Wednesday 27 May 2020

What happens to 6000-year-old twins when they grow up?

Words, words, words. So many of them. Where did they all come from? How did they all get here? Well, in this post I’ll look at three examples of how words from the same root have wandered alone through the highways and byways of history and geography, only to end up together again in English. In modern English, we have a fair number of words which come from the same ancient root. I don’t mean they all came through Old English (OE), but they started out as siblings in the womb of the same ancient language and made their ways into modern English by different routes from their roots. I’ll look at three ways that sibling words have reached modern English: through maintaining their meanings as more or less the same throughout their histories; through changing their meanings out of all recognition; and through taking different routes based on two distinct possibilities suggested by the nature of the ancient root. This post does have some linguistic terminology and examples, but only what’s necessary, and I think they’re easy enough to understand.

First of all, I’d like to give a bit of background information. English is part of the Indo-European (IE) language group, the origins of which stretch back over 6000 years. Although we can never know exactly how words were pronounced in IE, we can postulate their likely forms and pronunciations based on the words that have come down from it into ancient written languages, like Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Hittite and Avestan, and also modern IE languages, which range over most of Europe and through Iran into the Indian sub-continent. Based on the recorded forms in all these languages, the likely ancient forms can be postulated, albeit with some variation and uncertainty. Postulated forms are always written with an asterisk. IE also gave rise to the Germanic language group by way of Proto-Germanic (PG) some 3000 years ago. This group is made up of West Germanic (Dutch, English, German and Frisian) and North Germanic (Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic and Faroese). There was also East Germanic, the most well-known of which was Gothic, the oldest written Germanic language, but the last remnants of that group finally died out over three hundred years ago.

Now for the good part. Firstly, let’s look at two words in modern English which are probably the closest we can find to identical twins, growing up and going their own ways, but keeping pretty well the same meanings over all that time despite being sundered for so long, and then meeting up and saying: “Gosh, you look different, well, actually, not really”. IE had a form which is rendered as *peḱu, probably pronounced something like “peck-you”. This root had a variety of derivations, but only two interest us here: Latin pecus and PG *feHu. We can see here that the original p was preserved in Latin, but was changed to f in PG, and the original sound became c in Latin, but H (pronounced like ch in “loch”) in PG. The meaning of both these forms was “cattle, livestock” and by extension “property, money”. These associations are fairly unsurprising given that livestock has always been a basis of wealth in many societies, and the people who spoke the original IE language were almost certainly nomadic herders. The Latin pecus produced pecū, “cattle”, then pecūnia, “money, property”, and then pecūniārius, “pertaining to money”, from which we derive pecuniary. In the meantime, Proto-Germanic produced OE feoh, “money, property, cattle”. So far so good.

However, feoh did not come down to us in modern English. Instead, we inherited a similar form, from another Germanic language, Frankish, which had the form *fehu, from which *fehu-od was formed, meaning “payment-estate”. The Franks, of course, settled in the Roman province of Gaul in the 3rd century and gave the country its new name – yes, the French are actually Germans, in a sense, and around 10% of French words come from Frankish. This word was also borrowed into Medieval Latin in the form of feudum, which gives us feudal. After the Norman conquest, thousands of OE words were replaced by French words, one of which was the Anglo-French fee, which came into Middle English with the meaning of “an estate belonging to a feudal lord”. It soon came to mean “payment for services provided”, hence our modern fee. Not content with borrowing it once as fee, English later borrowed it again from French as fief. It’s fascinating to think that the French word, borrowed from a Germanic language, replaced the lost OE word and kept not only the same basic meaning of the original, but also the meaning of its Latin-derived twin, pecuniary, after being separated for thousands of years. Just a word of warning: if you want to pay your university fees, I don’t think they accept cows any more -  it's not the dung thing.

Now I’d like to turn to the second set of words passing through Latin and OE into modern English, but with such different meanings that it’s surprising that they once had any connection at all. These are the unruly siblings that refuse to acknowledge the resemblance they once had. When they all met up again in modern English, they all asked: “Do I know you from somewhere?” The IE root probably had three forms, *leis-/lois-/lis-, and the meaning was something like “trace, track”. Now, the idea of tracing or tracking could lead to a number of developments, in this case three. Firstly, and most basically, tracking is something done on foot, so the idea of a path or walkway, or even tracks left in the ground, is a likely development. This also stretched to the modes of tracking, namely, the feet themselves. Secondly, tracing and tracking can lead to finding out about something, gaining knowledge. Thirdly, tracking may lead to persistence in following. Let’s look at the second development first, as it’s the most important one. The IE root gave rise to the PG verb *liznōjanan (PG j is pronounced like y), “follow along a track”, which eventually developed into OE leornian, which gives us learn. Another form, *laizijanan, developed into the modern German lehren, “teach”, but the related word in OE didn’t reach modern English. However, a third form, *laizō, became OE lār, “learning, knowledge, doctrine”, giving us modern English lore. Clearly, in the minds of the early Germanic peoples, tracking and tracing were good ways of gaining knowledge. I hope you’re keeping track.

