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Cartoon illustration for 'four = death'

Four = Death

Here’s a handy cross-cultural tip: speakers of both Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese are often seriously freaked out by the number 4—to the point that hotels in Asia often ‘pretend’ not to have a fourth floor. Why? It’s because in both Cantonese and Mandarin the words for ‘four’ carry a strong echo of ‘death’. This post explains […]

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harbinger cartoon illustration


To modern ears, ‘harbinger’ may sound like a character for Arnold Schwarzenegger to play: dark, foreboding, foretelling doom and destruction. But who were the real, original, harbingers?  Well, it turns out harbinger was originally a job—a cross between being a road manager and serving as a knight’s herald. The story goes like this…

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Wanna cartoon 2


The ‘Wanna’ Puzzle In casual speech, English speakers commonly contract want to into wanna. This seems like it should be easy to explain: want+to=wanna, right? But in fact—as linguists often find when they study so-called ‘lazy’ or ‘sub-standard’ language—we actually use wanna in subtly complicated ways. Compare: (a)  Contraction good: Who do you  dance with? […]

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cell cartoon 3


The Question Biological cells, prison cells, terrorist cells, cell-phones, and even cellars—what’s with all the cells? In this post, we’ll explore the curious historical thread that connects all these ‘cell’ words. Phase 1: Monks in the Basement Cells were originally little rooms for monks. The word entered English like this: Cella was the Latin word […]

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illustration of 'confirm that you know' eh

Talk like a Canadian 1: how to use ‘eh’

Canadians are famous for using the tag eh. But why? Other dialects—for example New Zealand English—also use forms of eh. And all dialects (including Canadian) use similar tags, like huh, right, or innit. So what makes Canadian eh so distinctive? Partly, it is because Canadians—or at least ‘hard-core’ Canadians—use eh in a particularly complex way: […]

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shibboleth featured cartoon


Shibboleth ‣ NOUN Shibboleth originally meant ear of corn in Ancient Hebrew. Today, because of a story in the bible, we use the word like this: For a test, based on distinctive pronunciation, of whether someone is in a particular ethnic or social group. More generally, for any practice, custom, or belief that serves to […]

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bathos cartoon (large)

bathos, bathetic

bathos, bathetic ‣NOUN, ADJ Bathos: A descent from moving artistry to the ridiculous. Bathetic: To be full of bathos. Cf. pathos, pathetic ‘Bathos’ sounds like: BAY-thoss (IPA: ‘beθɑs, or British ‘beθɒs) Etymology Seeds of literary bitterness: In Ancient Greek, bathos (also sometimes transliterated as bathous) means depth. In 1727, the English poet (and not-very-nice-person) Alexander […]

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pathos featured image

pathos, pathetic

pathos, pathetic ‣NOUN, ADJ Pathos: a quality that evokes sadness or pity. Pathetic: omg, like, such a loser. Cf. bathos, bathetic ‘Pathos’ sounds like: PAY-thoss (IPA: ‘peθɑs, or British ‘peθɒs) Etymology A divergence in connotation: In Ancient Greek pathos meant suffering. Modern English pathos and pathetic both come from that root (pathetic comes from a […]

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Avatar cartoon C


avatar ‣ NOUN “Avatar” has three distinct (though historically connected) meanings: Literally: one of the physical embodiments of the Hindu god Vishnu (he could adopt various shapes); Figuratively: someone being such a good exemplar of a quality (e.g. goodness) that it’s like they’re the embodiment of that quality (e.g. “She’s an avatar of goodness”). On […]

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Manichaean Cartoon 1


Manichaean ‣ ADJ Sounds like: man-ih-KEE-un (IPA: /mænəkiən) Etymology “Manichaen” originates with “Mani”, the name of a 3rd century Persian prophet. Mani was famous for founding his own religion, which the Romans called “Manichaeism”. Manichaeism was a fusion of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism—though claiming to go beyond all of these. A distinguishing feature of […]

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