The Serpentine Cipher, deciphered

All right, if you follow me over on Twitter, you’ll have seen, over the past few weeks, a puzzle I presented there (with hints and historical digressions) that ended with the successful decipherment of what I can now tell you is called the Serpentine Cipher – this particular word is just the word SERPENTINE. And you will certainly see that each sign certainly is serpentine-looking:

This text is super short and decipherment is certainly a challenge without hints and without some additional information. It starts with the numerical notation used by Johann Joachim Becher in his 1661 Character pro notitia linguarum universali. This was, as the Latin name suggests, one of many 17th century ‘universal language’ schemes, meant to encode concepts rather than words tied to any specific language. Becher’s system used a different number for each of 10,000 concepts, distinguished with lines and dots around a frame:

Becher’s notation wasn’t completely original to him, though. It’s a variant of the Cistercian numerals described in David King’s magisterial 2001 book, Ciphers of the Monks. The system became better known in 2020 via the Numberphile Youtube channel:

King’s book shows how this local development, in parallel to Indo-Arabic / Western ciphered-positional numerals (the digits 0-9), spread throughout European intellectual life into strange places, from volume markings on Belgian wine barrels to modern German nationalist runology. But among the more notable places you find this kind of numeration is in various ciphers, universal language schemes, and other sorts of semi-cryptic efforts to encode language in the 16th and 17th centuries. Although we now know, very firmly, that the Cistercian numerals were a medieval European invention, they were often described as ‘Chaldean’ and/or assigned considerable antiquity / mysticism.

My own contribution to this reception literature was in a post here a few years ago, Cistercian number magic of the Boy Scouts, showing how it ended up in 20th century Scouting literature:

Anyway, the Serpentine Cipher isn’t based on any of that, but is taken directly from Becher. But you can’t just use Becher’s universal cipher at this point, because a ‘universal language’ of 10,000 individual concepts is pretty damn useless. Instead, to solve it, you needed to convert the five glyphs to numbers, and then those to specific pairs of letters – so that five glyphs produces a plaintext of ten letters.

So if you got that far, you found that the five glyphs were five numerals written quasi-positionally, without a zero, in a mixture of base 5 and 10: 737, 3233, 473, 1633, and 473. The fact that the third and fifth glyphs are identical is important, but also potentially misleading. By the way, the reason you don’t need a zero is that the ‘place values’ aren’t linear, but oriented on the same frame, so you can simply leave one blank to indicate an empty space. It’s a kind of ‘orientational’ or ‘rotational’ zero-less place-value. The downside is that unlike a linear phrase it isn’t infinitely extendable.

Next, you needed to notice that each number is the product of exactly two prime factors. By the Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic, every number is the product of some unique set of prime factors. So there’s no ambiguity: 737 is *only* 11 x 67. And by chance, there are 25 primes below 100, so, borrowing Z = 101, we can associate each prime with a letter:

  • A = 2
  • B= 3
  • C = 5
  • D = 7
  • E = 11
  • F = 13
  • G = 17
  • H = 19
  • I = 23
  • J = 29
  • K = 31
  • L = 37
  • M = 41
  • N = 43
  • O = 47
  • P = 53
  • Q = 59
  • R = 61
  • S = 67
  • T = 71
  • U = 73
  • V = 79
  • W = 83
  • X = 89
  • Y = 97
  • Z = 101

Thus, each glyph can be treated as a product, and thus as a two letter sequence. 737 = 11 (E) x 67 (S), the 5th and 19th primes. (For words like PIZZA that would use the ZZ glyph (101 x 101 = 10201) you have some different options for that fifth place-value, but these are rare enough to ignore for now). Then all you have to do is ‘serpentine’ between the two letter-pair combinations for each number to figure out which pairs lead to the solution. Voila!:

An added bonus of using the word SERPENTINE is that it illustrates one of the key (mildly) confounding properties of the cipher, namely that an identical glyph (473) always has two readings, both of which occur in this one word.

