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Whisky Galore and A Go Go!

Whisky Galore and A Go Go!

When it comes to etymology, most words have a somewhat mundane route into a language: they either are retained from a direct ancestor or were borrowed at some point from another language. Within the latter category, these words tend to come in batches, often either through an intensive period of contact between peoples, as with the Old Norse loans into English, or through the importation of specific vocabulary which related to aspects of culture which were being borrowed from the group in question, such as e.g law terms deriving from the French used in English courts after the Norman Conquest.

However, every so often, there come along lexical items with a significantly more complex and idiosyncratic path into a language, and occasionally words may interplay with one another in interesting ways. We find such a complex interplay with galore and agogo.

Galore by itself is already an interesting form, as it is one of a small number of loanwords from Gaelic (likely specifically Scottish gu leòr) which does not have some kind of connection with Gaelic culture or geography. This expression can mean either ‘enough’ or ‘much, plenty’, and occurs in several constructions as a result. For instance, in Scottish Gaelic when asked ‘how are you?’, one might respond ceart gu leòr ‘all right, OK’, literally ‘right enough’.

This phrase, in a number of varying spellings such as gilore or gallore, appears to have begun to arrive in English in the mid 17th Century (or at least this is the date of the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary). When this form was borrowed into English it underwent semantic shift and narrowing, coming to specifically mean ‘in abundance, plenty’, losing the sense of ‘enough’. It seems to have been somewhat colloquial in use, not being particularly frequent in writing, and is disproportionately concentrated in Scottish works, including an attestation in the journals of Walter Scott.

This form comes to its greatest in prominence in English through its use in a Compton Mackenzie novel and later Ealing comedy titled Whisky Galore! Both the novel and film centre on a remote Scottish island, and the novel in particular makes use of Gaelic throughout, so the use of ‘galore’ fits in well with the setting.

This work in particular, however, had a more interesting impact than simple popularity. As with many best-selling works, it received translations into other languages, and in this case the French translation was titled Whisky à-Gogo, deriving likely from the Old French gogue ‘fun’. This title then was itself used as the name of a nightclub in Paris, the world’s first discothèque. The concept rapidly grew in popularity, with Whisky à-Gogo venues spreading across the globe, as far as Papeete in Tahiti (and Cardiff!), the most famous probably being the the Whisky a Go Go on Sunset Strip in Hollywood. (In the English-speaking world gogo got split into two, possibly on false analogy with the verb ‘go’.)

A film poster for the film 'Roadrunner a go-go'
But there’s only one Roadrunner…

From here on ‘a go go’ or just ‘go go’ became a by-word for everything hip and cool (or ‘groovy’) in the 1960s. Go-go dancers dance in go-go clubs, of course, but the meaning became more and more nebulous over time. In cinema, 1965 was a banner year, with Roadrunner a go-go up against Monster a go-go. This year also an unsuccessful attempt to extend this—word? phrase?—by analogy, with the notorious Batman parody Rat Pfink a Boo Boo. Nobody seems to have got this (not terribly good) joke, and on subsequent reissues the film was “corrected” to Rat Pfink and Boo Boo. (You’re reading this etymology here first. Even the director who came up with the title didn’t realize it, but we’re linguists, we know better.) But the shelf life of terms denoting popular trends is short, and anyone using it now probably means for it to lend antiquated flavour of the swinging 60s. Contrast with galore, which retains its more generic use and seems unlikely to drop out of common usage in the near future.

Remember, remember

Remember, remember

A lot of the work that linguists do involves taking a language as it is spoken at a particular time, finding generalizations about how it operates, and coming up with abstractions to make sense of them. In English, for example, we identify a category of ‘number’ (with possible values ‘singular’ and ‘plural’); and we do that because in many ways the relationship between cat and cats is the same as that between mouse and mice, man and men, and so on, meaning that it would be useful to treat all of these pairings as specific examples of a more general phenomenon. We can then make the further generalization that whatever this linguistic concept of ‘number’ really is, it is not only relevant to nouns but also to verbs, and to some other items too – because English speakers all know that this cat scratches whereas these cats scratch, and you can’t have any other combination like *these cat scratch.

A black cat wearing bat wings for Halloween
This bat scratches

Once you start looking, you discover layer upon layer of generalizations like these, and you need more and more abstractions in order to take care of them all. This all gives rise to a view of language as a kind of machine built out of abstract principles, all coexisting at the same time inside a speaker’s head. On that basis, we can ask questions like: are there any principles that all languages use? Does having pattern X always go along with having pattern Y? Are there any generalizations that you can easily come up with, but that turn out not to be found anywhere? What does all this tell us about human psychology?

But that is not the only approach to language we could take. While we can point to a general principle of English to explain what is wrong with these cat, there is no similar principle explaining why we refer to the meowing, purring, scratching creature as a cat in the first place. The word cat has nothing feline about it, and the fact that we use that sequence of sounds – rather than e.g. tac – is not based on some higher-level truth that applies for all English speakers right now: instead, the ‘explanation’ is rooted in the fact that this is the word we happened to inherit from earlier generations of speakers.

Portrait photo of General Burnside, featuring his famous sideburns
General Ambrose Burnside (1824-1881)

So studying the etymology of individual words serves as a good reminder that as well as an abstract, principled system residing in human minds, every language is also a contingent historical artefact, shaped by the peoples and cultures of the past.1 Nothing makes this more obvious than the continued existence of ordinary vocabulary items that commemorate individuals from centuries gone by – often without modern-day speakers even knowing it. In English, sandwiches are named after the Earl of Sandwich, wellingtons are named after the Duke of Wellington, and cardigans are named after the Earl of Cardigan; and the parallelism here says something about the locus of cultural influence in Georgian and Victorian Britain. More cryptically, sideburns owe their name to a General Burnside of the US Army, justly famed for his facial hair; algorithms celebrate the Persian mathematician al-Khwarizmi; and Duns Scotus, although a towering figure of medieval philosophy, now lives on in the word dunce popularized by his academic opponents.2

But which historical figure has had the greatest success of all in getting his name woven into the fabric of modern English? I reckon that, against all the odds, it could well be this Guy.

