means Thursday. And yes, that is six consonants in a seven letter word. I also like the word zmrzlina (ice cream).

*If you’re a beer drinker, it’s a bit spicier than your average lager, so it has a bit more flavour, but it’s still crisp and good for outdoor/summer drinking.

**In fact, there’s a golden pheasant on their label and the imported labels have the English translation. We tried to swipe a Bažant glass when we were in Bratislava, but had no luck. In fairness, we didn’t try especially hard. We were only there two nights; the first we bought bottles of beer — Budvar’s standard lager, specifically — sat on the castle walls and drank them (yes, there is photographic evidence) and the other, I went to the opera and accidentally left him at a Greek wedding reception and then we went back to the flat and watched half of a Leafs playoff game on my tablet at 1am. That was, incidentally, also the night I discovered, while looking for the Leafs game on the TV, that my very favourite CanCon (Canadian Content) show, which my cousin in a major Canadian city rightly makes so much fun of me for enjoying because it’s pretty terrible, has actually been successful enough to be dubbed into Slovak…I took video of it for her. Because I’m a good cousin/friend, and I care.

***On the plus side, Czech pronunciation rules are delightfully easy (which I assume is to make up for the ninety million declension rules)…stress is always on the first syllable and every letter is pronounced exactly how it’s written. Phonemically, Czech is as simple as a language can be.

Lesson #372: The Right-Hand Man

I’ve mentioned before that sometimes questions will pop into my head for no reason at all and nag me to answer them; I was literally washing my dinner dishes when this question wandered into my brain unprovoked.

Western culture* has a tenet that one’s most loyal and trusted advisor/soldier/business partner is one’s “right-hand man.” But why? My immediate thought was that it’s born of religion because I’ve studied both the Tanakh and the Bible at some length, and I know the lyrics to ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘Heaven on Their Minds’.** It’s also the most obvious answer because that phrasing shows up nearly three dozen times over both scriptures.***

But it’s not the right answer. It seems those two documents absorbed some combat history.

In all likelihood the concept of the person to your right being the person you trust the most because he’s the person on whom you rely the most (and therefore being your “right-hand man” comes from the phalanx formation. In the phalanx, the person on your right was the one using his shield to protect your entire right side — including, since roughly 85% of the population are right-handed****, your sword hand. This actually raises a whole separate question about where they put lefties. Did they have entire phalanxes of lefties that were mirror images of the right-handed phalanxes? Did they simply train lefties to fight right-handed? If I can find that answer, you can be sure I’ll let you know.


Interestingly, though we generally associate the phalanx with the ancient Greeks — specifically the Spartans if you payed attention in grade 9 World History — the first known depiction of the formation is actually a fragment of the Sumerian Stele of the Vultures, which dates to the 25th century BCE.

You can read more here. Of course, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that there’s no definitive answer to this question and if you google the origins, many, many (most) people submit JESUS! as the answer. Which is fine, if not particularly logical. Just because it appears in scripture doesn’t make it the origin; I choose logic.

*I don’t know enough about Eastern culture to comment on the validity of the idiom there.

**I’d urge you to take those two pieces for what they’re worth.

***1 Kings 2:19, Ezekiel 16:46, Ezekiel 21:22, Zechariah 3:1, 1 Chronicles 6:39, 2 Chronicles 18:18, Psalms 16:8, Psalms 77:10, Psalms 80:17, Psalms 91:7, Psalms 109:6 and 109:31Psalms 110:1 and 110:5 — the first of which is directly referenced in Matthew 22:44, Mark 12:36Luke 20:42, and Acts 2:34, and Hebrews 1:13  — Matthew 26: 64, Mark 14:62, Mark 16:19, Luke 22:69, Acts 2:33,  Acts 5:31, Acts 7:55 and 7:56Romans 8:34Ephesians 1:20, Colossians 3:1, Hebrews 1:3, Hebrews 12:2, and 1 Peter 3:22. Lest you think I just know those offhand, remember I’m really good at finding things and very patient in my research. Also, given that John is our non-synoptic friend, his absence from this list shouldn’t be particularly surprising.

****Though, as with the blue eyes, a disproportionate number of actors are lefties. Pay attention the next time you see an actor writing something onscreen. I promise you more of them will be left-handed than is representative of the actual population.