TIME movies

Here’s the Perfect Word to Describe Watching The Hobbit

The Hobbit
Mark Pokorny—Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

One word to describe it all, one word if you can find it

When The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is released on Wednesday, it will likely mark the end of Peter Jackson’s stint bringing J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy novels to the big screen. Fans of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit have been able to enjoy the films for over a decade now, and so the release of this sixth installment is likely to bring with it mixed feelings: happiness, finality, nostalgia.

It will be a combination familiar to Tolkien’s long-time fans, who encountered the same feeling as he wrote the books over the course of decades.

Those fans may also be familiar with a word that Tolkien coined decades ago to describe the feeling of something ending the way it’s supposed to: Eucatastrophe. (That’s the positive prefix Eu, as in euphoria, plus catastrophe.) Here’s how TIME described it in Tolkien’s 1973 obituary:

But [Tolkien] did point out that literal-minded folk who object to fairy stories as escapist mistake the wartime escape of the deserter (bad) for the wartime escape of the prisoner (necessary and good). Fairy tales represent the latter, Tolkien continued, and correspond to the primordial human desire—in a world of poverty, injustice and death —for the “consolation of the happy ending.” Tolkien even coined a word—Eucatastrophe—for this happy quality.

Eucatastrophe gives the reader “a catch of breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, a piercing glimpse of joy and heart’s desire.”

For one thing, the moment in The Hobbit that Tolkien himself identified as the most “eucatastrophic” is included in the section of the book that’s the source for this movie. There’s also the external eucatastrophe: for those who love the movie, there’s the consolation Tolkien describes, the joy of a tale coming to an end — and for those who don’t like it, there’s the consolation of knowing it’s over.

Read TIME’s 1966 article about the fad for all things Tolkien, here in the TIME Vault: The Hobbit Habit

TIME Cancer

How Calling Cancer a ‘Fight’ or ‘Battle’ Can Harm Patients

pink boxing gloves
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War metaphors can lead to feelings of guilt and failure

Using hostile, warlike metaphors to describe cancer may make patients less likely to take steps toward certain treatments, new research suggests.

The study, which will be published in the January issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that patients are less likely to engage in important limiting behaviors, like reducing smoking and cutting back on red meat, when researchers associated cancer with words like “hostile” and “fight.” In fact, the study shows that war metaphors do not make patients any more likely to seek more aggressive treatment.

“When you frame cancer as an enemy, that forces people to think about active engagement and attack behaviors as a way to effectively deal with cancer,” says David Hauser, who led the study. “That dampens how much people think about much they should limit and restrain themselves.”

In earlier research, investigators found that war metaphors can lead to feelings of guilt and failure in patients who die of cancer, even though they have little control managing it.

“Blame is being put on the patient, and there’s almost a sense that, if you are dying, you must have given up and not have fought hard enough,” said the study’s author, Lancaster University professor Elena Semino, in a statement.

Semino based her finding on an analysis of 1.5 million words from interviews and online cancer discussions that she conducted with colleagues. She is now working on a manual of cancer metaphors for health care providers.

Still, it may be difficult to change such a deeply-rooted element of our lexicon. Words like “fight” and “battle” make the top-ten list of words commonly associated with cancer, according to Hauser. Straightforward words like “die” and “suffer” comprise the remainder of the list. According to Semino’s study, words like “journey” might be a better replacement for “battle.”

Hauser says that medical professionals and media outlets should try to help expand the way that people think about the disease. He cites the “watchful waiting,” a passive method of treating prostate cancer, as one such example.

“What would be more beneficial would be changing the sorts of stories about cancer out there to expose aspects of the disease that don’t fit with this enemy conceptualization,” he says.

TIME language

Why It’s Best to Avoid the Word ‘Transgendered’

Laverne Cox Transgender Time Magazine Cover
Photograph by Peter Hapak for TIME

Katy Steinmetz is a TIME correspondent based in San Francisco.

With a federal LGBT non-discrimination bill in the pipeline, it's a good time to think about the words we use

Last week, Sen. Jeff Merkley announced that he will be introducing a comprehensive LGBT non-discrimination bill in the spring, which means, among other things, that a lot of lawmakers and media outlets are going to be making decisions about how they talk about LGBT people.

Reporting for TIME on transgender issues (particularly for what became the cover story “The Transgender Tipping Point”), there was one maxim that pretty much every person I interviewed seemed to agree on: there is no single story about being transgender that sums it all up, much like there’s no one story about being Hispanic or blonde or short or straight that sums that experience up. But I also came to learn that there are some good rules of thumb to follow when it comes to language.

