Archive | February, 2011

On going ‘gingerly’

28 Feb

Image via Wikipedia

One of the things I worry about unduly is opening toilet doors.  It’s not a germ phobia, more a fear there’ll be someone in there and we’ll both end up incredibly embarrassed.

It occurred to me that the word for how I open toilet doors is ‘gingerly’ – which is a strange thing as ‘ginger’ is normally associated with spiciness, impact, or if you’re a redhead like me, a fiery temper.  The last thing we’d normally associated ‘ginger’ with is a delicacy of movement – surely it should mean to burst into a room, rather than approach it with trepidation?

As it turns out, ‘ginger’ and ‘gingerly’ have absolutely nothing in common. Ginger has quite well established linguistic roots – with many scholars arguing its roots back beyond Sanskrit to earlier Dravidian forms.  If you look at the Latin name for ‘ginger’, Zingiber officinale, you can clearly see the root of the root.  *ahem*.

But by contrast, ‘gingerly’ is described as ‘of obscure origin’ (real meaning = ‘we don’t really know how it ended up in the language’.)

The OED suggests that ‘ginger-‘ (as the first part of ‘gingerly’) may be related to words for ‘gentle’ or ‘gentlemanliness’, deriving perhaps from the Old French ‘gensor’.

This etymology would fit with the earliest usage of ‘gingerly’, which relate to an elegant style of dancing – “And I can daunce it gingerly” first appears in c.1520.  The word then moves from meaning ‘elegantly’ to meaning something more akin to ‘effiminately’ – as in this usage from 1583: “Their dansing minions, that minse it ful gingerlie‥tripping like gotes that an egge wold not brek vnder their feet.”

The sense of moving cautiously is also pretty early, here seen in 1534: “We staye and prolonge our goinge with a nyce or tendre and softe, delicate, or gingerly pace [L. tenero ac molli passu].”  This definition of gingerly has continued to the modern day – although I particularly love this usage in Robert Louis Stevenson from 1885 as it’s truly the definition brought to life: “[He] gingerly transported the explosive to the far end of the apartment.”

So it’s not a brilliantly clear-cut etymology, but as the OED argues, there’s no better alternative.  There is a Swedish dialect word gingla, gängla that means to totter, but it’s discounted firstly on account of the sounds, and secondly as it doesn’t carry the meaning of ‘elegantly’ as does the earliest usage of ‘gingerly’.

At least now I can console myself that I’m actually opening the toilet doors ‘elegantly’ 🙂


Find out how posh your surname is …

19 Feb
Census taker visits a family living in a carav...

Image via Wikipedia

When we got married, my husband and I chose a new surname.  He changed his name to it before our wedding, and then when I married him, I also took on the same name.

The reason for this was that we wanted to have the same name, and his surname with my first name made me sound like a porn star … As marriage represented a new phase in our life for both of us, we decided that we’d both move forward together and take a new name.

It was an interesting process trying to choose a new surname.  It’s effectively a rebranding exercise – how do you find something that’s distinctive without being strange, that people can spell, that means something positive, that has a similar linguistic heritage to your own names?

One of the best resources we used was the National Trust Names, which has now been rebranded ‘Great Britain Family Names Profiler‘.  This website is allows you to see where all the people with your surname were based in the 1888 census, and then compare the same name with the 1998 census.  You can see if names become more or less popular, see if there’s any migration within the UK, as well as access a wealth of socio-economic data about people with the same name as you.

There have to be at least 100 people with that name on the census for it to appear, and as the UK has become more diverse over the last century, we see a lot more names that have originated from other languages.  Names like Singh and Khan, for instance, are among the most common in the UK.  (The website promises there is going to be a worldwide version soon too – woo hoo!)

One of the most entertaining features of the site is you can actually find out how posh your name is.   If you punch in your name, you should initially see a map of the distribution of your surname in 1998, based on the census results.

If you look at the top, you can see a link for the ‘Map of 1881’, which will allow you to compare how people with your surname have spread (or contracted) in the last 100 years.

‘Frequency and ethnicity’ allows you to establish how many people have your name on the 1998 census, whether it’s grown or declined, and how common it is overall.  You can also see  the ethnic origin of all people with your surname in 1998; this is often really fascinating and shows you how diverse Britain now is.

Finally, my favourite part of the website is ‘Geographical location‘.  This link means you can see the most common postal area for your surname, not only in the UK, but also in Australia, New Zealand and the US.

But if you look to the bottom of the page, you’ll see a line for ‘Percentage of people with a higher-status name’.  This effectively tells you how posh your surname is – if only 10% of people have a ‘higher status name’ than you, you know you’re up there with Wills and Kate; make it 90%, and let ‘s just say you won’t be getting an invite to the wedding.

It’s great fun to compare just how posh your surname is to your partner’s and friends’ surnames – you never know what surprises it may throw up!


Splitting vs. spitting image

18 Feb
The snowy owl( Bubo scandiacus) is common acro...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve just finished ‘ Room’, the novel by Emma Donohue.  It’s definitely one of the best books I’ve read in a while – and had me in tears within 50 pages of starting it.

