LANGUAGE & Literature

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YouTuber Austin McConnell, a man who knows words, humorously explained through animation the fascinating history of ten different letters that are no longer part of the American English alphabet. While some of these symbols still exist in modern lexicon, such as ampersand (&) and ash (æ),the others either faded away with time or just never caught on.

In an article in American Scholar, Ralph Keyes says, Soon after they arrived in America, British settlers got busy with an important task: reinventing their language. This called for repurposing old words and coining new ones. Colonists called the plump, smelly rodents they encountered in swamps muske rats. Other forms of wildlife were named katydids, bobcats, catfish, and whippoorwills. To these settlers, sleigh improved on sledge, and the help reflected their values better than servants.

The phrase Less is more was adopted by architect Mies van der Rohe in 1947. But it originated in a very long poem by Robert Browning in 1855, entitled Andrea del Sarto, after the painter of that name. Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged.

The term lame duck was used by traders to describe a person who defaulted on his debt. The idea was that this trader would be powerless and vulnerable to predators, like a duck unable to keep up with its flock. Unable to pay up, the defaulter has to “waddle” off. In 1771, playwright David Garrick wrote, Change-Alley bankrupts waddle out lame ducks” in the prologue to Samuel Foote’s play The Maid of Bath.

Chinook Wawa was once spoken by more than 100,000 people, from Alaska to the California border, for more than 100 years. The language was developed to ease trade in a place where there was no common language. On the Pacific Coast at the time, there were dozens of First Nations languages, including Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Nuu-chah-nulth, Haisla, Heiltsuk, Kwakwaka'wakw, Salishan and Chinook. After European contact, which included Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778, English, French, Spanish, Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese were gradually added to the mix. While pidgin languages usually draw most of their vocabulary from the prestige language, or colonising culture, unusually, in the case of Chinook Wawa, two thirds of the language is Chinook and Nuu-chah-nulth with the rest being made up mostly of English and French. A language that combined simplified words from the First Nations languages of Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), Chinook and others, as well as from French and English, it was used so extensively that it was the language of courts and newspapers in the Pacific Northwest from about 1800 to 1905.

U.S. President James Garfield could write Latin with one hand and Greek with the other hand simultaneously.

The form of English that Asians, Latinos and Africans use as a default language to speak to the rest of the world is build on a core of just 1500 words.  Because of the verb "to be" can be used in so many ways, it's fairly easy to learn rudimentary English without paying attention to case or tense. A new immigrant to an English-speaking country can say to her neighbor, "Go store. Baby sleep," and be completely understood. 

“I am” is the shortest complete sentence in the English language.

A pangram sentence is one that contains every letter in the language. “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” is a pangram.

Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis is the longest word in the English language. It is a type of lung disease caused by inhaling ash and dust. Go ahead and try pronouncing that!

There are “ghost words” that mean nothing. Believe it or not, there are some words that appeared in the dictionary because of printing errors. The nonexistent word “dord” appeared in the dictionary for eight years in the mid-20th century. It became known as a “ghost word.”

The word "nickname" back to the Middle English term "ekename" (meaning, roughly, "additional name"), first used around 1300 -- meaning the practice of giving people names other than the ones they're born with.

The shortest, oldest, and most commonly used word is “I.”

A new word is added to the dictionary every two hours. During the course of the year, almost 4,000 new words are added!

There’s a name for words that we repeat often. They are called crutch words. For example, in the sentence “Then I was like, OMG, then like, he went there, and like&ldots;” it is pretty obvious that “like” is the crutch word. “Actually,” “honestly,” and “basically” are also commonly used as crutch words.

Swims will be swims even when turned upside down. These words are called ambigrams.

English is the language of the air. This means that all pilots have to identify themselves and speak in English while flying, regardless of their origin.

Girl used to mean small boy or girl. The word “girl” was not initially used to refer to a specific gender. It used to mean “child” or “young person” regardless of the gender.

A contronym is a word that can be its own opposite, for example, left can mean both to depart and to remain.

The plural of octopus is octopuses, because you can't put a Latin ending ( i) on a word derived from Greek.

The English language has a mysterious rule of adjective order, seldom taught in schools. According to linguist Mark Forsyth, the order goes opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose Noun. Read the larger explanation at:

Habeas corpus is a writ ordering that a person be brought before a judge, especially to decide whether a prisoner’s detention is lawful.

Defenestrate was coined in 1618 from the Latin prefix de (down or away from) and fenestra, which means window. It originates from two incidents in Prague, known as the Defenestrations of Prague. In 1419 several town officials were thrown from the windows of the town hall. Then, in 1618, two imperial governors and their secretaries were tossed from Prague Castle. This event began the 30 Years War.

Wreckage that sinks to the ocean floor and has no hope of recovery is called derelict; this word traces its origins in English to the 1640s and is derived from the Latin derelictus for solitary and deserted. Its meaning of an abandoned vessel may be traced back to the 1660s. Flotsam denotes that wreckage from a ship that is later found floating on the sea’s surface. The word traces its roots to the early 1600s and the Anglo-French floteson, which derived from the Old French flotaison (meaning “a floating.”) The word in English was spelled flotsen until the mid-1800s, when it took on its modern variant. Jetsam, first seen in the mid-1500s, is the stuff that was purposely thrown off a ship by its crew to lighten its load (usually during troubling times), and is washed ashore. The word is a modification and contraction of the Middle English jetteson, itself from the Anglo-French getteson and Old French getaison (meaning “a throwing.”)

When a plane or ship captain uses the word Mayday, he's following a procedure which originated in 1923. Frederick Stanley Mockford, a senior radio officer at Croydon Airport in London, was asked to think of a word that would indicate distress and would easily be understood by all pilots and ground staff in an emergency. Since much of the traffic at the time was between Croydon and Le Bourget Airport in Paris, he proposed the word Mayday from the French m'aider, a shortened version of venez m'aider (meaning come and help me).

Umpire is from the Old French word nompair, meaning 'not paired.' The umpire is the third, or 'not paired' person called upon to decide between two contestants.

OK or Okay orginated in the mid 19th century, probably an abbreviation of orl korrect, a humorous form of all correct, popularized as a slogan during President Van Buren's re-election campaign of 1840. His nickname Old Kinderhook (derived from his birthplace) provided the initials.

Milton Sirotta, the nephew of American mathematician Edward Kasner, was walking with his uncle one day in  1920 when  Kasner wondered out loud what one might call 10 to the 100th power (the number 10 followed by 100 zeroes). A googol, suggested Milton, and the word google ended up as the name for today's famous company.

The word computer was coined in 1613 to describe any person who did math calculations.

Due to the “naughty” dancing of the can-can girls and the scantily clad models on 1800s French postcards, the British equated anything risqué with France. In fact, that's how the phrase pardon my French entered the vernacular.

The suffix –ish, as in British, comes from the Proto-Germanic suffix -iska which meant “country of.” It morphed into the Old English –isc before becoming the modern English, Irish, Spanish, etc. The addition of –stan to the name of their cultural or ethnic group identifies that a certain place belongs to them. In English, we often use –land to identify a nation or place, and familiar words include England, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, and Thailand, as well as Maryland and Newfoundland. Other languages use the convention as well, such as the German Deutschland.

A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that many of the world’s languages use similar sounds for the same things. For example, the R sound often shows up in words for red, a nasal n in referring to the nose,  use hard K sounds for spiky things and B for round items. Comparing common words from 4,298 languages around the world, they discovered similarities in the sounds of different classes of words, from body parts to adjectives to pronouns to verbs to objects in nature.  The T sound was often used in words for stone, and the S sound was often used in words for sand.

Humans speak over 7,000 distinct languages. Far more languages are found in tropical regions than in the temperate zones. The tropical island of New Guinea is home to over 900 languages. Russia, 20 times larger, has 105 indigenous languages. Even within the tropics, language diversity varies widely. For example, the 250,000 people who live on Vanuatu’s 80 islands speak 110 different languages, but in Bangladesh, a population 600 times greater speaks only 41 languages.

Irish falconry has given us many common expressions, including "under my thumb, wrapped around my finger, hoodwinked, fed up, haggard, booze, bate (as in bated breath), rouse.

In 1861, when the Italian peninsula was finally united into a single political entity, only 2.5 percent of "Italians" spoke the Italian language. In fact, the citizens of every major Italian city -- Rome, Venice, Florence, Milan and others -- each spoke a different language. The situation was similar in the other countries of Europe.

The word “sugar” originates from the Sanskrit word sharkara, which means “material in a granule form.” In Arabic, it is sakkar; Turkish is sheker; Italian is zucchero; and Yoruba speakers in Nigeria call it suga. The only taste humans are born craving is sugar.

