Irish in English

18 03 2012

You don’t need to spend a lot of time thinking about language to realise that it is an enormous tapestry of history, a testament to the interlocking biographies of peoples, events and lands. To think of “purism” in the same sentence as “language” is nothing short of absurd.

Given the intertwining of English and Irish pathways over the centuries, it’s hardly a surprise that language carries the evidence.

St Patrick’s Day is a very good time to reflect on the contribution of Irish to English.  Doing precisely this is Emma Taylor in her latest article 18 Everyday English Words That Come from Irish:  which is made available here with permission. Please read it and enjoy.

Thank you Emma.

Mid-word complications: O(s,b)ama and hur(t,d)le

12 05 2011

We’ve all seen in recent weeks how similarity between words can lead to mix-ups. Just think of the Osama/Obama mishaps reported in the press.

In this case, there are several factors that increase the likelihood of mishap: phonologically, the initial “O”; the single consonant distinction (/b/+/s/); the similarity in syllabic structure, with the emphasis each time on the medial of three syllables); and of course, the semantic relationship: we associate the two men for very obvious reasons, and lexically,  it’s highly likely that the two words appear together or near each other  in millions of utterances over the last several years.

English is replete with all kinds of coupling similarities, as well as the metalanguage to describe them. For example, homophones (eg  bear/bare), or words that sound but do not mean similarly; homographs  (eg bear (the animal)/ bear (the verb, to put up with), or words that are written and sounded the same way but have different meanings. There are lots more in this category of lexical trivial pursuit,  like oronyms (I scream/ice cream), that are homophonic in the sense that they sound the same, but carry different meanings and spellings, and just to confuse things, they often have little respect for word boundaries. Comedians make a lot of professional use of oronyms, and who knows, maybe privately too.

In this context, I want to mention a couple of words that recently came to my attention. They are hurtle and hurdle.  The former means to rush or move rapidly ahead; the latter, to leap over an obstacle or barrier of some sort, physical or metaphorical. Both are verbs and have only one differentiating consonant  (the medial /t/, /d/).  In fact, in some American English dialects, they are identical in sound.  And just think for a moment – spoken in confluence, in Australian English, it might actually be the semantics drawn from context, rather than the sound, that cue the listener to meaning.

Yet despite their overt overlap, their word histories are quite distinct. By this I mean that they each arrived at the 21st century via distinct trajectories, a phenomenon that inexplicably quite fascinates me.

Hurtle is Germanic in origin, derived from both hurt and hurl, and semantically related to a forcible collision or projection; while hurdle, also Germanic, but derived as a diminutive from hyrd  (door), has to do with encountering a barrier – originally, a frame of intertwined twigs (you can just see it, can’t you?). It wasn’t until the 19th century that the sense of a physical barrier as used in a race came into English, and yet another century before the figurative use developed.

So really, if the Osama/Obama link may give rise to endless conspiracy theories, the hurtle/hurdle similarity might be comfortably put down to historical accident.


3 03 2011

We’re getting used to –stans. Since the collapse of the Soviet, Communist world over 20 years ago,  what once were parts of a large Russian-controlled empire fractured into a collection of, well,   –stans. Like  Kazakhstan,   Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan,  Turkmenistan,  Uzbekistan. The suffix –stan, from Persian, means “place of”. Hence within Iraq we have Kurdistan – place of Kurds.

The proliferation of –stans (remember, we already had Pakistan and Afganistan) inevitably led to word play. There was Londonistan (2006) , a book by Melanie Phillips, UK journalist, concerned about the spread of Islam into the West. And there was Absurdistan (2006), which according to Wikipedia, is a term sometimes used to satirically describe a country in which absurdity is the norm, especially in its public authorities and government. In linguistics, this is sometimes called a placeholder name, functioning rather like a pronoun in that it stands in place of a noun. In this case it stands for mostly former Soviet bloc nations which in the opinion of the user of the term, have descended into a state of the absurd.

