EMILY BREWSTER: The word newt was originally an ewte.
JOHANNA MAYER: An ewte?
EMILY BREWSTER: Yeah.
JOHANNA MAYER: E-W-T, ewt?
EMILY BREWSTER: It had another E on the end, E-W-T-E. An ewt, which is a very cute name I think for those little creatures.
JOHANNA MAYER: Yeah. I kind of prefer that I think.
If you make a podcast or write a newsletter, there's a certain kind of email that you inevitably get. And I should say most of the emails that we get are incredibly kind and full of cool ideas and please do keep sending them to podcasts@ScienceFriday.com. But this kind of email is not about the content of our show but about mistakes in my language-- typos, sentence structures that are technically incorrect, the whole nine yards.
And I get it. I do. We make a show about words. Our listeners are going to have strong opinions about them. That's great.
But the thing is when you spend all of your time looking at the origins of words, one thing you notice is that in language, what's considered correct, very slippery concept because the rules of language change depending on who you are, where you live, who you hang out with. And one of the coolest things about language is that it's always changing. Some of your favorite words, words you would definitely recognize and use all the time, started off as mistakes. Apron, nickname, Yeah, those words were wrong.
So in this episode, I talk to Emily Brewster and Peter Sokolowski, lexicographers at Merriam Webster and co-hosts of the Word Matters podcast. We talked about how language evolves, how wrong becomes right, and the fortunate accidents that led to some of our very best words.
From Science Friday, this is Science Diction. I'm Johanna Mayer. Today we're talking wrong, and that's OK.
Hello, Emily and Peter.
EMILY BREWSTER: Hello, Johanna.
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: How are you?
JOHANNA MAYER: I'm well. I'm really excited to talk to you guys today. So your first episode on Word Matters, I noticed is called "Irregardless You Don't Have to Like It," which is quite a provocative title because that's an all time classic linguistic pet peeve for a bunch of people. And I imagine that you probably hear from people about stuff like this all the time.
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: It's the gift that keeps on giving for dictionary editors. And one thing that I like about it is paradoxically it gives us this moment to explain how the dictionary works, which is to say we describe the facts of language. We don't prescribe an idealized version of it.
JOHANNA MAYER: Can you give me the Cliff Notes version of what the deal is with irregardless?
EMILY BREWSTER: Well, people don't like that it seems to be that it-- well, that it says exactly-- that it has the same function in the language as the word regardless. As far as functionally what they do, they mean exactly the same thing, but that -ir prefix sounds like it should mean not, that irregardless should actually mean the opposite of regardless. And instead it means exactly the same thing. But English actually doesn't have a problem with this kind of duplication. We've got all kinds of instances in the language where we have multiple ways of saying something.
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: Complaining about irregardless, often we hear that it was just added. It was-- it's-- the end of civilization is here because the dictionary has added this given word. In fact, it was first in our dictionaries I think in 1934. Goes back all-- a long way. And so in some cases, people have just noticed it or someone on social media will say, hey, did you know that this is now an entry, and so you have this apocalyptic response that people say that the standards are eroding and that kids today and all the rest of it. Whereas language has, in fact, of course, always changed, always evolved, always moved.
EMILY BREWSTER: No, irregardless is so deeply despised, people find it so incredibly irksome that we do, in fact, in our dictionary give a little note that says you probably want to use regardless instead. But it's not because there's something really wrong with the word irregardless. The problem with the word irregardless is just the way that it's-- the way that it's regarded, the way that-- it is-- it inevitably will distract people from what you're actually trying to communicate.
JOHANNA MAYER: Yeah.
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: Yeah, it gives me a chance to bring out the part of a dictionary definition that we call usage, which is to say is this word offensive. Is it archaic? Is it British? Is it likely to cause embarrassment to you, and that has to do with something outside of the word itself, and that's the case here that we give a usage note that says use regardless instead because anyone who pays attention to these things is likely to judge you on its use. That's the information that a dictionary needs to give.
EMILY BREWSTER: The dictionary's got your back. That's what we're trying to say.