Another derivation from the IE root which came down to us via PG involves tracking and following of a different kind, not with the mind but with persistence, the third development given above. PG *laistjanan developed the meaning of “follow, perform, carry out” and OE inherited it as lǣstan, “accomplish, carry out”, with the meaning developing into “continue, endure”, which is the meaning of the modern verb last. The final Germanic derivation from the same IE root in modern English, albeit a highly specialised and little used one, retains the use of the foot as opposed to the track itself, as outlined in the first development given above. PG also inherited the root word *laistaz from IE and this became lāst in OE, meaning “track, footprint”. This found its way into modern English as last, which is a foot-shaped block used by shoemakers to model their wares. Incidentally, the most common word with this spelling, the adjective last, is actually a contraction of latest, and has nothing to do with this root. If you’ve lasted to this point, I hope you can keep on the right track.

Now we come to the final (last?) derivation in modern English from this IE root, though this came to us courtesy of Latin, and in a rather strange way. The IE root turned up in Latin as līra, denoting a rather specialised type of track, namely “furrow”, as in the long, straight line produced by a plough. If a Roman ploughman couldn’t stay on a straight line, he would literally veer “off the furrow”, or dē līrā. This produced a verb dēlīrāre, “go off the furrow”, with the extended meaning of “go mad, rave”, and a noun dēlīrium, which modern English then borrowed as delirium, subsequently creating the adjective delirious and the medical term delirium tremens, which describes the effects of losing a dependency on alcohol. This also begs the question of whether Roman ploughmen were frequently drunk. I hope you can last out, though, without going delirious.

The concluding set of examples shows how a root can separate into different strands which can still remain true to the original meaning in their own ways, while showing clear divergence and different interpretations of that original meaning, sort of identical twins going their own ways but staying true to mum in some way. IE had a root *al-, with the basic meaning of “grow, nourish”. This produced a variety of derivations in Latin, including these: almus/alma, “nourishing”, as in the expression alma mater, literally “nourishing mother”, the institution where a graduate studied; adolēscere (with the prefix ad- and the change from a to o), “grow up”, which gives us adolescent and adult; alimentum, “nourishment”, from which we get alimentary and alimentation; and alimōnia, “nourishment, sustenance”, from which we get alimony. The IE *al- root was also extended in another way, *al-d-/ *al-dh-, which produced two types of growing, one in Latin altus and a different one in PG *alđáz. The Latin form focused on the aspect of growing in height, while the PG form did the same for age. Hence, altus produced altitude and altimeter, while *alđáz produced OE ald and eald, which give us old, elder and alderman, among other words. French has also bequeathed us more derivations from Latin after altus became haut, namely haute cuisine, oboe (originally haut bois, “high wood”, via Italian), and haughty, with the spelling mistakenly changed. For good measure, we also got alto from Italian. I can just imagine the reactions of quarrelling teenagers 6000 years ago when their parents shouted: “I wish you lot would just grow up!” – “which way?”

So, there we have it – three ways to get two or more words from the same root, but with widely varying results. There are a lot more of these out there as well – you just have to look for them. Or maybe I’ll bring them to you. Let me summarise this discussion in this way: for pecuniary reasons, you need to pay your fees when you learn in your alma mater, especially when you’re old enough, but don’t get haughty or you may find yourself suffering from delirium. Have fun word-hunting.

Friday 1 May 2020

The Humming Bird, the Possum and the Egg Plant

Have you ever wondered how things get their names? What are the processes by which words are created or adapted for new ideas, objects, animals and plants, among other things? Probably, the three most common methods of naming novelties are: thinking of a new term to describe the new phenomenon; applying a known term to the new phenomenon; or, most simply, just taking a word from another language, either directly or through a long line of borrowing. I’ll explore each of these methods one by one.

I’ll start with the practice of coining a new term in your own language for a new discovery. There are various examples in various languages: French “pomme de terre”, literally “earth apple”, for “potato”; Italian “pomodoro”, literally “apple of gold” for “tomato”; and Afrikaans “aardvark”, literally “earth pig” for, well, “aardvark” (even though they’re not related to pigs at all). Here are two examples which can amply illustrate this way of naming novelties.

