It’s a Timey-Wimey, Spacey-Wacey Thing.

Imagine….no please don’t burst into a John Lennon impression…but imagine people who think of time differently from the way we conceptualise it in English. People who see the past as in front and the future as behind them. People who see time as static and humans moving through it. And…people who really don’t measure it in any numerical way.



Photo: Shutterstock

Whilst I was away last week at a language and linguistics conference at Colchester University [more about the beautiful city itself on my Travelling Hamster blog site], one of the speakers explained how she has been researching Amazonian villages where they only have the numbers 1 to 4, where they have no concept of how old people are, of all…no concept of ever being late 🙂

It blew our minds as we sat through the talk. Time is, well, however long something takes. Words for tomorrow, today and yesterday simply don’t exist. They have stages of life which are marked by new names;  being ready to marry, being too old to work,  yet these are whenever they occur for each individual – not some arbitary age of consent or retirement age such as we have in our culture.

They use concepts such as rainy and dry seasons, height of the sun, depth of the flood-waters to refer to events, but again these simply happen when they happen – there is no set clock or calendar date to  announce the first day of summer and other similar chronological divisions. Somehow, in a way incomprehensible to we time-obsessed cultures, time does not exist as a separate concept to the event which is happening. How happy would Alice’s white rabbit be at that thought?



For more on languages which encode time in different ways, the following may be of interest: – Boroditsky – How languages Construct Time – A Walk in the Garden of Time

And, the paper by the speaker at the conference [whose name is Vera and is great fun to have curry with] – Da Silva Sinha

The History of Geography



On Thursday, I had the chance to travel to Liverpool on the bus again [see my post A Change of Pace from a few weeks ago]. Once more, although the weather wasn’t as nice this time, I enjoyed looking at the countryside and, again, the oddly-named lanes we passed. Near Southport I saw Cockle Dicks Lane once more, and also Sugar Stubbs Lane, and spent time pondering how these came about. Then, I noticed one I must have overlooked last time – 800px-benkid77_ralph27s_wife27s_lane2c_banks2c_lancashire_120809

‘Surely’, I thought, ‘there must be a story behind this place-name?’, so when I reached home, after several reviving cups of coffee, I  hit Google in search of the answer.

All I could find were some threads on a discussion post, and there seemed to be two main schools of thought on the subject. The first one was that Ralph was a local fisherman who sometimes brought home some illicit booty too. His loyal wife would walk to the end of this lane with a lantern to guide his boat in to the secret unloading point. One night he didn’t make it back, but she stayed there, faithfully waiting, and ultimately froze to death on the marshes.

The other theory is that she was given land on the lane as part of a divorce settlement. Nowhere near as romantic and, as the name of the Lane seems shrouded in history, were there many divorces among ordinary people back then? I think I prefer the first version ❤

As I looked for an image of the name, I came across this page – it seems the Hesketh/Southport area is prone to strangely named lanes.

Knob Hall lane

Now there’s a nice address  😆

Oh Auto-Predict! You’re no poet.

I was sending a text to a friend recently about foggy Frisco [San Francisco]. As I hit ‘send’ I noticed that the predictive texting had changed it to ‘fight frisco’. Hmmmmm. What else might it get up to? I decided to give it a real test…….Jabberwocky 🙂


So, with many, many apologies to Lewis Carroll…here’s the first verse, courtesy of my phone:

‘Twas brilliant and the slight gives

Did gyre and marble in the wave

All mimsy were the borogro estate

And the moment rather outgrabe.’

OK, so it would appear that gyre mimsy and  outgrabe are genuine English words it has no need to change at all. Off to the trusty OED for clarification.

Gyre, v.  appears as a genuine, though rare word, dating back to c1420. It means to Turn, or whirl round.

It is also a noun, from c 1566 meaning:  A turning round, revolution, whirl; a circular or spiral turn.  The word must have its etymology in the same root as words such as gyroscope then. Mr Carroll obviously knew his obscure old words.

Mimsy, it says, is a blend of miserable and flimsy,  nowadays meaning unhappy but…

Only in Carroll and later allusions. So it IS a word, though one apparently created by good old Lewis.

So, finally, we come to the most interesting of all – Outgrabe.

