Well, there are several reasons for my dietary choice actually. Firstly – my generous proportions make fried food rather a bad idea. Secondly – I actually prefer a nice jacket potato any day of the week but, thirdly, I AM BRITISH and I prefer to call them chips!
I also prefer to talk about TV series rather than seasons, and the phrase ‘Monday through [or even worse, ‘thru’] Thursday’ brings me out in a rage. OK, I must admit I’m probably fighting a losing battle against the American form of our language; it’s arriving daily with TV programmes, advertisements, fast food outlets etc. As a student of the history of the English language I know how our tongue has been influenced since the very beginning by contact with other nations [where would we be without baguettes, shampoo and saunas*?] so I will, perhaps, just have to grit my teeth and bear it.
A very interesting article appeared in The Guardian and I would recommend you take a few minutes to read it. http://tiny.cc/41ccqy
However, despite the fact that I acknowledge that language must change or die, I will never, to my dying day, say ‘Should of’, ‘Would of’ or ‘Could of’ – so there!
This is just a quick piece of news I am bursting to share with you, dear reader[s?]. If you didn’t know already, there is a wonderful magazine about language called Babel which I find extremely enjoyable. It’s written in an informative but not overly-academic way and I have previously mentioned a few of its articles on my own Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/starfish4english/.
Anyway, I saw a post on their Facebook page, recently, asking for people to submit articles for their ‘Ask an Expert’ section. Previous questions have included ‘Why do we use the letter X to symbolise a kiss?’ and ‘What is the difference between In hospital and In the hospital?’ I hesitatingly volunteered to research an upcoming question ‘Why is the grammar of the proverb ‘Needs must’ so odd? Needs must… what? Be acknowledged?’ To my amazement they not only accepted my offer, but they liked my answer and it just may feature in an upcoming issue. So, why is the grammar so strange? You’ll have to get yourself a copy of Babel to find out!
You can read more about Babel for yourself on Facebook at
We all know about the Three Kings who visited Jesus in the stable, don’t we? They’re in all the Nativity sets, on Christmas cards and we sing happily about them. We even know their names: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. So, that’s that – ok? Not quite.
Let’s look at what the Bible actually says about them. The only gospel to mention them is Matthew. He says ‘Lo three kings/wise men/magi, called Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar turned up that very same night. They arrived right after the shepherds and entered the stable where the baby Jesus had just been born.’ – Hmmm, does it really? Let’s take a quick look – the version below is from a paraphrase of the Bible called The Message. It makes the words come alive in a very relevant, up-to-the-minute way. [My emphases in bold italics]
Matthew 2:1-12The Message (MSG)
Scholars from the East
2 1-2 AfterJesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around, “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.”
3-4 When word of their inquiry got to Herod, he was terrified—and not Herod alone, but most of Jerusalem as well. Herod lost no time. He gathered all the high priests and religion scholars in the city together and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”
5-6 They told him, “Bethlehem, Judah territory. The prophet Micah wrote it plainly:
It’s you, Bethlehem, in Judah’s land, no longer bringing up the rear. From you will come the leader who will shepherd-rule my people, my Israel.”
7-8 Herod then arranged a secret meeting with the scholars from the East. Pretending to be as devout as they were, he got them to tell him exactly when the birth-announcement star appeared. Then he told them the prophecy about Bethlehem, and said, “Go find this child. Leave no stone unturned. As soon as you find him, send word and I’ll join you at once in your worship.”
9-10 Instructed by the king, they set off. Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!
11 They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh.
12 In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country.
Not quite what happens in the school Nativity play, is it? No mention of there being three. Who says six might have brought gold, two frankincense and 37 myrrh? [If there were 45, I hope Mary had enough clean cups and saucers in her HOUSE for them all]. Yup, it doesn’t mention them going to a stable, or seeing a baby – it talks about seeing a CHILD in a HOUSE. (https://answersingenesis.org/holidays/christmas/we-three-kings/)
So, what or who were they? The word Magi is an ancient word, defined by the Collins dictionary thus: the Zoroastrian priests of the ancient Medes and Persians.
