For the Win

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 20

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FTW.

Depending on how old you are and what circles you inhabit, FTW might put you in mind of a valiant effort against the Horde or the Empire: For the Win. On the other hand, it might put you in a mind to throw on some old punk records and smash all the windows in sight: Fuck the World.

What's most interesting here is the idea of context. Abbreviations and acronyms (technically, FTW is an initialism) have always been a part of the English language (see the August 7, 2019 episode of The Secret History of the Future podcast for a fun take on how internet culture is nothing new, just an update to telegraph culture) and the internet with its various forms of quick communication has both facilitated and encouraged their spread into everyday speech.

I've written about this sort of thing before (Learned Vol. 1, Issue 45: M.U.S.C.L.E. and Learned Vol. 1, Issue 8: Annotated), so I don't want to repeat myself too much. Instead, I want to focus on the oddity and ever-growing problem of having too acronyms with the same letters. Both sets of FTW can trace their origins back to the 70s and, most likely, much earlier.

For the Win probably came into existence through sports or other team activities but gained prominence on the t.v. game show Hollywood Squares. On the show, to claim a winning phrase, contestants had to preface their answer with for the win. From there, the phrase went dormant for a few years until the rise of online, cooperative gaming. There, players had to organize themselves into teams in different games and the phrase, with its brief, catchy acronym, came back into prominence.

Fuck the World, on the other hand, owes its existence to biker gangs. Biker culture is full of acronyms and shorthands; like a lot of criminal operations, members of the groups used these linguistic shortcuts to communicate a lot of information very quickly, whether to organize and assist each other or just to commiserate. From biker culture, the phrase (and again, a catchy little acronym) spread to other anti-establishment cultures, like punk rock, where it has stayed and is still in common use.

So, uh, how to tell them apart? Like I said above, context is everything.

As English speakers, we're used to this being true. Recent slang for cool (the Online Slang dictionary lists 405 synonyms…) involves all manner of words for fire: fire itself, lit, flame, etc. But none of us make the mistake of using cool to fill a room with light, nor do we call a wildfire cool. (Well, not all of us.) But, for learners of English, these rules are not always so obvious and that is even more true for acronyms. How to tell when a given set of letters means let's do this! and when the same set means, let's give up!

It gets even worse when we consider manipulations of the original acronym. Suppose you're a polite punk rocker and you don't want to throw the F-word around too loosely. So, you write Eff the World! Now, your non-English speaking friend has learnt that and proceeds to fill their chats and texts with Eff the Win! and can't understand why their teammates think they want to give up.

The really big question though, is, does it matter? How long will it be before these acronyms just fade away? Or else become so universal that the original meaning behind the initials gets lost to time (like okay?) Eventually, a given acronym will become so pervasive that the words used to create it become irrelevant (quick, what does SCUBA stand for?); more likely, the phrase becomes tired and gets phased out, as is already starting to happen with FTW. Games have changed, punk rock has changed, and the circumstances in which either iteration is useful have changed along with them.

I wonder what FTW will stand for next?

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From the Online Slang Dictionary:

acronym for "For The Win". Used as after a noun to indicate one's enthusiastic support for that noun.

acronym for "fuck the world".

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Notable Events of the Year 1972:

You’re reading Learned, a weekly newsletter about words and language, written by me, Joel Neff. If you like what you see, please consider subscribing:

More information can be found on the About page, or by contacting me through emailtwitter, or instagram. Thank you for reading.

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There’s a fun, little subsection of acronyms and initialisms you might be familiar with: mnemonics. Even if you don’t know the word, you’ve probably learned a few over the years to remember sequential bits of information, like the notes on a piano or the names of the planets. Here are a few I’ve been re-learning lately:

*Pluto, FTW!

Next Time: FUBAR. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.

The Tea

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 19

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I have reached that age where I don't know what the hell anything means anymore. In this case, one of my high-school-aged students wanted to know what that's the tea meant. I asked for context, and she showed me this:

That's Sophie Turner, the young actor best known for playing Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones and Jean Grey in the (newer) X-men movies. And that's the tea has become something of a signature line for her via her Instagram account. She uses the stories function to record short videos of herself making a comment on something and then using and that's the tea as a kind of punctuation. It's fun and it's an interesting bit of pop culture that I had absolutely no clue about, which is one of the fun parts of teaching high-school kids.

