Monthly Archives: August, 2011

Skewed derivation


Why do we say ‘meteoric rise’ when meteors are, by their nature, falling objects? I can understand possible confusion with shooting stars—except that those are comets, not stars.

Why do we say ‘narcotics’ as a synonym for illegal drugs?  Most narcotics are legal. The biggest selling narcotic is aspirin. And many banned substances are anything but narcotic in nature.

Why do we say ‘guinea pigs,’ when these creatures are not related to pigs and didn’t
originate in Guinea?

Why do we say ‘trespassers will be prosecuted’? Unless spatial infringement is listed in a criminal statute, you can’t be prosecuted for trespass. It’s not a crime. You may be fined or cautioned by civil authorities, or set upon by rabid dogs or chased at gunpoint by the owner, but if you’re not breaking a law you can’t be prosecuted.

Why do we say ‘have your cake and eat it’? Confusing. The phrase makes more sense if we reverse the order, then the causality dilemma is apparent—as in the original proverb, first
recorded in 1546 (‘Wolde you bothe eate your cake, and have your cake?’)

Why do we say ‘lead’ pencils when they’re not made from lead, but graphite? At one time there may have been an assumption that graphite was a lead ore. It never was. But the
name has stuck.

So many phrases have come down to us from a mishearing or misunderstanding. They are
institutionalised misnomers of confused derivation. Here is a small sample:

The game of Chinese Checkers didn’t come from China. There’s no ham in hamburgers, and they didn’t originate in Hamburg. Arabic numerals came from India, while French horns came from Germany. The English horn is neither English nor a horn. Panama hats come from Ecuador. Koala bears are not bears. Peanuts are not nuts. A mince pie contains no mince. A radiator does not radiate. A Bombay Duck is a fish but a jellyfish is not a fish. The funny-bone is not a bone. A black box is not black. A velvet ant is neither velvet nor an ant. A Spanish Fly is neither Spanish nor a fly. A busboy doesn’t work in a bus. ‘Begging the question’ is neither begging nor a question but a fallacious piece of reasoning. And, as Voltaire once said: the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.

Confused? The twisting river of derivation and misheard words has resulted in some amusing and creative names for institutions, foods and places. For example: a ladybug
isn’t a bug, there’s no rabbit in Welsh Rabbit, the dish known as Egg Cream contains no eggs or cream, the Bayeaux Tapestry isn’t a tapestry, French fries are not French, a white rhino isn’t white, the Red Sea isn’t red and the Black Sea isn’t black, while sweetbreads contain no sweets or bread.

It’s all a bit of fun for native English speakers, and damn puzzling for newcomers. By a quirk of historical and language development, one of the most recent English-speaking
countries is one of the oldest places on Earth. And here’s the confused icing on this confusing cake: down under is where English has drip-filtered with all of its cultural and linguistic contradictions but, paradoxically, we live in the future. As that mordant wit, Charles Schulz, once observed: ‘Don’t worry about the world coming to an end today. It is already tomorrow in Australia.’

So from my vantage point in the near future I see low-pressure language systems ahead, with clear sentences marred by verb fog and wet syntax. Time to flick on the word-screen wiper.

Diversity in one language

English many languages

Our neighbourhoods are changing, with arrivals from all over the world: immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, people on study visas or spouse visas, visiting professionals, and  expatriates returning after self-imposed exile. As the months and years pass, we’re hearing more and more accents speaking this language of ours: from Asia, Africa, Australasia, Europe, the Americas and the Pacific. So is English at risk of being overrun with foreign speakers? Hardly. We’ve never been monolingual.

