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A Thought…

Seen on a sign: “After Monday and Tuesday, even a calendar says, ‘W T F’.”

Trivial Chase

Posted on 2017-Mar-01 at 16:02:44 by Phil
Last update on 2018-Jan-26 at 12:22:26 by Phil

Did you ever take a Calculus course, and wonder where that “integral” sign ∫ came from? Did you ever look at an 18th century document such as the US Bill of Rights (first 10 Amendments to the Constitution), and wonder why “Congress” is written “Congre∫s” or “Congreſs”, depending on whether it’s handwritten or printed? Isn’t it obvious? They’re the same letter of the English alphabet!

What’s going on here? This letter is a now obsolete form of “s”, known as a “long s”. It was used in English up until the early 19th century, and still has limited use in some Germanic languages. When handwritten, it often takes the form of the gracefully flowing integral sign ∫, and when printed, many fonts show it as an “f” minus most of its crossbar: ſ. The general rule for using a long s is that it normally doesn’t appear as the final letter in a word (instead, a round or short terminal “s” is used. Note that in the Greek alphabet, there are different forms for terminal and non-terminal lowercase sigmas [s’s: ς and σ]). When there is a double s, as in Congress, it normally appears as the first of the s’s, followed by a short s: Congre∫s or Congreſs.

What is its connection to higher mathematics? The German co-inventor of the Calculus (along with Isaac Newton), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, started using an “s” in the late 17th century to signify (abbreviate) “summation” (German: summe) over infinitesimals. His works were handwritten, and the “s” of choice would be the long s: ∫. Fortunately, in English, the word (summation) also starts with a (long) s, so it was accepted by Newton. Different European cultures have different typesetting standards for an integral, some slanting it more than others, and differing in where the limits are placed.

You can still see a long S in use in German, in the form of the Eszett ß or sharp-s. It’s not really an individual letter as much as it’s a ligature or digraph of a long and short s (actually, z). An eszett counts as “ss” (not “sz”) in sorting and alphabetizing, and is capitalized to “SS” (and before you get all bent out of shape, it has nothing to do with the Schutzstaffel or its double lightning bolt logo). In Germany, the One Way Street sign is either Einbahnstraße or EINBAHNSTRASSE.

A long s is found in the major fonts, but is often missing from many lesser (or more modern) typefaces. Some fonts even include an upper case long s (Unicode x1E9E).

   “You stupid fuh-hithead [ſhithead]” — Ben Franklin, in the Futurama episode All the Presidents’ Heads

Posted on 2017-Mar=01 at 18:19:40 by Phil
Last update on 2018-Apr-22 at 21:16:55 by Phil

Or, thou art a thorn in my side…

Back in colonial times, if you had asked a stranger for directions to “ye olde candle shoppe”, you probably would have been bundled off to the nearest insane asylum (and they were nasty places back then, combination of warehouse for the crazies, snake pit, and entertainment for people who couldn’t afford to go to the theater). Adding an extra “e” to “old” and “shop” is a modern affectation, but what about “ye”?

Well, there was a word “ye”, but it really had not much to do with the definite article “the”. Then why do people write (and say) “ye this or that”? Because a thorn can look like a “y”, that’s why. Huh? A thorn, in this case, is the archaic English letter Þ (uppercase) and þ (lowercase), still used in the Icelandic language. You mean that’s not a cross between a P and a narwhal? Nope. It’s an old Norse letter (one of several) which has since vanished from English. It had the sound “th” (today we write the digraph th for that sound).

Now, the cursive (handwritten) form of thorn looks a lot like the Latin “y”. See the picture below, which looks like a “y” with an “e” floating above it. That’s one form of thorn (plus an “e”). Several words were formed in such a manner: that (thorn with “t”), thou (thorn with “u” or “ou”), and the (thorn with “e”), and perhaps others. The first printing presses in England were imported from Germany or France, who did not have Þ and þ in their type collections. The nearest thing that a printer could come up with for a thorn lookalike was a “y”. Also, due to the limitations of movable type, the “e” (or “t” or “u”/“ou”) migrated off a bit to the side, as something of a superscript: ye. Eventually, it floated down to Earth (or at least, to the baseline) as “ye”. It was still pronounced “the”! So, the next time you visit Boston, or Plimoth Plantation, or Sturbridge Village, or Jamestown, or Colonial Williamsburg; just roll your eyes and sigh when some says “yee” when meaning “the”.

handwritten ye

How about the other meaning of “ye” (the one pronounced “yee”)? Apparently this one has been around European languages (including English) for a long time, and its spelling and pronunciation have not changed. While thou (thorn + “u” or “ou”) and its various declensions thee, thy, and thine were used as an informal or intimate (even impolite) form of address (always singular), ye, you, your, and yours were used to address more than one person, or to address a social superior. Oddly, this was sometimes reversed in religious texts, in keeping with the Hebrew forms of address.

