Monday, 7 December 2009

Hot for Words: On titillating etymologies and pop philology (with some remarks on Beowulf movies and sex thrown in for good measure)

I came across an article by Marc Bousquet, "Teaching for Lust" on Brainstorm, the blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education, discussing Marina Orlova (Марина Орлова), a self-employed philologist who produces a YouTube series "Hot for Words".

Apparently Marina started her YouTube channel back in 2007, but I'd never heard of her until this week. I haven't seen her discussed in any of the usual places (Language Log, languagehat, etc. [update: "Hot for Words" was actually discussed a couple of times at the blog bradshaw of the future{sweostorword}; I overlooked these posts obviously.]). I'm usually on the lookout for video clips having to do with language but somehow I missed this series.

Here's the first video she posted (the more recent videos are much more polished):

And a blurb from her website:
Marina Orlova, known to millions of fans around the world as a sexy master of language, HotForWords, is a 28 year old Internet “sensation”. Hailing from Moscow, Marina has two degrees in philology which is the study of linguistics and origins of words. Back in Russia Marina taught English and World Literature to high-schoolers. She came to the United States six years ago to improve her English skills and prepare for her Ph.D., but she ended up staying in the U.S. simply because of the warmer weather. Two and a half years ago, Marina burst onto the YouTube scene. Her initial goal was to reach more people with her language knowledge...In each video she takes word requests from YouTube users and discusses their meanings and origins. Something that might, at first, seem boring, but when a buxom blonde with a Russian accent teaches you anything, it can be quite educational, thus proving, as her tag-line states, that “Intelligence is Sexy.”
Obviously part of her popularity is simply because sex(iness) sells. But is this a bad thing?

I had some concerns about whether her philology would be sound, especially as she's apparently a recurrent guest on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor---and I don't associate Fox News with "truthiness".

The few "Hot for Words" videos I watched, however, seemed largely accurate. I mean, they weren't deep, and I'm guessing Orlova takes a lot of etymologies straight from the OED, but I didn't notice any serious misinformation. Etymologies seem to be her main trade, though she does have a video which touches on sound change, dealing with the pronunciation of kn-initial words (where knife is illustrated by a khukuri!), and a bit on neologism.

Turning back to the "Teaching for Lust" article, Bousquet's comments on Orlova are rather perplexing:
Youtube phenom “Hotforwords” raises the ante on the “teaching for love” canard. In the process, she schools us on how teaching really can realize the administration’s dream in the form of the ultimate “quality” process.
The 27-year-old Russian philologist is a former Ph.D. aspirant and high-school literature teacher with nearly 30 million views of her videos explaining various linguistic puzzles, such as — in the featured clip — how “dope” can mean both stupid and excellent.
One might ask the same about the term “quality,” which for administrators means, well, this.
Seriously, there’s no disputing her metrics. It’s teaching as “vaudeville,” as The New York Times’s Virginia Heffernan points out, but her curriculum is customer-defined and market-oriented. She is a self-funding responsibility center. She gets great student evaluations. Her teaching methods are susceptible to straightforward assessment instruments. There isn’t a “quality” complaint to make about her.
Oh yeah, and it’s totally exploitative, which makes a nice fit with all the outsourcing and permatemping.
Marina’s teaching for love (of fame) is not entirely divorced from the phenomenon that Michelle Masse analyzes as the feminization of the humanities — the reduction of whole fields of faculty work to second-class status by way of the gender economy: part of the cheapening and degradation of the work is the tacit recognition of it as women’s work, as a service, compensated by something other than wages. In connection with her forthcoming SUNY collection Ten Million Served with Katie Hogan, she observes how the call to “service” is one of the most compelling vectors of exploitation in academic life.
Masse points out that “secretary” and “nurse” used to name well-remunerated, well-respected positions for men. Kinda like “professor of language.” Now that it’s women’s work, it’s best done as a kind of lightly-paid volunteerism — for love, or, as in Marina’s, case, something closely allied to it.
Now, Masse's remarks (see link above) seem to be on target, but I'm not sure how this relates to sexed-up YouTube mini-philology, as Bousquet suggests. [Update: Orlova actually replied to Bousquet's commentary: see here.]