Even before 1066 we were speaking variegated versions of British-Danish-Latin. Vis-à-vis the polyglot character of this thieving language, in daily conversation many of us are entirely au fait with morsels of other tongues. It isn’t necessary to work in some avant-garde field or have a bête noire about the rights and wrongs of using foreign phrases. Admittedly some writers and speakers have carte blanche in their word choices while others prefer not to upset their esprit de corps of their workplace or else they’re anxious about making a faux pas, so they stick with phrases that are de rigeur. Now I’m no agent provocateur about language discussion, and a long way from being an enfant terrible, but I struggle to adopt an entirely laissez-faire attitude. If we accept that language evolution is a fait accompli and we have no power to hang onto words and phrases now considered outré, then surely the coup de grâce of this process must be the disappearance of expressions once considered comme il faut. It’s rare these days to hear about a bon vivant or a cause célèbre. And yet in 2011 we retain our tête-a-têtes and our pièces de résistance.  We continue to talk of tour de force performances, savour faire manners, and that indefinable je ne sais quoi.

And speaking French is hardly our raison d’être. We feel angst about change in general, no more so than when we’re an aficionado for a pursuit under threat of change. We talk of apparatchiks and alter egos, and there’s always an auto-da-fé around the current affairs corner. Experts are cognoscenti. Movers and shakers demonstrate chutzpah.  The common people are still the hoi polloi. Everyone knows what a doppelgänger is. And everyone knows about good and bad karma.  Our language might be the lingua franca of today but why do we describe it using a foreign phrase? Because it’s almost all foreign phrases. Our magpie nest is made from the shreds and patches of every country our forebears visited, colonised, conquered, converted, invaded, assimilated, bought or leased. We repeat our mantras and we savour our schadenfreude. Our entertainers do their shtick and we whisper sotto voce. And this year’s prevailing ethos reflects the zeitgeist. So it’s plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

I could go on ad nauseam or even ad infinitum. At my alma mater we learned Latin but I’ve seldom had occasion to employ the stuff grammatically. Nevertheless, with many phrases occurring ad hoc, I find that I’m using it anyway. And every usage is a bona fide phrase within the wide ambit of English, often not requiring italics or quotation marks. We have our de facto couples. We urge our consumers to caveat emptor. And, ever since Dead Poets’ Society, we’ve encouraged one another to carpe diem.

Ergo, without wishing to be infra dig, I’m happy to be caught in flagrante delicto using foreign words. Writers of English are ipso facto inhabitants of Babel. Every magnum opus contains more alien corn than an Anzac biscuit. Borrowed and stolen phrases are our modus operandi. It’s no non-sequitur to point out that our conversations are littered with Anglicised versions of Persian, Dutch, Hindi and Arabic words that are stolen property, per se, but dressed up as British natives. To be sure this can be a two-way process: we steal from the French and vice-versa.  Also there is prima facie evidence that we’ve been at it a long time, at least since Julius Caesar’s expedition. So, á propos ofthe status quo, would it make anyone persona non grata to admit that we’ve been linguistic multiculturalists since before English was English?

We stand in loco parentis to this remarkable tongue but we’re also its children. Sure we can play ex officio language police but for such pro bono work we might receive no thanks. Vox populi has a habit of making up its own mind about acceptable usage. And there are no quid pro quos for heralding the decline and fall of this or any other language. Perhaps if we consider Latin as a linguistic memento mori, this may give heart to those who mourn change. Tempus might fugit but Latin is still with us, and always will be while we speak English.

As English-speaking countries increase in cultural diversity I’m expecting to hear many more phrases in our melting pot conversations. The accents and the newly acquired borrowings will reflect  not only the shifting demographics of our neighbourhoods but also our global discourse across the wired web. And we need offer no mea culpas, as our song sheet is hardly tabula rasa. There is simply no pro forma for this unprecedented diversity.



I don’t mind confessing to a partiality for archaisms, in moderation. The odd ‘erstwhile’ will do my message no harm, though if I start using ‘quondam’ I might be over-egging the pudding (there’s a British-cuisine metaphor we seldom hear nowadays). Heretofore, writers might ‘delve’ rather than merely ‘dig,’ so if I were to ‘deem’ rather than ‘believe,’ surely this could evoke for a moment the literature and learning of ages past. And surely dropping these into conversation or prose, albeit in small doses, can bring a little elegance to language.

