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<   No. 4762   2022-05-31   >

Comic #4762

1 Alvissa: We’ll enter the Badlands of Skrung in the morning.
2 Lambert: Why are they called badlands?
3 Alvissa: It literally comes from the fact that they’re bad lands to travel through. Harsh climate, hostile terrain, no water, crawling with venomous wildlife.
4 Lambert: I guess that distinguishes them from the tedium of “plains”.

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I thought I'd written an annotation on badlands not long ago. Turns out I was right, it was just over a week ago on the rerun of strip #2298. Now I want to say the same thing here, but I can just point you at that instead.

So let's talk about plains. The English word for the landform comes via the Old French plain from the Latin planus, meaning "flat", which is also the origin of the word "plane", meaning a flat or two-dimensional surface.

The other common meaning of "plain", as in ordinary or unadorned, has exactly the same etymology. It comes from expanding the meaning of "flat" to refer not just to literal flatness of shape, but also to the metaphorical "flatness" of something that is unembellished or without decoration.

The fact that English uses the same word "plain" to mean two divergent things led me to an embarrassing incident one time when travelling in Germany. I went into a chocolate shop, which had some delicious looking hand-made chocolates and bars of chocolate. My wife felt like some chocolate without any fillings or nuts or anything in it. In other words, some plain chocolate. I couldn't see any on display.

I consulted my German phrasebook (this was in the days of printed phrasebooks, before translation became easy on a phone) and found the translation of "plain". And so I asked, in my very best German: "Haben Sie ebene Schokolade?"

Now, anyone who speaks German is probably laughing at me already. For everyone else, my phrasebook had told me that the German word for "plain" was ebene. And so it is. If I'm talking about the landform. Yes, I was asking the shopkeeper if she had any "grassland/savannah/steppe chocolate". No matter how carefully or often I repeated my question, she had no idea what I was trying to ask for.

I only discovered why some time later, after we had returned home to Australia.

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