But, anyway. Where does "the tea" come from and what does it mean? Well, in Ms. Turner's (er, I guess it's Mrs. Jonas now?) case, she uses it to mean something between and that's the truth and and that's the gossip. And that's more or less how everyone else is using it, too:

From Urban Dictionary:

tea

the best kind of gossip, typically shared between friends. it’s a bonding tool for people of all ages. tea is usually about someone you know, but can also extend to celebrities random internet scandals, etc.

The Daily Dot, in an article called, appropriately enough, "What does 'tea' mean?" traces the usage of tea as gossip from the gay and drag communities through a meme created from a Lipton's commercial featuring Kermit the Frog to the modern rise of various pop-culture figures sipping cups of tea (Morticia Addams for the win, please) to its feature role in a recent controversy in women's soccer.

A few other notable usages have crept up over the past few years, although some, like Larry Wilmore's "Weak Tea" on the short lived "The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore" are far enough removed that I, for one, did not realize that they shared a lineage with tea meaning gossip. In that particular case, I had taken the "weak" part of "weak tea" as the key phrase, meaning that whatever the tea was that week was well, not strong, not good, not worth having.

Mirriam-Webster adds several usages and derivations to their explanation of tea -

When it was first popularized in general print, it could be spelled T or tea and it didn't refer to the drink

and

It appears that T, also spelled tea, had a double-edged meaning in black drag culture. It could refer to a hidden truth, as Chablis uses it, and it could also refer to someone else's hidden truth—that is, gossip

But tea has a fascinating history and one that isn't all that uncommon, really. There are any number of words, phrases, and idioms that spread from one sub-culture to another via repetition and adaptation. That is, more or less, how language works. What's interesting to me, in this case, is that my usual sources are not all that useful. Instead, I found myself referring to sites like Scary Mommy and Hello Giggles, not to mention Quora, Reddit, and, of course, Urban Dictionary.

Most of my research starts with Wikipedia or the Oxford English Dictionary. And these days, Wikipedia is easing towards trusted source status due to its insistence on citations and sources. (Although most of academia still insists on authors referencing the original work Wikipedia cites rather than citing Wikipedia itself.) In this case, though, and with most modern slang, even Wikipedia can't keep up with all the changes and adaptations. It all just moves too fast.

Blogs and community-driven, opinion-based sites like Urban Dictionary and Quora can keep up very easily though. So, we have a situation where the authority behind a given definition or explanation is a general consensus. A user uploads their thought to the sites and other users expand or debate that opinion via all the social media tools were all now too-familiar with (likes, upvotes, replies, etc.) Over time, more research-driven authorities will conduct corpus or discourse examinations and something that is true because everyone more-or-less agrees that it is true becomes something that is true because the trusted authority says it is true. It's a fine line sometimes.

And that's the tea.

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Origin(s):

From Dictionary.com

Best served piping hot, tea is slang for "gossip," a juicy scoop, or other personal information.

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Notable Events of the Year 1991

You’re reading Learned, a weekly newsletter about words and language, written by me, Joel Neff. If you like what you see, please consider subscribing:

More information can be found on the About page, or by contacting me through emailtwitter, or instagram. Thank you for reading.

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Since we’re talking about tea, here are a few types I enjoy as well as an interesting long read about why there are only two words for tea (tea or cha) across several different languages. Enjoy!

Next Time: For the win. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.

The Sword of Damocles

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 18

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The Sword of Damocles

A quick refresher on the story of Damocles: Damocles liked to hang out in the court Dionysius II of Syracuse. Once, while sucking up to the king, Damocles suggested that it must be great to be the king and to live a life of luxury and wealth. Hearing that, Dionysius offered to let Damocles be king for a day. He ordered the servants to place Damocles on a throne of gilded cushions and to serve him the best the kingdom had to offer.

