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!

Another 10 Untranslatable Words (via Listverse)

25 Jun

A while ago, I posted on ‘Cool words from other languages that have no decent English equivalent‘ – and bizarrely, it’s turned out to be the most popular post on my site by a long way. So I was very excited to discover that Listverse, one of my favourite blogs, had done something similar. Check it out!

Another 10 Untranslatable Words I thoroughly enjoyed Jamie’s first list of “10 Words That Can’

Editt Be Translated Into English” and so I set about researching for a sequel. These words are unique in their own language, and this is incredibly fascinating, as it demonstrates how fragile and delicate each and every language is to the culture to which it pertains. So, here you go: another 10 words which quite simply can’t be translated into English. 10Toska Language: Russian Vladmir Na … Read More

via Listverse

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 the watershed – how a geographical feature began a hotly-debated issue of censorship

12 Jun

There’s been a lot of news coverage recently about the TV watershed – the mythical point on the clock at which all the children are allegedly in bed, and adults can enjoy more graphic content.  Campaigners argue that children are currently exposed to far too much adult content too early in life – and that includes unsuitable content and language used on TV ‘pre-watershed’, throughout the day and early evening.

It got me thinking –  why do we use ‘watershed’ to describe this family-friendly / adult invisible boundary in our TV viewing?

We also use ‘watershed’ to refer to a defining moment in time – a major change, e.g. “it was a watershed moment in British history”.

But neither of these uses appear to have anything obvious to do with water, or, for that matter, sheds.

So what’s going on?

The OED suggests the original use of ‘watershed’ was geographical, rather than political or cultural.  It refers to the place, usually a high ridge, where waters separate to flow into different rivers or basins.  It was first used in English in the 19th century – that great age of scientific discovery – and the rather strange combination of ‘water’ + ‘shed’ is thought to be derived from the German wasserscheide, a word the Germans had used since the 14th century.

Here’s an early usage of that geographical meaning by that most famous of 19th century scientists, Charles Darwin, is his account of the voyage of The Beagle: “The line of watershed, which divides the inland streams from those of the coast, has an elevation of about 3000 feet.

Seventy-five years later, the word ‘watershed’ had taken on a metaphorical meaning.  Just as the watershed is effectively the point of no return for waters as they flow into separate rivers, a watershed moment came to refer to any point of no return, the time after which everything changes.

It was an American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who first coined this usage in his poem The Two Rivers in 1878:

Midnight! the outpost of advancing day!

 The watershed of Time, from which the streams of Yesterday and To-morrow take their way.

This sense of a turning point in history was rapidly adopted, as is demonstrated here in a quote from Nation in 1893:  That resolution marks the water-shed of our Revolutionary politics.

The usage of ‘watershed’ to refer to a dividing line on television doesn’t appear until the 1960s, I suppose the point at which TV ownership had become more widespread.

I’ve often heard it said that we owe the TV watershed to the famous campaigner Mary Whitehouse – but if the OED and Wikipedia are both to be believed on the topic, then the watershed was in place before Mrs Whitehouse began her campaigning.

The OED first lists the usage of the word ‘watershed’ in a BBC Handbook from 1962:

The BBC’s Code of Practice on Violence, its new 9.30 p.m. watershed policy, its intention to distinguish those programmes which it thinks unsuitable, and perhaps more important, suitable for childrenshow that both sides are aware of the problem.

However, the entry on Mary Whitehouse in Wikipedia suggests she did not begin campaigning until 1963, a year after the BBC had formulated a policy on the watershed, so perhaps the BBC deserves a little more credit than it’s normally given, even though that would perhaps greatly upset Mary to hear me say that!

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!

A linguistic excursion to the north-east – Mackem, Anish Kapoor and a Viking version of Jabba the Hut

1 Jun

We’ve just come back from a lovely weekend in the north east of England.  Sadly, we didn’t make it up to Northumbria, one of my favourite places ever, but we visited Sunderland (to see Take Take), Durham, Middlesbrough, Whitby and York, the latter on the way home.

Robbie Williams did a solo stint in the concert and sang a topical ditty to the tune of ‘Make ’em Laugh’.  Aside from the references to superinjunctions (!) in the song, he also referred to the crowd as ‘Mackems’.  I’ve met enough people from the north east to know there’s an important distinction: Geordies are from Newcastle or around the River Tyne, Mackems from Sunderland or around the River Wear.

