Archives for category: Language

Today I’m continuing this week’s 3-part series of my favourite days from Jeff Kacirk’s Forgotten English page-a-day calendar, which sits proudly on my desk.

My second selection is this:

Puckersnatch.

A glorious word, not least because it comes up on my birthday. It’s a great word to enunciate as loudly as possible, giving one a relaxing sense of release.

It means a difficult or complicated situation, and originates in Southern Vermont where presumably these kids of quandaries were regular enough to coin a word for them.

I haven’t a clue as to the etymology of the word, and neither does anyone else from a quick trawl of the ‘net, but I love it all the same.

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This week my three posts will be my favourite examples from a 2019 page-a-day calendar, a rather nice gift that I received for Christmas. I have a soft spot for linguistics and language, so this daily nugget is right up my street.

Jeff Kacirk’s Forgotten English is a delightful daily combination of a defined ‘olde’ word or phrase and a short celebration of something or someone notable. The word and the celebration are often connected.

Here’s my first choice:

For All Waters

This feeds right into my generalist leanings. If you’re for all waters it means that you can turn yourself to any job, rather like one of those fish that can thrive in either the sea or rivers, lakes and ponds. Apparently it’s from Bill Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which is nice.

I’m going to try and fit into conversation without sounding pompous.

Tack and tact. This has a lot of people confused I think. Tack can either mean a small nail, or also a nautical term for changing direction. Probably other meaning as well, I haven’t checked.

Tact is an emotional intelligence skill you acquire with other people that manifests itself in diplomacy, language and body language. So two pretty different meanings, then, for two words that look and sound similar.

‘I think we need to take a different tact.’ I heard this the other day – for the countlessth time, from someone who sails regularly and presumably done his share of tacking. You don’t want the word tact here, you want the word tack, unless your change in strategy involves ushering in some unexpected wave of diplomacy into proceedings.

The best way to remember the difference I think is from the Faithless song Insomnia, the lyrics of which go:

‘Fundamental movement, huh, so when it’s black
This insomniac, take an original tack
Keep the beast in my nature under ceaseless attack’

The tack you want is the one that rhymes with black and attack. Unless of course your context is thoughtfulness and consideration to others, in which case some tact is required.

Was that tactfully enough put to put you on the right tack?

Google Translate is really rather good. At least it’s what I assume is Google Translate. I generally search for ‘german english dictionary’ in the Chrome browser window and it brings in the german text-input box and the English translate counterpart box within the search return page.

I used to think it was a bit ropey, but it seems to be really good these days. I’ve been using it lately in reverse to establish the German words for certain English packaging and label words and phrases, and the dynamic way it adapts its translation to context the more you type in is really impressive. I have a passing, touristic knowledge of German and I can use my dangerous knowledge to make sure I’m conveying the right sense by using the translator in both directions.

The other day I received an email in German from a company. Written German is very formal, quite stilted and stuffy and in my opinion way more formal than its English counterpart. To this writer the German was impenetrable. I pasted the German sentences one-by-one into Google Translate and the resulting English wasn’t simply sufficient, it was superb.

Unless you have a need for super technical translations, or the stakes are very high indeed, I don’t know why you’d go to a translation company for their machine learning or even their human translation services any more.

Bloody Google. It will end up disintermediating us all if we’re not careful…

I’ve written before about how the Irish language has some quite unwieldy versions of some of the most common words and phrases you’ll ever need, like hello, hello back and thank you.

It also has no words for yes and no, incredibly.

Instead, it makes do with a much more engaging and involving set of answers, that has exact parallel in English and which I use a lot myself.

‘Did you finish your lunch?’ ‘I did.’

‘Have you done that report?’ ‘I haven’t.’

‘Will you come with me to the meeting?’ ‘I will’

‘Can you commit to the end of this month for the order?’ ‘We can.’

‘Are you in charge?’ ‘I am.’

It’s an altogether more accommodating language, reversing the questioner’s word order and creating a kind of subconscious closeness and empathy. Nothing less than you’d expect from a very friendly people.

Do I like it? I do.

 

 

It seems odd to me that we European English speakers diverge from our US counterparts in our use of the words over and again.