JOHANNA MAYER: Well, I was also going to ask, Emily and Peter, how this affects you personally. Do people complain to you when they find out what you do when they have a linguistic pet peeve like that?
EMILY BREWSTER: I think the most common response I get if I meet someone for the first time and they find out that I am a lexicographer-- I write dictionary definitions for a living-- people are often first of all concerned that I will judge their language use, that I will identify that they are-- that they don't know how to talk, that they don't know their own language. And then there are other people-- and sometimes it's the same person actually-- who will want me to help them talk through just how reprehensible a particular word is like the figurative use of literally, for example. Like, oh, isn't so awful. You must hate this. How can you--
And I think that in truth I as a lexicographer encounter all of these things out of sheer curiosity. I think if you use a word in a way that is not typical. I don't assume you're wrong. I assume that I'm missing something like, oh, where did that come from. I don't assume that they're wrong. I assume that there's more to the story.
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: Absolutely. I would just say also that the same thing happens to me, and that assumption is backwards because the people who are linguists and lexicographers that I know actually probably judge the speech of others much, much less than some other observant listener. And that's because we do it all day every day. It's a muscle that we've exercised, and we don't judge. We notice. We notice. That's what we do.
EMILY BREWSTER: Well and because also I think we're so focused on the English as the long game, when you pay a lot of attention when you know-- when you learn the history of the language and the history of the words, you see that no word is actually completely stable through its entire history. We have words that have existed for 1,000 word-- for 1,000 years, and in most cases, they have shifted in meaning in one way or another and sometimes in extreme ways. So if you start paying attention to the language, you see that all of these things are up for revision.
JOHANNA MAYER: So a lot of your crankiest letters seem to be about people complaining that things are wrong, quote unquote, but I think a really great counterargument to that is that a ton of what's considered to be correct today actually started off as a mistake. Peter and Emily, you brought us a few words that started off as mistakes. Ready to dive in?
EMILY BREWSTER: Sure. I'm going to start with one of my very favorites. The word is nickname.
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: Mm-hmm.
JOHANNA MAYER: Ooh.
EMILY BREWSTER: Johanna, what's a nickname? Not a dictionary definition but how do you understand what a nickname is?
JOHANNA MAYER: Just like a fun familiar name that you call someone that is not their given name.
EMILY BREWSTER: Yeah. Yeah. It's an extra name. It's an additional name that a person has. The word started out, it has-- its earliest iteration dates to the days of middle English, and the word was not nickname but it was ekename, E-K-E-N-A-M-E. And that eke segment means additional, and in Middle English, it actually functioned with the meaning of an additional thing. And in Scottish English, you-- the word eke, E-K-E, still functions as a noun meaning an addition or extension. And so--
JOHANNA MAYER: Really?
EMILY BREWSTER: Yeah. So a nickname was originally an ekename, meaning another name, an additional name that you had. Now what happened there is that we had the article an and then the noun ekename--
JOHANNA MAYER: I see where this is going.
EMILY BREWSTER: Yes. Yes. And this is a pattern in English. English actually has a number of these words through a process that is called false division or also meta analysis. The n in the article an got transferred to the front of the noun. And so instead of an ekename, we got a nickname.
JOHANNA MAYER: A nekename. I love that. What are some other examples?
EMILY BREWSTER: OK, I've got a pair-- cherry and pea as in peas and carrots. Each of these words was originally a word that ended in the S sound. Cherry was from French cherise, C-H-E-R-I-S-E, but English speakers, learning the word cherise understood it as being cherries. And then you have multiple cherries, and you have one cherry.
And the same thing happened with pea. The word originally, I think it's an old English word. It's not a borrowing from French. But the word was originally pease, P-E-A-S-E, and it was a mass noun like butter. You would have-- you wouldn't-- you don't have a butter. But then people understood pease as being the plural form of the word, and so the word pea was born.
JOHANNA MAYER: So we have had nickname, cherries, peas. Peter, what's next?
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: Another pair. One of the things that happens when language enters a new geographical area is that there are new names for the flora and the fauna. One thing that's interesting about Noah Webster's first dictionary 1806 is the first dictionary of English that had the word skunk in it because that's a North American Animal and the British lexicographers had not encountered this animal. There were other such animals like the muskrat.
