Archive | May, 2011

Bail Vs bale

31 May

Very briefly the other day, I did think I’d stumbled on something truly exciting.   I was standing on the platform inOld St tube station, and the advert opposite was for Aviva, a large British insurance company.

The advert (see photo) extolled the virtue of Aviva who ‘baled’ the speaker out after a flood.

Immediately, I thought ‘I’m sure that’s wrong; shouldn’t it be bail?’

So being the sort of curious person I am, I decided to look it up.

Most dictionaries agreed with me (Rumramruf:1; insurance giant: 0). You bail someone out of trouble.  You bail someone out of jail.  If a boat has a hole in it, you use a bucket to bail out the water.

Merriam-Webster defines one of the uses of bail as: To help from a predicament

CoBuild (primarily a dictionary for learners of English as a second language but I think it is excellent) defines it thus: If you bail someone out, you help them out of a difficult situation, often by giving them money.

If you’re making hay into nice neat shapes, you bale it – although the Oxford Compact Dictionary does disagree with me, in suggesting that bale is an acceptable British spelling for the meaning of ‘bail’ above (to help someone out).

But the reason why this bail/bale really caught my attention was as it got me wondering whether it was one of those interesting pairs of words that exist in English where one word has, over time, developed into two separate but similar words, each with a slightly distinct meaning.

Classic examples include:

  • Shirt and skirt (both from the Old English scyrte)
  • Hale and whole (both from the Old English hal)
  • Breach and break (both from the Old English brecan)
  • Scatter and shatter (both from the Middle English scateren)
  • Ditch and dike (both from the Old English dic)

So I did briefly get very excited, thinking I had found a new pair of words to add to this small list.

But I am wrong – bail and bale, as similar as they are, appear to have different origins.

Bale (in its noun form of a ) appears to come from the same root as the words ‘ball’ and ‘bolus’, all of which are thought to trace back to a word meaning ‘swell’.

Bail comes from a word for ‘bucket’ (which makes sense when you think about getting water out of a leaky boat), and traces back to words relating to a ‘porter of water’.

But, after all of this, it did strike me the other day, that Aviva had perhaps used ‘bale’ deliberately, even though it’s an unusual usage.  If the advert had read ‘Aviva bailed us out …’, to the casual user, this could have sounded like a criminal escapade!


Does inclement weather have anything to do with citrus fruit?

21 May

On Wednesday night, travelling home was a nightmare.  It was raining outside (a rare occurrence at the moment!) and, as a result, everyone heads underground into the Tube.  I shuffled through Bank station, so tightly packed my nose was pressed between the shoulder blades of a stranger’s back.

The guard came on the tannoy and told us to move carefully as the floors were slippery, thanks to the inclement weather.  Apart from the irony of the statement (we could hardly move at all!), a thought suddenly popped into my head – “does the ‘inclement’ part relate etymologically to a clementine at all?

So here we go.  ‘Inclement’ is the negative form of ‘clement’, which means mild or temperate.  I only ever really hear ‘inclement’ used to describe the weather – it’s just a posh way of saying ‘bad weather’.   The in- part is a prefix used to indicate a negative form (inadvisable; indistinguishable), although the prefix un- is more common in English.

The earliest use of ‘inclement’ the OED records is from 1621, although there’s a notable use from 1667 in Milton’s Paradise Lost: To shun Th’ inclement Seasons, Rain, Ice, Hail and Snow.

‘Clement’ is quite a bit older than its negative form, and derives directly from the Latin ‘clēment-em’ (mild, gentle, placid)Modern French has a direct cognate in clément, which means exactly the same as the English.

The first appearance of clement in English is from 1483, and appears in a religious context, describing a person’s behaviour towards others; you can see this sense in this translation of Boethius from 1535:   Ane victour suld be Curtas and clement, but crudelitie.

It’s not until the early 17th century that ‘clement’ is applied to the weather: “So clement and benign a soyl, that Roses grow there thrice a year” (1622) – although these days we scarcely use ‘clement’ (the OED lists the usage as ‘rare), only ‘inclement’, when talking about the weather – which is perhaps more indicative of the weather than our use of language!

So what’s the relationship between this word that means ‘mild’ and a small, sweet citrus fruit?

I’m still not entirely sure – but it seems like ‘clementine’ is a pretty modern word.  It’s first recorded in English as late as 1926 – “The Clementine orange (a cross between tangerine and sour orange) is very severely affected [by citrus rust]”, although the OED cites a French usage from 1902.

Where the OED goes quiet, the Online Dictionary of Etymology proves more helpful.  It describes the clementine as an accidental hybrid – “a cross between tangerine and sour orange” – and perhaps not surprisingly, it was named after the man who discovered the hybrid, one Father Clement Rodier, who ran an orphanage in Algeria.

In a very roundabout way, there is then a connection between my ‘inclement weather’ driving people into the Tube and the clementine fruit.   The original sense of ‘clement’, which described a person’s behaviour as ‘gentle’, was used as a first name – and it just happened that a person called Clement discovered a hybrid fruit, which ended up being named after him.

Good thing he wasn’t called Rodney.

Adventures with ‘grok’

17 May

I was checking out a recommendation for Josh Kaufmann’s Personal MBA book by looking at his website – but got a bit distracted as the word ‘grok’ quite literally leapt off the page at me.

The quote runs this:  “I’ve run across few people who conceptually ‘grok’ how to get things done better than Josh Kaufman.”   The quote comes from the productivity guru David Allen, whose work I really like, so I decided that anything David Allen knows is worth me knowing and looked it up.

