Monday, 22 February 2010

You Kids With Your Music

Since the beginning of America as we know it, the development of the culture spawning from one root has split distinctly in at least two very noticeable ways. The people who live on either side of the Atlantic pond have been subject to three hundred years of independence from each other, and that makes for two very different ways of living. The same goes for language. Everyone knows the basic spelling differences between Brits and Yanks, but it goes deeper than that. Sometimes, words can come to have completely different meanings from each other. Here's today's example...


Now, I'm assuming that the majority of people who get pestered into reading this are British, which will have an effect on how you go about interpreting "punk". No doubt Johnny Rotten comes to mind, along with leather jackets, mohawks and nose rings. For the average British reader, "punk" will forever be associated with the 70s music movement. To find out where this comes from, and how it differs in America, let's take a look at a different meaning.

Have you ever heard of "punk wood"? No, it's not some strange folk-punk acoustic crossover, no matter how awesome that would be. It actually refers to rotten wood that's good for nothing but being chopped down. Keen lumberjacks as they are, this means the word mostly belongs in the US, but it does get some use over here. What it shows us, though, is another root. "Punk" as used in "punk wood" is an adjective meaning rotten or worthless. This use appeared on its own at the same time. Owing to the nature of punk music, the connection with rottenness and laziness probably isn't a coincidence.

But "punk", although the music was present, came to have other meanings in America. This talk of worthlessness and devaluing is all very well, but that's not the only meaning "punk" had before The Clash. Way back when, and we're talking 16th century here, a "punk" could be used to mean a prostitute. Slightly different to the use we have today, but wait, because it gets even worse...

In America, there's a rather large and open tramp society. Within any community, you're bound to get different meanings for words. It seems here that it's come from the least reputable of those given above. A "punk" in this respect is a young boy who follows an older tramp, often by force, for sexual favours. I'm pretty sure there aren't many punk rockers who want anything to do with that sort of punk.

Disgusting as it may be, this isn't the only insulting use of "punk" found mostly in America. Alongside this meaning, there's evidence of "punk" used as a synonym for a gay man, probably dating from back when people were deluded in the belief that homosexuality is a lesser state of being. "Punk" is also used to describe cowards and weaklings. It's a far cry from anything The Sex Pistols would see themselves as, but they're in use nonetheless.

There we have it, readers. You may have had a clear idea of what a "punk" was in your mind, and I hope I've thoroughly mixed that up. It's interesting to see how an initial meaning of worthlessness or disgust can build such different meanings over time, as it shows that language changes according to the people who use it. If you live in a culture where you want to describe your music as dirty, you use a different word to someone else. Maybe language is "punk" to a certain extent, but that would depend on whether you come from York or New York.


Friday, 19 February 2010

Calm Down, Don't Get Historical!

Today's update is more a point of pedantry than anything to do with language. When it comes to grammar, I'm usually fairly relaxed about what other people choose to do, so long as I can read it. Still, there are some things which get my goat, and it's quite tricky to ignore them. If I rant now, then they'll fly away into the ether, and I'll never yell at the telly again.

If you watch the news at all, you're bound to come across someone saying that this is "an historic moment". Is it? The issue of whether what the poor reporter's experiencing is of any value aside, is in "an historical" or "a historical"? As far as I know, there's no definitive answer (there never is), so I'll force my opinion in your face instead.

There are basic rules we all use when we speak, whether we're aware of them or not. If we look on the surface, a good rule of thumb is to say that we use "a" when a word starts with a consonant, and "an" when it starts with a vowel. Most of the time, that's simple enough to get you through life, but, like most things regarding language, it's a little more complicated than that.

Let's take a moment to pick some holes in this rule. You don't have "an one off experience", or "a hour to kill", yet both of these things are within the limits we previously set. If they're wrong, we need to take a closer look at what's going on. What we find, if we stare at the screen and mouth things for long enough, is that it's actually about how words sound. "One" is actually pronounces "wun", which opens with a consonant, whereas "hour" is "awa", starting with a vowel. Easy to see how we came up with the first rule, as most consonants sound like consonants, and vowels like vowels. Still, we know better now, don't we?

