Archive for Tag: etymology

Friday, August 22, 2008

Sometimes Reform Can Spell Disaster!

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Can you spell /pyu-sә-læ-nә-mәs/ the way it’s normally written? I can’t ― unless I look it up in a dictionary. I mean, why should I know how to spell it? I never use the word. Well, okay, it’s spelled pusillanimous, and it means “afraid to take even a small risk” or “cowardly.” Talk about a low-frequency word!

But what about /ne-bәr/ or /saI-ka-lә-ji/? Can you spell those the way they’re normally written? Oh, you feel better now, don’t you. You know I’m talking about neighbor and psychology, right? Did you have trouble spelling those two? I have a hunch you didn’t. They’re high-frequency words, so you’ve seen them and used them many, many times. That’s why you had no trouble spelling them.

So how would you feel if I told you that from now on they should be nebr and sykaluji? How would that grab you? (I think I can see you grimacing.) That first one looks like it could be a kind of phonetic transcription of an ancient Egyptian word, and the other looks like it belongs to some Turco-Mongolian language. They certainly don’t look like English anymore!

And that’s my point. For years and years there have been many people calling for a drastic reform of English spelling. They claim that the majority of even US high school students can’t spell well, and that too much time is spent trying to teach English speakers how to spell their language. I can’t argue with them about that; I’m sure it’s true. I’m also sure that we’re stuck with the spelling system ― if it is a system ― that we’ve got, but I don’t know if that’s such a bad thing.

True, if you look over the history of English spelling, you can’t help but laugh out loud at times when you find out what people did to make the system illogical, awkward, and somewhat inconsistent. Part of the problem comes from the fact that monastic scribes, and later on, printers, had a great deal of influence on how we spell words.

Do you know why so many words contain the combination ck? Some scribes decided that spelling could show it’s necessary to maintain a short vowel sound if that vowel is separated from another vowel by doubling a consonant. That’s why we know how to pronounce pinning vs. pining, or robbed vs. robed. But those scribes didn’t like the look of kk ― it just wasn’t esthetically pleasing to them, I guess ― so they arbitrarily decided to write ck instead. They thought that looked prettier. That’s why we now write picked instead of pikked and won’t confuse its pronunciation with piked. Hah!

And do you know why we spell the word lamb with that silent b? Well, those scribes kept the b in comb and tomb and climb as a reminder of their older forms in which the b was pronounced (camban, tumba, and climban). So when they wrote that word that means a baby sheep, they automatically added that b even though in its original form the word never had a b. We should still be writing it lam, not lamb! And the list of oddities like these goes on and on.

But let’s get serious for a moment. It’s all right ― or alright ― to scream for spelling reform, for a more phonetic way of writing English. But has anybody come up with a system that will work? Not the way I look at it. One big question I have to ask is, with so many variations in the pronunciation of English words, whose pronunciation will we choose to use as the standard for sound/symbol correspondence? If you want to make the system more or less phonetic like we find in Spanish or Russian or German, whose pronunciation will each vowel or consonant represent? Will it be that of the Australians, or New Englanders, or Cockneys, or the British who use “received pronunciation,” RP? Take the word path. If I’m American, I say [pæθ]. If I’m British using RP, I say [pa:θ]. And if I’m a Cockney, I say [pa:f]. So how can we be true to a phonetic way of writing when one word can be pronounced so differently by people who are all native speakers of English? I think you see my point. It just won’t work!

At any rate, we don’t learn to read and write one letter at a time, not after the very beginning. We learn sight recognition, looking at a whole word all at once and recognizing what it is. We don’t sound out each letter of a familiar word when we read it, not if we’re normal readers. To me that’s akin to how Chinese characters are read. They, too, are in a system that relies on reading by sight recognition. So this is one more reason I can’t take those spelling reformers seriously.