The English word girl was initially used to describe a young person of either sex. It was not until the beginning of the sixteenth century that the term was used specifically to describe a female child.

The average pre-schooler laughs or smiles 400 times a day, but that number drops to only 15 times a day by the time people reach the age of 35.

India is the birthplace of chess. The original word for "chess" is the Sanskrit chaturanga, meaning "four members of an army"-which were mostly likely elephants, horses, chariots, and foot soldiers.

Bingo has had many names and variations. The earliest name, lotto (or loto), a children’s game, was first recorded in 1778. The original American form, called keno, kino, or po-keno, dates from the early 19th century. The only form of gambling permitted in the British armed services, the game is called in the Royal Navy tombola (1880) and in the Army, house (1900), or housy-housy. Other American names are beano, lucky, radio, and fortune.

The word LEGO is from the first two letters of the Danish words Leg” and Godt, which means play well.
Ole Kirk Christiansen (1891-1958) created the LEGO Group in 1932 as a way to use old wood from his failed carpentry business. He patented the now famous interlocking LEGO blocks in 1949.

In 1925, San Luis Obispo made perhaps its greatest contribution to travel history when the Milestone Mo-Tel opened. It was originally supposed to be called the Milestone Motor Hotel, but workers couldn’t fit all three words on the sign. A few years later the name was changed to the Motel Inn, and "motel" became the name for all roadside accommodation where you could park right in front of your room.

Big Ben doesn’t refer to a clock; it's actually the name for the bell inside that famous clock tower.

Some popular hats include the Derby, which is known in England as a Bowler. This dome-shaped rigid hat with a curled small brim was created for an Englishman, James Coke in 1850s, and made stiff to protect the head. Peaking in popularity towards the end of the 19th century, it offered a midway between the formality of the top hat associated with the upper classes and the casual nature of soft felt hats worn by the lower middle classes.

Founded in 1865, John B. Stetson Company began when the founder headed west and created the original hat of the West, the Boss of the Plains. This Western hat would become the cornerstone of Stetson’s hat business and is still in production today. Stetson eventually became the world’s largest hat maker, producing more than 3.3 million hats a year in its Philadelphia factory.

The word Fedora comes from the title of an 1882 play by dramatist Victorien Sardou, Fédora, written for Sarah Bernhardt. The play was first performed in the United States in 1889. Bernhardt played Princess Fédora, the heroine of the play, and she wore a hat similar to what is now considered a fedora. The hat's popularity soared when it was adopted by men, and eventually eclipsed the similar-looking Homburg.

Tantra Bensko, a writer who teaches experimental fiction at UCLA, defines literary fiction as: "Lit Fic is known in the Commercial circles as those books where nothing happens. Or, all the thoughts of academic professorial characters experiencing existential angst in middle aged crisis. Language being inexcusably flowery. The land where semi-colons go to die. It has nuanced motifs and ambiguity, depressing endings and lots of pondering."

Gone with the Wind sold one million copies in six months. It was Margaret Mitchell's first and only book, and won a Pulitzer Prize. Hattie Macdaniel was the first black woman to win an Oscar for her role in that film.

The Arabian Nights or Tales of 1001 Nights, dating from over one thousand years ago, did not include Aladdin, Sindbad or Ali Baba until added by the Frenchman Antoine Galland three centuries ago.

Sigmund Freud’s landmark work, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), which became a milestone in dream interpretation, sold only 415 copies in the first two years.

Theodor Seuss Geisel 's books have sold 600 million copies worldwide since his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was published in 1937. And as inevitable as Dr. Seuss's appeal seems now, Mulberry Street was rejected by twenty-seven publishers before being accepted by Vanguard Press.

Madeleine L’Engle was rejected by publishers 26 times before A Wrinkle in Time was finally printed in 1962.

Horatio Alger, Jr. was an American author who wrote more than 100 children’s books. Highly formulaic, each taught that through honesty, perseverance, and hard work, poor but virtuous lads could prevail in life. Published in 1868, the first of those books, Ragged Dick, was an immediate success. Despite the weaknesses of Alger’s writing, his books ultimately sold more than 20 million copies, making him one of the most popular writers of the 19th century.

David John Moore Cornwell worked for the British intelligence services MI5 and MI6, when he began writing novels under the pen name, John LeCarre.  Another person with British gov't spy experience was Ian Fleming, who was a British intelligence officer and journalist. He came up with the name James Bond while visiting a Canadian training facility outside Toronto. He stayed in a small town whose prominent church was St. James Bond. After Fleming's death, several authors were commissioned to carry on the Bond legacy.

J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, is the first person to become a billionaire (U.S. dollars) by writing books. Her first manuscript for the amazingly successful series was rejected by 12 publishers.

Many successful novelists began their careers working in advertising.  Among these are Dr. Seuss, Salman Rushdie, Helen Gurley Brown, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Patterson.  Walt Disney was an illustrator for an ad agency, and others who wrote copy before forging stellar careers in TV or performance arts include Bob Barker, Grant Tinker, Lawrence Kasden, Dick Wolf (Law & Order), Phyllis Diller, Bob Newhart and Sir Alec Guinness.

In Zulu beadwork, the color or pattern of each bead has meaning. Women used these to send romantic messages, as red beads indicated longing, while blue meant fidelity and striped ones meant fickle.

A few language myths exposed by a new book, You Are What You Speak, by Robert Lane Greene:
           The Chinese word for crisis is not composed of the characters for danger and opportunity, and the book which claimed that women speak much more than men was wrong. Those figures were based on an unsourced claim in a self-help book. Actually, research shows both sexes using about the same number of words in a day.

The word influenza comes from the Italian influentia because people used to believe that the influence of the planets, stars, and moon caused the flu. The thought only such universal influence could explain such sudden and widespread sickness.

In the 16th century, goods were transported in packs that people carried on theirs or animals backs. The term used to describe this was pick pack because you would pick up a pack in order to carry it on your back. That  eventually became pick-a-pack which then became pick-a-back. However, the insertion of the “a” caused a problem and due to the pronunciation of the term as a whole, pick-a-pack often sounded like pick -i-back which sounded like picky back. That made no sense at all to those who didn’t understand the progression of the phrase, so ultimately the term piggyback began to be used for people carrying a pack on their back. By  the 1930s, the definition further progressed to describe riding on someone’s back and shoulders.

The term stat means immediately.  It comes from the Latin statim. The first references of the practice of shortening statim to stat came to us from physicians in the nineteenth century, with the first known documented instance of this appearing in Lessons on Prescriptions by W.H. Griffith (1875).

Writer and politician Horace Walpole invented the word serendipity in 1754 as an allusion to Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka. Walpole was a prolific letter writer, and he explained to one of his main correspondents that he had based the word on the title of a fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip. The three princes were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not looking for.

In the Middle Ages the word spinster was a compliment. A spinster was someone, usually a woman, who could spin well. That allowed her to be financially self-sufficient, as spinning was one of the very few ways that mediaeval women could achieve economic independence. The word was generously applied to all women at the point of marriage as a way of saying they came into the relationship freely, from personal choice, not financial desperation.

Rapunzel was based on a real person, who was later venerated as Saint Barbara. This is just one of the fairy tales created by Charles Perrault.  Thought to be the father of fairy tales, his stories were intended for adults, because no children's literature existed at the time. Many were based on true historical events. Valerie Ogden relates these in a book which reveals the stories behind Cinderella, Snow White, Bluebeard, Little Jack Horner, The Pied Piper, and Hansel & Gretel.

Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish writer best known for his many collections of fairy tales, broke with literary tradition and employed the idioms and constructions of spoken language. His stories are imaginative combinations of universal elements from folk legend and include such favorites as The Ugly Duckling and The Emperor's New Clothes. While some reveal an optimistic belief in the ultimate triumph of goodness and beauty, others are deeply pessimistic.

Colonel ultimately derives from the Latin columna, meaning pillar. This gave rise to the Old Italian compagna colonnella, meaning little-column company.  This, in turn, gave us the rank of colonnello - the leader of a column. Other nations adopted this ranking giving us the Middle French Coronel. This was pronounced pretty much like it looks at first, then later slurred down to Kernel by the English, but using the same spelling. However, starting with the French around the 1540s, the spelling was changed back closer to the Italian spelling, which gave us Colonel in French. Within a few decades, the English also followed suit and by the mid-seventeenth century, colonel was the most common way to spell the word in English. At that time, the common pronunciation was mixed between the older kernel and the new colonel, with the former winning out in the end, despite the way it’s spelled.

