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komponisto comments on The Tragedy of Group Selectionism - Less Wrong

36 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 November 2007 07:47AM

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Comment author: komponisto 12 February 2010 06:43:55PM *  3 points [-]

Period generally refers to menstruation in British English.

I've heard people say this more than once, and each time I always want to say "Come on!" That particular meaning (which of course is just as well known in American English) is nothing but a derivative of the principal meaning of "period" (in all English-speaking countries), which is "length of time" or more generally "interval" -- which also gives rise to the American usage referring to the punctuation mark, as sentences are in some sense regular units of discourse.

Comment author: mattnewport 12 February 2010 07:03:45PM 2 points [-]

Growing up in England I picked up from American TV and movies that saying 'period' at the end of a sentence was a way of emphasizing a statement. I picked up the meaning from context but didn't understand the derivation as 'period' had only two salient meanings for me: an interval or menstruation. As a teenager in high school at the time the latter was probably the strongest association. At some point I discovered that 'period' in American English meant 'full stop' and suddenly the phrase made perfect sense (since in British English we use 'full stop' in the same sense, though it's a somewhat less common phrase).

All the meanings share a fairly obvious association in retrospect. I maintain that for most British English speakers however (at least those my age or older who weren't as steeped in American culture as younger Brits might be) the word period is much more strongly associated with menstruation than with punctuation, even being aware of the latter meaning.

Comment author: komponisto 12 February 2010 07:20:49PM 0 points [-]

I maintain that for most British English speakers however... the word period is much more strongly associated with menstruation than with punctuation, even being aware of the latter meaning.

Oh, that's undoubtedly true; the punctuation usage is definitely an Americanism. My point was that the most salient meaning is (or certainly ought to be) the general one of "interval". (I've never seen a British mathematician wince when discussing the period of the sine function.)

Comment author: thomblake 12 February 2010 07:35:22PM *  0 points [-]

the punctuation usage is definitely an Americanism

According to various online sources, the first written usage of "period" to mean "dot at the end of a sentence" was in 1609. I can't find mention of a source, but I find it hard to believe it's American. I've been unable to find an origin for "full stop" - some sites try to link it to the telegraph, but inconsistently mention that "full stop" was not used instead of "stop" since it would cost more.

ETA: found the 1609 reference. John Davies - poem here - grep for "but thy nailes"

Comment author: komponisto 12 February 2010 07:49:56PM 0 points [-]

Well, a number of modern-day Americanisms aren't American in origin, but rather are the result of the usage in question having become obsolete in Britain. Standard examples include "sick" for "ill" and "fall" for "autumn" ("mad" for "angry" might also be one, though I'm not sure).

The same phenomenon occurs in other widely-distributed languages, notably Portuguese, where in some respects Brazilian usage resembles the old-fashioned language of Portugal more than the modern language of Portugal does.

Comment author: thomblake 12 February 2010 08:05:14PM 0 points [-]

The word "Americanism" seems to imply that it's some crazy thing the Americans have decided to do, against all sense, as opposed to continuing to use the language in the same fashion it's been used for hundreds of years. For example, I've heard "Authorise is the correct spelling; Americans just spell it 'authorize' because they like to be different" despite the British "authorise" being the common spelling for only about a century and the OED still recommending "authorize".

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 13 February 2010 02:16:19AM 1 point [-]

-ize is something else, but most american spellings (not usage) really are the abrupt decision of Noah Webster. He was a nationalist and the theory that he was trying to create an american identity is poorly-attested but not insane.