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Thursday, 17 April 2014

What is Passover? Where does the word come from?

The Seder is the special meal that celebrates Passover


[pas-oh-ver, pahs-] 
Also called PesachPesah. a Jewish festival that commemorates the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and is marked chiefly by the Seder ritual and the eating of matzoth. It begins on the 14th day of Nisan and is celebrated for eight days by Orthodox and Conservative Jews outside of Israel and for seven days by Reform Jews and Jews in Israel.
(lowercasepaschal lamb (def. 1).
1520–30; noun use of verb phrase pass over, as translation of Hebrew pesaḥ
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2013. 
The Passover story is told in the Book of Exodus, Chapter 12 in the Torah
See here for a short summary of Passover traditions.

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Monday, 7 April 2014

What is Lent?

Lent is the word Christians use to describe the forty days leading up to Easter It starts on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter Saturday, the eve of the Resurrection. 

The focus of Lent is the time Jesus spent in the desert, where He underwent great anguish and turmoil and was exposed to temptations prepared by Satan. 

Traditionally Christians mark this ordeal  by making a 'resolution' or promise to improve an aspect of personal behaviour. For children this is often to give up something for the full forty days - chocolate, for example. Irish Catholics traditionally give up alcohol, but often allow an (unofficial) exemption to allow the Guinness to flow on St Patrick's Day (March 17)!

These days Christians are encouraged to adopt a more positive approach to the Lent Resolution. In this spirit many will do extra work for charity.

Where does the word Easter come from?
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Friday, 4 April 2014

Where does the word Easter come from?

Ostara (1884) by Johannes Gehrts

Word Origin

Old English ēastre, after a Germanic goddess Eostre; related to Old High German ōstarūn Easter, Old Norse austr to the east, Old Slavonic ustru like summer.

Scholars agree that the origin is pre-Christian and pagan rather than strictly Biblical. Beyond that there is little consensus.
The most popular theory is reflected in the entry for Easter in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary: the Old English word eastre came "apparently from Eostre, a goddess associated with spring."

The basis for this theory is found in a work written in AD 725 by Saint Bede, an English monk and historian. According to Bede, April was called Eosturmonath ("Easter-month") because in pagan times the month was dedicated to Eostre, an Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring.

When Christian beliefs spread throughout England, says Bede,Easter-month lent its name to the new April festival.

Another theory is that Eostre was simply the Anglo-Saxon word for spring festivals. Linguists trace this word to roots thousands of years old meaning "shine" and "dawn." Spring is a season of lengthening days and increased light. It would make sense for early peoples to give their spring festivals a name that celebrated the rising sun. Source

What is clear is that there is no reference to the word Easter or similar in the New Testament. Nor does a similar word feature in most translations of the Bible into vernacular languages. Most use a derivation of the Jewish feast of Passover - rooting the key events in their historical and religious context (in Spanish 'pascua', for example). There is also more linguistic emphasis on the idea of Holy Week (in Spanish the most common reference point is Semana Santa)

This has lead to some controversy amongst some English-speaking Christians (see here)

An Introductory Dictionary of Theology and Religious Studies

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Friday, 28 March 2014

What is a rookie? Where does the word come from?

A rookie is someone recently promoted to a higher level of competition, particularly in sports. It is the term used in north America to describe a football or other team player in their first season - a rookie NFL quarterback, example. 

The term is now often used in general (American) English to describe inexperience - a rookie political mistake.

According to the OED
the origins are uncertain, but that perhaps it is a corruption of the word recruit. The earliest example from the OED is from Rudyard Kipling's Barrack-Room Ballads (published 1892): So 'ark an' 'eed, you rookies, which is always grumblin' sore, referring to rookies in the sense of raw recruits to the British Army. 

There is also a hint of a secondary sense: to rook someone is to fool them. This suggests that rookie may have been used to describe someone "easy to cheat."

Using a rookie - however talented - is considered a risk in high-pressure sporting occasions. This risk can pay dividends, however, see the 17-year-old Pele in the 1958 World Cup.

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Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Most popular word in English?

Alan Metcalf makes a strong case for the two letters which make up what he calls 'America's greatest word'. He argues that OK encapsulates the American spirit of tolerance, enterprise and practicality:
"If something's OK, that's OK, it'll work, maybe it's not perfect but it'll work, and that's an American attitude."

Where does OK come from?

