Tag Archives: English language

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!

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?

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

‘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!

On Wetwang, Souldrop, Piddle and why Ashby-de-la-Zouche is the most fascinating place name in England

29 Apr

I’ve already blogged twice about surnames – once on the history of surnames, the other on how posh your surname is.  I have an equally-fervid love of the history of place names (toponymy), although it’s a little less interactive as, unlike the many curiously-named people I question, I am yet to find a place name sign that answers my questions …

I think I enjoy anything that gives an insight into how people used to live – and place names, like personal names, do just that.   They tell us about the physical environment, including natural and manmade features, they tell us what people did on the land, about ownership and the roots of the people who lived there and sometimes even about the social organisation.

Here are just a few examples of some of the most common, or most interesting, parts of English place names.

Places named after people

Many towns or cities are named after an ancient local leader or warlord – and, in some cases, we only know the person existed as they’ve left a place name behind them, such as Pada, the original ‘owner’ of Paddington.  The Welsh county of Gwynedd is also named after Cunedda, a 5th century leader.

-ING

The suffix –ingas was used in the Anglo-Saxon period to indicate something along the lines of ‘stronghold or settlement of the followers of X’ – so the first part of Paddington means ‘settlement of the followers of Pada’.

Barking and Reading are all well-known examples of the use of noun + ingas.  Where I live, Wellingborough, is thought to be named after a man called Waendal, who is now celebrated each year by a walking festival!

(There is an interesting argument that suggests these –ingas names tended to come in pairs as rival factions wanted to mark out territory.)

-HAM

The Old English for ‘home’ is hām (pronounced with a long a), and it’s thought this was used to mean ‘homestead’ or settlement in place names.

So Nottingham means the ‘homestead of the followers of Snot’.  (The city has conveniently dropped that first ‘S’ … I wonder why!)    Or Birmingham as ‘the homestead of the followers of Beorma’).

-SEX

We do see some counties that famously ended with the suffix -sex – Essex, Sussex, Middlesex and the former county of Wessex.  The –sex ending doesn’t imply anything rude, merely that Saxons had settled there after they invaded. So Essex is kingdom of the East Saxons (Ēastseaxe), Wessex the West, Sussex the South and Middlesex the Middle kingdom.

-TON or –TUN

You see -ton and -tun used both as a prefix (Tunbridge Wells or Tonbridge) and a suffix, Brighton.  Much like –ham, it’s thought to have meant homestead or settlement, and you may recognise the roots of the modern word ‘town’.

WICH, -WICK, -WYCH AND -WYKE

When I was small, we had a book about the Green Witch of Greenwich, the Wool Witch of Woolwich, the Old Witch of Aldwych and so forth.  Given that the ‘w’ is often silent, I often wonder how foreigners manage to travel anywhere in the UK as the pronunciation of our place names is so confusing!

There are a few possible definitions for –wich.  Most commonly, it’s thought to have meant ‘settlement’, ‘abode’ or ‘dwelling place’ from the Old English wíc derived from the Latin vīcus.  By the time of the Doomsday Book in 1986, wíc was also in use to mean ‘farm’, particularly ‘dairy farm’.

For places on the coast or rivers, particularly it’s also thought that -wic meant ‘bay’, derived from the Old Norse vík, and came to be used for busy sea or river ports like York (Jorvik), Ipswich, London (Lundenwic) and Southampton (Hamwic).

And in places like Droitwich , Middlewich, Nantwich, and Northwich, the –wich is thought to signify a place connected with salt – either a spring or a saltwork.

-BOROUGH, -BURY, -BROUGH AND –BURGH

This suffix, derived from the Old English burg, indicated that there was a fort in the location, or the settlement had some sort of fortification, such as walls.  With Edinburgh, it’s easy to see the fortification (it still stands!) but with other locations, such as Aylesbury or again, where I live in Wellingborough, the fort has long been long.  You can also see the same suffix appear in other European place names – Hamburg, Luxembourg or Strasbourg are three obvious examples.

-BY

The suffix –by is fascinating as it derives from Old Norse, rather than Old English – and its usage largely coincides with the areas that were settled by the Viking raiders, particularly in the North and the East of England.  It meant ‘farmstead’, so we see place names like Whitby, Appleby or Grimsby.  Here’s a chart above, showing the distribution of Old Norse (Viking) place names in the UK.  You can see by the purple that the names co-incide with the parts of the country settled by the Vikings.

