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Showing posts from June, 2013

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

The word pundit comes from the Hindi/Sanskrit word 'pandit'. It originally meant someone knowledgeable in (Hindu) religion. Now it generally refers to anyone using specialist expertise to provide commentary or analysis in the media. Examples include football pundits, political pundit etc.

A version of this post is included in the new ebook: 100 English Language FAQ  - only £0.99/$1.50

Where does the word diaspora come from?

di·as·po·ra /dīˈaspərə/ Noun Jews living outside Israel.The dispersion of the Jews beyond Israel. The main diaspora began in the 8th–6th centuries bc, and even before the sack of Jerusalem...
Though living in different countries across the world the diaspora expressed a shared culture and a belief that one day all Jews would be reunited (in the Biblical Promised Land).
In modern times the term is sometimes used more generically to describe all communities of immigrants  with a shared sense of 'home'.  A recent article in The Economist, The Magic of Diasporas, suggests that these diaspora are playing an increasingly important role in the world economy
There are now 215m first-generation migrants around the world: that’s 3% of the world’s population. If they were a nation, it would be a little larger than Brazil. There are more Chinese people living outside China than there are French people in France. Some 22m Indians are scattered all over the globe.  A version of this post is …

What is Esperanto? And why did it irritate George Orwell?

Polish linguist and pacifist, L.L. Zamenhof invented Esperanto ('hope) which he believed could be an international lingua franca or second language. Because it had no irregular verbs and phonetic spelling esperanto was a 'perfect' language. It also had no associations with a particular nationality or country.

George Orwell's aunt was an early proponent of Esperanto - see comments below. When he went to stay with her in Paris, she insisted on speaking this new language when he was hoping to practise his French. 

The political element of Esperanto particularly disturbed Orwell. The attempt to control and direct language was in his view a central feature of totalitarianism.

Newspeak - the language Orwell created for his dystopian novel, 1984, is clearly a variant on Esperanto.

More on Esperanto here

English Language 100 FAQonly £1.99

What is the longest word in English?

Surely it's the 'longest word you ever heard' - all together now: 

The word was invented by the Sherman brothers for the musical. According to some  learned sources, the word has some very fancy linguistic roots:
super- "above", cali- "beauty", fragilistic- "delicate", expiali- "to atone", and docious- "educable", with the sum of these parts signifying roughly "Atoning for educability through delicate beauty." Although the word contains recognizable English morphemes, it does not follow the rules of English morphology as a whole ....More fun to know is that the working relationship of the Sherman brothers was not 'practically perfect'. When Disney Studio drafted them in to save the score of Mary Poppins 'creative differences' ended with them throwing typewriters at each other.

A version of this post is included in 50 FAQ about English ($1.75)

Where does the word mesmerise come from?

The word mesmerize is named afterFranzorFriedrichAnton Mesmer1734-1815.

Where does the word sandwich come from?

The 4th Earl of Sandwich  (1718--92) loved gambling. When he was playing cards he hated to leave the gaming table for meals. So he asked for a steak between two slices of bread. Ironically, eating sandwiches at your desk now symbolises dedication to work. And most casinos do not allow you to eat snacks when seated at their gaming tables.

Alt meanings: You can sandwich something between two halves of anything. A Victorian Sandwich, for example, is a sponge cake filled with cream and jam.

Other languages:  The word 'sandwich' is used in many languages  in a more way precise way than it is in English. In Spanish, for example, un sandwich uses thin white sliced bread as in the sandwich mixto right.

What is a spelling bee?

Spelling bees or competitions are very popular in the USA. Young people take part in local and regional tournaments to qualify for the national championship.

The word 'bee' here is an old American one to describe a gathering of people. Its origin is disputed.

The winner of the Scripps national spelling bee: 13 year-old Arvind Mahankali

Listening comprehension for English language students: Interview with winner of 2010 Spelling Bee

Most Common Spelling Errors
How to Spell Like a Champ

What is the key to good writing?

According to George Orwell there are six rules that all writers should observe. The first five can be linked back to Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage first published in 1926:
Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.Never use a long word where a short one will do.If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.Never use the passive where you can use the active.Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. The sixth rule is a little more controversial:

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Orwell's definition of 'barbarous' is brilliantly displayed in 1984 and is centred on the idea that political thought and language control was a sinister tool and  by-product of totalitarianism.

Why I Write (Penguin Great Ideas)

Is there a book with all these questions and answers?

Yes, there is! Who'd have thunk it? There's an enhanced e-book called 50 Fun FAQ About the English Language and it only costs $1.75 - more details here

What is the most beautiful word in the English language?

What makes a word beautiful? The marriage of form, function and sound? The meaning? The etymology?

Anyway, here is my list. OK - Alan Metcalf makes a strong case for what he calls 'America's greatest word'. He argues that OK encapsulates the American spirit of tolerance, enterprise and practicality.Love - the word that features in the title of 12 The Beatles songs (All You Need Is- /Can’t Buy Me -/And I - You). And 113 US Number One singles ...Yes - Joyce describes this as the female word and has Molly Bloom end Ulysses with a resounding tribute to it: 'yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. " Bewitched - beautiful sound, beautiful Rodgers & Hart song, magical idea. Would also enter ‘bothered’ and ‘bewildered but with only five Twilight - vampire fans are banned from voting.Iridescent (ir-i-DES-ent) - ‘brilliant, lustrous, colourful’ - what more could you ask from a word?Any of those make your list? Or would you prefer one of the al…

Is English grammar easier than other language?

Robert McCrum, the writer of the influential How the English Language Became the World's Language  has suggested that 'English .. has a grammar of great simplicity" 

The argument for this is broadly as follows:
English grammar is based on simplified form of GermanVerb conjugation is simple for regular verbs: four  endings for regular English verbs (paint/paints/painted/painting).  French, German & other key languages have  50+.There are fewer irregular verbs - and most are irregular in the same way.Written & spoken forms are comparatively similar English. Noun and adjectival forms do not divide by genderAdjectives do not change form for plural nouns (blue car/blue cars)
A version of this post is included in 50 FAQ about English ($1.75)