The word OK entered American English in the 19th century and is now one of the most popular in the language. But there is little agreement as to its origins:
It does not seem at all likely ... that it comes from the Scots expression och aye, the Greek ola kala ('it is good'), the Choctaw Indian oke or okeh ('it is so'), the French aux Cayes('from Cayes', a port in Haiti with a reputation for good rum) or au quai ('to the quay', as supposedly used by French-speaking dockers), or the initials of a railway freight agent called Obediah Kelly who is said to have written them on documents he had checked.
A more likely explanation is that the term originated as an abbreviation of orl korrekt , a jokey misspelling of 'all correct'  which was current in the US in the 1830s. This ties-in with an unusual political association
The oldest written references result from its use as a slogan by the Democratic party during the American Presidential election of 1840. Their candidate, President Martin Van Buren, was nicknamed 'Old Kinderhook' (after his birthplace in New York State), and his supporters formed the 'OK Club'. This undoubtedly helped to popularize the term (though it did not get President Van Buren re-elected). 
Full article here: Oxford Dictionaries. And Metcalf's book tells the 'improbable story of America's greatest word'.

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Monday, 17 March 2014

Most common spelling mistakes in English?

Below are the top (or bottom!) most frequently misspelled words. Suggestions as to why they cause problems 

  • Separate  - the ‘a’ becomes an ‘e’
  • Definitely - many sound out ‘definately’ when they mean definitely
  • Manoeuvre - French
  • Embarrass - double trouble
  • Occurrence - double trouble, ‘c’ or ‘s’
  • Consensus - ‘c’ or ‘s’
  • Unnecessary - ‘c’ or ‘s’
  • Acceptable - double trouble, ‘c’ or ‘s’
  • Broccoli - double trouble
  • Referred - double trouble
  • Bureaucracy - French, weird letter combination
  • Supersede - ‘c’ or ‘s’
  • Questionnaire double Trouble, French
  • Connoisseur  - double trouble, French
  • Alot - transcription error
  • Entrepreneur  - French & unfamiliar
  • Particularly - transcription
  • Liquefy - odd sounds and letters
  • Conscience-  ‘c’ or ‘s’
  • Parallel - double trouble

  •  What makes these words so difficult to spell? 


    One source of difficulty is inconsistent pronunciation - see (1, 2) Another is word-merging in transcription: (many) young people write could have as could of or a lot (14) as alot.


    With bureaucracy (11) manoeuvre (3) the spelling pattern is French. A basic knowledge of French was once assumed but most now would recognise entrepreneur (16) from business rather than the language from which it originates. The same applies to those other providers of hidden spelling rules: Latin and Greek.

    C or S?

    An understandable uncertainty as to when ‘C’ rather than ‘S’ applies lies behind consensus (6) supersede (12) conscience (19) & unnecessary (7). There’s a similar confusion over the ‘CK’ sound in liquefy (18), plus an ‘E’ in place of the usual ‘I’.

    An entertaining alternative list is provided by bab.la

    1.wich - whichwitch. It doesn’t matter which witch you think you can see, as long as there’s an h or a t
    2.advertizing - advertising: You shouldn’t advertise the fact that you use z where there’s supposed to be an s.
    3.maffia - mafia. It wouldn’t be wise to double cross the mafia by using two f’s.
    4.adress - address. A double d is what we need to see. Think of “please add your address” as a reminder!
    5.particulary - particularly. It’s not particularly convincing when you leave out the last l.
    6.belive - believe. You must believe that i usually comes before e, except after c.
    7.awsome - awesome. If you’re in awe of this word, don’t forget the e!
    8.wether - whetherweather. Whether you have problems with the weather or not, you can’t leave out a letter.
    9.seperate - separate. If you separate the word right in the middle you have one e and one a on either side.
    10.dogy - dodgy. There’s no dog in dodgy.

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    Further Reading

    Quick Solutions to Common Errors in English: A-z Guide
    Printable Goole Docs version of this post

    Thursday, 13 March 2014

    What are phrasal verbs? Is there an easy way to learn them?

    phrasal verb

    noun [C] 

    /ˌfreɪ.zəlˈvɜːb/ US  /-ˈvɝːb/

    a phrase that consists of a verb with a preposition or adverb or both, the meaning of which is different from the meaning of its separate parts:'Look after', 'work out' and 'make up for' are all phrasal verbs.

    A phrasal verb is a verb with two parts; the verb and a preposition. The preposition changes the meaning of the verb - to turn on a light is different from to turn a corner.

    Is there an easy way to learn phrasal verbs? Not if 'easy' means without practice. Phrasal verbs are tricky for English language learners because there are no universal rules. They are the inner secrets of the language; available only to those with the curiosity and patience to discover them.

    There are, however, a few useful guidelines that can help - see here:

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    Ultimate Phrasal Verb Book
    English Phrasal Verbs in Use: Advanced
    Oxford Phrasal Verbs Dictionary (Elt)
    Learn 100 Most Frequent and Useful Phrasal Verbs in English in Six Easy Steps.