Now, note that the only glyphs that will have even values are ones that use A=2, because the product of odd numbers is always odd. This would have provided a hint – if I’d given you a word with any As in it. (You can also use A=3 … Z=103 if you like, but there will be more products >10000 then.)

Really, once you see all those 11s, it’s not a bad guess that those 11s are Es – but of course, without knowing exactly what their position is, it makes deciphering such a short text tricky. But I don’t pretend that this would stand up to serious cryptanalysis as-is.

Finally, if you have a ‘straggler’ odd letter left out at the end of a word or phrase you can either multiply three letters into a product (though that gets unwieldy, e.g., WRY = 83 X 61 X 97 = 491,111) or just have a single number (a prime) at the end. Either one of these might tip you off as to a word boundary. Of course, you don’t have to stop at word boundaries, so you can SP LI TU PT HE WO RD SI NT OP AI RS LI KE TH IS.

Anyway, thanks to all who played along. I think this is a bunch of fun, doesn’t need much more than basic arithmetic, and provides a neat digression into the history of number systems and early modern cryptography. Paul Leyland was the first correct decipherer and is thus a winner of a copy of my book, Reckonings: Numerals, Cognition, and History, which, while it is not really about ciphers at all, does have a lot of stuff relevant to number systems and early modern history.

Finally, this cipher is presented in memory of my dear friend Victor Henri Napoleon, who was one of the original decipherers of an early/experimental version of the Serpentine in 2017, and who passed away suddenly last week at the age of N (43). You will be missed, Vic!

Reckonings on the Endless Knot

Today the Endless Knot podcast features my interview with hosts Aven McMaster and Mark Sundaram, mainly about my new book Reckonings and then branching out from there, among other topics, to:

  • the biases and blind spots that lead folks to conclude wrongly that the Roman numerals were replaced because they were awkward for arithmetic;
  • the various relationships among words for counting, thinking, talking, and cutting;
  • our unexpected choices and constraints when selecting how to say and write numbers;
  • the history of the comparative, historical linguistic disciplines including linguistic anthropology, classics, and philology;
  • and a lot more!

For those of you who don’t know the podcast, it’s a gem that focuses on etymology, classics, English, history, and more. Strongly recommended! – ok, I grant that I may be biased when it comes to today’s episode, but there’s a ton of great other content to be found on the podcast, as well as the affiliated website and Youtube channel.

The expanding universe of numerical systems: Rejang (x2)

How many number systems are out there? When I finished my dissertation in 2003, I described my work as analyzing “over 100” structurally distinct numerical notations. Counting them is really impossible, because no one knows what ‘structurally distinct’ means. Does it ‘count’ as a distinct system when, in Western Europe, folks started to use numeral delimiter commas (26,000 vs. 26000) or decimal points? I was hopelessly trying to give a number, without necessarily counting the dozens of decimal, positional systems of the broader Indo-Arabic family. All those systems descended from the positional variants of the Brahmi numerals that originated in early medieval India, in which all sorts of script traditions use ten signs for 0-9 but substitute local signs. We can call those all different systems, or we can not, depending on our perspective.

But then by the time my dissertation became a full-fledged book, Numerical Notation: A Comparative History, in 2010, having been poked and prodded by no fewer than 14 peer reviewers (yes, really!!!), more systems were added. I stuck with “over 100” because, well, that’s technically true, but by that point it was many more than that. And I keep finding more. There’s so much out there that hasn’t been accounted for. I was going over some notes earlier this week and there are at least 25 notations on my ‘to add’ list not described anywhere in the synthetic / comparative literature. Probably closer to 50, and counting. Part of the challenge is that these are notations that are peripheral to the concerns of the major traditions of philology, epigraphy, and the history of science. I don’t think I missed any well-known ones! Some of them may have been used by only a handful of individuals, or for a short time. But there are a lot of them – far more than I would have guessed when I started on this wild path.

