Asterisk.

The asterisk is the handy little star symbol* that we use to indicate that there is more information attached to something, to denote the existence of a footnote, to add emphasis to a word or point of notice, or to blank out letters in offensive words that we don’t want to type or write in full. 

The word asterisk means ‘little star’ and has been used as a noun since the late 14th century— well before the invention of the printing press— while the verb form “to asterisk something” was first recorded in 1733. 

Asterisk comes to use from Latin via Greek, but actually goes back to Proto-Indo-European roots, which is about as far back as any language or individual words can be traced. The PIE root *ster- is the source of the words for star in numerous languages including Hittite, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and, thus, English. 

Therefore, the word asterisk is related to asteroid, aster daisies, disaster, constellation and starfish, among others. It is also a cousin of names such as Esther, Estelle and Stella.**  

More recently, the asterisk also inspired the name of Asterix, the hero of the classic comics by Goscinny and Uderzo. Those books are characteristically full of puns and word play, and the names of Asterix and Obelix are derived from mispronunciations of asterisk and obelisk respectively. 

* located above the 8 on a keyboard
** They are not close cousins, but more like the kind who are jealous of each other because they all want to be the most popular starlet in the family, and only make small talk with one another at family reunions. 

Source: Online Etymology Dictionary

Asterisk
#etymology #words #history #asterisk #language #typography

Tmesis: Abso-flaming-lutely!

Tmesis— pronounced teh-MEE-sis—  is an unusual word that many people will never have heard of, even though it’s the name for something we do frequently and quite naturally.

Tmesis is the name given to that linguistic behaviour by which we divide a word and insert another word into the middle. In the 21st century, the inserted word is often a swear word, but it doesn’t have to be. 

Image by hpgruesen on Pixabay

We do it to add emphasis and increase the strength of what we’re saying. 

The Ancient Greek word temnein meant ‘to cut’, and from that came the word tmesis, which meant ‘cutting’. It refers to the cutting or division of the first word in order to insert the second. 

The practice is centuries old. There are examples of it in Old Irish and Scandinavian poetry, although the earliest written examples of it being used in English only date back to the 1500s. 

Shakespeare used tmesis in a number of his plays:

  • “This is not Romeo, he’s some other where.” — Romeo and Juliet
  • “How heinous ever it be” — Richard II
  • “That man – how dearly ever parted.” — Troilus and Cressida

Tmesis also exists in the poetry of John Donne:


“In what torn ship soever I embark,
That ship shall be my emblem,
What seas soever swallow me, that flood
Shall be to me an emblem of thy blood.” — Hymn to Christ

From these examples, it is clear that the device has always been used to strengthen the idea or emotion being communicated, which is exactly how it’s still used today. 

In Australia, where we seem to love a good swear word and the power it gives our expressions, tmesis is so common that it seems to me to be part of our linguistic identity. Inserting a term such as ‘flaming” or ‘flipping’, or one’s preferred swear word, into words and phrases is a standard part of our speech. From “abso-flaming-lutely’ to “no freaking way!”, Australians have made tmesis their own without ever knowing that it was a literary device or that it has a name. 

Tmesis: Abso-flaming-lutely!
#language #English #grammar #speaking #englishvocabulary #wordynerdbird #blogpost 

Is English A Salad?

Today’s English class was the most fun I have had in a long time. I wanted to exercise the kids’ minds and get them thinking laterally. I also wanted them to enjoy it. A lesson with a difference seemed to me a great way to start our final week of term and inject some interest into our online classroom.

I began by presenting my students with the contention that a box of chocolates is a salad.

This was not a popular suggestion. 

“No it’s not!” one student said… quite defensively, I might add. “Salad is salad. Chocolate is chocolate. You can’t ruin chocolate like that!”

But, I asked, what is a salad if it’s not simply a mixture of vegetables? Chocolate comes from beans… and if you add nuts, or fruit, or herbs like peppermint, then it’s definitely a salad.

