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Zeitgeist: how words originate

Zeitgeist is a lovely word to get your teeth into, literally and figuratively. And both syllables require a firm grit.  Derived from the German language, the word is surrounded by controversy and misuse.

Rats in the language

 

Rats! If you’ve ever had the problem of rats in your home, you may identify with strongly negative feelings about the small annoying creatures.

Thanks to my compulsive TV watching habits, I learnt that the collective noun for rats is mischief – a mischief of rats.

Collective nouns for animals, such as a congress of baboons are very interesting and often surprising – too many to mention here.

Thinking back to last year when the rats came to eat the dog food that was carelessly left around the home, their trails of mischief were abundant. From the holes in the packaging of the sturdy dog food bags, to little poo droppings all over the place, it was plain to see we had a rat problem.

We could hear them running in the roof, and saw a couple run across the lounge floor, but at such a speed, we could not catch them. We would shriek,  “there goes a rat” but be frozen to inaction as the rat scuttled to safety under the cupboard. And who wants to touch a rat with bare hands and no trapping device? (not that I would use one of those).

It wasn’t long before the rats were breeding faster than rabbits. We had to call the exterminator to get rid of the multiple mischiefs.

Other meanings

Rats are associated with dirt, disease and disgust, so when you refer to someone as a rat, you imply that they are not trustworthy.

To rat on someone means to give the game away, in other words, to tell the boss that your colleague is not at work because he is applying for another job, and not at the doctor with a near fatal tumor.

Rats in the language give expression to displeasure or distaste but their close cousin the mouse, has a much friendlier reputation. They are considered cute and considerate – as quiet as a mouse – and many a character has been animated to be a larger than life rodent. Perhaps we have Mickey Mouse to thank for that.

Any famous rats of Walt Disney fame? None that I know of, but thousands upon thousands used in medical experiments for the health of human kind.

Feedback welcome.

How big is your appetite for words?

Five word pairs to increase your word power

A deadly blutterance: How words are formed

Fartlek, among the funniest words in the English language

Christian has a whiff up his nose
Have these men done their fartlek?

Yesterday as I was cursing the spinning instructor for insisting I use muscles I didn’t know I had to save energy, I thought she had lost the plot.

Saving energy seemed the most unlikely outcome for all the effort it took to apply these untrained muscles to a cycling routine. Raised heart rate and an opportunity to confront my fitness or lack thereof were much more on track.

Nonetheless, I was enjoying myself and got to thinking about all the other sweaty pursuits I had participated in with greater or lesser skill.

At school, I played, netball, squash and hockey – even made the athletics team at age 13; at varsity I ventured into badminton and once or twice allowed my roommate to drag me out of bed for a jog around the block.

Post university, I was keen to learn modern dancing, something I had yearned for from a very young age. I loved dancing, first modern, cotemporary and later Latin and Ballroom with a skill rating of average in all instances.

Mid-career I bought a fitness franchise to supplement my income. The franchise provided members with a running or walking programme tailored to fitness levels.

I had to learn how to instruct the programme and all the terminology that went along with it.

It was the first time I came across the word fartlek. It sounded like a way to release flatulence on a long run, and then blaming the person behind you. I laughed as I visualised thousands of runners in an athletics heat trying to surge ahead to escape the foul air.

But fartlek is a programme that includes interval training. Alpha dictionary describes it as an athletic training regime. Fartlek is also listed as one of the funniest words in the English language, ranking in the top 50.  https://www.alphadictionary.com/articles/100_funniest_words.html

I am always delighted to find new words and explore their meanings, but I must admit that an athletics training manual was the last place I expected to find a word to add to my vocabulary.

 

Somnolent: Word use and origin

How to deal with your Grammar Gremlins

Of acronyms and shortened words: abbreviations explained

This week a client asked me, “Is it okay to write CEO?”

I was a bit taken aback because CEO is one of those ‘words’ that is better known by its shortened version than its elongated other – Chief Executive Officer.

Copy required for newspapers must maximise efficiency as space is premium and no editor will accommodate three words, when three letters will serve the same purpose adequately.

Some organisations and concepts have preferred usage in their abbreviated form than their full name or title such as Opec or Unesco, LED, HTML and radar.

You know exactly what they mean and how they apply, right? So why worry yourself by delving into the long form.