For instance, if you meet a trans person—someone who identifies with a gender other than the sex they were assigned at birth—it’s generally a good idea to ask which pronouns (he or she, him or her) they prefer and to use whatever that is. If you meet a trans person, you should not ask about the particulars of their body, much as you would likely prefer strangers not to inquire about yours. And if you meet a transgender person, you should not refer to them as “a transgender” or “transgendered.”

Referring to someone as “a transgender” can sound about as odd as saying, “Look, a gay!” It turns a descriptive adjective into a defining noun and can make the subject sound distant and foreign, like they’re something else first and a person second. This guidance is part of GLAAD’s media reference guide, under the heading “Terms to Avoid”: “Do not say, ‘Tony is a transgender,’ or ‘The parade included many transgenders.’ Instead say, ‘Tony is a transgender man,’ or ‘The parade included many transgender people.’” These key language nuances haven’t been consistently adopted by the media. For example, on Dec. 15, the Associated Press listed this story in among their “10 Things to Know For Today:”

4. PHILIPPINE AUTHORITIES CHARGE US MARINE WITH MURDER

Prosecutor says the 19-year-old American is accused of killing a transgender in a hotel room. (The story has since been updated to say a “transgender woman.”)

This is something TIME has done in the past, too.

Of course it’s hard to find a word in identity politics that goes undebated, that is universally panned or lauded as just right. Julia Serano, author of Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, says that older transgender people might prefer and use transgendered when speaking about themselves; in the 90s she recalls that term being de rigueur among trans activists.

But the language people use to refer to themselves, particularly minority groups, changes. Today some people prefer the abbreviated trans or trans*, and transgendered has largely fallen out of favor (though some media outlets are still using it). When I recently asked San Francisco-based attorney Christina DiEdoardo, a transgender woman, how many out of 10 trans people she knows would say they dislike the word transgendered, she quickly answered: “11.”

“The consensus now seems to be that transgender is better stylistically and grammatically,” DiEdoardo says. “In the same sense, I’m an Italian-American, not an Italianed-American.” The most common objection to the word, says Serano, is that the “ed” makes it sound like “something has been done to us,” as if they weren’t the same person all along. DiEdoardo illustrates this point, hilariously, with a faux voiceover: “One day John Jones was leading a normal, middle-class American life when suddenly he was zapped with a transgender ray!”

Moving away from the “ed”—which sounds like a past-tense, completed verb that marks a distinct time before and a time after— helps move away from some common misconceptions about what it means to be transgender.

One is that being transgender might be a choice that involves a person simply deciding to be that way or a result of something that happened to them, like sexual abuse. The majority of trans people I’ve spoken to have said they knew they had feelings of identifying as a boy (when assigned female) or girl (when assigned male) as far back as they can remember—even if they didn’t have the vocabulary or understanding to articulate what was going on—and even if they tried to change or stifle those feelings for half their lives. Imagine how it would sound if one described people as “gayed” or “femaled,” as if there was a point when that wasn’t the case.

Another misconception is that the defining part of being transgender is having surgery, as if a trans person isn’t really trans until they’ve gone under the knife and come out the other side fully “transgendered.”

“There’s a tendency in American culture for entertainment and news outlets to focus on surgery, surgery, surgery,” Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told TIME in a previous interview. But, she says, while surgery is very important for some trans people, others have no desire to have surgery; they might not have surgery for medical reasons, religious beliefs, financial constraints and so on. There’s an “authenticity issue that trans people face,” says Elizabeth Reis, a professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Oregon. “People are so focused on whether or not they’ve had surgery, as if that’s the pinnacle of authenticity. Even if they haven’t had it or if they haven’t had it yet or they’re never planning on having it, they still have these feelings about their gender.” Avoiding the ed isn’t going to solve that authenticity issue, but it doesn’t hurt.

However, Keisling also says that focusing on whether the “ed” is tacked on the end of transgender can be a distraction. She believes it’s more important for everyone to be having a conversation about LGBT civil rights issues than to wag fingers at people over terminology. “I don’t ever want to say that communities or cultures can’t have language variations,” she says. “Language is very important and what people want to be called is very important. But we have to have a common language that we can bring people into. We have to have language that they can grasp.” And, she says, just as transgendered has become unpalatable, there’s no telling what will be preferred down the line.

Still, “for now,” Keisling says, “I would use the word transgender. Particularly if you are outside of the family, that’s going to be okay.” (If you have more questions about terminology, the GLAAD media guide is a great place to start.)

Katy Steinmetz is a TIME correspondent based in San Francisco. In addition to writing features for TIME and TIME.com, she pens a feature on language called Wednesday Words and organizes the occasional spelling bee. Her beat is wide but it thumps hardest in the Northwest.