A close up of the face of Guy Fawkes, labelled Guido Fawkes, from a depiction of several conspirators together

While all English speakers are familiar with the word guy as an informal word corresponding to man, probably not that many know that it can be traced back to a historical figure from 400 years ago who, in a modern context, would be called a religious terrorist. Guy Fawkes was one of the conspirators in the ‘Gunpowder Plot’ of November 1605: with the aim of installing a Catholic monarchy, they planned to assassinate England’s Protestant king, James I, by blowing up Parliament with him inside. Fawkes was not one of the leaders of the conspiracy, but he was the one caught red-handed with the gunpowder; as a result, one cultural legacy of the plot’s failure is the celebration every 5th November (principally in the UK) of Guy Fawkes Night, which commonly involves letting off fireworks and setting a bonfire on which a crude effigy of Fawkes was traditionally burnt.

But how did the name of one specific Guy, for a while the most detested man in the English-speaking world, end up becoming a ubiquitous informal term applying to any man? The crucial factor is the effigy. It is unsurprising that this came to be called a Guy, ‘in honour’ of the man himself; but by the 19th century, the word was also being used to refer to actual men who dressed badly enough to earn the same label, in the way one might jokingly liken someone to a scarecrow (one British woman writing home from Madras in 1836 commented: ‘The gentlemen are all ‘rigged Tropical’,… grisly Guys some of them turn out!’). It is not a big step from there to using guy as a humorous and, eventually, just a colloquial word for men in general.3

Procession of a Guy (1864)

And of course the story does not stop there. While a guy is still almost always a man, for many speakers the plural guys can now refer to people in general, especially as a term of address. The idea that a word with such unambiguously masculine origins could ever be treated as gender-neutral has been something of a talking point in recent years, as in this article from The Atlantic about the rights and wrongs of greeting women with a friendly ‘hey guys’; but the fact that it is debated at all shows that it is happening. In fact, there is good reason to think that in some varieties of English, you-guys is being adopted as a plural form of the personal pronoun you: one piece of evidence is the existence of special possessive forms like your-guys’s, a distinctively plural version of your.

It is interesting to notice that the rise of non-standard you-guys, not unlike y’all and youse, goes some way towards ‘fixing’ an anomaly within modern English as a system: almost all nouns, and all other personal pronouns, have distinct singular and plural forms, whereas the standard language currently has the same form you doing double duty as both singular and plural. Any one of these plural versions of you might eventually win out, further strengthening the (already pretty reliable) generalization that English singulars and plurals are formally distinct. This just goes to show that the two ways of looking at language – as a synchronic system, and as a historical object – need to complement each other if we really want to understand what is going on. At the same time, it is fun to think of linguists of the distant future researching the poorly attested Ancient English language of the twenty-second century, and wondering where the mysterious personal pronoun yugaiz came from. Would anyone who didn’t know the facts dare to suggest that the second syllable of this gender-neutral plural pronoun came from the given name of a singular male criminal, executed many centuries before?

  1. For example, cat itself seems to be traceable back to an ancient language of North Africa, reflecting the fact that cats were household animals among the Egyptians for millennia before they became popular mousers in Europe. []
  2. Of course, it is no accident that all of these examples feature men. Relatively few women in history have had the opportunity to turn into items of English vocabulary; in fact, fictional female characters – largely from classical mythology – have had much greater success, giving us e.g. calypso, rhea and Europe. []
  3. A similar thing also happened to the word joker in the 19th century, though it didn’t get as far as guy: that suggests that sentences containing guy would once have had the same ring to them as Who’s this joker?; and then some joker turns up and says… []
Who are the Germans?

Who are the Germans?

You may be familiar with the fact that the Germans refer to themselves as Deutsch and their country as Deutschland, and we find this term also in most other Germanic languages, such as Dutch Duits or Swedish Tysk, as well as Italian Tedesco. However, there are many other names in other parts of Europe. The French and Spaniards call them Allemand/Alemán, as do the Welsh with Almaenaidd; the various Slavic languages share a different term again, seen in e.g. Polish Niemiec or Russian Nemets. In the Baltic the Lithuanians and Latvians have their own terms not seen anywhere else (Vokietis and Vācijis respectively), while in Finland and Estonia they call them Saksi. We could also add some assorted forms from smaller languages, such as Miksas from Old Prussian, an extinct sister language to Lithuanian and Latvian.

An aerial shot of the meeting of the Rhine and Mosel rivers at Koblenz
The Deutsches Eck, or ‘German corner’, in Koblenz

Now, it is not unusual for inhabitants of a country to refer to themselves and their country with a different form from that used by outsiders (when was the last time you called China Zhongguo or India Bharat?). What is particularly notable about the German case, however, is the diversity even among its immediate neighbours. Contrast e.g. France, where everyone uses some form of derivative of Latin Francia (after the Germanic tribe the Franks), though the Greeks still call it Gallia after the Roman province of Gaul. Similarly, most call Spain some form derived from Hispania and Italy one from Italia. So, this diversity in names for the Germans requires some explanation.

Whence this plethora of terms? A consideration of history leads us to our answer. Recall that the modern country of Germany is a relatively recent creation, only being officially united in the mid 19th century by Otto von Bismarck. While there was a political entity that occupied the area in the form of the Holy Roman Empire it was only a relatively loose collection of small states, and prior to that the area was inhabited by a number of distinct Germanic-speaking peoples.