Maybe some day we’ll discuss some of the other letters that like Þ/þ have disappeared from English but live on in some other European languages: Ð/ð, Æ/æ, Œ/œ, Ƿ/ƿ, and maybe some others.

Some interesting reads:

  • More of a diatribe against “olde” nonsense than about “ye”, but I did glom the nice “the” thorn+e image, and there’s a link to a good (and short) YouTube discussion about obsolete letters in the comments section.
  • More detail on stuff that used to be in English. Did you know that & (ampersand = and, per se, and) used to be taught as part of the alphabet?
  • More than you’d ever want to know about the history of thee, thou, and related words.

P.S. Is “the” pronounced “thee” (long e: ē) or “thuh” (schwa: ə)? Either way seems to be fine, dear. I myself will pronounce it both ways in one sentence. It seems to depend on what the initial sound of the next (upcoming) word is, and whether a long e or a schwa will require less mouth, tongue, and lip movement to get to that sound. I think. It seems to work that way for me.

Grammar Girl spells it out more specifically, with a rule similar to a versus an:

Pronounce it “thee” if the next word starts with a vowel sound.

Pronounce it “thuh” if the next word starts with a consonant sound.

…although I don’t know for sure if this is what I’ve ended up doing simply by what sounds better to me. It’s interesting if this can be reduced to a hard and fast rule, although cases such as, “Thee colonists burned thuh effigy of King George,” seem kind of borderline.

Posted on 2017-Mar-18 at 11:40:30 by Phil
Last update on 2017-Apr-15 at 14:15:17 by Phil

Oh by the way, the alphabet used in English and other Western European languages is not the “Roman alphabet”. It is the Latin alphabet, first created by the, er, Romans. For use by the Latin language. If you want to be pedantic, Latin was missing 29 letters: J, U, and W, as well as a–z lower case letters. Those are later additions to the alphabet. “Roman” is a typographical term meaning that the letters are upright, like a proud Centurion. In font names, a name part -Roman (such as Times-New-Roman) simply means “upright”, and other fonts may say -Regular, or say nothing extra.

Other variants of font faces are condensed and expanded, various lighter and heavier (bolder) weights, and slanted or oblique (which are often different from italic, which is not only slanted, but made to look hand-written).

Eastern European, Scandinavian, and some other alphabets (such as Vietnamese) have Latin-based alphabets, generally the 26 letters (in upper and lower case) with an assortment of accent marks and ligatures not found in Western European languages. To round things out, the Greek alphabet is a forerunner of the Latin alphabet (note how similar the capital letters are), and Cyrillic is a mashup of Latin and Greek alphabets, with some creations by St. Cyril.

Posted on 2017-Aug-04 at 09:46:23 by Phil
Last update on 2017-Nov-19 at 10:36:40 by Phil

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend.”
   — Polonius to Lærtes, Act I Scene III, Hamlet

OK, let’s get this settled… what is the proper pronunciation of either and neither? That is, with a long e sound: ēther and nēther, or with a long i sound: īther and nīther?

Well, it’s all the fault of a Hanoverian prince, King George I of Britain (ruled 1714 – 1727). Sort of. The people of Britain, rather than ruling themselves in a democracy like all respectable people do, named a surplus German prince (that they picked up for a good price) to succeed Queen Anne. He spoke German as his native tongue, and tried to learn the language of his new subjects (English, of course). He never quite mastered it*, and continued to pronounce the ei digraph in the German style (long i, ī) rather than the standard English long e sound, ē. Thus, īter und nīter. His courtiers and flunkies, rather than embarrassing the boss by correcting his pronunciation, went along and started saying īther and nīther. This spread to the nobility and upper crust, and eventually became the “received pronunciation” that you hear on BBC productions.

