Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Snobs and Chauffeurs

Words don't necessarily keep the same meaning. Simple descriptive words such as rain or water are clear and necessary enough to be unlikely to change. Other more complex words have often come on quite a journey since they were first coined:


chauffer (French) to heat; then meant the driver of an early steam-powered car; subsequently chauffeur

sine nobilitate (Latin) without nobility; originally referred to any member of the lower classes; then to somebody who despised their own class and aspired to membership of a higher one; thus snob

theriake (Greek) an antidote against a poisonous bite; came to mean the practice of giving medicine in sugar syrup to disguise its taste; thus treacle

Are there any others you can think of?

Snobs and Chauffeurs

Words don't necessarily keep the same meaning. Simple descriptive words such as rain or water are clear and necessary enough to be unlikely to change. Other more complex words have often come on quite a journey since they were first coined:


chauffer (French) to heat; then meant the driver of an early steam-powered car; subsequently chauffeur

sine nobilitate (Latin) without nobility; originally referred to any member of the lower classes; then to somebody who despised their own class and aspired to membership of a higher one; thus snob

theriake (Greek) an antidote against a poisonous bite; came to mean the practice of giving medicine in sugar syrup to disguise its taste; thus treacle

Are there any others you can think of?

Unusual Place Names

English place names provide no end of fun for tourists and locals alike as the motor around the British countryside. Blubberhouses in Yorkshire is one of my favourites. Then there’s the rather unappealing Staines or the rather bizarre Leatherhead. Abroad, I’ve been intrigued to discover some places with names which sound peculiar in English (such as Silly, in Belgium), as well as those that simply have fascinating origins (for example, the name Singapore goes back to the Sanskrit Simhapura which means the ‘Lion City’). I’d love to hear some of your examples!

Most difficult to say


There’s no doubt about it, some words are more difficult to pronounce than others. I’ve always found ‘sixths’ tricky to get my lips around. The short, quick syllables of ‘veterinary’ reduce most of us to saying simply ‘vet’. But there are even greater challenges. I certainly wouldn’t like to attempt ‘autochthonicism’ or ‘paraepithelial’ in a hurry. I’m sure there is a wealth of words in other languages that present the human tongue with similar difficulties. Any other twisters out there?'
POSTED BY ADAM JACOT DE BOINOD AT 4:33 PM
11 COMMENTS:

Medicine and science is full of compounded words. A look through any medical dictionary will yield hundreds of tongue-twisting words. In my own branch of science (though some will disagree about being a science) one encounters words like Phytopharmacology and phytopharmacognosy. The Merck manual is online - human and veterinary - should be hours of fun.

synonym. i dont even know if i spelled it right.

Musth -- which is basically elephants getting randy. Who thought that one up?


In german, there is the word Zundholzschachtelchen, (small matchbox) already quite difficult to say quickly for a native german speaking person, it may be one of the most complicated words to say for an english speaker.
In "Das schonste deutsche Wort", ("the most beautiful german word", a book) a guy from NZ wrote that for him Zundholzschachtelchen was the most beautiful german word because you could say ANY german word, if you could say that one.

my own favourite for twisting the tongues of my non-german friends is
"Fruchtekuchen" (fruitcake)
because it contains the two different pronounciations of the "ch"-sound in german and the notorious u.
Gotta give something back for the afternoons I used to spend in front of the mirror as a 11-year old in order to get my tongue between my teeth for a proper english "th" :)

The following Czech tongue-twister contains several words that are very difficult for a non-native speaker to pronounce due to the letter 'r' (something like a rolled 'r' and 'zh' at the same time). Some Czech people also cannot pronounce this letter, and there are special doctors to help with this affliction. However, this is also perceived to be a sign of aristocracy; the former president, Vaclav Havel, is an example.

Tristatricettri stribrnych krepelek preletelo pres tristatricettri stribrnych strech (333 silver quails flew over 333 silver roofs)

Another one uses the same word (rek) in three meanings:
Jeden rek mi rek, kolik je v Recku rek (A Greek man told me how many rivers there are in Greece)

You can also say a whole sentence in Czech without any vowels:
Strc prst skrz krk (Stick your finger through your throat).

What suits best?


Being English, I know the four suits in playing cards as ‘diamonds’, ‘hearts’, ‘clubs’ and ‘spades’. However, other languages interpret these symbols differently. Did you know that the French for clubs is trefles, meaning ‘clover’? Or that, in Italian, spades are know as picche (pikes)? In Malay, one of my favourite languages, spades are given the name kelawa, which means ‘cave bat’! Entirely appropriate I think, given its shape. It would be fascinating to find out which words are used in other languages.

The Malay word for bat is "kelawar", not "kelawa", and it refers to clubs, not spades. And from the book, "gigi rongak" doesn't mean "the space between the teeth" in Malay -- it means "gapped teeth" or "gap-toothed". See here.

i have come to the understanding that the ace of spades in several cultures is a bad omen. especially in vietnam, this is why many soldiers wore it on their helmets. if a vietcong were to see it, they would avoid at any cost, a shoot at you to kill you. if they did, it was considered to them as bad luck. i have heard that ever since then, the tradition continues and even today, some soldiers, primarily U.S. soldiers will attire their helmets with one. but i have also heard that during WWII it was used as well. it would be great to confirm or deny any of this. i am betting your resources are more extensive than anything i might have. maybe one day you could help and shed some light on it.

Sl- for slither, slink and slime

It’s very strange how many words in English beginning with the letters sl have similar meanings. Think of ‘slick’, ‘slip’, ‘slide’, ‘slither’, ‘slink’ and ‘slime’. All of these have something to do with a particular kind of movement, or sensation, but their exact relationship is indefinable. In the same way, words beginning with gl often have something to do with quality of light – ‘glitter’, ‘glisten’, ‘glint’ and so on. I suppose we’re used to the idea that whole words can sound like the things they describe (‘crash’ or ‘whisper’ come readily to mind) but groups of letters? It’s a mystery to me. Does anyone know of similar oddities in languages other than English?

In Praise of Slang

How can you define a language? Many like to take their cue from a trusted dictionary. If it ain't in, it's not a word. But the richest source of words is often spoken language. Words used by particular groups of people can tell us a lot about their habits and customs - but they might not be the officially sanctioned version of the language. Think of vibrant urban English, where the phrase 'to be bling' means to accessorise in a flamboyant way, to show off your wealth and style. In France 'Verlan' slang has thrown up a number of quirky words, used mainly by young people in and around Paris. The idea here is to put the sounds of the word back to front - thus 'laisse tomber' (let it drop, forget it), becomes 'laisse beton' - and 'beton' aside from being 'tomber' back to front, is the word for concrete! Very appropriate.