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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!


Am I a harbinger of doom?

19 Jun

Last week, I started a new contract role, a maternity cover position.  I realised an old colleague was also working at this new firm, so I got in touch and asked him out for coffee.

After we greeted each other, he said to me: “I dread to think what you’re here to do.”

“What do you mean?”

“Is there some secret redundancy programme about to start?”

“No, I’m just here to do business-as-usual stuff.”

“I suppose you couldn’t tell me anyway.  Is it offshoring?”

“No, I’m not doing anything like that. It’s all completely innocent and above board, I promise.”

“You’re like a harbinger of doom – I can’t help but be suspicious.”

I wasn’t particularly insulted; I’ve worked on quite a few redundancy programmes in the last few years – a sign of the times we’re in – so he was perhaps right to be suspicious.  But I have definitely never been called a harbinger of doom before (or at least not to my face).

The word ‘harbinger’ starts off life innocuously enough.  It derives from the same root as the modern ‘harbourer’ – one who provides lodging – or the Swiss ‘herberge’ – an inn or a hostel.

The earliest citation in English was in around 1175, in the Lambeth Homily: Þe herbe[r]gers, þe þolemode, þe elmesfulle‥sculen beon icleoped on þe fader riht halue.  You can also see this same sense of ‘host’ clearly in this quotation from a Middle English version of The Romance of the Rose, dating around c. 1400: With sory happe to youre bihove, Am I to day youre herbegere! Go, herber yow elleswhere than heere.

It seems likely the word came into early Middle English from Old French, although the word owes its origins to a Germanic, rather than Latinate, source.  In Old High German, the original sense of heriberga meant shelter or lodgings for an army.  ‘Hari’ or ‘heri’ meant ‘host’ – and the ‘berg’ part meant protection or fortification, the same ending that we see in place names like Edinburgh, Salzburg, and Hamburg. (See more on the history of place names here.)

Sticking with this military origin, in Middle English, the word also began to take on the meaning of a person who travelled ahead of an army to procure lodgings and supplies, a usage we can see in Chaucer’s Man of Law Tale from The Canterbury Tales, c.1386:

The fame anon thurgh out the toun is born

By herbergeours, that wenten hym biforn.

And it’s from this very practical, organised ‘harbinger’ role that we derive the more general sense of being a ‘forerunner’, ‘first sign’ or ‘advance warning’.   This meaning appears in the written record in English in the mid-16th century – and by 1575, it is already used in a proverb: Hope is harbenger of all mishappe. (Gascoigne’s Fruites of Warre)  Another notable usage is Milton’s Song: On May Morning:

Now the bright morning Star, Dayes harbinger, Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her the Flowry May.

The OED doesn’t offer any commentary around ‘harbinger of doom’ – but does offer a rather more upbeat usage of the word – ‘harbinger of spring’, which is actually a North American herb, Erigenia bulbosa, whose appearance in March is seen as one of the first signs that Spring approaches.

If ‘harbinger of spring’ dates from 1865, when did people start to use ‘harbinger of doom’?  And are harbingers typically positive (the start of Spring) or negative (indicating impending death)?

My un-scientific search via Google’s timeline feature finds a contemporary citation for ‘harbinger of doom’ from 1894, in a poem entitled ‘Very Much “At Sea”.

If I find anything earlier, I will report back!

I’ve also come across a brilliant tool to help decide whether ‘harbinger’ carries more negative or positive connotations.  Netspeak searches the web for variations of phrases and shows you how common each variation is.  I simply entered ‘harbinger of ?’ and the results it produced suggests a ‘harbinger of spring’ is more popular than a ‘harbinger of doom’ – although I think if we add up all the negative meanings (doom, death, worse, bad) against all the positive meanings (spring, good, peace, hope), the conclusion must surely be that a harbinger is a pretty neutral carrier of news!

As the saying goes, perhaps me ascribing a negative connotation to the word ‘harbinger’ is simply a case of shooting the messenger!

On jeopardy and leopards

5 Jun

Someone used the phrase ‘double jeopardy’ in conversation with me this weekend, and it made me think what a strange word ‘jeopardy’ is. The only word I could think that resembled its spelling in English was ‘leopard’. The two make such an unlikely pairing that I had to investigate.

