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Of Interest:

Color Us Impressed

We were delighted to see the New York Times address the topic of names and naming in today’s paper, with specific reference to the changing style of color names in the paint industry. It seems that more companies are taking the opportunity to let the name tell a story or describe an experience, rather than being merely descriptive.

As paint names and colors are apparently never retired, and as there are only so many ways to say ’green,’ we’re not surprised to hear about the marketers looking to leverage the name to help themselves stand out in the increasingly crowded marketplace. We think the name is the single most overlooked opportunity to leverage one’s marketing dollar.

Feathery Names

We note an essay in the forthcoming New York Times Book Review discussing the tradition of authors using a ‘nom de plume,’ the reasons they may do so, and the interesting complications that may ensue.

These days, with anonymity quickly being relegated to the pre-web days, the essay points out that multiple online personas are hardly a rarity, but are most often used to bolster or attack someone’s reputation. Very different from the much older and once more commonly held view that pseudonyms exist primarily for 1) women writing as men; 2) writers with a secret to hide; or 3) otherwise well-regarded individuals “slumming it” in genre writing.

Imbalanced Humours?

We tend to think of all things medical as being rather serious and humorless, but this article rounds up several instances of potentially problematic names for medical conditions requiring a doctor’s care.

The name of the article speaks for itself:

Ten Serious Medical Problems With Cutesy Names


Brand Iniquity

According to an article in today’s Guardian, even Osama bin Laden had a sense of the importance of names and naming. Apparently aware of al Qaeda’s decline in popular perception and reputation within the worldwide Muslim community - a result of his killing of countless innocent Muslims - he had been seriously contemplating a name change and rebranding of the organization prior to his inglorious demise.

The article contains some interesting commentary on the unclear origin and meaning of the al Qaeda name itself.

Chatty Catty

Sign of the impending apocalypse? Proof that animals have souls?

As the kids say, whatisthisIdon’teven...

Kitty stays on message, and addresses his target audience in a language they can understand...

First Impressions Last

Well, this is bound to give rise to argument...

recent study shows an apparent link between academic success and a child’s first name. While naming traditions vary across cultures and socioeconomic strata, the study seem to show that certain names saddle the bearer with preconceptions that have a negative impact on classroom grades, which in turn limits further opportunities as the child grows. More simply put: some names give the impression that the bearers are more stupid than they may actually be, and people will treat the bearer accordingly.

Patience is a Virtue

You may have heard about this: the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago has finally completed a project they’d begun in 1921 - they have published the final volume in a comprehensive dictionary of the ancient Akkadian language, bringing the project to a close after 21 volumes.

The dictionary covers a huge scope of time, ranging from 2,500 BC to 100 AD, and describes the language that brought the world the Code of Hammurabi, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and which was spoken in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Though usually written in cuneiform, the language is the earliest example we have from the Semitic language family, which includes Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Nabatean, Amharic, Syriac and several others.

Perhaps the most interesting angle to us is the name of the dictionary itself: the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, which was the name by which the language was known when the project started. These days, after a century of scholarship, archeology and argument, the language is known as Akkadian, reflecting the empire run by Sargon the Great from the city of Akkad, commonly held to be the first empire in human history.

You can read more

Art & Artifice, Language & Logs

We love this art project underway in Vermont, where a gentleman whose passion runs toward preserving endangered alphabets is in the process of creating a sculpture which features a poem transcribed into languages including Baybayin, Inuktitut, Bugis, Mandaic, Tifinagh and Nom.

He rightly notes

“Writing has become so dominated by a small number of global cultures that those 6,000-7,000 languages are written in fewer than 100 alphabets. Moreover, at least a third of the world’s remaining alphabets are endangered–-no longer taught in schools, no longer used for commerce or government, understood only by a few elders, restricted to a few monasteries or used only in ceremonial documents, magic spells, or secret love letters.

While we acknowledge that it is the nature of language to change, we agree that something essentially human is lost when a form of expression passes from this world.