We spent quite some time redefining food, presenting the most persuasive arguments we could think of, and debating the nature of reality. 

Every time it sounded like the students might be in danger of reaching a consensus, I made another suggestion. 

Ice cream, on its own, may just be ice cream – but the minute you put it in a cone, or add fruit or chocolate, it’s a salad. 
Coffee, like chocolate, is made from beans. It’s a salad.

“No!” was the response. “Coffee is hot – it can’t be a salad.”

So then I really twisted it up.

Is coffee soup?
Is cereal soup? Or is it a salad with too much dressing?
According to one student, and I quote, “Soup is not what soup is.”

Is the English language a metaphorical salad? Because it’s a mixture of a whole bunch of languages, right? The flavours are all mixed, but the parts are still recognisable if you know what you’re looking at.

Is the English language a sticky weed? Or velcro? Because you know, it takes something from every other language it swipes past. Maybe it’s double sided tape… 

I am not ashamed to say that I really had fun. Despite their groans and protestations, I think they did, too. 

Perhaps the most satisfying moments, though, were two comments made by different students: 

“You’ve just entirely ruined the English language.”

and

“These have been the most problematic fifteen minutes of my life.”

What started out as a brain tease turned into a really interesting discussion about how we use language and define things in our own ways, and often assume that everyone else understands what we’re talking about, and that everyone else agrees with us.

It’s safe to say most of them enjoyed it… but it’s also safe to say that I enjoyed it more. 

Mincing Your Words

We might still hear someone say “she doesn’t mince her words” but do we know what it means?

Anyone who knows me will affirm that I tend to say what’s on my mind, although I try to think before I speak and to be more tactful than I used to be. 

My mother used to remark to me that I had “a neat turn of phrase”, and would occasionally comment to others that I didn’t mince my words. I always took the first observation as a compliment, although I’m not sure it was ever really meant that way. The second, though, always seemed to be rather a strange image because it made me think of minced meat or minced fruit. 

Of course, “mince” is one of those words that has multiple meanings.  It can mean to chop or grind something into very small pieces.  It can mean to walk in small, affected, or dainty, steps. And, when it comes to words, it can mean to modify your language so as to not cause offence. 

All of those meanings relate to the idea of making something smaller or diminishing in size. It’s easy to see how ‘mince’ is related to other words such as diminish, miniature, minute, and minimise. 

The use of ‘mincing words’ to mean making them softer or more moderate goes as far back as the 1500s, and is a term used by Shakespeare himself. 

To mince one’s words means to speak in an indirect or perhaps a diplomatic way rather than stating something directly or bluntly. To do so is to make what you say less of a stumbling block, easier to move past or step over, or even easier to digest. 

Thus, to not mince one’s words means to speak without worrying about how the listener will feel or respond. 

Well, okay. That might sound a little like me. Sometimes. 

That has changed, though, as I have got a little older. 

If I am at home, or comfortable with the company I am in, I still tend to express my thoughts freely. Elsewhere, though, I feel as though I do not feel that freedom. And there are many occasions on which I simply couldn’t be bothered. One cannot, as the saying goes, fix stupid. 

These days, I often choose to simply remain silent when someone says or does something ridiculous, because there is no polite way to say what I am thinking. Thirty years’ experience as a teacher and a fair few years as an actor and performer have helped me refine my ability to keep my facial expression neutral, although I will admit that sometimes I just don’t bother. Some people should be thankful that the look on my face is all they get. 

So, it seems I do sometimes mince my words. On other occasions, I  mince them between my teeth and swallow them. 

Mincing Your Words.
#speaking #words #choosewisely #EnglishAtHome #EnglishTeacher

New Words

As I often explain to my students, language adapts and evolves all the time. People invent new words, or blend old ones, to create new meanings or to explain something in a new way. 

