Language is awesome: On thieves cant, glymmering, and “limber, lasting, fierce words.”

Crow_peopleYou’ve probably heard of cockney slang, where rhyme and word association comes together to create some seriously weird linguistic substitutions. The classic example is using “apples” for “stairs.” See, stairs rhymes with pears, and apples and pears are associated words, thus stairs becomes apples. Similarly, eyes are sometimes referred to as “mincers” (eyes -> mince pieces -> mincers) and wives become “trouble” (wife -> strife -> trouble and strife -> trouble). It’s confusing, but it’s meant to be. It creates a system of insiders who understand the slang, and outsiders who do not. Some people believe that cockney slang sprung up as a way for criminals to confuse police and better achieve their nefarious goals (though that’s not an entirely accepted theory).

Anyway, I was researching cockney slang when I came across “thieves cant,” a language of thieves that has this truly incredible Wikipedia entry: “It was claimed by Samuel Rid that thieves’ cant was devised around 1530 ‘to the end that their cozeningsknaveries and villainies might not so easily be perceived and known’, by Cock Lorel and the King of the Gypsies at The Devils Arse, a cave in Derbyshire.” Sadly, Wikipedia goes on to inform me that, while thieves cant most likely “originated in this period, the story is almost certainly a myth.” Bummer, right? But at least we got to read about the fantastically named Cock Lorel and his cozenings and knaveries and villainies (lions and tigers and bears, oh my!).

As it turns out, English isn’t the only language with a thieves cant. The Germans had Rotwelsch, which pulls in words from Yiddish and Romany languages to create a verbal hodgepodge. But it’s also a highly literal language without abstractions, so instead of calling winter by an arbitrary name, it’s called “Blibberling,” which is the word for “shivering.” (Also, how great is it that both shivering and blibberling feel incredibly onomatopoeic? Just imagine trying to stammer out blibberling between chattering teeth.) Similar, criminals in Yugoslavia once spoke in Šatrovački to hide their knaveries. Šatrovački seems a little like a Slavic pig-latin, in which words are distorted by changing around the order of the syllables. (For example: trava—grass, often used for marijuana—becomes vutra instead of vatra, meaning fire and pivo—beer—becomes vopi.)

It’s amazing how, while these languages were created for mendacious purposes, they’re still so damn beautiful. Another great word from thieves cant is “glymmer,” which means fire. Glymmer! How utterly lovely. I’m also struck by how poetic slang words can be, how vibrant and bold. This happens with American slang, too. Just think of all the words that are being coined on Snapchat right now by the youths! It’s pretty mind-boggling.

Plus, it’s extra cool because American English is basically just a big ol’ melting pot filled with pilfered phrase and made-up words. I’m going to quote this article at length, so click through…  Continue reading

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Great words in graphics and what I learned from kid writers.

Minimalist word poster by Mick WatsonI say this all the time, but teaching writing is one of the shiniest, happiest parts of my life. I work with the wonderful people at The Telling Room, a nonprofit writing center located in downtown Portland, Maine. I haven’t been teaching for too long, but I’m learning quickly how difficult it can be—but also how rewarding.

One of my favorite things about teaching writing is seeing how kids use language. They go crazy with it! They can be free and funny and break all the rules. It’s like how Picasso said it took him four years to paint like an old master, but a lifetime to learn to paint like a child—there’s something to be said about un-learning things, throwing education out the window, and thinking like a child.

But while my students may have a leg-up when it comes to sheer inventiveness, here’s one thing I have on them: Vocabulary. Kids simply haven’t learned all the beautiful, specific, melodious words that English can provide. Which is where these super cool minimalist posters come in. To address the vocabulary question, a graphic designer from Edinburgh named Mick Watson created a series of posters that depict complex words in simple graphics. “I was thinking about my 9-year-old daughter’s expanding vocabulary and wondered that if I made some posters with a visual hook and put them up around the house whether she’d pick them up,” Watson told Slate writer Kristin Hohenadel. “She was being a contrarian at the time so I started there!”

Watson’s list includes some of my favorite words, like petrichor and deasil. And I admit, I learned a few new words looking at his designs! See more of Watson’s Word of the Day project online here.

When a lobster whistles on top of a mountain.

Three Peaks by Cathy McMurray

Idiom:ชาติหน้าตอนบ่าย ๆ
Literal translation: “One afternoon in your next reincarnation.”
What it means: “It’s never gonna happen.”
Other languages this idiom exists in: A phrase that means a similar thing in English: “When pigs fly.” In French, the same idea is conveyed by the phrase, “when hens have teeth (quand les poules auront des dents).” In Russian, it’s the intriguing phrase, “When a lobster whistles on top of a mountain (Когда рак на горе свистнет).” And in Dutch, it’s “When the cows are dancing on the ice (Als de koeien op het ijs dansen).”

The folks at the TED Talks blog went around asking translators what their favorite idioms were from other cultures. The results are awesome. It’s also interesting to see how many of them use animal imagery. The idioms from Japan are almost all about cats. (For instance, “cat’s forehead” is a very small space, often used to describe one’s property in self-deprecating terms. I might start using this one.) Many of them are about wolves, because, I suppose, wolves were a real issue in medieval Europe (or so picture books would have me believe). I love the Russian ones the best, I think, and the Slavic ones. I could see “when a lobster whistles on top of a mountain” catching on pretty easily in Maine, seeing as we have a lot of lobsters and some pretty gorgeous mountains.

Speaking of mountains, the picture above is actually of the other coast by Portland-based (again, other Portland) artist Cathy McMurray. I am completely in love with her style—the big blocks of color mixed with intricate, repetitive detail—and I actually own a few of her prints. Go check her out here.