As a result, some of these names derive from the individual groups or tribes which lived in part of the area: so in the Western Romance and Brittonic Celtic languages the name of the Alemanni tribe was applied to the Germans as a whole. The same process occurred in the northeast with the Baltic Finns and the Saxons: not only were the Saxons the nearest group, but also, due to a combination of the Hanseatic League controlling trade through the Baltic and the anti-pagan crusading of the Teutonic Knights (another Deutsch-relative, see below), many Saxons came to settle in the Eastern Baltic, with some of their descendants still living in Estonia and Latvia today. Some small varieties show different groups again: some of the smaller Germanic varieties use a form derived from Prussian, after the state which ended up uniting the German peoples.

English takes a slightly different approach, deriving the term Germans from the Latin name of the region; Germania. This term included two Roman provinces covering much of modern-day Belgium, Switzerland, parts of eastern France and the Rhineland in modern Germany, as well as applying to the larger swathe of barbarian territories further east. Interestingly, several languages use this term to refer to Germany the country despite using a different term to refer to the Germans: Italian and Russian are the most notable examples.

We find a different source again with the Slavic Nemets terms. There is again some dispute in origin, but the general consensus is that it derives from a Slavic root *němъ meaning ‘mute’, itself of contested origin. The meaning likely was not ‘mute’ necessarily, but rather simply denoted that these groups were not Slavic-speaking. This puts in a similar group to the word ‘barbarian’ in fact, which derives from a Greek word meaning ‘those who go bar-bar/talk incomprehensibly’. Similar origins to do with ‘talking’ are likely behind the Baltic Vok-/Vāc-/Miks- forms as well.

Finally, what of German ‘Deutsch’? Well, as is the case with many endonyms it is a relatively simple and self-referential etymology. It ultimately derives from an Indo-European root *tewteh2 meaning simply ‘people’, which shows up also in e.g. Irish túath with the same meaning. This form may also be the source of Romance forms such as Spanish todo or French tout meaning ‘everyone/everything’. This root even survives in Slavic, in Russian giving the form čužoj, meaning ‘foreign, alien’. This ended up as Germanic *þeudō, which through an adjective formation *þiudiskaz meaning something like ‘of the people’ ultimately leads to the modern German form. This form also gives Latin Teutones, a likely Celtic or Germanic tribe which lived in the North German region and was encountered by the Romans early in their expansion northwards.

So, as with many other terms, such as the aubergine words which have been discussed here before, the differences between languages are reflective of a complex history. In this case the wide array of disparate terms of different etymologies reflects the complex history of the entity involved, specifically the absence of a country that even called itself ‘Germany’ until the modern era, as well as the extent to which different groups of ethnic Germans have moved about in Europe.

The Story of Aubergine

The Story of Aubergine

As the University of Surrey’s foremost (and indeed only) blog about languages and how they change, MORPH is enjoyed by literally dozens of avid readers from all over the world. But so far these multitudes have not received an answer to the one big linguistic question besetting modern society. Namely, what on earth is going on with the name of the plant that British English calls the aubergine, but that in other times and places has been called eggplant, melongene, brown-jolly, mad-apple, and so much more? Where do all these weird names come from?

I think the time has finally come to put everyone’s mind at rest. Aubergines may not seem particularly eggy, melonish, jolly or mad, but lots of the apparently diverse and whimsical terms for them used in English and other languages are actually connected – and in trying to understand how, we can get some insight about how vocabulary spreads and develops over time. It turns out that one powerful impulse behind language change is the fact that speakers like to ‘make sense’ of things that do not inherently make sense. What do I mean by that? Stay tuned to find out.

Long purple aubergine

To get one not-so-linguistic point out of the way first, there is no real mystery about eggplant (the word generally used in the US and some other English-speaking countries, dating back to the 18th century), which is not linked to anything else I am talking about here. It is hard to imagine mistaking the large, purple fruit in the photo above for any kind of egg, but that is not the only kind of aubergine in existence. There are cultivars with a much more oval shape, and even ones with white rather than purple skin: pictures like this, showing an imposter alongside some real eggs, make it obvious how the word eggplant was able to catch on.

Small white eggshaped aubergine in an eggbox between two real eggs

Meanwhile, aubergine, which is borrowed from French as you might expect, has a much more complex history, and can be traced back over many centuries, hopping from language to language with minor adjustments along the way. The plant is not native to the US, Britain or France, but to southern or eastern Asia, and investigating the history of the word will eventually take us back in the right geographical direction. Aubergine got into French from the Catalan albergínia, whose first syllable gives us a clue as to where we should look next: as in many al- words in the Iberian peninsula (e.g. Spanish algodón ‘cotton’), it reflects the Arabic definite article. So, along with medieval Spanish alberengena, the Catalan item is from Arabic al-bādhinjān ‘the aubergine’, where only the bādhinjān bit will be relevant from here on. This connection makes sense, because the Arab conquest had such an impact on the history of Iberia. And more generally, we have the Arabs to thank for the spread of aubergine cultivation into the West, and also – indirectly – for this charming illustration in a 14th-century Latin translation of an Arabic health manual:

Illustration featuring three people in front of a stand of aubergine plants
Page from the 14th c. Tacuinum Sanitatis (Vienna), SN2644

But bādhinjān is not Arabic in origin either: it was borrowed into Arabic from its neighbour, Persian. In turn, Persian bādenjān is a borrowing from Sanskrit vātiṅgaṇa… and Sanskrit itself got this from some other language of India, probably belonging to the unrelated Dravidian family. The word for aubergine in Tamil, vaṟutuṇai, is an example of how the word developed inside Dravidian itself.