They were definitely men of learning. They were certainly men of great learning. The word Magi comes from the greek word ‘magos’ (where the english word ‘magic’ comes from). Magos itself comes from the old persian word ‘Magupati’. (https://www.whychristmas.com/story/wisemen.shtml)
Chances are, they looked a bit like this – no cardboard crowns in sight! So, whoever these wise, definitely wealthy and learned men were [sorry, ladies – the Bible is clear on that point, they WERE men!] their story has somehow turned into our well-known ‘We Three Kings’. They saw a star, they knew it meant the birth of a king, and they came to worship the King of kings. Wise men indeed. And they have given us some nice shiny costumes for the annual play – not to mention some lovely Christmas stamps. Have a happy, blessed Christmas and a great 2018.
We all pepper our speech with those little not-quite-words such as ‘umm’ and ‘errr’, don’t we? Had it ever occurred to you that you were speaking English when you made those sounds [called fillers in Linguistics, should you want to know]?
Apparently, one of the most common ways of showing you are not a native speaker of a language – no matter how proficient you may be – is to forget to use that language’s own fillers during speech.
In Polish, for instance, the sound equivalent to ‘Umm’ is yyy or eee.
Japanese has ええと [pronounced eto I am informed] and Welsh has iawn.
So, should you be chatting away in Polish and you state – with perfect grammar and pronunciation – that ‘I think I might, ummm, try a new hairdo’ [Myślę, że mogę, ummm, spróbować nowej fryzury], that ‘ummm’ has just betrayed your non-Polish nativity. *
Say Myślę, że mogę, yyy, spróbować nowej fryzury, on the other hand, and nobody would suspect a thing [unless they spot your penchant for watching Coronation Street without Polish subtitles]. Novice spies – take note!
By the way – she waffles, off topic, isn’t fryzury a lovely word to describe a hairdo. Mine is definitely quite fryzurish every morning!
For more on this subject, [fillers not fryzury-style hair], try these links to get you started.
* Nativity – lovely word we don’t use often enough, except at Christmas. And it IS darned near Christmas [there’s virtual snow on this site and real snow on the streets outside], so I feel justified in using it. Happy Christmas everybody and a blessed New Year
French, along with many, many languages, [far too many if you ask me] has no neutral pronouns. Huh? Sorry – I’ll put it another way. In English, we talk about males as ‘he’, females as ‘she’ and inanimate objects as ‘it’ [ok, maybe not ships … but mostly we do]. If we are talking about a group of people we only have the words ‘them, they’ etc…nicely gender-neutral.
Because of this, we don’t pluralise He and She for groups of males or females and talk about ‘hes’ or ‘shes’. Imagine:
‘Here come the bridesmaids…shes look lovely, don’t shes?’
Just not English, is it? However, in French, the word elles is a plural for a group of females, as ils is for a group of men. The trouble starts when talking about a mixed group. Instead of some gender-neutral plural, the masculine ils is used by default, meaning that you would have no way of knowing just from this if the group included females or not.
Many generations of language students in English-speaking countries have puzzled over this; cries of ‘SEXIST’ have reverberated round many a classroom, yet we always presumed the French were fine with it. We thought they just gave a Gallic shrug and said something along the lines of c’est la vie.
It has emerged, though, that French women themelves are not happy about the inherent sexism in their language. This article from the Daily Telegraph sums it up:
One reason for the current state of affairs, cited in the article, is…shall we say…slightly controversial –
Above all, it was applied for “political” rather than linguistic reasons, they argue, citing a 17th century work by linguistic state advisor Dupleix on French linguistic “purity”. This reads: “Because the masculine gender is more noble, it takes precedence alone against two or several feminines, even if these are closer to their adjective.”
OK, have you calmed down yet, dear female readers? [I haven’t!!!!] Sadly, even those who are pushing for a change appear to be struggling to find a sensible solution. One such idea being mooted is the inclusive approach:
The inclusive approach splits up words using a mid punctuation point, so the plural for all friends becomes “ami·e·s”. Dear friends becomes “cher·e·s ami·e·s”.
Hmmm, can’t see that catching on, can you? So, as the debate continues across the channel , let’s leave THEM to it and have a nice cuppa instead!
Recently, one of my students asked me why her tutor had returned her work with a lot of words circled [in that angry way which only university tutors can]. The phrases which seemed to have caused this person the most outrage were ones such as ‘the company posted their profits’. Why should something as seemingly innocuous as this cause marking-pen overdrive?