When English speakers first heard about a large, spiky-headed fruit growing on a bush in South America, they referred to it as a “pine apple”. In contrast, French adopted the word “nanas” from Tupi, a language of South America, which became “ananas” and then spread around Europe and the rest of the world. The Spanish, however, while adopting “ananas” also referred to the fruit as “piña”, “pinecone”, giving us that lovely rum cocktail and silly love song, while also giving English the excuse to extend the “pine” idea by adding “apple”. English could have adopted “ananas” as well, but eventually the apple of the pine won out. Interestingly, although the Portuguese in particular were in touch with Tupi in Brazil, they made “abacaxi” the word for the pineapple as opposed to “ananas”, even though the abacaxi is only one kind of pineapple, allegedly the tastiest.

Another American phenomenon which needed naming consisted of delightful, little, shiny, multicoloured birds, which flitted about, drinking nectar from flowers, while furiously beating their tiny wings. This is effectively a case of sound and vision (well, some of them are electric blue) – English took the sound, while Portuguese took the vision. We named them “humming birds”, which has a certain beauty to it, but the Portuguese went one step further in my opinion, naming them “beija-flor”, literally “kiss-flower”, one of the most beautifully poetic descriptions of a living being that you’ll ever come across. Most other languages have adopted the term “colibri”, which arrived from a Caribbean source via French, although French also coined “oiseau mouche”, literally “bird-fly”, a somewhat less attractive description.

Let’s move on to the second way of naming novelties, which is to use a term that already refers to something, and apply it to something else. First, we can consider the word “possum” shortened from “opossum”, which is the name of a number of species of small marsupial omnivores originating in the Americas. In fact, the name “opossum” comes from a Powhatan word meaning “white dog-like animal”. It was assimilated into English in the 17th C and was later taken to Australia with the English settlers. There, the settlers applied the name to various marsupial species that resembled the original opossums of the Americas, albeit not closely related. It’s an interesting case of a word adopted by a dominant language on one side of the world being transported and applied to a creature on the other side. As is often the case with words, the popular name became current in Australian English and even became a term of endearment used by female impersonators. It is, however, totally unrelated to the Latin “possum”, which means “I can”. There’s a "possum" joke in there somewhere.

My second example is that of the buffalo, or rather, the bison, in America. Zoologically speaking, there are two extant species of bison, the American and the European, which are fairly closely related but distinct. Going further back, about 10 million years, they split off from the buffalo of Asia and Africa, as well as other bovines, including cows. The word “buffalo” comes ultimately from Greek “boubalos”, “wild ox”, via Latin “bubalus” and either Spanish “búfalo" or Italian “bufalo". When American bison skins in the process of being cured were first seen by European settlers, it was assumed that they were buffalo skins. This naming became popular, and although the word “bison” (itself a Latinised version of a Germanic word) was applied to them in the late 18th C, it couldn’t dislodge the popular “buffalo” and remains rather technical in use. In any case, “Bison Bill” just doesn’t have the same ring.

Other obvious examples include: “puma”, often referred to as “mountain lion”, even though it’s not technically a lion; “barbary ape”, even though it’s a species of macaque monkey; “koala bear”, even though it’s completely unrelated to bears; and “sago palm”, even though it’s not a palm but a cycad. All of these examples show how terms are reapplied based on appearance, which is perfectly understandable when previously unseen phenomena emerge.

One interesting phenomenon, which is a sort of blending of the first two methods, is a term based on the place or supposed place of origin. These are quite numerous. “Peach” is derived from Greek “Persicon malon”. via Latin “Persicum malum”, Late Latin “pessica” and Old French “peche”. Originally, the Greeks though it came from Persia, although it actually originated in Northwest China, clearly passing through Persia on its way to Europe. Before paper became the standard medium for writing on, parchment was the norm. It was accepted by the Greeks that the practice of using cow leather for writing originated in the city of Pergamon in present day Turkey, so they called it “pergamenon”, which underwent a few changes to arrive at its modern form. One other example is that of lodestones. These are metallic stones which possess a magnetic charge. It’s said that they were abundant in the area of Magnesia on the Maeander on the Aegean coast of modern Turkey. The ancient Greek settlers there took the name of their area of origin, namely Magnesia in Northern Greece. The type of stone in question was called “magnes lithos” by the Greeks, which gives us “magnet”.

Words originating from places often undergo many changes on their way to other languages. The same is true of my last group, which is, perhaps, the most widespread: words taken directly from another language along with the novel discovery, often food. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire and the site of Mexico City, they asked about a certain fruit resembling a pear which they had seen. This fruit was called “ahuacatl” in Nahuatl, the local language. As can be expected, the Spanish found it difficult to pronounce this new word, but over time it changed to become “avocado”, which sounds suspiciously like the Spanish for lawyer, “abogado”. This is a common phenomenon with borrowing words – you make them sound more like your own language, even though they’re actually completely different. One other thing is that “ahuacatl” also meant “testicle”. I’m saying nothing more, except - 
enjoy your guacamole. 