In a single article (cited only four times since publication), M.A. Jaspan (1967) described not one but two numerical notation systems used by speakers and writers of Rejang, a language of southwestern Sumatra. Other than technical reports by Miller 2011 and Pandey 2018 for Unicode encoding, basically no one has ever acknowledged or discussed them:

Rejang ciphered-additive ‘ka ga nga’ alphasyllabic / aksharapallî numerical system (Jaspan 1967: 512)

This first system may look unusual, but it is part of a broad tradition of aksharapallî systems, which use the alphasyllabaries (abugidas) of South and Southeast Asia, in their customary order, to assign numerical values to specific syllables (Chrisomalis 2010: 212-213). Here, the 23 signs (with the implied vowel ‘a’) correspond to 1-9, 10-90, and 100-500, and then for the higher hundreds, two signs combine additively. This system doesn’t have a zero – each multiple of each power of the base (10) gets its own sign, so it’s what I’ve classified as ciphered-additive – like Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic alphabetic numerals, or Cherokee, Jurchin, or Sinhalese, among others. Jaspan is dead wrong in writing (1967: 512) that “It has, as far as I know, no parallel or similarity to, other known systems either in South-East Asia or elsewhere.” Aksharapallî systems were once widespread throughout South and Southeast Asia, and are used for various purposes, including pagination, which is exactly what Jaspan reports that at least some Rejang writers used them for during his fieldwork in the early 1960s.

Rejang quinary-decimal, cumulative-additive “Angka bejagung” numerical notation (Jaspan 1967: 514)

The second system is in some ways, even more striking. The system is structurally almost identical to the Roman numerals – there are signs for each power of 10, as well as the quinary halves 5 and 50. The hundreds are still additive but have some more complexities, and then the thousands don’t have a quinary component at all. These sorts of systems that rely on repeated signs within each power, and don’t use place-value, are called cumulative-additive and are very common throughout the Near East and the Mediterranean but relatively rare in East and Southeast Asia (though there are systems like the Ryukyuan suchuma that have this structure). I have absolutely no idea where it came from – unlike the first system, it doesn’t have any obvious relatives. At least for Jaspan’s consultants, it was used for keeping business accounts in the 1960s, though not widely.

The standard history of numerical notation is one where all systems gave way to a single, universalizing notation, the digits 0123456789, which spread globally without competition. And there’s certainly a point to be made there. But there is a countervailing factor, the inventive impetus under which we can expect all sorts of notations to be invented, perhaps not with global reach, but of critical importance for understanding the comparative scope of the world’s numerical systems. In my new book, Reckonings: Numerals, Cognition, and History (Chrisomalis 2020), I make the case that we are not at the ‘end of history’ of numeration – that innovation continues apace in this domain, and that focusing only on the well-known systems produces a very barren history. Cases like the Rejang numerals help produce a richer narrative – one of constant and ongoing numerical innovation.

References

Chrisomalis, Stephen. Numerical notation: A comparative history. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Chrisomalis, Stephen. Reckonings: Numerals, cognition, and history. MIT Press, 2020.

Jaspan, Mervyn Aubrey. “Symbols at work: Aspects of kinetic and mnemonic representation in Redjang ritual.” Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-en Volkenkunde 4de Afl (1967): 476-516.

Miller, Christopher. “Indonesian and Philippine Scripts and extensions not yet encoded or proposed for encoding in Unicode as of version 6.0.” (2011).

Pandey, Anshuman. “Preliminary proposal to encode Rejang Numbers in Unicode.” (2018).

Reckonings: promotions, videos, podcasts, etc.

Some (many?) of you may know that my new book, Reckonings: Numerals, Cognition, and History has been out for around six months now. Those of you who follow me on the evil bird hellsite are surely sick of hearing about it (But not really, are you? he asks aspirationally).

