Lost in translation

Don’t use Google translate for your foreign language homework. Period. Sure, if you’re just looking for the general idea of a passage of foreign language text, this tool is nifty. However, translation is one area where it is best not to succumb to our robot overlords.

Translation technology has yet to surpass the skills of actual human translators with their years of study of grammar and syntax and how one language’s idioms translate into another’s.

Case in point: This video from CDZA takes the text from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’s theme song and runs it through all languages on Google translate and then back into English. Hilarity ensues.



Still, it’s amazing that we have come as far as we have with computer translations. Here is a video by Google that explains how its translation program works.


If all else fails, you can fake your way through translation like British comedian Catherine Tate does in this video.

Or maybe not.

Severe weather etymology

I have previously written about the etymology of tsunami. Today we are delving into the history of words for other serious weather systems.

Note: I received all my information from the Online Etymology Dictionary—an amazing, exhaustive resource that I strongly encourage you to check out.

The first citation of blizzard comes from 1859, though it gained popularity after a particularly hard winter in the United States during 1880. It is believed that the word is onomatopœic. In addition, in the 1770s, American English used the word blizz to mean a “violent rainstorm.” It came to be used to mean a winter storm thanks to people in the Upper Midwest of the United States.

Hurricane entered the English language in the 1550s from the Spanish word huracan. However, it took time (as is usual) for the spelling to become standardized. In the late sixteenth century, there were 39 recorded spellings, including forcane, herrycano, harrycaine, and hurlecane.

Tornado began in the 1550s, when it meant a “violent, windy thunderstorm.” It probably came from the Spanish word for “thunderstorm,” tronada. Tornado came to mean an “extremely violent whirlwind” in the 1620s.

In the 1550s, typhoon in English was spelled tiphon, coming from the Greek word typhon, which means “whirlwind.” During this time, it meant a “violent storm, whirlwind, tornado.” In the 1580s, it took on the meaning of a “cyclone, violent hurricane of India or the China Seas” after a translation of an Italian story of a voyage to the East Indies in which the author encountered a touffon.

Airplane call signs


If you’re flying and your airplane doesn’t fall from the sky and leave you burning to death in a horrible crash, you might be able to thank my friend Joe. He just graduated from air traffic control school. (Congrats!) And it was because of him that I got to learn the awesomely fun call signs air traffic controllers and pilots use.

Here’s the list:

A – Alpha
B – Bravo
C – Charlie
D – Delta
E – Echo
F – Foxtrot
G – Golf
H – Hotel
I – Igloo
J – Juliet
K – Kilo
L – Lima
M – Mike
N – November
O – Oscar
P – Papa
Q – Quebec
R – Romeo
S – Sierra
T – Tango
U – Uniform
V – Victor
W – Whiskey
X – X-ray
Y – Yankee
Z – Zulu

Apparently, air traffic controllers use their initials when they make contact with pilots. If I were in charge of air traffic, and let’s all be thankful that I’m not, my initials would be “Echo Romeo.” Pretty cool, if you ask me.

What would yours be?

elicit vs. illicit

Lesson: learning the difference between elicit and illicit

elicit: to draw forth or bring out

illicit: not permitted

Here is yet another pair of words that sounds a lot alike but has different meanings. Let’s take a look at some examples to help us figure out the different usages.

elicit examples
Martha’s joke elicited thunderous laughter.

Martha elicits delight every time someone eats her cookies.

Danny has been unable to elicit funding for the cat shelter.

Danny elicited sympathy from the broke animal lovers.

Hint: You can see from the example sentences that elicit involves receiving (or not receiving) something, be it laughter, delight, funding, sympathy, or something else.

illicit examples
The cops arrested Harry because he had an illicit marijuana pipe in his car.

Harry told the cops the illicit drug should be allowed, and he shouted, “Legalize it!”

Fred smuggled an illicit bottle of water into the concert because the venue was selling them for five dollars.

The security guards threw Fred out of the concert because he was taking illicit photos of ladies in the bathroom.

Hint: You can see from the example sentences that illicit describes things that are against the rules.

Test your skills with this quiz. Fill in either elicit or illicit in the blanks. The answers are at the bottom.

1. The child hid an ________ piece of candy in his pocket.
2. Randy was in tears because he did not _______ approval from the nominating committee.
3. Hank was being charged for having _______ material on his computer’s hard drive.
4. The mouse managed to _______ a howl from the cat when he startled it.

1. illicit 2. elicit 3. illicit 4. elicit

Like turkeys voting for an early Christmas

If you’re like me, you’ve been spending the last two weeks in a feverish race to finish end-of-the-year work projects, purchase Christmas presents, and get everything sorted so you can enjoy the most Martha Stewart-worthy holiday. The result: not enough sleep, short tempers, and general humbuggedness.

Perhaps we are like turkeys voting for an early Christmas.

This is my favorite Christmas-related idiom. As the second edition of the Cambridge Idioms Dictionary explains, this idiom is used mostly in Britain and Australia (where the people tend to have a perverse sense of humor more aligned with my own). To explain this idiom: if a person is like a turkey voting for an early Christmas, they accept a situation that will yield very bad results for them. The saying uses turkeys because they are a favorite cooked dish at Christmas dinners. Get it? Like turkeys voting for an early Christmas. Ha!

Since this common pre-holiday rampage so many of us get involved in tends to yield the bad results I mentioned earlier, I think it’s fair to use this idiom.

Here are more turkey-ish examples:

When Zowie signed up to organize the humongous family reunion, she was like a turkey voting for an early Christmas.

The exasperated science teacher signed up to take on two more classes. Boy, he’s like a turkey voting for an early Christmas.

Santa has been too busy drinking spiked eggnog to make his lists and check them twice—just like a turkey voting for an early Christmas.

So, are you feeling like a turkey this time of year? Maybe using this idiom (and perhaps shouting it very loudly in crowded shopping malls) will make you feel better. Otherwise, you can always feel free to vent to me.