Another foodstuff which is probably more common than any other is sugar. The word doesn’t look very English, but that’s partly because of its journey into English from French, but let’s start at the beginning. Originally, the word didn’t denote something sweet and it wasn’t something you’d freely put in your mouth, especially if you didn’t want to crunch your teeth to pieces. Sanskrit, the ancient literary language of Northern India, used the word “sarkara”, meaning “gravel, grit”, to describe the granules of the sweet stuff produced from a certain local cane. From Sanskrit, it travelled via Persian “shakar” to Arabic, which rendered it “sukkar”. Arabic supplied it to Spanish and Portuguese with the definite article attached – hence “azúcar” and “açúcar” respectively. Medieval Latin created “succarum”, which French duly took it in as “sucre”, passing it onto English. The strange pronunciation in English results from the pronunciation of “u“ in French, rendered as “yu” in English, so “syu” became “shu”. What’s more, the French form also had an alternative with “g”, so we took that on as well. It’s enough to make you grit your teeth.

The names of colours have all kinds of origins: “mauve” comes from the mallow plant, “vermillion” is the colour of crushed worms, “scarlet” comes from the colour of the fine Arabian cloth “siqillat” and “azure” stems from the Persian for lapis lazuli. The most interesting colour here, though, is the one from possibly the most popular fruit in the world. Sanskrit, yes, that language again, had the word “narangas”, which probably originated in a Dravidian language such as Tamil. It travelled west through Persian as “narang" into Arabic as “naranj”. It then entered Spanish as “naranja” and Portuguese as “laranja”. In French, it lost the initial “n” (alongside the change of the "a" to "o"), probably as a result of assimilating the “n” with the indefinite article “une”, so that “une norange” became “une orange”. Then English got it, firstly the fruit and later the colour “orange”. Funnily enough, the word wasn’t initially taken up by German speakers, who called the fruit “Apfelsine”, literally “Chinese apple”, though they caught up eventually.

The last item here is probably my favourite, not in terms of the food, though I’ll happily eat it, but in terms of the massive variations to its name. It originated in Asia, or possibly Africa, and spread out to be cultivated around the Mediterranean, especially by the Arabs. Again, the name originated in a Dravidian language and is evident in the Tamil word “varutunai”. It became “vatingana” in Sanskrit, producing the Hindi word “baingan”. It travelled into Persian as “badingan” and into Arabic as “badinjan”, or “al-badinjan”, with the definite article attached. Now the fun starts.

It arrived in Turkish as “patlican”, moving on into Bulgarian as “patladzhan” and Russian as “baklazhan”. It was adapted into Greek as “melitzana”, and then into Italian as “melanzana”, where it was altered under the influence of the Italian phrase, “mela insana”, “mad apple”. Greek also passed it on to Sicilian, Medieval Latin and French, where it ended up as “melanjan”. A fascinating upshot of this is that, in Trinidad and Tobago they use the word “melongene”, which came from French speakers when they controlled Trinidad, but later the indentured workers from India following slavery brought “baingan“ with them.

Don’t go away – we’re not finished yet. From Arabic, it arrived in Spain as both “berenjena” and “alberenjena”, and in Portugal as “beringela”, and also “bringella”. Those great seafarers, the Portuguese, then took it out and about, back to India as “brinjal”, into Malaya as “berinjala” and over to the Caribbean as “brinjalle”, leading to the folk etymology “brown-jolly”. So, what of English? Well, as usual, we get our new words largely via French. French took the Spanish “alberengena” and turned it into “aubergine”, which looked rather like “auberge”, the French for inn. We finally got it in Britain in the 17th C. However, in America and Australia they decided to use “eggplant”, based on a white version of the aubergine which, well, looked like an egg, taking us back to the first method.

The original word for “aubergine” is probably the mostly widely shared and modified term in history, and its story nicely illustrates how words change in pronunciation as they pass orally from one language to another, and the new speakers try to assimilate them into their speech system as well as they can. So, there we have it. Words can come from anywhere, and can travel anywhere, but that’s the fascination. We sometimes create new terms, adapt known terms or simply take on the term that comes with the novelty. You can always go out and find some more in English. They’re everywhere.

Friday 24 January 2020


I was going through some of my old writing and I came across this poem which I wrote back in 1987. I'm not really a poet, but I had seen a film called Koyaanisqatsi, which was made in 1982, showing how humans are gradually changing the world in ways that we can't control, and I felt the need to put pen to paper.. The title itself is a word from the native American language, Hopi, and means "a life out of balance".  Given what's happening to the world today, I think it has a certain relevance. Try to see the film if you can, and remember that we've come almost forty years since it was made - and how accurate it was!

