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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

harbinger

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

wanna

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

cell

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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