Language Archives

January 16, 2008

Most Common Last Names

Census last names On page 727 of The World Almanac 2008 is a list of the 30 most common last names in the U.S. The list is based on a count of surnames from the 1990 Census. The U.S. Census Bureau lately released a list of the most common last names from the 2000 Census (the top ten from each Census shown at right).

That two Hispanic surnames made the top 10 list in 2000 seems to reflect the country's growing Hispanic population. The proportion of Asian surnames in the population also increased. I'm happy to report that my surname, Liu, rose from a rank of 2300 in 1990 to 650 in 2000. That's higher than the surnames of World Almanac editors Joyce (#948), Janssen (#3101), and Steinitz (not among top 5,000) but well below Thomas (#14).

More than 6 million surnames were identified in Census 2000 records. About 26% of the population sample, or 60 million people, accounted for 275 of the most common surnames. Around 65% (4 million) of all surnames identified were unique to one individual.

The entire list of 1,000 most common surnames from the 2000 Census can be found at the link below. In addition, the Census document "Demographic Aspects of Surnames from Census 2000" (pdf) ranks surnames by their frequency among different races.

Frequently Occurring Surnames from Census 2000 (Census Bureau)
Genealogy page, including frequently occurring surnames from the 1990 Census (Census Bureau)
"In U.S. Name Count, Garcias Are Catching Up with Joneses" (includes name search function) (

January 7, 2008

All We Were Saying in 2007


As my enjoyment of all end-of-the-year lists (particularly those of the linguistic variety) has already been established here, I'm sure everyone can understand my regret over not being able to post about this NY Times article before I left for the holiday.

I thought this collection of buzzwords (and buzz-phrases) was especially interesting because, while I have seen many of them before in similar collections—colony collapse disorder, for example—I hadn't even heard of many of them (dramaprice, anyone?), which seemingly contradicts their status as buzzwords. And yet, I knew immediately to what phenomena of 2007 they referred.

A few of my favorite, previously unknown phrases from 2007:

earmarxist n.
A member of Congress who adds earmarks — money designated for pet projects — to legislation.

FTW interj.
For The Win. A bragging exclamation of approval, as in "K-Fed got the kids FTW," or "I was able to open the file with Photoshop. FTW!!!" Originally part of the patter of the game show "Hollywood Squares" and later found in online games like World of Warcraft. Now largely used ironically and sarcastically.

global weirding n.
An increase in severe or unusual environmental activity often attributed to global warming. This includes freakish weather and new animal migration patterns.

All We Are Saying [nytimes]

"Bee and His Shadow" photo from Lasre's Flickr.

December 26, 2007

A Language of Symbols

Need a break from the hundreds of tables, timelines, and charts in the 2008 World Almanac?



Symbol languageChinese artist Xu Bing is "writing" an entire book that uses only symbols that could be used as an "international language of everyday life." Bing was inspired by airline safety cards and what he describes as "the continued standardization of transnational products and consumer lifestyles."

This past summer Bing tested his language at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Two people could sit at computers on opposite sides of a wall, type a conversation, and the words would be translated into symbols for the other person to see (read samples with subtitles or without subtitles).

Book from the Ground
Xu Bing interview (MOMA's Automatic Update exhibit)
(Found via

December 13, 2007

It's Obama, Not Osama

obama_osama.jpgConfusing the Democratic presidential hopeful with the Saudi terrorist was just one of the noteworthy errors made in the press in 2007. Craig Silverman at Regret the Error has posted his list of top media mistakes of the year.
Some highlights:
"When Redding, a longtime scout for Playboy, discovered Smith, the model could barely right a sentence..."
-Houston Chronicle
We misspelled the word misspelled twice, as mispelled, in the Corrections and clarifications column on September 26, page 30.
-The Guardian
APOLOGY: In Friday's article on Liz Hurley's wedding it was wrongly stated that the actress is holding a pheasant shoot on the Sunday after the ceremony. Game shooting is of course illegal on Sundays and the pheasant season ended on Feb 1. We apologise for the error and accept that if any shooting is to be done it will be by the paparazzi, who have no season and do not observe the Sabbath.
-Daily Telegraph (UK)

November 30, 2007

Quote Check: Mark Twain Birthday Edition


November 30 is the anniversary of the 1835 birth of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known pseudonymously as the celebrated writer and humorist Mark Twain. (Fun fact: Mark Twain was Clemens's second pen name. I personally prefer his first: Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass.)

Twain was one of the most quoted—and misquoted—personalities in American history (second only to Abraham Lincoln, according to Ralph Keyes, author of The Quote Verifier). Among the aphorisms misattributed to Twain: "Golf is a good walk spoiled"; "It is very easy to give up smoking. I've done it hundreds of times"; and "It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt."