Isabella Poggi, a professor of psychology at Roma Tre University, has identified around 250 gestures that Italians use in everyday conversation. “There are gestures expressing a threat or a wish or desperation or shame or pride,” she said. The only thing differentiating them from sign language is that they are used individually and lack a full syntax.  One theory holds that Italians developed them as an alternative form of communication during the centuries when they lived under foreign occupation — by Austria, France and Spain in the 14th through 19th centuries — as a way of communicating without their overlords understanding.

Cursive writing encourages  writers to compose sentences in their heads, before committing them to paper. It engages the right brain more than using a keyboard. That requires the left brain to remember where the letters are located.

Noah Webster published the first American Spelling Book in 1793, which eventually became the first American dictionary. In the same year, he founded the first daily newspaper in New York City. A strong nationalist, he promoted a unified American language independent from British English, and reformed many spellings, including dropping the u from words like colour and favour. Webster's 1928 dictionary soon became the established standard for American English. It contained 70,000 words.

Webster was also America's first freelance writer, started the book tour - traveling from city to city to sell his "spellers" - and counted the number of houses in each town to add to his compulsive information gathering. He also argued the importance of copyright protection, as each state set its own such laws in those early days.

Webster suffered from what we now know is obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, as was Peter Mark Roget, who's Thesaurus became a companion volume on most bookshelves.

The oldest newspaper in the U.S. to be published without interruption is the Providence Journal in Providence, Rhode Island.  First published in 1829, the newspaper has won four Pulitzer Prizes. The Hartford Courant, started in 1764, did not become a daily until 1837 and the New York Post, which began daily publication in 1801, had to suspend publication during strikes in 1958 and 1978.

English has mutated over time from a variety of parent languages, primarily Latin, French and Old English. These languages stretch even farther back to a language family called Proto-Indo-European (or PIE). The most significant transformation of English happened in the eleventh century. When the Normans invaded England in the 1066, they brought their words with them. For centuries, wealthier aristocrats spoke Old Norman (or Old French) and the peasantry spoke Middle English. Inevitably, the languages mixed, and English acquired the French words that now constitute about 30% of the English vocabulary.

Wikipedia has a long article on the origins of English words:
Percentage of words from other languages in English: Latin 29%, French˜29%, Germanic 26%, Greek 6%, others 10%.

English is the only language with Latin derivations that has no actual future tense. Plans to undertake an action have to be framed as an act of will ("I'll be going later").

With global colonization in the early 1500s, English continued to amalgamate with other languages. Individual words such as futon, pecan, coyote and vodka were imported directly from foreign languages like Japanese and Algonquin. Some uniquely American words include chowder, applesauce skunk, and demoralize.

China has more English speakers than the United States. 

Linguists have identified  two dozen “ultraconserved words” that have survived 150 centuries. It includes some predictable entries: “mother,” “not,” “what,” “to hear” and “man.” It also contains surprises: “to flow,” “ashes” and “worm.” The existence of the long-lived words suggests there was a “proto-Eurasiatic” language that was the common ancestor to about 700 contemporary languages that are the native tongues of more than half the world’s people.

The ancient Greeks and Romans first put forward the idea that there are “parts of speech,” and in the 18th century, British grammarians arrived at our slate of eight: nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions and interjections.

In the first century, Roman scribes wrote in cursive, so when they wrote the Latin word et which means “and” they linked the e and t. Over time the combined letters came to signify the word “and” in English as well. Certain versions of the ampersand, like that in the font Caslon, clearly reveal the origin of the shape. The word “ampersand” came many years later when “&” was actually part of the English alphabet. In the early 1800s, school children reciting their ABCs concluded the alphabet with the &. It would have been confusing to say “X, Y, Z, and.” Rather, the students said, “and per se and.” “Per se” means “by itself,” so the students were essentially saying, “X, Y, Z, and by itself, and.” Over time, “and per se and” was slurred together into the word we use today: ampersand.

In Old English, a letter called “thorn” represented the “th” sound (as in “that”) in Modern English. In the Latin alphabet, the “y” was the symbol that most closely resembled the character that represented thorn. So, thorn was dropped and “y” took its place. That is why the word “ye,” as in “Ye Olde Booke Shoppe,” is an archaic spelling of “the.”

The Old English letter “wynn” was replaced by “uu,” which eventually developed into the modern w. (It really is a double u.) The letters “u” and “j” didn’t join what we know as the alphabet until the sixteenth century.

The Phoenician alphabet and the Hebrew alphabet are the same. 

Before the Normans invaded England in 1066, there was no letter q in the English language. Words like “queen” and “quick” were spelled “cwin” and “cwic” respectively. It was the French-speaking Normans who began the practice of using qu to represent the /kw/ sound. The Normans themselves had copied the use of “qu” from Latin, which used it for the /k/ sound if it appeared before w. If it did not appear before w, they used c instead.

J started off as a design of I, and it was also used to show the end of a Roman numeral—”XIII,” for instance, was written “XIIJ.” In 1524, Italian grammarian Gian Giorgio Trissino differentiated between sounds /i/ and /j/, but the two were still used interchangeably in the 18th century.

H, I, O, and X are the four letters that look the same if they are flipped upside down or viewed from the back. 

Q is the only letter that does not appear in any of the names of the 50 states.\

The Latin and Greek alphabets initially had only capital letters. Small letters were formed when scribes, who had to copy and recopy text, began adding upward or downward strokes to make writing faster. The change in writing surfaces from rough rock to smooth parchment or vellum also led scribes to write in small letters, as they were now able to make single round strokes instead of multiple strokes.

“Rhythms” is the longest English word without the normal vowels, a, e, i, o, or u

Excluding derivatives, there are only two words in English that end -shion and (though many words end in this sound). These are cushion and fashion.

“THEREIN” is a seven-letter word that contains thirteen words spelled using consecutive letters: the, he, her, er, here, I, there, ere, rein, re, in, therein, and herein.

There is only one common word in English that has five vowels in a row: queueing.

Soupspoons is the longest word that consists entirely of letters from the second half of the alphabet.

The only 15-letter word that can be spelled without repeating a letter is "uncopyrightable."

"Almost” is the longest commonly used word in the English language with all the letters in alphabetical order.

The longest common single-word palindromes are deified, racecar, repaper, reviver, and rotator.

"One thousand” contains the letter A, but none of the words from one to nine hundred ninety-nine has an A.

The nine-word sequence I, in, sin, sing, sting, string, staring, starting (or starling), startling can be formed by successively adding one letter to the previous word.

“Stewardesses” is the longest word that can be typed with only the left hand.

There are many words that feature all five regular vowels in alphabetical order, the commonest being abstemious, adventitious, facetious.

Fickleheaded” and “fiddledeedee” are the longest words consisting only of letters in the first half of the alphabet.

Forty” is the only number which has its letters in alphabetical order. “One” is the only number with its letters in reverse alphabetical order.

Bookkeeper is the only word that has three consecutive doubled letters.

One two words ending in -gry: angry and hungry.

Indivisibility contains only one vowel, but it is used six times.

The letter combination ough can be pronounced in nine different ways. Examples of each sound: rough, dough, thought, plough, through, Scarborough, slough, cough, hiccoughed.

There are 6000 actively spoken languages in the world today. 

English speakers produce an average of five consonants and five vowels per second. 

The first real novel was Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, who was born into poverty in 1547 near Madrid. He became a soldier, was later kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery in North Africa for 5 years. He may have begun Don Quixote while in prison for theft. Because of an unscrupulous publisher, he never earned a penny from the book. He then became a playwright without much success, and published the 2nd volume of Don Quixote in 1615, a decade after the first, in part to counter imitators. He was a contemporary of Shakespeare, and died in 1616, at the age of 69.

European chivalry has its roots in feudalism in France and Spain, a continuation of al-furusiyya al-arabia, or Arabian chivalry, which was imported to Europe during the early Crusades. The knight-errantry, the riding on horseback to find adventure, the rescue of a maiden in need, the nobility of women, and the connection of honorable conduct with the horse rider are all traceable to Arabia. Reaching its highest development in Europe during the 12th and 13th century, chivalry represents a fusion of Christianity and military concepts of the early medieval warrior class. It encompasses such ideas as morality, religion, and social codes such as courage, honor, and service.

Gone with the Wind sold one million copies in six months. It was Margaret Mitchell's first and only book, and won a Pulitzer Prize. Hattie Macdaniel was the first black woman to win an Oscar for her role in that film.

Sigmund Freud’s landmark work, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), which became a milestone in dream interpretation, sold only 415 copies in the first two years.

Theodor Seuss Geisel 's books have sold 600 million copies worldwide since his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was published in 1937. And as inevitable as Dr. Seuss's appeal seems now, Mulberry Street was rejected by twenty-seven publishers before being accepted by Vanguard Press.

