A Happy New Year to all. Here's the piece I wrote last December 31st on the origins of the word Hogmanay.
There was an article in the Christmas edition of The Economist called Tongue twisters: in search of the world's hardest language (here). There will always be disagreement over which is the hardest language, as, for one thing, it depends on what your native language is and secondly,how do you define 'hard'?
For sheer number of consonants, The Economist suggests that Ubykh, a language spoken in Turkey until the early 1990s, might fit the bill -- it had 78 consonant sounds (English has 24). However, for sound complexity in total !Xóõ, spoken by a few thousand people in Botswana, takes the biscuit. Its vowels can be plain, pharyngealised, strident and breathy, and what's more, they carry four tones; the language is a click language with five basic clicks and 17 accompanying ones. All adult speakers of this language have developed a lump on their larynx through speaking it, and Tony Traill, a late South African expert on the language, developed a similar lump when he learnt it.
For grammatical complexity, we could consider Estonian, with 14 cases, or Boru, spoken in Peru, which has more than 350 'genders' or noun classes. Or, there's Kwaro, spoken in the Solomon Islands, which has 8 different words for 'we' depending on whether you mean 'me and you' or 'me and someone else (not you)' and whether we means 'we two', 'we few' or 'we many'.
Finally, The Economist comes down in favour of Tuyuca, a language of the Eastern Amazon region, as the hardest language in the world. It has a simple sound system, but a complicated agglutinating system (which means that one long word can be formed, consisting of a sequence of morphemes, which might have to be translated by a whole sentence in English). In a similar way to Kwaro, it has two words for 'we' (inclusive we and exclusive we); it also has dozens of noun classes. One interesting feature of Tuyuca is that the ending of the verb shows how the speaker knows something; for instance, dia ape-wi means 'the boy played soccer' (the speaker knows because he saw him), whereas diga ape-hiyi means 'the boy played soccer' (the speaker is making an assumption).
The Economist describes these endings as "a feature that would make any journalist tremble". In fact, other languages closer to home have similar ways of differentiating between knowing and alleging. On page 139 of the BBC's Talk Italian Grammar is the sentence La vittima serrebe già morta which uses the conditional to show that the fact is being reported or alleged. In English this would have to be translated something like 'it is alleged that the victim is already dead'. In the BBC's companion book Talk French Grammar, which I wrote, I include the same sentence, but in French (page 146), which also uses the conditional: La victime serait déjà morte to show that there's uncertainty about the accuracy of the statement.
This will be my last post before Christmas, as I am going to Munich tomorrow to visit my daughter for the holiday. I thought I'd do a quick post on the origin and history of the word merry, but wow! what an interesting story! I've been following up references for the past couple of hours.
Merry is one of the oldest words in English, and at various times has meant 'causing pleasure', 'pleasing', 'pleasant', 'producing a sweet sound', 'pleasing to behold', 'fragrant', 'amusing', 'brightly coloured', 'festive', 'jolly','tipsy' and 'witty'. It's an unusual word because there aren't any similar words in other Germanic languages; the nearest is the Middle Dutch mergelijc, which also means 'pleasant'. It is ultimately related to the Old High German murg, which means 'short' and this in turn comes from an original Proto Indo-European (ie the common ancestor of all Indo-European languages) root *meghru or *mrghu, which also means 'short'.
So what have 'short' and 'jolly' or 'pleasing' got to to with one another? Maybe, it's that doing something pleasant makes the time pass more quickly, or seem shorter. There is an obsolete German word Kurzweile (literally 'short time') which refers to a pleasant pastime. The opposite Langeweile (literally 'long time') is in modern German dictionaries and means 'boredom'. Indeed, the word pastime in English has a similar sense ie the time passes quickly because it is enjoyable.
So, Merry Christmas everyone. I'll be back at the beginning of next week.
The Oxford English Dictionary adds a new batch of words, and new meanings for existing words, every quarter. It has added over 200 words this quarter. Most begin re- as the editors were working on the range between refund and reputeless. Here are a few (the rest can be reached via the OED's homepage):
regender: i) to recreate, to make again and ii) to assign a new gender to. Although this word has only just entered the OED for the first time, the first sense dates back to the early 15th century
rehairing: the fitting of new hairs to the bow of a stringed instrument
several German words beginning Reichs: -fuhrer (with umlaut), -chancellor, -kanzler, -minister
religioso: synonym for religious
remembery: a written commemoration (now obsolete); a person's memory, or the thing remembered
remote control: control exercised at a distance
repmobile: a type of car supposedly favoured by sales reps
The OED also includes dialect words and non-British English, eg:
rego: official registration of a vehicle (Australian)
rent: colloquial word for a parent (US)
rep by pop: representation by population (Canada)
rejumble: (of partially digested food) to rise up from the stomach (Lincolnshire dialect)
New entries that don't begin with re- include:
adultescent: an adult who has retained the interests, behaviour and lifestyle of an adolescent
backstabbing: a treacherous or underhand attack on a person
Beatlesque: characteristic or reminiscent of the Beatles
blogosphere: blogs, their writers and readers collectively
bum rap: unjust criticism
can-do: positive, willing
Various subordinate entries were added at existing entries and these include career break, Celtic Tiger and change management.