And the muskrat-- and we hear that R-A-T, the rat of muskrat, which certainly if you know what it looks like, it's a little furry thing so it certainly could be a mammal that related to mice or rats. But in point of fact, it's from the Native American language, an Algonquian dialect, the Massachusett language from that tribe called the musquash. And that was the name that they had given to this local animal, and the English-speaking settlers took that word and made it fit into the English phonotactics, which is to say the sound system, and made it fit some kind of logic, a logic that certainly would seem to work to this day because it's a small, furry creature. So muskrat has nothing to do with rat. The word came from musquash from the Native American word.
And there is another one that works just the same way, and that is the word woodchuck, also an Algonquian word. And it came from ockqutchaun, a Narragansett word. And again, ockqutchaun, if you hear it through English ears that are limited to English language patterns, you make it a woodchuck. So it really has nothing to do with its ability to throw, for example.
JOHANNA MAYER: I feel like there's probably so many words like that in the English language that are just-- that where Indigenous words are just smushed into a phonetic system that we can process.
EMILY BREWSTER: Right. Right, the process of Anglicization we call it. That's when a word is rejiggered so that it fits the-- so it makes sense as a word within the language. And also there's a thought process that people want their words to be familiar to them.
This makes me think of the next one I have for you, and that is the word hangnail.
JOHANNA MAYER: Ooh, I can't wait for this one.
EMILY BREWSTER: Hangnail is that little painful piece of skin that hangs just at the edge of your nail. It gets inflamed. It's-- it hurt-- it's painful.
JOHANNA MAYER: Very familiar, yeah.
EMILY BREWSTER: Yeah, so it's hanging there. It makes sense that you would call it-- it's hanging next to your nail. It makes sense that it would be called a hangnail. But the hang part is much newer than the word itself. The old English word was angnaegl or something like that. I don't know exactly how it was pronounced because I don't speak old English. But it's the-- the original old English word meant corn on the foot, and the ang--
JOHANNA MAYER: Really?
EMILY BREWSTER: Yeah. Yeah, and the ang that gave us-- that eventually became hang meant painful. And it's actually related to the word anger.
JOHANNA MAYER: Really?
EMILY BREWSTER: Yeah. That hang part had nothing to do with something hanging off of anything else.
JOHANNA MAYER: Was that just-- I guess it was just a coincidence that the word angry happened to sound like the word hang and they both fit.
EMILY BREWSTER: Right. Well, it shows how speakers of a language want to make things more logical.
JOHANNA MAYER: I will never think of hangnails the same again.
EMILY BREWSTER: If they make you angry, it's for good etymological reason.
JOHANNA MAYER: After the break, the accidental origin of the word apron.
And we're back with more mistakes.
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: I have a couple of false divisions if you don't mind a couple--
JOHANNA MAYER: Yeah.
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: That connect to French. French is such an incredibly important part of English, and there's a cultural story there. It's because of the Normand conquest. People were speaking the old English or the Anglo-Saxon language until the Normands invaded, and it's important to point out that they won that battle. And they brought with them their language, so French is an incredible source-- it's a very rich source of English vocabulary.
A couple of these English words come from in some sense a misunderstanding of French words. So the French word for tablecloth was nappon or nappe. Still to this day, nappe like N-A-P-P-E would be the tablecloth. And what we would now call an apron came from that kind of cloth that was referred to as a napron, a napron. But if you say a napron enough, then it becomes an apron. And so the n got separated and actually moved over to the article. So instead of a napron, it's an apron, and that's how that word was formed, which is-- that's a fun one.
JOHANNA MAYER: Yeah. The n just floated over and tacked itself onto the other word.
EMILY BREWSTER: Totally. And in the opposite process, the word newt was originally an ewte.
JOHANNA MAYER: An ewte?
EMILY BREWSTER: Yeah.
JOHANNA MAYER: E-W-T, ewt?