So it was not a huge leap, to read in the review by Barry Oakley in The Australian Literary Review of Feb 2011, of a recent book by Jane Miller, Crazy Age: Thoughts on Being Old (Virago), a review entitled “On the Road to Senilistan”. Following the trend in portable  -stans (see above), Senilistan has to denote a place of old people. The medical dictionary (www. tells us what we already know: Senile: 1. Pertaining to old age. 2. Pertaining to the physical decline associated with old age. 3. Pertaining to the mental decline once  associated with old age….etc etc, all of it depressing.

It derives from Latin senilis, meaning old age, old men, grey hair. Most likely it early on functioned as a euphemism or polite form for “old” (think our “senior citizens”). The meaning “weak or infirm from age” didn’t start to appear until the mid 19th century. And as is the way with euphemisms, sooner or later (usually sooner), the stigma associated with the original word (in this case, being old) starts to infect the new word, and it beging to accrue the earlier  stigmatized associations (senility). According to Barry Oakley, the reviewer,

“Old age is a kind of temporal Albania. Once leaving the civilised 60s, one enters a region where infrastructure starts to break down. A hip or a knee goes, but one shuffles on until, if you’re lucky, the far border is reached. If the 70s are Third World, the 80s are Senilistan: a falling-apart land, unpredictable and chaotic”(see

Clearly the term Senilistan is wryly comic way of laughing at the inevitable (no, not if you join your local Acquarobics)  process of decline, demise, deterioration and any other dismal “d” word you care to think of. Oakley’s review is a very good read, and Jane Miller’s book promises to be a good one too, but where they may come or go, the term Senilistan – certainly in a quickly ageing global population – is likely to be a keeper.


16 08 2010

Anoint – I like this word. Not sure why. It arrived in my inbox as a consequence of my being a subscriber of Visual Thesaurus. The accompanying little blurb reminded me that the “oint” in the second syllable is related to “ointment”; and that they’re both descendants of the Latin ungere, a transitive verb, meaning to oil or lubricate; to anoint; and (interestingly) to flatter.

I now remember that I was once very familiar with anoint as part of the Brown & Levinson theory of Politeness (Cambridge University Press, 1987). Showering positive attentions on another is a feature of positive politeness (eg I just l-o-v-e your roses/chocolate cake/ hair do…). In moderation, this works a treat in avoiding abrasive social relations (think of that lubricant), but done in excess (think of the connection to “flatter”), and you can end up in hot water. The expression a fly in the ointment also comes to mind here.

Thinking laterally, I’m aware of the connections with that most onomatopeic adjective unctuous which means oily or greasy. Unctuous can suggest, when used of a person, “excessively smooth, suave or smug” . To that dictionary definition, I might add the word “smarmythat likewise has a hint of an oily unpleasantness. It’s a lovely word for a not-very-lovely quality.


9 07 2010

Have you ever looked at a word, an English word, one with which you are familiar, one that’s long been a part of your vocabulary, and for the first time, you’ve thought – what a funny looking word! ?

This happens to me quite often, and when it does, I’m sent off compulsively to my dictionaries. The urge is to get a handle on the word and how it became an English word.

The latest example is tarpaulin.

Now, you have to admit this is a funny-looking word. Isn’t it? Try to “estrange” it by imagining this is the first time you’ve seen or heard it. It’s definitely curious, if not downright odd.

This is what I discovered:

The word entered English at the start of the 17th century, and early on had as one of its meaning, a sailor because of the tarpaulin-like clothing they wore. This makes sense when you think about sailors, water and protective clothing.

The “tar-“ comes from the fact that the material, originally some kind of canvas, was rendered waterproof through the addition of tar (or paint or wax).

The “-paul-“ comes from an Old English word “pall”,  meaning  a covering. It entered English some time before 900 AD, derived from the Latin pallium, meaning a cloak or covering,  and was extensively used in ecclesiastical settings – note our still-current “pall-bearer”.

The “-ing” at the end seems to suggest that the term entered English as a verb or gerund – “tar- paul- ing”.  For example: Come on, get ready, the roof is leaky, we have to go tarpauling.

Certainly by the start of the 20th century, the “ing” had reduced, both phonologically and in writing, to “in”, at least in American English. Once you reduce the final syllable in this way, the stress lands on the medial syllable, rendering the pronunciation something like  – tar-PAUL-en

So there you have it. It doesn’t seem so odd any more.