-HOLM

I’ve always been interested in –holm, which is the Old Norse word for ‘island’ as there are islands in the Severn Estuary, Flat Holm and Steep Holm, visible from my home town of Cardiff.  The majority of place names that use –holm are in Scotland, particularly in the Orkneys and Shetland Islands.  So how did it end up in use in South Wales, a long way from the areas the Vikings settled in Britain?  The Vikings did raid along the coast lines of Wales and the West, and the evidence suggests that a Viking raiding party ended up taking refuge on these islands following a failed attack on a settlement in Somerset, hence the name.

Other Old Norse endings, indicative of Viking settlement are: -thorpe (farm), –thwaite (clearing), -ey (island) and –ford (fjord).

-CHESTER, -CASTER, CESTER

This suffix, one of the most common in English place names, derives from the Old English ceaster, which in turn comes from the Latin castra, or camp.  It’s thought to have been used to indicate a place of Roman military settlement – although there is an argument that says the Anglo-Saxons then used it to just mean ‘settlement’, regardless of whether the Romans had ever been there or not!  But the majority of usages of this suffix do appear in England where the Romans were well established, and not, by comparison, in Scotland, where they scarcely made it over the border.

We can see this suffix in places like Chester, Lancaster, Gloucester, Bicester, Manchester, Doncaster, Leicester and Worcester.  The Celts also adopted this word – and you can see in place names like Cardiff (Fort on the River Taff) or Caerleon (Fort of the Legion).

 REGIS

I’ve included Regis not because it’s necessarily common, but because it’s another curio of language.  Regis was used to indicate royal patronage.  The monarch may have owned the lands, given a Royal Charter to the area (as happened to Lyme Regis in 1284) or have spent considerable time in the location, such as Bognor, which received a ‘Regis’ title as late as 1929 after George V spent months recuperating there.

You also see places called ‘King’s’ (as in King’s Lynn) or Royal (Royal Berkshire), both of which also indicate royal favour.

-SHIRE

We see –SHIRE in our county names – Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire, Worcestershire, Oxfordshire, Lancashire and so forth.  Its etymology is particularly interesting as it didn’t mean anything to do with geography; its original Old English form scír meant something along the lines of ‘official duty’ or ‘office’ (in the sense of a formal position).  So an alderman, bishop or lord may have had a scír – and the word came to mean not just the duty itself, but the area and its people who were part of that duty.  We can see this usage clearly in 1338:

The bisshop of Canterbire þerof payed was he, For him and alle his schire

We’ve then adopted the word as a suffix to mean an administrative area – and most of our English county names (and many Welsh) have had –shire attached to them at some point in their history, even if they don’t use it now (Devon and Rutland being two examples who have dropped the ‘shire’).  The exceptions to the ‘shire’ suffix tend to be in the south-west (Cornwall), South-East (Kent, Sussex, Essex etc.) and the north (Northumberland, Cumbria).

Finally, in my title, I mentioned a few of my favourite English place names:

Wetwang, which the Oxford English Dictionary of Place Names suggested may have meant ‘field for the trial of a legal action’, from the Old Norse vætt-vangr.

Souldrop – no, not a place to commit suicide, but the same book suggests it means ‘outlying farmstead near a gully’ from the Old English sulh + throp.

Piddle – a source of much amusement, but probably just means a marsh or a fen.

And Ashby-de-la-Zouch is interesting as it contains three different languages in one title.  The ‘ash’ bit is Old English, the –by an Old Norse ending, and the ‘de la Zouch’ derives from the name of the Norman family that once owned it!

Are verbs the English language’s avant-garde? On ‘verbising’ English

31 Mar

 

I read this great article on TechCrunch about “The 6 Verbs For The Next 20 Years Of The Connected World” – and it really got me thinking about verbs in general.

Are verbs the avant-garde of English?  Do we use verbs to push the boundaries of language?  Are verbs ‘early adopters’ of language change – and other parts of speech mere fast followers?

The reason I say this is that it seems to me that the trend of recent years is ‘verbisation’ – taking a perfectly good word, particularly a noun, and making it into a verb.

Just like the brand ‘Hoover’ has come to stand for any vacuum cleaner, and indeed the act of vacumning, we’ve seen Google and Facebook move from noun to verb – ‘Google it’ or ‘Facebook me’.   Google’s also achieved the same ubiquity as Hoover in that it just means looking something up on t’internet.

Here are a couple of other ‘verbisations’ that have crossed my path recently!  Or should that be ‘path-crossed’ me?