The US Food Network, a TV channel, has published a glossary of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's slang (here) so that American viewers can understand him. They are also considering subtitling his programmes. The glossary includes whack it and chuck it (both mean 'put it'), pukka (excellent), over the moon (happy), hen party (bachelorette party in US) and lovely jubbly (really nice).
I mentioned Jamie Oliver's accent and dialect in this post. Jamie Oliver speaks 'mockney' (sometimes written Mockney with a capital M), which is an affected (ie mock) Cockney, or London, accent. Oliver had a middle-class upbringing in the Home Counties but affects a working class London accent to endear himself to TV viewers.
There's obviously not much news around at the moment because there was a report on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning about TV shows which have 'jumped the shark' (you can listen for a few more days here - scroll down to 08:21). 'Jumping the shark' refers tothe point in a television programme when it stops being a good programme and becomes silly and no longer watchable. The expression was coined thanks to an incident in the Happy Days show in 1977 when Fonzie jumped over a shark while waterskiing.
The radio discussion was prompted by the last-ever episode of Wife Swap, which will be shown on Channel 4 tonight (described as starting off ok but then, after jumping the shark, becoming full of 'shouty freaks'). Another programme which has passed its sell-by date, according to the media people on Today, is Big Brother (also described as having turned into a freak show).
I would say that most soap operas 'jumped the shark' long ago. Since they are on television almost every night of the week, it must be getting harder and harder to find story lines. The things that go on in the sleepy Yorkshire village of Emmerdale are incredible -- murders, arson, shootings, kidnappings, hostage crises and a plane crashing on the village!
It's triple witching day today. Sounds very exotic and exciting, doesn't it? As if three times the usual number of fairies and elves are around and about! The reality is rather more banal. Triple witching, or the triple witching hour, is a financial term and happens four times a year. It refers to a trading session on the Stock Market when the contracts for stock index futures, index options and equity options all expire on the same day. The result is increased, sometimes extremely volatile, activity and price changes on the Stock Market.
A dictionary makes a great Christmas present - I think so, anyway. Most households have at least one dictionary, and they do get out of date quite quickly these days. Collins published a new, 30th anniversary, edition of their dictionary in 2009, and there was an updated Concise Oxford Dictionary published this year too. They're both excellent dictionaries.
I like Chambers dictionary, too, as it has lots more words in it than the two mentioned above, particularly Northern English and Scottish dialect words. It's rather quirky and is renowned for its humorous definitions eg Mullet: a hairstyle that is short at the front, long at the back and ridiculous all round. It has words in it which I could never imagine anyone ever needing or wanting to use eg paneity (the state of being bread) and shunamitism (rejuvenation of an old man by a young woman). Shunamitism the word might never be used, but of course the phenomenon still exists - the names Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart spring to mind! I blogged on the 2008 edition of Chambers here.
For anyone thinking of buying a dictionary as a present, here's a blog I wrote last December giving hints on how to choose the best one for your purposes.
I picked up a woman's magazine while waiting in the optician's and came across the term 'sari-ripper' ie a romantic story set in India in the past. Harlequin Enterprises, the owner of Mills & Boon, are already in India, and Random House have set up an imprint called Kama Kahani, which includes such titles as The Zamindar's Forbidden Love (a zamindar was a Moghul tax collector) by Jasmine Saigal. Random House's promotional material promises readers smouldering Rajput princesses and cruelly handsome zamindars.
The word sari-ripper is based on bodice-ripper, a word that was coined in the late 1970s. The one-volume Oxford Dictionary of English says this word is these days used in an informal, derogatory or humorous way and describes a sexually explicit romantic novel or film with a historical setting. In the 1970s another term for bodice-rippers was 'sweet and savages'.
A bodice is the upper part of a dress, a separate piece of material from the skirt part of the dress. The original meaning (17th century) was a whalebone-strengthened undergarment like a corset and it was worn by both men and women. It comes from 'bodies', the plural of body, and indeed, a bodice used to be considered plural (like trousers) because it was often called a 'pair of bodies' and later 'a pair of bodice'.
Writing this blog post has brought back a whole host of emotions to me as it reminds me of the endless arguments, tears and tantrums I had with my mother in the early to mid-60s when she insisted I wore a liberty bodice to keep me warm. For all these years I've never wondered why they were called liberty bodices, but I've just discovered why on Wikipedia. It's liberty in the sense of 'freedom' or 'emancipation' and the garment was designed as an alternative to the boned corset of the Victorian era to give freedom of movement to women. Here's a picture and I have to say that, although this one dates back to 1908, the ones I used to have to wear didn't look much different - I can still feel the rubbery buttons in my imagination now!
Most people hate their bosses using clichés, according to a recently published survey, although some bosses hate their employees' use of hackneyed phrases too. The most common cliché is 'at the end of the day', said about three times a day in most offices, according to a survey carried out by the equestrian charity the Brooke (I'm not sure why they wanted to know!). Here's the full list:
1 At the end of the day
2 What goes around, comes around
3 It's not rocket science
4 Thinking outside the box
5 Flogging a dead horse
6 Don't shoot the messenger
7 Going forward
8 By the close of play
9 Give you the heads up
10 Live and learn
11 C'est la vie
12 Don't put all your eggs in one basket
13 Hit the ground running
14 Always look on the bright side of life
15 Suck it and see
16 Don't look a gift horse in the mouth
17 Don't worry, be happy
18 I know it's a big ask
19 I'm out
20 There are no flies on me
And here's the story.