EMILY BREWSTER: It had an-- it had another e on the end, E-W-T-E, an ewte, which is a very cute name I think for those little [INAUDIBLE].
JOHANNA MAYER: It's-- yeah, I prefer that I think.
EMILY BREWSTER: We can take it back. Let's just-- if everybody just says an ewte again eventually, eventually maybe it'll gain territory that it had lost.
JOHANNA MAYER: That's very cute.
EMILY BREWSTER: Yeah, actually one point that I would like to add, Johanna, is the idea that false division, that's a process that really doesn't happen very much in modern English anymore because now we see words in print so much.
JOHANNA MAYER: I was going to ask if we're still getting words from mistakes nowadays, but I think you just answered my question, that it just-- because so much of our language is written not so much of a thing anymore.
EMILY BREWSTER: True. But there is such a thing-- such a linguistic phenomenon called an eggcorn. An eggcorn is a word that is misheard or word or a phrase that is misheard and misunderstood and actually makes logical sense as being something other than what it is. So, for example, the word acorn being understood as eggcorn. Eggcorn, it's-- maybe it's a little egg shaped. It's the oak tree's egg maybe, right?
JOHANNA MAYER: Ah.
EMILY BREWSTER: And that term eggcorn is now used to refer to words that are a misunderstanding of the standard form of a word. And we have lots of these, and these do-- we do still see them appear. And social media is a great way to encounter them. We did not used to have access to the informal writing of millions of people, and now we all do all the time.
JOHANNA MAYER: Perhaps too much.
EMILY BREWSTER: Yeah, it's astounding. I like to think about this because it's so remarkable to me how much informal written language we never had access to before and that we now have to the n-th degree. And so we now see on Twitter people say day today operations of an industry, for example. Instead of the day hyphen to hyphen day, they say day and then today. Now I don't know-- I cannot think of a single eggcorn that has yet been used so widely that we have entered it into our dictionaries. So but the time could come.
JOHANNA MAYER: I have a question about one that I actually am not sure which is the-- which is the actual definition. I'm sure that you'll be able to tell me, but one that's always confused me is deeply seated. Or is a deeply seeded like a deep seeded belief, S-E-A-T-E-D or S-E-E-D-E-D because I think they both make total sense.
EMILY BREWSTER: Do the answer off the top of your head, Peter?
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: I don't, but it's a good one.
EMILY BREWSTER: It's a really good one.
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: Yeah.
EMILY BREWSTER: Yeah.
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: I'm looking it up as well.
JOHANNA MAYER: I would love to hear more about some of the false division words. You mentioned there were a lot of them.
EMILY BREWSTER: Do you want to know about deep seeded first?
JOHANNA MAYER: Yes. Please solve this lifelong mystery for me before we move on.
EMILY BREWSTER: All right, so people do use both deep hyphen S-E-A-T-E-D like you sit on the seat and also deep S-E-E-D-E-D like you sow seeds somewhere. The established, the original, the correct term is seated as in what you sit on, deep seated, and it means firmly established as in deep seated resentment. But it also has this earlier meaning that is situated far below the surface. And so this-- I don't know why that doesn't also make sense for seeded as in you sow seeds.
JOHANNA MAYER: I think my confusion is very warranted.
EMILY BREWSTER: Absolutely. And that is often the case. Our need to make these things make sense is very reasonable, and it often is true but not always.
JOHANNA MAYER: And so I've been saying it wrong my whole life. I thought it was the other way.
EMILY BREWSTER: No one can understand the difference between those two anyway.
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: Yeah. And I have to say that's a surprise. That's a surprise answer even to me.
JOHANNA MAYER: I wonder what you both think we can learn from the fact that so much of English comes from mistakes.
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: I think what it says is that we try to impose a logic upon language but language is an expression of humanity and therefore it's always got complexities that are not explainable in strictly logical terms. We are not robots. We don't function in a strictly logical sequence, and therefore language is going to develop as a living thing.
Think of a plant. If you give it sunlight and water, it's going to grow. If a certain word is used by a large number of people, it will become a standard part of that language. If it's not, if it's coined and it's clever and it's perfect and it's logical but nobody ever uses it, it simply won't be part of that language. And so I think it's useful to think of language as an organic thing.
