Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Linguistic Connection between a Dragon, Draconian Law and a Constellation

No, it’s not all Greek to me! The Greek word “Drakōn” means “snake, monster” and hence entered many Western languages such as dragon (English, French), Drache (German), dragón (Spanish), dragão (Portuguese), dragone (Italian), and draak (Dutch). It also inspired names of fictional characters such as Dracula and Draco Malfoy.

But Δράκων (Drakōn or Draco) was also a Greek legislator who was notorious for his severe laws. He lived in the 7th century BCE. He wrote laws that allowed liberal use of the death penalty, even for minor offences.  Due to its harshness it became know as “draconian”, which is used nowadays to refer to similarly unforgiving rules or laws.

And for the stargazers among you –Draco is also a constellation in the far northern sky! Dragons in Greek mythology quite likely have inspired the constellation’s name, including Ladon, the dragon who guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides, and was killed by Hercules as part of his 12 labors. According to Greco-Roman legend, the dragon Draco was killed by the goddess Minerva and tossed into the sky upon his defeat.

Furthermore, in the 1620s, the French word “dragon” referring to acarbine or  also made its way into the English language as “dragoon” since the guns the soldiers carried “breathed fire” like a dragon.
It makes you wonder – would Draco the Lawmaker be amazed at the impact he had on so many languages for millennia? We will never now…

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Is the celeb biography losing its marketing edge?

Celebrity biographies – those of the gossipmonger-kind – seem to be making less money for its writers.

If we look at Andrew Morton, who wrote and sold a slew of bios, we see that sales of his authorized biographies of Princess Diana and Monica Lewinsky were better than those of unauthorized ones (Tom Cruise and Madonna didn’t cooperate).

The pioneer of the genre is Kitty Kelley, who wrote unauthorized biographies of Frank Sinatra and Nancy Reagan. She sold millions of copies during the 1980s and 1990s. But her latest one, “Oprah,” only sold 115,000 copies according to Nielsen BookScan.

The main marketing threat for the unauthorized bio is without any doubt the Internet. Websites such as TMZ, E!, and Gawker scoop any whiff of celebrity news and scandals instantly and post it including photos, court documents, and the like. Twitter has turned Netizens into reporters and paparazzi, diluting the newsy value of the bio. A bio must have some fresh insight and revelations to entice the reader to buy it.

From a marketing standpoint, “Angelina,” by Andrew Morton is the bio to watch.

The bioggraphy is marketed as “unauthorized” and has few identified sources and numerous unnamed friends and associates. It is promoted as a “spellbinding” adventure, and promises to include intimate details on Angelina Jolie’s troubled childhood, past love interests Billy Bob Thornton and Timothy Hutton and her life with Brad Pitt. The time of the book launch was a week after the release of Jolie’s latest film “Salt“.

The bio is facing several marketing challenges.

  • Sales of tell-all celebrity biographies have been negatively impacted by the information that is available on the Internet as stated by Patricia Bostelman, vice president of marketing for Barnes & Noble Inc.
  • Jolie cleverly discussed her life with Pitt and her family I detail during her promo tour for “Salt”, revealing details before the book launch.
  • A biography penned by Jolie herself would rake in millions; a bio about her is far less interesting as a moneymaker.
  • The celebrity biography market is saturated with bios about the Kennedys (by C. David Heymann), Katie Couric, Hillary Clinton (by Edward Klein), and Michael Jackson (by “Unmasked” by Ian Halperin and “Michael Jackson” by Randy Taraborrelli).

The market of autobiographies is going strong, not in the least due to clever marketing of the celebs themselves. Chelsea Handler promotes her own bio on her own show, website and on Twitter any chance she gets, and Demi Moore closed a seven-figure deal with HarperCollins to pen her autobiography. According to Bostelman, “celebrity memoirs seem to be gaining sales depending on the strength of the author’s platform and fan base.”

It will be interesting to see how “Angelina” will do. For now, the bio is a marketing success for the movie “Salt”, and doesn’t exactly hurt the market value of its star – Angelina Jolie

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The Bee’s Knees – and other expressions from the Roaring 1920s

The Roaring Twenties was a great époque. Apart from being the era of the Flappers, it was also rich in arts and literature. It also gave birth to a slew of new expressions and words’ some of them survived until today.

Animal phrases were used to suggest that something was especially good. Phrases like “The Bee’s Knees” and ‘The Cat’s Whiskers” (and the crude “The Dog’s Bollock”) are still used today. But others, such as ‘The Sardine’s Whisker”; ‘The Elephant’s Instep”; ‘The Snake’s Hips” and, best of all, ‘The Kipper’s Knickers” did not make it the 21st century, as did “The Flea’s Eyebrows” and “he Canary’s Tusks”.

There’s no profound reason to relate bees and knees other than the jaunty-sounding rhyme. In the 1920s it was fashionable to use nonsense terms to denote excellence. Hence, ‘the snake’s hips”, “the kipper’s knickers”, “the cat’s pyjamas/whiskers”, “the monkey’s eyebrows” and so on were coined.

