Maybe this has happened to you:

You’re reading a new book, something that’s got your brain cells clicking against each other, all the synapses firing and then…there’s a word and you think,“Hang on, is that what that word means?”

Or sometimes, when you’re talking with someone and they say something truly profound but it goes right on past you because you’re caught up thinking, “Is that how you say it?” because you’d only ever read it and so now you now but what was the conversation about again?

But then there are those times when you use a word that everyone knows, like it’s a piece of everyday vocabulary, right? Only everyone’s looking it at you with that look of “Is that actually a word?” and it’s only then you realize that you’ve used a word you made up in seventh grade with your best friends…

Hi. Welcome to Learned.

What we do here is talk about words. New ones, old ones, ones that were old but have just come back around in a new way, and every nook and cranny in between. There is a lot more information and answers to all your questions below, but you can navigate through it by using these links; clicking on any of these links will take you a bit further down this same page where there is more information.

Table of Contents

  • Who are you?

  • Do you have other projects online?

  • Are you on social media?

  • What’s the newsletter about?

  • How can I support Learned?

  • Why subscribe?

  • Where can I find older pieces?

Who Are You?

I'm Joel. Hi again. I'm from the United States, Arizona specifically, but in late 2000, I moved to Japan for what was meant to be a one-year adventure. Funny thing though, living abroad made me look at my life and goals in a different light and I realized that working at tech companies had very little appeal. In fact, I discovered that I really love teaching and spend the next decade doing that.

Along the way, I got married and yada yada, here I am today, wife, kid, dog in the yard etc. It's not the outcome I envisioned, but it's not bad if I say so myself.

Do You Have Other Projects Online?

Professionally, I’m the Publication Chair for an organization called Materials Writers, which is a Special Interest Group (SIG) for our parent organization, The Japan Association of Language Teaching (JALT). Our magazine, called Between the Keys, is published three times a year and features everything from fully researched articles about materials design and ESL/EFL pedagogy to book reviews and classroom techniques and how-tos. If you have an interest in these topics, professional or otherwise, please feel free to contact me through the links on those pages.

Personally, I’m a photographer, or, rather, I was for a brief moment in time and now consider it a primary hobby. To that end, last year (2022) I did a special project wherein I challenged myself to take at least one photo during everyday of summer. I documented the whole project in another SubStack newsletter called 91 Days. You can find it here:

Are You on social media?

Kinda. I don’t post much these days, but I do have all the requisite accounts. Here are some links, if you’d like to connect at any of these other platforms.

| Twitter | Post | Mastodon | Instagram | Flickr | Linktree

What’s the Newsletter About?

Good question. Short answer: Learned is a weekly newsletter focusing on language. Slightly longer answer: Learned began in 2018 as a way for me to discuss the things I was studying and learning as a middle-aged adult. I'm a longtime proponent of life-time learning and, as I started moving from my late thirties to my early forties, it felt like I had too many friends and relatives who considered forty over the hill. I dug back into my studies of, well, everything and Learned was born from there.

At the same time, I had made a small career shift that involved me going back to university to earn my master's degree in TESOL and Applied Linguistics. As my interest in those two subjects deepened, Learned shifted from a life-long learning focus to an etymological focus, which is where it currently remains. So, to answer the question - Learned is a weekly look at language, usually through etymology and lexicography, but with occasional tangents to discuss culture, education, life abroad, or whatever else happens to come up. I hope you enjoy it.

How Can I Support Learned?

Thank you so much for asking. There are a few ways. The first and easiest (assuming you're already a SubStack member) is to subscribe. Subscribers get a second newsletter, called Palimpsest, about which you can read down below. In the meantime, here's a button you can click to subscribe with a 25% discount for a year.

Get 25% off for 1 year

If you're not a SubStack member but wish to still support Learned financially, here are links to my non-Substack ventures:

  • Ko-fi - If you just want to toss a couple of dollars my way, just enough for a cup of coffee, this is the link you need.

  • Big Bold Text - On the other hand, if you want something tangible for your money, here’s my shop on Etsy. There’s not much there at the moment, but give it time.

  • A Very Learned Bookstore - Then again, if you’re here on SubStack, you probably like to read a bit. The bookstore works on and works through affiliate sales; when you buy a book, I get a small commission.

If you're not able to help out financially but still want to support Learned, sharing and just getting the word out is an enormous help in building readership. Share it on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or wherever else you post stuff. You can also forward the letter to friends or family from your inbox or by using the link below.