Read next: Laverne Cox Talks to TIME About the Transgender Movement

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME language

Merriam-Webster Announces Its Word of the Year

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A.L. Christensen / Getty Images / Flickr Open

This word saw a big spike in lookups this year, for lots of good reasons

Culture.

That is Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2014. If it sounds awfully broad, that is because the editors based in Springfield, Mass., rely more on hard data than feeling to choose their lexical time capsule. But this big idea, broken down into specifics, does a fine job of summing up the past year.

While Oxford chose vape for its connections to health and society, and Dictionary.com chose exposure to tie big news stories like Ebola and Ferguson together, Merriam-Webster settled on culture by figuring out which of their most popular words experienced the biggest spike in lookups this year.

Looking back to see what helped drive those lookups, the editors point out that “celebrity culture” and “rape culture” and “company culture” all had big years. “Culture is a word that we seem to be relying on more and more. It allows us to identify and isolate an idea, issue, or group with seriousness,” Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster, said in a statement. “And it’s efficient: we talk about the ‘culture’ of a group rather than saying ‘the typical habits, attitudes, and behaviors’ of that group.”

In addition to the phrases Merriam-Webster points out, plenty of other brands of culture made headlines in 2014, including:

pop culture, consumer culture, military culture, culture wars, the “culture of free,” startup culture, cultural clashes, cultures of violence, cultures of silence, drug culture, Western culture, Scottish culture, surf culture, high culture, teenage culture, culture shocks, police culture, the NFL’s culture, media culture and hookup culture.

Other words that saw big lookup spikes this year, each with their own connections to what was going on in American culture, were nostalgia (our long goodbye to Mad Men), insidious (a certain horror movie franchise gets another installment), je ne sais quoi (Sonic selling us chicken wings) and feminism (the Gamergate controversy, for starters). In their press release, Merriam-Webster points out that TIME’s nod to 2014 as “the year of pop feminism” sent many people running for the dictionary.

Here are the three top definitions of culture that Merriam-Webster returns when someone looks up the word, one we clearly can’t get enough of:

: the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time

: a particular society that has its own beliefs, ways of life, art, etc.

: a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business)

TIME language

Oxford Dictionaries Adds ‘Duck Face,’ ‘Man Crush’ and ‘Lolcat’

Dictionary
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'Five second rule' and 'Obamacare' also made the cut

In their latest — and biggest-ever — quarterly update, Oxford Dictionaries Online added words that remind us who we are and what we care about in 2014.

Take xlnt (adj.), a symbol of our desire to skip tedious letters in today’s fast-paced conversation. Consider digital footprint (n.), a phrase that encapsulates our increasing worries about privacy and being monitored online. Or ponder man crush (n.), which explains modern man’s natural, platonic reaction to Benedict Cumberbatch.

All told, Oxford added about 1,000 new entries this quarter. It’s important to note that this deluge is flowing into the branch of Oxford that reflects modern usage — the words we’re using now and how we use them. The bar for entry into the historical Oxford English Dictionary is much higher, requiring words to prove they have greater staying power.

Here’s a selection of the new admissions:

al desko (adv. & adj.): while working at one’s desk in an office (with reference to the consumption of food or meals).

chile con queso (n.): (in Tex-Mex cookery) a thick sauce of melted cheese seasoned with chilli peppers, typically served warm as a dip for tortilla chips.

cool beans (exclam.): used to express approval or delight.

crony capitalism (n.): (derogatory) an economic system characterized by close, mutually advantageous relationships between business leaders and government officials.

digital footprint (n.): the information about a particular person that exists on the Internet as a result of their online activity.

duck face (n.): (informal) an exaggerated pouting expression in which the lips are thrust outwards, typically made by a person posing for a photograph.

five-second rule (n.): (humorous) a notional rule stating that food which has been dropped on the ground will still be uncontaminated with bacteria and therefore safe to eat if it is retrieved within five seconds.

hawt (adj.): (chiefly US) informal spelling of “hot.”

IDC (abbrev.): (informal) I don’t care.

jel (adj.): (informal, chiefly Brit.) jealous.

lolcat (n.): (on the Internet) a photograph of a cat accompanied by a humorous caption written typically in a misspelled and grammatically incorrect version of English.

MAMIL (n.): (Brit. informal) acronym: middle-aged man in Lycra. A middle-aged man who is a very keen road cyclist, typically one who rides an expensive bike and wears the type of clothing associated with professional cyclists.

man crush (n.): (informal) an intense and typically non-sexual liking or admiration felt by one man for another; a man who is the object of another’s intense liking or admiration.

misery index (n.): an informal measure of the state of an economy generated by adding together its rate of inflation and its rate of unemployment.

