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The Skatman

7 Aug
Anglo-Saxon Display

Anglo-Saxon Display (Photo credit: gordontour)

You learn interesting things from the Popbitch mailout.  And not just about celebrities.  Or otters.

A recent Popbitch e-mail mentioned the delightful fact that the Danish for ‘taxman’ was effectively ‘taxdaddy’. 

I asked a Danish colleague.   She had never consciously thought about the oddness of the phrase before, but confirmed that it was indeed true; the Danes describe their taxman as the ‘skattefar’.

Putting the daddy issues to one side, the meaning of ‘skat’ turns out to be much broader than just tax.   In Danish, it’s also used as a term of endearment.  The Danes aren’t really calling someone ‘my little tax’ though.  Their usage is much more akin to the English / Gollum-ite use of ‘my precious’ because the original meaning of the word is ‘treasure’ or ‘hoard’.

Forms of ‘skat’ appear in various European languages, all emanating from this central idea of ‘treasure’.  The Germans use ‘schatz’, the Dutch ‘schat’, the Swedes ‘skatt’ and until Victorian times, the British still occasionally employed ‘scat’ to mean a form of tax, particularly in conjunction with the Orkneys and Shetland (the most Scandinavian parts of the British Isles). 

And the connection between treasure and tax?   

Tribute.  All those who battled their way through Beowulf or any Anglo-Saxon history at college will remember the importance of paying tribute (i.e. a big hoard of treasure), such as the Danegeld, as an act of submission to a victor.  

I’d never really considered it, but I suppose paying ‘tribute’ is effectively an early taxation system.  You give them your hard-earned gold and silver, and in return, you get a degree of protection.  Just like the tax system today, only with slightly more chance of getting your head kicked in.

We haven’t entirely lost sight of the word ‘skat’ in modern English either.  It’s evolved into ‘sceat’, a word fittingly used by numismatists to describe some of the coins of the Anglo-Saxon period. 


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!

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!

On going berserk and bears

5 Aug

So I had to write a headline in work, and it had to be about a bear (don’t ask).  I was desperately trying to think up a suitable bear-related pun (bear necessities? Grin and bear it?) – and, in part, wondering how I manage to get paid for thinking up this kind of stuff.

Whenever I get stuck with a headline, I turn to, and type in my key word to see what sort of proverbs, clichés and aphorisms turn up.

Flicking through the list, there were a few possibilities: bear with a sore head; bull market and bear market; does a bear sh*t in the woods?; and my particular favourite, when the bear got in the buckwheat (Russian, apparently).

But what caught my attention was the phrase ‘to go berserk’.  What did that have to do with bears?

My limited knowledge of the Vikings suggested there was a type of warrior known as a ‘berserker’ – best known for quaffing down large amounts of hallucinogenic drugs before battle.  But where’s the bear connection?

The OED does suggest that ‘to go berserk’ derives directly from ‘berserker’.  Berserkr is the Old Norse name for this warrior, and it was the great romantic novelist Sir Walter Scott who first brought the word into English in the early 19th century.

It must have been absolutely terrifying to face a warrior who was, to all extents and purposes, off their face on drugs – so it’s perhaps not surprising that the behaviour of the berserker has passed into everyday usage.

(The OED definition of berserker is delightful: “A wild Norse warrior of great strength and ferocious courage, who fought on the battle-field with a frenzied fury known as the ‘berserker rage’”.)

And the reason for the bear connection is that one view of the etymology of ‘berserk’ is that it derived from ‘bear sark’ – or bear coat.  It seems like our Viking warrior friends may have gone into battle wearing the hide of a bear – a warm, practical and also suitably terrifying choice.

But the OED also offers the alternative word and derivation: ‘bare-sark’ – to fight without any shirt on at all.  Much like some (male) football fans like to show their hardness and hardiness by watching games bare-chested in all weathers, was a Viking warrior more terrifying if he wore no armour or ceremonial dress at all?

On burping and belching and losing a battle with a fellow train passenger

9 Jul

I spend about ten hours a week on a train, one hour each way to work, five days a week.  That’s a lot of time spent in a very small space in the company of complete strangers.

And in the majority of these instances, those strangers are nothing but polite and respectful.  We commuters leave each other alone so we can read, work, fiddle with our SmartPhones or just catch up on sleep.

But every so often, a fellow train stands out for all the wrong reasons.

It was Friday evening, the 19.00 train, full of people winding down after a long week.  The only seat I could find was at a table, so I took it and started reading my book (a cheap Harlan Coben thriller, if you’re interested).

About twenty minutes into the journey, the man next to me took out his phone to call someone.  Nothing wrong with that – there’s so little signal on the journey that most conversations last only a minute or so before ‘Hello? Hello? Can you hear me?”  But this man was obviously a member of a top secret phone network as his conversation went on and on.

And it went on and on at a volume I’d describe as SHOUTING.  He didn’t appear to be shouting angrily, just literally shouting his part of the conversation.

I sent him a couple of sideways looks in my very British passive-aggressive way.  But the deafening conversation continued.

