Sunday, 29 November 2009

a creative use of minimalist graffiti

A great use of two letters of the alphabet to transform a boring road sign into something with a message!

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Oxford dictionary's word of the year in the 20th century

I wondered whether the British part of the Oxford University Press has a different Word of the Year from the American English one, unfriend, but I haven't found the answer yet.

However, I did find a list of the words that were chosen as most prominent, from 1906 to 2006.

I estimate thirty-four of those words are part of my regular vocabulary.

American English word of the year is unfriend

The New Oxford American Dictionary has declared that the word of the year for 2009 is the verb unfriend.

That seems a sign of the times - unfriending people is a word that “has both currency and potential longevity", according to Christine Lindberg, Senior Lexicographer for the New Oxford American Dictionary. It's a pity the friendships don't also have longevity. I must admit to a cynical attitude about friendships maintained exclusively on Facebook without some personal interaction to bolster them. And perhaps we live in times when everything is disposable. Even people.

Lindberg says
Most “un-” prefixed words are adjectives (unacceptable, unpleasant), and there are certainly some familiar “un-” verbs (uncap, unpack), but “unfriend” is different from the norm. It assumes a verb sense of “friend” that is really not used (at least not since maybe the 17th century!).
I recently posted about Chad Taylor's use of the modern verb friend and I subsequently discovered a Grammarphobia Blog entry dating a similar verb, to friend, back to the thirteenth century.

Monday, 16 November 2009

more about truce terms in children's games

Papillon Bleu (whose blog about miniatures and dolls I love reading), has told me that when she was growing up in France, she used the term 'pouce' as a truce term in games. I'll post her comment here so you can read it:
We used to say "pouce!"when I was little and we had to put both thumbs up.I don't know if the children in France still use this expression.
Google translates this word as thumb.Wikipedia isn't my favorite place for researching things, but I did think it was interesting that the article on truce terms refers to the possible use of the thumb in this context as far back as the time of James I of Scotland (early fifteenth century):
The use of barlay as a truce term appears in the 14th century poem Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight and Tobias Smollett's The Reprisal. It is recorded in lexicographer John Jamieson's 1808 Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language as a term specifically used by children to demand truce. A probable variation also appears in the 1568 manuscript Chrysts-Kirk of the Grene, sometimes attributed to James I of Scotland, as follows;

Thocht he was wicht, he was nocht wyss,
With sic Jangleurs to jummill;
For frae his Thoume they dang a Sklyss,
Quhyle he cry'd Barlafummill.

The "Thoume" (thumb) that is "sklyss" (sliced) in the quote above may refer to the thumb having been raised by the man calling barlafummill, a common accompanying gesture to the use of a truce term in Scotland.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

One mistranslated word can make a big difference

There's a story making the rounds of the internet, reporting that a tourism advertising campaign for the city of Riga in Latvia accidentally printed the wrong captions on posters. Instead of saying Riga City: easy to go, hard to leave, it said Riga City: easy to go, hard to live.

A rather bad mistake!

Here are pictures of the posters. Some seem to have the correct word.

Given that more are correct than incorrect, I suppose it was a mistake at the printers, rather than at the translation level.

It's all too easy to criticise translations into English, but I can't be too smug if they've taken the trouble to learn my language and I don't know one word of theirs.

I couldn't say the promotion would encourage me to include Riga on my next travel itinerary, because I dislike the puffy heart-thing that appears in the photos, and the fact that Riga is Birthplace of Christmas tree. Now for 499 years is totally uninteresting in terms of tourism. (And that piece of clumsy English does seem to be the responsibility of a translator.)

All this reminds me of the possibly apocryphal story that Mitsubishi accidentally named one of their car models the Starion, intending it to be the Stallion. has an interesting discussion of this and other possible translation disasters in relation to automobiles. (Surely it can't be true that Mitsubishi had a car called The Lettuce!)

The Northern Echo features a discussion of the pitfalls of naming a vehicle that will be sold all around the word.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

calling a barley truce in a game

When my dog jumps onto her green mat during a game of chase-her-to-get-the-ball, it's called barley, which in our family means a truce and no-one can grab the ball from her.

I got to wondering whether other families use the expression 'barley' in this sense, and found it's not widely used.

The Virtual Linguist is collecting examples of the use of this and similar words. A Wikipedia article refers to the use of this term, with variants, in Australia.

It said
Peter Opie, who in 1959 conducted the most extensive study on the subject to date, considered the truce term to be the most important word in a schoolchild's vocabulary and one for which there was no adult equivalent...However, research into early recorded use of these terms found examples of some of these terms being used as a sign of surrender in battle or adult fights or quarrels as late as the 18th century.
It seems to me the phrase will stay in an adult's vocabulary if the adult continues to play, in the kind of innocent way children play - and, of course, that's what pet dogs teach us to do.

The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren,by Iona and Peter Opie, was published in 1959, with an introduction by Marina Warner that says, in part
In the chapter called “Code of Oral Legislation,” they give a truly mind-boggling list of over fifty “truce terms,” including variations on “barlay,” “crosses,” and “squits,” by which children “obtain respite” from one another during a fight or other kind of struggle; a gloss provided by J. R. R. Tolkien himself connects “Fains” (pronounced “Veins” at my convent school in the Sixties)
with Old French se feindre, and he is able to use it to throw light on a crux in Chaucer, making the term five hundred years old. It must be said that the beautiful “distribution maps”—no less than six in this chapter alone, here illustrating truce terms’ usage—add considerably to the impact of the data; with something of the quality of a handdrawn treasure map in an adventure story, they reach a high-water mark that published scholarship in this field will probably never attain again.

I notice the word is spelled barlay in the Opie book.

I think I'll look for a copy of the book, after reading a review of it by Kenneth Rexroth (written in 1960).

Sunday, 1 November 2009

hypo and hyper and a game called MooT

Browsing the internet tonight to check my understanding of the difference between the prefixes hyper and hypo, I've come across an interesting-looking game called MooT.

I was thinking how strange it is that we have taken two similar-sounding prefixes from the Greek language and thus set ourselves up for confusion - hyper meaning above, and hypo, meaning under. I always remember that hypo means "under", because I visualise a hypodermic, which goes under the skin.

The most frequent confusion of these two prefixes, in my experience, is in a school situation, when someone remarks that a child is hypo. I always have a vision of a quiet, sleepy child who is "under the weather", but the speaker means a child who is overactive. The Online Etymology Dictionary says the use of hyper as a stand-alone word to mean overexcited, was first attested in 1942.

I would say that I've heard hypo used much more frequently than hyper, in this context, and I wonder if it will eventually be the preferred word, even though it has the opposite meaning.

A Google search on hypo landed me on the Moot site, and I think the game looks like great fun.

some names need to be remembered forever

Douglas Bader was one of my heroes when I was growing up. I'd almost forgotten his name, but was reminded of him when Richard Stubbs mentioned him recently on his afternoon show on ABC radio 774 Melbourne. Stubbs says this is one word we should all remember - and I agree.

The word Bader is a synonym for courage and determination. He lost both legs in a time when disability was seen as a barrier to achievement, but refused to be sidelined. He taught himself to walk on two "tin legs", without even using walking sticks, and eventually flew fighter planes in the second world war. For a brief summary of his life, look here.

I didn't see a reference in that article to something Stubbs and his guest talked about - the fact that the Germans allowed a British plane to fly over their territory during the war to drop a prosthetic leg to replace the one Bader had lost when he was captured.