But where does this leave us with "historical"? It strikes me that a lot of people might not be aware of our little discovery above, but ignorance is no excuse. Once again, I think we have a case of a teacher liking one spelling over the other, and teaching it to a class who teach it to others, and so on. Alternatively, there's the explanation that lots of people drop the "h" when pronouncing "historical", making it "istorical", and thus beginning with a vowel, and it's just stuck.

It seems, then, that the whole problem boils down to pronunciation. If you're starting with a very obvious "h", then use the "a". That's the thing with news reporters, they use the "h" with "an". In that respect, it sounds a little grated and awkward; all for the sake of being precise.

As a final note, I was reading something earlier which suggested that the way we use "the" is a direct parallel with "a"/"an". Apparently, if you say "the" like "thee", you're about to follow it with a word you'd give an "an", whereas "the" pronounced "ther" goes as the article instead of "a". Try it out with some random words, then try "historical", and maybe you can settle the debate once and for all...

(P.S. I noticed this week that the British branch of Reader's Digest has gone into administration. Reports are coming in all over the country of people who care about books jumping for joy!)


Tuesday, 16 February 2010

In the News Today...

I've been away a bit, with little time to write or plan anything, but I did come across a charming news story today, regarding the good ol' English language. In this case, though, it's all about how it's getting in where it isn't invited. To understand what's going on, let's take a trip to Germany.

Imagine you're German, and you want to get on a train. When you get to the station, all of your signs are in English. If you've never learned to speak the thing, that's going to be pretty confusing. How's someone who doesn't use the language supposed to know what a service point is? At least, so goes the argument of Franz Aschenbrener, a retired head-teacher who'd had enough of "confusing English".

His point, to my mind, is a fair one. English is very much a foreign tongue in Germany, but it's easy to understand why the company's might have done it. What with history and industrialisation being on its side, English is widely regarded as the world's "business language". It's the language used to make deals, and to find a way of communicating between nations on opposite sides of the world. One day plenty of people have reasoned that Mandarin or Cantonese will take over, so get learning. In the meantime, speaking English to some degree is a very convenient thing indeed.

But that's not to say you should speak English. Useful as it may be for international purposes (not getting confused at a foreign train station being one), learning English certainly isn't compulsory for most walks of life. If you want to live and work in Germany, France, or anywhere else on Earth, why should you have to speak an unnecessary language fluently? It's too much hassle for most people, who'll just speak however they like.

In essence, this is one of the major reasons there is no "international language" as such. It's certainly been tried, and it's a topic that needs its own post or twenty, but the sad and simple truth is this: people don't go out of their way to learn a language. If something needs to change in the way they communicate, then it does so slowly and barely forcibly. That's how language works, it's fluid. If there's a big leap, from one language to another, people are bound to object.

That statement in itself is slightly flawed. Even the gradual change isn't always welcomed with open arms. I know for a fact that there are German linguists who are worried about "Denglish", the inextricable melding of the two languages, with speakers adopting pre-existing English words as opposed to new German ones, ultimately resulting in the extinction of German. In France, they have the Acadamie de Francais to decide what can and can't go into the French dictionary. Not that this has any impact on the real world, of course. They can shout from their ivory towers all they like, but too few people listen to change a thing.

What surprises me about this story is the lack of integration. Surely it would have made sense to put the signs in German perhaps with English underneath? That solves a lots of problems, in my mind. I'll give you an example of their English (or rather American) phrases: "kiss-and-ride", or "park-and-ride", to you and me. Now, nobody should expect anyone to make sense of phrases like that in a second language. Imagine if someone took it literally! The place would be littered with spotty 13 year old boys looking to get lucky!

I know this is an ill-planned post, but it needed it. Who ever owns the German railway lines needs to appreciate the difficulties in communicating to locals as wells as tourists, is what I think I'm trying to say. If they're going to put those signs up in one foreign language, let's make it Esperanto, and try to push the thing forward, most certainly a musing for another post.