The poem is reproduced with some small changes from the original. Feel free to disseminate, but please acknowledge.


A land so parched, so drenched in sun,

Fashioned by rivers where no rivers run,

Clouds roll and boil, blue foaming white,

Red screams the sky at the onset of night.

Hostile to humans, yet this is our home,

Living as always with death on the roam,

Countless years back, unknown years more,

Immutable, changing, the earth at our core.

Civilised, pure, destructive and wild,

Gutting earth’s past to better our child,

Scouring deep down, rising up high,

Giving our reasons without knowing why.

Koyaanisqatsi, a life out of tune,

A past slowly dying, a future too soon, 

A life full of reasons, where reason is lost,

The drive to accomplish, whatever the cost.

Thus do we live, and must surely die,

Heedless of Demeter’s desperate cry,

Destroying not only the fruits of our pains,

The very same fruits will destroy all our gains.

Marc Loewenthal, Mykonos, Greece, 9 July 1987

Saturday 1 June 2019

From Tolkien to Zuckerberg – Beware what you wishes for, my Precioussss!

It can safely be said that things haven’t been going exactly swimmingly for Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, given the continual scandals and revelations about the way that the organisation uses its subscribers’ data and treats them as amorphous, anonymous cash cows, much as, in the eponymous film, the Matrix is shown as treating humans as sources of unlimited electrical power. How is it that, despite all Zuckerberg’s fine words about connecting people and bringing the world together, his organisation is perceived as ruthlessly and relentlessly exploiting its clientele? It seems that he is incapable of turning this perception round, no matter how hard he tries, and many think that he doesn’t really want to turn the situation round in reality. It may well be that he is impervious to the realisation of what Facebook is doing and is therefore incapable of changing. And that may well be the reason. It struck me, as an inveterate addict of all things Middle Earth, that JRR Tolkien may well have foreseen just this in one of the key aspects of the Lord of the Rings universe: it all depends on how you start out. For this, we need to examine this central theme (plot spoilers from Tolkien’s books follow).

At the centre of all things in the world of Lord of the Rings is Sauron’s ring of power. We can pick up the story in Middle Earth in the the Second Age with Celebrimbor, the most skilful surviving elf. He forged the three elven rings, later given to Galadriel, Gandalf and Cirdan. Sauron, who could still appear in human form, learnt his ring-making skills from Celebrimbor, but when the Elven ring-maker perceived the dark lord’s evil intent, he hid the rings from Sauron, who then went to Mount Doom and forged the One Ring to Rule Them All, passing much of his evil power into his supreme creation. At the Last Battle of the Second Age, Isildur cut the ring from Sauron’s hand and claimed it for his own, refusing to cast it into the fire and destroy it, as Elrond had urged him to do. He decided to keep it for himself, but on the way back to his fortress, he was ambushed by orcs and tried to escape by swimming across a river, rendered invisible by the ring on his finger. The ring slipped off, and he was revealed to the pursuing orcs and shot. Tolkien makes it clear that he was lucky to die early in his possession of the ring, because the ring had a mind of its own and corrupted its possessor in its attempts to find its way back to its master.

Hundreds of years later, two simple hobbit-like people, Smeagol and Deagol, are fishing on the river over the place where the ring lies. Deagol is dragged into the water by a big fish and pulled to the bottom, where he finds the ring in the mud. As he gets back into the boat, Smeagol asks him what he’s got, but Deagol won’t let him see or touch it, so they fight and Smeagol kills Deagol, stealing the ring and justifying it by the fact that it’s his birthday and the ring is his present. Of course, we know what happens to Smeagol – he becomes Gollum, living for 500 years, his life stretched out in misery by his possession of the Precious, hating and loving it at the same time. The point Tolkien makes here is that he starts his ownership of the ring with murder – a heinous act ensuring that he will never be able to shake free of the ring’s evil influence.

Contrast this with the way Bilbo Baggins begins his possession of the ring. He finds it by chance in the caves where Gollum hides, and manages to stay invisible while Gollum is looking for him and cursing him as a thief. At one point, Bilbo stands right by Gollum, invisible to him and holding a sword, ready to strike Gollum dead and escape, but he doesn’t, because pity stays his hand, even though Gollum surely deserves death. For this reason, for starting his ownership of the ring with an act of pity, Bilbo is spared its evil influence. Although he is affected by it to a certain extent, especially through his extended lifespan, he remains essentially good, as does Frodo when he takes charge of the ring. One other key episode is when Sam thinks Frodo has been killed by the giant spider, Shelob, and takes the ring from him to continue the quest. As he is about to cross into Mordor, the ring tempts him, presenting visions of him becoming a great gardener, planting trees and flowers everywhere in Middle Earth and being celebrated by all the inhabitants of all lands as the greatest gardener ever. All he has to do is slip on the ring - but Sam resists; he’s just a simple, down-to-earth hobbit, not cut out for all this greatness. His own common sense saves him from these delusions of grandeur and inevitable betrayal to the Dark Lord.