Reckonings: Numerals, Cognition, and History (MIT Press, 2020)

Of course, you can buy Reckonings anywhere fine books are sold (Why is that an idiom? Are there other places where not-so-fine books are sold? Don’t answer that). If you bought it through the evil book hellsite and liked it enough to say a nice word, kind reviews on hellsites have been known to drive sales and such. It would really be appreciated if you would! Or, if you have any sway with the heroic folks who staff libraries and are asked to make purchases with ever-smaller pittances, a book recommendation to a librarian really does make a difference!

You can learn more about my work, and the book, from my various media appearances so far:

Essays and Articles

Sequoyah and the almost-forgotten history of Cherokee numerals

Re-counting the cognitive history of numerals

Podcasts

Many Minds – The Story of Numerals

The Endless Knot – Reckonings

The Allusionist – Num8er5

Video

Wayne State University Humanities Center book launch

Aga Khan University – Numerals and their Alternatives

SCRIBO seminar – Reading, Writing, and Reckoning

More as they come out (stay tuned!) – and if you run a podcast, vlog, or other fun thing and would like to have me on your show, please reach out!

Language and Societies abstracts, vol. 13 (2021)

Once again, the early-career scholars in the 2021 edition of my course, Language and Societies, have written some amazing papers, for which the abstracts are linked below. The authors are undergraduate and graduate students in anthropology and linguistics at Wayne State University. Comments and questions are extremely welcome, especially at this critical juncture, when the authors are making final revisions to their papers.

Noelle Belanger: Lavender Linguistics and the Discourse in Online Sapphic Communities

Lily Conquest: Connecting Cultures: Medical Interpreter Ideology and Role Construction

Matthew Defauw: Fast-food Billboard Advertisements: A Semiotic Linguistic Approach to Syntax

Jenna Huntley: Anatomical Jargon: Modest or Arrogant?

Antione Martin: Interpretations of Heart Disease: “The Socialization of Providers”

Raveena Mata: The Versatility of Water: Metaphor and Imagery in Sikh Scripture

Mariah McClendon-Smith: Sassy, Moody, Nasty: The Performance of Sexuality through Language by Black Women in Hip-Hop

Nicole Mullins: “You’re not my Real Mom!” Biological Vs. Socially Constructed Motherhood: A Discursive Analysis of Childless Stepmother Blogs on Identity

Virginia Nastase: United States Abortion Discourse: An Examination of Problematic Terms

Jocie Osika: Commodification of Teen Girls and the Negotiation of Their Fates through Heart Gallery Descriptions

Sydney Queen: Truth and Telepathy: The Optics of Lying in Ursula K. Le Guin’s City of Illusions

Gavin Redding: Words of Faith: The Missionary Linguistic Practices of Frederic Baraga and Sela G. Wright

LH Sharp: The Language of Climate Change Mitigation Strategies in US Media Discourse:
A Compound Carbon Metaphor Theme Analysis

#ReckoningWith: diversity in notations scholarship

The #ReckoningWith project was an initiative on Twitter in conjunction with the publication of my book, Reckonings: Numerals, Cognition, and History, aimed at promoting a more diverse range of scholarship on number systems, writing systems, and notations, my core fields of study. There is a clear, almost inescapably obvious bias towards a relatively small coterie of very traditional (white, male, tenured) scholars in this area, and as someone who fits all three of those labels, I have surely been in workshops, conferences, and panels where the broader diversity of the field is absent. And because it’s such a strange and interdisciplinary area, it is very easy to not know about really interesting people doing cool work in some corner or other, and to just fall back on the same default set of citations, hiring practices, invite lists, etc. And that’s a problem of representation that a lot of folks have rightly been talking about – not only in scholarship on notations, of course, but across the academy.

#ReckoningWith aims to start / continue these discussions by highlighting recent work that hasn’t been or wouldn’t often be recognized in the field of notations (broadly understood). I aim especially (though not exclusively) to highlight work by women, untenured / contingent / early-career scholars, and members of minoritized groups in the academy. This isn’t to say that I agree with everything in all of these papers (how could that possibly be so?) but I think they’re worth reading and thinking about. I restricted myself to one article/paper per author, and to work that could be accessed digitally. One known restriction is that I decided to limit my initial selection to English-language material, but there is a case to be made that a more expansive range of languages would further serve these goals. Some of these links will require an institutional subscription, unfortunately – the burden of the paywall is another serious problem, for another day.