And one other thing ― a very important thing ― that they overlook is the personality and unique identification that our spelling system gives to the written language. Take a look again at how I suggested we spell neighbor and psychology. For me there’s something special, almost mysterious, about why those words are spelled as they are. And if I choose to, I can find out the reasons by learning more about the history of the language, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Neighbor comes from two Anglo-Saxon words, neah and gebor, which mean “near farmer.” I like seeing the remnants of those ancient words in the spelling. And psychology is really interesting, too. The p was pronounced in the original Greek word psychos, which means something like “soul.” The Romans incorporated that word into their own language, but they had a problem. Greek had a sound similar to the Scottish or German ch that didn’t exist in Latin, so the Romans chose to represent that sound as ch even though they pronounced it more like a k. Our one word is really from two Greek words, psychos and logos, which mean something like “the study of the soul.” I find there’s a romance in such spellings that I don’t want to lose. Is it impractical? Perhaps, but it adds a character, a personality, a charm to English that I think well worth keeping.

Of course, the most compelling argument for not reforming the English spelling system is this: What will happen to spelling bees? Would you want to take away the fun that so many children have competing in those contests? Would you want to be that spoil-sport? Not I!

Friday, August 15, 2008

And the Answer is . . . Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

In a few previous entries on my blog, I listed some interesting idiomatic expressions, commonly used terms the origins of which most native speakers don’t have a clue about. I also listed some commonly heard errors that, at least for now, are mostly still considered errors. I’ve already listed some of the answers in “And the Answer is …” Now it’s time for me to list the answers to more of those interesting little bits and pieces that make English so much fun to delve into. The ones listed below are some of the quirks of English that I asked about in rhetorical questions for you to consider. I’m also including those commonly heard errors that may end up becoming acceptable one of these days. As English teachers whose bread and butter is the state of the English language, we should have some knowledge at least of the more commonly used idioms that pop up in conversation so frequently that our students are bound to ask us about eventually, and we should be thinking about changes that are going on right now in how native speakers use this language. So here’s information about some of those quirks and errors I mentioned in those earlier entries. I hope you continue to find them informative and entertaining.

1. Why is it that things like trees can burn up and burn down at the same time?
On the face of it, these do seem to be contradictory, don’t they? But they’re really not, of course. The particle up isn’t being used in its literal sense here. Up can be used with certain verbs to mean “completely,” so to burn up really means “to burn completely.” Here are some others that work with a similar meaning for up: blow up, clean up, cut up, drink up, eat up, grind up, grow up, lap up, and tie up.

Now down, on the other hand, is used in its literal meaning, so if a tree or a house burns down, we really mean that every part of it has come tumbling down to the ground. Some other verbs that work more or less the same way with down are blow down, bring down (in its literal meaning and one idiomatic meaning, i.e., to kill or disable a large animal), fall down, go down, lay down, lie down, put down (in its literal sense), sit down, and stay down.

2. Think about this: When an alarm clock goes off, it goes on.
This is a fun one! Once again, we seem to be looking at opposites as far as those particles are concerned, but they don’t represent their literal meanings here. The difference is that while both phrasal verbs mean that some sort of machine starts functioning, if it goes off, it begins working with an accompanying loud noise or explosive effect, whereas if it goes on, it simply begins working. So I suppose that’s why an alarm clock goes off, but a coffee maker goes on.

In those previous entries, I listed some of the most typically heard errors, which are so common nowadays that at least one has already been raised to the rank of “acceptability.” The others I’ve listed may follow suit, the way things are going. Who knows?

3. I think I’ll lay down for half an hour. Wake me up at 6.
Even though the more conservative of us grammar wonks still don’t accept lay and lay down as intransitive verbs, but feel that lie and lie down should be the only intransitives in this “contest,” how long can you fight City Hall? I, for one, hear lay and lay down used intransitively more than lie and lie down, so at this point I just sigh and move on. There are even dictionaries that have given in to this change!

4. This paint goes on real easy. / She does her work quicker than most of my employees.
Real easy should be really easily or very easily, and quicker should be more quickly. Although I don’t think these are considered acceptable alternative forms, the two of them tend to be moving in that direction. We’ll have to wait and see what the outcome is on these.

