"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: April 2013

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Top 30 Common English Words That Are Derived from Names of People (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.


A few weeks ago, I had a lighthearted discussion with a friend about my abiding fascination with unusual words and their etymologies (that is, their origin, history, and development) and told the story of how I once wowed my classmates in high school when I told them “macadamize” was another word for “tar,” that is, to coat a stretch of land, usually a road, with a dark, coarse, heavy substance to make vehicular movement smooth. 

My classmates were even more tickled when I shared my discovery that “macadamize” is derived from “macadam,” which is derived from the name of a person. 

As I shared the story with my friend, I remembered three other common English words that are derived from the names of people: bowdlerize, chauvinism, and mesmerize. As I kept remembering more such words, I said to myself: I can actually write a full column on eponyms, as grammarians call everyday words that are derived from the names of actual persons or places.

In order to come up with more words, I searched on Google to see if anyone has compiled a list of English words in common usage that are derived from names of historical personages. I was looking specifically for words that are so integrated into English vocabulary that everyday speakers of the language hardly have any clue that they were not considered “real” words a couple of years back. Then I came across alphadictionary.com, a truly fascinating site that has, in my opinion, one of the most impressive lists of English eponyms on the Internet. 

What follows is a list of my 30 favorite English eponyms. The list is inspired as much by recollections of my fascination with etymologies in high school as it is by the great work in alphadictionary.com.

1. Algorithm. Many people, especially scientists, know this word as the formula or procedure for calculations. As a new media scholar, I relate to the word as the mysterious formula by which search engines rank pages on the Internet, as in: “Google’s search algorithms.” The word has a cute adjectival inflection (algorithmic) and an even cuter adverbial inflection (algorithmically). 

Well, “algorithm” is derived from the name of a Muslim scientist by the name of Abu Abdallah Muḥammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi who lived from 780 to 850 in what is now Iraq and who had the distinction of being the pioneer of the branch of mathematics called “algebra,” itself derived from an Arabic word that means “restoration.” Alphadictionary.com refers to him an “Arabic mathematician, born in Baghdad, who showed that any mathematical problem, no matter how difficult, could be solved if broken down into a series of smaller steps (an algorithm).”
Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi

Although Alphadictionary identifies him as an “Arabic mathematician,” he was actually Persian, that is, he shared the same linguistic and cultural identity with present-day Iranians. “Al-Khwarizmi” ended up as “algorithm” because Arabs pronounced the name as “Al-Khwarithmi,” which Western scholars in turn rendered as “algorithm.”

2. Biro. This common word for pen in Britain and most Commonwealth countries, including Nigeria, is the last name of a Hungarian inventor who invented the object “that has a small metal ball as the point of transfer of ink to paper.” He was born in 1900 and died in 1985. His full name is Biro Laszlo Jozsef. In Hungary, people’s last names are often written first. So a Western rendering of his name would be Laszlo Jozsef Biro.
Laszlo Jozsef Biro
Laszlo Jozsef Biro

3. Braille. This word can be both a noun and a verb. As a noun, it means “a point system of writing in which patterns of raised dots represent letters and numerals” to help blind people read. It can be used as a verb to mean transcribe a piece of writing into braille, as in: he brailled the note so his blind friend could read it.

The word is derived from Louis Braille, a  French educator and musician who became blind when he was only three years old and who later went on to invent a system of writing and printing that is used all over the world by the blind. He was born in 1809 and died in 1852. 
Louis Braille
Louis Braille

4. Bowdlerize. To bowdlerize is to remove parts (of a novel, article, TV program, etc.) that are considered undesirable or unsuitable. The word’s synonyms are “expurgate,” “edit out,” “shorten,” etc. It is also sometimes used in place of “censor.”  The noun form of “bowdlerize” is “bowdlerization.”

It’s derived from the name of a British medical doctor by the name of Thomas Bowdler (1754 -1825) who is famous for publishing a heavily edited, family-friendly, multi-volume version of William Shakespeare’s works, which he titled The Family Shakspeare [sic]. (Until fairly recently, Shakespeare was spelled without “e” after “k”). He edited out violent scenes, removed passages referring to sex, deleted all fictional representations of prostitutes, and replaced curse words with more children-friendly exclamations, etc. in all of Shakespeare’s works. He did a similar thing for Edward Gibbon's iconic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which was published a year after Bowdler’s death.
Thomas Bowdler
Thomas Bowdler

Thus, to bowdlerize is to clean up a passage, an article, a book, a broadcast program, etc., to make it acceptable to a section of people. The process of doing that is called bowdlerization.

