Category Archives: Words and meanings

Viking Talk

The Vikings were an energetic and ruthless bunch of pagans, who travelled from Norway (Norge) in the late eighth to late eleventh centuries to raid the North of England, amongst other places, and indulge in a spot of rape and pillage, before sailing back home with their loot, or deciding to settle in the balmier English climate.

There have been attempts during the last few decades to portray the Vikings as misunderstood, peaceable, immigrants, who liked nothing better than sharing their art and poetry and settling down with a local girl. But in reality they had a well-deserved reputation for savagery, and were more than just the ‘long-haired tourists who occasionally roughed up the locals,’ as one academic described dismissively the arguments of the pro-peace lobby.

That said, transcriptions of Viking poetry show a complex array of stylistic conventions, and many words used regularly these days are Viking (Norse) in origin. That includes the word viking – Norse for pirate / sea traveller; and the name of the settlement that became their main town – York, which the Vikings originally called Jorvik (pronounced Your-Vick). Other places whose names end in –thorpe (e.g. Mapplethorpe), or –by (Derby), were originally Viking settlements, and at least two days of the week are named after Norse gods (Thor’s day and Tiw’s day). We talk about Yule-tide as synonymous with Christmas, but it is a Norse word, referring to a pagan feast, Jol, celebrated around the winter solstice.

Given their savage reputation, it is not surprising that some of the words that have endured have a rough or violent meaning: slaughter, from slatra – butchery; and ransack – to search a house, none too gently.

Other words are of a more domestic nature, such as husband (hus (house) and bandi (occupier), and wife (vif – veiled one. This suggests the wife was very much the second citizen, though in fact the Viking wife had more independence than most of her European counterparts, including equal rights to divorce and a favourable financial settlement.)

Window comes from vindauga (wind-eye), loft / aloft from lopt (sky), and happy from happ (good fortune). And weighing scales come from skal, drinking bowl, also a drinking toast.

So the Vikings, whilst being a pretty destructive bunch, were not all bad? I’ll drink to that. Skal!

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What’s your reading age?

Recent research by Renaissance UK into the length of sentences and words in books intended for children and young people has come up with some surprising results. The research is intended to guide teachers when deciding what books their students should read.

One result that has raised eyebrows is that the Mr Men books by Roger Hargreaves which are intended for the youngest pupils and pre-schoolers is rated as harder than some of the Roald Dahl books, and almost as hard as John Steinbeck.

Some passages in, for instance, Mr Greedy are indeed quite complex: Over on the other side of the table stood the source of that delicious spell, A huge enormous gigantic colossal plate, and on the plate huge enormous gigantic colossal sausages the size of pillows, and huge enormous gigantic potatoes the size of beach balls, and huge enormous gigantic colossal peas the size of cabbages.

Yes, plenty of long words and sentences. However, as some people have pointed out, books by authors like Roald Dahl might be linguistically simpler, but the stories themselves are more complex and often morally ambivalent, so more challenging for the reader, and therefore more suitable for an older child.

Each Mr Men book, on the other hand, follows a simple structure, has a simple resolution and a happy ending, and so is more suitable for a young child. What they might also have said is that the Mr Men books are intended to be read aloud, so we’re really talking about young listeners rather than young readers. Parents and teachers can have fun reading a paragraph like the one above, building up the picture and the excitement with the repetition of the lists of words. They are books intended for an almost theatrical performance by the adult, rather than for a child to read quietly in a corner. And very good for this purpose they are too. But an older child, once able to read independently, is going to want a bit more of a story line and plotting, even if that means shorter words and sentences initially.

Which leaves me wondering, is this sort of research, done by computers scanning word and sentence length, actually any help to teachers? Or wouldn’t actually reading the books for themselves give them a better idea of what is suitable for the ages and abilities of the children in their class? (Which is probably what they do anyway).

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Names – again!

I’m still reading What the Dickens! – the collection of words and sayings and where they come from I mentioned in my last blog. Here is a bit about the names of some items of clothing or footwear we take for granted.

The cardigan is seen by others countries as a quintessentially British garment – warm, serviceable, and towards the frumpy end of fashion. It was indeed an English invention, but its origins are quite heroic. The seventh Earl of Cardigan (the one who lead the infamous charge of the light brigade in the Crimean War), was in fact a more benevolent leader than history generally records. He was concerned about the suffering of the soldiers in the extreme cold of a Russian winter and commissioned these knitted garments for them to wear under their uniforms.

The Mackintosh – another unglamorous but essential garment in Britain – is now the term for any coat that keeps out the rain. But the original mackintosh, or mac, was made from a specific material (two layers of cloth bound by India rubber) invented by a chemist, Charles Mackintosh.

Wellingtons are boots named after the first Duke of Wellington, the famous general from the Napoleonic wars, and polititian. Originally the boots were made of leather for military use, but subsequently were made of rubber (or even, these days, plastic). There is no evidence that the duke actually invented this form of boot, but he was such a national hero that many items of clothing were named after him including a hat, a coat, and trousers. It is the boot however that is most universally associated with him.

Before trainers became ubiquitous, people took to the running track or the gym in plimsolls. Not many people know that these are named after a Victorian politician, Samuel Plimsoll, who campaigned for greater safety on cargo ships. Following the passing of the Merchant Shipping Act in 1876, the Plimsoll line was drawn on the side of ships and had to be seen above the waterline to demonstrate that the ship was not overloaded. Later, when a rubber soled shoe was designed to improve safety on wet decks, it was named in honour of him. Subsequently the shoe proved a hit with sportsmen and women.

It is interesting to speculate on the names of these items and how, if these men had switched jobs, we could have been buttoning ourselves into a plimsoll to protect us from the cold, and running round the park in a pair of cardigans.