What’s very interesting to me is that I see a greater and greater trend towards using adjectives instead of adverbs in certain sentence environments and in certain collocations. I know I’ll be getting around to writing a blog entry on this issue at some point in the future, so please stay tuned.

5. If he didn’t move away from that tree, he would have been killed when the lightning struck.
I’ve noticed more and more that native speakers ― even educated ones ― are using the present subjunctive form in this type of unreal conditional sentence (didn’t move away) than the correct past subjunctive form, which in this sentence is hadn’t moved away. I find this a frightening trend, one I really don’t like hearing at all. If you pay attention every time you hear somebody utter this kind of unreal idea in the past, listen to how often the speaker uses the wrong form in the subjunctive (or if) clause.

This seems to be a relatively new trend, unlike the sentence construction that’s been around for a very long time in which people use two conditionals instead of a subjunctive and a conditional. For example when they say, I would’ve helped you if you would’ve asked me.

6. A: Do you know where’s the main office? B: Sorry, I’m not sure where it’s at.
Speaker A is demonstrating an interesting trend in the question above. This may be happening due to the influence of immigrants on the language, but I’m really not sure about the cause. The correct word order is Do you know where the main office is? but I’ve heard this kind of incorrect word order used more and more frequently.

As for what Speaker B says, it’s amazing how many people, usually in less educated groups, don’t feel they’ve uttered a complete idea in a question or statement with where unless they throw in at at the end of the utterance. If you happen to get that popular TV show Cops where you live, listen to how almost every single police officer throws in that at at the end of a question or statement containing where. Of course there’s absolutely no need for using at in an utterance with where.

7. We utilize at least a cord of wood in the fireplace every winter to make the living room warm and cozy.
It’s interesting how so many native speakers mix up use and utilize. I have a hunch they use utilize ― or should I say they utilize utilize ― to sound more “educated” or formal. But in reality they’re just using the wrong word. Our speaker should say We use at least a cord of wood … When you’re talking about the specific, direct purpose for something, you use it. When you’re talking about finding a way to accomplish something by means of using a thing not necessarily designed or planned for that use, then you utilize it. After all, utilize means “to make a use for” something. I ca
n choose to say something like I utilize an old toothbrush to clean the grout on my tiled bathroom walls. Of course, I could opt to say I use an old toothbrush, too. But it would sound odd to say I utilize a toothbrush to brush my teeth. I think you get the idea.

I hope you’ve found this entry informative and entertaining. And I hope it helps kindle that curiosity in you to look into where certain words and expressions come from, see trends that are developing for better or worse in English grammar, and think more about the proper or improper use of certain words. If any others come to mind, please feel free to mention them here.

Friday, June 27, 2008

May I Have a Word? Part 3

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

For a conversation class for intermediate ELL students, I once had the seemingly innocuous idea for a theme of talking about foods that the students had never had before coming to the US. So I asked them to name some of the foods which seemed “exotic” to them.

“I love french fries,” exclaimed Mahmood from Bahrain. “When did the French invent them, Mr. Firsten?”

“They didn’t, Mahmood. French fries are American.”

“Oh?” interjected Pierre from Quebec. “They’re not French? Very interesting! Well, I love bread, and one of my favorites here in the US is English muffins. I really like them. I suppose they’re not English, eh?” he joked.

“Nope. They’re not, Pierre. They’re American, too.” The confused looks on the students’ faces said it all.

“You know, in my country,” said Clara from Peru, “we eat an animal that you have as a pet. I find that very strange. I don’t know the name in English, but in Peru they are cuy.”

“Cuy? Oh, those are guinea pigs,” I explained, a little proud of myself for knowing such a low-frequency Peruvian-Spanish word. “Yes, you’re right, Clara. Many children have them as pets in the US, but I myself ate one in a restaurant in Peru when I visited your country a few years ago. I must say it was very tasty.”

“What is the name in English?” Clara asked.

“Guinea pigs,” I said.

