Tag Archives: English words

The geniorum octopodes

We know how some people insist on using borrowed plurals (heck, one of my first articles for The Week, a couple of years ago, was on that). But here’s the thing: they just borrow the nominative plural and think they’re covered. That works fine with languages such as French and Italian, but it’s just a token effort when you come to a fully inflecting language such as Latin. If you want to insist on genii instead of geniuses because it’s truer to the Latin, you really ought to know that genii’s is, by the same token, just plain wrong. It should be geniorum. Find out this and much more in my latest:

Octopus, octopi… octopodem? A guide to humiliating grammar nerds with Latin inflections

(Am I being dead serious with this? …Really, what do you think?)

Badly broken words: the podcast

My article on words that are badly broken has been converted (in shortened form) to a podcast. Give it a listen if you want – it’s at theweek.com/article/index/264020/5-words-that-are-badly-broken.

Pineapples, butterflies, and etymology

The words for ‘pineapple’ and ‘butterfly’ have a little thing in common in English – and a striking difference in other languages. Read about it in my latest article for TheWeek.com:

The curious linguistic history of pineapples and butterflies

 

Words that didn’t break at the glue line

My latest article for TheWeek.com is about words that were put together one way and then broken apart another way. They’re words you know, too…

10 words that are badly broken

 

This business of verbing

I was just reading a post on a web forum wherein the author is griping about his boss emailing him the following treat: “My concern is that the … team might consens on something that the operations … people think is a bad idea.”

Consens. I’m sure, like the author of the post, you’re thinking, “Yikes! My thoughts are that ‘consensus’ is not a verb, no way Jose!” It’s so egregious, he declares, that “it puts ‘contact’ to shame.” He then asks people to send him real-life examples of misuse of nouns as verbs. “I don’t know why it fascinates me,” he says; “I guess it’s like rubbernecking at a fatal car wreck.”

Well, if you like to rubberneck at such things, you don’t need to wait for someone to email or phone you; you can Google all the examples you want as easily as skipping a rope (or roping a skip). Or, uh, you could start with that sentence you just read. Rubberneck, email, phone, Google: all are recent verbings (well, rubberneck has been around for a century). Other conversions such as rope have been around for centuries longer. (Oh, and contact? In the modern verb use, about a century.)

In fact, the English language is full of conversions (that’s a more proper linguistic term for it) – noun to verb, noun to adjective, adjective to verb, adjective to adverb, verb to noun – and the great majority of them are well established and pass unremarked. They’re very easy to do in modern English, with its minimal use of inflections (just an s here and there, some eds and ings, a few other little bits and pieces) – you don’t need to change anything about a word’s basic form to use the same form in another word class. One might well argue that our conversions epitomize the flexibility that has helped English be so successful.

But perhaps looking at all the verbings that have been handed down over the centuries clouds the matter, distances us from the real issue, perhaps even silences concerns unduly. (Yes, all those italicized words are verbs that were converted from nouns at one time or another.) There are some conversions that don’t really seem to bother us, and there are some that bother some of us but not others, but there are some that are almost universally loathed among language nerds. There must be a reason for that, yes?

I think it has a lot to do with the attitudes they bespeak and the milieu they represent. Words, after all, are known by the company they keep. And, I would say, the verbings we loathe most impact us most (ouch!) because they come from business-speak.

Business-speak really is a special genre. It is as susceptible to fads as teenage slang, but its fad usages show not how cool you are but how conversant you are with the latest popular ideas in the business literature. It makes more use of overt metaphor than just about any other genre (at the end of the day, touch base, low-hanging fruit…). It often uses noun-heavy structures to sound important, but is also known for converting all sorts of things to verbs in order to sound active – or just to save effort while still accessing impressive-sounding vocabulary (consensus is more important-sounding than agree, but build a consensus takes three words, so why not use consens). It tends, perhaps even more than undergraduate essays, to try to use hifalutin locutions to impress. As a result of that, it has quite a lot of what linguists might gently call “variant usages” – and everyone else would call misuse, errors, bad English. Above all – and this is surely its primary sin – it’s self-important.

