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Sunday, 1 February 2015

Irish words in English?

Today is the anniversary of the passing of my mother and on my father's funeral is on Tuesday. So please indulge this personal reflection.

It is often forgotten for nearly two centuries English has been the majority language in Ireland. By the 1890s the gaeltacht (native-Irish speaking community) was restricted to a small number of remote areas in the west. There was a Gaelic revivalist movement but as Joyce brilliantly portrays in The Dead (1914) this largely consisted of earnest nationalist intellectuals like Miss Ivors. She berates Gabriel as as a 'West Briton':
"O, Mr. Conroy, will you come for an excursion to the Aran Isles this summer? We're going to stay there a whole month. It will be splendid out in the Atlantic. You ought to come. Mr. Clancy is coming, and Mr. Kilkelly and Kathleen Kearney. It would be splendid for Gretta too if she'd come. She's from Connacht, isn't she?"
"Her people are," said Gabriel shortly.
"But you will come, won't you?" said Miss Ivors, laying her arm hand eagerly on his arm.
"The fact is," said Gabriel, "I have just arranged to go----"
"Go where?" asked Miss Ivors.
"Well, you know, every year I go for a cycling tour with some fellows and so----"
"But where?" asked Miss Ivors.
"Well, we usually go to France or Belgium or perhaps Germany," said Gabriel awkwardly.
"And why do you go to France and Belgium," said Miss Ivors, "instead of visiting your own land?"
"Well," said Gabriel, "it's partly to keep in touch with the languages and partly for a change."
"And haven't you your own language to keep in touch with -- Irish?" asked Miss Ivors.
"Well," said Gabriel, "if it comes to that, you know, Irish is not my language."
The formation of the Free State (1922) allowed the Miss Ivors to gain the upper-hand over the 'West Britons'. And my parents were part of the first generation to experience the educational consequences

They came from a remote part of rural Ireland but neither spoke Irish at home, despite my mum coming from a pretty die-hard republican family. Where they came closely into contact with Gaelic was at school. Every subject was now to be studied through the medium of this 'foreign' language.

Now my mother was a natural A* student, she was going to do well even if they taught her in Swahili. Though she went to a dire convent boarding-school, where she was literally malnourished, she excelled academically. She won county prizes in Irish and should perhaps have gone on to a top university. Instead she came to England where she became a telephone switchboard operator and then a housewife.

I can't remember her saying a single word in Irish.

My dad in contrast was not a scholar, though he was very bright and a gifted story-teller. He left school at 14 to work first on the family farm and then in an Irish mine, then in an English one. He left Ireland though of course Ireland never left him.

Dad was very happy in England and grateful for the opportunities it gave him. But even after more than 60 years there was no possibility that anyone could mistake him for a native. 

Partly it was his resolutely undiluted accent but it was also the vocabulary he used. Dad's speech was peppered with Irish words and not the predictable ones you will find on Wikipedia's rather dull list .

In tribute this week I'm going to feature some of my favourites. I've tried to cross-reference where possible as Dad was not beyond making them up himself!

What is a portmanteu word?

Lewis Caroll used the term to describe two words merged together to form a new one. His was thinking of the way the two sides of a suitcase are linked by a hinge.

Here is an extract from my contribution to the Macmillan tribute: Your Favourite Portmanteau Words:
There are plenty of awful portmanteau words. Step forward jazzercise (Jazz exercise) for example, or, even worse, dramedy (dramatic comedy) which surely must merit a prison sentence ....
Read complete post

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Most Looked Up Word in dictionary?

The word Pragmatic has been researched more than any other in the near 200 year history of Merriam-Webster. dictionary. It is currently the 11th most searched for word. 

Definitions: prag•mat•ic  (prægˈmæt ɪk) adj.
1. concerned with practical considerations or consequences; having a practical point of view.
2. of or pertaining to philosophical pragmatism.
3. of or pertaining to pragmatics.
4. treating historical phenomena with special reference to their causes, antecedent conditions, and results.
5. of or pertaining to the affairs of a state or community.
6. Archaic.
a. busy; active.
b. officious; meddlesome.
c. dogmatic; opinionated.
n.7. pragmatic sanction + prag•mat′i•cal for for defs.1, 2, 5)
Commonly understood to mean - Doing what works best in the circumstances, acting according to practical considerations rather than abstract principle, to deal with the real world.

Origin - Classical Latin pragmaticus, skilled in business or law ; from Classical Greek pragmatikos ; from pragma, business, origin, originally a thing done ; from prassein, to do

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Why are there so many French words in English?