If you know of other work that fits these sorts of criteria, definitely let me know.

Here they are, as originally featured on Twitter, in no particular order:

Franka Brueckler and Vladimir Stilinović (2019) discuss the teaching of nondecimal bases in 18th and 19th century European mathematics textbooks. An Early Appearance of Nondecimal Notation in Secondary Education. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00283-019-09960-1

Jocelyn Ahlers (2012) discusses the now-dormant octo-decimal system for counting beads in Elem Pomo in relation to language revitalization. Two eights make sixteen beads: Historical and contemporary ethnography in language revitalization. https://doi.org/10.1086/667450

Paul Keyser (2015) discusses variation in the word order of tens and ones in classical Greek literary texts and its relationship to commercial numeracy. Compound Numbers and Numerals in Greek. https://doi.org/10.1353/syl.2015.0002

Alessandra Petrocchi (2019) compares the transmission of decimal place-value concepts in medieval Sanskrit and Latin mathematical texts. Medieval Literature in Comparative Perspective: Language and Number in Sanskrit and Latin. https://doi.org/10.1525/jmw.2019.120004

Rebecca Benefiel (2010) analyzes fascinating graffiti from Pompeii including ones with Roman numerals, tallying, and numerical play. Dialogues of ancient graffiti in the House of Maius Castricius in Pompeii. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20627644

Luis Miguel Rojas-Berscia @luiberscia and Rita Eloranta (2019) analyze numeral classifiers in South American languages that use counting devices. The Marañón-Huallaga exchange route:‘Stones’ and ‘grains’ as counting devices. https://doi.org/10.20396/liames.v19i0.8655449

Philip Boyes @PhilipJBoyes (2019) analyzes the early Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet as a vernacular resistance strategy to Hittite imperialism. Negotiating Imperialism and Resistance in Late Bronze Age Ugarit: The Rise of Alphabetic Cuneiform. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0959774318000471

Nina Semushina @feyga_tzipa and Azura Fairchild (2019) compare iconicity and handshapes in the numeral systems of sign languages worldwide. Counting with fingers symbolically: basic numerals across sign languages. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/228149921.pdf

Gagan Deep Kaur (2019) investigates the symbolic code used by Kashmiri carpet weavers and its linguistic encoding. Linguistic mediation and code-to-weave transformation in Kashmiri carpet weaving. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359183519862585

Rafael Núñez, Kensy Cooperrider @kensycoop, and Jürg Wassmann (2012) work with Yupno speakers to show that the number line is not intuitive and universal. Number concepts without number lines in an indigenous group of Papua New Guinea. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0035662

Mallory Matsumoto (2017) proposes a new representational strategy, orthographic semantization, in Maya hieroglyphic texts to transform phonograms into logograms. From sound to symbol: orthographic semantization in Maya hieroglyphic writing. https://doi.org/10.1080/17586801.2017.1335634

Beau Carroll and co-authors (2019) discuss literate and inscriptional practices using the Cherokee syllabic script in an Alabama cave. Talking stones: Cherokee syllabary in Manitou Cave, Alabama. https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2019.15

Tareq Ramadan (2019) analyzes the origin of early Islamic epigraphic and iconographic conventions as a tool of political unification. Religious Invocations on Umayyad Lead Seals: Evidence of an Emergent Islamic Lexicon. https://doi.org/10.1086/704439

Jessica Otis @jotis13 (2017) shows that the adoption of Western numerals in early modern England was linked to increasing literacy. “Set Them to the Cyphering Schoole”: Reading, Writing, and Arithmetical Education, circa 1540–1700. https://doi.org/10.1017/jbr.2017.59

Joanne Baron (2018) analyzes the monetization of cacao beans and textiles among the Classic Maya as a numerate practice. Making money in Mesoamerica: Currency production and procurement in the Classic Maya financial system. https://doi.org/10.1002/sea2.12118

