This Spring Full Moon

canoe in moonlight

Tonight is the March Full Moon. It is frequently called the Worm Moon because spring rain and warmth sometimes bring earthworms out of the ground around this time. Like all Full Moon names, it is accurate only for some places.

The Algonquian peoples are one of the most populous and widespread North American native language groups. Historically, the peoples were prominent along the Atlantic Coast and into the interior along the Saint Lawrence River and around the Great Lakes. This grouping consists of the peoples who speak Algonquian languages and my New Jersey is included in this large group.  I have found that the Algonquian peoples called this Full Moon the Worm Moon but tribes in other parts of that wide range used the names Sugar Moon, Crow Moon, Snow Crust Moon or Sap Moon.

A 16th-century sketch of the Algonquian village of Pomeiock. North Carolina.  Link

The language associated with the Moon is quite rich worldwide. Here are some examples:

  • The natives of Madagascar call their isle the Island of the Moon.
  • To aim at the Moon means to be very ambitious, to set your sights extremely high.
  • The name Mount St. Helens means “Moon Mountain.” Mt. Sinai was probably named after the Chaldean god of the Moon, Sinn, which would make it another Moon mountain.
  • When people speak of the Mountains of the Moon, it generally means white mountains.
  • Arabs called white horses “Moon-colored.”
  • Originally, the term Moon-struck or Moon-touched meant chosen by the goddess.
  • When anyone spoke of Mountains of the Moon, it simply meant white mountains.
  • The Druids believed that when the circle of the Moon was complete, good fortune was given to those who knew how to ask the gods for it.
  • The word “moonshine” in the U.S. means “illegally distilled liquor” (AKA “white lightning”) but an older meaning was “total nonsense.”
  • In English, French, Italian, Latin, and Greek, the Moon is feminine. Most of the Teutonic languages (Frisian, Dutch, Flemish, German, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic and the Norwegian dialects) mark the Moon as masculine.
  • The Druids believed that when the circle of the Moon was complete, good fortune was given to those who knew how to ask the gods for it.

Does the New Decade Begin Tomorrow?

happy 2020

Here’s a post for the penultimate day of 2019. Tomorrow is 2020 and the start of a new decade. Or is it? There is real disagreement on when a new decade begins.

Some people say that the new decade “officially” begins with years ending in 0 while others say a new decade begins in years ending in 1. Is there a correct answer? Generally, people would say that the decade of the 90s began in 1990, 1890 et al.

You can also consider when centuries and millennia begin in the same way. The official answer on that is that the 21st century and the third millennium began on New Year’s Day 2001. That’s because in our modern anno domini time reckoning system there is no year zero. Year 1 BC was followed by year AD 1. But there was certainly much celebration for the new millennium on January 1, 2000.

With decades, it’s more about language than about calendars. Unlike centuries, we would never say “the 200th decade” to mean the next decade.  (Technically, the upcoming decade is the 203rd decade. but I am not getting into that.) Chances are we will call this next decade “the twenties” though that might confuse it with the 1920s (the “roaring twenties”).

It will be widely accepted that the new decade will begin when the ball falls at midnight on January 1, 2020, but you can legitimately celebrate again a year later.

If you say to me that something happened in “the 90s” I assume you mean the 1990s and not 1890s. But what do you call that time from 2000-2009?  In North America, the term “the aughts” was used (but not by me) and other English speaking countries used “the noughts” or “the noughties.”

And the 2010 -2019 has been referred to as “the teens,” “the teenies,” “the teensies” and “the tens.” I don’t like any of those names. I would probably opt for  “the twenty-tens” (“the 2010s”) but my browser’s spell-grammar checker and Grammarly app doesn’t seem to like any of those. Did we go through ten years and we still haven’t decided what to call it? I suppose this decade that is ending will be named in hindsight. Happy 2020, readers!

Making a Dictionary ‘American’

Do people still buy print dictionaries? If you use a dictionary at all, it is likely to be an online dictionary, such as,, or or Wikipedia for a more detailed entry, or even just asking your phone for a definition. But with all those online options, printed dictionaries still have fans and buyers.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary has gone through multiple printings by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt even though its former publisher, Wiley, was ready to drop it back in 2011.

That dictionary and several others carry the name of Noah Webster. In 1828, Noah Webster‘s American Dictionary of the English Language was published. The keyword in its title is “American.”

Webster decided to put together his dictionary because he wanted an American dictionary of English that wasn’t based on the language and ideas of England.

This was a half-century after the revolution to separate from England, but that wasn’t the only reason to have an American version. Communication across the growing United States was hampered by regional dialects that differed drastically, and also a lack of standardization in spelling and usage.