Fie! Forsooth, it can go too far. Gadzooks, gentles all, methinks this last bit might be too much. Zounds! After all, some listeners and readers feel no affection for archaisms, considering them pretentious. For these anti-archaists, ‘amidst’ loses out to ‘amid,’ and ‘whilst’ gets deleted in favour of ‘while’. ‘Perchance’ doesn’t stand a chance.

And why not? An old-fashioned word is not necessarily better or more scholarly than the plain modern version. Often these things are a matter of taste, hence ‘betwixt’ losing out to ‘between’. My archaisms may look and sound pretty enough in a Dickensian or Swiftian sort of way, but by using them I might be accused of elevation over elucidation. After all, simple and clear usually do the job more effectively than pompous and pretty. Archaism-averse readers have a slightly higher threshold of toleration for old-world words such as ‘swoon,’ ‘thereby,’ ‘enthralled’ and ‘unbeknownst’. Contrariwise, the said reader could turn
well-nigh apoplectic at ‘withal,’ ‘whence,’ ‘wherein,’ ‘whereupon,’ ‘whither’ or ‘wont’.

Alas, dear listeners.  Woe unto our language!

Granted, some archaisms are no longer palatable (e.g. terms near-universally considered offensive, such as ‘mulatto’ and ‘negress’) while others have shifted in meaning (e.g. ‘bosom’ and ‘gay’) but don’t we risk dullness in our writing sans any trace of the past?  Oft-times a pinch of archaic spice can liven up an otherwise wan passage. As David Crystal (2004) puts it: ‘Clarity cannot be achieved by forbidding the use of whole areas of language, such as figures of speech or Classical vocabulary, for it may well be precisely those areas which best express a thought.’

A palpable hit, Dave. Herein endeth the blog.

All a-Twitter


Sure we have other microblog services, such as Tumblr, Plurk and PingGadget, but the service known as Twitter has, in the last five years, come to dominate this micro-blogosphere, with its dual principles of following and sharing. Some swear by it: others  swear at it. As a language development, it’s one more complication. As a social  phenomenon, it divides the Do from the Do Not.

To tweet or not to tweet? And is that really the question?

Critics of Twitter refer either to its potential for triviality or else the vicarious nature of following others. Who cares what Ashton Kutcher or Kevin Rudd had for breakfast? These critics claim that living through the experiences of the beautiful, the powerful and the entertaining amounts to one more instance of dumbing-down in our culture: an abbreviated second-hand virtual way of life. But is it?

Those in favour of the Twitter phenomenon regard it as another form of keeping up to date, sometimes up to the minute, with what’s going on in the weird wired world. Not a few enthusiasts extol Twitter’s professional advantages of publicising and profile-building, as well as its mobility as a social network.

The jury is still out on microblogs. While phenomena such as SMS, Google and YouTube are for everyone, the Twittering classes are networkers of another breed. They inhabit a parallel reality complete with its own language: hardly surprising in an abbreviated medium. They’re attuned to public debate as often as trivial pursuits. With only 140 characters per tweet, such a service might appear to offer only superficial content. No, say the Twitterers: that’s a misunderstanding. The shared experience of tweeting by a global collective gives this form of writing its unique quality. So as events unfold, be they frivolous (Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, Shane Warne) or dramatic (recent events in Cairo, Christchurch, Japan and London), the followers of Twitter can share with a hundred thousand strangers their news historical-comical-pastoral or hysterical-tragical.

140 characters? Not a problem. Twitterati don’t consider the text limit to be an impediment. Some even cite the haiku, with its seventeen-syllable restriction, as no obstacle to literary worth. And the more discerning tweet-sharers know how to filter guff from government and palaver from purveyors. Some may claim to cut through totalitarian-lite propaganda; while others take satisfaction in casting their two cents of doubt on prevailing orthodoxies (e.g. climate science, multiculturalism, foreign aid) acting as anonymous members of a ginger group. Like it or not, that’s free speech. And microblogs have no monopoly there.

