Archive for December 2017

My wife kept her name when we got married. This being the 21st century, I wouldn’t have thought that would be in any way surprising or problematic. But in the modern English-speaking world, linguistic habits haven’t quite caught up with changing social conventions—many people (and computers) still assume that when a man and woman get married, the woman will take on the man’s surname. As a result, we get mail addressed to “Mrs. Morgen Kissell” and even, bafflingly, “Mrs. Liz Kissell”—Morgen’s given first name is Elizabeth, but she has gone by her middle name since birth, and has never, ever been called Liz. At least no one, to my knowledge, has called her “Mrs. Joseph Kissell,” which I think both of us would find rather offensive.

As annoying as such mistakes can be, I do sympathize with folks who no longer feel they have a proper, respectful, and appropriate title to use when addressing women. The title “Miss,” which used to refer to an unmarried woman of any age, has fallen into disfavor, except for young girls. And “Mrs.” is supposed to refer to a married woman, but only when using her husband’s last name. (Morgen certainly is neither “Miss Jahnke” nor “Mrs. Kissell,” but she can’t be “Mrs. Jahnke” either, because that would imply my last name is Jahnke.) So that leaves “Ms.,” which virtually every style guide now proclaims as the only reasonable choice, but which many people hesitate to use because it feels like an odd, newfangled, non-word.

Stress and Mistress
The basic distinction between “Miss” and “Mrs.” harks back to earlier times when a woman’s marital status was an important indicator of her position—and when, more to the point, a woman was considered a subservient entity with respect to her husband. Interestingly, though, both “Miss” and “Mrs.” were originally shortened forms of the word “mistress.” The modern sense of “mistress” implies an illicit relationship, but before about 1600, a mistress was simply a female head of a household—married or unmarried. As a result, the abbreviation “Mrs.” would originally have been pronounced “mistress,” and would not have been used exclusively to refer to someone’s wife. The pronunciation “misses” was simply a contracted form of “mistress.”

Meanwhile, when “miss” was first used as an abbreviation for “mistress” in the mid-1600s, it referred to a concubine or someone in a role more like what we would today consider a mistress. In other words, a few centuries ago, the meanings of “Miss” and “Mrs.” were, at least in some cases, roughly the opposite of what they are today! Only in the 19th century did “Mrs.” (with the pronunciation “misses” firmly established) come to refer exclusively to a married woman.

There is also, of course, the title “Ma’am,” which was short for “madam.” Although few people refer to a woman as either “ma’am” or “madam” these days, the situation is parallel to “Mrs./mistress” in that the shortened form is considered respectful whereas the longer form sometimes denotes a woman of questionable character.

The Long and the Short of It
One of the things about “Mrs.” that has always bothered me is that it can really only ever be used in its abbreviated form. No one would spell it out as “mistress” anymore, and yet there is also no agreed spelling for the full word as it is pronounced; “misses,” “missus,” “missis,” and “missez” all seem wrong. The title “Ms.,” which came into use in the middle of the 20th century, has an even worse problem—it appears to be an abbreviation, but it isn’t short for anything. As with “Mrs.,” no one would know how to spell it out. “Mizz”?

And yet, despite the fact that “Ms.” is clearly a modern, artificial conflation of “Miss” and “Mrs.,” it now serves the useful purpose “Mrs.” once did: it provides a respectful title that does not require the speaker to have any knowledge of the woman’s marital status or age. This is a good thing, because such distinctions, even if known, serve only to perpetuate the long-outmoded belief that adult women who are married are somehow socially superior to those who are not. In this respect, “Ms.” is actually a better title than “Mr.,” which says nothing about marital status but does presume the addressee to be an adult. A young girl could be a “Ms.,” but a young boy would not normally be called “Mr.”