Noah Webster was not a publisher or lexicographer. He was a Connecticut school teacher. He was unhappy with the lack of school supplies, small one-room schoolhouses, and leftover textbooks from England that did not represent life in America.

He actually published the first part of his three-part A Grammatical Institute of the English Language in 1783. The first section was later retitled The American Spelling Book, but was nicknamed the “Blue-Backed Speller.”

In these books and later in his dictionary, Webster gave American rules of spelling. He simplified and standardized words. He took the letter “u” out of many English words – colour and honour became color and honor based on American pronunciation. The double G of waggon was made single. Musick lost its K. Theatre and centre had a letter reversal to theater and center.

original Webster dictionary
Noah Webster’s dictionary of 1828 is considered one of the documents that changed the world

He started compiling his dictionary which continued the standardizing and Americanizing of spellings. But he also included new American words. many of those words came from colonists’ adoption of Native American words for new things they encountered. Some of the spellings and pronunciations of those native words are pretty far off from their original use by American Indians, but his versions became the accepted forms. This is when words such as skunk, squash, wigwam, hickory and opossum became “officially” part of American English. He also added new words like lengthy. Words such as presidential, Congress, and caucus were added to those used in England’s monarchy.

Noah put in 30 years on this project. When it was published in 1828, it cost about $20 which kept it out of the hands of most Americans. Webster died in 1843 and did not see any widespread sales of his dictionary, but it was accepted by educators.


Webster had other interests beyond words, spelling and dictionaries. In his book, The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture, Joshua Kendall writes about how Noah lobbied for copyright law, served as an adviser to George Washington, wrote his own edition of the Bible, and his enumerating of houses in major cities led to the first American census.

Another String Theory

Don’t be frightened. This isn’t about THAT string theory – the one from physics that replace the particles of particle physics with one-dimensional objects called strings. That is a tough one to explain. I can’t even imagine strings propagating through space and interacting with each other and all kinds of vibrational states and the graviton. Nope, no theory of quantum gravity today.

These strings are khipus (“knots”). They are made of twisted and tied cords and were once used by indigenous Andeans for record keeping.

These khipus (AKA Spanish spelling quipus) are best known by archaeologists as record keeping devices of the Inca Empire. That Empire had more than 18 million people and covered 3,000 miles of South America. It existed from the early 1400s until the Spanish conquest in 1532.

But what did they mean? How were they used? Was it their form of “writing?”

One older theory was that they were simple memory aids, similar to prayer beads. Current research seems to point to them being a three-dimensional writing system. Analyzing color, fiber and twist direction they found 95 unique signs. That is enough to constitute a writing system.

Those colonial-era Spaniards observed them being used never learned how they were use. But they appeared to be the way the numerical data (censuses, inventories) were recorded. But they might have also been used for narrative (phonetic) records such as letters and histories.

There are less than a thousand surviving khipus in museums and collections. Some remote mountain villages still used khipus as cultural artifacts into the 20th century, but reading them has not survived.

So far, there is no link between a quipu and Quechua, the native language of the Peruvian Andes, which suggests that they are not a glottographic or true writing system. Perhaps, they are a system of representative symbols, more like music notation, and relay information but are not directly related to the speech sounds of a particular language.

Looking at some of those strings and knots seems as difficult to interpret as the strings supposedly floating all around us in the quantum universe.


Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu in Peru is the best known religious site for Inca leaders. Their civilization was virtually wiped out by Spanish invaders in the 16th century.

Just Between You and Me

grammarMy wife and I were both reading this morning and I stopped to ask her about a sentence I had just read in an article. “Tim Cook announced last year he is gay.” I asked her if she thought it should be “is” or “was.” Being that we have both been teachers, we actually have these kinds of conversations. She voted for “was” for the sake of parallel construction. I voted for “is” (which is what the magazine used) because it’s not that he was gay and no longer is gay.

Some of my wife’s argument may come from her having taught French for many years. “It would never be correct in French,” she told me.

That led me to wonder if she was a “French teacher” or more correctly “a teacher of French.” She was constantly referred to as a French teacher, but she did not have any French ancestry. In fact, she is Italian. Was she an Italian French teacher? Now that is confusing. She was certified to teach Italian too. She could be called an Italian teacher for both reasons.

After I refilled my coffee cup, she continued the topic and asked me “Would you say ‘Hemingway was a great writer’ or ‘Hemingway is a great writer’?” I would say “is.” He still is a great writer. “Would you say at her funeral that Mary was or is very kind?” I would say “was.” My wife asked why I saw a difference.

Hemingway still is a great writer, even though he is dead. Just like I would say that his A Moveable Feast is a great book. “That’s because the book still exists. Hemingway doesn’t,” said my wife.