Has a genie escaped from its bottle? Some months back, Twitter caused headaches for emergency services in Japan and New Zealand, restricting communication options in  a crisis. People needing to find sources of food and shelter were hampered by Twitter  hashtags from hawkers trying to cash in on the tweet traffic. Yes, that did happen. But there were also rescues resulting from tweets relayed from under the debris. Carpet-bagging skulduggery and miracle salvation aside, surely there’s something noble and altruistic afoot when thousands of people want to shower their prayers and goodwill on strangers in trouble. Okay, so an excess of well-wishing can block an ambulance. Not good. But that’s a technical hitch. Surely an emergency services bypass can be uploaded as part of the next Twitter upgrade.

Outside times of crisis, what does the service mean for non-Twitterers? One obvious concern—back to that dumbing-down fear—relates to an additional drain on people’s already distracted attention. Well, say the Twitterers, it’s not compulsory to participate. No, say the tweet critics, but nor is smoking compulsory or good for you, and it harms those around you. Many a non-Twitterer can cite a friend or family member who sits quietly in the corner every few minutes while their fingers do the talking. But who suffers the greater harm and who’s doing the greater good? For non-Twitterers, such social tuning out can be regarded as a breach of etiquette. Certainly it defies the parameters of traditional table manners. But the Twitterati see it differently. They are being polite, in their own way, to a host of other people only virtually present. As for humans nearby, Twitterers consider that everyone’s attention is divided anyway, by our multiplicity of media and the thousand natural stimuli that flesh is heir to. So what’s a momentary absence? It should present no greater problem than following multiple conversations at a party. After all, didn’t most of us once regard taking a mobile phone call or a text message as rude? Nowadays, people have a higher level of tolerance for both. The gears of a social change differential do not always mesh easily, and this is partly generational, as change often is.

Whatever the evolution of our behaviours and our language, the Microsoft of microblogs has its uses as an information tool. Damn it, Twitter is powerful. Why else would politicians and event organisers and other authority figures be so nervous? Governments, especially those with a shaky hold on power, are especially sensitive to this irritant. Just as a mobile phone today means a camera in everyone’s pocket, so Twitter could mean that a people’s revolution is just a tweet or twenty away. Sure, this practice exasperates non-users. And it riles many a language purist with its abbreviations and informality. But those with the most to be nervous about are those who hold power, which usually means holding back information. Damn it, Twitter is transformative, and we’re changing it as much as it’s affecting us. Instead of passively receiving news and waiting for editorial decisions on what the public needs to know, Twitterers in various parts of the world are seeking answers, demanding rights and clamouring for change. Politicians may have welcomed Twitter as a public relations gimmick a few years ago but look what’s happened recently in London, with the looting and pillaging conduct spreading virus-like. Blame the technology? No, too easy. And yet, look at Egypt, with its reform ripple effect across the Middle East.

Like or hate Twitter, we can’t ignore it. Might as well try shouting at the sea to turn back.

How to give offence

Zip mouth

As the workforce in many English-speaking countries moves closer to a male-female share commensurate with the population, many traditional terms have been replaced by non-sexist equivalents. Sure, a few anachronisms remain but mostly we have acceptable alternatives. We’ve substituted words like ‘chairperson’ for ‘chairman’ and ‘fire-fighter’ for ‘fireman’. And when was the last time you heard a woman referred to as an ‘aviatrix’ or a ‘poetess’? Hollywood signed up to the practice a while back with ‘female actor,’ and we no longer hear the terms ‘headmaster’ or ‘headmistress.’ Seldom do ‘mankind’ or ‘forefathers’ rate a mention nowadays, except as historical curiosities. ‘Manpower’ and ‘manageress’ have gone the way of ‘matron’ and ‘sister’ in nursing ranks, along with ‘postman’ or ‘policeman,’ while the phrases ‘one man, one vote’ and ‘the man on the land’ have been relegated to the dustbin of past epochs, heard today only in period dramas or mini-series.