How many French words have entered English?
More than 29% of all English words come directly or indirectly from French. English speakers who have never studied French already know at least 10,000 French words.
Why so many?
In 1066 the Normans invaded England. They
introduced a legal and administrative system with its own vocabulary.

Around 10,000 French words came into common usage. Of these around 7,000 (judge and jury, for example) have survived into modern English.

What became known as Anglo-Norman had Latin roots. Sometimes the new Anglo-Norman words existed alongside existing Anglo-Saxon ones: beef (French) and cow (Anglo-Saxon for example.

What effect did this have on the structure of English?
Anglo-Norman did not change the structure of the language in terms of grammar. But one very important development was that most anglo-saxon words lost their social status. The original language became grammatically simpler. Over time it evolved into what became known as Middle English.

What long-term influence did the Normans have on the language? 
Though the Norman dialect declined, French remained the language of court and learning. This influence remains; we still use terms like chargé d'affaires, for example.


French words became associated with learning and culture, but also with snobbishness and elitism. Fowler, in his Modern English Usage (1926) says this about the excessive use of French words and phrases :
Display of superior knowledge is as great a vulgarity as display of superior wealth — greater indeed, inasmuch as knowledge should tend more definitely than wealth towards discretion and good manners.
This combination of admiration and suspicion is still present today. Hence the joke popular in the British middle class: Pretentious? Moi?

How did French influence English pronunciation?
The introduction of French subtly modified  pronunciation in English. One example is the diphthong (long ‘o’ sound) in words like ‘boy’. Another is ‘th’ sound in  thin/shin.

The standard pronunciation of  French words these generally  approximate to the original: ‘ballet’, for example, has a silent ‘t’ rather than a sounded one as in Spanish. Some of the more common nouns have been completely anglicised - the hard ‘s’ in Paris being an obvious example.

As with many other aspects of the language, custom and practice has taken precedence over formal rules.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Where does the word Oscar come from?

The Oscars are awarded by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). There are a large number of categories including Best Film, Best Directer, Best Cinematography etc. These are voted for by professionals working in the film industry in Hollywood, Los Angeles. Just under 6,000 members can nominate and vote for the films in a given year.

The Statuette

Winners of Hollywood's Academy Awards receive a gold-plated statuette on a black metal base.  It is 13.5 in (34 cm) tall and weighs 8.5 lb (3.85 kg). 

The statue is a little strange. A knight is holding a crusader's sword. Look closely and you will see that the knight standing on a reel of film with five spokes. 

The spokes represent the branches of the Film Academy: Actors, Writers, Directors, Producers, and Technicians.

The original design was by MGM art director Cedric Gibbons. The Academy then  commissioned the Los Angeles sculptor, George Stanley to produce a 3D version in 1929. The vaguely art deco style reflects the fashion of the time.

Why 'Oscar'?

There is no definitive explanation as to how Oscar became the popular name for an Academy Award. 

The name was first publicly used was in an article by Hollywood columnist about Katharine Hepburn's first Best Actress victory at the fifth annual ceremony in 1934. By 1939 the word Oscar was universally known - but there remains confusion regarding its origin.


One theory is that the name came from an early Academy director, Margaret Herrick, in 1931. According to this legend, Herrick thought that the statue looked like her Uncle Oscar. 
Bette Davies collects Oscar for Jezebel (1938)

Another suggestion is that Bette Davies named her award after her husband. That sounds plausible - but happened in 1936.

A good example of how a nickname can survive long after its source is forgotten.

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Thursday, 8 January 2015

What's the difference between satire & parody?

A deceptively complex question beyond the comprehension of the deranged murderers in Paris. But as we defend freedom of expression it is important to understand why the work of Charlie, Private Eye etc is so important.

Here is one opinion:

Satirical magazine
Alternative explanations put more emphasis on the intent of the parodist/satirist
Satire can be termed as humour and anger combined together. Parody is really meant for mocking and it may or may not incite the society. Parody is just pure entertainment and nothing else. It does not have a direct influence on the society.
While Satire makes a serious point through humour, Parody does not contain any thing serious. Parody is just fun for fun’s sake. Satire can induce the society to think where as parody does not. While satire stands for changing the society, parody only stands for fun and making fun.
In everyday usage satire and parody are used interchangeably but perhaps parody is more a form of caricature: an exaggeration of immediately recognisable traits or features. Parody puts more emphasis on accurate imitation of detail than satire, which is more broadly ideological.
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