A few stolen minutes out of your day to talk words and communication, because Ben Franklin and Kurt Cobain both influenced our modern English language, spelling memes deserve to be debunked, and our daily lives are surrounded by the evolution of and the influence of words.
Forget the grammar police. There is so much more to this conversation.
Oh, it feels so good to be back. The Words You Should Know podcast is back!
Episode #29 – AI, Suffragettes, Bloomers & the Latest in Words You Should Know
Hi, everyone. I hope you and your words are well. I’ve missed you.
And in case you missed the mini-episode, this episode, #29, begins a new iteration of the podcast, where we will start with news in the world of words and language. We are surrounded by news stories, but my guess is that these might not be on your radar.
The Latest in Word, Language & Writing News
First, I don’t know who’s been in home clean-out mode lately, I know I have, but some archaeologists just made a huge discovery in a rat’s nest of a house. No, literally, in a rat’s nest of a house.
Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk, England was recently explored by archeologists from the National Trust, and apparently, hundreds of years ago, rats inside this house decided to use rare manuscripts for their bedding. They shredded and hid these works, dragging them deep into the crevices of the home, under floorboards and inside secret pockets of this house
Cambridge University Library’s medieval manuscripts specialist was brought in to identify the illuminated manuscripts and rare religious texts that seem to be of the 1400s and 1500s.
I don’t know what you’ve found lately in your attic, but my guess is that it was nothing like this. Images, if you’re intrigued, are in this episode’s show notes on my website.
And if we’re talking about rats, we might as well flip the conversation and give a quick shout out to some neglected cats on the world lately. Have you ever thought about what your favorite bookstore cat or library cat has been up to during the COVID-19 pandemic? Hey there, Wonton from Chop Suey Books in Richmond, Virginia. I miss you (though you can definitely find Wonton all over social media). “ILoveLibraries,” an initiative of the American Library Association, recently published an update on the status of library cats. Books are invaluable for entertaining us, enlightening us, soothing us, and piquing our curiosity, but cats are great for all of that too, right?
Beyond the cat happenings of 2020, words themselves have been evolving and shifting in usage dramatically this year. A group of linguists has recently explored how COVID-19 has “infected our language,” citing that the pandemic has led to the creation of over one thousand new words, from the technical and medical to new slang of the era. Have you had a “quarentini” during a “locktail hour” on a “Zoom party”? Perhaps you’ve perfected your “isodesk,” your home workspace in isolation, which you’ve designed to look great on video. PPE might just flow off your tongue.
Whether these terms stick around or not is a big question. Some argue it depends on how long the COVID era lasts. Some say that like language of wartime, some expressions will be forgotten and some will endure. If you have any favorite words or language of the year, definitely chime in and let me know.
Language, folks, the words we use and how we use them. Times are a changin’. It’s always been true, and I like to keep you in the loop.
English Language History & Trivia
Now, concerning other topics that might be on your mind, let’s talk voting—or at least the language history hiding in the midst of a voting conversation.
We just passed the 100th anniversary of the women’s suffrage amendment, which ratified on August 18, 1920, becoming the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And this anniversary means so many things, but first things first, let’s talk suffrage.
Way too many people are confused by this word. It has nothing to do with suffering, well, at least not etymologically.
I remember a late-night talk show going out on the streets, asking people what they thought about women’s suffrage, and the slew of embarrassing responses that followed.
First things first:
- “Suffrage” means the right to vote in public elections. It comes from the Latin word suffragium, meaning “a voting tablet,” “ballot,” or sometimes, just as today, “the right to vote.” A secondary, less commonly used meaning of “suffrage,” is “a prayer.” “Suffrage” has been a part of the English language since the 1400s.
- “Suffering,” on the other hand, means the enduring of pain, to feel intensely, or to sustain great losses, among other definitions. It came to English in the 1300s, with its ultimate root also in Latin, specifically the word sufferer, meaning “to submit to, endure.”
Any conversation about “sufferage” has room to fascinate me, but one of my favorite parts of this discussion is that the word “suffrage” itself enabled the creation of two more words, “suffragist” and “suffragette,” both used for those who were fighting for suffrage. In contemporary usage, maybe we’re familiar with “suffragette,” but what I love about this word is that it was initially used in mockery and then reclaimed, not so different from how “Yankee Doodle” was composed in mockery of the colonists and reclaimed as a patriotic anthem of the United States.
“Suffragette” was first used in the U.K. to mock the women with their little cause, using the diminutive suffix of “-ette.” A less substantial cigar becomes a “cigarette”; a tiny towel becomes a “towelette”; a tiny kitchen becomes a “kitchenette”; Chipmunks have their “Chipettes” (did that bother anyone else as a child? Just me? Maybe just me.)
But anyway, in this way, a woman who cared about suffrage became a “suffragette.” But then the women decided to embrace it. One bold response came from a publication of the Women’s Social and Political Union, or WSPU, which was titled The Suffragette. In 1914, they published this note:
“We have all heard of the girl who asked what was the difference between a Suffragist and a Suffragette, as she pronounced it, and the answer made to her that the ‘Suffragist jist wants the vote, while the Suffragette means to get it.'”
Again, spelling specifics can be found in my episode notes.
But “suffrage” and “suffragettes” aren’t the end of women’s suffrage language history. We’ll wrap up with another word you might never have realized is connected to the same movement: “Bloomers.”
American women’s rights activist Amelia Jenks Bloomer felt strongly that women needed to wear clothes that enabled ease and comfort in their movements. She began going out in knee-length, loose-fitting pants in the mid-1800s. These pants would be underneath a skirt, but still the rebellious nature of it all was scandalous. She was first ridiculed, but over time, the item was embraced, becoming a common undergarment for women by 1900.
Bloomers. A clothing item of activism. Don’t you love little known language history like this?
Alright, that’s it for today.
I’ll leave you with a language challenge. If you are hoping to “affect”/”effect” change in the world, how do you spell that “affect”/”effect”? Is it “affect” with an “a” or “effect” with an “e”—and yes, I’m trying to be slightly vague in my pronunciation here not to give it away. Is it “affect change” or “effect change”?
On a personal note, if you missed my cover reveal in my last email newsletter, I’m ecstatic to announce that my third book will be coming out on November 12th. It’s titled The Family Story Workbook: 105 Prompts & Pointers for Writing Your History, and it’s written for anyone who’s ever wanted to write their life story, anyone who’s wanted to connect more deeply with their loved ones in older generations, or anyone who’s been determined to collect the tales that make up their family history before they’re lost to time. Subscribe to my newsletter for more details on this, as well as lots of ongoing language tips, trivia, and explorations. Find it all at GetAGripOnYOurGrammar.com, and yes, that website name does come from my first book, Get A Grip On Your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confused.
Thanks for tuning in with me today. I’m looking forward to continuing our English language explorations from breaking news to history, trivia, and beyond with you.
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And if you’re looking for an Elements of Style for the Twitter Generation, check out my book, Get a Grip On Your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confused. Newbery-winning and New York Times bestselling author Meg Medina says, “You should keep a copy on your desk.” Sounds like good advice to me. Why not learn more about my other books while you’re at it, too?