I became aware of others in the carriage turning round to see what the noise was (yes, he really was that loud), and people started to make eye contact with me as if to say ‘Do something about it.’

So I gently tapped the man’s arm and said ‘Sir, do you mind talking more quietly?’  I also gave the universal hand gesture for quietening down in case he couldn’t hear me above the noise he was making.

To give him credit, he did indeed quieten down.   He stopped SHOUTING and started talking more normally, and the call ended pretty quickly.

Phew!  There was no nastiness, no scene, and I was the saviour of my fellow passengers.  Smugly, I settled back to my novel.

Two minutes later, I heard it in my right ear.


He’d let out one of the loudest burps I’d ever heard, and certainly the loudest I’d ever heard in a confined space like a train.

Two minutes later, he did it again.


And again.

And again.

At that point, I realised I’d been completely outfoxed by this man.  He’d won and I’d lost.  So I moved to a different carriage on the train to enjoy the last bit of my journey belch-free.

It did occur to me after I’d moved carriages that, to my mind, he was definitely belching, rather than burping.  To me, burping is a shorter and more contained sound; belching is more of a sustained, ranine noise.

I decided to look the two words up to see what the semantic overlap was between them.  I know they’re synonymous, but do we use belching when the sound is more foul, or burp when it’s slightly politer?

All the online dictionaries that I can see treat the two words as being completely synonymous, with no sense of one word being stronger or ruder than the other.  But what did catch my eye was that ‘burp’ wasn’t the ancient English word I imagined it to be.

‘Burp’ is actually a twentieth century word, first recorded in the 1930s.  The word’s origins are described as ‘imitative’.  Here’s an early usage from ‘Etude’ in 1934: “Saxophonists also go in for this slapping effect; when done by the larger members of the family, it bears a ludicrous resemblance to the ‘burping’ of a frog.

By contract, ‘belch’ is a very old English word, appearing for the first time with its vulgar meaning in c.1000 – “Breodað he and bælceð.”   The same word was also used for ‘vomit’, as seen here in the Tragicall Tales of 1587: “The venomd worme Had bealchd his poyson out” – although this sense has died out.

Although its roots were vulgar, ‘belch’ also has a number of politer meanings, including the more general sense of an eruption of words from the mouth (in an entirely non-vulgar way), as seen here in Wyclif’s Psalms of 1500: “Myn herte hath teld ethir belkid out a good word.”  Volcanoes also ‘belch’ out fire and lava, a sense Milton uses in Paradise Lost in 1667: “A Hill‥whose griesly top Belch‘d fire and rowling smoak.”

But my favourite meaning of ‘belch’ is this from Thomas Carlyle’s French Revolution.  I’m not entirely sure what it means – but it’s definitely a phrase I’m going to work into conversation this week: “Rusty firelocks belch after him.”

So this is a really long and roundabout way of saying that my fellow passenger could have been equally burping or belching – but either way, he was still pretty foul and quite ruined my Friday night trip home!

Jako tako, aixi aixi and hai hao: why so-so is anything but ordinary

6 Jul

I came across a second-hand copy of The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World for a bargain price – so snapped it up and promptly installed it in our downstairs loo.

The downstairs loo is a natural home for this book – lots of short snippets for lovers of language, ideal to keep you entertained while you’re in the smallest room. (I wonder if publishers do deliberately produce books of this type, knowing but never admitting, that the reading audience is really only ever going to be people going about their business?)

There are many fancy phrases – but a little section about one of our simplest phrases ‘so so’ caught my fancy.

What was truly interesting is that a number of other languages also have their own version of ‘so so’ – one short common word, repeated twice, and carrying this sense of ‘average’ or ‘just ok’.

Amongst the many examples, the author, Adam Jacot de Boinod (cool name!), mentions:

  • Aixi  aixi (Catalan)
  • Atal atal (Occitan)
  • Azoy azoy (Yiddish)
  • Cosi cosi (Italian)
  • Etsi ketsi (Greek)
  • Hai hao (Mandarin)
  • Hanter hanter (Cornish)
  • Jako tako (Polish)
  • Tako tako (Bosnian / Croatian / Serbian)
  • Thik thik (Gujarati)
  • Wale wale (Chipewyan

If we’re allowing the likes of ‘jako tako’, I’d also add the French ‘ca va’, which means many things – but I interpret its meaning to include ‘ok’ or ‘so so’, particularly when given as an answer to a question, such as ‘how are you?’.

Many people who were forced to study Old English, often struggling through Beowulf as part of their English course, will recall the phrase‘swa swa’.  Swa is the original Old English form of ‘so’ – so logically ‘swa swa’ should mean ‘so-so’.  But the phrase ‘swa swa’ is actually more of a conjunction, means something more like ‘just as’ or ‘so that’.  You can see that in this phrase from the Old English version of The Lord’s Prayer, “eorðan swa swa on heofum urne”, which we’d recognise as ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.

Perhaps the Anglo Saxons were simply less cynical than we are, and didn’t yet need a rhyming phrase to denote things they thought were merely average?