Obamacare (n.): (in the U.S.) an informal term for a federal law intended to improve access to health insurance for U.S. citizens. The official name of the law is the Affordable Care Act or (in full) the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

permadeath, n.: (in video games) a situation in which a character cannot reappear after having been killed.

Secret Santa (n.): an arrangement by which a group of friends or colleagues exchange Christmas presents anonymously, with each member of the group being assigned another member for whom to provide a small gift, typically costing no more than a set amount.

shabby chic (n.): a style of interior decoration that uses furniture and soft furnishings that are or appear to be pleasingly old and slightly worn.

simples (exclam.): (Brit. informal) used to convey that something is very straightforward.

tech wreck (n.): (informal) a collapse in the price of shares in high-tech industries.

the ant’s pants (n.): (Austral. informal) an outstandingly good person or thing.

WTAF (abbrev.): (vulgar slang) what the actual f-ck.

xlnt (adj.): (informal) excellent.

TIME Books

Long Lost Letter That Inspired On the Road Found in Oakland

The "Joan Anderson letter," written from Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac, is displayed in its entirety for the first time since being discovered, at the Beat Museum in San Francisco on Dec. 1, 2014. Katy Steinmetz for TIME

The letter, sent to Kerouac before he wrote the Beat classic, will be put up for auction

In December 1950, Jack Kerouac got a letter from his friend Neal Cassady, which recounted a wild weekend in Denver that included climbing out a window to escape the discovery of his affair with a babysitter. According to Kerouac, it was this letter that inspired him to write On the Road in the energetic, disruptive way he did. Also according to Kerouac, this famed epistle had probably been dropped off the side of a houseboat decades ago, never to be held or read ever again.

It turns out Kerouac was, happily, wrong.

The letter, discovered in Oakland—in a box of forgotten submissions to a publishing house—has been recovered in its entire 18 single-spaced pages. The woman who found the so-called “Joan Anderson letter” is putting it up for auction on Dec. 17, the same day it was dated by Cassady 64 years ago. “I never thought it would be discovered,” says John Tytell, a American literature professor at Queens College. “And it’s a fluke that it was.”

An excerpt from the “Joan Anderson letter,” sent from Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac in 1950. Courtesy of Profiles In History auction house

Jean Spinosa, a 41-year-old performance artist based in L.A., lost her father in 2011. Digging through his “hoarder-level” belongings in Oakland the next year, she came across several boxes he had inherited from a now defunct publisher called Golden Goose Press. Her father’s music label had shared a small office with the man who ran Golden Goose, Richard Emerson. One day, she says, Emerson decided to close up shop and announced his intention to throw everything out, including boxes full of unopened poems and letters sent in by hopeful authors.

“He just didn’t care. He was going to throw it in the trash,” Spinosa tells TIME, speaking at the Beat Museum in San Francisco, where the entire letter was displayed on Dec. 1 for the first time since its discovery was made public in November. “And my dad, being a little bit of a hoarder that he was, said ‘Those are poems. Why would you throw out anyone’s poems?’” Emerson told him he was free to keep them, and he did.

The Joan Anderson letter, nicknamed after a girlfriend Cassady writes about in the 16,000-word epistle, was enshrined in history as more than just a letter in 1968. That was the year Kerouac did an interview with the Paris Review and this exchange occurred:

INTERVIEWER

What encouraged you to use the “spontaneous” style of On the Road?

KEROUAC

I got the idea for the spontaneous style of On the Road from seeing how good old Neal Cassady wrote his letters to me, all first person, fast, mad, confessional, completely serious, all detailed … The letter, the main letter I mean, was forty thousand words long, mind you, a whole short novel. It was the greatest piece of writing I ever saw, better’n anybody in America, or at least enough to make Melville, Twain, Dreiser, Wolfe, I dunno who, spin in their graves … Neal and I called it, for convenience, the Joan Anderson Letter.

Kerouac goes on to explain that the letter was so great, he lent it to his friend Allen Ginsberg, who then shopped it around to publishers. The first was a man named Gerd Stern, who lived on a houseboat in Sausalito, just to the north of San Francisco. Stern rejected it and, Kerouac imagined in the interview, “This fellow lost the letter: overboard I presume.” What really happened, according to research conducted by Spinosa and the auction house selling the letter, is that Stern gave the letter back to Ginsberg, who then gave it to Emerson for his consideration. “Emerson never read it,” Spinosa says, “and Allen forgot about it.” (Kerouac was also clearly off about the word count.)