The book’s narrated by a five-year old boy, and in it, he uses the phrase that someone “is the spit” of him, meaning they looked identical.

I remember as a child of about ten or so getting roundly told off by the Snowy Owl at my Brownies (who was a bit of a cow, to be fair) for describing someone as a ‘spitting image’.  She was very insistent that the correct phrase was ‘splitting image’ – which, to give her credit, makes a bit more sense when you think about it.

I’d always thought that people starting using ‘spitting image’ or the noun ‘to be the spit of’ in the 1980s, based on the British satirical puppet show, Spitting Image, that was popular at the time.  I also thought it was a British-only usage, so was surprised to see it crop up in a book set in America (albeit by an Irish writer).

But as it turns out, the only bit that I was right about was that ‘spitting image’ is indeed appears to be a corruption of ‘splitting image’.  Interestingly, the OED has a written record of the corruption at least two years before the original!

The OED records the first written usage of ‘splitting image’ 1880 – much later than I’d imagined.  It’s quoted in a book of Westmorland dialects, part of Cumbria, a district in north-west England.

However, the first corruption is recorded in 1878, again in a (different) book related to dialects from Cumbria – “Spitten picter” – a strong likeness.   ‘Spitting image’ is also first recorded in 1901 – He’s jes’ like his pa—the very spittin’ image of him!  from the delightfully-named Mrs. Wiggs of Cabbage Patch

The OED doesn’t yet record uses of the phrase ‘to be the spit of’, suggesting it hasn’t reached a sufficient critical mass of usage (or else just not the ears of the OED editors!).  Surely it’s now common enough to be considered for future inclusion – I’ll start a campaign now.

Read Mr Tickle and help the British Library!

16 Feb
Mr. Tickle, 1971

Image via Wikipedia

The British Library has a fantastic exhibition on at the moment about the evolution of the English language, called unsurprisingly ‘Evolving English’.  One of the things you can do there is make a recording of your voice by reading a set of  words aloud to help create a
map of spoken English.

If you can’t make it to London, then the good news is that you can participate virtually by submitting a recording of your voice.

You have two choices for what to read – either a list of six words where the pronunciation varies by region, or the first part of the children’s classic by Roger Hargreaves, ‘Mr Tickle’.  Those six words are: Controversy; Garage; Neither; Scone; Schedule and Attitude

According to the British Library, the reason for choosing Mr Tickle was that it’s simple enough for everyone to grasp, even people whose second language is English, and that its vocabulary offers a wide range of lexical sets.  Lexical sets are groups of words that share a similar pronunciation, and grouping words into these sets makes it easier to study the pronunciation of words in different accents.

You can either record through your computer or by downloading a free app called ‘AudioBoo’.  I did the latter – and it was incredibly

I also chose to read Mr Tickle, which was funnier than I had remembered, and was desperately trying not to sneeze throughout, so I hope I don’t sound too odd if they do post my recording!

So I’m now waiting with excitement to see whether I get posted.

Find out how to map your voice

Some ‘delicious’ words from a six-course Valentine’s meal!

15 Feb

I can’t move.  After a six-course Valentine’s meal last night at the fabulous Pheasant in Keyston, even 12 hours on, I still feel stuffed.

The menu sounded heavenly – even though I didn’t understand all the words on it!

We started with an ‘amuse bouche’ of salted cod, which was wonderfully clean and crisp tasting.  Given that ‘bouche’ is the French for ‘mouth’, then this ‘amuse bouche’ did just want it said on the tin and whet our appetites for what was to come.

The next course consisted of lamb sweetbreads.  I had to look up what a sweetbread was as we weren’t sure what part of the lamb we were eating!  The OED describes ‘sweetbread’ as being: The pancreas, or the thymus gland, of an animal, esp. as used for food

The etymology of the word seems unclear – why sweet? why bread? – but it has been in use since the mid-16th century, with its first recorded use appearing in a Thesaurus of 1565:  Animellæ, the sweete breade in a hogge.

We then had oyster nage with cucumber linguine.  Again, I had to look up ‘nage’.  In Middle English, this word used to mean ‘buttocks’ – but Wikipedia is a little more helpful, and suggests it’s a flavoured liquid in which you’d poach delicate food, like an oyster.

The word derives from the French verb ‘nager’ – to swim.  So my little oysters are swimming in the broth as they’re being poached.

We went on to eat the most heavenly Beef Wellington, accompanied by pomme dauphinoise.  I’d always assumed that the latter dish was somehow connected to the Dauphin, which is the French term for the heir to the throne (or the equivalent of the Prince of Wales).  Perhaps a little more prosaically, the dish comes from (and derives its name from) the Dauphine area of France, close to the Italian border.

After the Beef Wellington, we managed a cheese course featuring a walnut ‘sable’.  Again, I was thankful to have my phone at hand!  I decided that there was an acute apostrophe missing and the word was actually ‘sablé’ – a round shortbread biscuit that comes from Normandy.  (This was what was on the plate in front of us).   I assume there may be a connection with the French word ‘sable’ (sand) – perhaps because of the colour or texture of the biscuit.