But then, perhaps such social titles have outlived their usefulness altogether. On Christmas cards, for example, since we can’t be “Mr. and Mrs. Kissell,” and since “Ms. Jahnke and Mr. Kissell” sounds awkward, most people simply use our first and last names and leave it at that. This, I think, is the best solution of all—personal, yet respectful. It’s a hit among Mrs./misses/miss-es. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about English Female Social Titles…

For more information about English female social titles, see Miss, Mrs., Ms. at the Mavens’ Word of the Day or What is the origin of the abbreviation Mrs.? at Take Our Word For It.

Other related discussion:

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If you need more help sorting out when to use which title, consult a style guide, such as Garner’s Modern American Usage or The Chicago Manual of Style.

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Pennsylvania is a state (well, commonwealth if you want to be completely nitpicky) known for its linguistic, uh, irregularities. In the western part of the state, where I grew up, many people speak an endearingly odd dialect of English called Pittsburghese. Some town names have pronunciations that utterly belie their foreign roots. DuBois is pronounced “dew boys”; North Versailles is “north ver-sales”; La Jose is “la Joes.” Then, of course, there are towns that simply have goofy names—Eighty Four, Slippery Rock, and Punxsutawney come to mind.

I’ve Been to Pennsylvania; Ask Me about Intercourse.
But to put all these oddities in perspective, western Pennsylvanians rightly consider their geographic nomenclature downright bland compared to what you’ll encounter on the other side of the state. Drive four hours east from Pittsburgh and you’re in Lancaster County, an area that attracts tourists by the thousands each year for no other reason than that they want to be able to say they went through Intercourse to get to Paradise. (This makes for a roundabout route, as it turns out, but that’s only fitting.) Other nearby towns include Blue Ball, Fertility, Gap, Bird-in-Hand, Smoketown, and even (I swear I am not making this up) Kissel Hill. These place names seem all the more amusing because the area is known for its religious conservatism, being home to large numbers of Amish and Old-Order Mennonite folk in particular.

The other thing Lancaster County is known for is Pennsylvania Dutch—a term that can refer to an ethnic group, a language, a culture, or all three. Interestingly enough, despite the proximity of towns named Holland and New Holland, Pennsylvania Dutch has nothing to do with the Netherlands. The term is a misnomer, or at least an anachronism; the Pennsylvania Dutch came from Germany.

Going Dutch
How did a group of German settlers in eastern Pennsylvania—and the unique dialect of German they speak—come to be known as “Dutch”? There are two main theories.

Most people assume that Dutch is an accidental corruption of Deutsch (the German word for “German”) or Deitsch (the word for “German” in the Pennsylvanian dialect). But the term may have been more of a historical accident than a linguistic blunder. Until at least the 1500s, the English word “Dutch” was used to refer generically to people of Germanic descent from the regions now known as Germany and the Netherlands. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the term “Dutch” came to be used strictly for people from the Netherlands, but by that time a number of German immigrants had already settled in Pennsylvania, and the old term may have stuck. In any case, the language of the Pennsylvania Dutch evolved into a distinct dialect of German, and is still spoken by as many as a quarter-million people.

Eastern Pennsylvania is not the only place where you can find native speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch. Smaller communities are located in several states in the eastern U.S., as well as Ontario, Canada. Like many minority languages, Pennsylvania Dutch is slowly losing ground to the dominant regional language—English in this case. With each new generation, children are less likely to learn Pennsylvania Dutch as their first language. However, efforts are underway to preserve and promote the language through books, classes, radio shows, and other media. But the most important things Pennsylvania Dutch speakers can do to keep their language alive are to engage in conversation—and to have children who can learn the language at home. Clearly, in more ways than one, Intercourse is important to the Pennsylvania Dutch. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Pennsylvania Dutch…

Additional information about the Pennsylvania Dutch:

You may enjoy reading through this List of Towns in Lancaster County, compiled by Tina Miller. Also visit the official Web sites for Bird-in-Hand and Intercourse.

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I need to say a few words about woodchucks. (First let me pause while you say the rhyme to yourself. Go on, you know you want to. Get it out of your system. Good.) I never understood what the word “chuck” was supposed to mean in the rhyme. Chuck isn’t often used as a verb; when it is, its most common meaning is “to throw” (as in, “Chuck that AOL CD in the trash”). This is naturally not the type of thing we expect a woodchuck to be capable of (as indicated by the counterfactual nature of the question in the rhyme). So the real question is why anyone would have given this animal such a nonsensical name in the first place.