Why else, after all, would anyone use leverage as a verb? “We will leverage our core competencies to innovate bleeding-edge solutions.” Look, that whole sentence is obnoxious, not just the verbing. What are core competencies? Their strongest or most basic skills. Why bleeding-edge? Because leading-edge used to be good enough but then someone started using this version (actually borrowed from the printing industry and not really all that exciting in the original) and it sounds so, um, edgy. Why solutions? Because that is what everyone, everyone, everyone in business is now in the business of providing: the customer has a problem and you’re in business to provide the solution. (The only solutions I go to stores for are aqueous solutions of ethanol.) And why leverage? The term showed up in business originally in reference to using borrowed capital to produce profits greater than the interest, and it spread from there; now people use it because they like the image it presents of a lever, which allows a small person to move a big rock, and the age ending sounds so, you know, technical and financial and important.

The remaining word in that sentence is also fad-popular but is a time-honoured usage (borrowed from Latin centuries ago), and is the only really useful word in the sentence other than “We will.” Strip it all out and say “We will innovate” and you have it nicely. But that doesn’t jangle the ring full of keys to membership in the corporate in-group.

And that is why certain verbings impact us so much (sorry!): they’re self-important and in-groupy and they pretend to have much more substance than they really do. It’s not that they’re verbings. Sure, some people are uncomfortable seeing a word used in a way that doesn’t match its entry in their mental dictionary. But they may only really stop and fuss about that if something else draws their attention to the word – something like its reeking of business-speak. I’m sure you can consens with me on that…

Where English got all those English words other languages borrowed

In my latest article for TheWeek.com, on the changes that happen to English words when they are “borrowed” into other languages (“How foreign languages mutate English words”), I cite about three dozen words that other languages have borrowed from English and changed some way. But what I don’t mention is how those words got into English in the first place.

What, you didn’t think they just appeared fully formed in English from nowhere, did you?

Here’s the real truth: We did to other languages as other languages then did unto us. Many of our stolen nestlings are actually changelings. Here’s where we got each of the words from:

weekend: from week + end (obviously), which come from Old English wice and ende, which in turn come from Proto-Germanic, as Old English itself did

baseball: base from French bas, from Latin basis; ball from Old English ball

thrill: from Old English þyrlian, which meant ‘penetrate’ and came from a word for ‘hole’ that is the source of the tril in nostril

ballpoint pen: we’ve already covered ball; point from Old French point and pointe, both from Latin pungere ultimately; pen from Old French penne ‘feather’, from Latin penna

corner: from Old French corniere, from Latin cornua, ‘horn, point’

screwdriver: screw from Middle French escroue, which may have been borrowed from Germanic languages; driver from Old English drifan

bath: from Old English bæð

parlor: from Old French parleor, from parler ‘speak’

stadium: from Latin, which got it from Greek stadion; in both cases it referred to a race track and a unit of distance (like calling a track a “quarter-mile”)

medicine: from Latin medicina

brilliant: from French, which got it from Italian and ultimately from Latin beryllus ‘beryl, precious stone’

office: from Latin officium, ‘service, duty, ceremony’

blouse: the source of this one is actually uncertain; it may come from French or Provençal, perhaps from a word for ‘wool’

doctor: ultimately from Latin doctor, ‘teacher’

orange: by way of various languages, from Arabic naranj, which got it from Persian narang, which got it from Sanskrit naranga. It may well be that Tamil did not get it from English – this is what my research source indicated, but I am coming to have second thoughts about that, what with Tamil being so close to the home of Sanskrit and all.

chocolate: from Nahuatl (Aztec) xocolatl ‘bitter water’

microphone: an English invention from Greek parts: mikros ‘small’ and phoné ‘sound’

brandy: shortened from brandewine, from Dutch brandewijn ‘burnt wine’

cigarette: from French, a diminutive form of cigare, which French got from Spanish cigarro

calf: from Old English cealf

pig: presumably from Old English, though it doesn’t show up in any extant Old English texts (adult pigs were called swine)

nervous: from Latin nervosus, from nervus ‘nerve, sinew’

late: from Old English læt

anonymous: from Latin anonymus, from Greek anonymos

handy: formed in Middle English from hand, which comes from Old English, from Proto-Germanic, etc.