I imagined it was slang, so started with the Urban Dictionary.  There is a host of definitions, with the earliest dated from 2002, but the most common sense seemed to be of ‘understanding’:

Literally meaning ‘to drink’ but taken to mean ‘understanding.’ Often used by programmers and other assorted geeks.

It took me a long time to grok Perl, but now I can read it without going blind!

 Still curious, I decided to see if the word had escaped the realm of programmers and assorted geeks and made its way into the rest of society.  So I turned to OneLook, a website that searches multiple dictionaries simultaneously.  That also produced lots of results, and the definition from Encarta developed the Urban Dictionary further:  grok is more than understanding, it’s to understand something completely by intuition.

The Encarta definition also explained the strangeness of the word ‘grok’ – it’s described as an ‘invention’ by Robert Heinlein, the author of ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ in the 1960s  – but I’d probably describe it as a coinage or neologism.  Or to put it another way, Heinlein simply made the word up.

And ‘grok’ seems to be in that very unique class of neologism in that it’s a word that’s genuinely new.  Most new words derive from other words – perhaps by adding a prefix or suffix, crunching two words together (anecdotage, the age where you tell stories about the good old days = anecdote + dotage), or by borrowing from another language.

Of the many different ways you can invent a new word (see more on the rule of word formation here), words that are invented from scratch and that really ensure in the language are comparatively rare.  One famous example is googol (the number represented by 1 followed by a hundred noughts), which eventually gave birth to the name of the search engine, Google.  Another is quark, a nonsense word borrowed from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake that was adopted to refer to an elementary particle.

Grok also falls into another interesting category – words that derive from science fiction.  I’ve never been particularly interested in sci-fi, but on reading this blog post from the Oxford University Press about words that have come into English from science fiction, perhaps I should re-evaluate.

The blog post lists nine words that are now taken as ‘science fact’ in the sense that they’ve just become the standard word we all use.  And the list is quite extraordinary – robotics, genetic engineering, zero gravity, deep space, ion drive, pressure suit, virus (computer programme), worm (computer programme), and gas giant.

I’m not sure ‘grok’ will ever reach the same level of currency as ‘robotics’ or ‘computer virus’ – but I wonder if the author ever thought that his his little four-letter coinage would still be in use forty years on.

‘Don’t toss Granny into the begonias’ – on some fantastic French idioms

14 May

Let’s face it: idioms rock.   In English, we have so many of them (25,000 plus!), we take them for granted, literally sprinkling them carelessly throughout our conversation when we should love and nurture them as treasured insights into our language and way of life.

That’s why I particularly love discovering idioms in other languages.  What’s particularly fascinating is how idioms from different languages express the same fundamental idea, but do so using aspects of the local culture.

For instance, the English ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’ (i.e. leave an old issue alone as it may create more problems for you if you interfere) compares with the Dutch ‘don’t pull the dead cow out of the canal’ (which I think is ‘haal niet oude koeien uit de sloot’ in Dutch).  Now if there was ever a country that was going to produce idioms about cows and canals, it would be the Netherlands!

I came across this little illustrated book of French idioms, ‘Don’t Throw Granny Out with the Begonias’, in a bookshop this week, comparing French sayings to their English equivalent, so thought I’d share them as they’re so delightful.  The quality isn’t great as I was trying to take pictures surreptitiously!

The first is ‘Don’t count the eggs in a chicken’s backside’ (Ne comptez pas les oeufs dans la derrière d’une poule) – which is an almost identical to the English idiom ‘don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched’ (don’t count on things until they’ve actually happened).  It’s interesting that the French is slightly more blunt!

Oh what a lovely kumquat!

10 May

I’ve just got back from a holiday in Corfu – my first visit to Greece – and one of the most unexpected aspects of Corfiot life was the love of the kumquat.

It was ubiquitous – you’d see kumquat trees peaking out of gardens, laden with fruit; you’d see the fruit appearing in some quite surprising dishes on the menu, and if you visited any kind of tourist shop, if you could imagine something kumquat flavoured, then it existed!

It got me thinking about what a strange word kumquat is and wondering where and when we imported the word into English (and also likely imported the fruit itself!).

The etymology of kumquat is truly exotic; it derives from the Cantonese pronunciation of the Chinese kin kü, which means ‘gold orange’.  (The fruit is a member of the citrus family.)  The Chinese have been writing about kumquats since the 12th century as the plant is native to the Asia Pacific region.

Fascinatingly, the first recorded usage of kumquat in English was as early as 1699 by the extraordinary figure of William Dampier, who the OED describes as ‘buccaneer and explorer’.  Other terms, such as pirate, natural historian, adventurer and sailor could be equally applied to Dampier, who, amongst his many achievements, was also the first person to circumnavigate the globe three times.

In his Voyages and Descriptions, he wrote thus of the kumquat:

The Oranges are of divers sorts, and two of them more excellent than the rest. One sort is called Cam-chain, the other is called Camquit‥. The Cam-quit is a very small round Fruit.

The next significant uses of kumquat in English are not until the 19th century, and all appear in gardening or horticulture publications.  Wikipedia suggests that the kumquat was introduced to Europe in 1845 by the botanist Robert Fortune, from whom the plant’s genus name of Fortunella is derived.

Its European introduction was clearly successful enough for grocers to offer ‘cumquats’ in their catalogues by the end of the 19th  century, and 160 years later, we can see the small island of Corfu has created a whole industry based on this little fruit!