It is confusing.

Later in my reading, I came across a review of a new book, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris who has spent more 30+ year in The New Yorker‘s copy department, home of high standards.

It is a burden that my own 30+ years have been spent teaching English. People both expect my grammar to be perfect, and say they feel uncomfortable speaking or writing to me because I may “correct their grammar.”

When I started teaching, grammar and punctuation were at least a third of the curriculum. We taught it very much isolated from real writing tasks, even though we graded it in those writing tasks.

In the 1980s, that loosened. Instead of being an “English teacher,” may teachers in the grades below high school were referred to as “language arts” teachers.  We still taught that “i” came before “e,” except after “c” and a  few other exceptions. Students never really understood that the verb “to be” was like an equal sign and that meant that you used the nominative case on both sides of it.  Saying “It is I” didn’t sound correct in anyone in the classroom even if the book said so.

In college, I was tortured by a grammar class that taught me about deep structures and linguistics, all of which was useless in teaching eighth grade. I was happily able to almost completely avoid diagramming sentences as a student and as a teacher.

Norris’ book is the kind I have very mixed feelings about reading. I never wanted to be a “comma king” and avoided many grammar gurus and the books they wrote. From what I can glean from reviews, hers is not a grammar textbook and I suspect she may be kinder about everyday speaking and writing than she would be for an article in the magazine. And we should be tougher on published writing.

One reviewer mentions an example of hers concerning the use of dashes. She quotes a note Jacqueline Kennedy wrote to Richard Nixon after her husband’s death. The very personal note was in Jackie’s “breathy” style and contained lots of dashes. Norris does the English teacher (or editor) thing and “corrects” it. The grammatically correct result just isn’t Jackie.

It sounds like the book is more of a journey through Norris’ life with words. I do like language oddities. Nuggets like learning that there was once a serious movement to settle the “is it she or he” situation led to a suggestion to start using “heesh” are amusing.  (I might have opted for s/he, but the pronunciation is an issue.)

policeI have a good-sized list of language items that annoyed me in student writing and in the larger world and still annoy me: everyday vs. every day; that damned alot for a lot; it’s vs. its, your vs. you’re and all those; the overuse of “basically” and “literally.” But I can’t get excited enough to do battle over one or two spaces at the end of a sentence or punctuation inside or outside the quotation marks any more. “But you are an English teacher, ” friends say, fully expecting outrage from me about some error by a politician in a speech or in an advertisement.

I am on the edge of all this. I know that “Grammar Girl” has a website, podcast and books and I have checked all of them out and they can be fun, but it is just not a big part in my world in and out of the classroom these days. I still love language, but I am more interested in the stories behind words and phrases and following how the language changes than I am in being the grammar policeman trying to keep things in line and behind the barricades.

Norris’ title plays off a common mistake of “using ‘I’ instead of ‘me’ in phrases such as ‘between you and me,’ after any preposition or as the object of a verb.” She would tell you, like any good teacher, that a little memory trick is to put the “I” first. Though people might make the mistake of saying “between you and I,” I doubt any of them would make the mistake of saying “between I and you.”

The Rosetta Stone

What was the Rosetta Stone? A Ptolemaic age granodiorite (similar to granite) stele (a kind of monument) inscribed with a decree issued at Memphis in 196 BC on behalf of King Ptolemy V.

It contains versions written in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic script, and Ancient Greek. That is the key. It has essentially the same text in all three versions and so it became the key to understanding (translating) Egyptian hieroglyphs.

It has traveled a lot. It probably was displayed in a temple at Sais, moved during the early Christian or medieval period, used as building material for Fort Julien near Rosetta in the Nile Delta where it was rediscovered there by a soldier in 1799. When the British troops defeated the French in Egypt in 1801, the stone was taken to London. It is the most-visited object in the British Museum.

The term “Rosetta stone” is often used to mean a key that helps in the decryption of encoded information, or when a small sample is recognized as the clue to understanding a larger whole.

You may also know of Rosetta Stone as a brand of language-learning software

Rosetta@home is a distributed computing project that asks you to run their Rosetta program on your computer when you aren’t using it to help them speed up and extend their research. A network of computers as a super computer. They are trying to design new proteins to fight diseases such as HIV, Malaria, Cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.

There is also the Rosetta Project that brings language specialists and native speakers together to develop an archive of 1,500 languages, intended to last from AD 2000 to 12,000.

The Rosetta spacecraft is on a ten-year mission to study the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, in the hopes that determining its composition will reveal the origins of the Solar System.

Unlocking mysteries.

Ptolemaic: Rosetta Stone