Karenleigh Overmann (2015) undertakes a massive cross-cultural comparison of grammatical number systems (singular/plural, e.g.) and numeral systems. Numerosity structures the expression of quantity in lexical numbers and grammatical number. https://doi.org/10.1086/683092

Xiaoli Ouyang (2016) outlines the origin of a hybrid sexagesimal (base-60) place value notation in an Ur III period cuneiform tablet. The Mixture of Sexagesimal Place Value and Metrological Notations on the Ur III Girsu Tablet BM 19027. https://doi.org/10.1086/684975

Melissa Bailey @MelissannBee (2013) uses evidence from Pompeii and Roman literary sources to discuss the link between Roman money and numerical practice. Roman Money and Numerical Practice. https://www.persee.fr/doc/rbph_0035-0818_2013_num_91_1_8413

Cheryl Periton @cherylperiton (2015) replicates and evaluates the algorithms of the medieval English counting table. The medieval counting table revisited: a brief introduction and description of its use during the early modern period. https://doi.org/10.1080/17498430.2014.917392

David Landy, Noah Silbert and Aleah Goldin (2013) show experimentally that respondents estimate large numbers relying heavily on the structure of their number word systems. Estimating large numbers. https://doi.org/10.1111/cogs.12028

Regina Fabry (2019) analyzes arithmetical cognition as an enculturated, embodied, adaptable practice. The cerebral, extra-cerebral bodily, and socio-cultural dimensions of enculturated arithmetical cognition. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-019-02238-1

Yoshio Saitô (2020) investigates the use of the Coptic/Egyptian zimam numerals in the Leiden Manuscript, a 14th century Turkic-Mongolic glossary. A Note on a Note: The Inscription in ‘the Leiden Manuscript’of Turkic and Mongolic Glossaries. https://doi.org/10.1163/1878464X-01101003

Jay Crisostomo @cjcrisostomo (2016) discusses Old Babylonian scribal education and copying practices to analyze text-building practices. Writing Sumerian, Creating Texts: Reflections on Text-building Practices in Old Babylonian Schools. https://doi.org/10.1163/15692124-12341271

John C. Ford (2018) analyzes variation in the use of Roman numerals and number words in the Middle English verse romance, Capystranus. Two or III Feet Apart: Oral Recitation, Roman Numerals, and Metrical Regularity in Capystranus. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11061-018-9567-7

Anna Judson @annapjudson (2019) examines orthographic practices in Linear B (Mycenaean) texts to analyze diachronic change and sociolinguistic variation. Orthographic variation as evidence for the development of the Linear B writing system. https://doi.org/10.1075/wll.00025.jud

Tazuko Angela van Berkel @TazukoVanBerkel (2016) investigates the rhetoric of oral arithmetic and numeracy in two classical Greek courtroom speeches. Voiced Mathematics: Orality and Numeracy. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004329737_016

Piers Kelly @perezkelly (2018) shows that the literate practices of local Southeast Asian scripts serve as technologies of resistance. The art of not being legible. Invented writing systems as technologies of resistance in mainland Southeast Asia. https://doi.org/10.4000/terrain.17103

Ting Lan and Zhanchuan Cai (2020) propose a new use for nonstandard, complex number bases in encoding information for digital image processing. A Novel Image Representation Method Under a Non-Standard Positional Numeral System. https://doi.org/10.1109/TMM.2020.2995258

Perry Sherouse (2014) investigates how Russian numerals, rather than vigesimal Georgian numerals, became naturalized in the context of Georgian telecommunications. Hazardous digits: telephone keypads and Russian numbers in Tbilisi, Georgia. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.langcom.2014.03.001

Helena Miton @HelenaMiton and Olivier Morin (2019) show that more complex European heraldic motifs are more, not less, frequent than simple ones. When iconicity stands in the way of abbreviation: No Zipfian effect for figurative signals. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0220793