Happy Pancake Tuesday,


Tuesday, 9 February 2010

I Know the Answer, What's the Question?

I note that I've been neglecting my duty of exploring and explaining proverbs and phrases recently, and I'm back with an absolute cracker. As the title might suggest, it's easier to talk about the origins of this phrase than it is to talk about what it actually means, yet we use it all the time. After today, though, you'll be able to work out whether it's being used properly. Get ready to have your brain tickled, because here comes...

"It's the exception that proves the rule."

See? It's a very common little saying, I'm sure you'll agree. I'd put good money on you having used it before. However, should I ask you what it means, would you be able to tell me? You might have an idea in your head, and there's more than one answer you could give. Let's have a little look, and see what's going on here.

At first glance, your reply might be that the statement doesn't make any sense. After all, you can't have exceptions in a rule, can you? If you do, you certainly haven't proven the rule. On the contrary, you might as well throw the whole supposed rule in the bin. Well, don't be so hasty. If you've ever thought to talk about it with a learned English teacher (and I'm under the impression that there are a few reading this), you'd probably get an answer like this:

The problem here lies in our understanding of the word "prove". Naturally, we take it to mean something like "show for certain". That's blameless enough, it's pretty much the only common use we have for it. There is, unfortunately for you, a lesser known use of "prove". Yes, it can also be used as "to test/trial something". A "proving ground" is a place where you test yourself, not a place where you make yourself certain. If you do want proof you exist, read some Descartes. "The proof of the pudding is in the eating" means that we can only test a pudding by scoffing. It's easy to see how you might have thought otherwise, but you know better now.

Now, that's a very nice answer, and it deals with most of the problems with our original phrase. Luvverly. Alternatively, it has been argued that it isn't the word "prove" we're messing up with, it's "exception".

This is the brain busting bit, so bear with me. In this instance, "exception" doesn't mean that the rule has been broken or tested, but simply ignored. I'll try an example. To begin with, we need a rule:

"I'm usually at college in the week."

Bingo. Now, imagine that I make the claim "I don't have to go to college this week", and it happens to be true. Here, we're not putting the rule to test. I'm not trying to fight against the college, this is simply an irregularity. In the same way, it isn't proving that the rule's true or false, it's doing something else. By being this kind of "exception", it's demonstrating that there is a rule, and that it's simply being ignored. I suppose you have to consider a "rule" as something that doesn't have to apply. It's not a law. I could skip college whenever I wanted, the only downside being that my teachers probably wouldn't appreciate the *cough* artistic symbolism in my actions.

I'm going to keep this post relatively short, then, so I don't have to put a health warning at the top. By all means, read through it again, get confused, and leave a comment to query me. To sign off, you'll notice I haven't gone into the origins of the phrase, which is a kind of self-imposed rule for posts I set myself when I started. Does this, as an exception, prove that rule? I'm not sure myself any more...


(P.S. It first came to to be of note English in the 17th century in a legal document, but with very similar phrases being used a hundred years previously. I couldn't help myself!)

Monday, 8 February 2010

From Guts to The Vatican in 9 Paragraphs

Being busy, this post may be a little shorter than others, for which I can only apologise. However, I hope its content is pleasing, and maybe a tad educational. Recently, I've started to pick up on the kinds of people who're actually reading this, and I'm aiming at the target accordingly. I live to serve, readers.

The subject of today's blog (I thought about using the word "lecture", but deemed it off-putting and academically stuffy) is, once again, a single word. It came into my head whilst I was walking the dog, as so many things do. Thing is, I already knew where this word came from pretty well, so I thought it would make a neat little post. When it came to double checking my knowledge, however, I found a much larger expanse of words from the same root than I had previously known. Exciting stuff. So, I hasten to present you with:


It's a verb, and a nice one at that. If I told you that it's mostly used to express something with an air of pomposity and self importance, I doubt you'd be surprised. It even looks self-important. Maybe that's because we rarely see other words like it in English these days, making it stand out and look special, like when your favourite band do a cover of a song completely out of their style, and it works beautifully. If it looks a little uncommon, then where do we get it from?