It seems like ‘Mackem‘ is a fairly recent nickname for people from Sunderland; the earliest suggested written appearance in the OED is from a printed sports programme for a Sunderland rugby and cricket club from 1973: “We still ‘tak ’em and mak ’em and ye canna whack ’em.”  It’s not until 1981 that the proper word ‘mackem’ appears in print – in a Newcastle Football Club programme of all things! – ” Steve Cole, John Evans, [etc.] took the field against the ‘Mackems’ in a darts and doms double header.

There are a couple of theories on where the word ‘mackem’ comes from; the most popular seems to relate to the shipbuilding industry that was prevalent in the area.  The Wikipedia article on this topic suggests the ships were built in Wearside – ‘we make ’em’ – and then taken to Tyneside for fitting out – ‘and they take ’em’.  This is the theory supported by the OED, which also mentions the complementary theory that the pronunciation of ‘make’ and ‘take’ differed between Wearside and  Tyneside.   (A number of references to ‘Mackem’ online mention the fact it was featured on the BBC’s Balderdash and Piffle – and the OED revised their entry on the topic thanks to the viewers’ input.)    A secondary theory suggested by the Wikipedia article is that the origins of the word could lie in a local beer – the ‘Double Maxim’.

From Sunderland, we travelled to Whitby via Middlesbrough.  We wanted to see the football ground and the famous transporter bridge – but between the two lay Anish Kapoor‘s 110-metre long, 50-metre high ‘Temenos’.  To describe it as spectacular doesn’t do it justice. The photo below hopefully gives some sense of scale – Temenos is dwarfing a football stadium!

Temenos is a Greek word, meaning ‘a sacred piece of land’, or the land around a temple.  It derives from the Greek word ‘to sever’.  I think it’s an interesting choice of name given the location of the statue.  It’s between the football ground (a temple to many!) and the transporter bridge on the other side, surrounded by this incredible industrial landscape that’s undergoing  a regeneration, so is a mix of the swanky and modern surrounded by the grim and hard-edged.  I gather it’s the first of five such ‘giants’ that Anish Kapoor is building around the north-east area.

From Middlesbrough, we took the coast road, crossing into God’s own county, Yorkshire, to arrive at the charming seaside town of Whitby.  It’s definitely somewhere I’d go back to – one night wasn’t enough to enjoy its many attractions!

Whitby is famous for many things – the haunted ‘Hands of Glory’, the whaling industry, Dracula – and perhaps the most prosaic by comparison, Whitby Jet.  Jet is a black stone that was commonly worn in the Victorian period when mourning.  Wikipedia tells me it’s not a proper gemstone or mineral, but is rather a mineraloid as it’s made from compressing decayed wood.  All the mentions of ‘jet’ did make me wonder what jet (the mineraloid) has in common with a jet engine or a jet of water.  Is it something to do with pressure?

It seems like the words, although appearing the same, actually have little in common etymologically.  ‘Jet’ in the sense of an engine or a water jet derives from the French ‘jeter’ – to throw or to cast.   It was first used in English to mean a projection or protruding part; from this meaning, we also derive words like ‘jetty’ and ‘jut’.   The word also came to stand for a particular type of movement – darting or jerking forward – and then came to stand for a stream of water or liquid that spurts out at high pressure, as in this definition of 1696: Jet,‥a spouting forth of Waters.

The sense of ‘jet’ as meaning a spout or nozzle didn’t appear until the 1820s, and it’s not until after Frank Whittle invented the jet engine in the late 1920s  that we see the word applied to a particular type of plane:  “The advantages of the jet are so great that I am sure their development will be rapid.” (1944)

By contrast, the ‘jet’ that we wear in jewellery derives from the Old French, jaiet, which ultimately derives from the Greek gagate (jet).  It’s this sense of ‘jet’ that gives us the adjective ‘jet black’.

Finally, on the way back home, we called into York for a few hours in the pouring rain.  Many of the street names in York’s city centre end with ‘gate’ – Coppergate, Gillygate, Walmgate and so forth.  The ‘gate’ derives from the Old Norse ‘gata’ or street, reflecting York’s extensive Viking heritage.  Having looked up the etymology of ‘gate’, I think I might leave that for a future entry; it’s phenomenally complicated!

I particularly liked this street, Jubbergate, which gave me visions of Jabba the Hut wandering amongst York’s Viking settlers. Sadly, the Vikings didn’t appear to take their inspiration from George Lucas.  The Jubber is perhaps related to the word ‘Jew’, as the street was once known as Jubretgate, suggesting it might have been part of a Jewish quarter within York.