Madeleine L’Engle was rejected by publishers 26 times before A Wrinkle in Time was finally printed in 1962.

Horatio Alger, Jr. was an American author who wrote more than 100 children’s books. Highly formulaic, each taught that through honesty, perseverance, and hard work, poor but virtuous lads could prevail in life. Published in 1868, the first of those books, Ragged Dick, was an immediate success. Despite the weaknesses of Alger’s writing, his books ultimately sold more than 20 million copies, making him one of the most popular writers of the 19th century.

David John Moore Cornwell worked for the British intelligence services MI5 and MI6, when he began writing novels under the pen name, John LeCarre.  Another person with British gov't spy experience was Ian Fleming, who was a British intelligence officer and journalist. He came up with the name James Bond while visiting a Canadian training facility outside Toronto. He stayed in a small town whose prominent church was St. James Bond. After Fleming's death, several authors were commissioned to carry on the Bond legacy.

J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, is the first person to become a billionaire (U.S. dollars) by writing books. Her first manuscript for the amazingly successful series was rejected by 12 publishers.

Many successful novelists began their careers working in advertising.  Among these are Dr. Seuss, Salman Rushdie, Helen Gurley Brown, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Patterson.  Walt Disney was an illustrator for an ad agency, and others who wrote copy before forging stellar careers in TV or performance arts include Bob Barker, Grant Tinker, Lawrence Kasden, Dick Wolf (Law & Order), Phyllis Diller, Bob Newhart and Sir Alec Guinness.

The now-familiar phrase But wait! There’s more! first accompanied infomercials for the amazing Ginsu knife in the 1970s. These ads also urged viewers to Call now! Operators are standing by! By bringing the direct-marketing techniques of door-to-door sales and print advertising to television, the Ginsu ads established the formula for the modern infomercial. Ginsu was actually a word that executives made up to evoke images of Japanese samurai swords.

Credit for the first commercial jingle usually goes to a Wheaties spot in 1926. Washburn Crosby (the predecessor of General Mills) tried to resurrect the flagging cereal on the radio with a song from a local barbershop quartet. Jingles soon developed into a distinctive musical genre. “If you heard a jingle, you wouldn’t mistake it for any other kind of music,” says Timothy Taylor, an ethnomusicologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of The Sounds of Capitalism: Advertising, Music, and the Conquest of Culture. Barry Manilow, for one, is to thank for Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there, and I am stuck on Band-Aid Brand, ‘cause Band-Aid’s stuck on me!

In 1900, the standard billboard was created in America.

Beelzebub, another name for the devil, is Hebrew for Lord of the Flies, and this is where the book's title comes from.

Finches are known for their fine singing voices. German criminals called snitches "finks" because they were prone to "singing like a bird" to police. The word followed German and German Jewish immigrants to America where it became part of our everyday vocabulary, primarily through films, tv and radio.

Neither John Lennon nor Paul McCartney could read or write music. That led them to finish a song by the end of the day, so they didn't have to try to remember it the next day.

The custom of family (surnames) names did not really arise until the 11th century in Europe. Prior to the 11th century a surname, if used at all, represented the name of a primitive clan or tribe.

It's a popular myth that a Mac name denotes Scottish heritage while a Mc name denotes Irish heritage, and that Mac names are Protestant while Mc names are Catholic. They both just mean son of and can be used by anyone of either descent or religion. Some Mc and Mac names don’t include the name of the father, but the father’s profession, such as Macmaster. Since master is not a proper noun and does not need to be capitalized, some surnames drop the extra capital.  Other Mc and Mac surnames come from some physical feature of the person, such as Mackenzie, which means “son of the fair one.”

The lead pencil contains no lead. It's actually a rod of graphite encased in wood, which first came into use in the 16th century. However, it was not until the 19th century that the eraser was added, an innovation that earned Hymen Lipman a patent in 1858. In 1862, he sold his patent to Joseph Reckendorfer for $100,000.

In 1954, a few years after identical twins Norris and Ross McWhirter founded a London fact-finding agency, they met a director of the Guinness brewing company, Sir Hugh Beaver, who commissioned a compilation of world records that was intended to settle bar-room disputes. The first edition of the McWhirters’ Guinness Book of Records was given to bars for free as a marketing gimmick, but the book quickly became a phenomenal success.

It took 38 years for the radio to reach 50 million people but it only took 13 years for television to do it. The Internet did it in four years. IPod did it in 3 years, Facebook reached it in 2 years. It took Twitter only six months.

The Twitter Bird’s first name is Larry, as in Larry Bird. He’s named after the hall of fame Basketball player Larry Bird, who played for Biz Stone’s (the founder of Twitter) home team, the Boston Celtics.

In non-fiction, the author tells the story; 
in fiction, the characters reveal the story. 

Georges Feydeau's formula for writing comedy: Decide which characters should, under no circumstances, meet, and then get them together as soon as possible.

The oldest free public school in the U.S. opened in  1635. The Boston Latin School in Massachusetts was originally a school for boys, but became coeducational in 1972. The oldest public school in the U.S. and a "feeder" school for Harvard, it maintains the same standards as elite New England prep schools while adopting the egalitarian attitude of a public school. More than 99% of Boston Latin's approximately 300 annual graduates are accepted by at least one four-year college. The school was modeled after Boston Grammar School in Lincolnshire, UK, from where many of Boston's original settlers derived. Its curriculum follows that of the 18th century Latin-school movement, which holds the classics to be the basis of an educated mind. Among its alumni are four Harvard University presidents, four Massachusetts governors, and five signers of the Declaration of Independence.

The Latin School of Chicago was founded in 1888 by a group of Chicago citizens interested in providing better education for their children. It was modeled after The Boston Latin School, but supported by parents rather than being part of the public system. Early classes of all boys were held in private homes on the Near North Side. The school gradually expanded, and, in 1899, the school moved to a brand new building and became the first Chicago Latin School. In 1913 a girls' section became the Chicago Latin School for Girls, and the two schools merged in 1953. Bobbi taught at The Latin School of Chicago in the 1960s.

The National University of Mexico was founded in 1551 by Charles V of Spain and is the oldest university in North America.

Oberlin College was the first college to grant degrees to women, in 1841. It was also the first college to grant a bachelor’s degree to an African-American woman, in 1862.

Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (5 June 1646 – 26 July 1684) was a Venetian philosopher of noble descent, and the first woman to receive a Doctor of Philosophy degree.

The SATs were administered for the first time on June 23, 1926. The were invented by Princeton professor Carl Campbell Brigham, who had worked on the Army's IQ test. In 1933, James Bryant Conant became president of Harvard, and decided to offer scholarships to public school students in the Midwest. Not long after, Princeton, Columbia and Yale followed suit. By the 1950s, most colleges used the tests for all admissions. The College Board in 1994 changed the name of the SATs from Standard Aptitude to Standard Assessment.

Vermont, Washington D.C., Rhode Island, Alabama, and New Hampshire have the highest concentrations of librarians in the U.S. 

There are thousands of public libraries in the U.S.  California and New York, for example, each have more than 1,000 libraries, while the smallest number, 27, are located in Washington, D.C. 

On November 28, 1814, the Times in London was the first newspaper to be printed by automatic, steam owered presses built by the German inventors Friedrich Koenig and Andreas Friedrich Bauer. This was the beginning of newspapers being available to a mass audience.

On September 4, 1833, Benjamin Day sent little urchins onto the crowded, bustling streets of New York City, into coffee houses and taverns shouting and waving his new production, the Sun newspaper. For one cent men read the news sold to them on the spot. Mr. Day's successful paper spawned more penny newspaper businesses, until every crowded city teemed with hustling ragamuffms eager to earn a few coins selling sheets of news. Publishers could depend on an abundant supply of little merchants to call out the latest edition. The 'newsey' became a common American icon. By 1962, there were 600,000 "paperboys," thanks in part to exemptions from Depression-era child labor laws for youths involved in distributing newspapers if they were at least twelve years of age. The labor laws also exempted youths involved in acting, baby sitting, farm work, a family business, and making Christmas wreaths. (from Little Merchants by Sandra Walker)

Janice Kennedy, who writes with insight and grace in The Ottawa Citizen, described the current cultural climate as the ascendancy of the unelightened, which dismisses experience, education, and sophisticated thinking.  Could that be a result of the dominance of television, where the inexperienced and uneducated are celebrated on reality shows?

There's an adjective to describe those of us who are fond of writing: scribacious. There's also an obscure word for continual writing: scriptitation.