Orlova doesn't seem to be teaching just for "love": she's a revenue-sharing YouTube partner, she's signed an endorsement deal with "coComment", and she's published a book with HarperCollins. If she started out teaching for "love (of fame)" as Bousquet argues, I assume it was because she figured she could parlay that fame into money.

But how does this affect academics? Bousquet seems to imply that university administrations are going to outsource philology/historical linguistics to "Hot for Words". Now, admittedly university administrators often make stupid decisions, and many linguistics departments aren't refilling their historical linguistics posts---but I don't think it's because they believe they can outsource philology to Orlova.

I think, rather, such things can act to spark people's interest in a topic, and thus have a positive effect for academics: if even a small percentage of young people who watch Orlova's series become interested in etymology, some of them may decide to enrol in an historical linguistics course that they wouldn't have otherwise. Higher enrolment in historical linguistics courses = less possibility of departments deciding not to refill their historical linguistics positions.

I won't deny the vaudeville-angle of "Hot for Words", but that's why it works of course. I play YouTube clips for my students, like "A Bit of Fry and Laurie (on Language)" during my discussion of generative vs. formulaic language; and this clip from an old Fawlty Towers episode when discussing language contact. The clips don't substitute for course material, but rather supplement it by serving to maintain students' attention and get them interested in the topic we're discussing.

It seems to me that "Hot for Words" does something similar: the scantily-clad buxom blonde draws the audience in, but at least they get taught a bit of etymology. For example, in one video, Orlova answers a viewer's question about whether titillating has anything to do with tits (tits can be titillating is the logic behind the question). Now, obviously in part the viewer's question was motivated by a desire to hear a busty Russian woman talk about tits, but Orlova does answer the question, explaining that titillate derives from Latin titillāre "to tickle", and (briefly) discusses the semantic changes leading to the predominant modern sense. (Her discussion of tits was, I think, a little off, as she derived the word ultimately from Old French tete, tette, taite, but the development appears to be more complicated than that, since Old English has tit(t) and the modern form seems likely to derive from some mixture of both of the Old English and the Old French.)

A parallel that comes to mind is the effect on Anglo-Saxon studies of Beowulf movies--which have also tended to use sex to draw viewers in:
While none of the recent Beowulf-based films are particularly faithful to the original poem, they increase awareness of Beowulf and thus have the potential to raise enrolment in Old English courses.

"Hot for Words" would seem to have a similar potential effect: to arouse interest in philology, and thus perhaps get a few more bodies into historical linguistics classrooms.


  1. Hello be_slayed,
    I enjoyed reading your article about Marina. It was interesting for me to read about your discovery of Marina, and of course I am tempted to ask you, where have you been, but I won't.

    I have been following Marina since her first video back in 2007. Since then, Marina has now produced 511 video lessons and has been seen over 260 million times on YouTube. Marina has also built a very nice community of like minded people on her website

    Very similar to you, as a hobby, I am studying Eastern European history and I was constantly drawn into the study of word origins which I found very interesting. And, similar to you, I looked for some visual material about Europe on YouTube and came across Marina's video.

    I have watched all 511 video lessons and I have learned something from each one of them. It has been a blast following Marina creating her videos.

    Also, as you mentioned, Marina does have a book out that she recently published. Check it out. You will have fun with it. Go to and click the MyBook link in the navigation menu.


  2. Very good article. I enjoyed it very much. I even wrote Marina an email with some of my thoughts about what you wrote.

    I really think Marina has been a pioneer in getting more people interested in etymology. She found one thing that get's males attention more than anything else and used that to her advantage.

    She has even turned me from a word hater into someone who now is starting to like words much more. Even my sister has notice a change (and improvement)

    Captain Jack

  3. Thanks, pedanticKarl & Captain Jack.

    As for where I've been, I don't tend to browse YouTube very much, and---as I said in the blog-post---"Hot for Words" hasn't yet appeared on the radar of any of the (other) language-blogs I'm familiar with.

    As a linguist, I'm all for anything which makes the study of Language more interesting and more accessible to a larger audience. And "Hot for Words" does this, in an innovative way.

  4. I have blogged about Hot for Words a few times fwiw.

  5. @goofy: Sorry, I must have missed those posts. Corrected now.