That is as far back as we are able to trace the word. But the journey has already been quite convoluted. To recap, a Dravidian item was borrowed into Sanskrit, from there into Persian, from there into Arabic, from there into Catalan, from there into French, and from there into English – and in the course of that process, it managed to go from something along the lines of vaṟutuṇai to the very different aubergine, although the individual changes were not drastic at any stage. The whole thing illustrates how developments in language can go with cultural change, in that words sometimes spread together with the things they refer to. In the same way, tea reached Europe via two routes originating in different Chinese dialect zones, and that is what gave rise to the split between ‘tea’-type and ‘chai’-type words in European languages:

[Map created by Wikimedia user Poulpy, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0, cropped for use here]
This still leaves a lot of aubergine words unaccounted for. But now that we have played the tape backwards all the way from aubergine back to something-like-vaṟutuṇai, we can run it forwards again, and see what different historical paths we could follow instead. For example, Arabic had an influence all over the Mediterranean, and so it is no surprise to see that about a thousand years ago, versions of bādhinjān start appearing in Greece as well as Iberia. Greek words could not begin with b- at the time, so what we see instead are things like matizanion and melintzana, and melitzana is the Greek for aubergine to this day. There is no good pronunciation-based reason for the Greek word to have ended up beginning with mel-, but what must have happened is that faced with this foreign string of sounds, speakers thought it would be sensible for it to sound more like melanos ‘dark, black’, to match its appearance. That is, they injected a bit of meaning into what was originally just an arbitrary label.

Meanwhile the word turns up in medieval Latin as melongena (giving the antiquated English melongene) and in Italian as melanzana, and a similar thing happened: here mel- has nothing to do with the dark colour of the fruit, but it did remind speakers of the word for ‘apple’, mela. We know this because melanzana was subsequently reinterpreted as the expression mela insana, ‘insane apple’. To produce this interpretation, it must have helped that the aubergine (like the equally suspicious tomato) belongs to the ‘deadly’ nightshade family, whose traditional European representatives are famously toxic. So, again, something that was originally just a word, with no deeper meaning inside, was reimagined so that it ‘made sense’. As a direct translation, English started calling the aubergine a mad-apple in the 1500s.

Parody of the "Keep Calm and Carry On" posters, reading "You don't have to be mad to work here but it helps"
Poster from a 16th c. aubergine factory

There are many more developments we could trace. For example, I have not talked at all about the branch of this aubergine ‘tree’ that entered the Ottoman Empire and from there spread widely across Europe and Asia. But instead I will return now to the Arab conquest of Iberia. This brought bādhinjān into Portuguese in the form beringela, and then when the Portuguese started making conquests of their own, versions of beringela appeared around the world. Notably, briñjal was borrowed into Gujarati and brinjal into Indian English, meaning that something-like-vaṟutuṇai ultimately came full circle, returning in this heavy disguise to its ancestral home of India. And to end on a particularly happy note, when the same form brinjal reached the Caribbean, English speakers there saw their own opportunity to ‘make sense’ of it – this time by adapting it into brown-jolly.

Brown-jolly is pretty close to the mark in terms of colour, and it is much better marketing than mela insana. But from the linguist’s point of view, they both reinforce a point which has often been made: speakers are always alive to the possibility that the expressions they use are not just arbitrary, but can be analysed, even if that means coming up with new meanings which were not originally there. To illustrate the power of ‘folk etymology’ of this kind, linguists traditionally turn to the word asparagus, reinterpreted in some varieties of English as sparrow-grass. But perhaps it is time for us to give the brown-jolly its moment in the sun.

Christmas Gifts

Christmas Gifts

Recently, a friend of mine received an email saying that because of their hard work in difficult circumstances this year, he and his colleagues would all be “gifted” a few extra days off over Christmas. And the other day I saw someone else wondering on Facebook: ‘when did the word “given” cease to exist, and why is everything “gifted” now?’ So with the festive season fast approaching, it seems like a good time to ask: is there really something funny going on with the word gift?

Once you gift it a bit of thought, I don’t think I am gifting anything away by pointing out that the verb to give is still very much with us. But the rise of a rival verb to gift, in some contexts where you’d expect to give, has been receiving attention for a while now: in recent years it has been discussed on National Public Radio in the US (The Season of Gifting) and in The Atlantic magazine (‘Gift’ is Not a Verb). Whether or not it bothers you personally, you may well have noticed the trend. The existence of gift as a noun is just a mundane fact of life, but apparently the corresponding verb gets people talking.

Gifted children

Now, nobody would be surprised to learn that English changes over time, or even that it has pairs of words that mean more or less the same thing… how much difference is there between liberty and freedom, or between little and small? And in fact, synonyms have an important role to play in language change. If we look back and notice that one expression has been replaced by another – a historical change in the vocabulary, as when the Shakespearian anon gave way to at once – then there must have been an intervening period when they were both around with pretty much the same meaning, and people had a choice of which one to use.

Does that mean that we do now find ourselves in the very early stages of a long historical process which will eventually result in to gift replacing to give altogether? If that’s the case, in a few generations’ time people will be saying things like ‘Never gift up!’ or ‘Could you gift me a hand?’.

Frankly, my dear, I don’t gift a damn

But whatever happens in the future, that clearly isn’t the situation now. So if English often provides multiple ways of saying the same thing, why have people taken the coexistence of to give and to gift as something to get worked up about – and can linguistics shed any light on what is going on here?

One thing that makes this specific pairing stand out is that the two words are just so similar. Gift is obviously connected with give in the first place: that makes it easy to wonder why anyone would bother to avoid the obvious word, only to pick an almost identical one. Another factor (as the title of The Atlantic article makes clear) is the idea that gift is really a noun, and so people shouldn’t go around using it as a verb.

But if we take a broader view, it turns out that what is happening with to gift is not out of the ordinary. Instead, it fits neatly with some things that linguists have already noticed about English and about language change more generally. For one thing, English is very good at ‘using nouns as verbs’ – which is why we can hammer (verb) with a hammer (noun), fish (verb) for fish (noun), and so on. So a verb gift, meaning ‘give as a gift’, goes well with what the language already does. What often happens is that when a new verb of this kind starts to take off, not all speakers are happy about it, but after a while it gains acceptance. For example, the twentieth century saw complaints about verbs-from-nouns such as to host, to access or to showcase, but they grate less on people nowadays.