Alan Seeger was an American poet who fought and died in World War I during the Battle of the Somme, serving in the French Foreign Legion. Seeger was the uncle of American folk singer Pete Seeger, and was a classmate of T.S. Eliot at Harvard. He is best known for the poem, I Have a Rendezvous with Death, a favorite of President John F. Kennedy. A statue representing him is on the monument in the Place des États-Unis, Paris, honoring fallen Americans who volunteered for France during the war. Seeger is sometimes called the "American Rupert Brooke."

Robert Frost is considered the most popular of all 20th-century American poets. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry four times­in 1924, 1931, 1937, and 1943.

Joseph Pulitzer was born in Hungary in 1847, immigrated to the US during the Civil War and served in the Union Army. He later became a reporter and purchased and founded several newspapers, establishing the pattern of the modern newspaper by combining investigative reporting with publicity stunts, self-advertising, and sensationalism. In his will, he established the Pulitzer Prizes, annual awards for achievements in American journalism, letters, and music.

The tabloid National Enquirer was founded in 1926 by William Griffin, a protege of William Randolph Hearst. During the 1930s and 1940s, it became a voice for isolationism and pro-fascist propaganda. The paper was indicted along with Griffin under the Smith Act for sedition by a grand jury in 1942 for subverting the morale of US troops due to Griffin's editorials against US military involvement in World War II. By 1952 the paper’s circulation had fallen to 17,000 copies a week and it was purchased by Generoso Pope Jr., the son of the founder of Il Progresso, New York's Italian language daily newspaper. It has been alleged that Mafia boss Frank Costello provided Pope the money for the purchase in exchange for the Enquirer's promise to list lottery numbers and to refrain from all mention of Mafia activities. In 1953, Pope revamped the format from a broadsheet to a sensationalist tabloid focusing on sex and violence.

In Douglas Coupland's new biography of Marshall McLuhan, he reveals that when McLuhan picked up a new book, he turned first to page 69, and if that page didn't impress him, he wouldn't read the book.

In Dante's Inferno the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.

More than 2,700 different languages are spoken around the world.

The world's top languages are:
             Mandarin Chinese -1 billion+
                 English - 508 million
                      Hindustani - 497 million    
                          Spanish - 392 million
                              Russian - 277 million
                                   Arabic - 246 million
                                       Bengali - 211 million
                                             Portuguese - 191 million
                                                 Malay-Indonesian - 159 million
                                                     French - 129 million

English has become the world’s lingua franca or default tongue, “the worldwide dialect of the third millennium,” the language in which China trades with Zambia, the language in which a Greek watching CNN phones a friend from the Middle East to get him off the London bus he’s riding before it explodes, according to Roy Blount, Jr., in his NY Times review of GLOBISH: How the English Language Became the World’s Language, by Robert McCrum.

With that in mind, one wonders why Canada persists in teaching French to both children and adults, and why Quebec devotes manpower and budget to enforcing its silly language laws.

Someone who is able to speak six or more languages is called a HyperPolygot. These individuals are mostly male,  left-handed, have enhanced ability in music and  math, and often suffer auto-immune diseases. Native and acquired language is processed in different areas of the brain.

The Chinese were using the decimal system as early as the fourteenth century B.C., nearly 2,300 years before the first known use of the system in European mathematics. The Chinese were also the first to use a place for zero.

The English language has close to 540,000 words, about five times as many as existed in Shakespeare's time. But some of the words we use frequently today were invented by Shakespeare. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Shakespeare wrote about one-tenth of the most quotable quotations ever written or spoken in English. Among these are: one fell swoop, vanish into thin air, play fast and loose, be in a pickle, foul play, tower of strength, flesh and blood, be cruel to be kind, and with bated breath.

Tell a performer to "break a leg" came about in Shakespeare's day, when actors would bend or "break" one the leg to bow if the audience applauded. So the saying is a wish that the performance merit sufficient applause so the actors can bow/break a leg.

Shakespeare’s works contain first-ever recordings of 2,035 English words, including critical, frugal, excellent, barefaced, assassination, and countless.

There are two surviving copies of King Lear. The quarto edition includes 300 lines and a whole scene that do not appear in the First Folio. The two versions give important speeches to different characters, altering the nature of three key characters. The endings are also significantly different.

Shakespeare was born under the old Julian calendar, not the current Gregorian calendar that was created in 1582 and adopted in England in 1751. What was April 23 during Shakespeare’s life would be May 3 on today’s calendar. He was baptized on April 26, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, just three days before the Stratford parish register recorded an outbreak of the plague. His father, John Shakespeare, was accused four times for such illegal activities of trading in wool and money-lending.

Bobbi is a huge Shakespeare fan, and has seen all 37 plays in live performance (including Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench in Antony & Cleopatra, Bill Hutt in Timon of Athens, Orson Welles as King Lear, and Robert Ryan as Coriolanus.

The Gullah/Geechee culture, a mix of African tribes that made up a large part of the population of slaves in the Carolina Low Country, brought many of their customs to the U.S. One was the superstition that the color blue warded off evil spirits. For that reason, they painted door and window frames blue, and eventually many homeowners began to paint porch ceilings blue, which came to be known as haint blue, for the haints or haunts they kept at bay.

Women use more pronouns and verbs than men when they write, while men use more articles, prepositions and numbers. That seems to indicate that women focus on the personal (I, you, we, he, she, they) and actions, while men need to define things precisely.

     Guy Deutscher, in his book, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, points out how different languages treat common nouns and verbs.  For example, French, German, Russian, and several other languages assign a gender to inanimate objects. This even extends to terms for people, so that "my neighbor" in English could be male or female, but in French or German you have to specify which.
     In German and Spanish, the same object has different genders. A German bridge is feminine, while a Spanish bridge is masculine. The same is the case for clocks, forks, chairs, tables, brooms, apartments, newspapers, pockets, shoulders, stamps, tickets, keys, violins, butterflies,  mountains, wars, rain, garbage, the sun, the world and love. In English, tenses determine when an action occurred, but in Chinese, the same verb can be used for past, present or future actions.
    In some parts of the world, directions are given in relation to geography: north, south, east, west. In the western world we tend to relate space to ourselves: left, right, front, back. Among the countries who use geographic coordinates are Polynesia, Bali, Mexico, and Namibia. Their speakers tend to have a much better sense of orientation in situations where there are few landmarks.  Some have a keen awareness of location from infancy, similar to perfect pitch. Some research that we perceive colors depending on language. In English, green and blue are distinct colors, whereas in other languages they are only shades of the same color. Our brains seem to be trained to exaggerate the distance between shades if these colors have different names

In English, a clock runs, but in Spanish, the clock walks. In English, I missed the bus, but in Spanish, the bus left me. In English, I am hungry, in French, I have hunger, but in Spanish, I hold hunger.

The only 15 letter word that can be spelled without repeating a letter is uncopyrightable.

There are two words in the English language that have all five vowels in order: abstemious and facetious

Typewriter is the longest word that can be made using the letters only on one row of the keyboard.

The longest one-syllable word in the English language is screeched.

Stewardesses is the longest word that can be typed with only the left hand, and lollipop only with the right.

Only four words in the English language end in "dous": tremendous, horrendous, stupendous, and hazardous.

The combination “ough” can be pronounced in nine different ways. The following sentence contains them all: “A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed.”

The English words ballot and bullet share an ancient source, but eventually came to mean completely different things. Officer has the word office in it, just as sweetbread is not sweet and it's not bread. The word demand in French confuses English speakers because it means just  to ask, not to demand. In Spanish, embarazada, does not mean embarrassed but rather pregnant. These kinds of related words (known as cognates) are common in various languages. It stands to reason that if the words are related they ought to mean the same thing, but it's not true. Cognates, like etymology and internal structure, are unreliable.

No word in the English language rhymes with month, orange, silver, or purple.

Only two words in English end in "gry" - hungry and angry. 

Only four words in the English language end with -dous: horrendous, tremendous, stupendous, and hazardous. 

Six words in the English language contain a double u: vacuum, muumuu, continuum, duumvirate, duumvir, and residuum.

Some words have no singular form: glasses, binoculars, scissors, tongs, jeans, pants, pajamas. Articles of clothing become singular when used as adjectives: pajama party, jean jacket)

There are 10 human body parts that are only 3 letters long. Among them are ear, eye, arm, leg,  hip, toe, jaw, lip, gum, rib.

E is most common letter in the English language, with A the second most common vowel. R is the most common consonant in English, followed by T. The most common first letter of a word is S.

The toughest tongue twister in the English language is "The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick."

