By popular demand, here are the slides from my Ignite Portland 12 talk. I have to give extensive credit to my brother Connal for his help with ordering the slides, as well as making the graphs look incredibly slick. I also need to thank my mother for her endless supply of encouragement, and Robert for being my whimsical anchor.

Click here to see the slides in a new window: HUGHES IGNITE FINAL.

Video of my talk is now accessible here, through the Ignite Portland Youtube Channel.  I have also added it to an Encyclopedia Briannica playlist, where I will talk more about language topics just like this. Stay tuned.

What can I say? I’m proud of it.

EDIT: You can now get these slides, and more information on cutthroats, on my more respectable site,


November 15, 2013

in 2013,best post ever,career,compounds,Words & Origins

I have recently completed my master’s degree for Linguistics at the University of York. I am publishing the title and modified abstract for the 15000 word dissertation I submitted in September 2012 here as a reference for fellow linguists who may be be interested in obsolete English compounds and their link to language development. For any questions regarding the dissertation, Appendix A, or historical linguistics, please email: hughes.brianne at

=====ʃʃʃʃʃʃʃ =====

From Turncoats To Backstabbers: How Headedness and Word Order Determine the Productivity of Agentive and Instrumental Compounding in English

=====ʃʃʃʃʃʃʃ =====

Abstract: According to a study by Clark et al (1986), English-speaking children spontaneously create exocentric V+N (turncoat) compounds during the development of agentive and instrumental compounding. Historically, the turncoat pattern has low productivity in English. Appendix A (attached) is a chronological list of all of the known turncoat compounds that entered English between 1050 and 2009. Only two new words of this pattern have been created in the past fifty years: Xpel-air and Pesterchum.

Turncoat compounds are advantageous for children learning verb-object (VO) languages such as English and Spanish because the pattern mirrors the syntax. Forms which are simple and transparent in accordance to the headedness and word order of a language are productive for both children and adults. Patterns that are structurally unclear, or that conflict with syntactic features, will be abandoned.

The advantage of simplicity that turncoat compounds offer to children is outweighed by its unmarked structure and many semantic limitations. The synthetic N+V+er (backstabber) pattern, on the other hand, complies with the headedness of English, is not limited by semantic clumping or verb transitivity, and can describe neutral objects as productively as it can reductive insults. Backstabber compounds also flourish in West Germanic languages, which share right-headedness with English.

Turncoat compounds are memorable and evocative descriptors of objects and occupations, but because of their clash with the headedness of English, their productivity cannot be sustained. Turncoat compounds will never challenge backstabber compound productivity.

=====ʃʃʃʃʃʃʃ =====


October 21, 2012

in 2012,best post ever,career,compounds,dissertation,english,University of York,Words & Origins

This is about the last editing my dad ever did for me, in January 2009, in an insignificant email to my boss, telling him I wouldn’t be returning to Portland for another couple of days. I’d flown home for an emergency, which led to a surgery, which led to my dad coming home from the hospital and learning to walk around with an oxygen tank.

It wasn’t important what I wrote in the email, but I just couldn’t phrase it right. I asked my boyfriend at the time, my brothers, my mom. They said “Just write something, it doesn’t matter.” But I wanted to write the right thing, so I went to my dad, laying in his bed, and I asked him what to write. And he told me. And I wrote it.

No one cared what I wrote, and it didn’t change the world, but for a moment we got to be the old editing team that we’d been my whole life, the team that got broken up by an undeserved disease and hospital visits and medicine that fogged him up and forced our dynamic to deteriorate from equals to a caretaker and a patient who were both miserable from the change.

Why did I go to grad school for linguistics, knowing that I hadn’t written anything since he died, knowing that I would have to write all year, ending with  a 15000 word dissertation? I guess I thought it was time to stand up, even if some parts were still broken. This year has been so hard. I haven’t produced any great academic works, and now, the night before my dissertation is due, I’m aching for my reliable editor to help polish my abstract and bring the message home.

Here… write this.” There was a pause, and he squinted and stared out at nothing, and maybe bit the side of his moustache with his bottom lip, or maybe he suddenly stretched his arms out and back to intertwine his fingers behind his head.  I can’t remember that day exactly, but he did those things a lot when were brainstorming. Then he told me what to write. “This has been a week of transitions.”

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September 13, 2012

in Autobiographical,career,Words & Origins

Back of kooBi Front of kooBi (with duckie)

My first computer was a laptop called kooBi. It was an iBook. Its accompanying iPod was called doPi. It was great, went to Spain, and got a lot of stickers on it. Then poor kooBi aged and got tired. The disc burner stopped working, and that kind of feature is important to me, so I got a new one, a MacBook which I named McBook. Its iPod shuffle sidekick was called McPod. For graduation in 2008, I was given an iPod Touch named iToca, which is still with me. McBooks life was tragically cut short when it drowned in the summer of 2009, leading me to buy a MacBook Pro. I’m very attached to my laptops, the first 2 are living in a box in California, and I’ve taken this new one with me everywhere (Korea, Walnut Creek, Germany). But! It doesn’t have a proper name.

After 3 years of companionship, it’s still the new guy, and there’s some kind of smugness that comes with the title Pro that I do not enjoy associating myself with. So… back in 2009 I covered up the MacBook Pro label with a sticker that no one understands, because it’s in Latin. The label says Vade Mecum.