Jean Spinosa, who discovered the “Joan Anderson letter” in her late father’s things, stands in front of the letter at the Beat Museum in San Francisco on Dec. 1, 2014. Katy Steinmetz for TIME

The sudden appearance of a long-presumed-dead letter is thrilling for Kerouac obsessors and Beat Generation scholars, who see it as a missing link that may detail how On the Road got made. “I’ve always thought that this letter was crucial to establishing the connection between Neal Cassady’s speech pattern, which was rapid and steeped in the vernacular and unbelievably free, and the source of Kerouac’s inspiration,” Tytell says. “He had broken through to discover something very new, and that letter, that lost letter, I knew was tremendously important.”

About a third of the letter had been copied, presumably by Kerouac, and survived. The rest, left to be imagined, became “mythology” long ago, says Nancy Grace, a professor of English at the College of Wooster in Ohio. “We’ll have to see the letter and see his style in the letter to really be able to tell if it was as influential as the mythology leads us to believe.”

At the Beat Museum in San Francisco, a place where the seats of chairs are ripping and the carpet has some holes, reporters set up their cameras on Monday for a view of the letter arranged in a glass case. Even though they could see the whole pile of pages, the sheets had been arranged to obscure most of the newly rescued words—because, a representative from the auction house explained, while Spinosa owns the letter, the Cassady estate still retains copyright for publishing the work. That will remain true for the buyer who wins the letter later this month.

One hopeful bidder, announced in the midst of the press gathering, is the Beat Museum itself. The largest permanent institution dedicated to the likes of Kerouac and Ginsberg—just blocks from their hallowed City Lights bookstore—started a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for purchasing the letter. “This has to be out in the world,” says Jerry Cimino, who runs the museum and uses phrases like dig this. “This was their stomping grounds.” In the auction, which will be run by Profiles In History, a house that specializes in Hollywood memorabilia, the lot containing the letter will have a reserve price of $300,000.

Regardless of who wins, at least one man will be happy: Gerd Stern, the fellow who had long been blamed, along with Ginsberg, for losing the letter. As soon as Cimino was allowed to share the news that the letter had been discovered, he called his friend Stern, who now lives in New Jersey. “He goes, ‘Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow!’ He must have said it 10 times,” Cimino says. “And he laughed the longest laugh I’ve ever heard.”

TIME language

7 English Words You’d Never Guess Have American Indian Roots

Dictionary
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English speakers owe Algonquian speakers many thanks

The Pilgrims had plenty of thanks to give the Wampagnog Indians in 1621, around the time they had a certain special meal you might have heard of. Members of that American Indian tribe had been essential to the early settlers’ survival, teaching them which crops to plant and how to fish.

Modern day English speakers, who are about to gorge themselves on sweet potatoes and napping this Thanksgiving, might not know that they have a smaller joy for which to give thanks: the many words that English adopted from American Indian languages (or at least may have). These are words beyond the ones you learned in elementary school like moccasins or powwow, as well as the Mayflower-sized pile of place names derived from American Indian words, including the names of about half the states. Here are some that should at the least make good conversation if you and your distant aunt run out of things to talk about over second helpings.

moose (n.): a ruminant mammal with humped shoulders, long legs, and broadly palmated antlers that is the largest existing member of the deer family.

Moose comes from the New England Algonquian word for that animal: moòs. Algonquian describes a family of about three dozen languages spoken by American Indian tribes, like Arapaho and Cree. One of the first known English-speakers to use the word moose was Captain John Smith, who recounted the creatures in his 1616 writings about the New World.

Yankee (n.): a nickname for a native or inhabitant of New England, or, more widely, of the northern States generally.

Yankee, that word the redcoats used to use to mock American doodles who thought they were fancy because of their feathery hats, is of uncertain origin. But one of the earliest theories is that the slang comes from the Cherokee word eankke, meaning slave or coward. In 1789, a British officer said Virginians used that word to describe New Englanders who sat out during war with the Cherokees.

raccoon (n.): a small North American animal with grayish-brown fur that has black fur around its eyes and black rings around its tail.

Our word for what may be the most adorable cat-sized, trash-eating creatures in America comes from a Virginia Algonquian language. In a book about animals written two years before the United States declared independence, the author noted that the raccoon was also sometimes called the “Jamaica rat, as it is found there in great abundance, playing havoc with everything.”

squash (n.): any of various fruits of plants of the gourd family widely cultivated as vegetables.