The training wheels are definitely still on: my repeated attempts to crack the code of cryptic crosswords

26 Jun

If there’s one language I’d really like to speak, it’s that of the cryptic crossword.  Those little black and white boxes taunt me from the corner of the newspaper, begging to be filled, if I only I could master the strange, impenetrable clues.  I see other people, including my mother, happily preoccupied for hours, even a whole weekend, wandering around with a folded newspaper in hand, trying to crack the mystery the crossword setter has laid out before them.  Quite frankly, I’m jealous; it’s a club to which I want to belong.

So every few years, I have another go at decrypting the code.  I’ve bought a book of crosswords, a book on how to solve crosswords, I’ve read articles and I even watched a documentary series about this very British hobby.

What I’ve managed to learn so far is that a cryptic crossword clue has two parts: one half of the clue is a literal definition, the other half the cryptic.  But a clue is much more than simply this mix of the literal and metaphorical: it’s often part poetry, part pun, part general knowledge and large part sheer puzzlement.   A great crossword clue is all these things in one – and there is many a time when, having found the right answer by fair means or foul, I am awestruck by the setter’s brilliance.

I give you this one, from my well-thumbed book: How to Master The Times Crossword

Eccentric as three-quarters of the characters in Fiji (5)

The answer?  Dotty.   Dotty is another word for ‘eccentric’ – so that’s the literal definition.  And three out of four of the letters of the name ‘Fiji’ are dotted, so it’s definitely a dotty word.   Clever, eh?

My current attempt to speak the lingo involves a Times cryptic crossword app and online access to OneLook, the brilliant site that scours several dictionaries simultaneously, and allows you to search with missing letters.  I will confess now that I am cheating – I try and solve the clues, and then use the ‘solve’ function on the app to see if I’m right.  If I’m not right (which is more often than not), I do enter the correct word to give me a few letters to help with other clues.  If I have a few letters but no idea otherwise, I might use OneLook to see there are any words fitting the pattern that make sense of the clue.   Crossword purists would probably hate what I’m doing – but my excuse is that I’m just learning!

I’ve discovered so far that I’m quite good at the anagram clues.  There’s usually at least one or two in each of the crosswords on the app.  I look for clues where there is a really strange phrase and see if the number of letters in the phrase matches the number of letters in the solution. There’s often a word like ‘mixed up’ or ‘change’ in the clue to indicate it’s an anagram as well.

Some of the anagrams I’ve solved so far are:

Marine attacker Cuba radar picked out (9)

My immediate thought was that ‘Cuba radar’ was a strange phrase and that it might be an anagram.  Playing round with the letters produced ‘barracuda’ – definitely a mariner attacker!  Way hey!

Pa’s nice girls get into trouble in Aussie town (5, 7)

I started this one by thinking about Australian towns – and the only one I could think of that was 5, 7 was Alice Springs.  But what did this have to do with ‘Pa’s nice girls’?  I noticed that phrase was 12 letters, and the ‘get into trouble’ could mean an anagram – and lo and behold, Pa’s nice girls rearranged itself perfectly into Alice Springs.

Letter-opener produced by Eppie and Frank working together (5, 5)

Again, I looked at Eppie and Frank and thought that looked quite unusual – and given the length of the letters involved, it could be an anagram for the 5, 5 solution.  ‘Paper knife’ appeared quite easily – although I could have got this from the first half of the clue!

I’m doing less well at other sorts of clues, but I’m managing to pick up a few from each crossword.

Diligent student’s grub (8) – I guessed this one was ‘bookworm’ and after a quick cheat, I was actually right!

Failure of explosive device (4) – I figured this one was ‘bomb’. It was probably the easiest clue I’ve come across so far!

I was particularly pleased to get this long clue:

Ready to start all over again – having landed on a snake? (4, 2, 6, 3)

Which I correctly figured out as ‘back to square one’.

This then gave me a ‘b’ as the fourth letter in this clue:

Various blood groups make up this extensive tree (6)

I tried to think about what blood groups I knew – A, B, AB etc – and then I remembered that there is an African tree called something like ‘baoabo’.  A quick search on Google produced ‘baobab’, which fit perfectly.  Hooray!

One clue that I blatantly should have got, but didn’t, was:

Seed said to be effective in opening spell (6)

I already had the letter ‘S’ at the start of this word from another clue.  ‘Opening spell’ made me think of Macbeth, so I looked up the opening scene to see if there was an ingredient that the witches hubbled and bubbled – but I couldn’t find anything.  I gave up and looked up the answer, which turned out to be the entirely obvious ‘sesame’ – which is both a seed and a spell “Open Sesame!” from Ali Baba!

And I wish I’d got this clue as it’s just so brilliant:

Childish housebreaker, one breaking metal fastenings (11)

The answer is ‘Goldilocks’, who was, according to the fairy tale, a child who broke into houses, and a gold lock is also a metal fastening.

I’m not sure this is a language that I’ll ever speak fluently, but I love the sheer self-satisfaction I feel when I get even one simple clue right!