5. Boycott. This common word for refusing to have anything to do with something or somebody is derived from the name Charles C. Boycott (1832–97), a ruthless “English estate manager in Ireland, against whom nonviolent coercive tactics were used in 1880,” according to Alphadictionary.com. The Times, the popular British daily newspaper, is credited with being the first to use the term “boycott” to mean social isolation of an oppressor. The “b” in “boycott” used to be capitalized to indicate that it was the name of a person. Or it had quotation marks around it to show that it was not standard usage. Over the years, however, the capitalization and quotation marks were dropped, and the word became entrenched in English lexicon first as a verb and later as a noun.
Charles C. Boycott
Charles C. Boycott

6. Chauvinism. This word for zealously unreasoning belief in the superiority of a group of people is traceable to Nicolas Chauvin, “a French soldier in Napoleon's army famous for his fanatical devotion to the Emperor.” Born around 1780, he was said to have enlisted in the French army at 18 and got wounded more times during war than any French soldier, leaving him with permanent physical deformities. His uncommon devotion to his country became the subject of derision and revulsion only after Napoleon Bonaparte and his political philosophy (which Chauvin passionately believed in and stoutly defended) fell into disfavor with the French public. From then on, chauvinism acquired a pejorative connotation. Other derivatives of chauvinism are chauvinist, chauvinistic, chauvinistically. 
Nicolas Chauvin
Nicolas Chauvin

7. Casanova. Alphadictionary.com’s entry on this word is worth reproducing verbatim: “A philanderer, gigolo, an irresponsible lover who has many affairs with women. Giovanni Jacopo Casanova (1725-1798), Italian charlatan and social climber, who wrote several books, translated the Iliad but is most notorious for his History of my Life, which focuses on his many romantic conquests.”
Giovanni Jacopo Casanova
Giovanni Jacopo Casanova

8. Diesel. I had no idea that diesel, the thick, greasy oil that powers engines, was derived from the name of a person.  It’s named after its inventor identified as Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel (1858-1913), who was a French-born German engineer.
Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel
Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel

To be continued

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Saturday, April 27, 2013

Boston and Baga: A Telling Tale of Two Tragedies

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

In Boston, the capital city of the northeastern US state of Massachusetts, two terrorists murdered three innocent, unarmed marathoners and wounded several others. A few hours later, the FBI released surveillance pictures of the suspects and beseeched the American public to help identify them.

One of the terrorist suspects also shot a police officer dead. He was later killed in a gunfight with the police. 

Manhunt for the second suspect caused the entire city of Boston to be shut down. The state police tweeted that they “will be going door by door, street by street, in and around Watertown” (a suburb of Boston) until they found the at-large suspect. They told everyone to remain indoors and to never open their doors for anyone except uniformed police officers. A few hours after, the suspect was captured and the city cheered and roared back to life.

About the same time, in Baga, a small town in the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno, a Boko Haram terrorist allegedly killed a Nigerian military officer. Security officers demanded that residents of the town identify and turn in the terrorist. They couldn’t. In anger, the military cold-bloodedly butchered over 200 of them, severely injured hundreds more (most of whom were women and children), and burned down their homes and livestock.
Bodies of men massacred by JTF

Even with the wildest stretch of the imagination, it is difficult to imagine a contrast more strikingly telling than that between the clinical, sophisticated, and humane policing by American security forces in the face of a violent terrorist provocation and the unimaginably homicidal brutality by Nigerian security forces against innocent, helpless, and unarmed civilians in a similar circumstance.

When I saw the bloodcurdling pictures of the lifeless bodies of Baga residents murdered by Nigerian security forces, I shed tears of sorrow and rage. As someone who was born and raised in a small town, I related personally to the tragedy. Those dead bodies strewn on the streets of Baga could easily be my townsfolk—or, in fact, my family members. I can’t even begin to imagine the grief the survivors of this tragedy must be undergoing now. It’s harder still to fathom why people who swore to protect us have become merciless, unconscionable mass killers of innocents.

When one of the several responders to my last article, which opposed amnesty for Boko Haram, wrote that people “prefer to live with Boko Haram terrorism than JTF’s extra judicial killings,” I was a little mystified. It didn’t make much sense to me. Now it does. While Boko Haram is an unequivocally abominable terrorist group whose raison d'être is to inflict death and misery, the military and the police who constitute the Joint Task Force (JTF) are supposed to be the guardians of the weak, the shield against Boko Haram’s terror. But when the protector inflicts more hurt and harm than the marauder, it is easy to see why the marauder would be seen as the lesser of two evils.

When several national and international NGOs, including the US State Department, said the Joint Task Force has killed more people than Boko Haram has since 2009, government officials renounced them. But the truth of this grim fact stares us in the face daily, the Baga massacre being the latest example.

Nigerian security forces, especially the Nigerian military and police, appear to be nurtured on a steady diet of murderous contempt for the civilian population.  It’s as if they are preprogrammed to wipe out entire populations without the slenderest tinge of moral compunction whenever one of their members is killed. It happened in Odi, Zaki Biam, Nassarawa State University, and many other places. Their valor comes forth only in encounters with poor, defenseless civilians. In sane societies, security forces don’t visit the sins of one person on entire communities.

The difference between the nature of the response of American and Nigerian security forces to fairly the same set of circumstances partly explains why the police and the military are looked at differently in both countries. In America, police and military officers are revered; in Nigeria they are reviled. Americans feel safe when they see their police and military officers; Nigerians quake in their boots when they see theirs.

