Category: language

November 9th is a momentous day to Germans. Many major events in German history occurred on that day: Robert Blum’s death in 1848, Kaiser Wilhelm’s abdication in 1918, Einstein’s Nobel Prize win in 1922, the failed Munich Putsch/Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, Kristallnacht in 1938, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Since shortly after World War II, November 9th was nicknamed Schicksalstag (“Day of Fate”) by some media members. But its current widespread use in Germany started after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“Kleptomania” and “kleptocracy” come from the same Greek word,

kléptein, “to steal.” Another descendant of 


In modern Greek, Kléftis
were highwaymen turned self-appointed anti-Ottoman insurgents. They were descendants of
Greeks who retreated into the mountains during the 1400s after the Ottomans conquered the Greek-speaking world, and they maintained a war of harassment against the Ottomans until the 1800s and Greek’s independence. Being an insurgent was a family tradition!

The Sinhalese people are native to Sri Lanka, speak Sinhala, are majority Theravada Buddhists, and today make up about 75% of the island’s population. They also have a pretty cool origin myth. The Mahavamsa, a Sri Lankan epic from the 400s CE, tells how the Indian prince Vijaya was the grandson of a lion. (No mention of whether Vijaya had a mane or ate really, really raw meat.)

According to the Mahavamsa, Prince Vijaya traveled to the island of Sri Lanka and married Princess Kuveni, a lady of Sri Lanka’s previous inhabitants the Yakkhas. Vijaya eventually overcame the Yakkhas, and with his followers took control of Sri Lanka, becoming the first of the Sinhalese people.

The Mahavamsa says the Sinhala never forgot their origins: Sinhala literally means “of lions.” In the Sinhalese tradition the lion is the mythical ancestor of kings and a symbol of royal authority. Because, you know, the first king was a quarter lion and people tend to remember that.

Duct tape was initially used during World War II for a very specific military purpose: keeping ammunition boxes sealed. It quickly became clear that it was useful for many other things, as well. And its incredibly adhesive qualities as well as inherent waterproofing led to soldiers calling it “duck tape,” referring to a duck’s wicking feathers.

After the war, former American soldiers who went to work in construction spread the word about the amazing new tape. It ended up being used for all sorts of HVAC applications, but mostly for holding ductwork together, so “duck tape” became “duct tape.“

And some other animals’ names, too

An interesting summary of the linguistic history of the Iberian Peninsula!

Although this is not entirely accurate – Mozarabic speakers would say they spoke “Ladino,” for instance, and there were no linguistic census in 1000 CE to check exactly where the borders between languages and dialects were.

And that was hard – like “k” in English today. So Caesar? Should be pronounced “kaeser.” Hence the modern descendents “tzar” and “kaiser.”

Interestingly, the Roman pronunciation was maintained in English in the name “Octavian” and “Cleopatra.” Try saying them out loud!

Quick quiz question: does the English word “pineapple” come from

a) Spanish

b) Tupi-Guarani (indigenous Brazilian language)

c) Latin

This is the famous Waldseemüller map, from 1507. It is believed to be the first use of the word “America” as a name for the newly-encountered continents. Waldseemüller was apparently impressed with the stories of Amerigo Vespucci, and bestowed the name on today’s South America in honor of Vespucci.


also named North America “Parias” on this map. Parias came directly from a passage in the Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci: the expedition arrives at a region that was “situated in the torrid zone directly under the parallel which describes the Tropic of Cancer. And this province is called by them [the inhabitants] Parias.” The (possibly) indigenous name did not stick. (I had not heard the word “Parias” before writing this post, and you probably hadn’t either.) Instead, the two continents are called after a random Italian explorer because a random German mapmaker was a fan of the explorer’s book. But that’s history for you.

The Waldseemüller map was intended for a well-educated, elite audience. It was large, made of twelve panels, each 18 by 24.5 inches (46 cm by 62 cm). The entire map could be hung on a wall, or kept folded for when one wanted to reference a particular panel. One thousand copies of the map were printed, and unfortunately, there remains only one survivor in its entirety. It is now housed at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.