Archives for category: Language

I was making some calls to potential customers in the UK the other day, and I made a tactical blunder. I hadn’t realised that the UK schools were not back from Easter break the same week as the Ireland schools. A lot of the people I was calling were parents taking time off with their families, and not ready to take my call.

An expression I heard a lot was that someone was ‘on annual leave.’ It’s quite an old-fashioned term to my mind. You hear it a lot in the UK but not that much in Ireland. I would just say that I was on holiday, or that I was taking a day’s holiday, not that I was taking a day’s annual leave.

Leave in this sense is quite an old word and it just means permission not to be at working, a leave of absence from the workplace. It got me thinking that there are many uses of annual ‘leave’, not just a holiday away, nor a ‘staycation’. Even though I may be at home getting a few projects done, or taking my child to an appointment, or even attending a funeral, I would still call that a holiday, since it’s a holiday from work, or at least regular paid work.

Of course, another important distinction is that annual leave is paid time away from work for the employee. For the self-employed of course, time away from work is unpaid time.

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To wear the trousers: to be in charge, to be the one making the decisions…

Is this sexist, or at best chauvinist? Probably both. Apparently the phrase originates from the convention that men always used to wear trousers, whereas women always used to wear skirts or dresses, and the trouser-wearing man made the decisions. These days you’ll still hear variations on: ‘Yeah, Paul does talk a lot but it’s wife you need to talk to. She wears the trousers in that relationship.’

I assumed, wrongly as I’m sure you’re thinking, that the phrase originated in the fact that the male adult wore trousers and the male child wore shorts, so it was the senior person who wore the responsibility-laden garments. The parents are in charge, and supposedly one parent in a two-parent family is more in charge than the other.

How far are we from this scenario: ‘Yeah, it looks like his wife is in charge but it’s Paul who wears the skirt in that relationship.’

I know, there’s 3 ways to think about that conundrum: the sexism, the sartorial aspect and my ability to be in charge of anything…

 

 

In the last of this week’s cluster of posts on the spelling and meaning of a couple of words in this glorious language, I want to touch on the application called Grammarly, about which I profess to know very little.

I often see ads for Grammarly playing before I watch a video on the BBC international website, and by the American accents on the ad and the American base of the company, I assume the application helps with US-English phrasings, spelling, meanings, syntax and so on. There may well be a UK-English version too, though I doubt there’s an Irish-English version, or a Scottish-English, Welsh-English or any other variant that blurs the edges between language and dialect.

Two lads from the Ukraine founded the application, so perhaps its real benefit is for those for whom English is a second language. For many of us, however, we already have a lot of this functionality built into our office productivity applications and our browsing applications. For instance, if you erroneously search for ‘Grammerly’ – presumably an easy mistake to make if you’re the person who might need and want to use the correctly spelled version – on Chrome, you get returned suggestions for Grammarly.

Those of us who already get help from our everyday software and have a decent command of the language are using our skill and judgement on the grammar and phrasing side of things anyway. We use the tools to correct typos and omissions, and we use ourselves to correct the other more subtle areas of the language.

Which possibly explains why the application is probably very successfully catering to the vast numbers of people who need to converse in the dominant language which is not their dominant language.

Hmm, discrete os discreet? Tough one.

Just when you thought there wasn’t a difference – or should I say just when I thought there wasn’t a difference, lo and behold there is. The root Latin word is the same, but the spelling and the meaning has diverged. I’m not sure why.

Discrete spelled this way means separate, as in the map can be split into discrete parts. In that sense, ironically, it’s the opposite of concrete.

Discreet spelled with the double e means careful, circumspect, delicate almost. It means something completely different to discrete. You could say they have discrete meanings :-).

And then, to further confuse, there is the abstract noun discretion, which is not connected to discrete as would make sense, but to the double e version. I must exercise proper discretion with these two words in future…

‘Always learning’, or so they say. Well I am, anyway.

Do you know the difference between cache, caché and cachet? I thought I did. I was quite confident in fact.

Cache – pronounced cash – is a hiding place, most commonly known these days as the place where your cookies, Internet and browsing history files reside until or if you clear it out.

Caché – pronounced cashay – is the past tense of cacher, to hide in French, so it means hidden. OK so far I think. It is not the correct spelling for the next meaning, however.

Cachet has a bunch of different meanings. It originally refers to an official seal or stamp on something, like a document, but lately is most commonly used to denote prestige, as in ‘her job carries a certain cachet’, or ‘this food has a cachet within the fitness community’. In this sense, it is not, as I thought it was, spelled caché. D’oh!

Speaking of which, who decided that d’oh! should have an apostrophe? What’s missing or owned there do denote such a mark?

‘Can you just move a smidge to the left for me?’

‘I’ll take a smidge of milk with my tea please.’