Much like my last entry about jet and jet, it appears to be coincidence, rather than design, that jeopardy and leopard share similar spelling. Jeopardy is the older word of the two – but not by much. Jeopardy dates in the English written record from around c.1200, whereas leopard appears only 150 years later in c.1350. Given the big cat is native to Africa and south Asia, it’s fascinating to see how its reputation had travelled all the way to the British Isles at a time when few would have even crossed the English Channel, let alone crossed continents.

In simple terms, jeopardy appears to derive from the old French version of ‘jeu parti’ – ‘divided or even game’. Its earliest usage, dating from 1200, referred to a chess problem, but is most clearly explained by this line from Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess of 1369: “But god wolde I had ones or twyes Y-kond and knowe the Ieupardyes That kowde the Greke Pictagoras, I shulde haue pleyde the bet at ches.”

From its origins in the game of chess, jeopardy then took on a number of related meanings, all around the same time. One of the alternate definitions, first recorded in c. 1250, was the point in a game when the opportunity to win or lose hung in perfect balance – the turning point, as it were. You can see this in another of Chaucer’s usages of the word, this time from the later Troylis & Criseyde of 1374: For myn estat now lyth in Iupartye And eek myn emes lyf lyth in balaunce.

Chaucer also provides the original written English record of another definition of jeopardy – the sense of peril or danger, or impending loss. This is the most common meaning of the word in modern English. The same narrative poem, Troylis & Criseyde, provides the quote: For Troye is brought in swich a Iupartye That it to save is now no remedye.

The word also came to mean a daring exploit or dangerous mission, and a stratagem, although these meanings are lost to modern English.

The OED comments that it’s not particularly clear how or why the ‘t’ of ‘parti’ became ‘d’ in jeopardy– and it’s suggested that it may developed in line with the French verb ‘perdre’ (to lose).

But with leopard, the suggested etymology reflects the origins of the beast itself. It was thought the leopard was a cross between a lion ‘leo’ and a pard, an old name for a panther or large cat.  Pard first appears in Old English, in a translation of Alexander’s letters to Aristotle: … leon & beran & tigris & pardus & wulfas

Even in modern English, pard retains a usage in heraldry: The distinction between the pard and the panther is slight, being in whiteness of spots, and they both signify an original bearer of the arms who was not free-born. (The Oxford Guide to Heraldry, 1988.)  The word pard derives from the Greek via the Latin, which can still be seen in the leopard’s genus name of felis pardus.

The full word leopard is first recorded in English in c.1330, and again, Chaucer provides one of the earlier written records of the word, as taken here from The Monk’s Tale of about 1386: Leons, leopardes [v.r. lebardis, luperdes] and Beres.

The leopard’s gone on to lend its name to an exhaustive host of other spotted animals, vegetables and minerals, including, but not limited to: leopard-wood; leopard-tree; leopard-tortoise; leopard-shell; leopard spotted-goby; leopard seal; leopard moth; leopard mackerel; leopard lily; leopard frog and the camelopard.  Disappointingly, the camelopard is not a cross between a leopard and a camel (as I first thought), but is simply an old-fashioned name for a giraffe, with the leopard-part of the name owing a debt to the giraffe’s coat.

So, to answer the original question, perhaps the only thing a leopard has in common with jeopardy is that you find yourself in the latter if you meet the former!

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.

Just what is a fangle? And why can it be only new?

14 Apr

I used the word ‘newfangled’ in conversation today.  It’s not a word I utter every day – but this headline from the Daily Telegraph caused the word to slip out my mouth.

Obviously for Telegraph readers, texting is relatively newfangled technology as the paper felt the need to make texting its headline today, in April 2011.   I did briefly wonder whether I’d travelled back in time to April 2001, when texting would have been sufficiently cutting-edge to make the front page of a national newspaper, but sadly my wrinkles and my waistline assured me it was indeed 2011.

But it got me thinking – why do we say ‘newfangled’?  We don’t ‘fangle’ anything.  We don’t even talk about ‘oldfangled’ (although as of today, I’m going to try and slip that into conversation).

The OED offers a wealth of fangles – newfangled (both adjective and noun), newfangled (verb), newfangled (adjective), newfangledness (noun), newfanglement (noun), newfangleness (noun), newfanglist (noun) and newfangly (adverb).

But it’s not just the sheer array of fangles that’s surprising – it’s the ages of them.  If you’d asked me where I thought ‘newfangled’ came from, I’d have said it sounded like the sort of word made up for an American Presidential election about 100 years ago.

I am completely wrong.  The OED records its first usage of newfangled in – get this – in 1300.