Funk (of Funk & Wagnalls Dictionary) claimed that the 10 most beautiful words in the English language are: moist, hush, luminous, murmuring, dawn, chimes, lullaby, melody, tranquil and golden.

Robert Fulford points out that there are quite a few English words which have only a negative meaning, with no positive counterpart, such as: unruly, disgruntled, unkempt, disconsolate, uncouth, dishevelled, nonchalant, inept.

Q is the only letter in the alphabet that does not appear in the name of any of the United States.

Many common products are actually brand names which should not be used for generic copies: Band-Aids, Bubble Wrap, Chapstick, Crockpot, Dumpster, Frisbee, Hula Hoop,  Jacuzzi, Jell-O, Jet-Ski,  Kleenex, Novocaine, Onesies, Ouija board, Ping-Pong, Plexiglas, Popsicle,  Post-its, PowerPoint, Q-tips, Rollerbl,ade, Scotch tape, Sharpie,  Styrofoam, TASER, Thermos, Vaseline, Velcro, Weed Eater, Wite-out, X-acto, Zamboni

Barack Hussein Obama is named after his father, Barack Hussein Obama, Sr. (1936-1982). Barack means blessing/blessed/to bless in Swahili and Semitic languages, and Hussein is a Semitic word meaning good or beautiful. Swahili was Obama Sr.’s native language.

The Scandinavian word skot passed into English usage from Viking settlements to mean a tax based on your land holdings. Certain exemptions were made for the poor, the clerical and the rich and powerful who were allowed to go scot free, which is how that phrase became common usage. Hopscotch and butterscotch have no relation to the country of Scotland. Rather, one of the origins of the word scotch comes from the Anglo-French word scocchen which meant to cut, gouge or mark with a notch. Butterscotch was a form of candy which was notched into segments that could be broken off easily, and hopscotch was first played where the stepping squares could be gouged into the ground with a sharp stick. It can also mean to figuratively to scratch or erase something. 

The word katzenjammer stems from American English, a combination of the German Katze (cat) and jammer (distress). The word was popularized by the early comic The Katzenjammer Kids. The dictionary definition is uproar or clamor. Windjammer comes from the same source. Although we now use it to refer to a large sailing ship, originally the word meant someone who talked a lot (possibly a sailor). A secondary meaning of the German word jammer meant talking incessantly, and we use the word yammer to mean the same thing.

The phrase the cat's pajamas has nothing to do with cats. In the late 1700s a tailor made  pajamas for the British elite made from rare silk, newly imported from the far east. The tailor's name was E.B. Katz, hence the Katz pajamas, which became the cat's pajamas.

Letting the cat out of the bag came from medieval markets where piglets were sold in bags, otherwise known as a pig in a poke. When a stray cat was substituted for the valuable piglet, the buyer discovered the switch by letting the cat out of the bag.  

Flea market comes directly from the French marché aux puces which literally means market of fleas.

Long ago, dishes and cookware in Europe were made of a dense orange clay called pygg. When people saved coins in jars made of this clay, the jars became known as pygg banks.  When an English potter misunderstood the word, he made a container that resembled a pig. Hence, the piggy bank.

When Mary Queen of Scots went to France as a young girl, Louis, King of France, learned that she loved the Scots game golf. So he had the first course outside of Scotland built for her enjoyment. To make sure she was properly chaperoned (and guarded) while she played, Louis hired cadets from a military school to accompany her. Mary liked this a lot and when she returned to Scotland, she took the practice with her. In French, the word cadet is pronounced ca-day and the Scots changed it into caddie.

Invented in 1825, limelight was used in lighthouses and theatres by burning a cylinder of lime which produced a brilliant light. In the theatre, a performer in the limelight was the centre of attention.

Carbon black is nearly pure elemental carbon in colloidal particle form, made by charring any organic material.  Examples of this are Ivory Black, made by charring ivory or bones, and Lamp Black, made from the soot of oil lamps. Carbon black for industrial use today is typically produced as Furnace Black, produced using heavy aromatic oils, and Thermal Black, produced using natural gas, generally methane, injected into a very hot furnace where, in the absence of much air, carbon black and hydrogen are produced.

In the early 1900s, Binney & Smith (who would later switch to selling school products and rename their company after their most popular product, Crayola Crayons) began selling their carbon black chemicals to Goodrich Tire Company, as it was found that the use of carbon black in rubber manufacturing significantly increased certain desirable qualities for rubber meant to be turned into tires, working as a reinforcing filler in rubber, which increases its durability and strength.

The expression to wing it. meaning to improvise a speech instead of learning it beforehand, came from the theatre, where actors sometimes did a quick memorization of lines in the wings.

In the U.S. theatre folk say Break a leg to wish actors a successful performance. In France, they say Merde, which means excrement. That came about because in the days when theatre-goers arrived by horse and carriage, lots of excrement in the street meant the show was a hit!

Many phrases come from references to the lower classes. A meal made from deer innards, only eaten by the servants, became humble pie, and unwelcome house guests were served unheated leftover mutton, or the cold shoulder.

Bizarre comes from the Basque word for beard, applied to Spanish soldiers who arrived wearing beards to villages where people considered facial hair odd. 

There are several expressions using the word buck. A buck is a slang word for a dollar, and pass the buck also refers to deerskin, because the leather was used as currency by native people in the New World, and poker players in the 19th century used to stick their buckskin-covered knives into the table to indicate the dealer.

The word “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj meaning to yoke or join together. It most often refers to the yoking of a conscious subject (jiva-atman) with a Supreme Spirit (parama ta man) in order to reach an ecstatic condition (Samadhi, a “placing or putting together”). It is derived from the Proto-Indo-European base *yeug-, meaning “to join” as in jugular.  A 2008 market study in Yoga Journal reports that some 16 million Americans practice yoga and spend $5.7 billion a year on gear.

“Doga” is a type of yoga in which people use yoga to achieve harmony with their pets. Dogs can either be used as props for their owners or they can do the stretches themselves. It reportedly started in New York in 2002 when Suzi Teitelman started “Yoga for Dogs.”

The swastika is a yoga symbol that comes from the Sanskrit term Svastik, meaning “that which is associated with well-being.”

The yoga symbol “Om” is found in Hindu and Tibetan philosophy. It is said to be the primordial sound of the universe and is connected to the Ajna Chakra (the conscience) or “third eye” region.

Samuel Johnson's famous dictionary was published in 1755, 150 years before the Oxford English Dictionary. The legendary scholar, who was born 300 years ago, suffered from Tourette's syndrome, physical pain and insomnia, was blind in one eye and deaf in one ear, had battled tuberculosis and smallpox. Yet he is the second-most quoted writer in the English language, surpassed only by Shakespeare.

From Why does the single letter C represent so many different sounds?
          The third letter of the alphabet is somewhat of a chameleon; one might even question its usefulness. The letter /c/ can represent the “hard C” (carrot,) the “soft C” (nice,) or even “silent C” (indict,). Why does our alphabet have more than one letter to represent the same sound, as in K and C, or S and the “soft C?” To understand the reasons C plays so many roles, let’s dig into its long and messy linguistic history.
          The letter /c/ is of Semitic descent and shares the exact same origin as the letter /g/ – the Semitic letter called “gimel.”  The original glyph for /g/ was most likely adapted around the Middle Bronze Age (2200-1550 BC) from a hieroglyph for a gimel or its namesake, the staff sling – a weapon consisting of a long piece of wood with a short strap for launching rocks at the end. The symbol denotes a line with a bend at the top. The gimel influenced the symbol for the third letter in the Greek alphabet, “gamma.” Later, the Etruscan alphabet, used by the people who inhabited what is now Italy, adopted the Greek “gamma” to represent the /k/ or hard /c/ sound but used a different character, ), which eventually turned from facing left to right and became the letter C in Classical Latin.
          This long journey to existence may explain how the letter /c/ came to be, but the question still remains – why does /c/ possess so many phonetic values? In a nutshell it comes down to something called palatalization, or simply “sound change” – the tempering of a letter’s pronunciation from its original form. Another important factor, in the case of the letter /c/, is its corresponding vowel. For instance, the sound of the hard C, which exhibits the [k] sound, often precedes the vowels /a/, /o/ and /u/ while the soft c, taking on the /s/ sound, precedes the vowels /e/, /i/ and /y/.
          The soft C is also placed before different combinations primarily in relation to certain Latin loanwords such as “Caesar” and “caecum.” Add to this the use of the silent C, which always corresponds with the letter /t/ as in the word “indict.”
          Product naming is infamous for replacing the letter /c/ with the letter /k/ – as in Kool-Aid and Nesquik. The choice to use the letter /k/ may simply come down to a fun play on words.

