These days it’s pleasant to awaken to something unexpected and gently amusing. Such is provided by the “It’s Different Every Day” calendar, “365 days of variety, surprise and entertainment in one quirky calendar that features something new on every page,” like “fun facts” and “unpredictable jokes,” and “playful and irreverent original illustrations and conversation-starting trivia.” A recent page was titled “Where Are You? Hiccup and ask someone nearby what that sound is called to find out the local language.” Turns out that in Greek hiccupping’s called “loxigkas,” in Vietnamese “nac,” and “hazuqa,” “singhiozzo” and “oelsogoaa” in Arabic, Italian and Old English, respectively.
Chaser, “the world’s smartest dog” who died last month at age 15, might not have had “hiccup” in his extensive vocabulary of 1,022 other nouns, including 116 distinct names for balls, 26 frisbees and 800 cloth animals. John Pilley, a retired, footloose psychology professor was given Chaser, a bright border collie, by his wise wife. Besides the nouns, Pilley taught his pup “to understand sentences containing a prepositional object, verb and direct object,” according to the NY Times.com. Rather than reward Chaser with treats, he did it with play. “He showed her an object, said its name up to 40 times, then hid it and asked her to find it.”
Chaser’s vocabulary’s impressive, but not like Anu Garg’s, who knows and has shared more words than any canine. Garg was a fledging computer engineer in 1994 when he founded an English language-based webpage called Wordsmith, that’s home to A.Word.A.Day, Garg’s free service that sends daily words to over 400,000 subscribers Monday-Friday, along with their definitions, etymologies and usages. An IndiaWest.com article said that Garg’s distributed over 5,600 words in 3.6 billion emails in the past 25 years since his first: “zephyr.” He’s also authored books about words and other online offerings, but A.Word.A.Day is his passion, saying, “Every morning I can’t wait to wake up and explore words and share them with others.”
Garg was born in India and speaks “3.2” languages (Hindi, English and “a little Spanish”), and he’s rightly proud of India’s contributions to English. For example, “orange” and “pundit” come from Sanskrit, “juggernaut,” “bangle” and “jungle” from Hindi and “catamaran,” “pariah” and “coolie” from Tamil. So his most recent theme, “Words Borrowed (Adopted) From Other Languages,” was appropriate to that celebration — as well as many Alaskans — such as “akratic,” meaning “weakness of will that results in acting contrary to one’s better judgment,” from the Greek “akretes” (powerless), and “satyagraha,” coined by Mahatma Gandhi to mean “policy of passive nonviolent resistance as a protest against injustice.”
An internet meme crossed my monitor that speculated what the person who named walkie-talkies might have named other things: forks (stabbie-grabbies), socks (feetie-heaties), stamps (licky-stickies) and defibrillators (heartie-starties). The first such device was the “Packset,” a portable radio signaling system invented in 1937. Then came the walkie-talkie, which was carried on a radioman’s back, and in 1941 the handheld “Handie-Talkie” was introduced, but the name didn’t stick.
That anonymous device namer, nor Garg, probably never considered the obscure Tard-Venus, which means “late-comers.” They were one of the later unemployed mercenary armies who ravaged medieval European countryside. Ruling oligarchs couldn’t afford to maintain standing armies for their manifold wars of conquest, so they hired bad men like Sir Robert Knollys (commanded a force of 3,000 men), the Archpriest (the defrocked Arnaud de Cervole, famous for capturing castles by scaling their walls and ransoming them to their owners), and John Hawkwood, the most infamous, whose White Company included 2,000 infantry and 3,500 cavalrymen, each wearing impressive mirror-polished armor maintained by their private pages. When not battling each other, they combined to rape and pillage the peasantry; the Gestapo had nothing on these not very nice guys, but back then “nice” meant “foolish, ignorant, frivolous and senseless,” much like today in Alaskan politics.
“Nice” didn’t mean “kind, thoughtful” until 1830, but “Different Every Day” reminded us in 2019 that “Nice Can Mean a Lot of Things” depending on how you say and mean it, from bored and snarky (“How nice …”) to genuinely impressed (“niiiice”). Fortunately, our public library’s niiiiiiiiice in every way.
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.