Damocles enjoyed all the luxuries and thought about how true his words must have been to see the king so willing to share his wealth until he looked up and saw a large sword suspended over the throne. As he looked at the sword, wondering why it was there, he saw that it was suspended by a single horsehair.

"My king," he said, "why have you put this sword here, over the throne?"

"Now, my friend, you understand what it is truly like to be king."

Damocles hastily returned to his former life and never again suggested that the king's job was an easy, or luxurious one.

***

The moral of the story, of course, is that apparent positions of power and influence often have hidden dangers and consequences.

Which means that when I’ve been kvetching about deadlines - These deadlines are looming over my head like the sword of Damocles! - I've been using the idiom completely wrong. Just like everyone else.

There's a great 2011 interview between Melissa Block (host) and classics professor Daniel Mendelsohn on NPR's All Things Considered, where the two talk about this very issue. Their interview starts with four examples of people using the sword of Damocles as a metaphor for possible negative effects of various economic mechanisms. Block and Mendelsohn go on to re-tell the story and to explain the original parable:

BLOCK: So Professor Mendelsohn, it's come to be used as sort of the notion of impending doom. Is that the original intent, do you think, of the metaphor of the story?

MENDELSOHN: No, not at all. But it wouldn't be the first time politicians misread the classics. The real point of the story is very clearly a moral parable. It's not just, oh, something terrible is going to happen, but it's about realizing that what looks like an enviable life, a life of wealth, a life of power, a life of luxury is, in fact, fraught with anxiety, terror and possibly death.

Unfortunately, that's where the interview ends; Block and Mendelsohn don't get a chance to talk about why or how the shift in meaning has occurred. And, of course, there's no easy answer there other than, that's just how language works. Over time and usage, meanings shift and change. Nuances are lost inside broader usages and contexts and we end up with new words and new idioms.

However, in this case, I can lay the blame for my misinterpretation squarely at the feet of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, specifically in the song "The Sword of Damocles" by Richard O'Brien:

The Sword of Damocles is hangin' over my head

And I've got the feelin' someone's gonna be cuttin' the thread

and

I woke up this mornin' with a start when I fell out of bed (that ain't no crime)

And left from my dream it was a feelin' of un-nameable dread (that ain't no crime)

My high is low, I'm dressed up with no place to go!

I first saw the Rocky Horror Picture Show when I was 14. I may have heard of the Sword of Damocles prior to that, but I know I hadn't read the original story until I heard the song and looked it up in my school's library. Even then, I didn't connect that the song's usage of meaning "a feeling like something bad is going to happen soon" didn't mesh with the original parable. Instead, the connection between the metaphorical sword and the “feelin’ of un-nameable dread” paired themselves in my vocabulary. (Although, or that matter, I don't think the phrase entered into my general, personal, lexicon for several more years and when it did, well, see the deadlines comment above.)

One of the reasons I started this newsletter was to try to examine some of the roots of our language; this case fascinates me because I'm not sure where to go. If I continue to use the metaphor, do I use it to mean a feeling of possible negative consequences or do I reserve it for its intended purpose, to comment on the perils that come with a life of apparent power and luxury? If I had to guess, I'd say the former situation will come up far more often, and therefore be more useful, but...

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Origin:

Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations as translated by C.D. Yonge, 1877:

XXI. … “Damocles, as this kind of life pleases you, to have a taste of it yourself, and to make a trial of the good fortune that attends me?”

…Does not Dionysius, then, seem to have declared there can be no happiness for one who is under constant apprehensions? But it was not now in his power to return to justice, and restore his citizens their rights and privileges; for, by the indiscretion of youth, he had engaged in so many wrong steps and committed such extravagances, that, had he attempted to have returned to a right way of thinking, he must have endangered his life.

Definition(s):

Collins CoBuild English Dictionary:

If you say that someone has the Sword of Damocles hanging over their head, you mean that they are in a situation in which something very bad could happen to them at any time.

Dictionary.com:

any situation threatening imminent harm or disaster.

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Notable Events of the Year 1877:

You’re reading Learned, a weekly newsletter about words and language, written by me, Joel Neff. If you like what you see, please consider subscribing:

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…you can't expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you!