The Apostrophe Protection Society was started in 2001 by John Richards, now its Chairman, with the specific aim of preserving the correct use of this currently much abused punctuation mark in all forms of text written in the English language. 

The Gettysburg Address, one of the most compelling speeches in history, contains just 267 words. 

Many years ago in England, a whistle was baked into the handle of ceramic cups used in pubs. When patrons wanted a refill, they used the whistle to get some service. Hence the phrase, Wet your whistle.

Also in old England, when customers got unruly, the bartender would yell at them Mind your pints and quarts, and settle down. Hence the phrase, Mind your P's and Q's.

Bakers used to be fined if their loaves were under weight, so they added an extra loaf to every dozen, just in case -- hence, the expression baker's dozen

Hands Down, meaning an easy win, comes from horse-racing. When a jockey is close to the finish line, he relaxes his grip on the reins and drops his hands to his sides.

The word queue comes from the Latin cauda, which means tail. In French it became queue, which the English borrowed and added the word cue for the long stick (or tail) used in billiards, and the verb to cue.

Ancient tribes of long ago that wanted to banish people without killing them would burn their houses down -- hence the expression to get fired.

The Inuit have as many as 252 inflections for simple nouns, 63 forms of the present tense and a minimum vocabulary of 12,500 words. Chippewa has 6,000 verb forms, and the Oregon Indian language of Tillamook has 30 prefixes. ln one Inuit language, the word for tomorrow translates, If it gets light. The Nipmuc Indians were responsible for the lake with the world’s longest name: Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggauggagoggchaubunagungaillau,  in Webster, Massachusetts. It translates: I fish on my side, you fish on your side and no one fishes in the middle.

Many basic English words come from the same Teutonic roots as German, Dutch, Flemish, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, producing remarkable similarities in, for example: best, blind, break, come, dance, find, finger, good, hair, hand, help, here, ice, lamp, man, mouse, rat, ring, sand, send, sing, storm, wild and young.

There is only one word spoken the same way in nearly every language known to humankind. That word, of course, is mama. Almost every language has a form of it. While it’s true that most languages vary when it comes to the formal word mother, the intimate mama stays the same in each language. Russian linguist Roman Jakobson has explained that the easiest vocalizations for a human to make are open-mouth vowel sounds.  As they begin to experiment with making other noises, babies will test some of the easier consonant sounds. Usually they start with the sounds made with closed lips, and the consonant sound MMMM is easy to relax into an open mouth vowel, usually ah, which is the easiest. The “m” sound is the easiest for a baby mouth at the breast. So  even as adults, we still associate mmm with something being yummy and good.

The word “Papa” is present in several languages including Russian, Hindi, Spanish and English, while slight variations on it appear in German (Papi), Icelandic (Pabbi), Swedish (Pappa) and a number of other languages across the globe. Likewise in Turkish, Greek, Swahili, Malay and several other languages the word for dad is “Baba” or a variation of it.

The Dictionary of Newfoundland English devotes three pages to the word ice, while most languages spoken north of the 60th parallel have dozens of synonyms for snow.

North American Indian, Japanese, and some Polynesian dialects contain no swear words.

The Japanese have nineteen different ways of saying no.

English utilizes many words which have come directly from other languages: molasses (Portuguese), magazine (Arabic), pepper (Sanskrit), bungalow (Hindi), scarlet (Persian), horde (Turkish), tea (Chinese), pendant (Italian), gravel (Celtic), mammoth (Slavonic), boss (Dutch), tycoon (Japanese), skill (Old Norse), flannel (Welsh), cork (Spanish). For common English words that derive from Yiddish, click HERE.

In 1980, the five most common non-English languages spoken in the United States were (in order): Spanish, Italian, German, French and Polish. Thirty years later, the top five are (in order): Spanish, Chinese, French, Tagalog and Vietnamese.

In some American Indian and native Australian languages the grammatical distinction between singular and plural does not exist.

Eggcorns is the term coined by Mark Liberman, Univ. of Pennsylvania linguist. He describes this as the confluence of creativity or logic with misunderstanding the meaning of the words in the phrase. Chris Waigi's Eggcorn Database, includes such gems as: without further adieu, wet your appetite, stark raven mad, girdle one's loins, insectuous, flaw in the ointment, spurt of the moment, financial heartship, zero-sum gain, works like a champ, gorilla marketing, and take with a grain assault.

Using Xs at the end of a letter for kisses started in the Middle Ages when people couldn't write and used crosses as signatures.

The word sneaker was coined by Henry McKinney, an advertising agent for N.W. Ayer & Son.

The phrase raining cats and dogs originated in seventeenth-century England. During heavy rainstorms, many homeless animals would drown and float down the streets, giving the appearance that it had actually rained cats and dogs.

The first use of OK in print, in The Boston Morning Post of March 23, 1839, was a joke: o.k. — all correct. Such misspelling-based abbreviations were a fad. But it soon caught on. A book review in the NYTimes quotes from OK - The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, by Allan Metcalf:  O is a satisfying oval, all curves; K is all straight lines, a collection of sticks. The combination is stark and striking. And: Feminine O, masculine K. That’s the look of OK. Reviewer Ray Blount points out: The sounds are clear and simple: two long vowels, O and A, separated in the middle by a quick K. Nearly every language in the world not only has these three sounds but allows them to be combined in that sequence, which accounts both for the spread of OK throughout the world.

Using Xs at the end of a letter for kisses started in the Middle Ages when people couldn't write and used crosses as signatures.

EPONYMS are words originating from the names of people. Some examples include:  
bougainvillea - Louis Bougainville;     dunce - John Duns Scotus;     guppy - Robert Guppy;  
hooligan - Patrick Hooligan;     jacuzzi - Candido Jacuzzi;     praline - Count Plessis-Praslin;
melba toast - soprano Nellie Melba;     peach melba - Nellie Melba

CONTRANYMS are words which can have two opposite meanings. Examples include sanction, oversight, left, trim, resign, screen.

The Pintupi tribe of Western Australia have 15 words for different types of fear; the Japanese use amae to describe the feeling of being able to depend on someone unconditionally.

Sir Walter Scott coined a number of phrases in common use today. Among these are:
caught red-handed  ("redhand" was an existing Scottish legal term meaning "in the act of crime")
cold shoulder; blood is thicker than water; flotsam and jetsam; go berserk; infra dig; lock stock and barrel, nail your colours to the mast; savoir faire; strain at the leash; apple of my eye; the back of beyond; tongue in cheek; wide berth 

Several common American words, like boss and stoop, are Dutch in origin. Their influence lingers in place names like Brooklyn and Kinderhook, and in family names like Roosevelt and Vanderbilt. The Dutch also contributed three all-American foods: doughnuts, waffles, and cookies.

The habit of saying Please and Thank You became common during the 16th and 17th centuries, when the growing middle class used these terms to facilitate commerce. Please is short for if you please, and Thank You comes from the word think, and means I'll remember what you did.

Shakespeare loved symmetry. Romeo & Juliet contains balance between night and day, the nightingale and the lark, to echo the two feuding families, Capulets and Montagues. Every character in the play has his or her counterpart in the other family.

There are seven soliloquies in Hamlet, which has seven main characters: Hamlet, Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius, Polonius, Laertes, and Horatio. 

The Drama Teachers Association of Southern California holds an annual Shakespeare competition, which launched the careers of Kevin Spacey, Mare Winningham and Val Kilmer.  Lori Miller has made a documentary film, Shakespeare High, about this program. It premiered at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. Miller says: theatre education is a way of increasing literacy, communication skills, and complex thought.

Sir Ian McKellen cites the frequently gender-bending plot devices of Shakespeare’s plays as evidence that the playwright himself was gay, or at the very least bisexual. I’d say Shakespeare slept with men, McKellen, 72, is quoted as saying. The Merchant of Venice, centering on how the world treats gays as well as Jews, has a love triangle between an older man, younger man and a woman.

Kids probably know Curious George, but few know about its origins. According to Jon Meacham (Editor of Newsweek and author of American Lion - Andrew Jackson in the White House): In 1940, after a tense border inspection of their manuscript and draft illustrations of Curious George stuffed in their suitcase, Margret and H. A. Rey fled Paris, eventually settling in the U.S. An exhibit for kids and adults at The Jewish Museum in New York explores the symbolism of the series’ illustrations and the parallels between the little simian that could always “save the day” and the way his own creators evaded the dangers of Nazi-occupied Europe. The museum show closes in August 2010, but there’s a terrific interactive timeline, videos, and also a book on the topic.

