Category Archives: Language

Selfies to the Right, Selfies to the Left

585px-RobertCorneliusBy now you’ve probably heard that the Oxford English Dictionary chose selfie as the word of the year. Cue links to all kinds of interesting articles about this:

An infographic on the selfie with translations in different languages.

Famous pictures reimagined as selfies for an ad campaign for a newspaper in Cape Town.

All kinds of painted selfies dug up by Europeana a while ago.

The very first photographic selfie was taken in 1839 by Robert Cornelius from Philadelphia, the Public Domain Review explains.

A whole different kind of selfies taken with a pinhole camera by Brazilian children.

(Image of the first selfie from the Library of Congress, via the Public Domain Review.)


Gallica Friday: Learning Your ABCs in 1933

Gallica, the online search engine of the French National Library (BnF), is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Or maybe since the baguette. Gallica Friday highlights some of the fun, interesting, and curious things I found by happily clicking around Gallica.

There’s an endless list of alphabet books on Gallica, and I’m sure someone, somewhere will spend days going through them and writing a thousand-page French-style dissertation. But here’s a particularly fun one from the 1930s. Not only are the images very sweet, but the author is extremely committed to the convention of having all words in a sentence start with the relevant letter. This gets a bit more complicated when we get to the end of the alphabet.

So we have Zoe who’s riding a zebra at the zoo (the perks of having a name that starts with Z). Yvon on a yawl with her yatagan (mmokay, this is getting weird). Xavier who hides away to drink a glass of sherry (French kids!). And Wilhelmine wearing a waterproof coat on a train wagon and looking terribly sad. Wilhelmine’s life would certainly have been easier now with the world wide web, wouldn’t it?

5 Articles on How Languages Work

Apple etymology Reddit

1. These maps of European etymologies are big on Reddit and for good reason. It’s fun to see how many different words there are for apple — manzana, jabluko, mela, omena, pumu and so on — while the great majority of Europeans would agree that a pineapple is in fact an ananas.

2. An intrepid illustrator, James Chapman, has done us all a great service and made wonderful illustrations of animal sounds in different languages. Lovely how Korean dogs say Meong and Korean cats go with Yaong.

3. More illustrations, this time for untranslatable words, including the inuit Iktsuarpok: “The feeling of anticipation that leads you to go outside and check if anyone is coming.” By Ella Frances Sanders.

4. Back to etymologies, The Hairpin has a list of the etymological origins of insults which, appropriately enough, includes the word nice: 

Eight centuries ago the word had such a broad negative connotation that it was an all-purpose insult for anyone who was perceived to be careless, weak, needy, or stupid. (The French took it from the Latin nescius, meaning ignorant, literally “not-knowing.”) 

5. And, to end on a more lovey-dovey note, the BBC looks at unusual (for some) terms of endearment in different languages. My favorite is the Chinese Chen yu luo yan:

There is a story surrounding the greatest beauty in Chinese history, a woman named Xi Shi. It’s said that she was so beautiful that when she looked at fish in a pond, the fish were so dazzled by her beauty that they forgot to swim and gradually dived to the bottom. Likewise, it was said that when geese flew over a woman called Wang Zhaojun, they were so struck by her beauty that they would forget to flap their wings and would end up swooping to the ground. Because of this, to this day, when a young Chinese man is in love with a Chinese woman, he may indicate that, to him, she is as beautiful as Xi Shi or Wang Zhaojun. To do this, he will say just four words: “Diving fish, swooping geese”.