However, Twain can be properly credited with saying, "Man is the only animal who blushes. Or needs to," and "Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest."

Samuel Clemens died in 1910; both his birth and death were marked by the appearance of Halley's Comet, about which he said, as quoted in his 1909 biography:

"I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: "Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together."

There are quite a few great Mark Twain resources on the web; one of the best, listed below, was created in tandem with the Ken Burns film and includes links to video and audio as well as a ton of letters and other primary sources.

Mark Twain Scrapbook

The Second Oldest Profession?

0711oldestprofession.jpgWhile doing some recent fact checking, I came across a quote attributed to Ronald Reagan:
"It's been said that politics is the second oldest profession. I have learned that it bears a striking resemblance to the first."

It seemed to be a favorite quip for Reagan, who said some version of it on several occasions since at least 1974 when he was governor of California. But I also found other politicians, including President Jimmy Carter, saying it. Curious about how long the joke had been around, I did a search through some newspaper archives for the phrase "second oldest profession." It seems that writers had been placing various jobs in that dubious position for years, but politics wasn't one of them.

    Nominees for the Second Oldest Profession
  • Actors - "Hobnobbing in Hollywood with Grace Kingsley" Los Angeles Times, Nov 23, 1932
  • Casino Gambling - "Mont Blanc of Monte Carlo; Count Corti Tells the Story of the Principality of Chance" The Washington Post, Mar 17, 1935
  • Con Men - "Berliners, Who Fell for Hitler, Still Victims of 'Con' Men" The Washington Post, Mar 15, 1952
  • Counterfeiting - "Counterfeiting in America Started With Fake Wampum" Los Angeles Times, Apr 18, 1968
  • Gigolos - "Exit the Gigolo! His Taking Ways Remove Glamour; Paris 'Tribe' Vanishing; Too Light Fingered" Chicago Daily Tribune, Mar 5, 1932
  • Glassmaking - "Lenox Unveils Modern Glassmaking Facility With Old Techniques" Wall Street Journal, Nov 20, 1970
  • Interpreters - "Meet the Second Oldest Profession" The Washington Post, Sep 1, 1964
  • Journalism - a novel by Robert Sylvester, published 1950
  • Moving Companies - "New Holding Company on the Move" Los Angeles Times, Feb 12, 1969
  • Pharmacists - "The Second Oldest Profession" Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct 10, 1959 (mentioned again in the New York Times, Nov 17, 1963)
  • Pick Pocketing - "Bookkeepers Pen Death of Pickpockets" Chicago Daily Tribune, Aug 25, 1958
  • Pimpery - "The Bookshelf; 'Pimpery'" The Chicago Defender, Apr 18, 1931
  • Piracy - "Prominent in a Remarkable Exhibition of Pirate Lore in the Grolier Club of New York" The Washington Post, Nov 21, 1915.
  • Press Agents - "R. Maney [Dick Maney], Man and Legend" New York Times, Feb 23, 1941
  • Prostitutes (Confusing, yes. According to Yale anthropologist Ralph Linton in The Tree of Culture, Medicine Men were the first professionals.)
  • Spying - "British Premier Backs U.S. in Spy Incident" Los Angeles Times, May 13, 1960
  • Quackery aka Fake Medicine - "Quick-Buck Quacks Are Prospering More Than Ever" The Washington Post, Oct 7, 1961

As for politics, interestingly, no results turned up earlier than the 1970s and The Consent of the Governed, and Other Deceits (1971), written by New York Times political analyst Arthur Krock, has a chapter titled "The Second Oldest Profession."

Street walkers, etched by B. Smith, from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog

November 16, 2007

Word of the Year


The year is winding down, which means it's time for media outlets everywhere to start summarizing 2007 with variously-themed lists. While we don't yet know who the Time "Person(s) of the Year" will be, one of my favorite lists has already been released: the Oxford Word of the Year and its runners-up. I like the Word of the Year lists because they provide an interesting perspective on what people have been talking about during the year, and how they've chosen to talk about it.

The 2007 Oxford Word of the Year is locavore, which defines the movement, becoming more popular in some regions of the country, toward committing to eating only locally grown food.

A few Word of the Year runners-up:
  • bacn: email notifications, such as news alerts and social networking updates, that are considered more desirable than unwanted "spam" (coined at PodCamp Pittsburgh in Aug. 2007 and popularized in the blogging community)
  • colony collapse disorder: a still-unexplained phenomenon resulting in the widespread disappearance of honeybees from beehives, first observed in late 2006
  • tase (or taze): to stun with a Taser (popularized by a Sep. 2007 incident in which a University of Florida student was filmed being stunned by a Taser at a public forum)

Check out the rest of Oxford's list, which includes a nice etymology for locavore, at the link below. Or grab a copy of The World Almanac 2008, where you'll find Merriam-Webster's list of new words for 2007 on page 722.