In January of 1951, as he was setting out to write East of Eden — a book he considered the most difficult he ever attempted, the ultimate test of his talent and discipline as a writer — John Steinbeck decided to loosen his creative ligaments by writing a daily “letter” to his dear friend and editor, Pascal Covici. An ardent believer in the spiritual rewards of handwriting with the perfect writing instrument, Steinbeck began pouring his compact longhand into the large-format ruled notebook Covici had given him. He wrote a letter a day, each over a thousand words on average, until the first draft of the novel was finished 276 days later. A hobbyist woodworker, Steinbeck delivered the manuscript to Covici in a special wooden box he lovingly carved to hold the masterwork his wife considered his magnum opus.

During his entire lifetime, Herman Melville's timeless classic, Moby Dick, sold only 3,715 copies.

Dr. Seuss wrote Green Eggs and Ham because the editor bet him he could not write a book with fewer than fifty words.

Mary Had a Little Lamb was written by Sarah Josepha Hale, who turned to writing in 1822 as a widow trying to support her family and who eventually became an influential editor and arbiter of American taste.

Charles Dickens was able to work on two serialized novels simultaneously while also editing a monthly magazine. No other writer has had more movie, TV and cartoon versions of his works, and all of his work was adapted for the stage during his lifetime. He often appeared in these productions.

Dickens was also one of the first authors to campaign for international copyright laws.

Ronald B. Tobias claims there are only 20 master plots in fiction. These include: Quest, Riddle, Temptation, Rivalry, Revenge, Maturation, Love, Forbidden Love, Escape, etc. His book is available at Amazon, and you can read a talk he gave to Denver writers at:

Karen Blixen, the Danish author who wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen, published her first book at age 50, and her blockbuster, Out of Africa, at 52.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie series, didn’t have her first book published until she was well into her 60s.

Richard Adams, author of the children’s classic Watership Down, remained unpublished until he was in his 50s.

Bangladeshi writer Nirad Chaudhuri's first book, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, was published in 1951, when he was 54 years old. Its sequel hit the market in 1988, when he was 90. And his final book, Three Horsemen of the New Apocalypse, was published in 1997—when he was 100.

Stephen Vizinczey's best-seller, In Praise of Older Women, was self-published, but after he sold world rights to someone else, he didn't see a penny for two years. I was starving in Montreal, all the money went to New York. Seeing headlines in the paper about being a worldwide bestseller when you're having to borrow money to eat, that's a soul-destroying experience. The court case took seven years to settle.

A 1784 satire written by Benjamin Franklin proposed taxing shutters, rationing candles, and waking the public by ringing church bells and firing cannons at sunrise. But he didn't actually suggest Daylight Savings Time. That didn't come until William Willett conceived DST in 1905, and it wasn't widely accepted until 1916.    

"Beat" poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti commented that the slogan from 1960s, Be Here Now has evolved to Be Somewhere Else Now.

Swiss biologists determined that stupid flies live longer than smart flies because intelligence wears out flies' brains. Canadian researchers claim that straining to recall information which seems to be “on the tip of my tongue” makes us learn mistaken guesses instead of the correct answers we may (or may not) eventually remember.  (source: Harper's)

In 1894, the first women's pages in newspapers were created, to court female consumers.

The largest academic library in the United States is at Harvard, which contains 13.6 million volumes. Second largest, at 9.5 million volumes, is Yale.

The Library of Congress contains approximately 838 miles of bookshelves.

Chaucer, widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages, was the first poet to be buried in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey. While he achieved fame during his lifetime as an author, philosopher, alchemist and astronomer, he spent much of his early career working for the King. He became a member of the royal court of Edward III as a varlet de chambre, yeoman, or esquire, and travelled abroad many times, at least some of them in his role as a valet.  These travels may have inspired his most famous work: Canterbury Tales.

William James Sidis was an American child prodigy who could read The New York Times by the time he was 18 months old. By age eight, he had taught himself eight languages and had invented one of his own. It is said that in his adult years he could speak more than 40 languages and learn a new one in a single day. In 1909, he became the youngest person ever to enroll at Harvard College and began lecturing on higher mathematics the following year.

American book packager Edward Stratemeyer created three popular series of children's books, Nancy Drew, The Bobbsey Twins, and The Hardy Boys. Although Carolyn Keene was credited as the author of Nancy Drew, there was no author by that name. All three series were written by a syndicate of anonymous authors.

Crosswords began with a “word-cross” puzzle in the New York World on Dec. 21, 1913. Its creator was Arthur Wynne, the Fun Page editor. What he developed was actually an adaptation of a puzzle that first surfaced more than two millenniums earlier. The puzzle was called a word square, and its distinguishing mark was that the same words read both across and down. Creating word squares became popular in 19th-century England.
It occurred to Wynne that the horizontal words didn’t have to be the same as the vertical ones, and he arranged his puzzle in a diamond-shaped grid and inserted numbers in some of the squares. The puzzler was given clues that indicated the start and position of each word. Before long, crossword mania had swept the continent.

Kathleen Hamilton created the Toronto Star's first Canadian crossword puzzles in 1999. The initial set of books from that series, called O Canada Crosswords, have all been Canadian bestsellers, and were the first books of Canadian crosswords in bookstores. Hamilton went on to produce many other books, including the current set, True North Crosswords, and her puzzles are still carried in many Canadian newspapers.

Each king in a deck of playing cards represents a great king: 
          Spades - King David
          Hearts - Charlemagne
          Clubs -Alexander the Great
          Diamonds - Julius Caesar
The King of Hearts is the only king without a mustache.

“Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a silver sixpence in her shoe” symbolizes continuity, optimism for the future, borrowed happiness, fidelity, and wealth or good luck, respectively.

"Tying the knot" initially came from an ancient Babylonian custom in which threads from the clothes of both the bride and bridegroom were tied in a knot to symbolize the couple's union. Literally tying some type of ceremonial knot at a wedding ceremony can be found across cultures.

The first printing press in North America was used in Mexico City in 1539.

The first book printed in the U.S. was the Bay Book of Psalms, printed in 1640 in Boston.

In 1845, Rufus Porter—an eccentric inventor, painter, and editor—published the first issue of Scientific American, a weekly newspaper about new inventions. By 1853, its circulation had reached 30,000 and it was reporting on various sciences, such as astronomy and medicine. In 1921, it became a monthly.

Hearst started the King Syndicate in 1915, to distribute comic strips and other features to his papers. They now reach 2800 newspapers in 70 countries. 

The American Library Association maintains a long list of books banned by schools and libraries. It includes such classics as All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, The Grapes of Wrath, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Animal Farm, 1984, Doctor Zhivago, Harry Potter, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Huckelberry Finn, Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.

One of the most popular books ever published in the United States was To Kill a Mockingbird. Michael Brown, who wrote industrial musicals for American corporations,  used some of his earnings to support Harper Lee while she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird.

The original story of Pinocchio was written by Carlo Collodi in 1883 as an outgrowth of the efforts to create an 'Italian' education and literature for children in the newly united nation of Italy, a nation that had never previously had a national literature.

Penguin Books was launched in 1935, starting the paperback revolution. But much earlier, in the 1840s, The American Library of Useful Knowledge began to publish cheap editions of European novels. Pocket Books started in 1939, with Penguin opening an American office the same year, Avon in 1941, Popular Library in 1942, Dell in 1943, Bantam in 1945, and many more after World War II, including New American Library's Signet and Mentor divisions.

Publishers collaborated to produce Armed Service Editions of popular titles, which had double columns and were small enough to fit into a pocket. Because they were free to the troops, many returned home with the habit of reading for pleasure.  Instead of printing only the books soldiers and sailors actually wanted to read, though, publishers decided to send them the best they had to offer. From small Pacific islands to sprawling European depots, soldiers discovered the addictive delights of good books. By giving away the best it had to offer, the publishing industry created a vastly larger market for its wares. More importantly, it also democratized the pleasures of reading, making literature, poetry, and history available to all." Full article from the Atlantic:

By 1954, Anchor was selling 600,000 paperback books a year, and Knopf had launched it's quality paperback line, Vintage. This was soon followed by Beacon and Meridian. Soon Grove and New Directions came on board, and several publishers started producing anthologies of new writing, such as Mentor's “New World Writing” series.

In 1940, before dying of a massive heart attack in a Hollywood apartment at the age of 44, F. Scott Fitzgerald  earned a grand total of $13.13 in royalties, despite the later success of The Great Gatsby, first published in 1925.

Arthur Frommer self-published his first travel book in 1955, as a GI stationed in Europe. Two years later, he launched the $5 a Day series, publishing 58 titles a year until he sold the company in 1977. When the new owners lost interest in the books, Frommer bought back 340 titles, and resumed publishing with the help of his daughter, Pauline.




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