“Guinea . . . pigs?” she echoed. “Huh? But Guinea is a country in Africa. Do they come from Africa originally? I don’t think so. And what do you mean pigs? They are not pigs!”

“Yes, I know they’re not, Clara. They’re rodents.”


“Animals related to rats and mice.”

“Ugh! You eat rats, Clara?” asked Mahmood, looking totally shocked.

“Not rats! Cuys! They are very good to eat!”

Feeling confident that most of the students wouldn’t know what a guinea pig looked like, I googled it in my computer and found some good pictures to show them all. That turned out to be a mistake.

“My God!” shrieked Nuri from Curaçao. “They’re so cute! You eat them? Oh, my God! How can you eat them?”

Well, at least I didn’t have to worry about student participation in this conversation class. Everybody piped in with an opinion about Peruvian dining customs, and I was even mildly attacked for having participated in such an “uncivilized” act. I was very relieved when that class finally ended, I can tell you!

But it got me to thinking yet again about how nuts English vocabulary can be: french fries aren’t French; English muffins aren’t English; guinea pigs don’t come from Guinea ― and they certainly aren’t pigs. It’s unbelievable that I can stand there in front of my students and feel embarrassed about my own language, the language I’m teaching them! That’s why I’ve done a lot of thinking about English vocabulary and its strange paradoxes, and why I’ve written previously here about this topic, which seems to be a never-ending source of both amusement and angst.

So why shouldn’t I have you join me in pondering these imponderables? Some of the following come from my own musings, and once again, some come from author Richard Lederer in his book Crazy English*. I think I’ll let you share in my consternation over such thoughts as:

  • Why is it that things like trees can burn up and burn down at the same time?
  • Have you ever figured out the difference between sympathy and empathy?
  • Think about this: When an alarm clock goes off, it goes on.
  • Do you realize how crazy it sounds to say something was awfully good?
  • How can quite a few and quite a lot mean basically the same thing?
  • When you garnish food, you add; when you garnish wages, you subtract!
  • Is it reasonable for a language to be able to say that feet smell and noses run?

So ponder, people, ponder! And while you’re pondering and, I hope, joining me in this mild diatribe by sending in your own comments and observations, there’s one more gem I’d like to mention that kind of drives me batty.

To post a letter and to mail a letter are interchangeable, and until the politically-correct police got a hold of the following terms, postman and mailman were also interchangeable. So why isn’t it equally okay to say the post office and the mail office, or How much is the mailage? instead of How much is the postage? And finally, since we’ve got that relatively new expression going postal, can’t we also say going mailish? I ask you!

Well, before I go mailish over pondering too much, I’ll leave you to dwell on these thoughts and wait to hear what you’ve got to say.

*Richard Lederer. Crazy English. Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster, Inc). 1998

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Why Do We Say That? Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Awhile back I wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about the etymology of some idiomatic expressions we commonly use in English (Why Do We Say That?).

Since the feedback I’ve received said it was so much fun and so interesting, I think it’ll be equally as much fun to delve into a few more oddities of the language. Amazingly, just last week a student of mine asked me why we call the trip that newlyweds take a honeymoon. That student, a Spanish speaker, mentioned that it’s even the same expression in Spanish, “luna de miel,” and it turns out that the same term or a similar one exists in other languages, too from Italian to Hebrew to Persian!

Well, for once I wasn’t caught in that awkward position of having to say something like, “Why? Because that’s English,” or, “Hmm… I’ll have to look into that and let you know.” One of the possible explanations behind this term really makes us linguistic archaeologists! Here’s why:

It seems to have been a custom in ancient Babylonia (ca. 1000 BCE) for the father of the bride to give his new son-in-law as much mead as he wanted for a whole month after the wedding. (Mead is an alcoholic drink made with honey and still produced today in some countries.) Since the Babylonian calendar was lunar, this happy period when the new husband could imbibe all the mead he wanted was called the honey month. (It’s interesting to note that the word month is related to moon.) So that may be how we came to call this period the honeymoon. How it got from ancient Babylonia to us is another story, but eventually the meaning got cut down to only the period right after the wedding when the newlyweds traditionally go off on a trip. So there you have it!