What is interesting however is how abbreviations are classed.  There are two main types: initialisms and acronyms.

Acronyms are shortenings of phrases that use, usually the first letter of each of the words, to make up a new word.

Some examples:

  • NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation)
  • AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome)
    OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries)
  • ASAP (as soon as possible)
  • Radar (radio detecting and ranging)
    Scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus)

In many style guides, it is recommended to write these contractions in word style, meaning to start with a capital letter and use lower case characters for the remaining.  Others prefer to use all capital letters, while some have preferences on a case by case basis.

Initialisms are abbreviations that take the initials of the word and each letter is pronounced separately such as FBI, DVD, BTW, IBM.

If a word is used in its shortened form such as Dr, Mrs, Prof, Wifi, biopic and takes neither the characteristics of an acronym nor an initialism, it is simply an abbreviation.

BTW (By the way) not all grammar sites and dictionaries agree; this is my view.

And if you are not confused enough, there’s also a word form called a backronym. Another time perhaps?

Words and Phrases: Of Mondegreens and Mishearings

No damn synchronicity: Synonyms and antonyms

 

Somnolent: Word use and origin

Last night when I got home after a long day’s work I felt particularly somnolent. This was hardly surprising as  I woke up at 4.30am fought with myself to get back to sleep without success, and started work at 10am.

I then proceeded with nine hours of intensive sub-editing at what is arguable the world’s most condemned newspaper, and in South Africa particularly.

 

sleep time

During the inordinate nine hours, I attempted to distract myself with internet research and delved into the origins of somnolent, which means sleepy.

Dictionary.com cites its origins as the late 14th century from the Old French somnolence derived from the Latin somnolentia “sleepiness” from somnolentus, from somnus “sleep (from PIE root, swep  “to sleep”. A related word is somnolency.

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=somnolence

Yourdictionary.com gives us:

Adjective (comparative more somnolent, superlative most somnolent)

  1. Drowsy or sleepy.
  2. (dated) Causing literal or figurative sleepiness;soporific.

 

Soporific is also an interesting word which I discovered at university and it was apt to describe the nature of my tutorials on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/gawain/).  I could never understand why we were made to suffer this belaboured text as part of our first year English syllabus.

Yourdictionary.com dates the first usage of somnolent to 1615, but concurs with the other details that Dictionary.com provides for regional areas, confirming “swep” from Indo-Europe.

Read more at http://www.yourdictionary.com/somnolent#WzfHQqyI7L16MfaY.99

Somnolence is not state in which to conduct a day’s worth of subbing but  when the copy makes me yawn, due to its total lack of inspiration,   I really can’t blame myself.

Sucking the hind tit : related idioms

Who says there’s no food here?

Last Sunday, our six-year-old female Staffordshire Bull Terrier gave birth to six beautiful and healthy puppies. One was distinctly smaller than his four black brothers and sister and I feared he would be left to feed off the ‘hind tit’.

Among animals that birth multiple young in a litter such as dogs and pigs there is fierce competition for the milk and with puppies, bashing each other around with paws and heads is a common site around feeding time.

Words and Phrases: Of Mondegreens and Mishearings

Blame the mishearing, blame the accent, blame the frame of reference – these give rise to mondegreens.

“According to the word watcher William Safire of The New York Times, the term mondegreen dates from a 1954 magazine article by Sylvia Wright in which she said she had misheard the folk lyric ”and laid him on the green” as ”and Lady Mondegreen,” says http://www.nytimes.com/1998/04/09/technology/sweet-slips-of-the-ear-mondegreens.html

Grammar: Prevent or avoid

Beach time
sunlovers beware

Many practitioners of the English language struggle with word pairs that are seemingly interchangeable, and may just be so in some exceptional cases, but mostly there is a clear distinction between the correct use, and usage which will create grammatical turmoil.

English idioms: how they get distorted

The other day, a friend asked, “How do you spell towing the line as in the sense of complying? Is it toing or towing?

This is just one of many examples of how idioms become distorted over time.

Five word pairs to increase your word power

Today I’d like to share these word pairs that always confuse new writers. Not to sound arrogant there are plenty words in the English language that I need to check on for correct usage, despite considering myself an English language professional.

I have selected these five word pairs so that you can easily increase your word power.