If þi loverd is neufangel, Ne be þou nout forþi outgangel Mid illore iwon.

In the 14th century, it also appears in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Gower’s Confession Amantis, which I was made to study for a whole term at university and still came out none the wiser!

The OED seems a little unclear on the etymology.  The ‘fang’ bit it gives as an obsolete meaning of ‘to grasp hold of’, and the ‘new’ bit tells you how modern the thing is of which you’re grasping hold.

The word is compared to the Middle Dutch – nieuvingel – or even more excitingly, the Faroese fangla, which means to catch hold of.  I can honestly say I’ve never come across a word in English that derives from Faroese,  and am quite sadly excited!

We used to use ‘newfangled’ to refer to the person who loved the latest fashion, but we now use it to mean ‘new’ or ‘the latest thing’.

I’ve also discovered that I’m not the first to coin ‘oldfangled’ – someone beat me to that by 214 years as it first appears in 1797!  The OED gives the delightful definition of ‘oldfangled’ as meaning: ‘characterized by adherence to what is old, old-fashioned.’

And fangle does also exist – although the dictionary suggests it is effectively a mistake.  Peoplewere used to ‘newfangled’ – so assumed there must be a ‘fangle’ to be new.  Fangled came to mean newly fashioned and a fangle a fad, although this mean seems to have died out of usage.  The latest usage is in 1881: “New fashions and fangles of dress, of manners, and of speech.”

For a word that’s 700 years young, ‘newfangled’ still speaks to human behaviour and the love of the latest.  But is the word sufficient on its own anymore?  Should we now be talking about ‘techfangled’ or even Applefangled?

Just how do you call someone dolphin-like? Rhino-like? Or even mongoose-like?

8 Apr

With a bit of luck, at some point in our education, we’ve all had at least one teacher who was exceptional at developing and encouraging us, helping us take a great leap forward under their tutelage.

Mine was when I was 10-11 – and of the many, many things I remember him teaching us, one thing that has stayed with me was his love of descriptive animal words.

We’re all familiar with canine for ‘dog-like’, feline for ‘cat-like’ or even equine for ‘horse-like’ – but there’s actually a whole zoo of these words.

Our teacher taught us about 10 of these different –ine words to describe animal-like qualities.  He believed that a wider vocab would improve our writing.   Over the years, perhaps as a tribute to him, I’ve collected as many examples as I can find.  And the more obscure, the better!

So if you’re ever stuck for a word to describe someone who reminds you of an animal … here are just a few you can try out!

Some of the ones I learned in school are:

  • Aquiline – Eagle-like
  • Bovine – Cow-like   (we were taught to think of Bovril, the beef-based drink)
  • Caprine – Goat-like (our memory trick was ‘Capricorn’)
  • Elephantine – Elephant-like.  I’ve also since learned you could use ‘pachydermic’
  • Leporine – Rabbit or Hare-like
  • Lupine – Wolf-like
  • Ovine – Sheep-like
  • Porcine – Pig-like
  • Ursine – Bear-like   (again, we learned to remember this via the constellations Ursa Major and Minor)
  • Vulpine – Fox-like
  • Zebrine – Zebra-like

The words I’ve collected over the years include:

  • Acarine – Mite-like
  • Alcelaphine – Antelope-like
  • Anatine – Duck-like
  • Ceratorhine – Rhino-like
  • Cervine – Deer-like
  • Columbine – Dove-live
  • Cygnine – Swan-like
  • Delphine – Dolphin-like
  • Hippocampine – Sea-horse-like
  • Hystricine – Porcupine-like
  • Lutrine – Otter-like
  • Macropodine – Kangaroo-like
  • Murine – Mouse-like
  • Pavonine – Peacock-like
  • Phocine – Seal-like
  • Ranine – Frog-like
  • Soricine – Shrew-like
  • Sciurine – Squirrel-like
  • Strigine – Owl-like
  • Turdine – Blackbird or Robin-like
  • Vituline – Calf-like
  • Viverrine – Mongoose-like

There are other words, like simian for ‘ape-like’ that don’t share the –ine ending, but I’ve excluded those from this list for reasons of tidiness!

The –ine ending derives from the Latin and is suffixed to names, animals or things to indicate ‘of the nature of’, ‘pertaining to’ or ‘like’.  We can see the same ending in words like masculine and Alpine – ‘of a man-like nature’ and ‘pertaining to the Alps’.

I often think these would make a great pub quiz question!