But we retain many problem terms that sit uneasily with this balance of the sexes. ‘Manhole,’ ‘one man band,’ ‘manmade’ and ‘black tie’ still make regular appearances, and their gender-neutral alternatives often don’t measure up. Why else would old forms persist when we know they might give offence? What’s the name of that highly successful competitive cooking TV show? Is it called Top Chef or Best Chef?

Even today we hear phrases like ‘the man in the street,’ ‘middleman’ and, in some contexts, ‘workman,’ ‘unmanned flight’ and ‘fisherman’. There is a swag of terms that no amount of de-sexing seems to have eradicated: ‘mother tongue,’ ‘bridesmaid,’ ‘manfully,’ ‘in layman’s terms,’ ‘waitress,’ ‘maiden voyage,’ ‘maiden over,’ ‘motherhood statement’ and ‘masterpiece’.

And how do we regard the term ‘partner’? For some it’s a catch-all word for husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, or live-in lover. As a description for a gay spouse it’s ideal. But not everyone feels relaxed and comfortable using it. There are still other kinds of partners. If I were to describe a golfing buddy as my ‘partner,’ I might attract looks of confusion while the listener tried to work out this other person’s precise relationship to me. After all, he could be my business partner. What if I play tennis or squash regularly with a partner? Perhaps it doesn’t matter, and perhaps that’s the point. But confusion remains in a contemporary world where ‘man to man’ can now mean something other than a terse laconic chat. C’est la langue.

At some time in our writing or speaking lives we all face that problem of the indeterminate third person, also known as ‘arbitrary gender’. Masculine has long been the default pronoun in English. For example: ‘anyone who believes otherwise should have his head examined.’ When we use the feminine pronoun, we may be understood as speaking only of women or we may be making a self-conscious effort to redress linguistic inequity. For example: ‘the reader knows what I mean, doesn’t she?’ Over the years, numerous compromises and creative alternatives have been suggested to invent a neuter indeterminate third person. So far none of them seems to have caught on, e.g. ‘hesh,’ ‘E,’ ‘po,’ ‘tey,’ ‘co,’ ‘jhe,’ ‘ve,’ ‘xe,’ ‘he’er,’ ‘thon’ and ‘na’. The attempt may be a noble one but they still look like Klingon. Nor have common workarounds achieved widespread satisfaction: he/ she (e.g. the traveller knows what I mean, doesn’t he/ she?), s/he (e.g. the commuter knows that when s/he boards the train), a manufactured third person singular-plural (e.g. themself), reworded into the plural (e.g. Commuters will be aware of their…) or avoidance of all pronouns (e.g. Passengers will please refrain…). Anyone who can find their way around this difficulty may congratulate themself on his/her diplomatic skills,
providing he or she can maintain clarity. Most of us aren’t trying to take a moral stand here, just to communicate effectively.

Political correctness, a phrase almost always used pejoratively, first appeared during the 1980s in the USA, when liberal-minded enthusiasts hoped to persuade speakers of English to jettison prejudicial terms by substituting expressions less likely to hurt or discriminate. Critics who objected to this reforming zeal often called such attempts ‘excessive’ and even ‘sanctimonious’ behaviour by ‘language police’. Time has mellowed some of the more contentious phrases, such as ‘differently abled’ and ‘non-waged,’ while comedians have had their fun with ‘differently logical’ and ‘living impaired’.

Far more amusing, in my opinion, is the persistence of ingrained offence contained in some common slang terms, such as ‘sod off’ (‘sod’ being an abbreviation for ‘sodomite’). Other discreetly risible words have snuck in from cockney rhyming slang, in expressions such as ‘give them a raspberry’ (‘raspberry’ being short for ‘raspberry tart’ which rhymes with ‘fart’) and ‘a right berk’ (‘berk’ being short for ‘Berkshire hunt ‘ which rhymes with…) So next time you receive an invitation to a ‘black tie’ event you can give your male host a raspberry, let him know he’s a right berk and then tell him to sod off. Or you could just bring your partner. Black tie works on everyone. The reader knows what I mean,
doesn’t she?