Mortgages have been much in the news lately, especially for first time home buyers living in Auckland. What better time, then, to investigate the origins of this unusual word.
One of the first things you might notice is the silent 't', which is a big clue about the word's history. It comes from the Old French morgage, which is a portmanteau word derived from mort (dead) and gaige (pledge).
Why is "dead" in there? Because with a mortgage, the deal dies once when the debt is paid (or if the borrower fails to make payment, and we all know what happens then). The English, in a rare display of concern for the French language, reintroduced the 't' when they borrowed the word from their neighbours.
Mort is found in a handful of English words such as mortal, mortuary and mortician. One word that you might think owes its existence to mort but doesn't is morgue. That word comes from a building in Paris that was used to display bodies hauled from the Seine so their nearest and dearest could identify them. It comes from the Old French morguer, "look solemnly", which is one thing that dead people can be counted on to do. So too, one imagines, could those wandering the Morgue searching for their missing, dimwitted cousin, last seen wading into the Seine shouting "see, told you the current wasn't very strong here."
The words googol (10 to the power of 100, or 1 with 100 zeroes after it) and googolplex were invented by a nine year old, who defined a googolplex as 1 followed by "writing zeroes until you get tired". His uncle, mathematician Edward Kasner, took all the fun out of it by then defining googolplex as 10 to power of 100 to the power of 100 (or put another way, googol to the power of 100). In so doing, he rendered his nephew's definition not merely obsolete, but possibly the greatest understatement in human history. If you wrote a googolplex via the zeroes method, you'd run out of atoms (roughly calculated at 10 to the power of 80) and even available space in the universe long before you got to the last zero.
The reciprocal of a googolplex (that is, 1 divided by a googolplex) is a googolminex. Dubious variants on these words are zootzootplex (coined by a precocious and no doubt highly irritating four year old), which is the exponential factorial of the googolplex (don't ask), and googolmilliplex which I'm not even going to try to define. The study of mathematical variants of googol has been dubbed googology. You'd think googolology would be more natural, but who knows what goes on in the heads of mathematicians?
Google, a search engine company you may have heard of, calls its world headquarters The Googleplex. Nice touch.
Dear Mr Buffett
Your annual letters to shareholders are legend. They're clear, simple, funny at times, and full of whimsy.
Everything, in fact, that a serious corporate communication must never be.
It is time someone spoke up and helped you realise the error of your ways.
I have taken the liberty of excerpting a few passages from the first few pages of your 2015 letter to Berkshire shareholders and providing comments.
Should you find time to review these comments, I am certain you will find them most useful. They may, in fact, go some way to helping you be taken seriously by the rest of the corporate world, who learned long ago the dangers of speaking plainly and directly.
With best wishes for your future.
WB: During the first half of those years, Berkshire’s net worth was roughly equal to the number that really counts: the intrinsic value of the business.
KG: This is too simple and makes you sound like a hick. How about "the most pertinent number"?
WB: The carrying value of the “losers” we own is written down, but “winners” are never revalued upwards.
KG: Avoid using italics for emphasis. It makes your writing sound like speech, and the last thing you need is a personal touch in a financial newsletter.
WB: We’ve had experience with both outcomes: I’ve made some dumb purchases, and the amount I paid for the economic goodwill of those companies was later written off...
KG: Two things. 1: Don’t say “I”. It suggests you’re taking personal responsibility (which you must never do). 2: “Dumb” is too direct. I suggest something safe and vague like “Berkshire has experienced its share of less-than-ideal outcomes.”
WB: Of the five, only Berkshire Hathaway Energy, then earning $393 million, was owned by us in 2003. Subsequently, we purchased three of the other four on an all-cash basis. In acquiring BNSF, however, we paid about 70% of the cost in cash and, for the remainder, issued Berkshire shares that increased the number outstanding by 6.1%. In other words, the $12.7 billion gain in annual earnings delivered Berkshire by the five companies over the twelve-year span has been accompanied by only minor dilution. That satisfies our goal of not simply increasing earnings, but making sure we also increase per-share results.
KG: Don't explain technical matters in everyday language. If shareholders can't understand what the three preceding sentences mean, tough. Let them go study economics at Yale or Harvard or something.
WB: A personal thank-you: The PCC acquisition would not have happened without the input and assistance of our own Todd Combs, who brought the company to my attention a few years ago and went on to educate me about both the business and Mark.
KG: Don’t give away so much credit to your underlings. The trick is to appear magnanimous while really taking the credit yourself. If you must mention Todd Combs, say something like “I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Todd Combs in helping me assess the potential value of the PCC purchase."
WB: With the PCC acquisition, Berkshire will own 10 1/4 companies that would populate the Fortune 500 if they were stand-alone businesses. (Our 27% holding of Kraft Heinz is the 1/4.) That leaves just under 98% of America’s business giants that have yet to call us. Operators are standing by.