bodybag: body from Old English bodig ‘torso’; bag from Early Middle English bagge, probably from Old Norse baggi

salary man: salary ultimately from Latin salarium ‘salt money’; man from Old English, unchanged

one piece: one from Old English an; piece from Old French, probably from Gaulish (a Celtic language)

front glass: front from Old French front ‘forehead, brow’, from Latin frontem; glass from Old English glæs

open car: open from Old English, unchanged; car from Latin carrum, carrus referring to a Celtic two-wheeled war chariot, taken from the Gaulish word karros

gown: from Old French goune, from Late Latin gunna ‘leather garment, hide’

father: from Old English fæder

washing day: washing from wash (of course) from Old English wascan; day from Old English dæg

smoking: from Old English smoca

So out of 42 source words, 18 came from Old English (and Old English got them from Anglo-Saxon, which got them from Proto-Germanic, etc.), while 20 came from French and/or Latin, and the rest from elsewhere. But, with the exception of pure inventions, every word that came from some language came into that language from somewhere else – an older version of the language, perhaps, which got it from a language that evolved into that language, and so on back, or perhaps a different language again. Words mutate and evolve. As we can see.

What English words get up to when they’re not at home

My latest article for TheWeek.com is on the changes that happen to English words when they are “borrowed” into other languages:

How foreign languages mutate English words

It comes complete with about three dozen examples – though of course there are many, many more out there…

Scandinavian words we say differently

My latest article for TheWeek.com is up. My editor has given it a funny title – as one commenter points out, it’s more like “The strange English pronunciations of common Nordic words,” but the title on the article is

The strange Scandinavian pronunciations of common English words

I hope you enjoy it!

English’s foreign plurals

The monetary unit of Swaziland is the lilangeni. English speakers are helpfully reminded that the plural is emalangeni: one lilangeni, two emalangeni.

But why?

I don’t mean “Why does SiSwati, the language of the Swaziland, pluralize that way?” That’s easy: as with other Bantu languages, its nouns are in different classes, identified by prefixes, and plurals are a different class from singulars. No, I mean “Why do we feel obliged to use the SiSwati plural when we’re speaking English?”

It’s not normal, you know. It’s not normal for languages, when they borrow words from other languages, to borrow the morphology: the different forms for plurals, possessives, etc., and the different conjugations for verbs.

It’s not even normal for English to do that. We don’t borrow conjugations when we borrow verbs: we don’t say “They massacreront them!” instead of “They will massacre them!” We don’t borrow possessives when we borrow nouns: we don’t say “The radiorum length” instead of “The radiuses’ length” – oh, sorry, that should be “The radii’s length.” Right?

Because sometimes – just sometimes – when we borrow a noun we also borrow the plural form. This is especially true with newer borrowings and with borrowings in specialized areas (science, food, the arts). We’re not very consistent about it, so it can sneak up on you, like so many other ambush rules we have in English.

And there are so many borrowed plural forms – because there are so many plural forms to borrow. Read 9 confusing ways to pluralize words (by me) on TheWeek.com for details on ways and reasons.

But if we’re going to talk about pluralizing things the way we always have in English, there’s one other issue: we haven’t always pluralized using –s in English

Nope. In fact, a thousand years ago, when English nouns had three genders, only the masculine ones got –s (actually –as), and not all of those did either. Other ways of showing the plural were to add –u, –a, –e, or –n, or change the vowel, or do nothing. English has changed a whole lot since then. Noun and verb forms have gotten much, much simpler – thanks to interaction with speakers of other languages, especially Norse and French. You can really thank the French for the fact that we use –s/–es on most words now for the plural.

But since that’s what we do now, should we do it with all new words we steal, I mean borrow? Well, it’ll sure make life easier if we can settle on octopuses. But it might just sound kind of wrong and blah if we order paninos and look at graffitos on the wall. And it would be less fun if we couldn’t jokingly say to a bartender, “I’ll have a martinus. No, not martini – I only want one.” It’s the eternal struggle of English: do you want it easy, or do you want it fun?

A herstory (or mansplanation) of portpersonteau words

A herstory (or mansplanation) of portpersonteau words

From broceries to guybrarian to Galentine’s Day, we often employ wordplay to poke at differences between the sexes

Another article by me on TheWeek.com. Read it at theweek.com/article/index/240260/anbspherstorynbspornbspmansplanation-ofnbspportpersonteaunbspwords!