To the French, it is the flower that thinks; what do the English call it?
December 4, 2004 12:09 PM   Subscribe

Etymology-wise, which hormone is an island? What word both denotes a prime and euphemizes Satan? What word denotes "the future" and abbreviates the unknown? Is urine pith? These are some of the questions from "Moot: The World's Toughest Language Game," a homemade and little-known board game for lovers of words. Some puzzles are available online; there are a few more available on a page detailing the interesting story behind the game's creation. You can sign up to have a new language puzzle e-mailed to you every week.
posted by painquale (8 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't mean to make this post a product placement; I've just enjoyed the mailing list for a long time and wanted to share. These are some of the best language puzzles around.
posted by painquale at 12:12 PM on December 4, 2004

H. L. Mencken defined it as: "an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable"; what word is it?

So, not ALL the questions are tough...
posted by Pretty_Generic at 12:54 PM on December 4, 2004

I've been meaning to get index cards one night, some pens, get a group of friends, and make up cards and play them. I'm sure there will be some entertaining results.
posted by asbates2 at 2:08 PM on December 4, 2004

I'm willing to overlook the ugly webpage, but not the sloppiness:
Its name means opposite bear in Greek; which large landmass is it?
(The Antarctic -- in Greek anti arkitos means "opposite bear.")
There is no "Greek anti arkitos"; the OED gives the Greek forms as follows:
antarktik-os opposite to the north, f. anti- against, opposite + arktik-os of the Bear, northern, f. arktos bear, the constellation of the Bear.
In other words, the direct ancestor of antarctic has nothing to do with bears; furthermore, the phrase for 'opposite (a) bear' would be anti arktou (not "arkitos").

However, I'm willing to forgive a lot for the sake of the extremely sensible dictionary page:
Is there a higher authority?--a meta-dictionary, which even dictionary-makers go to?

Yes, there is -- I have seen the meta-dictionary and it is us.

Lexicographers -- i.e., dictionary makers -- get their definitions by observing how we -- the people -- use words. To do this, they collect samples of our discourse and from those samples they compile definitions. These samples are almost always drawn from writing because:

(1) written discourse is easier to collect, organize, and examine than is spoken discourse; and

(2) until this century, writing was the only way to preserve discourse

The result is that when we look up a word's "meaning," what we actually find is a distillation of how people -- especially writers -- have used that word over the years. So, it seems that we have a paradox:

To find the meaning of a word, we consult a book written by people who found the meaning of the word by consulting us.

The paradox is easily resolved, however, by realizing that when we look up a word in a dictionary, we do not find the word's "meaning" -- i.e., we do not find some ideal Platonic definition existing outside human discourse -- rather, what we find is a summary of the ways people use this word to communicate with other people.

The dictionary supplies us with this information by taking a sample -- albeit a non-random and writer-biased sample -- of how people have used it. This explains why different dictionaries can define the same word differently: their samples are different. For example, the COD skews its selection in favour of writers writing thirty or more years ago, whereas Webster's 9th uses more up-to-date written sources, as well non-literary sources; for example, they quote Art Linkletter and Mae West.
posted by languagehat at 2:54 PM on December 4, 2004 [1 favorite]

"opposite bear" is a nice phrase, though. It calls to mind a bear who is inside out or the wrong color or not a bear.
posted by clockzero at 7:46 PM on December 4, 2004

Is urine pith?
Of courth, thilly.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:05 PM on December 4, 2004

Reminds me of Says You!.
posted by euphorb at 8:19 PM on December 4, 2004

I love this kinda stuff! thanks for the find.
posted by mcsweetie at 11:20 PM on December 4, 2004

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