You could even try hammering with a fish!

Ultimately, the ability to create words like this is just an ‘accidental’ fact about English, which also has various other ways of making verbs from nouns – for example, turning X into ‘X-ify’ (person-ify, object-ify) or ‘be-X’ (be-friend, be-witch). The bigger question may be: as we already have the verb give, why would anyone bother to make a verb gift in the first place, and why would it ever catch on? It might seem that by definition, a gift is something you give, so inventing a term meaning ‘give as a gift’ is pointless.

But that is not how things really are. Gifts are given, but that doesn’t mean that everything that can be given counts as a gift: a traffic warden might give you a parking ticket and in return you might give him a piece of your mind, but the noun gift doesn’t cover either of those things. Among other restrictions on its use, it is generally associated with positive feelings: if you give something as a gift, it is usually something tangible that you expect to be warmly received, and that carries over into the verb to gift itself.

This subtle difference between to give and to gift explains why for the moment it is impossible to gift someone a sidelong glance, or lots of extra work to do. But apparently it is becoming possible to gift an employee some time off, even though that is not a physical present that can be handed over and unwrapped. Evidently, the writer just felt like using a verb that sounded a bit more interesting and positive than to give, and the ‘warmly received’ part of the meaning was enough to outweigh the lack of any tangible object involved.

This is an example of something that happens all the time in language change. Naturally, while a word is still restricted in its use, it is more noticeable and interesting than a word you hear regularly. As a result, sometimes people decide to go for the less common word even where it doesn’t quite belong, to achieve some kind of extra effect… but over time, this process makes the word sound less and less special, until it eventually becomes the new normal. We don’t even need to look far to find this happening precisely to the word ‘gift’ in other languages: French donner ‘give’ is based on don ‘gift’, and it has totally wiped out the normal verb for give that ‘should’ have been inherited from Latin.

So if speakers and writers of English continue to chip away at the restrictions on gift as a verb, maybe one day it really will replace give altogether. Of course, that idea sounds totally outlandish at the moment – but then, I’m sure the ancient Romans would have thought much the same thing. You never know what will happen next: language change truly is the gift that keeps on giving!

Eggcorns and mondegreens: a feast of misunderstandings

Eggcorns and mondegreens: a feast of misunderstandings

Have you ever felt that you needed to nip something in the butt, or had the misfortune to witness a damp squid? And what can Jimi Hendrix, Bon Jovi and Freddie Mercury tell us about language change?

Well, if you know Hendrix’s classic “Purple Haze”, you surely remember the moment where he interrupts his train of thought with the unexpected request, ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy. Or perhaps you recall “Living on a Prayer”, where we hear that apparently It doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not. And who can forget the revelation, in “Bohemian Rhapsody”, that Beelzebub has a devil for a sideboard?

Wise words from Celine Dion

If you do remember these lyrics fondly, you are not alone – lots of people are familiar with these exact lines. There is just one problem, of course: none of those songs really say those things. Instead, the lyrics involved are ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky; It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not; and Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me. And yet thousands of English speakers the world over have had the experience of listening to “Purple Haze” and the others – and of misunderstanding the words, entirely independently, in exactly the same way.

Mishearings of this kind are common enough that they have been given a name of their own, mondegreens – a word invented by the American writer Sylvia Wright, who as a child heard a poem containing the following lines:

For they hae slain the Earl o’ Moray
And laid him on the green

and assumed that it listed not one but two victims – the unfortunate Earl himself, and “Lady Mondegreen”, a plausible character who happens not to feature in the real poem.

Why does this kind of thing happen? One reason has to do with the nature of spoken language. On the page, English sentences come pre-packaged into words, each of which is made up of distinct, easily-identified letters which look pretty much the same every time. But pronounced out loud, they are not like that! Instead, a continuous, mushy stream of noise makes its way into our ears, and it is up to our brains to work out what speech sounds are actually in there, where one word ends and the next one begins (think the-sky versus this-guy), and so on. Obviously this process is not exactly helped when there are rock guitars competing for your attention too.

Obama’s elf….. don’t wanna be… Obama’s elf… any more…

But another reason is that we are never ‘just listening’ passively. Instead, behind the scenes, our minds are busy trying to relate what we’re hearing to our existing knowledge – not only our linguistic knowledge, but our general knowledge about the world. For example, the common-sense knowledge that people tend to kiss other people, rather than intangible abstractions like the sky. This is obviously very useful most of the time, but in the “Purple Haze” case it leads us astray, because the more implausible meaning is the one that Jimi Hendrix intended.

What has this all got to do with language change? Well, the crucial point is that what I’ve just said – interpreting sounds is complicated, and to navigate the process we engage our common sense as well as our knowledge of the language – applies just as well to normal conversation as it does to song lyrics. We don’t always hear things perfectly, and even if we do, we have to square the things we’ve just heard with the things we already knew, which provide a guide for our interpretation but may sometimes take us in the wrong direction.

So if you hear someone referring to a really disappointing experience as a damp squib, but are not familiar with squib (an old-fashioned word for a firework), what is to stop you thinking that what you really heard was damp squid? A squid is, after all, a very damp creature, and not always something that people are hugely fond of. Similarly, the expression to nip in the bud makes sense if you latch on to the gardening metaphor it is based on – but if you don’t, well, nipping an undesirable thing in the butt does sound like a very effective way of getting rid of it. So, people who think the expressions really are damp squid and nip in the butt have made a mistake along the lines of “kiss this guy”; the difference is that here they may end up using the new versions in their own speech, and thus pass them on to other speakers. And the process doesn’t have to involve whole expressions: individual words are susceptible to it too, for example midriff becoming mid-rift or utmost becoming up-most.

