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April 19, 2019  |  Friday words #168  |  516 hit(s)

Suppose you're reading an article about politics, and you run into a paragraph like this (which I just invented):

At a campaign stop this week, the candidate spoke about the "need for morals" in today's society. His platform literature repeatedly touts "moral values," and he has previously called for schools to include "moral education." Nonetheless, there is the candidate's well-documented history of legal troubles. When it comes to morality, he keeps using that word, but we do not think it means what he thinks it means.

The last sentence illustrates this week's new-to-me word, which (for a change) is actually new-new: Easter egg quotation. You might recognize that last sentence as a quote, slightly altered, from the movie The Princess Bride. But here's the thing: the sentence fits neatly and reasonably into the paragraph. If you don't know the lines from that movie, you don't lose any meaning in the paragraph. But if you do recognize the cite, you get a little extra joy.

Another example: at the beginning of the week, one of your colleagues says about a grumpy co-worker, "Uh-oh! It looks like someone's got a case of the Mondays!" Clear enough, probably, even if you've never heard of anything called "the Mondays." But it's a hidden gem for fans of the movie Office Space.

The term Easter egg quotation was coined just recently by the linguist Arnold Zwicky on his blog. (Zwicky has coined a number of terms, including recency illusion and zombie rule.) He was exploring the use of these hidden citations in articles from The Economist, which has a reputation for wordplay. For his examples, Zwicky finds citations from Monty Python and Gertrude Stein hiding right there in Economist articles.

Why Easter egg? A simple answer is that an Easter egg is (to quote my wife) a "hidden prize." That's a general explanation, but the term Easter egg also has a specific meaning in the world of gaming and software. It refers to a surprise that the user can get to by making just the right sequence of gestures—click this box on that screen while holding down the Ctrl key, or type a special word at just the right place, or whatever[1]. Easter eggs started as a way to sneak the contributors' names into a piece of software, but sometimes became quite elaborate, revealing games or other fun stuff.

You could argue that an Easter egg quotation is a multi-media phenomenon. Musical improvisers often cite other works in their solos for the musically savvy to hear. Visual artists incorporate imagery that echoes other works. In fact, I was recently watching the movie Mean Girls (2004), in which Tina Fey plays a high school teacher who moonlights by working in a bar. Here she is on her way to her second job; if you've seen Office Space (1999), you will surely recognize those 37 pieces of flair:

Let's move on to origins. Where does the word asunder come from? Wait, we should probably review what it means: "into separate pieces," as in something like "She ripped the old dress asunder" or the phrase from Mark 10:9 "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder."

Asunder is an adverb that probably comes from on + sunder (well, on + sundrum). It goes way the heck back, about as far back as we have records of written English. The sunder part shows up in Frisian and Dutch and German in words that mean "special, apart, separate." (In modern German, it shows up as sondern, which is a verb meaning "to separate" and a conjunction that means "but, on the contrary.") In modern English, we still have sundry (as in "a collection of sundry items") and sundries (as in "pick up milk and sundries at the store"). I don't often come across words during these etymological investigations that have such a purely Germanic origin as this one! A nice little bonus.

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[1] I worked at Microsoft during a period when a fair bit of effort was put into creating Easter eggs in the software we shipped. That all came to an end in 2002, when it was declared that having hidden bits in the software tended to undermine the message of trustworthiness. It was fun while it lasted, though.

Jed   24 Apr 19 - 5:38 PM

Neat—wouldn’t have occurred to me that asunder and sundry are related, but makes sense now that you point it out.