In this way, we can clearly see the message that Tolkien is trying to give – the way that you start your seemingly great project, in this case the possession and custodianship of the great ring of power, determines how you will continue. The intentions, desires, attitudes and mindset that you start out with will set in stone the future development of the project. If you have good intentions from the start, you will ultimately accomplish good, but if you start with bad intentions, it’s all downhill from there and there’s virtually no chance of redemption.

All this now brings us to Facebook. First, let me make it abundantly clear that I don’t regard Mark Zuckerberg as a servant of Sauron, or even Sauron himself in disguise, let alone Gollum. I don’t believe he has a ring of power hidden away anywhere, or that he has an army of orcs ready to destroy humanity. However, I do think, with regard to initial intentions, we can validly contrast him with another famous citizen of the wired world, Tim Berners-Lee. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN, the physics research installation and particle accelerator, which straddles the border of Switzerland and France. CERN was generating huge amounts of data and wanted to share the data with other researchers, but in the time before the world wide web, this wasn’t a straightforward process. Berners-Lee took an existing computer language, Standard General Mark-up Language (SGML) and repurposed it into Hypertext Mark-up Language (HTML) so that information could be transmitted quickly and easily by clicking on links to pages written in the language. This was effectively the start of the web in 1991. CERN initially wanted to license the technology for others to pay to use, but Berners-Lee insisted that the technology should be made freely available, thereby ensuring that the web could develop without any encumbrance into the ubiquitous network that we use today. Berners-Lee had good intentions for his technology from the start, to ensure that it would be freely available for anyone who wanted to use it and for the benefit of everyone, a principle that he has been committed to ever since. He was never seduced by the temptation, emanating from the dark side, to possess his creation.

Let’s now turn to Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. Over two billion people are said to be active users of Facebook today. The company has grown to be a massive devourer of data, harvesting it and using it in ever greater proportions and methods in its incessant search for profit. Of course, this has brought onto it immense opprobrium and constant criticism, as well as the unwelcome attentions of national governments and international organisations. On the face of it, Facebook purports to be bringing the world together and promoting communication and connections between people around the globe, but many people feel that this conceals a darker and more sinister intention at its heart. And this is what beings us back to Tolkien – the intent at the initial stages of ownership; the purpose at inception, which determines the future growth and development of the project.

At Harvard, Zuckerberg started a project called Facemash, which aimed to compare the university’s female students on screen and invite users to decide which was hotter. The Harvard authorities shut down the site as Zuckerberg had not obtained permission to use the data and the university’s systems for his project; not only that, but he had also promised fellow students, the Winklevoss brothers, that he would develop a project for them called Harvard Connection. While constantly excusing his lack of progress on their project, he instead developed the prototype for the current Facebook, launching it while effectively abandoning the brothers’ project. Later, they sued him for stealing their ideas and code, and using them to create Facebook.

Clearly, Facebook has been embroiled in controversy from its beginnings. Court cases have come and gone, followed by controversy and criticism lasting up to the present, but still we are mesmerised by its glittering, glinting sheen and seized and held by its magnetic embrace. It has become Zuckerberg’s Precious, and also our precious. We loves it and we hates it, don’t we, Preciousssss, but it hurts, it hurts and we can’t break free. Conceived and created in obscurity, deception and controversy, its true intent of world domination concealed from the start; it twists everything. But now revealed in its naked hunger and obsession, and its blindness and wilful denial of its true nature, it will ruin us if we don’t tame it. However, it may be too late for that. If Tolkien were still alive, I feel he would have said, “I warned you, but you didn’t listen!” And now, Facebook is rising and taking over the world, with the Precious at its heart, bending all else to its will – one site to rule them all, one site to find them, one site to bring them into the data mine and bind them, in the land of Facebook, where the shadows lie…

Sunday 8 April 2018

-less is often more

I was on a bus a short while ago. A couple of kids behind me were playing an old word game: Have you ever been ____-less (supply a word in the space)? Have you ever been hairless? Have you ever been shirtless? And so on, to much giggling and a total absence of any answers. It took me back to my childhood, the days long before youngsters had their heads buried in electronic devices, to when I made up silly games with my siblings to pass the time on journeys long and short, till we got fed up with the game, stared out of the window for a while, and then started another one. But enough of pointless nostalgia.