KG: No they're not, so don't say it. People are stupid and might think you're serious.
WB: Our many dozens of smaller non-insurance businesses earned $5.7 billion last year, up from $5.1 billion in 2014. Within this group, we have one company that last year earned more than $700 million, two that earned between $400 million and $700 million, seven that earned between $250 million and $400 million, six that earned between $100 million and $250 million, and eleven that earned between $50 million and $100 million. We love them all: This collection of businesses will expand both in number and earnings as the years go by.
KG: Delete "We love them all." Jeez!
WB: Berkshire’s huge and growing insurance operation again operated at an underwriting profit in 2015 – that makes 13 years in a row – and increased its float. During those years, our float – money that doesn’t belong to us but that we can invest for Berkshire’s benefit - grew from $41 billion to $88 billion.
KG: See earlier comment. If people don't know what a float is, it's not your job to explain it to them.
WB: While Charlie [Munger] and I search for new businesses to buy, our many subsidiaries are regularly making bolt-on acquisitions.
KG: Just a thought, Warren. What about changing Charlie’s name to Charles? It would lend him some real gravitas, don’t you think?
WB: (With this hands-off style, I am heeding a well-known Mungerism: “If you want to guarantee yourself a lifetime of misery, be sure to marry someone with the intent of changing their behavior.”)
KG: No offence, Warren, but do you really think people are interested in your cute little insights into life?
If you're among our French speaking readers, you may notice a more-than-passing resemblance between this week's word and the French word for forty, quarante. The resemblance is no accident, and can be traced back to mediaeval Venice and, possibly, other cities as well.
One of Europe's busiest ports at a time when the plague was in full swing, Venice was especially susceptible to outbreaks of the disease. To manage the risk, the city fathers insisted that any ship arriving from a plague-stricken country should wait offshore for quarantina giorni - literally a period of 40 days - enough time for any latent disease to have revealed itself in a full blown, ship-only, outbreak.
By the 1670s, quarantine had expanded in meaning to encompass any period of enforced isolation used to manage people or animals who might have been exposed to disease.
One of the first documents describing the practice comes from 1377 Dubrovnik, where the period of isolation was not 40 days, but 30 - a trentine. One assumes that bitter experience led to the 10-day extension and resulting name upgrade.
Mary Mallon, aka Typhoid Mary, is a particularly sad case of someone subject to quarantine. Born in 1869, she was identified as the source of at least two major typhoid outbreaks and was quarantined twice. Her second quarantine lasted from 1915 to her death in 1938, a period of nearly 24 years.
Let's start with a declaration: curmudgeon may be my favourite word in English. Here's why.
First, it condenses so much meaning into a single word. I mean, you could call someone a grumpy old fart, but why bother when curmudgeon is available?
Second, it sounds so right, doesn't it? Consider its first three consonants: a snarling c, followed by a 'sod off' m with a disdainful hard j in hot pursuit. The vowels are something to behold too. A slow wind-up errrr, like Muhammad Ali tauntingly swinging his arm before exploding forth with a vicious one-two, ah-i. It's an ugly, mean, spiteful word that you don't so much say as spit out. How glorious!
Finally, curmudgeon is shrouded mystery: no one knows from whence it came. One theory is that it was borrowed from Gaelic, and another - offered by Samuel Johnson - is that it's a corruption of the French couer mechant, or evil heart. But no one takes either theory seriously. That means someone - probably in the late 1500s - may have simply invented the word out of thin air.
Words of Unknown Origin is a surprisingly large and diverse category within English. It includes not-so-surprising words like ballyhoo, codswallop, fipple, gizmo, jalopy and shebang, but also a whole swag of surprising ones like bet, blight, bloke, cuddle, flare, hunch, jam, piddle, prod, puzzle, quirk, sleazy and toggle. Condom, another word of unknown origin, was omitted from the original Oxford English Dictionary (c. 1890) and was unmentionable in US mass media until 1986, when Surgeon General C. Everett Koop used it in a speech on AIDS prevention. Remember that next time you hear a tut-tutting news item about some allegedly backward country that refuses to get with the AIDS prevention programme.
Yiddish has donated some wondrous words and phrases to the English language, like schmuck, klutz and chutzpah (famously defined by Leo Rosten as "that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan").
While maven isn't among the better known Yiddish terms, it's pertinent here because a) it's often used in conjunction with language (eg, language maven, grammar maven), and b) I propose to do a little rant about said mavens. Did I say little? I mean big.
But first some background. Maven comes from the Yiddish meyvn, which in turn derives from the Hebrew mebhin; literally "one who understands".
