Greek Mysteries, N-Grams, and Deer Ankles

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October 12, 2018 by libroshombre

It’s no mystery; the old Greeks’ word “mysteria” meant “secret rite or doctrine,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, and the Romans altered that to “mysterium.” When the Norman French defeated King Henry in 1066, they brought along “mistere” (“secret, hidden meaning), and there it evolved into the Anglo-French “misterie,” and, eventually, our present-day “mystery.” “Mystery’s” origins aren’t mysterious because etymologists, those who study words, traced it back to the source, but plenty of other verbal strangeness and oddities abound. Why, for instance, are “words spelled with more letters on the right side of the keyboard are associated with more positive emotions than words spelled with letters on the left.”

A ScienceDaily.com article, “the Right Type of Word,” reporteda 2012 University of London study showing that “the meanings of words in English, Dutch, and Spanish were related to the way people typed them on the QWERTY keyboard. Overall, words with more right-side letters were rated more positive in meaning than words with more left-side letters. The effect was visible in all three languages and was not affected by either word length, letter frequency, or handedness.”

Then there’s “The Case of the Disappearing Determiners,” an article from the University of Pennsylvania’s Mark Liberman, who wrote, “For the past century or so, the commonest word in the English language has gradually been getting less common.” OxfordDictionaries.com defines “determiner” as a “modifying word that determines the kind of reference a noun or noun group has, for example ‘a,’ ‘the,’ ‘every’.” “The” is the commonest English word, and Liberman used Books.Google.com n-gram viewer to see how its popularity changed over time. N-grams are strings of letters, syllables or words and Google’s online N-gram search engine “charts the frequencies of any set of comma-delimited search strings using a yearly count of n-grams found in sources printed between 1500 and 2008. The program can search for a single word or a phrase, including misspellings or gibberish.”

Usage of the n-gram “THE” peaked around 1850, but from 1900 to 2000 it dropped 16.5% in American English, 10.5% in works of fiction, and 9.3% in British English. Similar, though small decreases have been seen in German, Italian, Spanish, and French. The drop is likely technology-related, and Liberman noted that “younger people use THE at lower rates than older people, and in each age group, women use THE at lower rates than men.”

The riddle of the differences between sexes has baffled humankind forever, and in English at least since the Exeter Book was written in the late 10th century by English monks. One of the premier Anglo-Saxon books, it contains more than thirty poems, andmany are a tad bawdy today, but were fit for clerical reading back then. The Exeter Book’s now part of the British Library’s collection, and in “The Exeter Book Riddles in Context,” librarian Megan Cavell pointed out that the book’s written in the Old English vernacular and reflects daily life a millennia ago. “Topics vary widely,” she wrote, “from the highest of the high to the lowest of the low.”

For example, one monk wrote about a moth that ate words. “That seemed to me a curious happening, when I heard about that wonder, that the worm, a thief in the darkness, swallowed a certain man’s song, a glory-fast speech and its strong foundation. The stealing guest was not at all the wiser for that, for those words which he swallowed.” Answer: a bookworm. Another wrote, “I heard that something was growing in the corner, swelling and sticking up, raising its roof. A proud bride grasped that boneless thing with her hands. A lord’s daughter covered with a garment that bulging thing.” Answer: bread dough.

“Riddle” is included in “The Story of English in 100 Words,” a library book by David Crystal that begins with “roe,” the first known English word. “Roe,” or its Old English/Anglo-Saxon equivalent, was inscribed in the 5th century on the ankle-bone of a roe deer, which in Old English was “raha.” It was probably used for gambling, but utilizing our public library for learning all language skills, in person or online, is a safe bet. A strong majority of Borough residents are regular library users; the mystery’s why they all aren’t.

 

 

 

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