Archives for category: Language

“That was easy. Like taking candy from a baby.”

It’s an interesting simile, obviously originating in the US, since in European English we would say ‘sweets’.

It’s interesting when you think about how it originated. ‘Like stealing or taking candy from a baby’. A really easy thing to do for sure, but who would do that? Who is so weak that they feel they can take something from someone over whom they have such an overpowering advantage? And why take what is not rightfully ours?

We need a new simile to describe something really easy, something that requires the minimum of effort. How about:

  • Getting burnt in the sun
  • Opening a letter
  • Smiling
  • Paying someone a compliment
  • Scoring in an open goal from a metre out

OK, so they’re not world-class, but they all convey the positive, rather than the negative.

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One of the quainter English phrases is to ‘to and fro’, where fro is an old contraction of from. You can use the term ‘physically’, as in to go to and fro London, although I admit there’s the insertion of the verb ‘to go’ there. You can also use it figuratively, as in ‘I need to to and fro on this subject before I can make a decision I’m happy with’.

That’s fine, but how do you use the term in the past tense? Imperfect tense is OK – as in I was to-ing and fro-ing – although to hyphenate or not is slightly problematic. But what about the simple past tense, as in I did something? Here are some options, to my mind:

  • I to-ed and fro-ed
  • I to’d and fro’d
  • I went to and fro
  • I to and fro-ed

I’m not sure what feels right. Maybe the answer is context: if you mean it physically, then maybe use the verb to go with it. If your intent is mental, maybe it’s to-ed and fro-ed. Who knows, but this is the type of thing I think about and it’s one of very many small pockets of the language that I don’t have an answer for.

“You and me bud. Let’s do this. We’ve got a date with destiny.”

A ‘date with destiny’ is a phrase that’s become pretty popular these days. It’s got a nice ring to it, and it suggests an important milestone is coming up which could throw a serious shape on the future.

It got me thinking. Either you take an existential or a fatalistic approach to your destiny. By which I mean either you feel you shape your own destiny, or else you feel some higher power or a great systematic experiment has predetermined it for you. Whichever stance you take or belief system you adopt, isn’t it the case that every waking moment, every infinitesimally small action is a date with destiny?

Your destiny is your destination – I guess that’s why the words are related – so every division of time and distance is a part of the journey to get there. Not so much as a date with destiny then, as being on the destiny continuum.

Viewing destiny this way helps me stay in the moment, make everything I do of the best quality I can manage, if I have the energy, and avoid plundering time.

Here’s an odd thing. The word ‘WC’, developed from the delightfully old fashioned words ‘water closet’ to disguise with true Victorian values exactly what it’s really for, is not really used in English anymore. Indeed, its prim origins remind me of the American ‘restroom’. You’re hardly going to say ‘give me a couple of minutes, I’m just going for a quick rest’, are you?

I was recently using the facilities of a French campsite and there were instructions in 4 languages about what you could not put down the toilet. Pretty standard stuff, both in terms of what you couldn’t put down the privy and in the language used. Except that, in the English sentence the word ‘toilet’ was used, and in the French, Dutch and German the word ‘WC’ was used.

I thought this was hilarious. Here’s a case of foreign languages adopting the initials of olde English words – initials that don’t mean anything in their native language – and staying with them, long after the English had abandoned their use.

Now that I think about it, there are so many slang words for toilet, at least in English.

These are the sorts of things that I pick up on, to ponder over, on a regular basis. And you thought you had problems.

I was in France for a family holiday recently, and it got me thinking about how many French phrases we’ve incorporated into English. I mistakenly wrote ‘thinning’ on my first pass at this post, which is what I need to do after a fortnight of sublime croissants, brioches and baguettes has turned me from svelte to felt.

Déjà vu is a prime example of such a phrase, where a combination of visual stimuli brings back a memory where we pocketed exactly the same combination – or something very close – a long time ago. It’s quite a powerful thing.

Even more powerful I think is the recollection we get from one of the other more minor senses, namely smell. The smell of a certain food can instantly bring us back to our childhood. There is also a certain foul smell that makes me think of the smell of burnt bones from the glue factory near my childhood home. The smell of cinnamon always makes me think of Christmas shops in the mid-west US around December time – obviously…

It often occurs to me how compelling a force smell would be in marketing, even B2B marketing, away from the food and drink-related B2C areas where it is already deployed to great effect. ‘If you could bottle that’, as they say.

