8 Things I’ve Learned from mental_floss Readers
By Arika Okrent
It’s my Flossaversary! It’s been a year since my first piece for mental_floss was posted. Since then, I’ve posted over 120 articles about everything from ABC songs of the world to the origin of “OK” to dog naming trends.
I’m a language person. I’m interested in every aspect of it. I’ve studied various languages. I have a Ph.D. in linguistics. I’ve edited and copyedited; I know how to use a semicolon. But like everyone, I make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes get published, and when they do, they are sure to be found. Nothing brings out the usage/spelling/punctuation commenters like an article about language. Sometimes the corrections are just plain wrong (not so much here on mental_floss, of course). Sometimes they are helpful, but boring (a typo, a repeated “the”). But every once in a while, they hit on something I probably should have known, but for whatever reason didn’t. We are always learning. Or should be, at least. Here are 8 things I’ve learned from being corrected by the wonderful commenters on mental_floss.
1. Vocal chords vs. vocal cords
In this piece about kids’ language mistakes, I characterized a speech sound with the phrase “the vocal chords kick in sooner.” It didn’t take long before someone pointed out that it should be “vocal cords” not “chords.” But of course! The vocal folds are like strings (cords) that vibrate, not combinations of simultaneously produced pitches (chords).
Still, even after the correction, “vocal cords” looked strange to me. Surely in my linguistics education I had written about “vocal chords” before. Had I never been corrected? My initial embarrassment was soothed by this Language Log post explaining the odd “reciprocal swap” that left us with the the word “cord” from the Latin chorda (rope, string, cord), while we got “chord” (originally spelled “cord”) from “accord.” I was at least etymologically justified. Not that any of that matters now. “Vocal cord” is considered the correct spelling (at least in American usage.)
2. In tact vs. intact
In this piece explaining how an exception can prove a rule, I talked about rules remaining “in tact.” It wasn’t just a typo. In fact, I made the same mistake twice. What can I say. It’s straight-up wrong. Fortunately for me, the correction, from a commenter called “stickler,” was the perfect model of what a grammar comment should be, beginning with a compliment on the content of the article (“I've always wanted to see this explained; thanks”) and continuing with a gentle reminder (“‘intact’ is of course one word”) that assumes I knew the correct form already. Stickler, you are a shining beacon of internet civility, and I salute you.
I probably have been corrected on “in tact” before, but it didn’t stick because I failed to update my idea of the meaning, which I formerly had as follows: tact is from the Latin for touch, and something is “in tact” because all the parts are touching each other, i.e., it hasn’t fallen apart. Now I have updated to the correct idea: tact is indeed from the Latin for touch, but here “in” means “un” (as in “inaccurate”), so “intact” means “untouched,” i.e., unaltered. I will always remember this now, for I will always remember the honorable kindness of Stickler.
3. Pyjamas vs. pajamas
The word “pyjamas” in this piece about nouns that only have plural forms inspired another wonderful example of how commenting should be done. The commenter “ATxann Chris” wrote “I've never seen pajamas spelled 'pyjamas' before. Until I saw it spelled the same way the second time in the article, I assumed it was a typo. But when I looked it up online after reading your comment, it appears to be primarily a British usage, while the American usage is usually ‘pajamas.’”
The commenter looked it up. Before commenting. You, ATxann Chris, on the strength of your commenting principles alone, could be the salve that heals this fractured nation.
You go on to say, “now I'm really confused because the author of this piece says she lives in Philadelphia, but speaks with a Chicago accent. I have plenty of friends and relatives in the Chicago area—they all sleep in pajamas, not pyjamas. ;)” Your confusion is warranted. I’m not sure what happened. “Pajamas” looked weird to me that day (though I have used it in other articles). I think I was reading a British biography that week? My kids had a French test with that word (pyjama in French)? Honestly, I didn’t realize that “pyjamas” was British when I used it, but now I know.
ATxann Chris concludes, “anyway, the article is interesting, and as a big Britcom fan, I'm delighted to learn this variation of how to spell those sets of things we sometimes sleep in.” I can only hope that all my future errors in applying consistent style rules are viewed so charitably, and with such delight.
4. Guerilla vs. Guerrilla
In an article about why English spelling is so weird, I discuss how English got many difficult-to-spell words from our habit of borrowing words from other languages without changing their spellings, even when we do change their pronunciations. So, I said, “we do our best with guerilla, piñata, llama, angst, kitsch, fjord, Czech, gnocchi, and zucchini, even if we don't always remember exactly how to spell them.” Guerrilla is supposed to have two ‘r’s in it; it comes from the Spanish guerra, “war.” I could have pretended my misspelling was a subtle joke—see how hard it is to get these right!—but it was just a mistake. At least I didn’t spell it “gorilla.” It was also pointed out to me that, except in Tuscany, zucchine (the plural of zucchina) is what most Italians call zucchini.
5. Swedish “lost”
I took a semester of Swedish a long time ago and figured it should be enough to put together this list of Swedish words that conflict with the Ikea products they name, but there was a distinction I wasn’t aware of until commenter “Haha” politely alerted me to an error. Under “VILSE” (lost), a square glass vase, I wrote, “It was here a second ago…” It turns out that where we use the same English word “lost” to describe either an object that has been lost by someone (“I lost my keys. The keys are lost!”) or a person that can’t find their way (“Where am I? I’m lost!”), in Swedish you’d use vilse for the second sense, but borta for the first. This is a good reminder of the pitfalls of dictionary translation. Luckily, all that was at stake here was a weak punchline.
6. e.e. cummings vs. E. E. Cummings
The poet E. E. Cummings sometimes used unconventional capitalization and punctuation in his poems, and in the 1960s some publishers, believing him to be generally anti-capitalization, printed his name in lowercase on the covers of his books. Despite the fact that, according to Cummings scholar Norman Friedman, he preferred others to refer to him as E. E. Cummings, the lowercase version of his name spread, probably because it somehow seemed the more “in the know” thing to do. But it is actually less “in the know,” as I discovered after “Leigh” pointed that out to me in the comments on this piece about “screw you” book dedications.
7. Guadaloupe vs. Guadalupe
Guadaloupe is French. There is an island of that name in the French West Indies. Guadalupe is Spanish. There are towns all over the Spanish speaking world by that name. Our Lady of Guadalupe is a catholic icon of great importance in Mexican culture. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo is the agreement that ended the Mexican-American war in 1848. It was signed in the town of Guadalupe Hidalgo, now a neighborhood of Mexico City, where the vision of Our Lady of Guadalupe was said to have appeared. In this post on the top ten viral hits of the pre civil war years I note that the seventh most reprinted article of the time was about the Treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo. Of course, as commenter Armando Gutierrez pointed out, it should be the Spanish “Guadalupe” instead.
However, in the pre-civil war years (and through the early 1900s) U.S. newspapers overwhelmingly called the treaty “Guadaloupe Hidalgo.” This is why the researchers whose work on viral hits I was citing used that spelling, and why I, in turn, used it too. Why was that the popular spelling then? Was it a war-induced anti-Spanish bent, a fancy French affectation, or just the fashion of the times? Maybe I’ll look into it some day.
I’ve looked over this post, How Many Languages is it Possible to Know, dozens of times, but I still can’t find any misspelled words. Why, then, did a commenter write, multiple times, “Is anyone going to point out the spelling mistakes in this article?” Nobody has, including the commenter. Perhaps it’s just garden variety trolling, but I like to think there’s a more subtle philosophical point hidden in this commenter call to arms. It says “look, this is an article about language. Therefore there must be language mistakes to find. It was ever so, and it will ever be thus.”