What exactly is a smidge? It’s hardly an agreed unit of measurement, either by width or volume. I use it from time to time and always assumed it was a quaint olde English word from the 16th century, probably coined by Bill Shakespeare, who seems to have more coinages to his credit than extant plays.

It’s actually a shortened form of the equally arcane smidgen – the origin of which is uncertain, but you can also spell it smidgin or smidgeon – and American English in its origin.

WordPress wasn’t happy with smidge or smidgeon, giving them the red dotted underline of shame. All the more reason to use them.

Fabulous.

In this sophisticated world that we live in, communication has become equally sophisticated. Technology is of corse front and centre in this.

But as the communication industry becomes more and mature, you tend to see quote a bit of the ‘opposite is true’ phenomenon. I define this as the situation where people say one thing but everyone else knows that they mean the 180-degree opposite. It’s pretty common in political situations, with both a small p and a large P.

Here’s a couple of examples:

  • ‘Asking for a friend’. We all know that they’re not asking for a friend, they’re asking for themselves. This has become a standard joke these days in potentially embarrassing ‘Agony Aunt’-type situations
  • ‘Such-and-such has the full support of the board.’ Whether they’re a sports manager or a political leader, this can only mean one thing: they don’t have the full support of the board and their days are numbered

Note that I don’t include Fake News in this category. That’s the type of communication designed to dupe us all into believing that the opposite of the opposite is true.

It’s really hard for native English speakers to agree on the correct definition of this week vs next week. Even family members confuse each other. How much harder must it be for non-native speakers, unless they’ve been taught an easier, simpler way?

Then there’s this weekend vs next weekend. If it’s Wednesday today, does this weekend or next weekend start in 2 days’ time? Tricky one. Sometimes we have to qualify ourselves by saying something like ‘this week coming’. Awkward. It interests me that something so basic and important is subject to such variance.

For me it’s a simple distinction, like the distinction between this and that, which governs how we explain the difference to those speakers of language who have no separate word (‘dieser’ being both this and that in German). I argued in that post that this is close in time and place, and that is less close in time and place. With me so far?

This week is the week we’re in right now, and I count my week from Monday to Sunday.

This weekend is the first weekend after today. If it’s a Saturday or Sunday, this weekend is the one I’m in, right now.

Next week is the week commencing Monday. If it’s a Sunday, next week starts tomorrow. If it’s a Monday, next week starts a week today because I’ve started this week. If it’s any other day than Monday, next week starts on Monday.

Next weekend is not this weekend, it’s the one after.

However, if you count your weeks from Sunday to Saturday, then all bets are off, because if it’s a Sunday then for you next week starts next Sunday, not tomorrow :-). Ha, I’m actually laughing out loud as I write this.

Should I have used a diagram? Do you agree with my definition? Do you care?

 

I wonder if a lot of Americans spell mandatory wrong? They tend to say man-dit-ory and I’m guessing a lot of them try to spell it that way. I must confess that I thought there might be a variant spelling using the ‘i’, as sometimes crops up when the two languages continue to diverge, but no, the ‘i’ version is a non-runner.

It’s easier for us European English speakers to spell it correctly since we sound the word differently to our new world friends. For us the second syllable is the gloriously named ‘schwa‘ vowel, the sound we make on many unaccented syllables that comes from the middle of our mouth, the most economical and efficient place from which to issue a non-stressed syllable. Think of the word ‘sofa’, and the ‘a’ is your classic schwa sound.

This, I would suspect, makes it more natural for us to guess that an ‘a’ is the correct letter, since it feels closer than an ‘i’ and certainly better than an ‘e’, ‘o’ or ‘u’, although they all have schwa representation as well – as in independent, potential and support, respectively.

I guess you can make the argument that since you ‘mandate’ something, it would make sense to see mandatory, but I’m going to stick my neck out and say don’t be surprised if US dictionaries start permitting manditory as an alternative spelling in the next decade or so.

I like prepositions. I like how they can completely change the meaning of a verb. I know, I should get out more, but that’s another story. Take the verb to give, for example. Or, I give you the word to take – sorry, I digress, more verbal plasticine.

Look at the ways that ‘give’ can be changed, depending on the language, and the country using the language:

Give in – as in to concede, or, in fact, to give up.

Give over – as in the English for stop, or to pour scorn on something. ‘Ah, give over Nancy, that’s nonsense.’

Give out – as in to distribute. Interestingly, in Irish – and not in any other English-speaking country in my experience – this can also mean to complain. ‘Stop giving out Meredith, look on the plus side for a minute.’

Give off – as in to project or issue. Also, equally interestingly to my nerdy mind – used by younger Irish people as a variant of the complaining flavour attributed to give off. ‘Dad, stop giving off, I’ve done my homework.’

Now that I think about it some more, these are not true prepositions, since they don’t indicate location or position, as in ‘on the house, in the house, to the house, from the house.’ Need to ponder this one some more.