I don’t think the French would use the phrase, but if they did it would be ‘déjà senti’, I suppose, meaning ‘already smelled’. Doesn’t have the same ring unfortunately.

‘Try the fruit scones Miriam, they’re to die for.’

‘Do you see that dress in the window, it’s to die for.’

‘That woman’s figure, the one off the telly, oh it’s to die for.’

What an odd, extreme phrase that it is. To die for, really?

It seems a bit self-defeating that you would die for something that you wouldn’t be able to experience, because you would be dead…

The phrase strikes me, and I’m generalising here, as one more often used by the female gender. The more male version is of course more violent.

To kill for.

‘He’d kill his granny for a fiver, that lad.’

At least in the ‘kill’ scenario you’d have a chance of experiencing that which you covet, albeit briefly.

 

 

Many books have a beginning, a middle and an end. An introduction with an outline, a body and a conclusion. They tell a story. You start at the beginning and you work through the end to follow the narrative flow. This is true for works of fiction and non-fiction, or business books and leisure books.

Occasionally, a book is a collection of self-contained, separate topics that don’t fit into this conventional format where the narrative hangs the content together naturally. I’m coming to the end of the drafting stage of a self-help book I’m writing. It’s more than a hundred different ideas around a very broad topic, loosely arranged into 4 themes. Each idea fits into the typical length of blog post that I’ve been writing for the past few years.

The challenge – without the guiding structure of a narrative flow – is arranging and presenting the ideas in an order that works for the reader. I could present each of the themes in turn, but that might appear uneven. Or I could sprinkle all of the ideas randomly, but that might appear disjointed. Alternatively, I could go for a mixture of the two approaches, but I might not be able to build momentum to get the reader to the end.

I’ll get to the bottom of how the book will hang together, but it’s an interesting challenge.

 

Is the term ‘the gentleman’s family’ recognised in England? I have only ever heard it in Ireland, and only after I had become the co-creator of the gentleman’s family myself. Apparently, it’s having one child of each gender, of which the elder is a boy, and stopping there.

There’s seems to be a bit more etymology behind the term as well, judging by this chap’s blog post when he heard about the term and asked about its origin too.

I had no idea that the term had historical and religious connections. Other than the fast that the term is sexist and outdated, for me, it was about the idea that we’re having fewer kids these days, and if you produce one of each then you’re pretty much done.

Except that, I would imagine the son and daughter of a gentleman’s family would have liked a brother or sister respectively. As one of 3 boys, who’s married to a lady with a sister, I can attest to the merits of same sex ‘siblingness’.

Anyway, ’tis a moot point now.

I was reading an article on the BBC website the other day and came across the ‘backronym’, which I’d never heard of before and which I immediately loved. I looked it up right away on wikipedia.

It is at its heart a reverse acronym, created to echo an original word or acronym. So, to borrow from wikipedia, where Radar is an acronym for Radio Detection and Ranging, the Amber Alert program was named after a girl called Amber went missing, but was later changed to stand for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response, a backronym.

Cool, eh? We can create any number of our own humorous backronyms and use them to mock our ‘acronymic’ institutions.

Here’s the thing though: the backronym the BBC used in its article was the most interesting of all. Apparently, the word camp in its adjectival meaning is derived from kamp, standing for ‘known as male prostitute’, and harking back to the dingy old days when homosexuality was illegal. Not sure about that, myself, but was delighted to learn of the existence of the word backronym.

Pore over this, if you too are similarly mistaken.

You learn something new every day. It’s always a pleasure for me when I learn something new about the English language.

I’ve often used the term to ‘pore over’ something, meaning to take in all of the detail of something. Finally, a hundred times after I’d used the term or heard it used in conversation, I saw it written down in a story on the BBC website. My initial reaction, arrogantly, was that the writer had made a mistake and that I was right. 15 seconds later I was proved wrong. How could I have doubted the August BBC?

I had always assumed it was to ‘pour’ over something, as in the example of pouring gravy on my roast potatoes, or pouring our eyes over a document or painting. But no, different root word, different etymology, different spelling.