Share Learned

Regardless of whether you subscribe, donate, click, or share, I appreciate your interest and support. Thank you!

Why Subscribe?

Subscriptions are a tricky thing: on the one hand, they’re needed to provide funding to the backend that powers this entire newsletter as well as give me a little support and recompense for the time I spend writing the newsletter.

On the other hand, Learned is something I do as a hobby that I’d like to share with as many people as possible.

To split the difference, I’ve created various secondary letters under different titles and with different formats and focuses. 2022 saw the launch of The Learned Color Spectaculars, whereas 2023 will see a second section of Learned, called Palimpsest that will be available to paid subscribers only, starting in April (concurrent with the sixth volume of Learned).

Below, you’ll find a quick overview of each of the paid variants of Learned as well as links to back-issues for subscribers.

The Learned Color Spectacular

In 2022, I wrote six somewhat lengthy Color Spectaculars for paid subscribers. They covered topics ranging from deep time to the recent advances in generative a.i. You can find them all listed below.

  1. Deep Time Doorbells

  2. The Name’s the Thing

  3. All This Disparate Language

  4. Creativity, Processed

  5. Intelligent Artifice

  6. Palimpsest Overdrive


Palimpsest is a much more experimental, more off-the-cuff space where I tend to write about whatever’s on my mind at the time. It’s not as formalized or formatted as Learned, but I hope it’s a fun letter that’s worthy of your time and donations.

As new issues of Palimpsest become available, they will be listed here so that new subscribers can access any back issues easily.

Where Can I Find Older Pieces?

At the top of the page, you’ll see a tab labeled “Archive,” which is probably the easiest way to see the most recent issues of Learned. However, if you’re looking to dive deep into the more than 250 back issues, you’ll need a bit of a primer. (This is something of a work in progress as SubStack provides new tools for organizing the backlist. For now, this is what I have.)

2023 will see the transition between Volumes 5 and 6 of Learned. Each volume has had something of a sub-theme. Here is how each year of Learned (from April to March) breaks down, topic-wise:

Learned Volume One, April 2018 - March 2019

Begin reading here: Volume 1, Issue One

When I first began writing Learned, my intention was to explore a new topic every week that pertained to something I, myself, was interested in Learning. (Hence the “Relentlessly Curious” tagline that appears with the logo every issue.) As a result, the topics in volume 1 include everything from learning Korean and Toki Poki, to learning to draw better, to coming to terms with K-pop.

Learned Volume Two: Idiomatic, April 2019 - March 2020

Begin reading here: Volume 2, Issue One

By the time the first year of Learned was coming to a close, I had realized that I was most curious about the idioms we use every day. So began a year’s exploration into some of the more esoteric idioms and phrases we use that may not be quite so easy to explain. Things like “such is life,” “three sheets to the wind,” and “that which doesn’t kill us,” got analyzed and discussed.

Learned Volume Three: Comparison/Contrast, April 2020 - March 2021

Begin reading here: Volume 3, Issue One

The third volume of Learned saw me attempt to bridge the gap between volumes 1 and 2 by choosing a topic I was interested in learning more about and writing about it from a linguistic and etymological perspective. In other words, I looked at topics like brands and poetry and I analyzed some of the words and phrases that get used when discussing those topics.

Learned Volume Four: Words We Talk About When We Talk About Words, April 2021 - March 2022

Begin reading here: Volume 4, Issue One

Okay, I’ll ‘fess up up front: I stole the title from Haruki Murakami’s fantastic “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” which, as the saying goes, if you’re gonna steal, steal from the best. In this most recent volume, I went in deep on the etymological history of, well, words we use when we talk about words. We looked at the definitions and history of words like, “word,” “sentence,” “poem,” and so on.

Learned Volume Five: Say It Again, But Slow, April 2022 - ongoing

Begin reading here: Volume 5, Issue One

Which brings us to volume five, Say It Again, But Slow. In this volume, we’ll be taking a look at words we don’t know. They might be new words borrowed from other languages, new slang words that the kids are using, or just something from the vast depths of the dictionary that we haven’t heard before. It’ll be fun, come along for the ride!

Exit Music

Thank you so much for your interest and readership. If you have questions that have not been answered here, please feel free to drop me a line anytime through SubStack or any of the other social media channels listed above. Thanks again.

Joel Neff,

January 2023

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Learned is a weekly look at words; we examine old favorites, words in transition, and strange new ones with a bit of humor and relentless curiosity. Join us for conversations about etymology, lexicography, and other linguistics adjacent topics!


Adventures in linguistics with the original large language model.