That said, here are seven swords worth knowing about:

Next time: The tea. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.

Good Grief

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 17

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Caution: This week's essay is all about swearing. Which means that there is a lot of bad language scattered throughout. You've been warned.

Good Grief

Like a lot of people, the first image that comes to mind when I hear the phrase good grief is one of Charlie Brown staring up at the sky with a "why me?" look on his face.

Yup. That look.

This is, arguably, the most famous use of good grief in pop culture. It’s what's known as a minced oath; it was (and is) a way of expressing frustration without actually blaspheming, something that Schulz (a devout Christian) and his characters would have been at pains to avoid. Not to mention that his publishers, whose daily and weekly reading audience consisted of a lot of easily-offended churchgoers, would have had strenuous objections to the original blaspheme, good God.

And Charles Schulz, by design or accident, managed to write Charlie Brown as a put-upon loser with just the one catchphrase. It shows, in two syllables, a boy who wants to know why God (or Fate or what have you) has placed him in this situation (putting up with a dog who thinks he's human, losing every baseball game he plays in, having the football pulled away at the last moment, losing his kites to a tree, and so on) without having that same boy swear. Because, while swearing might be more natural (listen to any group of junior high school kids playing Fortnite) it also reads as bad. And Charlie Brown, for all his faults, is a good boy.

Swearing is something that parents and teachers object to, something that good kids don't do. Something that we tell children not to do and berate ourselves for doing in front of them. It is one of the primary means of expression; there's even evidence that swearing out loud alleviates pain and shock...but it's bad. And we shouldn't do it.

George Carlin famously listed "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television.” In doing so, he highlighted the everyday, common words that television is not allowed to use, and thereby showed just how hypocritical this evasion of swearing can be. But we still do it.

In ESL circles, swearing has become an odd debate with no right answer. It centers around the idea that anyone studying English as a second language is going to hear a ton of swearing. It's in all our media and, well, judging from the number of popular quotes and references we make in daily conversation, we like it that way. And so, students of the language have a right to know what these words mean, where they come from, and why they shouldn't use them unless they know exactly how to do so.

But. No one wants to teach it. I mean, imagine standing in front of a bunch of thirteen and fourteen-year-olds and trying to explain what fuck actually means, much less how to use it correctly. Kinda...squicky, right? Beyond that, there is no way to learn a language beyond practicing it. And practicing means making mistakes. And making mistakes with swear words can get you in trouble real fast.

Here's a for-instance: Way back in the day, I was at a music festival with an Australian friend. A couple of American guys about our age walked up and said, "what's up with you motherfuckers?"

Now, as any good American knows, these guys were just being nice. But my friend started to get a little upset and we had to have an impromptu quorum on linguistics to avoid an international incident right there in the field.

And if this kind of misunderstanding can happen between a group of people who share the same language and similar cultures across several different values (age, gender, etc.), imagine the confusion and negative repercussions to be had when someone misuses a swear word in the wrong place at the wrong time.

To avoid using the wrong word and the wrong time, we (English speakers) resort to minced oaths. Shoot. Gosh. OMG. Freaking. Etc. But do we teach those? Should we? If we do, do we have to teach the original, un-minced oath as well? Like I said, there is no right answer, but it’s worth thinking about. Good grief.

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Origin(s):

From the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms:

good grief

An exclamation expressing surprise, alarm, dismay, or some other, usually negative emotion. For example, Good grief! You’re not going to start all over again, or Good grief! He’s dropped the cake. The term is a euphemism for “good God.” [Early 1900s]

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Notable Events of the Year 1898

You’re reading Learned, a weekly newsletter about words and language, written by me, Joel Neff. If you like what you see, please consider subscribing:

More information can be found on the About page, or by contacting me through emailtwitter, or instagram. Thank you for reading.

