Linguistics & Etymology

Fascinating Fundamentals

As I was writing on my 1939 story, I stumbled across a never-before-heard word that fit perfectly for the life-force of a young man who's being kept cooped up. 

Birr. 

According to Dictionary.com, birr comes from the Old English byre meaning a strong wind, a cognate with the Icelandic byrr meaning favorable wind.

As a noun birr means

  1. force; energy; vigor
  2. emphasis in statement, speech, etc
  3. a whirring sound
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Language Difference in the U.S. and the U.K.

When I lived in Scotland for a couple of years, it took a bit of time to catch onto some of the words they used in place of a U.S. word.  

For example:

Instead of calling my knitted long-sleeved pullover a sweater, in Scotland, they called it a jumper

That long green and prolific vegetable, we call a zucchini? In Scotland, they call it a courgette! Zucchini is an Italian word and courgette is French. And the Scottish and French do have long-term connections. But here in the Midwest, settled by Native Americans then French fur traders then Germans, Scandinavians, and Scots .... where did that Italian connection come from? I haven't the foggiest.

The word that really tripped me up was pants! Yes, the two-legged article of clothing that we wear on the bottom half of our bodies. In the U.K., pants are underpants. I remember a young girl, I think she was 5- or 6-years-old, and very strong-minded too, who had a a fun pair of pants and I complemented her on them and she was soooo exasperated with me. "These are NOT pants. These are trousers. Pants are what you wear under your trousers. Get it right." 

The English language is such an interesting language, not least because of the differences between the U.K. and the U.S. use of words. It is fun, albeit sometimes embarrassing, to learn those differences.

Fascinating Fundamentals

I probably would not have picked up this book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper,  on my own but it was recommended on a blog I follow by literary agent, Janet Reid.

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There are fascinating tidbits in this book for the word lover. For example, the author bemoans and befriends the addition of the word irregardless to the dictionary.

She also writes a bit about grammar. 

Do not end a sentence with a preposition

This is a rule I certainly remember being taught in grade school. Why this rule?  

Before we get into the why of this rule, some background:

First, the author reminds us that until the mid-fifteenth century, Latin and French were the languages of official documents.

Second, Latin and French had been around a long time and had grammatical standards in place. English, as a written language, was unruly. Grammar standards were needed for use in court and legal documents.

 How in the world are Latin and French related to English grammar rules? Read on ~ 

English grammar is not Latin grammar. English has a grammatical structure similar to other Germanic languages, and Latin has a grammatical structure similar to other Italic languages. Blending grammatical systems from two languages on different branches of the Indo-European language tree is a bit like mixing orange juice and milk: you can do it, but it’s going to be nasty.
— Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries

That unexpected hit of humor that peeped out there? The author has bits of those moments sprinkled throughout her book.  And I appreciate the behind-the-scenes peek at the working life of a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster. 

If you wish to learn more about the English language, this is your book! Check it out.   

 

Fascinating Fundamentals

Dictionaries

As a word nerd, I love dictionaries. One of the very best gifts I received from my dad was a set of two dictionaries. They came to me well-used and I used them well.

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Words for the New Year

I wondered about two words--courage and courteous--that I think are important to this time in the life of our culture.

Were they related? Nope. But it seems like they should be, doesn't it? In an era of trolls and mean-spiritedness, it takes courage to be courteous.

 

Courage: quality of mind that enables one to encounter difficulties and danger with firmness or without fear

From the Old French, corage (Modern French courage), which means heart, innermost feelings.

From common Latin, coraticum (source of Italian coraggio, Spanish coraje), and classical Latin, cor, which means heart. 

 

Courteous: excellence of manners or social conduct, respectful or considerate act or expression, polite in behavior towards others. 

From the Old French, corteis (modern French courtois), which means having courtly bearer or manners.