According to the OED, this is a factious word [sounds like another of Lewis Carroll’s creations, that!] and is the past tense of Outgribe. I have copied the entry below:


intr. A nonsense word; (most frequently) to emit a strange noise.

Etymology: A factitious word introduced by Lewis Carroll (used in the past tense), and described by him as follows:

1855   ‘L. Carroll’ Rectory Umbrella & Mischmasch (1932) 140   Outgrabe, past tense of the verb to outgribe. (It is connected with the old verb to grike or shrike, from which are derived ‘shriek’ and ‘creak’.) ‘Squeaked.’
1871   ‘L. Carroll’ Through Looking-glass vi. 129   ‘And what does “outgrabe” mean?’ ‘Well, “outgribing” is something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle.’

Apparently intended by Carroll as a past tense, but generally understood subsequently as a regular verb, with present tense outgrabe and past tense outgrabed.

If you have access to the OED online, more can be read here:

So, if you thought Jabberwocky was just a lot of nonsense words created to sound amazing, it looks as though Lewis Carroll actually knew his etymology and used it very cleverly indeed. RESPECT!



The Roman God of Dodgy Definitions





As this post is written in English [ok, apart from the bits which are in Double-Dutch] I am making the huge assumption that you understand the definition of many English words.

Words such as:





Simple, right? However, all these words – along with many others – are known as Contronyms, or Janus words.


That’s him, old two-face himself. Janus looks both forwards and backwards; he’s the Roman god of doorways, and the deity from whom we derive the name for January.

So, what has he got to do with the words in the list above? Well, each of these can mean the exact opposite of itself ;

You can dust furniture or dust a cake – in one you remove dust, in the other you add a dusting of sugar or some-such.

You can cleave something into two parts, or a couple can cleave together in marriage.

Something fast might be stuck fast or moving very quickly

A bus may have left the bus station or be left in it.

According to my in-depth research* [a quick search on Google!] there are 75 examples of contronyms in English, something for word-nerds to maybe use to spread confusion far and wide. Thanks, Janus!



Praises and Passwords

The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670)

Have you ever used a Shibboleth? It’s a way of signing in whenever I need to access the OED online through my university’s portal. It is also, according to a quick Google search ‘among the world’s most widely deployed federated identity solutions, connecting users to applications both within and between organizations.’

Another definition comes up as: ‘a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, especially a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important.’

The OED, which, ironically, I needed to use Shibboleth to look up the self-same word has, amongst many definitions:

A word or sound which a person is unable to pronounce correctly; a word used as a test for detecting foreigners, or persons from another district, by their pronunciation.

A custom, habit, mode of dress, or the like, which distinguishes a particular class or set of persons.

A catchword or formula adopted by a party or sect, by which their adherents or followers may be discerned, or those not their followers may be excluded.

But, where did this word actually come from? The topmost entry in the OED explains:

The Hebrew word used by Jephthah as a test-word by which to distinguish the fleeing Ephraimites (who could not pronounce the sh) from his own men the Gileadites (Judges xii. 4–6).

Basically, it was an ancient equivalent of what I call the ‘Chip Butty’ test. Being a proud Lancashire woman [albeit with a Yorkshire influence from my mum] I often hear people bragging that they’ve lived in Lancashire for x number of years and are, therefore, now true Lancashire-ites. I simply ask them to say ‘Chip Butty’. If it comes out more like ‘Chip Batty’ then they are NO WAY proper Lancashire! [If they don’t even know what a butty is, then they are ridiculed out of the pub, staff room or wherever by all and sundry.] If they do get the beautiful ‘u’ sound just right then, Hallelujah, they can count themselves as true natives of our fair county.

So, Hallelujah? I’m sure many people find themselves saying it, even if in a rather ironic or patronising way at times. It is actually Hebrew for ‘Praise the Lord’ and, therefore, something I love to say but in a hopefully more meaningful sense. Did you realise you were praising the Lord whenever you uttered that word? Something to think about maybe.

‘God Knows’ is another saying which people seem to use all the time – to which I usually answer ‘Yes, I know He does, but do you?’ Something else to think about?