(As an aside, woodchuck isn’t the only nonsensical name this animal has. It’s also called a groundhog. Oddly enough, “groundhog” is a fairly literal translation of the Dutch word aardvark, even though aardvarks don’t look anything like hogs. Woodchucks (Marmota monax) are rodents, or more precisely marmots, and are not even distantly related to either aardvarks or hogs. The most salient similarity among the three species is a propensity for burrowing.)

Gimme a W
The name woodchuck is derived from a word in one of the Algonquian languages spoken by Native Americans—either the Cree word otchek or the related Ojibwa word otchig. The English-speaking settlers in North America found these words hard to pronounce, so they substituted syllables that sounded more familiar and yet approximated the original sound; hence “woodchuck.” The process of consciously or unconsciously changing the shape of a word to reflect the existing morphemes (minimal units of meaning) in a language is known as folk etymology. This process frequently occurs when one language “borrows” a word from another and the speakers of the borrowing language mishear, or misunderstand the origin of, the original word.

English has many examples of folk etymology. Cockroach comes from the Spanish word cucaracha. As with woodchuck, the Spanish word was transformed into English by substituting similar-sounding morphemes: cock (as in rooster) and roach (which at that time was simply the name of a type of fish). There wasn’t anything about a cockroach that suggested “rooster” or “fish,” of course; it’s simply a matter of the sounds fitting. The same thing happened with the word polecat (from French poule chat, a cat that feeds on poultry) and ten-gallon hat (from Spanish galón, a braid). English speakers also mistook a napron for an apron, and even an ewt for a newt.

Begging to Differ
Closely related to folk etymology (or even, according to some people, a subset of the phenomenon) is a process called back-formation. Back-formation occurs when speakers remove a portion of a word, incorrectly assuming it’s a suffix, to form a new word. For example, the word pea was pease in Middle English, but that sounded like a plural, so the “s” sound at the end was dropped to make a false singular. Similarly, the word emote is mistakenly assumed to be the root of emotion, which is logical enough since -tion is a common suffix in English. But in this case, the word dropped whole from French (émotion) into English, so that derivation is erroneous. Other words in English that have been mistakenly created by back-formation include liaise, enthuse, laze, and evanesce. Some back-formed words, however, after enough time in circulation, become generally accepted: donate, sculpt, and even beg (from beggar) fall into this category.

A postscript about the woodchuck: The Algonquian words from which “woodchuck” was derived actually refer to the fisher (or wejack), a carnivorous mammal (Martes pennanti) that bears only a superficial resemblance to the woodchuck. So woodchuck turns out to be not only folk etymology, but a misnomer at that. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Folk Etymology…

To learn more about folk etymology, see:

Want to know more about the woodchuck? See groundhog on the Wikipedia or Woodchuck at the Missouri Department of Conservation. See also The Social Ramifications of Woodchucks Chucking Wood.

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I set out to find a simple answer to a simple question: Why is there no meat in mincemeat? It was going to be a tidy tale of how a misnomer was born. Look up a few Web sites, collect a few facts, wrap them in a nice story, and on to the next project. As so often happens, however, my research took a rather circuitous path as I kept discovering connections and facts that I’d had no inkling of when I started out. The story of mincemeat is more interesting—and convoluted—than I ever imagined.

Mincemeat is, I must confess, a topic about which I have never felt much passion. In my family, mincemeat pie was simply one of a half dozen standard Christmas dessert choices. I rarely had room for more than two, and in my personal hierarchy of dessert preferences, mincemeat ranked well below Johnny Bull Pudding and blackberry pie. On the occasions I did eat mincemeat pie, it made no particular impression on me other than provoking a vague curiosity at its name, since whatever the filling was, it clearly did not contain any meat.