The bit that stands out, to most people, would be the "pont". It doesn't refer to the archaic "pont", which is used as a noun for bridge, and gives us the lovely looking adjective "pontal". Nor does it refer to Pontefract, the place a certain style of cake comes from. No, we usually see this particular "pont" in English as "ponti-", if we see it at all. That's because it's from a Latin word (the most interesting ones usually are), seen in full as "pontifex".

[Just a little edit: the "pont" in "pontifex" probably came from the word for bridge, and "fex" is most likely from "facere", to make. That would make a "pontifex" a "bridgebuilder". Nice thought, considering the next paragraph.]

Now, the classical scholar will be able to tell you all about how a pontifex was a priest who worked in the temples, and so on. Personally, I prefer the role of the "haruspex", which we used to translate as "gut-gazer", but that doesn't seem to have caught on. Unfortunately, the pontifex didn't spend much time looking at the entrails of dead birds, but was a bit more of a vicar-figure. That's no coincidence, as you may have worked out by now. If we see "pontifex" at all these days, it's in "Pontifex Maximus", another name for the Pope. In order not to see this as all high and mighty, just translate as "Big Bishop".

We find ourselves now talking about a religious word, where "to pontificate" pretty much means to talk like the Pope. In that case, it's really not hard to see why it might be a little pompous. The Vatican doesn't do humility. But, before I offend around a billion potential readers, I'll creep back to what I said at the beginning of the post. There are lots of variations on this "ponti-" business. Oh, yes. You thought you could only relate to the Pope by listening to what he has to say? Think again.

Although lots of these "ponti-" words are a little out of use these days, it seems that we love inventing and using them at one time or another. If you want to make something seem high-handed, you can "pontify" it. If you support the Pope in one way or another, then you can proudly call yourself a "pontifician". If, on the other hand, you like to "pontificate" regularly, you're a "pontificator". There are many more, but my favourite is your grand demeanour, or "pontificality". They abound our language's history, mixing religion and public opinion, and isn't it beautiful?

Having written all this, I've just thought of an alternate reason why "pontificate" might seem as pompous as it does. It sounds an awful lot like "ponce" which, sadly seems to bear no etymological relationship. I leave the choice between the two in your capable hands, dear readers, lest I pontify my narrative.


Saturday, 6 February 2010

A Most Humble Apology

Dear readers, I must apologise. I've been in London town the past few days, stranded without internet access. Thus, the blog has been desolate, frightened and alone in the ever expanding ether of the internet. More importantly, there's been nothing new for anyone to read on here, which fills me with more shame than a puppy on a damp carpet. So, in order to try to make up for my inexcusable tardiness, I present you with this post. After all, some of you may want to consider me worthless after my absence and I have to perfect word you can use to do so...


Yup, that's right. There's no typo here, it's all one word. Is it new? No, it's from the 18th century. Is it a real word? Yup. How the hell do you pronounce it? flok-ki-naw-ki-nahy-hil-uh-pil-uh-fi-kay-shun, or something similar. It means to deem some of little or no value, which means you can also make it into a verb by saying "floccinaucinihilipilificate". But where does such a beautifully complicated word come from?

To answer that, start by looking at the word, and breaking it up into little tiny bits. "Flocci", "nauci", "nihili", and "pili" all come from Latin words which mean "nothing". Well, I say that, but "flocci" comes from "floccus" which means a bit of wool, and "pili" is the plural of "pilus", which means hair, but both are used to suggest a quantity so small it's not worth bothering with. It's a lovely notion, because it leaves you with "not worth it - nothing - nothing - not worth it - fication", in a literal sense.

So we've got a gratuitously long word based almost entirely in Latin. Clearly, it's too long for practical use, and so we need to find some jokers trained in the classics, if we're to find those responsible for this word. Because we're looking at around the first half of the 1700s, they'll be childish, Latin-speaking (i.e. rich), and probably quite influential, seeing as how it got in to the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Where, then, could such a word have come in to this world except for Eton College?