Now, what about a proverb like, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water”? The proverb means basically that fools can sometimes try to rid themselves of a bad thing, but instead succeed in destroying whatever good there was as well. The proverb may be of German origin, going back at least to the 16th century. One theoretical story about its origin is that in the Middle Ages, bathing was not something commonly done in Europe, but when it was, it became a family affair. Customarily, a large tub was filled with hot water and the father had the privilege of taking the first bath. Heating such a large amount of water was not an easy thing to do, so the water would be reused. The father was followed by his sons, who were then followed by all the women in the family, the mother first, and then the daughters. You can imagine how the water kept getting dirtier and dirtier as each person got in and out of the tub! According to this customary pecking order for family bathing, the last ones to take a bath were the babies. (This seems logical as babies have been known to release their bodily wastes in the water – and nobody would have wanted to get into the water after that happened!) By the time they were placed into the tub, the water was quite murky and it was just about impossible to see down to the bottom. If you weren’t careful, you might not even see a baby in that water if you let go! So that may be a tongue-in-cheek explanation as to why people started saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” Isn’t that cool?

How about one more? Because I suffer from the occupational hazard of always thinking about words and phrases and remaining keenly aware of how odd they can be instead of just taking them for granted, I remember one day wondering about the word threshold. Our handyman had just put in a new kitchen door for us, and he also put in a new marble threshold. I suddenly began wondering where such an odd word came from and why we use such a name for that thing. Here’s what I found out:

Going way back to the time in Europe when royalty lived in castles, it was traditional for many of the floors of those castles and the houses of the rich to have smooth stone floors. (I suppose that was their equivalent of our ceramic tile floors.) The problem was that those smooth stones, like ceramic tile, can get very slippery when wet and therefore pretty treacherous. In the wintertime, it was hard not to have their floors constantly getting wet when people would track in the snow and ice that clung to their boots. To counter that, they spread a light covering of straw, also known as thresh, on the floors so people wouldn’t slip and fall. During the winter, they’d keep adding more and more thresh until finally the thresh would spill out the doors when they were opened. To stop the thresh from spilling out every time a door was opened, they started placing a strip of wood along the opening at each door, and that may very well be how we get the word threshold; it “held the thresh” from spilling out the door!

I just eat this stuff up, and I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I do. Now let’s see if you can do some linguistic sleuthing of your own. Take a look at the following goodies and see if you can discover some possible tales to explain why we say what we say. I’d love to get your results and post them!

1. Ah, poor old Mr. Riley. I hear he’s passed on. So when is the family going to hold the wake?
2. It’s wonderful how successful Karen’s been in business. Good for her! You know, I understand that her family was dirt poor when she was a kid.
3. Is that a bottle of tincture of violet I see on your bathroom counter? Isn’t that used to cure trench mouth?
4. I know my brother needed a new car, but I can’t understand why in the world he decided to buy a Jeep.

There you go. Four commonly used expressions or names that may have really interesting stories behind them. Here’s your chance to become a part-time etymologist and tell us why we say what we say. I think you’ll be very surprised at how these goodies may have come about!

Saturday, May 31, 2008

And the Answer is . . .

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

In a previous entry entitled “Why Do We Say That?” we had fun with some of the odder idiomatic expressions that go a long way to embellish and enrich the language. At the end of that tongue-in-cheek entry, I left five additional idiomatic expressions unexplained to ponder over. I guess it’s time now to reveal their possible, interesting beginnings to explain why we say what we say. Some people call such explanations “urban legends,” but whatever we get out of these little tales, they’re certainly entertaining and may, after all, contain some truth. So here goes . . .

1. That husband of mine! He’s not well educated, but he always manages to bring home the bacon.
5. You want to know what we did last night? We just sat around and chewed the fat.

