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Feb 11

Consonant Clusters 30: wr- (Advanced)

The wr- cluster twists and writhes, its words wrap themselves tight, wringing the life out of the poor wretches who incur their wrath. Although the w of the cluster used to be pronounced, wr- has been pronounced /r/ for the best part of four hundred years. Even so, it has a clear and distinct identity with its phonosemantic meaning implying distortion or twisting. The sound...

Dec 3

Minced Oaths (Advanced)

Swearing is not big and it's not clever, so many languages have developed ways of mitigating offensive terminology. One way of softening profanity and avoiding offence is by use of the minced oath. This is not the rather desultory swearing of my friend Julian Hill, but rather using substitute terms for rude words so that exclamations are less crude, and guardians of public morals can sleep well at night without tearing their hair out or writing to the newspapers. When we look...

Sep 29

Pleonasm (Advanced)

Pleonasm from Greek πλεονασμός /plijəʊnazmos/, from πλέον meaning "more, too much" is the use of more words than necessary to define or express an idea. It is similar to the more widely known tautology, but although aspects of pleonasm and tautology do overlap, there are narrow differences between the two terms. Whereas a tautology describes a proposition whereby x = x, a pleonasm merely uses extra words than necessary to explain an idea. Hence, “it is eternal and it cannot...

Aug 24

American Indian Languages and English 1

American Indian languages were relatively late on the scene in terms of the development of English. Nevertheless, a number of words were borrowed from the diverse language groups that were spoken by the Native Americans subsequent to the arrival of European settlers in the New World. Some of these words were adopted as they described flora and fauna that was unfamiliar to the new colonists, such as pecan - Illinois pakani or Cree pakan "hard-shelled nut" and...

Jun 25

Gods and English Words: The Roman Gods 2 (Advanced)

A multitude of Roman Gods continue to live on in English in different guises, largely because the Romans seemingly had a god or a goddess for every conceivable occasion, and a disproportionate number of randy gods and goddesses who safeguarded and promoted fertility. English has rapaciously borrowed words from Latin and French that were derived from the names of these deities. Just getting through the day would...

May 24

Half a Loaf is Better Than None

Bread has had a critically important role in human history for at least 10,000 years. With the beginning of the Neolithic Age and the spread of agriculture, cereals were produced and bread was part of the staple menu. As yeast spores are everywhere, any dough made from grain that is left to rest will rise naturally to become leavened. Bread was massively important, allowing people to become farmers and to give up a life of foraging, hunting and gathering. Families could become bigger and...

May 4

Latin Roots 12: claudo, claudere, claudi, clausum - to close, confine, limit

Another fertile Latin root that has been heartily embraced by English is claudo "to close, confine". Claudo is thought to derive from the Proto-Indo-European root *klau- "hook, peg, nail". Hooks and pegs were used as bolts or bars for doors in primitive structures and so it is logical that many current Indo-European words for "key" derive from this ancient source. These include French clé and Italian chiave (from Latin clavis),...

Apr 7

Word Endings 1: -ash (Advanced)

Many English words are imitative of the sounds they describe and are thus onomatopoeic. This is true of a large group of English words ending in -ash, which mimic the sounds they describe and have similar meanings to each other. Words ending in -ash tend to denote forceful collision or its smashed-up after-effects. Hence, after a bash or a crash, what is left may be only a squashed or...

Mar 20

Gods and English Words: The Roman Gods 1 (Advanced)

Gods in the Roman pantheon have, like their Greek counterparts, left their mark on the English language. They pop up most obviously in the names of celestial bodies and in the calendar. Six of the planets - Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune - are Roman gods, as are two of the dwarf planets - Ceres and Pluto. In addition, Roman gods appear as the names of some of the months, with January, March and June, (and...

Feb 16

Latin Roots 11: capio, capere, cepi, captum - to take, capture, understand

The Latin roots discussed so far have had a massive influence on the English language and the root capio "to take, to capture" is no exception. English has been the recipient of so many words from this source, that it would be little exaggeration to say that capio has taken English captive, with a princely number of words from this root accepted into the language. Interestingly, capio goes back to...