So, the standard (and older) pronunciation of ei is a long e: ē, while the more recent long i (ī) seems to be mostly confined to either and neither, and among the British upper classes and Americans who ape them in order to sound sophisticated. Although īther and nīther are acceptable and fairly widely used, don’t let anyone tell you they’re somehow superior to ēther and nēther — they’re not!

* Supposedly, George’s difficulty with the language discouraged him from interacting much with his government ministers. He preferred to talk with just one, a first among equals, thus creating the office of Prime Minister. Or so the story goes.

From the Dutch baas (“master”) into English via Nieuw Nederland/New York & New Jersey. Interestingly, Bruce “The Boss” Springsteen’s family settled in New Netherlands in the 17th century, so it’s quite appropriate he would bear that monicker! And what does “Springsteen” come from? Stepping Stone.

Still recēved, not recīved.

Posted on 2017-Aug-04 at 17:04:41 by Phil
Last update on 2021-Apr-04 at 10:03:43 by Phil

N.B., e.g., i.e. — what’s the difference?

A lot of ignorant people use these abbreviations interchangeably, especially i.e. and e.g.. They all mean different things, should be chosen with care, and be properly written.

  • e.g., is the abbreviation for the Latin exempli gratia, and the literal translation is “a good example”. It is used to set off a phrase with one or two [good] examples, and can be replaced by the English “for example,”. A medical specialist, e.g., a gastroenterologist, has more training than a General Practitioner. In that sentence, a gastroenterologist is used as an example of a medical specialist. It always has a period after both the e and g, and a comma (,) and space follow it. It is incorrect to write “eg.” or “eg,”. At the beginning of a sentence (legal, but generally discouraged), the E is capitalized. Never capitalize both letters, unless your sentence is all upper case. There is no need to list everything — one or (at most) two examples will do.
  • i.e., is the abbreviation for the Latin id est, and the literal translation is “that is”. It is used to set off an explanation or elaboration on something, and can be replaced by the English “that is,”. Drinking sulfuric acid is bad for you, i.e., it is poisonous. In that sentence, it is poisonous is an explanation for why drinking H2SO4 is not recommended. It always has a period after both the i and e, and a comma (,) and space follow it. It is incorrect to write “ie.” or “ie,”. At the beginning of a sentence (legal, but generally discouraged), the I is capitalized. Never capitalize both letters, unless your sentence is all upper case. The explanation or elaboration should be no more than a brief phrase. If you need more text than that, start a new sentence.
  • n.b., is the abbreviation for the Latin nota bene, and the literal translation is “note well” (also “observe carefully” or “take special notice”). It is used to warn the reader to read the following material very carefully, as it is of extra importance, and can often be replaced by “note” (except in legal documents). N.B., touching any component while not wearing a grounding strap will likely fry the board. You are being told to read this warning very carefully. Unlike the previous items, It is common to see both letters upper case, or even just the N. Also, it is often acceptable practice to omit the periods (especially if both letters are upper case: NB). It is common to see the comma replaced with a colon : or em-dash —.
  • See also D.M. dignum memoria, meaning ”worth remembering”, Many authorities recommend against using N.B. (and other Latin terms such as D.M.) in anything other than legal documents, as most people are unfamiliar with it and won’t know what it means.

Some others:

  • re is a Latin word meaning “in the matter of”, or “with reference to”. See this article for an explanation. Most people use it more-or-less correctly, but think it is an abbreviation for “regarding” (it’s not — no period).
  • cf. is a Latin abbreviation meaning “compare with” or “consult” something (short for conferatur). See this article for more information (also discusses meaning and proper usage of vs., viz., etc., and et al.).

Posted on 2017-Nov-17 at 11:54:08 by Phil

[Knock, knock]
Who’s there?
It’s me!

OK, why are the Grammar Nazis going to jump all over you for saying “It’s me” instead of “It is I”? Certainly, most people would speak the former (“me”) rather than the “grammatically proper” I.

The rule has never been clearly explained to me, but apparently it has something to do with an implied action (continuation of the sentence) by the speaker. If you were to reply, “Me is here,” rather than, “I am here,” that would clearly be ungrammatical. The “It is I [who is here]” is implied when you say, “It is I.” The verb is is a “linking verb”, forcing the pronoun to be nominative/subject case (“I”) rather than accusative (“me”).