It’s beautiful, but undeniably damp

Misinterpreted words and expressions like these, which have some kind of new internal logic of their own, are known as eggcorns. This is because egg-corn is exactly how some English speakers have reinterpreted the word acorn, on the basis that acorns are indeed egg-shaped seeds. And the development of a new eggcorn may not involve any mishearing at all, just reinterpretation of one word as another one that sounds exactly the same. Are you expected to toe the line or to tow the line? Are people given free rein or free reign? In each case the two expressions sound identical, and each brings with it some kind of coherent mental image. For the moment, toe the line and free rein are still considered to be the ‘correct’ versions of these idioms, but perhaps in the future that will no longer be the case.

As words and expressions are reinterpreted over time, the language changes little by little: in speech and in writing, people pass on their reinterpretations to one another, in a way which may eventually pass right through the language. The underlying factors producing eggcorns are the same as those producing mondegreens. But unlike the lyrics of “Purple Haze”, words and idioms don’t generally have a fixed author and don’t belong to anybody, meaning that if everyone started calling acorns eggcorns, then that just would be the correct word for them: the previous, now meaningless term acorn would be no more than a historical curiosity, and English as a whole would be very slightly different from how it is now.

So this is how we get from Jimi Hendrix to language change – via mondegreens and eggcorns. Have you spotted any eggcorns in the wild? And how likely do you think they are to catch on and become the new normal?

Cushty Kazakh

Cushty Kazakh

With thousands of miles between the East End of London and the land of Kazakhs, cushty was the last word one expected to hear one warm spring afternoon in the streets of Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan, since renamed Nur-Sultan). The word cushty (meaning ‘great, very good, pleasing’) is usually associated with the Cockney dialect of the English language which originated in the East End of London.

Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses
Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses

Check out Del Boy’s Cockney sayings (Cushty from 4:04 to 4:41).

Cockney is still spoken in London now, and the word is often used to refer to anyone from London, although a true Cockney would disagree with that, and would proudly declare her East End origins. More specifically, a true ‘Bow-bell’ Cockney comes from the area within hearing distance of the church bells of St. Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, London.

Due to its strong association with modern-day London, the word ‘Cockney’ might be perceived as being one with a fairly short history. This could not be further from the truth as its etymology goes back to a late Middle English 14th century word cokenay, which literally means a “cock’s egg” – a useless, small, and defective egg laid by a rooster (which does not actually produce eggs). This pejorative term was later used to denote a spoiled or pampered child, a milksop, and eventually came to mean a town resident who was seen as affected or puny.

The pronunciation of the Cockney dialect is thought to have been influenced by Essex and other dialects from the east of England, while the vocabulary contains many borrowings from Yiddish and Romany (cushty being one of those borrowings – we’ll get back to that in a bit!). One of the most prominent features of Cockney pronunciation is the glottalisation of the sound [t], which means that [t] is pronounced as a glottal stop: [ʔ]. Another interesting feature of Cockney pronunciation is called th-fronting, which means that the sounds usually induced by the letter combination th ([θ] as in ‘thanks’ and [ð] as in ‘there’ are replaced by the sounds [f] and [v]. These (and some other) phonological features characteristic of the Cockney dialect have now spread far and wide across London and other areas, partly thanks to the popularity of television shows like “Only Fools and Horses” and “EastEnders”.

As far as grammar is concerned, the Cockney dialect is distinguished by the use of me instead of my to indicate possession; heavy use of ain’t in place of am not, is not, are not, has not, have not; and the use of double negation which is ungrammatical in Standard British English: I ain’t saying nuffink to mean I am not saying anything.

Having borrowed words, Cockney also gave back generously, with derivatives from Cockney rhyming slang becoming a staple of the English vernacular. The rhyming slang tradition is believed to have started in the early to mid-19th century as a way for criminals and wheeler-dealers to code their speech beyond the understanding of police or ordinary folk. The code is constructed by way of rhyming a phrase with a common word, but only using the first word of that phrase to refer to the word. For example, the phrase apples and pears rhymes with the word stairs, so the first word of the phrase – apples – is then used to signify stairs: I’m going up the apples. Another popular and well-known example is dog and bone – telephone, so if a Cockney speaker asks to borrow your dog, do not rush to hand over your poodle!

Test your knowledge of Cockney rhyming slang!

Right, so did I encounter a Cockney walking down the field of wheat (street!) in Astana saying how cushty it was? Perhaps it was a Kazakh student who had recently returned from his studies in London and couldn’t quite switch back to Kazakh? No and no. It was a native speaker of Kazakh reacting in Kazakh to her interlocutor’s remark on the new book she’d purchased by saying күшті [kyʃ.tɨˈ] which sounds incredibly close to cushty [kʊˈʃ.ti]. The meanings of the words and contexts in which they can be used are remarkably similar too. The Kazakh күшті literally means ‘strong’, however, colloquially it is used to mean ‘wonderful, great, excellent’ – it really would not be out of place in any of Del Boy’s remarks in the YouTube video above! Surely, the two kushtis have to be related, right? Well…

Recall, that cushty is a borrowing from Romany (Indo-European) kushto/kushti, which, in turn, is known to have borrowed from Persian and Arabic. In the case of the Romany kushto/kushti, the borrowing could have been from the Persian khoši meaning ‘happiness’ or ‘pleasure’. It would have been very neat if this could be linked to the Kazakh күшті, however, there seems to be no connection there… Kazakh is a Turkic language and the etymology of күшті can be traced back to the Old Turkic root küč meaning ‘power’, which does not seem to have been borrowed from or connected with Persian. Certainly, had we been able to go back far enough, we might have found a common Indo-European-Turkic root in some Proto-Proto-Proto-Language. As things stand now, all we can do is admire what appears to be a wonderful coincidence, and enjoy the journeys on which a two-syllable word you’d overheard in the street might take you.



Courtesy of

Those who have out of desire have chosen to or out of dire necessity been forced to bake their own bread may have encountered the term poolish. It refers to a semi-liquid pre-ferment used in bread-making, a mixture of half water and half white flour mixed with a teeny bit of yeast and allowed to slowly ferment for several hours, up to a day, before mixing up the final dough.