Whilst I am on this topic, I’m sure we have all heard about the Samaritans, and I’m not ashamed to admit I have phoned them myself on a couple of occasions. They do amazing work for which they can’t be praised highly enough. However, did you realise that the original Good Samaritan was something of an oxymoron*? Interestingly, when I searched for an antonym for Samaritan I couldn’t find one at all. Nowadays it would perhaps be equivalent to Good Hooligan or Good Thug, although it had religious and racial connotations too. The Samaritans were people who vehemently differed from the Jews as to where to sacrifice to God, and the two nations were deeply mistrustful and antagonistic towards each other. For one to perform such an act of kindness in the parable [found in Luke 10:25–37] would have been almost unthinkable to Jesus’ audience. Yet nowadays it is a byword for kindness, unselfishness and helpfulness – quite a difference from its original derogatory meaning.

Despite the fact that most people nowadays would never open a Bible from one decade to the next, it’s quite surprising how much of our language is derived straight from there.

*Oxymoron:  A term which contradicts itself, for example ‘Deeply Superficial’

A Fresh Perspective


One of the things I love doing is browsing in the children’s section of Waterstone’s. The amazing range of books available nowadays; tactile, audible, some even incorporating glove puppets….they are a joy [which could never be replicated with a Kindle, could they???].

So, with half an hour to spend, I was idling there the other day when I spotted a book by a wonderful writer:- Shirley Hughes. My daughters loved her Alfie* books when they were small, and so my eye was drawn to one I hadn’t seen before…then I had to look again! Since when did she become a political writer? A year of Tories????? What a strange book to write for small children. I’m all for educating them, but surely this was a step too far!

Happily, I soon figured out my mistake – by taking a step closer I could see it was actually A Year of Stories. Phew! But then I started noticing other rather misleading words. On the bus to Liverpool, mentioned in my earlier post, I saw a car with ANGER written on the back. It was a big 4 wheel drive type, very shiny and expensive looking. I have long thought DUSTER a silly name for a car – [when will the dishcloth and tea-towel models be following?] but to actually call a model ANGER – this is just inviting road rage, isn’t it. The car pulled away slightly to reveal it was actually a RANGER. Phew again. A much more peaceful-sounding name.

I do, however, still chuckle when I remember my absolute horror whilst strolling in the lovely Northumbrian seaside town of Seahouses. Ambling down an arcade, ice cream in hand, thinking about puffins, Vikings and other such Northumbrian-related matters I was suddenly confronted by a very large sign, proudly stating SEMEN. Yup….you read that right. I wondered if this was the red-light district [although the sign was a very innocent-looking blue and white]. Not sure whether to investigate more closely or just hurry past in the very British ‘none-of-my-business’ way, I took another step and the mystery was solved. The AMU and TS from either end of the sign were now, thankfully, in view. Seahouses is not the vice capital of Northumbria after all….unless you know differently?


The trouble with Aunts


I am not technically gifted, especially where TVs are concerned and I’ve been having some trouble with one of the gizmos connected to my set. Thankfully I have friends-and-relations, just like Rabbit does, who can usually sort stuff out for me. So, after almost a month of not being able to watch anything through my Now TV box, I am playing catch-up.

As I mentioned a while back, I’d been loving The Big Spell and, tonight, I finally managed to catch the last 2 episodes. One word the children had to spell was a word beginning with ANT meaning ‘a thing that existed before or logically precedes another‘, and I had my heart in my mouth wondering if they’d think the 4th letter was ‘e’ or ‘i’. Would you have known? Anticedent or Antecedent?*

Anti-Natal or Ante-natal?

Ante-Perspirant or Anti=Perspirant

Anti-room or Ante-room?

Antediluvian or Antediluvian

Antiseptic or Anteseptic

Antebacterial or Antibacterial…….

Basically, if a word means it is trying to combat or stop something then the first part [or prefix, for the grammatically minded] is anti- from the Latin and Old French words meaning against.  [It’s also from a Greek word – not many can claim joint parentage from Greek AND Latin].

Ante- that prefix comes only from Latin [awww, bless] and means ‘before’. So, an Ante-room is one where you wait before a meeting, Antediluvian means before the flood, but Antibacterial is something that fights or is against bacteria. Simples……..

Until you come across an Antelope. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr


*It’s Antecedent, and ………….SPOILER ALERT…………………  they got it right 🙂

Just checking-in.

Oops, it’s been a while since I posted here – mea culpa and all that. In my defence I have actually been getting on with some data collection for my MA, which isn’t anywhere near as boring as it might sound – well not to fellow language nerds anyway.