Reason to Win

An interesting theory is making the rounds, wherein it is argued that the development of reason and logic was prompted not by a noble search for truth, but for the more prosaic cause of winning arguments. This, of course, presupposes the existence of language and communication before the constraints of critical thinking. I guess we’ve all seen examples of that earlier state even today...

comments on the article are again interesting in their own right.

We delight in the recursive quality of the arguments about argumentation...

Hair Band Word Salad

The BBC addresses an issue that has confounded us for decades: what is a “Bohemian Rhapsody?” The associated comments are equally enlightening.

Fun fact: Queen’s guitarist Brian May is an actual
rock star scientist.

The Sacred in Science

A lovely blog post at NPR’s “13.7” is the most recent to use the Shakespearean “what is in a name?” trope in asking about the use of the word ‘sacred’ in modern times, and how the religious/scientific divide we’ve come to know has separated the scientific community from the etymological roots of that word, once closely related to the focus and attention that we now associate with a scientific world view. We particularly liked this quote, pointing out the truism that language change is constant:

“Every generation has the right, indeed the responsibility, to take the language it was given, listen to its resonances and use them for the purposes at hand. To do anything less would be to kill the language through atrophy.”

Tempus, tempus...

We wish we could claim some glamorous excuse for the distinct lack of updates here, but alas, nothing other than things getting away from us as we tend to business.

We’ll be offering a host of interesting links in the next day or two in an effort to play catch-up, and to keep our interested readers engaged and, umm, interested. Here’s a start:

The political aspect of names, particularly the names of disputed geographical locations or entities (called toponyms)
came into play when National Geographic was noticed to have changed the names of many places on their most recent map of Tibet away from Romanized Tibetan names to Romanized Pinyin Chinese. The arrows will fly... This points to the importance and relevance of making sure your name for your product, service or company is sensitive to more than just the immediate set decision makers. Nomenon’s Native-Speaker Language Checks can make sure no-one will giggle at your name in Guyana, or throw Molotov Cocktails at your bureau in Barcelona...

Yogi, Magic, and Big Baby

A clever article that brought to light a trend we had not noticed: nicknames in sports have become far less popular in recent years, and some ascribe that trend to the forces of marketing - the players have become their own brands. See “Be Like Mike” for an example. Another suggestion: the personal names of the players have become far more varied than they had been back in the day. There was a practical reason for being able to tell one Joe, Mark or John from another, whereas these days, there aren’t too many LeBrons, Tikis, or Hidekis on the field at the same time...

Cocktail fact 1: the word ‘nickname’ was once actually an ‘ic nama’ - “a name I call myself”... Like ‘apron’ [once “a napron”] and orange [once “a norange” - see Spanish “naranja”], it picked up a change along the way.

Cocktail fact 2: George Herman Ruth wasn’t called “Babe” until he signed with the Orioles, who already had a George in the line-up.

Put In Words

We came across a rather lyrical and enthralling article which describes the job of being a lexicographer - one who compiles dictionaries. Written by a working lexicographer, of whom there are few in this world, the article describes the process and the history of this noble and obscure profession.

We are reminded of a story told by the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith at a Harvard luncheon, where he told of his experience testifying before a congressional panel on the economy. A senator, being unfamiliar with a word the Professor had used in his presentation, had an aide look up the word for him. He then addressed the speaker, saying he’d had an aide look up the word ‘febrile,’ and went on to say that Galbraith had used the word incorrectly.

The Professor responded thusly: “Being that I sit on the Usage Committee of the American Heritage Dictionary, I shall have them emend the entry.”


Play On

While it may be a small stretch to see this as ‘on topic,’ we’re gobsmacked and delighted to note the Library of Congress has built a virtual national jukebox with selections of now-public-domain recordings from wax cylinders, old Victrolas, 78s and the like. A true link to the past, these recordings offer a way for the contemporary listener to forge a sensory link with the day-to-day life of our predecessors.