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Do the Brits swear better than the Yanks?

Josh Clancy is a journalist for the Sunday Times who has been living in America for over two years. He’s learnt a lot about America since he’s been there, as you would expect. What he didn’t expect was to develop an appreciation for the eccentricities and vividness of English as used by the Brits.

He maintains that we swear better (perhaps because we are almost permanently irritated by people and events?) Not necessarily full on rude, but words like sod, cow, tosser, git, gormless to express disdain for someone. To a Brit these all have their subtle differences, sometimes relating to the gender or age of the person referred to. We also use a range of adjectives like naff, twee and bollocks for things and opinions we don’t think much of. (Again, these are not full on swear words – though bollocks is quite naughty, even for a Brit).

We have plenty of phrases to describe when things go wrong: lost the plot, car crash, shambles, omnishambles, up the Khyber, up a creek without a paddle.

For a reserved (not to say repressed) race, we have a surprising number of ways to convey a rich emotional palette: From gobsmacked to chuffed to gutted. From over the moon to sick as a parrot.

Put a few Brits in a room talking about football, or the current political situation, and you would soon find that this is only a very small sample of the range and versatility of their use of English.

So, is it true that American English is a bit lacking in this respect? Or has Josh just not lived long enough in the country to pick up the lingo? Discuss.

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Remembering Kim Bok-Don

Last Sunday I hosted Paige Etheridge on my blog. Paige has recently written an historical novel about the pan pan girls in Japan. Pan pan was a new word / phrase to me. It is a derogatory term for a prostitute and refers to the Japanese women who provided sexual services for the occupying forces (mostly American GIs) after the Second World War. Although despised by polite Japanese society, the pan pan were in fact encouraged by the Japanese Government, with the intention of protecting their upper and middle class women from the attentions of the foreign soldiers.

The pan pan, as Paige’s novel recounts, were seen as the shameful ones, not the system that used them. By contrast the ‘comfort women’ cannot be dismissed so lightly, as there are no outside forces, or female moral turpitude, to blame. The comfort women were girls and young women who were brought into Japan during the war from Korea, which was then a Japanese colony. None knew what was in store for them when they arrived in the country; most thought they were going to work in textile factories. In fact they were taken to comfort stations where they were forced into non- consensual sex with 15 Japanese soldiers a day (and 50 on a Saturday and Sunday). That’s 175 rapes a week. Many of the women, on returning to Korea, were too ashamed to tell their families what had happened; and too traumatised to be able to marry and have families of their own.

The Japanese Government spent years trying to deny the existence of the comfort stations, or would suggest that the women had chosen to live in them of their own free will. During the 1990s however, many of the comfort women found the courage to speak out. One such was Kim Bok-Don, who was taken to Japan as a sixteen year old and did not return to Korea for 8 years. She described it for what it was – sexual slavery. She was still campaigning when she died, aged 92, in January. “What we want,” she said in 2016, “is a sincere apology and legal reparations from Japan that would help restore our honour.”

She never married, and left her money, and any posthumous reparations, to a fund for women who suffered sexual violence during the war. Apparently her last word was a swear word expressing her anger for what had been done to her. It wasn’t included in her obituary, otherwise it might have been another new word to add to my lexicon.

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Cutting the Waffle.

I am a bit preoccupied at the moment. Beta readers have returned the first draft of my latest work with a pile of mostly helpful suggestions and corrections, which I am working through. One reader intimated, very tactfully, that I might have used some phrases rather too often, and hammered home certain points with more repetition than was strictly necessary.

A less considerate critic would have bluntly told me to cut the waffle.  Re-reading the work after a three month gap I can see exactly what he means, and my word count is going down by several hundred each session.

First drafts of potential master-pieces are not the only haunts for the verbose. Some judges have said they are tired (note, not ‘sick and tired’ – why three words when one is sufficient?) of overly wordy addresses. In December, Lady Justice Rafferty called for the end of archaic phrases such as ‘with the greatest respect’ when the speaker means no such thing. She also dislikes the repetition of ‘my learned judge’ in outline arguments.

“Speaking for myself,” she said recently, “life will still hold meaning if I am [simply] referred to as the judge. Similarly, the author’s respect for the judge’s efforts doesn’t need to be repeated 15 times [especially] when it becomes ‘the greatest respect.’”

She took issues with report writers who use the passive too much – it is thought / it is suggested / it is arguable. Written grounds of appeal had become, she said, “rambling, waffling, and warbling.”

I am approaching my redraft with my beta reader’s gentle nudging, and the judge’s more robust castigations ringing in my ears.

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Characters and colour.

Early one morning my husband and I were chatting in bed over a cup of tea (it’s the sort of activity we get up to now we’ve been married nearly 40 years).

‘Have you ever considered,’ I said, ‘that colours are always used negatively in relation to a character’s character in books? Can you think of any that are used positively?’

Then, because he wasn’t really awake and not yet ready to engage his brain, I proceeded to list some.

Blue – low mood, crude.

Yellow – cowardly, sickly

Red – anger, embarrassment.

White – fear

Black – mood, temper.

Green – envy (though I suppose having green fingers is more a plus than a negative).

Brown – study, dull.

He interrupted then, maybe just to shut me up, to offer gold (good as gold) and silver (silver fox) as positive uses of colour, but I countered that these were metals not colours. He disagreed, and decided it was time to get up, even though his tea was only half drunk.

That was over a week ago. I still haven’t thought of a positive use apart from pink – yes you can be pink with embarrassment etc. But, unlike with red, it is probably a good thing to be ‘in the pink.’

Any suggestions? Please leave a reply.

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