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Journal of No. 118


May 21st, 2013

The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, by Henry Hitchings @ 04:10 pm


The Secret Life of Words is part history of the English language, part history of the English people (and Empire and post-Empire). Lots of interesting details about how the winds of fortune and history have affected our lexicon. Many times, it reads a bit too much as trivia... long lists of words that derive from one language or another, but sometimes those little bits of trivia are amusing or surprising.

I feel slightly idiotic, but I had no idea that honcho (as in head honcho) derives from Japanese. I guess I implicitly assumed (it's not like I ever thought about it before) it came from the same place we got rancho and poncho.

Here are some of the other tasty trivia nuggets I picked out:

Picnic was first used by the Earl of Chesterfield, the modish eighteenth-century politico and arbiter of public taste, whose letters were considered by Dr. Johnson to ‘teach the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master’.

The Swahili madigadi is a version of the English ‘mudguards’, and the same language takes the delightful word kiplefti, meaning ‘traffic island’, from the English ‘keep left’.

The nineteenth-century clergyman William Barnes preferred wheelsaddle to bicycle and folkwain to omnibus. By the same token forceps would be nipperlings, and pathology would be painlore. Some of his new words recalled the language of Old English poetry: he proposed glee-mote in place of concert, and the wonderful cellar-thane instead of butler.

In German folklore, cobalt’s reputation for enfeebling the miners who brought it up from the ground was linked to the presence in the mines of a malign spirit known as a Kobold. The association between digging underground and coming across wicked sprites was popular: the English nickel comes from Swedish, but can be traced back to the German Kupfernickel – the half of this word that the English preserves is another German term for a mischievous, mine-dwelling imp. [It had not occurred to us, dude, that kobolds are cobalt. Or that the 'Old Nick' that bedeviled copper mining is nickel. Who knew the periodic table was full of mischievous imps?]

'Of pseudo-Latin plurals one need not speak at length,’ he adds. ‘It is enough to remark that men have been heard to talk of “the throngs of omnibi that ply the London streets.”'
 
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Journal of No. 118