Nine Random Bits of Language Trivia

The Icelandic phone book is organized by first name

This list has nothing to do with anything except my own amateur obsessions with linguistic trivia. Still, I hope you'll learn a little something, or congratulate yourself on already knowing everything.

  1. Wendy has been a popular girls' name for some time. But did you know that J. M. Barrie invented the name Wendy for the youthful heroine of his famous children's play Peter Pan? Now you do.
  2. Paparazzi is another oft-used word (describing the obnoxious photographers that chase celebrities around) that was invented for a piece of fiction, in this case Federico Fellini's 1960 film La Dolce Vita. The origin of the word is still debated: some say there was a photographer named Paparazzo whom Fellini knew; others say that "paparazzi" was named for the "pop pop" sounds that camera flashbulbs gave off.
  3. Ketchup is our word for a sweet tomato sauce that people put on hot dogs, hamburgers, etc. But its Malaysian origin, "ketjap", suggests different flavors: it was their word for "fish sauce". Some fish sauce for your French fries?
  4. The Icelandic phone book is the only phone book (at least in Western countries) that lists everybody by their first name. For in Iceland, your last name is your father's first name, with "son" or "dottir" added on, depending on whether you are a son or a daughter. Thus, Icelandic pop singer Björk's last name is "Gudmundsdottir" because her father is named Gudmund. His last name is something else entirely. You can imagine the confusion, as all the various Gudmundsdottirs of Iceland are hardly related, so Björk would be listed in the phone book with all the other Björks. (Before you check, though, I don't think she's listed.)
  5. Peas, kudos, and cherries all have something in common: they are all words that we commonly treat as plurals, when in fact each started off in the singular form. Pease was a vegetable before the "e" got dropped and "peas" became more than one "pea". "Cherries" comes from the French singular cerise. And the Greek kudos is meant to be pronounced with a hard "s", like other well-known Greek words such as hubris, synopsis, and exodus. I guess we just blew that one.
  6. Jesus Christ didn't go around being called that. The name is Greek for "Joshua the Anointed". The big J.C.'s given name was "Yshua", which is the Aramaic equivalent of the modern Hebrew "Joshua". He had an actual last name, too: "bar-Joseph", meaning "son of Joseph". Next time you bang yourself in the thumb with a hammer, I hope you will properly shout out "Yshua bar-Joseph!"
  7. Conversationalists is the longest word in English that can be turned into a single-word anagram. Can you guess it? That's right: Conservationalists.
  8. Humongous, a popular term for "really big", is a really new word: in was coined in 1967, in fact. Nobody knows who said it first, or why, but it was probably a teenager.
  9. Goodbye! What better way to end this list with a nice farewell? In this case, I'm not wishing you a good "bye", I am uttering a word that is an amazing example of how slurred our speech has become. The phrase was once "God be with ye", which mutated into "God b'wi'ye", then "God bye", and finally the more secular "Goodbye" (or "Good-bye" if you're somebody's Grandpa).