[and then suddenly…]


April 17, 2012

in Autobiographical,best post ever,career,computers,history of language,latin,sex,Words & Origins

This is a companion post to last month’s Alcoholic Watergate Hamburgers post. (I just learned that a com-pan-ion is someone with whom you eat bread. So adorable.)

So my friend [ɦɑnɑ] has been playing Jeremina Paxmina for the University of York University Challenge team for the last few months, and while their fate in the tournament is a mystery until July, Hannah’s involvement in British quizzing got me to look into the serious fare offered in the UK. Here’s what I found: Serious British quiz shows are MEAN. They are unforgiving, humorless, exacting, and demanding of minutiae in zero seconds. I checked out University Challenge episodes on Youtube, as well as Only Connect, a Question of Genius, Countdown, Eggheads, and Mastermind.

My favorite of the bunch is Only Connect, which ruthlessly demands teams to find the connection between words with the fewest clues possible. (I made my own Only Connect Wall but I wasn’t able to upload it onto the site.) On the Champions of Champions episode last August, one question revealed the word Marathon, followed by Hamburger, Alcoholic, and finally Watergate. Having recently written about this, I knew the connection when I saw Hamburger.

[and then suddenly…]


March 22, 2012

in best post ever,career,english,greek,IPA,neologism,wordnik,Words & Origins,yiddish

Linguists in academia don’t seem very fond of word origins. They like to focus on the tiny phonological bits of languages [p,t,k] or the grand syntactic structure that binds sentences together. Somehow, the very juicy goodness of language, the words, are either too big or too small to care about. BOO. I love word origins. I don’t know how important they are, but I want to spend all my time paying attention to them. But! Before we have fun, there are some ground rules that we need to agree on before we can safely and happily play together in the sandbox of word origins. This is our first negotiation on this subject, this should continue as a dialogue (probably in the comments). I’ll start: Here are 3 rules to counteract misconceptions I often encounter.

1.     The origin of a word is not the true or right meaning, just the literal one.

  • WRONG: “The true meaning of hippopotamus is river horse.”
  • RIGHT: “The literal meaning of hippopotamus is river horse,  how cute is that? You can see these word-parts in other words you already know. Mesopotamia is the land between rivers, and a hippogriff is made of a horse and an eagle.” (See Best Monday Comic Ever)

[and then suddenly…]


February 15, 2012

in career,english,Etymology,etymonline,history of language,morphemes,Words & Origins

Does that title make you as happy as it makes me? Probably not, but let’s see if I can change that.

Linguistics Llama Knows What I’m Saying

Part 1: Ghoti is a satirical spelling of fish [fɪʃ]. It is often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, but he doesn’t take credit for it. Ghoti is used to mock spelling inconsistencies in English and advocate reform. (There’s a clever bunch who even say ghoti should be silent). I don’t deny it, English spelling is very irregular. It’s a Germanic language at heart, but with massive word-borrowing from French and Latin, and PTSD from the GVS (Great Vowel Shift). This is the phonetic thinking behind ghoti:

GH is [f] as in TOUGH
O is [ɪ] as in WOMEN
TI is [ʃ] as in NATION

Obviously, the ‘sh’ in nation needs a larger environment to have its unusual pronunciation, as in ghotion.  Likewise, ‘gh’ in tough needs to be syllable-final, as in roughotion [rʌfɪʃən]. That works, I guess, except for that tricky vowel. That silly vowel that makes people say WOAH-man. [and then suddenly…]

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January 24, 2012

in best post ever,career,english,Etymology,history of language,insignificant linguistics mystery,IPA,Words & Origins

Boarding a flight from PDX to SJC, I sat in the window seat, waiting for the plane to fill. A man buckled in and settled into the aisle seat and then I realized- I was missing something important. I felt terrible, but asked the man to let me get by. I opened the overhead compartment, unzipped my backpack, and grabbed one little green thing. I closed everything up, swung back into my row, and felt relieved. What the man thought, I’ll never know. What I grabbed was Failte.

[and then suddenly…]


July 29, 2011

in best post ever,career,China,countries,europe,france,gaelic,korea,latin,Panda,pandas,travel

The University of York Coat of Arms

Most likely, the title of this post means nothing to you. For me, it was signpost in a series of cute irresistible signposts that suggested I go to the University of York in the fall to get my masters in Linguistics. [and then suddenly…]


July 20, 2011

in best post ever,career,Etymology,history of language,insignificant linguistics mystery,latin,University of York,Words & Origins

A few years ago, I took first year Latin at PSU. I didn’t continue Latin because I got a job, and it turns out I hate declining nouns and adjectives. It is three times as much work. The professor was great, seemingly normal, but with a great unexpected affection for Elvis (pronouced Elwees in Latin). I really liked learning the new vocab and connecting it to modern words I know in English, Spanish and French. I also loved conjugating the verbs and learning the four principle parts like in the verb ‘regere,’ to rule or reign: Rego, Regere, Rexi, Rectum.

[and then suddenly…]


May 15, 2011

in best post ever,career,etymonline,history of language,insignificant linguistics mystery,IPA,latin,morphemes,spanish,wordnik