Language mavens are those self-proclaimed experts on matters of good and correct language usage who then - almost invariably - proceed to tell everyone else what they're doing wrong (I realise I'm skating on thin ice here). Some, like the late William Safire, do it elegantly and, at times, with great humour. But regardless, there's an inherent problem, beautifully stated by experimental psychologist Steven Pinker. If you saw a dolphin playing in the ocean, you wouldn't correct its swimming technique. Yet language is analogous to a dolphin's swimming; it's an innate human skill (read Pinker's The Language Instinct for more). If you want to know how dolphins swim, watch dolphins. If you want to know how humans use language, watch (or listen to) humans.
Language mavens do not listen in order to understand how humans do language, but in order to critique. And it leads to ridiculous blog posts like this, which lists five so-called grammar errors, none of which is an error at all.
Worse, it gets perfectly capable human beings in knots about whether they're speaking or writing correctly. Result: people often end up writing ugly, stiff prose in order to adhere to rules that are not only not rules at all, but also frequently make no sense whatsoever. Seriously. I'm not saying they don't make much sense - I'm saying they make no sense.
Case in point, above blogger's admonition against using literally figuratively (for example, "If I eat another wafer, I will literally explode"). Well, Monsieur Blogger, people - including ignoramuses like Mark Twain, James Joyce and Louisa May Alcott - have been using literally figuratively for years, amd no one has been confused about what they meant. Who are you to tell them to quit, you pompous git? And here's another question: By what sequence of logic do you arrive at the conclusion that it's wrong to say "I'll literally explode", but ok to say of a sprinter (for example) "he's really flying"? Hmm?
I've said it before and I'll say it again - if you want to speak and write eloquently, worry less about grammar and/or correct vs incorrect usage and more about being as clear, interesting, compelling and (insert your own favourite adjective here) as you can be. It's way more productive.
Do you shudder when you see like used as a conjunction, as in the phrase do it this way like I do? You're in good company, you little prescriptivist. In fact, the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage states that “probably no single question of usage has created greater controversy in recent years”.
But you're fighting a losing battle.
Before I tell you why, here's a little history. Given its remarkable brevity, as is a fairly recent addition to the lexicon. Before it appeared, some time around 1200, the nearest equivalent was the Old English alswa - "quite so". As took around 200 years to become fully established, no doubt after many rants from traditionalists fulminating against the modern trend to clip perfectly good words, and warnings that this signalled the imminent death of cultured speech and writing.
Now back to the controversy over the use of like for as. In 1954, tobacco firm RJ Reynolds launched a new brand of cigarettes with the tagline Winston tastes good like a cigarette should. That line, which endured for nearly 20 years, has since become one of the great classics of advertising. Walter Cronkite, the doyen of news anchormen at the time, refused to read it, even though Winston sponsored his show and he was supposed to say it. Then, in 1961, more hackles were raised when, in its Third New International Dictionary, Merriam-Webster declined to condemn the use of like as a conjunction, and cited the Winston line as an example of popular colloquial use. The New York Times called the edition "bolshevik", and the Chicago Daily News wrote that the usage signified "a general decay in values". You've got to admire the fiery determination, don't you?
While like used as a conjunction may break with one's personal notion of accepted style or convention, there's nothing inherently ungrammatical about it. My advice: In formal writing, don't do like Winston did, but do as the editor of the New York Times would. It won't make you right, but it'll keep you onside with people who worry about this stuff, and it won't lose you any points with the people who don't.
JR Ewing of Dallas fame once accused a rival of being "all hat and no cattle". While it was a beautiful putdown, it was also just a variation on a popular theme. By one estimate, there are around 1000 popular all x a and no y insults in the English language, like all sizzle and no sausage (advertisers, take note), all bark and no bite, and all talk and no walk.
As with most popular word plays, the key for anyone wanting to create a new insult in this vein is to recognise the unwritten rules of the game. In this case, the main rule is to use either alliteration (bark, bite) or rhyme (talk, walk / hat, cattle). It's not a hard and fast rule, mind you, as attested by enduring pairs like all work and no play, and all mouth and no trousers. But look at these pairs and ask yourself which are most memorable:
It's a happy sounding word, and so it should be, referring as it does to happy accidents and discoveries. It's surprisingly recent, too, having been coined by Horace Walpole (1717-92), 4th Earl of Orford, who said he formed it from the Persian fairy tale "The Three Princes of Serendip", whose heroes "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of".
Serendip, in turn, is an old name for Ceylon, which itself is an old name for Sri Lanka, which, one fervently hopes, is not an old name for anything. "Serendip" comes from the Arabic "Sarandib", which comes from the Sanskrit Simhaladvipa, "Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island".
Ironically, discovering lions anywhere is generally not a happy accident. In 2004 "serendipity" was named by translation company Today Phrases one of the ten English words hardest to translate into other languages - which, given its most un-English origins, is also ironic.