One explanation for the name could be that in Old English, the word meat had the more generic meaning of “food,” whether or not it happened to come from the flesh of animals. Thus, a mincemeat pie would actually have been a “minced food” pie, which could have been anything. However plausible this may sound, however, this explanation turns out to be incorrect (or at least misleading).

A Pie Fit for a King (or Two)
Centuries ago, mincemeat was so named for the very straightforward reason that it contained minced animal flesh (and in fact sometimes still does—more on this later). Beyond that, the details of its provenance and development are hazy. I have read a few unsubstantiated reports stating that mincemeat pie was served at least as far back as 1413, at the coronation of King Henry V of England, and that further, it was a favorite of Henry VIII. There is no record of the composition of these early dishes, but recipes dating from the early 17th century list a variety of wild game, plus eggs, fruit, spices, and sweeteners. According to some accounts, early mincemeat pies were small, like tarts; according to others, they were immense, weighing as much as 220 pounds (100kg). In any case, meat and fruit were invariably included among the ingredients.

Going back even further, however, there are some who believe mincemeat pie is based on an ancient pagan tradition of serving coffin-shaped cakes representing Osiris—the Egyptian god who, according to legend, died and was resurrected each year. This ritual took place on the winter solstice, December 21, and this very festival was later co-opted by Christians looking for a convenient date to celebrate Christmas (and stamp out pagan influences in the process). Along with the Yule log and the evergreen tree, the mincemeat pie is arguably a remnant of the original pagan celebrations that persisted when the holiday was refashioned.

Mincemeat’s Second Coming
One person who believed this argument was 17th-century Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell felt that Christians had no business observing the birth of Christ by eating, drinking, and merrymaking—certainly not on a pagan holiday, and using pagan symbols. So he abolished Christmas in England in 1657. Two years later, he prevailed upon authorities in Connecticut and Massachusetts to ban Christmas celebrations there too. The prohibition specifically disallowed mincemeat pies, which were characterized as being sinful both for their symbolic origin and their inherent richness. But Cromwell’s attempt to put the last nail in the coffin of mincemeat failed; it rose again. Within two centuries the ban on Christmas had been all but forgotten, and mincemeat was once again a staple in both Christmas and Thanksgiving celebrations. But over those years mincemeat had undergone a change in character. Perhaps as a way of obeying the letter of the law while maintaining tradition, some people had begun to leave out the meat in mincemeat, replacing it with nuts, apples, and raisins…along with brandy or rum. That, in short, is why the name doesn’t always match the ingredients.

This leaves the question of why anyone would think to mix meat and fruit in a pie in the first place. This notion seems to elicit “yuck” responses from many people, but I don’t see why. Sweet and sour pork contains pineapple; some curried meat dishes contain raisins. There’s nothing unnatural about mixing meat and fruit. It’s just not common to see them together in baked goods (though I have frequently said that the idea of chicken cinnamon raisin cookies sounds good to me). One commentator opined that the mixture was simply a method of preservation, as the combination of the acids from the fruits and the heat from baking inhibited the growth of bacteria in the meat. That seems vaguely plausible, though I prefer the simpler explanation: it just tastes good.

Today, a few recipes for mincemeat (and some brands of jarred mincemeat) do indeed contain meat, but of those that don’t, most of them still contain suet, the hard layer of fatty tissue surrounding the kidneys of cattle. To be sure, this doesn’t sound like an appetizing dessert ingredient. And yet, it turns out to be one of the main ingredients (again, along with raisins) in Johnny Bull Pudding, the dessert I customarily ate on Christmas instead of mincemeat pie. There’s just no escaping tradition. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Mincemeat…

A smattering of mincemeat resources on the Web:


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You can buy jarred mincemeat from the Gourmet Food Store at

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I’ve never regretted the decision I made a few years ago to live without a car. After all, if I walk down the hill a few blocks from my home, I can catch a subway, streetcar, or bus to take me nearly anywhere in San Francisco I may want to go. But every now and then, that “nearly” part causes me grief. There are certain spots in the city I can reach via public transit only by taking a subway, a streetcar, and two buses—and then walking for 20 minutes. The prospect of all that waiting and transferring, especially on weekends or when buses are running late, tempts me to take a taxi (which gets quite expensive) or rent a car (forcing me to worry about parking and traffic). Even in a compact city such as this one, getting from place to place quickly, inexpensively, and safely can be difficult. Owning a car can help in some ways, but for many of us, it would be more trouble and expense than it’s worth.