In the Middle Ages, people could sometimes obtain pork, which would make them feel really special since all meat, including pork, was considered a luxury item for the dinner table. When company came over, they would bring out some bacon and hang it to show it off. It was a sign of some wealth that a man could bring home the bacon. They would cut off a little to share with guests, and would all sit around and chew the fat.

2. Mildred always tips extravagantly at restaurants. She acts like she’s a member of the upper crust.

Again in the Middle Ages, bakers customarily divvied up bread among their customers according to their status. Workers got the almost-burned bottom of very large loaves, families got the middle, and guests got the top, or the upper crust.

3. Good night. Sleep tight.

In Shakespeare’s time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. (I can testify to the veracity of that statement since I myself visited Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon and saw not only the ropes on his bed frame, but also the device used to tighten them.) When you pulled on the ropes, the mattress tightened, making the bed firmer to sleep on. Hence the phrase, “Good night. Sleep tight.

4. Here’s a rule of thumb for good cooks: Only add salt and pepper to meat right before cooking it.

The phrase rule of thumb is derived from an old English law which stated that you couldn’t beat your wife with anything wider than your thumb. (Aw, shucks!)

I’ve got to tell you . . . Whether those tales are true or just entertaining, my students have always enjoyed hearing them. And the most important reason for telling them these tales is that it always helps them remember the idioms and use them appropriately, so those tales definitely serve a good purpose!

Moving right along, there are some juicy little sentences I left you with at the end of my last entry entitled “Is it a Change – or is it a Goof?” The idea was to see if you could spot the word in each of those sentences that’s open to debate about whether it represents an actual change in the language, or whether it’s just a mistake some speaker or writer has made. Here’s how I see them:

She’s an alumni of Duke University.

A goof: Here we go again with those Latin plural suffixes! To be technically correct, we should say, “She’s an alumna of Duke University.” For a guy we should say, “He’s an alumnus,” and for both of them we should say, “They’re alumni.” Most people these days don’t distinguish between the Latin masculine and feminine singular suffixes, just lumping them together with alumnus, so he’s an alumnus and she’s an alumnus. But we still distinguish between the singular and plural forms and say, “They’re alumni” or “the alumni association.”

The police found teeth marks on the victim.

A goof: I really don’t understand why this is happening, but some speakers don’t think it odd to say teeth marks. At first I thought it might be because of the irregular plural form (teeth), but I’ve never heard anybody say *feet prints, have you? So, if we don’t say *teethpaste or *a fine-teeth comb, why on earth do some people say *teeth marks? Weird, huh?

The media isn’t reporting this accurately.

A change: Here’s a perfect example of that phenomenon called “accumulation of error.” The singular is medium and the plural is media, but so many educated speakers and writers have continuously made the mistake of thinking that media is a singular noun that now it’s become acceptable to say the media is instead of the media are, so you hear both, although I do think the media is is winning out.

He shouldn’t talk like that about John and I.

A goof: Yes, I know you’ve heard lots of people say such phrases as “… about John and I,” but I don’t think this is considered acceptable ― at least not yet. After all, John and I are both objects of the preposition about in this sentence, and as such, I needs to be in the objective case, me. We all should say He shouldn’t talk like that about John and me. I think people have been making that goof because they think John and I sounds more “educated” or “elegant,” but it’s really just the opposite, if you ask I ― I mean me. This is a case that will prove very interesting in the future as far as “accumulation of error” goes. It remains to be seen whether this goof becomes a change at some point in the future. What’s your guess?

“Do you mind if I sit here?” “Sure.

A goof: This one throws me for a loop. It’s as if the meaning of that question has gotten lost to many native speakers. Do you mind if …? means something like “Does it/Will it bother you if …?” so the polite response should be “No,” which means “It doesn’t/won’t bother me.” The person replying to the question above is really saying, “Of course it will bother me.” Yikes! And yet that’s not what he means at all. Something tells me that if more and more native speakers keep forgetting the true meaning of this polite question which asks for permission to do something, it will become a synonym for saying something like “Is it all right if …?” And then, of course, one proper response will be “Sure.”