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One of the great joys of science-fiction is seeing all the ways writers come up with to avoid using actual swear words; whether it is due to the constraints of network television or just not wanting to litter their manuscripts with lots of bad language, authors have become very inventive in creating alternative swear words, many of which have entered the pop-media landscape, for better or worse. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Smeghead (Red Dwarf)

  • Frak (Battlestar Galactica)

  • Frel (Farscape)

  • Gorram (Firefly)

  • Nerf Herder (Star Wars)

  • Belgium (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

  • Mudblood (Harry Potter)

Next time: The Sword of Damocles. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.

Busy Bee

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 16

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Deadlines suck. Even those that are self-imposed. So, I'm sitting here in my office, busy as a bee, getting as much done as possible.

Here's the thing: bees don't actually work that hard. We're under the impression that bees are hard workers because we see them flitting about from flower to flower collecting pollen to make honey for themselves, for curious bears, and for us. But, somewhere along the line, we've confused the work of the individual bee with the work of the hive.

It takes a lot of bees to make honey. Here are some stats from the Golden Blossom Honey website: One single worker bee will only make about one and a half teaspoons of honey in its lifetime. To be fair, making that honey will require visiting a lot of flowers, something like 50 to 100 during every pollen-collection flight. But it takes the whole colony to create enough honey to both sustain the colony and provide enough for us to harvest.

Which means, while the hive might be busy, the individual bee is not; Sam the bee is not under any quotas, nor are they under any deadlines. They just step out of the hive, visit some flowers, and get back home in as efficient a manner as possible.

You see the point I'm trying to make. We're all way too damn busy and for far less welcoming environments than your average beehive. But don't take my word for it, Google "working too hard" and then schedule a meeting with your boss. More seriously, the glut of productivity tools available in various app stores points to the idea that people have more work than they know what to do with, mainly because so much of our work is just busywork or because so many of our processes and methodologies are inefficient.

When I was a student, busywork was the bane of my existence. I liked to read and had a novel with me, more-or-less always. It was pretty easy to tell which teachers I liked and which ones I didn't based solely on their reactions to me finishing my work and pulling out said novel. It turns out, effective management does the same as the teachers I liked: when a worker has finished their assigned tasks, good leadership will either allow the worker to work on assignments of their own choosing, or will have engaging, optional tasks that the worker can take on.

Busywork, somewhat ironically, actually lowers efficiency. Workers become demotivated to finish tasks early and / or well if they know there will be low-level, unnecessary tasks assigned upon completion.

Relatedly, more and more research is showing that multi-tasking is a fallacy and attempting to do so also lowers efficiency. In other words, to quote Ron Swanson:

Business Insider suggests that we spend up to five hours (of a typical eight-hour work day) doing things other than working, including socializing and reading the news. Which makes sense, given that the current breakdown of the day into 8-hour shifts was brought about by labor conditions during the industrial revolution. Basically, businesses needed to run their factories 24-7 and we're demanding 12-14 hour days from their workers to do so. Which is, well, not sustainable is the polite way to put it.

All of which is to say, slow down. You're doing fine. Take a break, get some water, have a chat, and then, once you've dealt with real life, get back to work.

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As Busy as a Bee

Definition(s):

Origin:

The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins:

“For aye as busy as bees been they,” Chaucer wrote in Canterbury Tales (1387), the first recorded mention of the phrase. But bees must have been noticed busily collecting nectar since prehistoric days and no doubt the expression was used long before Chaucer’s time.

Derivatives:

NTCS American Idioms Dictionary:

(as)busy as a bee

(as) busy as a beaver.

(as) busy as a cat on a hot tin roof

(as) busy as a hibernating bear*

(as) busy as a one-armed paperhanger

(as) busy as Grand Central Station

(as) busy as popcorn on a skillet

*actually means the opposite

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Notable Events of the Year 1387

You’re reading Learned, a weekly newsletter about words and language, written by me, Joel Neff. If you like what you see, please consider subscribing:

More information can be found on the About page, or by contacting me through emailtwitter, or instagram. Thank you for reading.

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Three Things…

I really wanted to put in today's essay but just couldn't quite shoehorn in:

Robert Heinlein on specialization:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Douglas Adams on deadlines (as seen in Learned Vol. 1, No. 24: Procrastination Station): "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by!"

Ugly Kid Joe on busyness:

Next time: Good grief. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.

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