It’s a Bird, It’s a Train, It’s a…Taxi?
Several articles here on Interesting Thing of the Day have mentioned ways of addressing the urban transportation problem: car sharing programs, carfree cities (including Arcosanti), and personal flying machines, for example. A while back, a reader suggested I check out an innovative urban transportation system called SkyTran. Later, another reader wrote to tell me about a different urban mass-transit solution called the RUF (Rapid Urban Flexible) system. Although the two differ significantly, they are both monorail transit systems designed for cities. As I began reading about these, I discovered that they are just two among many similar proposed designs. Clearly, this was a meme worth investigating.

The beauty of elevated monorail-based systems is the relative ease with which they can be retrofitted into an existing urban environment. Unlike subways, they require an absolute minimum of disruptive street closures (and no digging). Unlike streetcars, monorails don’t have to compete with cars and pedestrians for space on the roads. And unlike conventional elevated light-rail train tracks, monorails can be constructed quickly and inexpensively. Seattle already has a (very short) monorail line, as do some other cities. But some proposals currently being advanced call for much more elaborate and pervasive systems—with some interesting innovations that could make them much more efficient than buses or trains. These systems are known generically as Personal Rapid Transit (PRT). Unlike conventional mass transit, PRT replaces large vehicles with small cars that hold only two to six people—and therefore use very small and inexpensive tracks as well.

Packet-Switching Meets Mass Transit
The SkyTran is one such PRT system. Its designer proposes to install a network of tracks that can take riders within a few blocks of any location in a city, using a flexible point-to-point scheme rather than a fixed route. The cars can travel much more rapidly than a train or bus, and a sophisticated computer system prevents collisions and congestion. In theory, there would always be at least one car available at each stop; after you board, the car zips from the station’s bypass track onto the main track, where it picks up speed and takes you directly, without stopping, to your destination. This seems to combine all the advantages of a taxi with the advantages of a subway—and then some. Similar designs include the SkyWay Express, the ATN (Automated Transportation Network), and the ULTra (Urban Light Transport) system, which is being developed in the U.K.

If you want to avoid any walking—or be able to travel outside the immediate area served by the transit system—you might prefer another variant of PRT. The RUF (Rapid Urban Flexible) system being developed in Denmark is an example of a hybrid that uses specially modified electric cars that can operate automatically when riding on the tracks or manually on the road. Use your car around town as usual, but when you want to travel farther or faster, drive into a station where your car is guided onto a special monorail track. From there, allow the computer to drive you to your destination stop, where you drive off the track and resume manual control. RUF requires much less track than SkyTran and provides passengers with greater independence; on the other hand, the cars themselves are much more complex and expensive.

Proponents of PRT systems invariably point out that the cost of installing a citywide monorail system of this sort would be comparable to the cost of installing a traditional light-rail line; the additional efficiency should make it so cost-effective that it’s a no-brainer. Municipal governments are understandably hesitant to sink tens or hundreds of millions of dollars into unproven technology—but this is a chicken-and-egg problem; until one of these designs is actually put into large-scale use somewhere, there’s no telling how well it will live up to its promises. There’s another source of hesitation too: however flawlessly such a system may work, the question remains whether the teeming masses will like it and trust it enough to give up their cars. But as more urban dwellers go carless anyway (out of choice or necessity), PRT systems look increasingly appealing. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Urban Monorail Systems…

For an overview of PRT systems, read Urban Transport: Present Problems and A Possible Solution by Coridon Henshaw.

To read more about particular PRT implentations, see:

The Seattle Monorail was the first commercial urban monorail in the United States.

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