A printed reference appeared in the Ohio newspaper The Newark Advocate, April 1922, to inform the general public about the latest coined phrases under the heading: ‘What Does It Mean?’ The article explains:

That’s what you wonder when you hear a flapper chatter in typical flapper language. ‘Bees Knees.’ That’s flapper talk. This lingo will be explained in the woman’s page under the head of Flapper Dictionary.”

The Bee’s Knees was first recorded in the late 18th century, when it was used to mean ‘something very small and insignificant’. Its current meaning dates from the 1920s, at which time a whole collection of American slang expressions were coined with the meaning “an outstanding person or thing”.

The switch in meaning for the bee’s knees probably emerged because it was so similar in structure and pattern to other phrases.

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George Takei’s ebook – a great read! Oh Myyy!

George Takei might be best known as Sulu in the original Star Trek, but he is one heck of a wordsmith!

He recently published his eBook “Oh Myyy! On Life, the Internet and Everything

To give you taste of his delicious tongue-in-cheek humor:

Somewhere along the way to the digital age, somebody decided that cats conjugate improperly when speaking English and love to eat cheeseburgers. For some other mysterious reason these assumptions stuck, and a new breed of cat memes made their way onto the Interweb.

I do love cats, but my fans love them even more. Factoid: There are something on the order of 86.4 million pet cats in the United States alone. This explains the success of the musical “Cats” (It certainly wasn’t the non-existent plot). Whenever I post an image with a cat in it, I can count on a baseline of tens of thousands of likes and shares. Even if the cat is really ugly.

You probably know that some of the most popular videos on YouTube are cat videos. If you haven’t seen the “Ninja” cat and the “Paddy Cake” cats, you aren’t very good at surfing the net. There are even YouTube videos about how popular cats are on YouTube.

A cat-based video is so much more likely to be played and shared that I’ve considered creating YouTube promotions for my show “Allegiance” with cats playing all of the internment camp guards and internees. Apart from being in highly questionable taste, I’ve never successfully figured out how to make some of the cats look Japanese—besides putting cute little rice paddy hats on them.

Right now at least half of you have an image of a cat in a rice paddy hat.

I’ve lately asked myself what the fascination with cats is. Much of the attraction derives from their highly “human”-like expressions and the rich variation in their size, color and, often, girth. We humans can all see our own exploits, frustrations, and failures in their eyes and their efforts, more so than almost any other creature.

By contrast, dogs are commonly portrayed as “one-note” creatures that have more unconditional, simpler expressions. It also explains why there is no musical called “Dogs”.

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The Myth of Splitting Infinitives

What are split infinitives? Split infinitives have been discussed a lot. It happens when you put an adverb between to and a verb.

For example: “She used to secretly admire him”, and “You have to really watch him”.

Why do people think that there is anything wrong with split infinitives?

Because some people (including teachers!) believe that split infinitives are grammatically incorrect and should be avoided at all costs. However, in Latin, it is impossible to split an infinitive because “to go” (for example) is only one word!

At some time, it was decided that English grammar should follow Latin grammar, hence the English grammar rule NEVER to split your infinitives. Are they correct? No, not really, since their objection to splitting infinitives is based on comparisons with the structure of Latin, which (of course) differs from English.

People have been splitting infinitives for centuries, especially in spoken English, and avoiding splitting infinitives can sound clumsy. It can also change the emphasis of what’s being said.

Just look at the following example:

You really have to watch him” does not have the same meaning as: ”You have to watch him very closely”.

Although the grammar rule concerning split infinitives isn’t followed as strictly today as it used to be, many writers still abide to them. That is the reason why split infinitives are still the norm in formal writing. Only when alternative wording seems very clumsy or would alter the meaning of a sentence, do writers dare to split an infinitive.

More the pity, since the rule of splitting infinitives is basically bogus.

My proof?

Exhibit A: “To boldly go [where no man has gone before]” which is a perfectly good English phrase!

So enjoy splitting your infinites! Please post your examples and experiences!

(Image courtesy of the YUNiversity)

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New Words on Record – Language Keeps Changing!

Language is alive and constantly changing. New words are coined and some of them have become mainstream. Once embraced by the majority and often used in daily speech, they become part of our vocabulary.

Collins, the British dictionary, incorporated several new words. In July 2012, it was announced that the dictionary would now contain 86 more words.

The eclectic selection now officially included:

  • Amazeballs, being an expression of enthusiastic approval;
  • Bridezilla, a woman whose behavior while planning the details of her wedding is regarded as intolerable;
  • Claustrophilia, an abnormal pleasure derived from being in a confined space:
  • Floordrobe, a pile of clothes left on the floor;
  • Laymanize (or laymanise), to simplify technical information into a form that can be understood by ordinary people;
  • Lollage, the practice of using the text messaging abbreviation LOL (Laugh Out Loud – also referred to as Lots Of Laughter)
  • Podium, to finish in one of the first three places in a sporting competition (much used by commentators during the 2012 Olympics);
  • Squadoosh, a slang term meaning nothing;
  • Touch-ready, being usable immediately on touch-screen devices and computers.

Please feel free to leave your additions (or suggestions!) in your comment. (Inappropriate entries will be removed).


(Image courtesy of the telegraph)

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