I’m always fascinated by the process, and take interest in which words are being “added to the dictionary”. Even that phrase makes me laugh, because we all know there’s more than one dictionary, and they don’t all add new words at the same time. 

The article titled Five New Words To Watch comes from the Macquarie Dictionary Blog.

The Macquarie Dictionary is my favourite for a number of reasons. Macquarie University is my alma mater, and back when the first Macquarie Dictionary was being written and compiled, I had the privilege of having two of the contributors as my lecturers and tutors in English and Linguistics. More importantly, the definitions are clear and easily understandable, Australian colloquialisms are included, and the pronunciation guide is provided in the international phonetic alphabet, which I love. 

Yeah. Nerdy, I know. 
But if you’ve been following my blog for three minutes, you’ll know I’m unapologetic about that. 

I hope you enjoy this article.
If you’d like to tell me your favourite newish words, or words you’ve invented, I’d be super happy for you to leave a comment!  

‘Then’ and ‘Than’ Are Not The Same Word.

Some word confusions are understandable, especially if they sound the same when spoken. We call those homophones, and they sound the same even if they are spelt differently.  Examples are peak/pique/peak or there/their/they’re.

The confusion between ’then’ and ’than’, however, is a completely different matter.

Sadly, this is happening more and more, especially on social media. I don’t even spend that much time on Facebook, but it feels like I see someone saying something like “Nothing is better then this!”  or “I love you more then anything!” at least twice a day. 

Yes, they are similar. 
However, they are clearly not the same.
They don’t look the same.
They don’t sound the same. 
If one doesn’t mix up ’then’ or ’than’ with ’thin’, there is no excuse for mistaking them for one another. 

I swear, it makes my eyes want to bleed.

The two words’ meanings are so vastly different that getting them wrong just makes the person writing look  either poorly educated or plain stupid, even if they are neither. 

This is one of the best and most self-evident arguments in existence for proofreading what one is writing, anywhere and every time. 

‘Then’ rhymes with ‘when”— which is an easy way to remember that it relates to time or sequence. 
Examples: 
He put on his shirt, then his jeans, and then his boots. 
She ran up the hill, then back down again. 
When you have tidied your room, then you can go to the movies. 

‘Than’ rhymes with ‘man’ and is used for making a comparison. 
Examples:
His piece of pizza is bigger than mine. 
A triangle has fewer angles than a square. 
I would rather stay home and read a book than go to work. 

Knowing which is which, and taking care to use the right words all the time, is a simple way to protect your credibility.

And for the love of Merlin’s beard, if you call yourself an author or a teacher, get it right. It’s not that hard. 

Misunderstood Shakespeare: “What The Dickens”

Many people assume that “What the dickens?” is a reference to the author Charles Dickens. 

Considering that Shakespeare wrote this expression in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ in 1600 and Charles Dickens was born in 1812, that is entirely impossible. 

Instead, ‘dickens’ is a euphemism for ‘devil’, as is ‘deuce’. When Mrs Page says “I cannot tell what the dickens his name is…” she really means ‘what the devil”.

It’s a more polite way of expressing strength of an idea or emphasising their intent, in this case, that she has no idea of the identity of the person she is being asked about. It’s exactly the same as people saying ‘heck’ instead of hell, ‘gosh’ instead of ‘God’ and ‘jeez’ instead of ‘Jesus’, and is probably  done for the same reason: superstitious avoidance of using religious terms, or “using in vain” the names of religious entities. 

There’s also a chance that, for some folks, old-fashioned good manners may enter into it, too. 

In short, this is a euphemism: an inoffensive word or phrase used to replace an impolite or offensive one. We use euphemism when we talk about “powdering my nose” or “going to see a man about a dog” instead of “going to the bathroom”, or “bathroom” instead of “toilet”.

Like many of Shakespeare’s words and phrases, “what the dickens” has stood the test of time and is still used as a euphemism today.

A Fit of Pique.

I get really annoyed when I see people writing about peaking someone’s interest. 