I recall an incident in 2005 that drives home this point. My American friend and I took a road trip to Florida from Louisiana. It was during Hurricane Katrina, which caused severe petrol shortages that led to long lines at filling stations. As we journeyed, we realized that our truck had almost completely run out of petrol. So we decided to fill our tank before proceeding. But every petrol station we went to had impossibly long lines. We were in danger of missing our appointment, and we were mightily frustrated.

Then my American friend turned to me and said, “Farooq, I think I’m going to have to use my military ID to get us gas.” I had no idea that he served in the US military. He was a graduate student like me. I told him he couldn’t pull it off. People were angry and frustrated because they had been waiting in line for hours on end (something Nigerians have become accustomed to), and I thought they would never allow anyone to get ahead of them unfairly. In fact, we had been told that someone’s head had been blown off a few hours earlier at a petrol station when he attempted to jump the queue.

But when my friend went to the petrol station manager’s office and presented his ID card, he was told to bring his car and fill it. And he had no military uniform and no gun. People in line were told that my friend was a military officer who needed to be somewhere urgently. I thought there would be a massive resistance. There wasn’t. Instead, there was a deafening chorus of “thank you for your service to our country.” I, too, vicariously bathed in the shower of praises for my friend.

That is earned respect. A Nigerian military officer in a similar situation in Nigeria would never be allowed to jump the queue without dire consequences—unless he wore his uniform and had guns.

The fight against terrorism in Nigeria will be ineffective if does not entail a radical overhaul of the attitude of security forces toward civilian populations. The Baga tragedy must not only be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice; it must never be allowed to occur again. No one deserves to live in dread of both terrorists and government security forces.

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Battle for the Simplification of English Spelling

On June 4, 2010, a group of protesters from America and the UK gathered at the Washington, DC venue of the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee competition to demand that English spellings be simplified. The protesters were from the American Literacy Council and the London-based Spelling Society.

Fox News reported an 83-year-old American primary school principal by the name of Roberta Mahoney (who was among the protesters) as arguing that the way the English language is currently structured “obstructs 40 percent of the population from learning how to read, write and spell.”
"Our alphabet has 425-plus ways of putting words together in illogical ways,” Fox News quoted Mahoney to have said. 

One of the most memorable slogans of the protest was:  "Enuf is enuf. Enough is too much." That is, it would be sufficient to simply spell the word “enough” as “enuf”; the word’s current spelling is illogical overkill. 

“Enuf”, of course, functions here only as a representative sample of the orthographic chaos of English spelling. “According to literature distributed by the group,” Fox News reported, “it makes more sense for  ‘fruit’ to be spelled as ‘froot,’ 'slow’ should be ‘slo,’ and ‘heifer’— a word spelled correctly during the first oral round of the bee Thursday by Texas competitor Ramesh Ghanta — should be ‘hefer’.” 

I have written about English spellings in previous articles here, but I found the article below about the 2010 spelling protest really interesting, and thought I should share it with my readers. It is written by a language activist identified simply as “WoesOfACollegeKid” and originally titled “’Enuf is Enuf!’: Should we Simplify the English Language? ... Becuz perhaps we shood chanj the way we spell.” Enjoy.

I’m a self-proclaimed linguistic snob, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I probably judge you if you repetitively use “your” instead of “you’re”. I cringe a little when you use an adjective where an adverb should clearly be.

(Please realize that I’m addressing a hypothetical “you”… not necessarily you personally. Most of the Hubs I have read have excellent grammar… most likely because most of our fellow Hubbers write well and often. However, I find that I am drifting further and further away from the purpose of this Hub.)
Despite my vanity when it comes to all things grammatical, I am a horrid speller. I’m not ashamed to admit this either. As a matter of fact, I am so humble about my dysfunctional spelling that I think that it cancels out my previously mentioned arrogance regarding grammar. Once again, I digress. But thank God for spell-check. Seriously.

However, despite the fact that my spelling abilities leave something to be desired, I have never thought to myself, “Wow. I really suck at spelling. I think I’ll stage a protest to express my grievances.”

Today, demonstrators gathered in front of the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C., the host site of the upcoming Scripps National Spelling Bee. The army was small but undoubtedly dedicated and unified as they sought to persuade teachers, congressmen, parents, and pretty much whoever would listen that the English language desperately needs to be simplified.

Pointing out the fact that words like “fruit” should logically be spelled “froot” and numerous other examples, the picketers (who were representatives from the American Literary Council and the Simplified Spelling Society) believe that the reason that many ESL students have such difficulty learning English is because of irrational spellings that are frequent in the English language. They say that simplifying such spellings would increase literacy.

I have also read in one article that the protestors claim that in addition to contributing to illiteracy among Americans and increased obstacles for immigrants, these “illogical” spellings contribute to dyslexia. I’m trying to figure out how that works; nothing I’ve read has cared to elaborate on that point. (If you can shed some light on this, please do!)

To read the rest of the article, click here.

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