Let’s look at the nice drawing above – it’s a family, ok? So what is your family like? OR….what are your family like? Hmmmm, both questions are acceptable grammatically, are they not?
I’m a sucker for Victoria [ITV Sundays 9pm – do NOT phone or text me, ok?]. In last week’s episode, one of the characters remarked that ‘my staff is arriving tomorrow’ [or something along those lines – please don’t quote me]. The point is, this person must consider their staff, of several if not hundreds of people, as a singular unit.
Back to my perturbed student. She clearly considered the company she was writing about to consist of a group of individuals and, therefore, used the plural to refer to it. The posh person in Victoria looked upon their staff as a unit which acted and functioned as one entity so used the singular.
This got me thinking about other similar collective nouns –
Government [is in session/are discussing?]
Team [had its best match ever/ played their best today?]
Crew [sails the ship/ sail for Africa]
I’m sure we could put our heads together and come up wth many, many more…but my tea’s cooking!
One golden rule, though. However you view the team/family/government/your staff – once you have decided on singular or plural, then be consistent in your choice throughout. The company posted its year-end profits and announced their floatation on the stock market…………no, no, no!
There are actually some rather pernickity rules, but this blog post from the OED is more than good enough for me:
When I am helping students with their English assignments for school or college, one problem many have is remembering what the passive voice is. The classic, grammatical answer, is that the subject is a non-active patient of the verb…..hmmmm, yeah, that makes it a lot clearer, doesn’t it?
So, it’s not really good English to say ‘Jack ate the cake by zombies’…that doesn’t really make much sense [unless, maybe, there was a party of zombies picnicing nearby?] If, however, you were to say ‘the cake was eaten by ……. ‘ and in the space you could insert either ‘Jack’ – the sensible option, or ‘zombies’ – the more interesting option, then you have a passive sentence. The cake is, basically, sitting minding its own business when it gets eaten. I’ll leave it to Sherlock to decide by whom.
One problem though….zombies don’t usually eat anything as mundane as cake. Nor do they often play football or drive cars. Hamsters, however…….
If only I’d known there was such a job, I would have done all my homework – on time – studied really really hard and not messed about at school for one single minute. Promise. Sadly, I didn’t know back then what I know now – that people are paid to create languages for a living. Oh heaven! It looks like I’m never going to see an advertisement for a brickie in Legoland, so this must have to be just about my dream job.
When the Klingons first opened their mouths in Star Trek, the Dothraki bargained for Daenerys to be Khal Drogo’s bride, or we marveled at the intricacies of Elvish, did you ever stop to consider that somebody had created these languages from scratch?
In the book A Secret Vice, Tolkien’s lecture on his creation of the languages of Middle Earth is discussed in mind-blowing detail. He created the original versions of each tongue, then worked out how they would change throughout time by contact with other languages and with changing inflections. He realised that as each group moved slightly further from its original homeland it would acquire new words for the different flora, fauna and other phenomena they encountered. He realised that words would, through time, change meaning or acquire new ones. This is exactly how language works, and Tolkien was a master of the art.
He based his languages on ones he found grammatically interesting, such as Finnish. He created writing systems for them, designing runic characters to give a feeling of ancient mystery. He also understood how a language’s traditional tales and mythology affect its structure and phraseology. The book A Secret Vice makes for fascinating reading.
To make a language credible, it needs to have a complete grammar, orthography and other such components which you probably think are best left to Latin teachers! However, if characters just opened their mouths and muttered gobbledy-gook, they would soon sound ridiculous. The rich, full, characteristics of these languages is what gives them their own life and makes them so compelling to listen to.
So, we now come to Star Trek, and Klingon. Did you know that James Doohan, who played dear old Scotty, first devised the phonology and a small vocabulary for it? It was then turned into a full language by Marc Okrand and has been used to write books and an opera; there is even a Klingon language Institute!
One last Star-Trek related fact:
When they decided they needed a Vulcan hand gesture for ‘Live long and prosper’ – Leonard Nimoy suggested using the one he had seen used in the synagogue when he was young. Although, in the worship setting, it is done with both hands, the famous gesture is based on the Hebrew hand-sign for Shin. All Hebrew characters have intrinsic meanings and this one stands for Shekinah and Shaddai – names of God. Live long and prosper is, I feel, a lovely sentiment. Knowing the accompanying sign stands for the name of God makes it even more beautiful.