A mountain is peaked. A cap can be peaked. 
People can even look peaked: in this sense, it means they are pale. 
A career can peak. 
In fact, someone’s interest in something can peak, right before it declines again. 

While they sound the same, the correct term for having caused intense interest or curiosity, is piqued

To pique someone’s interest is to heighten or arouse it. In other words, it is to stimulate their curiosity or attention. 

A fit of pique is an episode of annoyance or irritation – such as might happen, for example, if someone’s negative emotions are piqued. 

A related word is piquant, which means provocative, tantalising, spicy or tangy. Food that excites the taste buds or a story that excites the imagination can both be described as piquant. 

The other homophone is peeked. This is the past tense of peek: to take a quick look, or a sneaky one. 

So… now that I’ve piqued your interest with my fit of pique, and you’ve peeked at my post… I’m sure your interest has long since peaked. 

See? Homophones can be fun!

Don’t Pour Over Those Books!

I’ve read a couple of different posts and even in a couple of books recently about people “pouring over” documents or books. 

I wondered at first if this was one of those things Americans do with words that nobody else does, but I checked, and it’s not. It’s simply an error caused by confusion by words that sound the same even though they are spelt differently and mean completely different things. 

What the people in question should be doing is poring over their books. 
To pore over books or documents is to be completely absorbed in what one is reading or studying. It suggests thoughtful application and concentration. 
The gerund is poring. 

To pour over books is just going to make a mess, and probably ruin them completely.  It’s really not advisable.

On Verbing

Most of the time, when people protest about the way the English language is abused, it’s a case of the language continuing to evolve as it has always done.

One such example is the practice of verbing, which takes the noun form of a word and transforms it into a verb form… like ‘verb’ and ‘verbing’. 

Just last week, I was talking with a friend about how annoying she finds it when people say “I’m going to action that.” I’m sure she sought me out for the conversation because I’m both a word nerd and an English teacher. 

“Action is a noun! A bloody noun! How can so many otherwise intelligent people get that wrong?”

“It grates on us because it’s recent,” I said. “We’ll get used to it.”

“No, I won’t! It’s just wrong!”

“You know Shakespeare did it?”

“What?” 

“Verbing. He did it all the time.”

“You and your Shakespeare. It’s like he’s the answer to everything.” 

“You know he invented the word ‘friending’, right?”

She rolled her eyes and walked away. She didn’t even flinch at my use of the term “verbing”, which is exactly the same thing as “actioning” in terms of the language. After all, ‘verb’ is a noun, too. 

It is the recent examples of verbing, such as “actioning” an idea, that we notice because we’re not used to hearing them yet. When Facebook was new, people complained the same way about “friending”, but these days nobody thinks twice about that. At some point in time, someone decided that it was okay to talk about bottling  fruit, or shelving books, and now those terms are just everyday language. 

It is also true, however, that some things people commonly say are, quite simply, wrong

My pet peeve is when my students are talking about sport or some other kind of competition, and they say “We versed Team X”. 

This is a common bastardisation of the Latin versus, which means ‘against’. It is commonly used for sporting matches and legal cases, and is generally abbreviated as v. or vs., as in Black v. White or Blue vs. Red. 

My first response is always to ask whey they wrote poetry about another team. “You played them. You opposed them. You clashed with them. You competed with them. You did not write poetry about them.” Then I explain how the different words work, and what they actually mean. 

The reason “versed” is wrong is because the words ‘versus’ and ‘verse’ have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Because ‘against’ is a preposition, it simply doesn’t make sense to say “We againsted them”. It is not verbing, by any stretch of the imagination. 

The first time we have that conversation, they look at me with confusion. Some have a glazed look of fear, like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. This never fails to entertain me. The second and third times, they roll their eyes.

Over time, the tedium of having the same grammar-nerdy conversation persuades them to start using the language correctly. They learn, I win, and so does the English language.