Oxford Word of the Year

Flickr photo by Pay No Mind

November 9, 2007

Food For Thought


If you're feeling a little guilty about wasting company time clicking around on the Internet, there's a new way to assuage that guilt (at least temporarily). Last month, a new website called launched with two stated goals: to provide free English vocabulary and to help end world hunger. For every answer you get right on their free vocabulary quiz, 10 grains of rice are donated toward hunger relief via the United Nations World Food Program. The questions cover every imaginable vocabulary level, as the difficulty level adjusts with every right and wrong answer. And it's pretty satisfying watching the wooden bowl on the right side of the screen fill up, ten grains at a time.

The daily totals of donated grains, which you can view on the site, have grown exponentially since FreeRice's launch--from 830 grains donated on Oct. 7 to 77.1 million on Nov. 8. Over 1 billion grains have been donated so far.


Flickr photo by Mr. Kris

Continue reading "Food For Thought" »

March 23, 2007

The Top 1,000 Books

hamlet.jpg The Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) maintains a fascinating list of the top 1,000 works "most widely held by libraries," complete with cover art and links to help readers find each volume in a local library. Here's the top ten:
  1. Bible [Library holdings: 796,882 Bibliographic records: 93,567]
  2. Census (United States) [Library holdings: 460,628 Bibliographic records: 10,617]
  3. Mother Goose [Library holdings: 67,663 Bibliographic records: 2,036]
  4. Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri [Library holdings: 62,414 Bibliographic records: 2,917]
  5. Odyssey, Homer [Library holdings: 45,551 Bibliographic records: 2,087]
  6. Iliad, Homer [Library holdings: 44,093 Bibliographic records: 2,526]
  7. Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain [Library holdings: 42,724 Bibliographic records: 1,132]
  8. Lord of the Rings [trilogy], J. R. R. Tolkien [Library holdings: 40,907 Bibliographic records: 685]
  9. Hamlet, William Shakespeare [Library holdings: 39,521 Bibliographic records: 2,008]
  10. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll [Library holdings: 39,277 Bibliographic records: 1,942]
Hit the jump for highlights and oddities from the list, some insight into how the list was compiled, and the answer to the really important question: Where's The World Almanac?

Continue reading "The Top 1,000 Books" »

March 9, 2007

Vocabulary Idol

vocab.jpg The show American Idol took up the top 3 places in the Nielsen ratings last week, and will likely do so again this week. But another show filmed this week, likely to be at least slightly less highly rated, was comparing itself—and its participants—to the ratings behemoth and its stars-in-the-making.

While The World Almanac often includes information about the National Geography Bee and the National Spelling Bee (check out page 733 of the 2007 edition for a list of the winning words from the last 25 years), I had never even heard of the National Vocabulary Championship until this week. Teens from around the country compete to prove whose vocabulary reigns supreme. And—just as when I watch the National Spelling Bee (seriously, can you spell autochthonous?)—I was awed by the words upon words stored in the brains of these kids. One even told the host of the contest he knew a synonym for 'synonym' (poecilonym). He was knocked out in the first round.

The finals and contestant profiles will appear on GSN on April 15. But the contest website has some sample questions that, if you ask me, are a lot easier than the ones contestants were challenged with. See if you can come close to making the grade.

National Vocabulary Championship
NVC Sample Questions
A Contest Where Competitors Flex Their Lexicons (NYT)

Flickr photo by Despotes (cc)

March 6, 2007

The Cliché Rotation Project

Nines.jpgSick of clichés? Working on the Almanac where every word needs to count, I’ve learned how much space they can take up without really conveying much of anything. Well Matthew Baldwin at the hilarious blog Defective Yeti is sick of them too. He has started the Cliché Rotation Project to replace worn-out sayings with newer, snappier, more relevant ones. Here are some of my favorites from the first batch of reader-submitted ideas:
Old Cliché
The blind leading the blind Enrolled in the Paris and Nicole Academy
Don't be a party-pooper Don't squeeze out your grumpies in public
It's a win-win situation Everyone gets ice cream!
Knuckle sandwich Boot soufflé
More fun than a barrel of monkeys
More fun than 20 yards of bubble wrap
Nice guys finish last
No one remembers Ivan the Wonderful
Playing second fiddle
Jeeves in a Google world
Click over to Defective Yeti to read more. If you have some ideas of your own, submit them. He’s looking to make this an ongoing project.