This article describes a linking verb as

Linking verbs are words like “is,” “was,” “were,” “appear,” and “seem,” which don’t describe an action so much as describe a state of being. When pronouns follow these non-action verbs, you use the subject pronouns such as “I,” “she,” “he,” “they,” and “we.”

Well, OK, at least there’s a stated reason and logic to say “It is I”. Does it make sense to insist upon it, as almost no one uses this structure? As with “its” (rather than the much more common “it’s”) for the possessive of “it”, is this something that has outlived its usefulness and should be allowed to fade away? “It is I” sounds so pretentious, pedantic, and overly formal to most people, and “It’s I” sounds even worse.

Posted on 2017-Nov-19 at 10:17:56 by Phil

How the animals letters got their names:

A brief but interesting overview (behind a paywall, so you may need to subscribe to The Economist to get unrestricted access).

To elaborate a little on “w”, as the article says, it came from a double “u”, written “vv”. You’ve probably seen faux Latin scripts as building names, such as “MASSACHVSETTS INSTITVTE OF TECHNOLOGY”, or a famous Roman ruler: IVLIVS CÆSAR (they didn’t have lower case letters, or J, U, or W). There were common cases of putting two U’s (V’s) in a row, so eventually European languages created a new letter: double-u, or “w”. So why isn’t your Electrolux a vacwm cleaner? Probably because this only applied to double-u consonants, not vowels.

Of course, there’s the eternal war between Brits and Yanks over whether the last letter (Z) is “zed” or “zee”. I wouldn’t be surprised/surprized if Noah Webster (of American English dictionary fame) had something to do with this. Keep in mind that the ampersand (&) used to be the last letter!

Posted on 2017-Nov-22 at 16:05:23 by Phil

“A historic event,” or “an historic event”?

It never ceases to irritate me to hear otherwise intelligent people saying, “an historic” something or other. Come on, folks, “historic” starts with a consonant sound, so the indefinite article is a. Nothing simpler than that, is there? Sources such as Grammar Girl and the OED agree that it’s a.

So, why do so many use an? The OED suggests that the words historic/historical, horrific, and hotel used to commonly have their aitches (h’s) dropped in 18th and 19th century speech, so using an would have been logical (“it’s an ’istoric event, guv’nah”). This has apparently simply carried over (for well over a century) to people who want to sound well-educated, but don’t stop to think about what they’re doing, and simply ape older speakers they’ve heard. My understanding is that this dropping of h’s has been a feature of some regional British accents, including those which formed the basis of the BBC Received Pronunciation, and Americans who wanted to sound elegant picked it up (as with either and neither).

If you’re going to speak with certain British accents, and drop your aitches, it would be proper to say “an ’istoric event”. Otherwise, say “a historic event”.

Posted on 2020-Aug-13 at 11:42:20 by Phil
Last update on 2020-Aug-13 at 18:47:44 by Phil

Eat at M'Donalds?

An interesting typographical quirk:

Apparently it used to be, when handwriting, the style to shorten Mc and Mac prefixes on Gaelic names to (for example) McDonald (an elevated or superscript ‘c’). If a printer did not have such a glyph available, they might substitute an open single quote, M‘: M‘Donald, to fake a superscript ‘c’. Lazier printers might even use an apostrophe: M'Donald or M’Donald.

Although the original intent was to shorten the name and reduce the amount of writing, an apostrophe probably is not appropriate (even though it is something of a contraction).

Many languages, including English, were full of shortcuts for scribes (e.g., replacing ‘and’ by a stylized ‘et’, known as an ampersand). Even today, when almost nothing is written by hand, they may be used to shorten a line to fit, or reduce ink usage.

Posted on 2021-Jan-07 at 13:13:35 by Phil

On a Wynning Streak…

This article has a bit on the wynn character (ƿ) and the origin of the ‘w’. Not to be confused with the thorn character (þ), see above.

Posted on 2022-Apr-18 at 10:40:00 by Phil

Ten Letters, R.I.P.

10 Letters We Dropped From the Alphabet is a nice little look at obsolete letters that we dropped from the English alphabet over time. Some of them are still in use in other languages.

UPPER and lower Case Letters

Why Are There UPPERCASE and lowercase Letters? is a look at the origins of separate upper and lower case letters in the Latin alphabet.

