Archive | January, 2013

No longer will I get the ‘painters and decorators in’; instead ‘the English will have landed’

19 Jan

When the British Army took on the French in what we know now as the Napoleonic Wards (1812-1816), they wore scarlet coats.  The intrusion of those red-coated soldiers for that four-year window clearly left its impression on the French, as every month, every French woman of a certain age might bemoan the fact that, for her, “les Anglais sont arrivés”.

If you hadn’t already guessed, can I reiterate at this point just how much I love idioms?  In only a few words, you get an insight into a different culture, a different time, all wrapped up in a vivid image, so I was positively a-quiver to come across this article on The Guardian’s Mind Your Language blog, reviewing a new book, Idiomatics, which delves into the world of international idioms.

Some of the many delightful idioms cited in the article include the French version of ‘playing gooseberry’ or being a ‘third wheel’, which is “tenir la chandelle” (to hold the candle).  It evokes beautifully the pain of a poor soul consigned to an uncomfortable evening as the temperature rises between their dining companions.

Also featured in the article are “entre la point et le fromage” (between the pear and the cheese), which the article cites as an “off-record remark”, although I think it equates better to a phrase beloved of my Yorkshire grandmother – ‘between you, me and the lamppost’.

The comments section includes a host of cracking idioms, my favourite of which has to be “to take one’s pants off to fart”, which, according to the commentator, the Chinese use to indicate creating an unnecessary step in the process.   I can imagine many situations in which that phrase would be useful, so I will add it straight to my collection forthwith!

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Lay all your loan words on me … English borrowings from Swedish

13 Jan

A while ago, I heard someone pronounce on TV that there were only five words in English that we’d borrowed from Swedish.  Fact.  Five words only.

And, as with all good random facts, we store them away in our heads, desperately waiting for that moment when we can dust them off and insert them seamlessly into a conversation to surprise and delight our companions.

Such an occasion recently arose with me when I happened to meet a young man of Swedish origin at some drinks after work.  The excitement in me bubbled up – and I could hardly wait to reveal this most exciting of information.

The nice young chap thankfully didn’t turn and run and this point, but started to opine on what the words were.  The most famous word, according to Bjorn (not his real name, but I think we can all safely agree that Abba references only make the world a better place), was ‘ombudsman’ – an independent government investigator or arbitrator.

Accordingly to Wikipedia, the origins of ombudsman go back to Old Norse (umboðsmaðr), which meant representative. The roots words umbud / ombud mean a proxy or attorney, and forms of the word still exist in Swedish, Danish, Icelandic and Faroese.

So what of the other four?  Bjorn and I couldn’t agree.

Well, it turns out there are a lot more than five Swedish words in English.  According to the OED, there are 132 in total.

A number of the words are for specifically Swedish things, many of which we only recognise from a trip to the Ikea café: lingonberry, smorgasbord, and gravlax.

There are also dozens of words relating to obscure chemicals and minerals, which I assume are the result of a strong Swedish scientific heritage.

But more interesting are the words that have slipped into English so quietly, we’re completely unaware of a Scandinavian connection.

So, after months of deliberation by a highly valued jury, here then are the nominations for the top ten Swedish loan words in English:

  1. Aga – ok, a proper noun (who knew?), but has come to mean all generic range cookers
  2. Cringle – an eyelet through which a rope gets passed
  3. Glug – to pour or drink in a way that generates a noise
  4. Mandarin – the fruit – the ultimate origins of the word aren’t understood, but we definitely borrowed the name from Swedish
  5. Moped – a coinage by a Swedish journalist from ‘motor‘ and ‘pedal‘
  6. Nickel – discovered and named by a Swedish mineralogist, Axel Fredrik Cronstedt, although his naming borrows from German.  He named it Kupfernickel – ‘copper sprite’ as nickel tempted miners to believe it was copper
  7. Ombudsman – as above
  8. Rune – ok, this one does have a Scandinavian connection
  9. Skip – as in hop
  10. Tungsten – as with nickel, named by Axel Fredrik Cronstedt, although this one is Swedish and means ‘heavy stone’

So every time my tongue twists over the name of an Ikea range, I shall remember just how at home I already am with Swedish!