I am investigating the Dative Alternation; which, in a nutshell, is why we can say

I gave John a coffee


I gave a coffee to John

Do these different ways of arranging the sentence give the meaning some slightly different nuances? Do we consciously decide which we are going to use, and if so, why do we make those choices? Would we ever say

You gave an idea to me?

rather than

You gave me an idea?

From my own instinctive feeling and initial research I would say not – but why not? Anyway, back to the data collection which, hopefully, might give me some clues. In the meantime – I found this fascinating article which I thought you might like to read too:-

Linguistic Landlubber :(



Well, as I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been to the Isles of Dogs and was really hoping to take a trip to La Gomera to find out more about their whistling language. They developed this, apparently, to communicate across the deep valleys of the mountainous terrain. There was the possibility of taking a ferry from Tenerife to La Gomera with an included talk about the language [and lunch with wine 🙂 ] but…it was also very windy. My sea-legs are notoriously wobbly; they tremble at a slight ripple on the sea’s surface -and some of the waves were nearly 6 inches high!!!!! Sadly, for this intrepid linguist, the fascination of the trip wasn’t enough to overcome the dread of seasickness, so I went to the Hard Rock cafe instead.

By way of an apology [and to maybe inspire myself to try again next time I visit the Canaries] I did find this really interesting article on the BBC website:

Whilst busily lying by the pool instead, I did read a brilliant book called ‘I Let You Go’*     which I picked up in the hotel’s library. However, it was a North American edition and it got my brain ticking…..

The book is set in England and Wales, it involves a lot of British police procedure and other such content but I was amazed that, in order to publish it in North America, they must have employed somebody to go through it changing colour to colorgot to  gottengrey to gray and so on. I had to ask myself ‘Why?’. I have read many US books, published in Britain, where the American spellings and grammar have been retained – it gives, IMHO, an American ‘flavour’ to the book, it reminds me I am reading a novel set in another country – in much the same way the Monsieur Pamplemousse books I mentioned recently are full of French terms.

Having thought about all this, I decided that the only reason I could deduce for the changing of British English to US English is…..

We are clever enough to accept the grammatical and spelling differences whereby they can’t cope!

Or maybe you know better? I’d love to hear from you if you can shed light on the subject.


PS, while waiting at the airport to come home again, my heart was broken! Apparently I had JUST MISSED [by about 2 minutes] bumping into Brian May and Anita Dobson. Having loved Queen, and adored Brian May, for over 40 years I’m sure you can share my distress. Mind you, they did have one of Marc Bolan’s jackets at the Hard Rock. Small consolation but still quite awesome. [They also, of course, serve the most amazing food – might have to visit their Amsterdam branch next month!]


Pizza or Sausages on your Hair, Madam?


A few days ago, I took the almost unheard-of step of allowing a hairdresser access to my apology for a hairstyle. She asked me when I’d last had it done – I thought it could have been August but wasn’t too sure if it was so recently or not. Ho hum. I’ve always been what you could call ‘low-maintenance’ but even I had realised I did need something doing about the jungle growing from my scalp.

After a rather fruitless discussion about where my parting is [‘I haven’t a clue.’], what I would like doing to my hair [‘I haven’t a clue.’] and other similar questions I couldn’t answer, I was asked the killer one…..’Do you use any product on it?’

I stuttered, pondered and then asked ‘What do you mean by product?’ To me, a ‘product’ is something that has been produced and, therefore, covers an almost infinite amount of possibilities. I was told that, to a hairdresser, it meant stuff like mousse, styling gels, hairspray and other such-like items. After recovering from my semi-hysterical laughter I did venture that I thought I might have a can of hairspray ‘somewhere’. When my poor hairdresser had done her best to educate me on the virtues of ‘product’ [and also done a rather splendid job of taming my locks] I decided to see what the definition of the word is.

A search for images produced the one above, which does, admittedly include some hairstyling goods. However there are also sausages, pizza, breakfast cereals, fish portions, ice cream and mouthwash in the line-up. One of the definitions I came across was:

A substance produced during a natural, chemical, or manufacturing process: ‘waste products’

Hmmm, so I was quite correct in asking for a clearer definition of what was meant by ‘product’ in the context of my hair…because ‘No’ I do not want fish portions, mouthwash or chemical waste rubbing in, thank you very much!