Tag Archives: Linguistics

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

19 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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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!

On the history of surnames

28 Mar

I’m fascinated by people’s names, something you might guess from my earlier post on finding out how posh your surname is.

The study of names is called onomastics – and there are two main branches that really interest lovers of language: personal names (anthroponomastics) and place names (toponomastics).   (I’ll pick the latter up at some point.)

Whenever you use the word ‘onomastics’, you invariably have to qualify it with a pompous sentence like ‘the study of onomastics is fraught with difficulty’.  And the reason for this is that because names are the most personal part of language, they don’t obey the normal trends of language change.

Two things tend to happen with names:

  • people hang on to a name long after that use of language has gone out of fashion
  • people ‘invent’ names, changing language

So an example in the first category is the name ‘Stanley’.  Stanley means ‘stone field’ – as the old word for stone was stan (pronounced with a long ‘a’).

But between around 1300 and 1600, people in the southern part of England started to pronounce their long vowels further forward in the mouth – so stan became stone, ban became bone; hame home; an one, halig holy and so forth.  This process has the delightful and amusing name of the Great Vowel Shift.  (And it’s one of the great mysteries of English.)

But did all the Stanleys shift their vowels further forward in the mouth?  Heck no!  They hung on to their long ‘a’ – and all the Stanleys of the world are still hanging on to it now!

At the other end of the scale is people who make up names that defy the rules of English spelling.  I once saw an edition of the Jerry Springer show, and there was a lady on there by the name of ‘Liberteeee’.  Now, basic rules of English spelling say that you don’t ever use more than two of the same vowel in a row – but Liberteeee’s parents decided they wanted their daughter to be stand out from the crowd!

But, that being said, the study of names is absolutely fascinating and gives a real insight into how people lived in days gone by.

In English, surnames fall into one of four categories:

1.         NAMES RELATED TO FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS

Some obvious ones are anything ending in –son: Robertson (son of Robert); Williamson; Harrison; or –kin: Hodgkin; Wilkin

You also get names that also allude to a person’s place in the family: Child or Children; Husband; Younger.   There are surnames like ‘Little’, which could have referred to the fact the person was small, but more probably that they were someone’s son or daughter.

Some common Welsh names, such as Jones, Richards or Williams, also show family relationships as the ‘s’ ending indicates ‘son of’ – so Jones is ‘son of John’.

Also from the Welsh are surnames beginning with the letter ‘p’.  The Welsh preposition ‘ap’ means ‘son of’ – so you get names like Pritchard (son of Richard); Pugh (son of Hugh) etc.

We call these patronymic (or matronymic) names.

2.         NAMES RELATED TO JOBS

The most common English surname, Smith, falls into this category – a smith being someone who worked with metal of some kind.  You also get names like Cook, Seaman, Carpenter, Fletcher (someone who made arrows); Miller; Gardener; Farmer; Groom; Baker; Knight; Carter and Turner.  You also get a few based on nicknames for jobs – the classic example being ‘Green’ or ‘Greene’ as people who worked with copper often had stained green hands.  Webb (and its variations) also imply someone was a weaver.

(*I’ll pick up on Baker at a later date as there is a theory, known as nominative determinism, that says if your surname is Baker, you are twelve times more likely to be a baker than if your surname isn’t!)

3.         NAMES RELATED TO PLACES

My own maiden name, Hartley, falls into this category (Hart being a male deer; lea being a field).  I used to go to school with someone called ‘Cowmeadow’ and someone called ‘Stagfield’ – all variations on a theme!

You also get names like Hill, Field, River, Pond, Woods, which describe the natural landscape in which people lived – or more subtle ones like Townsend, which probably tell you where the ancestor’s house was located in the town.  Some also relate to buildings where the person may have worked, or more likely, lived nearby – Castle; Church.

I used to go to college with someone called ‘Bush’ and I do wonder if his ancestor lived next to such an amazing bush that people commented on it to the point where it became a name!

You also get people named after the town or village in which they lived – so surnames like York, Lancaster, or the famous author Jack London.

4.         NAMES RELATED TO PERSONALITY OR PHYSICAL APPEARANCE

You get loads of great names in this category.  I like Redhead (perhaps not surprisingly); other gems include Smallbone; Tall; Grey; Goodman; Wise; White; Smart; Russell; Brown; Old. I also dig the surname ‘Beard’ as it implies that someone had such a memorable beard, it became their surname.

(As a side point, my father had had a beard for the majority of his adult life (once red, now white, grown to disguise an awful chin), and it came as a great surprise to my mum when she discovered that the regulars in the local pub referred to her ‘Mrs Beard’ in light of my father’s fine facial hair).

The French have some ‘mean’ names that fall into this category; I knew someone called ‘Borné’ (which means narrow-minded) and I’ve also seen people called Méchant – nasty.

There are also surnames that relate to an experience someone may have had in life.  I’m particularly thinking of surnames like Pilgrim and Palmer, both of which imply the person went on a pilgrimage.

Is there also a fifth category: names that are made up entirely?  I’ve watched Jerry Springer in the past and have seen someone called ‘Liberteee’.  It’s a trend that’s bound to be impacting surnames as well.  So just as Stanley decided he didn’t want to go with the normal linguistic flow and become ‘Stonley’, so Liberteee decided she would disobey the normal rules of language as well!

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).