As a teacher of English, I often find myself musing on some of the vagaries of our language, asking myself unusual questions which often lead off into quixotic pursuits in the strange and arcane regions of English grammar. I fell to thinking about the suffix -less, used to indicate the absence of a quality stated by a noun. Often, the negative suffix -less is paired with a positive suffix, either -y or -ful, or in some cases both (though there are also others, such as -ed). For example, something which is not useless can be said to be useful. Compare also thoughtless and thoughtful, hopeless and hopeful. Equally, something which is dustless is not dusty, guiltless – not guilty, luckless – not lucky, smokeless – not smoky. The meanings may not always be used in exactly opposite ways, but the point is that the opposites exist. Some words in -less even have the good fortune to have two opposites: cheerless cheerful/cheery; fruitless fruitful/fruity; tasteless tasteful/tasty.

So far, so normal. But then it occurred to me that there are some weird things that happen when you look closely at those -less words which don't have a ready-made opposite, or those words which do have a seemingly ready-made opposite which actually turns out not to be so. For instance, if you take the horn off a rhino, it will then be hornless. The question that is now manifesting itself in your head is whether a hornless rhino has ceased to be horny. Put it next to a rhino of the opposite sex and you'll soon find out. Similarly, can a baseless accusation be contrasted with a baseful, or indeed, basy accusation? Clearly, some -less words don't have a partner of the opposite persuasion, or, if they do, the partner is a rather strange one; the sort you'd soon suspect in the manner of “I Married a Monster From Outer Space”.

First of all, some, words like motionless, motiveless and nameless, don't have an opposite, most likely because the property in question is perceived to be present as a default position, and only noticeable in its absence. People and animals have a tendency to move a lot, so the state of being motionless arouses attention through its infrequency (apart, of course, from sleep). Crimes are generally assumed to have a motive, so a motiveless crime is significant simply because it is unusual. Similarly, someone or something that is nameless arouses our attention as we are so used to naming things, animals and people. When it comes to the absence of a person, we have words like motherless, childless and wifeless, which clearly indicate the absence of that particular person in someone's life. However, we would never think of people as being motherful, wifeful or childful if any of these relatives were present in their lives. I suppose that the same could be applied to godless, if that's an important concept for you.

When it comes to physical attributes, we have toothless, and its opposite, toothy, but not toothful. Manx cats are clearly tailless, though we would never think of tail-bearing cats as being taily, or even tailful. If you think about the absence of one's self, you could be conceived as being selfless, though that has a rather different meaning. However, if you're too full of yourself, you're termed as selfish, and not selfful – that could even be a new word, as could selfy; though, on second thoughts, maybe not. If you exist in an entirely non-corporeal form, you could be described as bodiless, as opposed to bodiful, though one thing I'd rather not contemplate in relation to the body is the idea of being bottomless (or indeed topless).

If we look at the absence of attire, we find the usual suspects such as bootless and shirtless, and even parts of attire, such as zipless. Clearly, if you wear boots, you aren't regarded as bootful, and with your shirt, you aren't shirtful, though if you're a punk rocker, you might be zipful. However, going down the other adjectival route doesn't get you very far in terms of the opposite meaning, as all you end up with is booty, shirty and zippy, who might have pretensions to being companions to a modern-day Snow-White.

Here are a few -less words which lack a good opposite; and they really got me thinking. If we aren't deathless, we must be deathful, so how come we don't die all the time? We now have driverless cars, but a car can't occupy the opposite state of being driverful, as there is no need to fill the car up with drivers. One will do, though you may have an unwanted one in the back seat. If you've been jobless, do you then become jobful, working 24 hours a day? You certainly don't want to be jobby (or even a jobbie). If your life is pointless, would becoming pointful turn you into a hedgehog? And what if you're feckless? Would you have any chance of becoming feckful, or even fecky, by getting more feck in your life?

I'll leave you with one final thought. We normally think of bees and wasps as having stings. However, there are certain species which don't have stings, and are hence stingless. What does that make a bee that never pays for its round in the pub? Stingy?

Thursday 15 June 2017

GH: a potted history.

My daughter studies at the University of Sussex in Brighton. For me, this entails periodic visits by car to ferry her back and forth to London, in particular when she has large quantities of personal effects to move. Every time I drive down the M23, which morphs into the A23 after Pease Pottage Services, a sign appears indicating the turning to Warninglid and Slaugham. Now, leaving aside deliberations on why a village in Sussex should carry a name which one would more likely expect to be seen on top of a container of hazardous material, I would like to focus on the other name, Slaugham.

Go on. Say it. exactly? Slawm? Sloggam? Slougeham? Well, like any internet user, when confronted with a conundrum which can only be solved by reference to a reliable(ish) source, I consulted Wikipedia, which duly informed me that the pronunciation was Slaffam. Entirely predictable in being entirely unpredictable. All over the country we have other gems: Slough, Brighton, Broughton, Middlesbrough, Edinburgh, Clougha Pike, Happisburgh (no - you'll never get it; just check Wikipedia) to name but a few, many indecipherable without local help.