EMILY BREWSTER: My thoughts are very similar. I like to think about language as being a tool, and it's a tool that is used for the most intimate of human acts communicating. And as a tool and a tool that is so intimately experienced, I love to think how it is malleable and how it shifts in order to meet the needs of the people who use it.
JOHANNA MAYER: Emily Brewster and Peter Sokolowski, thank you so much. This was really fun.
EMILY BREWSTER: Thanks so much for having us, Johanna.
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: Yes, it's great to be here. Thank you.
JOHANNA MAYER: Before we wrap up this episode, Emily and Peter and I took a detour in our conversation that just so happened to answer a listener question that we got last week via voicemail.
EMILY BREWSTER: Do you know what word-- what English word is used throughout the world more than any other English word?
JOHANNA MAYER: Give me a second.
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: It's a good question.
JOHANNA MAYER: I think I would have guessed cool, but in light of our conversation, is that not correct?
EMILY BREWSTER: That's not correct.
JOHANNA MAYER: I'm going to say-- yeah. It can't be-- I feel like it's got to be some sort of exclamation like that. I don't think it's awesome but something in that terrain maybe.
EMILY BREWSTER: It's a super useful word and has wide application, and it's easy to pronounce. It's kind of a reassuring word.
JOHANNA MAYER: OK.
EMILY BREWSTER: Yes, that's it.
JOHANNA MAYER: Excellent.
EMILY BREWSTER: The word OK. Do the origin of the word OK?
JOHANNA MAYER: No, I can't wait for you to tell me. By complete coincidence, Biz Collins called us to ask about OK.
AUDIENCE: Would you see it in foreign languages? Where did it start? And who started it? Why is it so integrated into other languages?
JOHANNA MAYER: So there was actually a really fun trend that started in Boston in the summer of 1838 to make up new acronyms, kind of like OMG or LOL today. All the cool newspapers were doing acronyms, so many acronyms. No go, that was NG. Remains to be seen, RTBS. Or give the devil his due, GTDHD, of course. And then on March 23, 1839, in Boston's Morning Post, there appeared OK.
EMILY BREWSTER: And it stood for all correct.
JOHANNA MAYER: Oh. In a-- wait, sorry, what language?
EMILY BREWSTER: Exactly, right.
JOHANNA MAYER: Yeah. All correct only makes sense as OK if you spell it--
EMILY BREWSTER: O-L-L-K-O-R-R-E-C-T. A linguist named Allen Walker Read did some fantastic research on it and nailed it down at the earliest as far as we know. His research was very definitive, so I'm pretty confident that he really did find the very first example of OK. And it was glossed in this newspaper article, so it said OK and then it said all correct.
JOHANNA MAYER: So looks like OK started almost 200 years ago in Boston, but how did it become so pervasive? Well, in 1840, it was used in the presidential re-election campaign of Martin Van Buren though they said then it stood for Old Kinderhook, which was a nickname for the president who came from Kinderhook, New York. So that helped popularize OK.
But otherwise kind of hard to tell how it traveled quite so far. But it spread all over America and then all over the world. And American culture and the English language as a whole are both major international exports so not surprising. But OK really took off. Maybe because it's so useful-- totally neutral, short, relatively easy to pronounce using the sounds of a lot of different languages. I hope that answers your question, Biz.
As always, if you have a question, suggestion, or maybe you just feel a little cranky and want to complain at us, send an email to podcasts@ScienceFriday.com. Or better yet, leave us a voicemail at 929-499-WORD. That's 929-499-9673. Your messages have already inspired some segments currently in the works. Irregardless, we read and listen to all of them. They are literally so precious to us.
Science Diction is produced by me and our senior producer Elah Feder. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer, and they mastered this episode. Nadja Oertelt is our chief content officer, and she just doesn't understand why she can't address me as worker 638.
PETER SOKOLOWSKI: Is this word offensive? Is it archaic? Is it British?
JOHANNA MAYER: See you in a couple of weeks.