They hung Saddam Hussein in 2007.

A goof: I still don’t hear too many native speakers saying something like this. Most people still distinguish between th
e irregular past (hung) used to mean that something has been suspended from something else like a ceiling or tree branch or placed on a wall, and the regular past (hanged) used to mean “executed” with a noose tied around a person’s neck, etc.

So there you have it. We’ve taken a tongue-in-cheek look at the possible etymologies of some idiomatic expressions and scrutinized some oft-heard words under the linguistic microscope. There’s so much more that could be said, but so little time. Oh, well . . .

Friday, May 2, 2008

May I Have a Word? Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

When I first started my blog, I thought it would be fun to delve into some of the challenging offerings of English vocabulary. I shared with you some of the more daunting questions about words and phrases that have caught my attention over the years. As I mentioned in that first piece, “May I Have a Word” (which is included in my first entry, “Welcome to My Blog”), there’s nothing quite as uncomfortable as being ambushed by a question such as “What’s the difference between electric and electrical?” (And please, let’s not add electronic to the mix!)

Well, I’m not finished. I still have lots of words and phrases that make me pause and ponder. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was asked by one of my students why it is that we have two words to distinguish some living animals from their meat, but we don’t do that for all of them. I stared blankly at my student, not quite sure what he was talking about. Recognizing that needy look on my face, the student offered an example: “You know, like cow and beef.” “Oh!” I said. “Now I get it!” So I listed the four most common domestic animals and meats as examples on the board:

  • cow → beef
  • calf → veal
  • sheep → mutton
  • pig → pork

That was all well and good, but could I explain the reason for this? It just so happened that I could! I remembered back to when I had taken a course on the history of the English language. The Saxon peasants served the Norman aristocrats in 12th century England, and the vocabulary from the two languages (Anglo-Saxon and Norman French) started to mix at that time. It so happens that when those animals were slaughtered, butchered, and their meat brought into the kitchens, the Saxon workers called them by their Anglo-Saxon names (cow, calf, sheep, and pig), but that when their meat was cooked and brought into the dining room for the Norman aristocrats to munch on, their Norman French names were used (beef, veal, mutton, and pork). That differentiation stuck through all these centuries, and that’s why we still have different words for those animals and their meat.

But then I got ambushed. Another student with a big grin on her face asked me, “Why is chicken the same word for the animal and the meat?” And another student piped up with “What about lamb and goat? Total silence fell over the room as the students awaited my answers. It was the kind of silence that precedes a great explosion or clap of thunder as a storm begins. I don’t particularly like being ambushed in class, but it’s an occupational hazard, I guess. So there I was, left holding the bag ― which, by the way, was an idiomatic expression I taught the students right then and there. It was one of those “teachable moments” I’d learned about in one of those education courses I’d taken so many years before.
Yes, I was left holding the bag. I had no idea how to respond to those questions. All I could do was fess up to my students and tell them I’d try to find the answers. Well, I still haven’t. If you’ve got the answers, please let me know!

Getting back to more of those words and phrases I’ve pondered over from time to time, here are more that I’d like to share with you, some of which come from my own head, and some from the head of authors such as Richard Lederer*. Please think about them. I think you should join me in wondering about these little gems of the language.

  • How do you distinguish between to die of something and to die from something?
  • Does quicksand really work quickly?
  • We ship by truck, but we send cargo by ship, right?
  • If the stars are out, they’re visible, but if the lights are out, they’re invisible!
  • Why do we recite at a play, but play at a recital?
  • If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?
  • I know what a gate is; that opening in a fence that I can go through. And I know what a door is, too. Well then, why do we call the thing you pass through at the airport when boarding a plane a gate when it’s a door? I’ve never seen a fence there, have you?
  • If there are proper nouns, are there also improper nouns?
  • Grapefruit. A grape is already a fruit, so why is this called a grapefruit?
  • For that matter, if tuna is already a fish, why do lots of people say tuna fish? Does this have any connection by analogy to grapefruit?