The brain regions associated with playing music are the same as those linked to both language and to chess, located roughly above the left ear. One can see some evidence of the linkage in children’s songs, where simple tunes serve to reinforce lessons on language rules and usage - even the alphabet song performs a similar function. Neat cocktail fact: the alphabet song uses the same tune as ‘Baa baa, Black Sheep” - and a Mozart concerto.

And Thanks For All The Fish

We note with excitement the reports of an experimental effort being called CHAT, for Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry, which for the first time seeks to establish a two-way communication with dolphins. While researchers have been working on communicating with dolphins using pictures and sound since the 1960s, all previous efforts have been, in essence, one way, with humans directing the dolphin’s activities - and with no opportunity for the dolphins to communicate their needs to the humans. Remarkable things have been shown through these earlier efforts, including the dolphins’ ability to recognize and keep track of more than 100 words, and to respond appropriately to changes in syntax [‘bring the surfboard to the man’ versus ‘bring the man to the surfboard.’]. In this new experiment, divers are working with the dolphins to create a mutually agreed upon series of sounds to represent concepts.

This is the first real step towards true interspecies communications, and we’re excited about the possibilities, and what can be built on the outcome of these experiments. We’re especially pleased to know the researchers are really getting down to basics and examining the preconceptions, going so far as to wonder if dolphins even have words, as we understand them.

We’ll be keeping our eye on this one...

Science Diction

We like this nice list of snappy zingers from scientists across the centuries, and hope it will add some cheer to your weekend. Comments at the link are worth a readthrough, too.

From A to Chimpanzee

You thought we were kidding about monkey news, eh? The BBC is reporting on an article in the journal Animal Cognition regarding the cataloguing of the ‘gestural repertoire’ of chimpanzees [yes, we know chimpanzees are apes, not monkeys] studied in the wild by a team from the University of St. Andrews. Yes, a dictionary of deliberate movements and their meanings.

There are, apparently, as many as 66 recognizable signals, which more than doubles the roughly 30 that had been observed in chimps in captivity. Perhaps most interestingly, by comparing the films to those made of orangutans and gorillas, the researchers are seeing a significant number of overlaps, and this suggests that the common ancestor of all great apes - including humans - used at least some of the same gestures still used today.

No Bones About It

An interesting article in the International Herald Tribune regarding the history and changing perception of one of the western world’s earliest and most easily recognized logos or brands - that of the skull and crossbones.

The terror associated with the mark taps in to a primal fear of death, and the symbol was used to indicate death well before it started showing up on pirate ships - we note the tombstone of a Colonial-era governor buried nearby dating from 1680, featuring a primitive and spooky version. Nowadays, we see little skull-and-crossbones prints on baby blankets and clothes, or dog collars, and the like. The design has been sapped of its capacity to sow fear, and where once its display was cause enough for hanging, it now seems to indicate not much more than a wee bit of naughtiness.

While there has been much written about
semantic drift in words, it’s pretty cool to see a visual brand change meaning across time...

Turning to Japanese...

The New York Times reports today on recent academic investigations on the origins of Japanese and the Japanese people. The findings suggest a much later arrival of the language than commonly held, and thus that the indigenous Jomon hunter-gatherer culture, whose presence has been dated to 30,000 years ago, were not the immediate forebears of the Japanese of today. Instead, the study seems to indicate the Yayoi people brought the language that became Japanese with them when they brought their agricultural “wet rice” culture to the Japanese islands from the Korean peninsula about 2,200 years ago.

We have some reservations concerning the fact that the lead researcher is not an historical linguist, and that the methodology relies on something called
Bayesian phylogeny and computer-generated charts of language relation later sampled for statistical relevance. We can see a lot of potential problems here, but some professionals in the field - with far more knowledge of the actual work done than we have - are lauding the findings and suggesting it fits with previously known facts about the culture and settlement activity in the area.

The internal and sociopolitical repercussions amongst the famously insular Japanese will be something to watch.