Squash is a shortened form of what the Narragansett, an Algonquian-speaking tribe from what is now Rhode Island, called that food: asquutasquash. Circa the 1600s, English-speakers used a closer (and now obsolete) derivative: squanter-squash. And they described the squanter-squash as a cake, bread and “kind of Mellon.” Though today considered a vegetable in cooking, the squash is technically a fruit, even if it seems too starch-like to be in the same family.

toboggan (n.): a long, light sled that has a curved front and that is used for sliding over snow and ice.

Early French settlers in what would later be North America took the Algonquian word for this vessel and made it tabaganne, and that became the English toboggan. The northern neighbors of the tribes who used this word, Alaska Natives like the Inuit, gave English words too, like kayak and husky.

skunk (n.): a North American animal of the weasel kind, noted for emitting a very offensive odor when attacked or killed.

As you’ve probably noticed, there is more than one animal on this list. Encountering new creatures, English speakers had no words of their own for them and so naturally adapted names from the hundreds of American Indian languages already being spoken in the country. Skunk comes from the Abenaki tribe’s name for this potent weasel: segankw.

caucus (n.): a private meeting of the leaders or representatives of a political party.

Like Yankee, the exact origin of this word is unknown. But a possible derivation is from an Algonquin word cau′-cau-as′u, meaning one who advises, urges or encourages. That word has its own roots, according to the Oxford English Dicitionary, in words meaning “to give counsel” and “to urge, promote, incite to action.” American Indian names, the OED notes, were commonly taken by clubs and secret associations in New England.

And here is an eighth word, which you should consider a bonus feature that probably doesn’t have American Indian roots at all, though people in the past have argued that case.

OK (adj., int.): all right; satisfactory, good; well, in good health or order.

The lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary do not give a definite origin of this word. They do say it “seems clear” that the heavy favorite theory (O.K. being an abbreviation of “oll korrect,” a play on “all correct”) is true. But they still list competing, underdog origin stories, including the idea that “O.K. represents an alleged Choctaw word” okii, meaning “it is.” The Choctaw may have actually used the word as a suffix to mean “despite what you are wrongly thinking,” as in, “I did too remember to turn the oven off, okii.” It’s an interesting story that would connect well with passive-aggressive uses today. But if you find yourself with free time this holiday, you might peruse the whole history written to support the prevailing theory.

TIME language

That ‘A System Cannot Fail…’ Quote? It’s Not From W.E.B. DuBois

Thank social media--and perhaps Rihanna--for the confusion

In the moments following Monday night’s announcement that there would be no indictment for Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, one line began to bubble up on social media: a system cannot fail those it was never built to protect.

The quotation, sometimes rendered as “designed to protect” or “meant to protect,” is attributed to historian and Civil Rights icon W.E.B. DuBois, and it captures the sense of futility felt by many who had hoped that Brown’s death would lead to a trial.

But, search for any variation on those words along with DuBois’ name, and you’ll come up blank. Look for a source in DuBois’ writings, and there’s nothing. Though it’s always possible that someone who produced work about a century ago would have work that was not available to be searched online, the phrase doesn’t turn up in lists of his most quoted lines — and, in fact, a Google search that limits results to those created prior to last summer, when it was similarly used to respond to the death of Trayvon Martin, provides no results at all.

So where did that quotation come from, and who actually said it?

A likely source of its proliferation is the singer Rihanna, who has a large social-media following and tweeted the quotation on July 14, 2013, a day after George Zimmerman was acquitted in Martin’s case:

Rihanna’s message was retweeted more than 11,000 times, but it doesn’t mention a source for the phrase. In the days that followed, the line was used many times on social media and in articles on the topic of Martin’s death, and within a single day it had acquired W.E.B. DuBois as its author — a source that makes sense, given DuBois’ activism, and his prolific and quotable body of work.

In reality, however, this was the source of the quote:

That’s Vann Newkirk, who tweets as @fivefifths with the Twitter handle “W.E.B.B.I.E. DuBois.”

Reached by email late Monday night, he confirmed that as far as he knows, the idea and the wording were “100% on the spot” from him. When Zimmerman was acquitted, he was talking to some people who felt let down by the justice system; he personally felt like even to feel let down was to expect too much from that system, so he said as much.

“It went pretty wild and got attributed to everyone under the sun, but the one that stuck was DuBois,” he continues, speculating that his Twitter handle was responsible for the confusion. “I felt some pride in how it spread and the fact that people reasonably believed it was the property of people I idolized. At the very least, it resonates, and with all that’s going on, I’m happy people were able to find some meaning in it, whether they attribute it to me or Ronald McDonald.”