Now, that got me thinking. How would anyone know how to pronounce the name of such a village if one had never heard it pronounced before? I had assumed Slawm, based on the name of the well-known writer of excellent short stories, W. Somerset Maugham. But no. It had to be Slaffam. Do we then recast the pronunciation of the writer's name as Maffam? Somerset Maffam? Doesn't quite ring true. All these ruminations focused my attention on the nature of -gh- itself. In short – why?

The answers are manifold. Here they are, as far as I know them.

Old English -h- was pronounced a bit like ch in German achtung, or Scottish loch and Auchtermuchtie. After the Norman conquest in 1066, the French-speaking scribes started rewriting these words with a -gh- to represent the pronunciation. As a result, we have: bight, bright, daughter, doughty, eight, fight, flight, fright, height, high, knight, light, might, naughty, neighbour, nigh, night, nought, ought, plight (troth), sight, slaughter, slight, slough, straight, taught, thigh, though, thought, through, tight, wright.

The same happened to these words, in which the -h- originally came from -g- or -k-: enough - OE genog; neigh – OE neygan; bough – OE bog; bought – OE bycgan/boht; dough – OE dag; drought – OE drugath; plough – OE plog; weight – OE wegan; wrought - OR werken

In all the above words, the -h- sound disappeared over time, though the -gh- remained as a reminder of the old pronunciation. However, there was a small group of words where the -h- perfectly naturally evolved into an -f- pronunciation, and so we have the following: draught/draft – OE dreaht, laugh – OE hlaehhan; cough – related to OE cohhettan; rough – OE ruh; tough – OE toh; clough – OE cloh; slough - OE/ME slouh; trough –OE trog,

As if that wasn't enough, over time the scribes started seeing things which weren't there. By the time of Chaucer, Middle English had adopted thousands of words of Latin and French origin, and before long -gh- started poking its nose in where it was never welcome: inveigh, originally invey; caught, from catch, ultimately from Latin captiare; delight, originally related to delectable; haughty, originally from French haut, "high"; plight (bad situation), originally related to plait, "folded"; sprightly, originally from sprite, itself from spirit.

Then on top of all that, the Dutch got in on the act. When William Caxton introduced printing into England in the 15th C, he employed Dutch printers. Now, as printers were paid by the letter, certain letters were sneaked into certain words to make them longer and thereby earn more money. Added to that, the Dutch printers started messing with words in English that resembled Dutch words. As a result, we have ghost, from Old English gast, but influenced by Dutch gheest. In turn, ghost forced an -h- into ghastly and aghast. Later, Dutch gurken had a spelling change with -h- added in the 1800s to form gherkin. Other Dutch interlopers include these: freight/fraught, from Middle Dutch vracht/vrecht, and sleigh, altered from Dutch slede.

This leaves us with a few outliers from other languages. Italian uses -gh- to keep a hard g pronunciation before e and i, so we get ghetto and spaghetti. Interestingly, we also get sorghum from Italian despite the following u. Arabic has a voiced uvular sound (way down in the throat) which is rendered -gh- in transliteration, as in Maghreb, and that also gives us ghoul, from ghul, "evil spirit". Finally, Hindi and Malay refuse to be left out, Hindi with dinghy, from dingi, in 1810, and Malay with gingham from ginggang, via Dutch in 1615.

Finally, we have a strange word meaning “boastful person” with an unknown pronunciation: bighead, possibly pronounced beeyad, or biff-ed, or maybe even beed. Unless, of course, it's just a combination of big and head, in which case it's pronounced just like that. At last – a true pronunciation of the spelling of -gh-. I know there had to be at least one!

Sunday 16 April 2017

Ode to London's Errant Apostrophes

Apostrophes of London! Cease your woes!
You come and go with highs and lows.
The Underground and street signs clash,
Resulting in an awful hash.

It seems Kings Cross and Regents Park
On roads and streets, I must remark.
I see Earls Court, as Barons do,
And no one Gardens quite like Kew.

Ravenscourt and Park as well,
While Seven Sisters cast their spell.
Snaresbrook no challenge and hold fast,
Cockfosters growth that's meant to last.

Those Theydon Bois and Shepherds Bush
Much as those Colliers Wood push.
Do Gunnersbury their hatchets deep,
While Kingsbury their queens and weep?

Pray, let the fair Queen spark and sway,
Just as her Knightsbridge night and day.
So London, sort your apostrophes.
And use St Paul's philosophies.

© Marc Loewenthal