  • ‘Sunset’ – I’ve heard this used as a verb, carrying the meaning of ‘retire’.  ‘It’s about time we sunsetted that infrastructure’.
  • ‘Demise’ – I’m most familiar with ‘demise’ as a noun – ‘the demise of the Roman empire’ – but I’m increasingly hearing it used as a verb, with a similar meaning to ‘sunset’ above.  I did look this up – and to be fair, ‘demise’ actually appeared in English first as a verb, with the noun coming later.   As a verb, ‘demise’ has a meaning in legal circles – to give or transfer an estate by a will or a lease – so the modern usage of ‘demise’ as ‘retire’ is quite different.
  • ‘Forward’ – I’m used to this in the sense of forwarding a letter or an e-mail, but only today, I heard it used on the radio in the sense of ‘progress’: “We need to forward this project urgently”!  I was half-asleep in bed at the time, and was so surprised at this usage, I sat up!
  • ‘Onboard’ – I hate this word, but I have to admit it’s quite useful!  In my line of work, I understand ‘onboarding’ to be the process of inducting and training a new employee, or setting up a new customer on the system.  “We’ll start to onboard Mark next week” – and there’s no ship in sight!
  • ‘Gift aid’ – we have this great scheme in the UK called ‘Gift Aid’ that, with the donor’s permission, allows charities to write off the basic tax they might otherwise have to pay on a donation. So when making a donation recently, I was recently asked if I wanted to ‘gift aid’ it!
  • Sky Plus – in our house, we quite regularly say something along the lines of ‘I’ve Sky Plussed it’, meaning I’ve recorded it off the TV!

There are lots of people who’ll tell you this ‘verbisation’ is terrible , disgusting, and bad English.  But for me, this is exactly what I love about language – it allows us to play.   It’s like being set free in Legoland – all the building bricks you’ll ever want, and the opportunity to create anything with them.

And what could be more fun than that?  Or, in the spirit of this article, funner?

Cool words from other languages that have no decent English equivalent!

19 Mar
King Gorm the Old recieves the news of the dea...

Image via Wikipedia

I was having dinner with an old school friend last night, and on the way home, I realised that we’d been talking partly in Wenglish, which is English, but smattered with Welsh words, phrases and very occasionally, some unique syntax (word order).  (Wenglish speakers have a lot in common with Yoda – you’ll often hear phrases that start with either the verb or the object – ‘Gorgeous, he was, gorgeous!’ or ‘Lovely day, it was.’)

There was one word in our conversation with no obvious English equivalent – hiraeth.  It means a sense of longing for one’s country, but often tinged with a sense of loss and longing for the past.

It got me thinking – what words exist in other languages that have no obvious English translation?   English has always borrowed words from other languages (and increasingly, other languages borrow from English) – but what cool words and phrases are there that we should use now?

One obvious example is Schadenfreude – a German word for taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune.  (something which I’m sure we’re all guilty of from time to time.)

Esprit d’escalier – ok, a phrase, not a word.  This is the expression for those situations where you think up exactly the right, witty retort to someone – but only after the conversation is long over!  It literally means ‘the spirit of the staircase’ – that is to say, only when you’ve walking away up the stairs does the inspiration strike you!  Again, this is a situation I’m sure we’re all too familiar with.

Another Welsh word I love is cwtch. It means to snuggle up next to someone or have a lovely cuddle.  It literally means ‘a safe place’ – so as well as asking your beloved to come closer on the sofa for a cwtch, you’ll also put your coat in the cwtch when you come home!

I’m not making any claims that any of the following are true (they’re all from the web) – but they did make me smile.  Do they provide an insight into other cultures?

Yoko meshi – the Japanese expression for the stress involved in having to speak a foreign language.  It literally means ‘a meal eaten sideways’.

Tingo – this is from the Easter Islands, and means (this is brilliant) to borrow objects one by one from a neighbour’s house until there is nothing left

Rujuk – a word from Indonesia, which means to remarry your ex-wife.

I also came across the German word Handschuhschneebalwerfer.  This is used to refer to a coward – but when you translate it directly, it means ‘someone who wears gloves to throw snowballs’.  What a great description!

Let me also throw ‘gorm’ into the mix as a cool word that did exist in English, but we’ve lost.  However, we still talk about the absence of ‘gorm’ when we refer to people as ‘gormless’.  Gorm is an old word for understanding – and to call someone ‘gormless’ is to suggest they’re an idiot.  (There’s also a famous Danish king called Gorm, who I believe was the founder of the current Danish royal line).