Read next: Don’t Blame Social Media for Ferguson’s Troubles

TIME Immigration

President Obama Distorts Amnesty to Sell His Executive Actions

U.S. President Barack Obama pauses while speaking about immigration reform during a visit to Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Nevada
President Barack Obama pauses while speaking about immigration reform during a visit to Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Nov. 21, 2014. Kevin Lamarque—Reuters

When Presidents abuse words, the nation should notice

President Obama has rolled out his executive action on immigration with a talking point that guts the meaning of a word for political ends. As a general rule, democracies should take notice when their leaders do this.

“I know critics call this ‘amnesty,'” he said today in a speech in Nevada, describing his decision to give temporary legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants. “It’s not amnesty. Amnesty is what we have now.”

The Merriam Webster dictionary, an American English standard, gives us this definition of “amnesty”: “the act of an authority (as a government) by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals.” The Oxford dictionary gives two definitions: “an official pardon for people who have been convicted of political offenses” and “an undertaking by the authorities to take no action against specified offenses or offenders during a fixed period.” The word “pardon” in both cases is defined to mean a forgiveness for an offense.

As a word in politics, “amnesty” has been as contested as any in recent years. What is not contested is the fact that those immigrants who reside in the United States without documentation have broken the law, even if that law is not widely enforced. In Arizona v. United States, the recent Supreme Court case that overturned a harsh state immigration law, Justice Anthony Kennedy summed up current federal law like this: “Unlawful entry and unlawful reentry into the country are federal offenses. Once here, aliens are required to register with the Federal Government and to carry proof of status on their person. Failure to do so is a federal misdemeanor.” The punishment can include a small fine, possible imprisonment and, “upon the order of the Attorney General,” removal from the country.

Opponents of comprehensive immigration reform label any effort “amnesty” if it treats undocumented immigrants with any official leniency short of prompt punishment under current law and deportation. For the pro-immigration reform camp, a reform proposal is only “amnesty” if it fails to include some penalty, even a different one than those prescribed, for having initially broken the law. This camp argues that the Senate-passed immigration reform proposal, for instance, was not “amnesty,” since it required immigrants to pay a fine before establishing a legal path for them to stay in the country.

President Obama is doing something more convoluted and alarming with the word “amnesty” than both of these camps. His action grants temporary and revokable work permits and legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States, if they pay back taxes and pass a background check. There is no fine. He is taking these actions under current law, using the discretion given to the Attorney General over enforcement. He argues that this is not “amnesty,” even though he is granting clear temporary forgiveness, since there is no official pardon, just a mass delay of enforcement.

But Obama goes further. “Amnesty is what we have now,” he says of the current system, in which millions live in violation of a law that is generally not enforced. The suggestion here is that the current lack of enforcement is itself a sort of unofficial pardon. So he is arguing at the same time that granting a new pardon is not amnesty and that allowing an existing pardon to continue is amnesty. He can’t have it both ways.

These two conflicting thoughts become harder to manage when the pardons are compared to each other. The White House says that the core rationale for the President’s actions is “humanitarian,” since the new rules will make it easier for families with undocumented parents and documented children to stay with each other. Implicit in this is the conceit that the new pardon (a temporary work permit and legal status) is less severe than the old pardon (a lack of enforcement).

Those undocumented immigrants who do not receive the President’s dispensation will be undeniably worse off: they will continue to live under the threat of deportation, they will be restricted in their ability to travel outside the United States, and they will continue to lack the ability, in most cases, to find legal employment. President Obama is not arguing otherwise. The premise of his action is that he is making the lives of 5 million better and more fair.

In the end, Obama has made a mush of meaning. Why does this matter? Because words matter. They mean specific things. And that meaning must be defended, because words facilitate the basic premise of open and honest debate that undergirds a democratic system. As George Orwell wrote, in the definitive essay on this topic, “[I]f thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” War is not peace. The sun is not blue. Six is not less than five.

There are lots of ways Obama could have chosen to make his case that his executive actions provide the nation an improvement over the status quo. Corrupting the meaning of a word, however, is not a noble one, nor is confusing the debate. It is, to use another word with a clear meaning, deceptive.

TIME

An Infant’s Brain Maps Language From Birth, Study Says

Rear view of baby girl
Vladimir Godnik—Getty Images

The infant's brain retains language that it hears at birth and recognizes it years later, even if the child no longer speaks that language.

A new study study reveals that an infant’s brain may remember a language, even if the child has no idea how to speak a word of it.

The finding comes from a new study performed by a team of researchers from McGill University’s Department of Psychology and Montreal’s Neurological Institute who are working to understand how the brain learns language.

As it turns out, the language that an infant hears starting at birth creates neural patterns that the unconscious brain retains years later, even if the child completely stops using the language. The study offers the first neural evidence that traces of so-called “lost” languages remain in the brain.