PS. Sadly, Minion is NOT a language, despite having a wonderfully mixed vocabulary from many, many other languages. They do have real words – and below I have reproduced a handy phrasebook should you ever need it – but unfortunately the rest of it is utter nonsense. From a Minion, you wouldn’t really expect anything else, though, would you?
Simple little word, hello, isn’t it? We probably say it several times a day; we use it to answer the phone, to greet customers or clients at work maybe, as a greeting in slightly formal circumstances where ‘Hi’, ‘how do’ or other variants aren’t right, all sorts of ways. Try counting over a couple of days and see what the tally is.
So, Walter Raleigh to Queen Elizabeth I – ‘Hello, your majesty’
Romeo to Juliet ‘Hello, my darling’
The Wife of Bath to The Pardoner ‘Hello Pardoner [or maybe Pardy, they might have been on very friendly terms for all we know!]’
They don’t quite ring true, do they? The word hello is, actually, not that old at all. The OED records its first use as a greeting in 1853; not very long ago, is it? It had been recorded being used to attract attention or express surprise as far back as 1826, but still, where and how did it suddenly become the default greeting for the English speaking world?
Raleigh would probably have said ‘Good Morrow’ to Bessy 1; Romeo might have said ‘How farest thou?’ to his Julie and Bathy could have greeted Pardy along the lines of ‘Ey, maister, welcome be ye’*.
The etymology of Hello is not totally clear – and why it suddenly grew in popularity is also open to discussion. It can, with varying degrees of frequency, be spelt hallo, hullo, hillo and even hollo apparently. The tale goes that Thomas Edison decided the word was clear enough to be heard from 20 feet away and, therefore, would make a perfect opening greeting for the new-fangled telephone. Alexander Graham Bell, meanwhile, was insisting the word Ahoy was the correct way to open a telephone conversation. Thankfully, despite his inventing the phone, his idea of how to use it did not catch on. For more about this, see, among others, http://www.nytimes.com/1992/03/05/garden/great-hello-mystery-is-solved.html
So, where did it come from? Bill Bryson, in his book Mother Tongue,** informs us that it is a derivative/contraction of the Old English hal beo thu [hale be thou] – in a similar way to modern goodbye being a form of God be with ye. The OED, however, states that it originated in old High German halâ, holâ – being used to attract attention, especially of ferrymen.
“Death as a ferrryman”, a satirical drawing from Punch, 1858
Hmmmm, if this is what a shout of ‘Hello’ could bring, maybe ‘Ey maister’, or even Ahoy could be safer words to use after all?
Hmmm, what on Earth does that title mean? Even Spock* looks puzzled. What it started out as, before I searched online for replacement words, is:
Beware the sneaky synonym.
Ok, why am I prattling on like this? Well, today a member of my family asked me for help with a cover letter for an application she was writing. As I was quite busy, most of the conversation was done by text messages:
Her: What’s another word for interesting?
Me: Tell me the rest of the sentence.
a few minutes passed………
Her: It’s ok, I found one.
Me: [Having been wrestling with good synonyms for interesting ]What, exactly?
I was firstly puzzled, then slightly alarmed, then I just had to stop what I was doing and phone her. I could not think of a single thing which she could describe as intriguing in a formal cover letter.
The original sentence had been What I find most interesting is palliative care. **
Now, although, when you look on a site such as Thesaurus.com and enter interesting in the synonym finder, it will return intriguing, it gives you many other suggestions too. Among these are:
alluring; amusing; delightful; exotic; fascinating and provocative.
Yes, they are all, in the right context, exchangeable for interesting. Surely, though, nobody would say What I find most amusing is palliative care. Please…you wouldn’t, would you?
The good old OED gives these two definitions:
That concerns, touches, affects, or is of importance; important.
That intrigues; forming secret plots or schemes. Also, that excites interest or curiosity; fascinating.
As you can see, although they are similar in some ways, they are very different in others. The English language [as we were taught in my undergraduate days by Dr Vikki Hulse] has no exact synonyms. Sites such as Thesaurus.com, and the synonym tool on Word, are very helpful when you’re not wanting to repeat a particular word too often. Remember, however, to avoid the shifty metonym at all costs and, whatever else you do, shun the disingenuous equivalent .