The word itself is an exceedingly odd one, and has been the source of much head-scratching and inconclusive speculation among bread-bakers across the world: it looks like the English word Polish, but is spelled funny, and anyway seems to be borrowed from French, where the spelling would be funnier still. Most discussions of the technique include the obligatory etymological digression, usually fantastical, involving journeymen Polish bakers fanning out over Europe. Linguists too have gotten on the trail: David Gold’s Studies in Etymology and Etiology (2009) devotes a whole page to the question, but does not get too far.

In its current form it is technical jargon from French commercial baking, and has probably made its way to a broader public through Raymond Calvel’s influential Le gout du pain (‘The taste of bread’) from 1990. In his account:

This method of breadmaking was first developed in Poland during the 1840s, from whence its name. It was then used in Vienna by Viennese bakers, and it was during this same period that it became known in France. (2001 edition translated by Ronald Wirtz)

This explanation has been widely accepted, and appears in one form or another in any number of bread-baking books. But how could it even be true? The first problem is the word itself. Poolish is not the French word for Polish, and doesn’t much look a French word anyway. In earlier French texts it crops as pouliche, which looks more French and is indeed the word for a young mare, whose connection to bread dough is tenuous at best. But earlier French texts also have the spelling poolisch or polisch, which looks rather more German than French and suggests we follow the Viennese trail instead.

This thread of inquiry has its own potential hiccoughs. The German word for Polish is polnisch, with an [n], so would this not just be fudging things? Actually not: polisch, poolischpohlisch or pollisch turn up often enough in older texts as alternative words for ‘Polish’, particularly in southern varieties of German that include Austria. And it is exactly in these form that we find it being used to refer to this particular process, juxtaposed with Dampfl (or Dampfel or Dampel), the term in southern Germany and Austria for a rather stiffer pre-ferment which goes through a shorter rising period, as in these two examples from 1865, one from Leopold Wimmer’s self-published advertising advertising screed for St. Marxer brand (of Vienna) pressed yeast, where it turns up as Pohlisch:

the other from Ignaz Reich’s (of Pest, as in Budapest) account of ancient Hebrew baking practices, where it’s rendered as pollisch.

The term polisch (in all its variants) in this sense seems to have died a natural death in German, only to reemerge during the current craft-baking revival in the guise of poolish.

But if poolish was originally the (or a) German word for Polish, we run up against the sticky question of what it was actually referring to. Calvel repeats the story that this technique was invented by Polish bakers (which turns up in a 1972 article in The Atlantic Monthly, I think anyway, because it’s but coyly revealed by Google in snippet view), a supposition which lacks as much plausibility as it does historical attestation. Poland has traditionally been a land of sourdough rye bread. Is seems unlikely that a novel technique involving the use both of white wheat flour and commercial pressed yeast (a relatively new product) would have been devised there and introduced into the imperial capital that was Vienna. So what on earth could it have meant?

Here I make my own foray into speculation; you read it here first. Poland is not just a land of sourdough rye bread, it is a land of a soup made from rye sourdough: żur or żurek (itself derived from sur, one variant of the German word for ‘sour’), still widely consumed and also sold in ready form form for time-strapped gourmands. Since the Austro-Hungarian Empire included much of what had once been Poland, it isn’t too far-fetched to think that people in Vienna might have been familiar with this soup. And since the salient characteristic of poolish is that it is basically liquid, in opposition to more solid doughs, my guess is that the term poolish arose as a facetious allusion to żur: a soup-like fermenting dough mixture, like the thinned-out sourdough soup that Poles eat.

This theory has the minor drawback of lacking any positive evidence in its favor. So far the only 19th century reference to żur outside of its normal context that I have been able to find is as a cure for equine distemper, otherwise known as ‘strangles’. That leads us into the topic of pluralia tantum disease names…

A whole nother story

A whole nother story

Words do some truly inventive things when they change, and change they always do. Some switch their sounds around, like when hros became hors, nowadays spelt with an extra e as horse. Some lose their sense of having an internal composition, like when wāl-hros ‘whale-horse’ became walrus. Some cave in to peer pressure and change their looks to conform with others, including one of my favourite cases in English, when under the influence of similarly-meaning words probably, possibly, plausibly which all end in -bly, we get supposably, which is how in some varieties of modern English you can say ‘supposedly’. One the of truly odd things that words do though, is to start stealing sounds from their neighbours.

A famous case in English is an apron, which used to be a napron, until the n got snaffled by the a. It goes the other way too. A newt was originally an ewt. Of course, in Middle English when this n-theivery was underway, there were a few more words complicit in the heist, for example my napron also became mine apron, and your napron became yourn apron, since at that stage in English, words like my/mine, your/yourn worked like a/an. So, ever wondered why the nickname for Edward is Ned? As in mine Ed, ourn Ed? Got it? Speaking of which, nickname was originally ekename and was also involved in a swindling of n from the previous word (the eke-, which is related to eke in ‘eke out a living’, meant an addition or supplement, so mine ekename was my additional name).

It’s not only in English that words have indulged in this shifty business. In late Latin, the word originally borrowed from Greek apotheca would have been l’aboteca, which you may recognise today as Italian la bottega, Spanish la bodega or French and English boutique. In Danish, the plural pronoun meaning ‘you’ is I, related to English ye, but in closely related Swedish it’s ni with an extra n. Where did it get it? Theft. The corresponding plural verbs used to end in -en, like haven i ‘have you?’, and you can see what happened next. In fact, the same game played out a thousand years earlier with singular ‘you’ in several West Germanic languages, except this time it was the verb that kept a piece of the pronoun, when phrases like habēs thū ‘have you?’ became habēst thū, which you might recognise as English havest thou.