Posted on 2022-May-28 at 22:00:00 by Phil

It ain’t Latin, folks

It never ceases to annoy me when people pretend to be smart, and assume that any word ending in us is of Latin origin, and therefore pluralized with an i. No, it doesn’t work that way. Here are two common examples:

  • virus: although this word is Latin (meaning “poison”), it is not First Declension (masculine). It is something like Fifth Declension, and doesn’t even have a plural in Latin! Anyway, long story short, the plural of virus is not viri or virii. In English, it is pluralized as viruses. End of Story.
  • octopus: not a Latin word, but of Greek origin. There is no such word as “octopi” — don’t use it — ever. You merely look stupid. If you need to talk about more than one octopus, either pluralize it properly in Greek: octopodes, or English style (assuming you’re speaking English): octopuses. I won’t swear to it, but I think the former is pronounced oct-o-po-dees.

Posted on 2022-May-28 at 22:21:00 by Phil

Things that raise my blood pressure

On radio and TV, there are two errors that are constantly being made, and in the process, infuriate me every time:

  • When giving a URL, referring to the slash (/) as “backslash”. Let’s get this straight, people:
    1. The CORRECT term is “slash”, although forward slash, virgule, and solidus are acceptable alternatives. Remember, it runs from southwest to northeast, and is always found in computer addresses (URLs).
    2. There is another character, \, called “backslash” (or Reverse Solidus), but it never appears in a URL (only in internal programming). It runs from northwest to southeast. It never appears in a URL, so don’t ever use it unless you’re discussing computer code.
  • The German sports car (Porsche) is pronounced poor-SHUH. Two syllables, folks. It’s not a “porsh” with an e on the end!

Radio and TV people who insist on making these stupid errors should be shot on sight. I swear that If I Ran the Circus™, that is the first law I would decree.

Posted on 2022-Jul-21 at 16:58:00 by Phil

Some more letters no longer found in English

As promised earlier, here's a look at a number of letters that used to grace the English language, but alas, are no longer to be found. This video looks at þ, ð, ƿ, æ, œ, ȝ, ſ, ŋ, and ⁊. Just imagine Shakespeare’s “WHERE the bee sucks, there suck I;” (from The Tempest) written with a long s (ſ)!

Posted on 2022-Aug-16 at 23:22:00 by Phil


A kilometer (or kilometre for our Friends across the Pond) is one-thousand (prefix kilo) of yea-long units (39.37 inches, a meter). Why is it then that English-speaking people insist on calling it a ki-lom-meh-ter? That's not how it's pronounced! It is a kil-o-me-ter!

Think about it. Do you measure very small lengths in mil-lim-e-ters? Do you give your height in cen-tim-e-ters? Do you weigh something in ki-log-rams? Do you pay for electricity in ki-low-at-hours? Of course not! So why are so many of you so stupid when it comes to pronouncing kilometer? The entire non-English speaking world says “kil-o-me-ter”! Let’s get with the program here, people.

I suspect that no one in the English-speaking world thought much about the issue until the Tommies found themselves fighting in the fields (and then the trenches) of World War I. They saw road markers saying something like “5 kilomètres de Verdun” and assumed that unit of distance was pronounced in the manner of “thermometer”, “barometer”, etc. (come to think of it, why aren’t those therm-o-me-ter and bar-o-me-ter? After all, we talk about bar-o-me-tric pressure all the time). When the Doughboys finally showed up for the party, the English taught them the (wrong) way to pronounce it. That’s the only explanation that I can come up with. Nothing else seems to be mispronounced, just this one unit of distance.

Posted on 2023-Feb-16 at 14:08:00 by Phil

Why Quadratic and not Squaric?

An equation involving an \(x^2\) term is referred to as a quadratic expression, and not as a “square”. Meanwhile, an \(x^3\) gives us a “cubic” expression, which is easy to visualize as a cube, while the \(x^2\) expression is best visualized as a square. So, why “quadratic”, and not something like “squaric”?

The long answer is at Why does mathematics say “quadratic” instead of “squaric”?. TL;DR: The Latin for a square is quadratus (4-sided).

Thus, taking a power to the second or third degree is to square or cube something, but as an adjective for the degree of an expression (e.g., Beziér curves), it’s quadratic or cubic.

Posted on 2023-Jun-16 at 11:57:00 by Phil

English versus English videos?

Just a few videos discussing Why does English have so many accents? and How Americans changed the English language.


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