Josefina Safar and colleagues (2018) analyze variation in the structure of number words in Yucatec Maya sign languages including unusual signs for 20 and 50. Numeral Variation in Yucatec Maya Sign Languages. https://doi.org/10.1353/sls.2018.0014

Bill Mak (2018) analyzes an expansive Greco-Indian astronomical text (jyotiṣa) to show the relationship of Indian and Hellenistic exact sciences. The First Two Chapters of Mīnarāja’s Vrddhayavanajātaka. https://doi.org/10.14989/230621

Lucy Bennison-Chapman (2019) analyzes Neolithic Mesopotamian clay tokens as multifunctional recording devices, not specialized counting tools. Reconsidering ‘Tokens’: The Neolithic Origins of Accounting or Multifunctional, Utilitarian Tools? https://doi.org/10.1017/S0959774318000513

Nerea Fernández Cadenas (2020) analyzes Iberian Visigothic-era slate inscriptions not as Roman numerals but as a local, community-developed numerical system. A critical review of the signs on Visigothic slates: challenging the Roman numerals premise. https://doi.org/10.1080/17546559.2020.1853790

Malgorzata Zadka (2019) outlines a theory that Linear B inscriptions are of mixed syllabic and semasiographic character, as part of an overall communication strategy. Semasiographic principle in Linear B inscriptions. https://doi.org/10.1080/17586801.2019.1588835

Andrea Bréard and Constance Cook (2020) analyze numerical patterns on Shang Dynasty and later artifacts to show continuity in divinatory practices. Cracking bones and numbers: solving the enigma of numerical sequences on ancient Chinese artifacts. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00407-019-00245-9

Zhu Yiwen (2020) discusses the counting-rod diagrams and notations of the 13th century Chinese Mathematical Book in Nine Chapters. On Qin Jiushao’s writing system. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00407-019-00243-x

Jeannette Fincke et al. (2020) discuss a Babylonian astronomical text with a previously undescribed way of representing zero. BM 76829: A small astronomical fragment with important implications for the Late Babylonian Astronomy and the Astronomical Book of Enoch. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00407-020-00268-7

Manuel Medrano (2020) discusses variation in Andean khipu reading in relation to colonial-era textual references. Testimony from knotted strings: An archival reconstruction of early colonial Andean khipu readings. https://doi.org/10.1080/02757206.2020.1854749

17776, 20020, and on

This weekend I finished the stunning 20020 by Jon Bois, which had been released over the past month. It’s the sequel to the equally stunning 17776, which in my view is the finest piece of sports-themed speculative fiction ever written. Should have had a Hugo nomination (at least) but was longlisted in both Novella and Graphic Story, of which it is neither, because it is sui generis.

Both 17776 and 20020 are exquisite existential reflections on meaning and how we create it, loneliness, the nature of utopia, America’s beauty and tragedy, and imperfection in a seemingly perfect world. Oh, and football. But please, please, even if you think you hate American football or don’t know anything about it, don’t ignore it on that basis. I’m sure that some awareness of the game has some side benefits but is not really essential to the core of the story. I’d read 17776 first – but I’d read them both. I will read them both again soon.

Oh, and apparently, because this year hasn’t been cruel enough to me yet, we have to wait for the story to finish next year with 20021.

What football will look like in the future

Epithets in contemporary English: the case of -o

Recently over on the social media hellsite, I offered the following puzzle:

What do the following words have in common? SICK, WINE, RANDOM, WEIRD?

The answer, which a couple people got, is that they all are used to form negative epithets ending in -o. This morpheme is actually somewhat productive: pinko, weirdo, wino, dumbo, sicko, wacko, lesbo, fatso, rando, lameo, maybe also psycho, pedo, and narco if you don’t analyze them as abbreviations.

There are of course a bunch of other words formed using -o as a suffix that aren’t insulting nouns: ammo, camo, repo, demo, aggro, combo, promo, etc. Again, some of these are analyzable as shortenings but others, like ammo for ammunition, have something else going on. But these are different insofar as the role of the -o is not to create a noun describing a person.