How does all this shifting of sounds between words come about? To get an idea, try saying quickly: ‘an apron, a napron, an apron’, and you’ll already have a sense of how this is possible. Unlike on the printed page, words in spoken language stream forth in a smooth and almost seamless flow, and the human brain performs some impressively deft reverse-engineering to slice that stream back up into words. In fact, picking out the individual words in speech is one of the first monumental intellectual tasks we embark on as infants, even before we start learning what the words mean. Recent research suggests that we may even begin this process from within the womb, where we get pre-season access to language courtesy of the muffled rhythms of speech that seep in to us from outside.

Now, you may well wonder how anyone, let alone an infant, can slice up a speech stream into individual words without knowing any of the meanings. Good question. It would appear that the brain operates like a finely tuned statistical inference machine, storing and calculating the relative frequencies at which sounds follow one another, and from this it can begin to pinpoint where the word boundaries are located, since at those boundaries, it is much less predictable what sounds will come next. The trick, then, is that word boundaries are zones of unpredictability, irrespective of their meanings. Of course, we might ask next, why is it that the sounds are so predictable inside the words? One of the reasons for that has to do with what linguists term ‘phonology’: the fascinating way in which sound sequences themselves are intricately structured and highly non-random within the words of human languages, but I’m afraid that for now, that’s a whole nother story.

On prodigal loanwords

On prodigal loanwords

Most people at some point in their life will have heard someone remark on how their language X (where X is any language) is getting corrupted by other languages and generally “losing its X-ness”. Today I would like to focus on one aspect of the so-called corruption of languages by other languages — lexical borrowings – and show that it’s perhaps not that bad.

European French (at least the French advertised by the Académie Française) is certainly a language about which its speakers worry, so much so that there is even an institution in charge of deciding what is French and what is not (see Helen’s earlier post). A number of English-looking/sounding words now commonly used in spoken French have indeed been taken from English, but English first took them from French!

For instance, the word flirter ‘to court someone’ is obviously adapted from English to flirt and it has the same meaning in both languages. But the English word is the adaptation of the French word fleurette in the expression conter fleurette! The expression conter fleurette is no longer used (casually) in spoken French.

“How could the universe live without your beauty?” “I wonder how sincere he is…”

Other examples of English words borrowed from (parts of) French expressions which then get adapted into French are in (2).

Thus un rosbif is an adaptation into French of roast beef which is itself an adaptation into English of the passive participle of the verb rostir “roast” which later became rôtir in Modern French, and buef “ox/beef” which later became boeuf in the Modern French.

The word un toast comes from English toast with the meaning “piece of toasted bread”. The English word itself was borrowed from tostée, an Old French noun derived from the verb toster which is not used in Modern French. The word pédigré comes from English pedigree but this word is itself adapted from French pied de grue “crane foot”, describing the shape of junctions in genealogical trees.

Pied de grue ‘Crane foot’

Finally, the verb distancer is transitive in Modern French, which means that it requires a direct object: thus the sentence in (a) is good because the verb distancer “distance” has a direct object, the phrase la voiture blanche  “the white car”. By contrast, the construction in (b) is not acceptable (signified by the * symbol) because it lacks an object.

a. La voiture rouge a distancé la voiture blanche.
‘The red car distanced the white car.’
b. *La voiture rouge a distancé.

The (transitive) Modern French verb distancer comes from English to distance which itself is a borrowing from the no-longer-used Old French verb distancer which was uniquely intransitive with the meaning “be far” (that is, in Old French, distancer could only be used in a construction with no direct object).

Another instance is (3): the word tonnelle ‘bower, arbor’ was borrowed into English and became tunnel under the influence of the local pronunciation. The word tunnel was then borrowed by French to refer exclusively to …. wait for it … tunnels. Both words now subsist in French with different meanings.

Une tonnelle ‘a bower’, Un tunnel ‘a tunnel’

Other examples of words that were borrowed into English and ‘came back’ into French with a different meaning are in (4).

The ancestor of tennis is the jeu de paume during which players would say tenez “there you go” as they were about to serve (at that time the final “z” was pronounced [z], it is not in Modern French). This word was adapted into English and became tennis which was then borrowed back into French to refer to the sport jeu de paume evolved into.

Jeu de paume vs. tennis

The Middle French word magasin used to refer to a warehouse, a collection of things. This word was borrowed into English and came to refer to a collection of things on paper. The word magazine was then borrowed back into French with this new meaning.

The history of the word budget also interesting. The word bouge used to mean “bag” and a small bag was therefore bougette (the -ette suffix is used as a diminutive, e.g. fourche “pitchfork” – fourchette “fork”). The word was borrowed into English where its pronunciation was “nativized” and it came to refer to a small bag of money. It was then borrowed back into French with the new meaning of “allocated sum of money”. Finally, ticket was borrowed from English which borrowed it from French estiquet, which referred to a piece of paper where someone’s name was written.

This happens in other languages of course. For instance, Turkish took the word pistakion ‘pistachio’ from (Ancient) Greek which became fistik. (Modern) Greek then borrowed this word back from Turkish which was then spelled phistiki with the meaning ‘pistachio’.

The main lesson I draw from the existence of ‘prodigal loanwords’ is that one’s impressions of language corruption often lack the perspective to actually ground that impression in reality. A French speaker looking at flirter ‘flirt’ may think that this is another sign of the influence of English — and they would be right — without being aware that this is after all a French word fleurette just coming back home.

Do you know other examples of prodigal loanwords? Please, share by commenting on this post!

L’aventure des langues en Occident, Henriette Walter
Honni soit qui mal y pense, Henriette Walter
Jérôme Serme. 1998. Un exemple de résistance à l’innovation lexicale: les “archaïsmes” du français régional, Thèse Lyon II
Javier Herráez Pindado. 2009. Les emprunts aller-retour entre le français et l’anglais dans le sport. Universidad Politécnica de Madrid.