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Archive for the tag “words”

Going, going, gone …

otterRegular followers of my blog will know that I am concerned about words fading out of the English language. So imagine my dismay when I read recently that the Oxford University Press has expunged several words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. And no, the deleted words are not out of use or particularly outdated, they are just apparently not ‘relevant to a modern day childhood’. The missing words include acorn, adder, bluebell, dandelion, kingfisher, otter and even conker. And the words taking their place in the new edition include broadband, blog, bullet point and, wait for it, celebrity!

It worries me that so many of the excluded words refer to our countryside, our fauna and flora. Do we really want to educate the next generation to give priority to cut-and-paste, voicemail and chatroom, over pasture, cowslip and cygnet?

Of course it is not just the younger generation who are at risk of losing vocabulary. Robert Macfarlane, the author of the fascinating book, Landmarks, believes that our language has the power to shape our sense of place. Robert Macfarlane has been on a eight year quest to find lost, or nearly lost, words pertaining to the natural world. So he gives us ammil – a Devon term for that thin film of winter ice that lacquers leaves and twigs and makes the whole landscape glitter; zwer – an Exmoor term for a the sound of partridges taking flight; and the English dialect word, smeuse, for the hole under a hedge made by the regular passing of small animals. Is the loss of these words a sign that we are losing our connection with the natural world? Certainly we are losing our ability to describe it.

Once we were able to rely on poets to coin new words, Gerard Manley Hopkins used shivelight for the lances of sunlight that penetrate the canopy of a wood, and John Clare invented crizzle for the light freezing of a pond.

As we have already lost so many words, perhaps the onus is on us writers to invent more. Or maybe we should just borrow them from other languages. It wouldn’t be the first time. Gaston Dorren, author of the language-lovers book, Lingo, points out that English has been borrowing foreign words for years.

Spanish has for example given us cork, guitar, chocolate and barbeque – where would we be without those? Czech gave us robot, German, quartz, glitz and (perhaps not quite so welcome) blitz. Dutch has given us cruise, coleslaw and smuggler.

Not only does Gaston Dorren tell us the words we have already taken, he also suggests others we could usefully steal – one of his favourites being the German, Gönnen, the exact opposite of envy, to be gladdened by someone’s good fortune. It existed in old English, but it seems we have lost the habit!

Maybe it is time to get some of the old words back, and the old habits, including our powers of observation. So next time you are relishing your own good fortune in taking a walk through the British countryside, keep a look out and see if you can spot a smeuse

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Idioms and petards

I’m never one to toe the line and I may be flogging a dead horse, but as you know I am fascinated by language, so in this post I am going to look at the real meaning behind some of our most commonly used idioms and expressions. I will leave no stone unturned to get to the derivations. It won’t be easy but I would be lily livered not to make the effort. I will try not to let the cat out of the bag in one fell swoop. If I succeed I will be on cloud nine, I hope I won’t be hoisted on my own petard if I don’t. So … to get down to brass tacks.

‘Toe the line’ – Apparently this derives from the lines drawn in front of the two sides of the British Houses of Parliament. The lines are drawn at just the right distance from each other to prevent opposing MPs from reaching each other with their swords (shame they don’t still use them!) Anyone stepping across was sternly instructed to ‘toe the line’.

‘Flogging a dead horse’ – Not a sad animal derivation after all, but a nautical derivation to do with the equatorial ‘Horse’ latitude where winds are very weak. Since sailors were paid by the day there was no point in working hard to get through the area quickly, so the slow mid ocean period became known as ‘flogging the dead Horse.’

‘Leave no stone unturned’ – After the Greeks defeated the Persians in 477 BC Polycrates was unable to find treasure he was sure they had left behind. Eventually he consulted the Oracle at Delphi which suggested he ‘move every stone’ in his search. Sure enough he soon found the booty. At 2500 years old this may be one of our oldest idioms.

‘Lily livered’ – Greek again – When sacrificing an animal on the eve of battle, it was considered a bad omen if the poor animal’s liver was pale and ‘lily’ coloured, suggesting the battle would not be fought with red blooded, courageous ferocity.

‘To let the cat out of the bag’ – Live suckling pigs were sold in sacks in medieval markets. When the unsuspecting buyer arrived home and opened his ‘bag’ he would sometimes find a cat had been surreptitiously substituted.

‘One fell swoop’ – Our old friend Shakespeare got this falconry image going – Macduff (in Macbeth) bemoans the death of his wife and children ‘What, all my pretty chickens and their dam at one fell swoop’.

‘Cloud nine’ – In the 1930s the American Weather Bureau categorised clouds into classes 1-9. Cloud 9, cumulonimbus, is the highest at 40,000ft. In the Johny Dollar radio show, when the hero (Johny) was knocked out he was then transported to Cloud 9 where he was revitalised (and presumably filled with glee) ready for the next episode.

‘Hoisted on one’s own petard’ – A medieval petard was a big iron container filled with gunpowder. It was generally placed against the enemy’s gates and blown up. The wicks, however, were unreliable and the container often blew up prematurely ‘hoisting’ the unfortunate attackers up into the air on their own ‘petard’.

‘Brass tacks’ – Derives from Cockney rhyming slang where ‘brass tacks’ are traditionally substituted for ‘facts’.

Ah, I promised myself 600 words max so I have been saved by the bell …! (- Not from boxing terminology as I’d always assumed, but from the army. One night in the Victorian era a Horseguard sentry was accused of being asleep on duty. The punishment being death, he denied it and said he could prove it because he had heard Big Ben strike thirteen times at midnight. The clock was checked and a faulty cog had indeed caused it to make an extra strike. On this evidence the lucky soldier was famously freed.)

(You can find many more idioms and their derivations in Albert Jack’s brilliant book Red Herrings and White Elephants.)

Words are like local shops

Words are like local shops – it’s a case of use them or lose them. I was shocked to hear that ‘charabanc’ and ‘aerodrome’ have been expunged from the Oxford English Dictionary. But how can that be, when there is a sign for Haverfordwest Aerodrome just down the road from here? And last summer Marc and I went with a couple of friends on what can only be called a charabanc, a (hilarious) local coach trip to the Brecon canal. 

But clearly we didn’t use charabanc or aerodrome enough so both those have gone and the problem is that once they have gone, however much we suddenly realise we loved them, we can’t easily get them back. 

The people behind the  ‘shop local’ organisation are trying to promote local shops and businesses, maybe we should have a similar campaign for words. Some kind of system of encouraging people to use our favourites in order to keep them alive. Louis de Bernières suggests that it’s a good idea to scour the dictionary and to put a couple of pretty obscure words into the first few pages of a novel as it sets a good tone. (I have just scoured his book Birds Without Wings, a wonderful engrossing read, and quickly found ‘kaval’, ‘mendicant’ and ‘Circassian’!) But finding underused words in books and magazines from time to time isn’t enough, we have to use them day to day. I hardly dare say it, but we need to spread the word! 

Some years ago I went through a period of having to go to some pretty dull cocktail parties, and to make it less of an ordeal my partner and I selected a couple of words before going in that we would try to bring casually into the conversation. We gave each other points for how successful we were. I scored particularly well I seem to remember for an inspired combined use of ‘intransigent’ and ‘giraffe’. 

In memory of that success I have decided to start my own ‘use them or lose them’ campaign by introducing some of my favourites into my blog, my tweets and possibly even my day to day chit chat. I am starting with ‘equanimity’ and ‘detritus’- two of my favourite underachievers. So, unless you are able to accept the demise of your words/local village shops with equanimity, I suggest you start using them, otherwise they will become part of the inevitable detritus of globalisation!

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