Recent Blog Posts

Now that the U.S. has entered into the final weeks of a long presidential campaign, let’s take a closer look at the language we use to describe the process. The etymology of the word campaign reflects a military history dating back to 17th-century Europe. The Latin campus — adopted in […]

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Sometimes even the finest translators come up against words that defy translation. Many languages include words that don’t have a simple counterpart in another language. When translators come across such a word, they usually describe it so that it makes sense in the target language. But some words pose more […]

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The Italians and the French have a history of cultural rivalry that dates back to before the Renaissance, when scholars, philosophers, artists, and writers of the two countries held the reins of Europe. Fostering progress in tandem, European polyglots and translators found themselves translating the works of their neighbors. The […]

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Who is a barbarian? The word barbarian was used originally by the Greeks to refer to any non-Greek: Egyptians, Persians, Indians, Celts, Germans, Phoenicians, Etruscans, Macedonians, Carthaginians, Vikings, Goths – all of these became known as barbarians. The ancient Greek word βάρβαρος (bárbaros) meant “babbler.” To the Greek ear, someone […]

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If there is one philosophy that transcends cultural boundaries and linguistic differences, it is “Eat, drink, and be merry.” From the tip of Chile to the top of Siberia, lengthwise and breadth-wise and zigzagging the globe, nations have developed a wide array of phrases and customs associated with drinking and […]

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The word quarantine — used in modern English to designate a period of time when a group of people or materials is isolated from its surroundings — has several cultural and semantic stories ascribed to it. With the French quarantaine and the Italian quarantena we are plunged into nautical history. […]

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To translate a controversial text may very well mean putting one’s life on the line. Western history offers several examples of tortured and slain translators and interpreters, and as apt as we are to think that those barbaric times are over, the late 20th century saw one of the most […]

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In 1777, British explorer and navigator Captain James Cook brought a linguistic discovery back to England. The word taboo, Cook wrote in A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, encompassed an array of forbidden acts and behaviors in Tonga, a Polynesian archipelago. From the Proto-Polynesian word ta, meaning “mark” and bu, […]

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Before the word chocolate came into the English language from Spanish, Hernan Cortes learned of a potent Aztec beverage made with cacahuaquchtl powder (the origin of the word “cocoa”), chili, musk, and honey. In a 1519 expedition to the New World, Cortes received a friendly reception from the Aztecs of […]

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The history of words teaches us that food is the fuel of relationships. The word “companion”, from the Latin com “with” and panis “bread”, reminds us that food — and the brief respite allotted to people throughout history for sharing meals — feeds more than the physical body; it also […]

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