Help me out here, folks. If you’ve got any sage responses to my ponderings, please send them in.

*Richard Lederer. Crazy English. Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster, Inc.). 1998

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Why Do We Say That?

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I thought I’d take a slight break from things strictly grammatical this week and talk tongue-in-cheek about a topic that’s always fascinated me, the etymology of words and names. Having been a history buff all my life, especially ancient history, I’ve found it interesting to discover where names come from or how idiomatic expressions got their starts. I mean, haven’t you ever wondered why we say It’s raining cats and dogs? That’s one of the early-on idioms many of us teach our students, but when a student once asked me why English speakers say that, I just gave him a blank stare and then quickly said something devilishly clever like, “Because that’s English.” See how quickly I can think on my feet? Hmm . . .

Well, okay, why do we say It’s raining cats and dogs? Here’s one of the most popular explanations, which may very well be what is commonly referred to these days as an “urban legend.” In England during the Middle Ages, most commoners’ houses had thatched roofs. That was the place where animals could keep warm in the colder months, so the pets, like dogs and cats, and other small animals lived on or in those thatched roofs. When it rained, the roofs became slippery, and sometimes the animals slid and fell off the roofs. That may be where we get the idiomatic expression It’s raining cats and dogs. Is it true? Well, maybe not, but it’s certainly an interesting story!

I remember many years ago wondering about the origin of my own first name. I used to joke that Richard must mean “a rich man,” and that’s what my folks had wished me to become when I grew up. Well, I was wrong. It turns out that the name is made up of two Germanic words, ric and hard, and they mean “brave power.” Other male names ending in (h)ard are also Germanic in origin. Howard means “brave heart” and Leonard means “brave lion.” I think that’s neat!

My students have always been fascinated by the stories I can now tell them surrounding the possible origins of idiomatic expressions, and I get a big kick out of being able to tell them those stories instead of cleverly saying, “Because that’s English.” Those stories open up windows into what life was like hundreds of years ago. They’re like small archaeological dig sites, only made up of words instead of artifacts you can hold in your hand. That story about the origin of It’s raining cats and dogs is a perfect example.

Here’s one more creative explanation that you might find interesting. What’s wonderful about this story is that it explains two idiomatic expressions at the same time: Because land in England was at such a premium even in the Middle Ages, people started running out of places to bury their dead. So they would dig up coffins and reuse the graves ― a practice that’s now illegal. Sometimes when reopening coffins, they’d find scratch marks inside. People quickly realized they had been burying some of their loved ones alive. To stop that horror from happening, they tied a string around the dead person’s wrist, brought the string through the coffin and up to the surface of the ground, and tied the string to a bell that was mounted on a stand next to the grave. Someone would be given the charming task of sitting next to the grave all night to listen for the bell. If the bell started ringing, he’d run to get help to dig up the “dead person” before he or she really was dead! That’s why on the graveyard shift, they knew someone might be saved by the bell. Interesting, right?

When I tell one of these stories to my students, I feel like a camp counselor gathered with my kids around a roaring campfire. I find these tales, whether true or not, to be a great tool to increase my students’ attentiveness, listening comprehension, and retention of the idiomatic expressions under discussion. Anything that works is fine by me!

As a change of pace, I’m going to list a few of my favorite idiomatic expressions. Let’s see if you can tell us how they came to be. Are you ready? Okay, let’s go!

1. That husband of mine! He’s not well educated, but he always manages to bring home the bacon.
2. Mildred always tips extravagantly at restaurants. She acts like she’s a member of the upper crust.
3. Good night. Sleep tight.
4. Here’s a rule of thumb for good cooks: Only add salt and pepper to meat right before cooking it.
5. You want to know what we did last night? We just sat around and chewed the fat.

There you go. Five commonly used idiomatic expressions with really interesting stories behind them. Let’s see if you can become part-time etymologists and tell us why we say what we say. I think you’ll be very surprised by what you may find out, and I can’t wait to read your comments on these great idioms!