When we on the eastern side of the Atlantic have to repeat something we start again. Sometimes we might have to do it over again. In the US and perhaps Canada they simply start over, never starting again or over again.

It’s a bit like the John Lennon song, no doubt crafted for an American audience while he was living over there with Yoko Ono, I think, called Starting Over. Perhaps he too was hedging his bets when he said It’s like Starting Over, with the ‘like’ seeming to soften the statement somewhat, as if he wasn’t sure.

Speaking of idiom, I was talking with an Iranian friend of my mother’s the other day. He said, after almost a lifetime of living here, “I can’t understand why you English people say ‘Would you like to come in for a nice cup of tea?’ Whoever would ask for a horrible cup of tea?”

Good point, well made. I was careful to ask for a horrible cup of tea the next time I was visiting.

I’ve blogged before about how a preposition can make an enormous amount of difference. None more so, I don’t think, than in this example.

‘I believe you’ seeks to assure someone that you think they’re telling the truth. It’s almost like letting them off the hook if their story or defence is flimsy and they’re clutching at straws. It’s hardly a glowing endorsement.

Contrast this with ‘I believe in you.’ This has an altogether more committed, almost spiritual tone of endorsement about it. You’re placing your trust and faith in another person, and perhaps this is the greatest compliment or statement of togetherness that you can pay¬† them.

It changes the verb, the sentence structure and the meaning completely.

In the US it’s not uncommon for people to put the phone down or kill a telephone call without saying goodbye. It’s not considered rude. We’ve seen it on TV and film a hundred times. That’s not to say it’s not mildly unnerving to a European the first time it happens.

At the other end of the extreme are people that say bye multiple times at the end of a call. It’s as if they’d be terrified if the person at the other end didn’t hear them formally close the conversation, so they double- and triple-up to be sure.

I heard this staccato farewell a lot in Scotland when I lived there and you hear it a lot in Ireland. It’s a rat-tat-tat delivery of multiple byes that has a natural cadence of its own: 3 quick byes and 3 longer byes over a 3-second-or so period. Sort of a ‘ba-bye-bye [very short pause] bye-bye-bye.

I have a Belgian friend who always closes the call with a ba-baaaaaye, one short blast and a long blast, and then he’s done.

Me? I prefer a punchy ba-bye, that’s it. Simple, decisive, clear.

Speed camera warning sign in Ireland

I passed a scruffy truck the other day and as I passed I saw a notice on the back, which said: ‘This truck is equipped with visual recording technology’, presumably to ward off would be thieves or stowaways.

Next to the words was a symbol of a camera, and it was exactly the same type of image you see on signs all over Irish roads, warning you against speeding by the presence of speed cameras. Except there aren’t any speed cameras generally, except mobile ones housed in a vehicle. So the sign has come to me to be considered a fake symbol. Whenever I see the speed camera sign my reaction is, ‘oh, no speed cameras here, but probably a well known speedy stretch – or potentially dangerous stretch, or both – is coming up’.

And so it was with this truck. My first thought was, ‘no it’s not equipped with that technology’. It’s like the visual equivalent of fake news, or at least reverse news. A sports club announces it’s fully behind their beleaguered manager, they’re on the way out.

Call it middle aged suspicion, but since the advent of April Fools’ Day in my childhood years I’ve become conditioned to look out for fake news, and fake symbols are no different.

Biannual, biennial, it’s tough to remember which one means which, what timespan we’re talking about, isn’t it?

The prefix bi generally means 2, as in biped or bipolar, so one means 2 times a year and the other means every 2 years, so not much help there.

Taking a look at the suffix, annual means yearly, and -ennial is, well, quite similar. A perennial plant is one which lasts a while, rather than something that shows up every year, so again we’re slightly in the dark.

As it turns out, biannual means twice a year, and biennial means every 2 years. I suppose you could say biennial is like triennial, which is once every 3 years, as long as you don’t think it means 3 times a year…hmmm.

I haven’t found a good way to remember which is which, other than the raw facts themselves, which is harder to do the older you get. Us older folk tend to learn via patterns rather than by rote these days.