Because these lost languages commonly occur within the context of international adoptions—when a child is born where one language is spoken and then reared in another country with another language—the researchers recruited test subjects from the international adoption community in Montreal. They studied 48 girls between the ages of nine and 17 years old. One group was born and raised speaking only French. The second group was bilingual, speaking French and Chinese fluently. And the third was Chinese-speaking children who were adopted as infants and later became French speakers, but discontinued exposure to Chinese after the first few years of life. They had no conscious recollection of the Chinese language. “They were essentially monolingual French at this point,” explained Dr. Denise Klein, one of the researchers, in an interview with TIME. “But they had been exposed to the Chinese language during the first year or two of their life.”

The three groups were asked to perform a Chinese tonal task–“It’s simply differentiating a tone,” said Klein. “Everybody can do it equally.” Scans were taken of their brains while they performed the task and the researchers studied the images. The results of the study, published in the November 17 edition of the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), showed that the brain activation pattern of the adopted Chinese who “lost” or completely discontinued using the language, matched the brain activation patterns for those who continued speaking Chinese since birth—and was completely different from the group of monolingual French speakers.

The researchers interpret this to believe that the neural pathways for the Chinese language could only have been acquired during the first months of life. In layman’s terms, this means that the infant brain developed Chinese language patterns at birth and never forgot them, even though the child no longer speaks or understands the language.

“We looked at language that was abruptly cut off, so we could see what happens developmentally in that early period,” said Klein. “The sound of languages are acquired relatively early in life, usually within the first year. We’ve learned through a lot of seminal work that is out there that children start out as global citizens who turn their heads equally to all sounds and only later start to edit and become experts in the languages that they’re regularly exposed to.” The question for the researchers was whether the brains of the Chinese-born children who no longer spoke their native language would react like a French speaker or like a bilingual group.

To see what neural pathways might still exist in a brain and to see what a brain might remember of the mother tongue, the researchers used Chinese language tones, which infants in China would have been exposed to before coming to live in French-speaking Montreal. “If you have never been exposed to Chinese, you would just process the tones as ‘sounds,'” said Klein. However, if someone had been previously exposed to Chinese, like the bilingual Chinese-French speakers, they would process the tone linguistically, using neural pathways in the language-processing hemisphere of their brain, not just the sound-processing ones. Even though they could have completed the task without activating the language hemisphere of their brain, their brains simply couldn’t suppress the fact that the sound was a language that they recognized. Even though they did not speak or understand the language, their brains still processed it as such.

The results were that the brain patterns of the Chinese-born children who had “lost” their native tongue looked like the brains of the bilingual group, and almost nothing like the monolingual French group. This was true, even though the children didn’t actually speak any Chinese. “These templates are maintained in the brain, even though they no longer have any knowledge of Chinese,” said Klein, who was not surprised that these elements remained in the brain.

As with most scientific research, this finding opens the door to even more questions, particularly as to whether children exposed to a language early on in life, even if they don’t use the language, will have an easier time learning that language later in life. Don’t go rushing to Baby Einstein quite yet, though. “We haven’t tested whether children who are exposed to language early, re-learn the language more easily later,” said Dr. Klein, “But it is what we predict.”

What the study does suggest though is the importance of this early phase of language exposure. “What the study points out is how quite surprisingly early this all takes place,” said Klein. “There has been a lot of debate about what the optimal period for the development of language and lots of people argued for around the ages of 4 or 5 as one period, then around age 7 as another and then around adolescence as another critical period. This really highlights the importance of the first year from a neural perspective.”

“Everything about language processing follows on the early ability to do these phonological discriminations,” said Klein. “You become better readers if you do these things.”

While Klein isn’t an expert in the field of language acquisition, she does surmise that the more languages you are exposed to the better for neural pathway development, but she hasn’t fully tested that hypothesis. She mentioned other studies that show that early exposure to multiple languages can lead to more lingual “flexibility” down the road. Before you clean out Berlitz and build a Thai-Kurdish-German-Mandarin language playlist for your infant, Klein doesn’t recommend loading kids up with “thousands of languages.” She explains: “I don’t think bombarding somebody with multiple languages necessarily improves or changes anything.” Klein thought ensuring future lingual flexibility could come from exposure to just two or three languages at an early age.

To that end, Klein does think it’s important to develop these neural templates early in life, which she considers similar to wiring a room—put in the plugs, ports and outlets first and if you need to add a light later, you won’t have to start from scratch. Luckily there are no products required to develop a language template in the brain: simply talking to your baby in your native tongue is enough to develop those all-important neural pathways. If you want to invest in Baby Berlitz, well, the studies aren’t in yet, but it can’t hurt.

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