It's generally agreed that "floccinaucinihilipilification" is the invention of some Eton boys, although we can't say exactly when, because they wouldn't have been writing it down much, unless they wanted to explain it to their tutors, and by "explain to" I mean "get thrashed by". We do, fortunately, have a letter from 1741 by a chap named Shenstone where he says,

"I loved him for nothing so much as his flocci-nauci-nihili-pili-fication of money"

Clearly he was up on his Eton lingo, because he managed to get the spelling right (try it without looking at any other copy, it's a nightmare!). I'm also told that the composition of the Latin grammar in the word is typically Etonian, but I wouldn't know, not being made of money or scholarships.

Nowadays, "floccinaucinihilipilification" sees little use, except when people are trying to find examples of long words, or just plain showing off. I remember finding it by luck when my sister claimed she could spell out any word I cared to mention, and I opened the dictionary on its entry (the fun we have!). There was, though, an American senator in 1999 who used "floccinaucinihilipilification" in a speech he gave to congress, but I suspect he was just being a show-off with big words.

I say that like it's a bad thing, but that's what it's there for. "Floccinaucinihilipilification" exists purely to be an overly complicated word. It's a schoolboy joke, it's fiendishly hard to spell, and it makes you look clever. Just mentioning it is over the top, let alone trying to put it into context. So, I won't complain over its use. I never would, actually. If I ever got that, in full, in a text, it would make my day. So, what say you? Shall we carry on what those bally boys of Eton started 270 years ago? If people are going to moan about English getting dumber, let's prove them wrong! Let us floccinaucinihilipilificate their claims!


Monday, 1 February 2010

And Now, Without Referencing Monty Python Once...

I've not been well today, it's sad to report. Indeed, I had a headache which made me as "sick as a parrot". Except... well, it didn't. With the phrase in my head, I decided to poke around to find some origins for it, and came up with more than one surprise. Take a look at this, because I reckon you'll all have found something else to say...

The first job is to find the oldest form we can of our phrase, which is actually "sick as a dog". I'm informed that it dates back to 1705, although I'm unable to confirm the source. This, however, seems reasonable enough to me, and I'm not particularly bothered as to which disease-ridden street animal started the whole thing off in the first place. Dogs, though haven't been treated well in our literary history ("gone to the dogs", "in the dog house", "dog tired"), so I wouldn't be surprised if there were scruffy mutts involved in the process somewhere.

Once I'd got that far, I kept poking my nose about. Strangely, the American internet-goers (I've no idea if there are any reading this yet, but I'd like confirmation on the things I say about y'all) had never heard of this particular idiom, and were baffled by the meaning. Now, it might be a little hasty, but an idiom from 1705 not used across the pond? I'd call that a British origin. "Sick as a parrot" keeps very much to this trend.

We've all watched sports on the telly, and we've all enjoyed watching an old commentator getting too excited by the action on the pitch. It's in the heat of the moment, that tantalising moment in which glory is won and hopes dashed, that "sick as a parrot" is said to have been born. The commentator, with "over the moon" already firmly under the increasing girth of his belt, needs an antonym, an opposite. So comes "sick as a parrot", a phrase ready-made for moments of bitter disappointment and utter trouncing.

I should point out, if you ever intend to use the phrase, that it's rarely used outside of a sporty or light-hearted sense. I take no responsibility for angry relatives at a funeral, when you describe the passing of a loved one as making you feel "sick as a parrot". It's too jovial. Pull your socks up.

Continuing as usual, I thought I'd dive a little deeper into the pool of language (don't worry, there's always a lifeguard at hand). The uneducated man takes the phrase to have its roots at face value, considering the "parrot" in question to be "sick". This, however, is clearly... hang on... Psittacosis? Never heard of it. "Parrot disease"? That's right, folks, there's a disease out there notorious for being passed to humans by their evil avian overlords. Maybe being sick as a parrot has a connection. Coincidence? I think not...

So there you have it. Turns out I wasn't "sick as a parrot", after all. That said, I know people out there who use the phrase as such, so perhaps one day... but who am I, oh reader, to change the course of language? As you were, but bear what I have written in mind!