Having looked around a while, I can’t find a single one of these epithets ending in -o that’s positive or even neutral. You can’t describe a smart person as smarto or a fun person as a funno (I think?).

The Google Ngram chart for these forms shows them to be largely a late 20th-century phenomenon; wino is the earliest and most popular through the early 90s, now overtaken by far by weirdo, but most of these words seem to emerge in the 1980s or later:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/chart?content=pinko%2Cweirdo%2Cwino%2Cdumbo%2Csicko%2Cwacko%2Clesbo%2Cfatso%2Crando%2Clameo&year_start=1900&year_end=2019&corpus=26&smoothing=2&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cpinko%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cweirdo%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cwino%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cdumbo%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Csicko%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cwacko%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Clesbo%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cfatso%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Crando%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Clameo%3B%2Cc0#t1%3B%2Cpinko%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cweirdo%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cwino%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cdumbo%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Csicko%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cwacko%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Clesbo%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cfatso%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Crando%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Clameo%3B%2Cc0

The OED and other major dictionaries don’t identify these distinctly as creating insults; the OED does have an entry for -o, suffix but doesn’t really distinguish these senses in terms of their negative sense or treat them as a class – rather, it distinguishes those that derive from adjectives (weirdo) from those that derive from nouns (wino) which is valid but doesn’t capture what I really think is going on here. Also, many of the -o forms were earlier -ie / -y nouns: dummy, weirdie, fatty.

I think little mini-word classes like these are interesting in that they show linguistic change and productivity on a small scale and in a way that doesn’t really show up in reference grammars and dictionaries. They’re a little aesthetically rich fragment of English informal speech that really, all languages have, but don’t get well-captured in some kinds of formal analysis. And as a language weirdo – or wordo? – I think that’s pretty cool.

Lexiculture (word list + class project)

Once again this year, my students in my undergraduate Language & Culture class will be writing original research papers on the history of individual English words. I’m teaching online but the project is completely portable to that format. I’ve always found this to be a great way to introduce students to doing their own research on sociolinguistic / social-historical / lexicographical topics, and this year’s list of words for them to choose from is (he says not-so-humbly) pretty awesome. What are your favorites?

  • all in
  • all out
  • Amerindian
  • amp up
  • anymore
  • baloney
  • bejesus
  • bespoke
  • booty
  • brain trust
  • bruschetta
  • burnout
  • business end
  • buzzkill
  • call dibs
  • car phone
  • card-carrying
  • centric
  • challenged
  • childfree
  • coed
  • columbused
  • conversate
  • deja vu
  • disinterested
  • doggone
  • donut
  • drama queen
  • druthers
  • endgame
  • fast forward
  • finalize
  • frenemy
  • get-go
  • goner
  • grassroots
  • halfsies
  • hardcore
  • hardwired
  • has-been
  • hiccough
  • highfalutin
  • hyphenated
  • impersonator
  • impostor
  • Information Superhighway
  • jailbait
  • jinx
  • jock
  • Judeo-Christian
  • kewl
  • lavender 
  • lit
  • majorly
  • man cave
  • Mohammedan
  • moonshot
  • next-level
  • NSFW
  • nth
  • nuke
  • nutjob
  • octoroon
  • often
  • outro
  • peopling
  • phase out
  • porridge
  • pronto
  • pussyfoot
  • rando
  • realtime
  • reboot
  • recap
  • restroom
  • runner-up
  • shoo-in
  • shout out
  • slider
  • snuck
  • stalemate
  • stalker
  • stat
  • suntan lotion
  • suplex
  • swiff
  • tailgate
  • tardy
  • thunk
  • tinfoil hat
  • touchless 
  • trump
  • underprivileged
  • upside the head
  • upsize
  • vibe
  • wannabe
  • white trash
  • whodunit
  • whole nother
  • widget
  • workshop
  • yea big