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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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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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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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