Flickr photo by DonnitaMae

January 29, 2007

With a “Woof Woof” Here and a “Bau Bau” There

finn-head.jpg Would you like to be able to bark like a dog in Italian, Chinese, or Russian? The popular and aptly-named animal-appreciation blog Cute Overload (up for a Bloggie for 2007) led me to a chart of animal sounds and names put together by Dr. Derek Abbott of The University of Adelaide’s School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering. The chart’s organization makes it easy to use, but I would bet my bow-wows on the more comprehensive animal sounds directory compiled by Georgetown University linguistics professor Cathy Ball.

Cute Overload
Animal Sounds Chart by Derek Abbott
Sounds of the World's Animals by Cathy Ball

Photo: Finnegan, C. Alan Joyce's Cajun-speaking Catahoula leopard dog mix

January 24, 2007

2007 State of the Union (and Presidential Tag Cloud Revisited)

Just a reminder, for those of you who missed my previous rave about it, that Chirag Mehta has updated his Presidential Speeches Tag Cloud with an analysis of last night's State of the Union. "Terrorists" and "Iraq" remain the most frequently-used words, but my eye also catches on the increased frequency of "baghdad" and "qaeda" in comparison to previous SOTUs, and slightly lower relative frequency of "economy" and "freedom." Anybody notice any other interesting trends? Take it to the comments.
Link: US Presidential Speeches Tag Cloud
2007 SOTU Text: State of the Union Address, Jan. 23 2007

UPDATE: See also today's New York Times for The State of the Union in Words, another examination of word frequency in State of the Union speeches (but limited only to those given by Pres. Bush).

January 11, 2007

Tag, You're It!

pres_tags.jpgThis link has made the rounds before, but in the wake of President Bush's speech about troop increases in Iraq (and with another State of the Union coming up on January 23) it seems like a good time to point out Chirag Mehta's brilliant and fascinating Presidential Speeches Tag Cloud.

Mehta has taken the text of some 360 presidential speeches—from a 1776 speech by John Adams on "The Foundation of Government" through Pres. Bush's most recent SOTU—and run them through a script that assigns different weights to words according to frequency and popularity. What you see on his site are the top 100 words in each speech; words that appear more frequently are larger in size, and words that are closer to their "peak usage" are whiter in color.

A few things to look for:

  • First appearances of words in the top 100; for example, "conservation" in 1909, or "terrorism" in 1980
  • Patterns of rapid growth in word frequency; for example, "unemployment" between 1930 and 1935, or "communist" between 1951 and 1953
  • The ebb and flow of perennial favorites, especially "constitution"
  • The gradual disappearance of archaic words. The word "pecuniary" was among the top 100 words in Washington's first inaugural address; how many times do you think it will pop up in the next State of the Union?

Links: Presidential Speeches Tag Cloud (
State of the Union Addresses (complete text, from

January 5, 2007

That Plonker is One Mucky Pup...

oed.jpgNow that you have this year’s assignment on banished words, how about helping to rewrite the dictionary?

The folks at The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) are trying to find the earliest verifiable usage of every word in English (currently around 600,000, according to their count). In connection with their BBC show Balderdash & Piffle, they have released a list of words of uncertain origin (e.g., “round robin”) as well as words already defined and sourced that they suspect might have an earlier usage (e.g., “identity theft,” 1991 Boston Globe article). Amateur etymologists are encouraged to join the search for the earliest usage of any of these words; books, magazines, movies, sound recordings, letters, and other dated material are all acceptable sources.

The OED is also seeking submissions of new words. Though you might want to check out their updates before you get too excited—“texting” has already been added.

[Note: plonker, mucky pup]

More 2006 Lists: Banished Words

dictionary.jpgTired of hearing about "TomKat" and "Brangelina"? Sick of commercials telling you to "ask your doctor" to prescribe medication you don't need? Both of these common language nuisances were cited on the tongue-in-cheek 32nd annual List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness compiled by Lake Superior State University. Culled from about 4,500 submissions by language-saavy individuals, this year's list also includes "awesome" (which first received a temporary ban in 1984), "gone missing," and "undocumented alien," which was cited by one contributor as being too euphemistic: "It's like saying a drug dealer is an 'undocumented pharmacist,'" said John Varga of Westfield, New Jersey. The phrase "we're pregnant" was purged from the lexicon as well—but only for 9 months.

The word "boasts" was cited for its overuse in real estate classified ads by contributor Morris Conklin of Portugal, perturbed by the frequent appearance of phrases like "master bedroom boasts his-and-her fireplaces," but not "bathroom apologizes for cracked linoleum,' or 'kitchen laments pathetic placement of electrical outlets.'"

You can contribute to next year's list—already a work in progress—by going here.

[UPDATE: The link to this year's list is fixed now—sorry!]

Photo credit: squacco on flickr

About Language

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to The World Almanac in the Language category. They are listed from newest to oldest.

Internet is the previous category.

Media is the next category.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.