Finally, we somehow managed to find room for our dessert – many chocolate-y things on a plate.  Yum.  On the menu, it listed ‘cherry griottine’ – which seemed to be a word for cherries soaked in alcohol.  And boy did those cherries pack a punch!

Dilemma vs dilemna

14 Feb
Ron Howard during filming of Angles and Demons...

Image via Wikipedia

The one radio programme I religiously listen to is Radio Five’s Mark
Kermode and Simon Mayo’s Film Reviews
on a Friday afternoon.

If I can’t listen live, look forward to the chance to walk the dog by
myself so I can plug in my headphones and catch up with the podcasts
uninterrupted.  I often find myself laughing out loud as I walk along!

Both Mark and Simon are fond of commenting on language and grammar in
particular.  Mark especially loves interrupting the readers’ emails, read aloud by Simon, to correct the grammar.  Mark’s special bugbear seems to be
sentences that end with prepositions – but the delightful irony is that
Mark then goes on to give film reviews, and promptly ends a number of
sentences with prepositions, breaking all the grammar rules for which he’s
just chastised listeners (or as Mark might say during a review, which he’s
just chastised listeners for!).

Recently, Mark and Simon had to review the Ron Howard film ‘The Dilemma’.
It may have been Simon who said during the programme – “When did the
spelling change?”

My ears instantly pricked up.  Had I been spelling dilemma wrong for all
these years?  I hadn’t ever seen an alternative spelling to D-I-L-E-M-M-A,
so what were they talking about?

It turned out that both Mark and Simon were under the apprehension that
dilemma was spelled D-I-L-E-M-N-A.  And a number of listeners started to
write in as well to confirm the view that dilemma was indeed spelled with
an ‘mn’ at the end, in line with words like ‘solemn’.

I was listening live and frantically opened the Oxford English Dictionary
online to find out what was going on.  To my relief, the OED offered no
entries under ‘dilemna’.

So where had this ‘mn’ version come from?  If you google it, you find a
whole host of entries, many around the confusion between the ‘-mma’ and
‘mna’ endings.  It seems like the ‘mna’ ending was widely taught in many
schools in the UK, US and Canada – and potentially millions of students
have learned a different spelling.

One website suggests the revised spelling is an example of hypercorrection,
which is when people make a change erroneously as they believe the original
is wrong and needs to be corrected.  You see hypercorrection a lot in the
use of ‘I’ and ‘me’ – people tend to hypercorrect and overuse ‘I’ (between
him and I) as they think ‘me’ is the wrong usage.

With dilemNa, it’s thought teachers changed the spelling to bring it in
line with words like ‘column’, ‘solemn’ and ‘condemn’.   As a side note,
one blog post I read suggested the same hypercorrection had happened in
French with ‘dilemme’ and ‘dilemne’.

But both the original Greek and the later Latin version offer a double ‘m’
spelling.  The fabulous One Look (a website that searches all online
dictionaries) offers four entries for dilemNa – each of which describes the
word as a common misspelling.

So the good news for Ron Howard is that he doesn’t have to change any of
his film’s marketing (I hear the movie’s rubbish anyway) – and Mark and
Simon seem to have resigned themselves to defeat on this one.

Does your mother tongue influence how you think?

13 Feb
The gender of countries in the French language...

Image via Wikipedia

The New York Times recently ran an article on this interesting, if highly controversial, topic that your native language influences how you think about the world.

One of the reasons this is controversial is that, as some languages do not distinguish between past, present and future (I did; I do; I will do), it was thought that the native speakers of those languages could not themselves distinguish between past, present and future, so lacked any inherent sense of time.

This theory is largely discredited now – but the article does pose some interesting ideas.

For native English speakers, as the majority of our nouns are neuter, does this force us to think differently about gender? So, if I said I spent the evening with a neighbour, you might wonder or make presumptions about whether my neighbour was male or female.  But if I were speaking French, I would automatically convey the gender of the person (voisin; voisine) – so you wouldn’t have to think about it at all.

In Spanish, a bridge is a masculine noun; in German, it’s a feminine noun.  In a study, when asked to describe the characteristics of a bridge, Spanish speakers chose more manly attributes, German speakers more feminine.  Is that a thought process that’s inherently influenced by whether the noun is masculine or feminine in your mother tongue?

The article also gives the example of an aboriginal language from Queensland, AustraliaGuugu Yimithirr – which completely lacks terms like ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘in front of’ and ‘behind’ (which are known as egocentric co-ordinates as they rely on where the speaker is positioned) but instead only uses geographic coordinates (north; south; east; west), which are fixed, regardless of which way the speaker is facing.

So, if you’re asked ‘where are my glasses?’, you might get the response ‘on the table to the north of you’, rather than ‘on the table behind you’.

Does this mean speakers of Guugu Yimithirr (and the other languages around the world that only use geographic coordinates) have developed a completely different sense of space?

Read ‘Does your language shape how you think’ in full.