It was cake

I recently discovered the blog Peaks and penguins, by a young Canadian/US couple who lived in South Korea for some years (and maybe still do). They chronicled their explorations of the mountains there, guided by the lists of 100 top mountains by the Korean Forest Service and a commercial hiking wear/gear manufacturer. (80 mountains appear on both lists and 20 are unique to each, so there’s 120 in total, which I think they explored all.) I am half disappointed that I spent so much of the time I was in Korea not exploring mountains and a quarter excited and a quarter daunted that there’s so much for me to do when I go there again (when, when, when?). And that’s just the mountains, not all the other things to do.

One of their early expeditions nearly ended badly: the weather changed, they were short on warm clothing and other provisions, and they lost their way. Fortunately they encountered a Korean hiking group who warmed them up and pointed them in the right direction. They wrote: 

Our descent was cake compared to our trials on the ridge.

Was cake, not was a piece of cake, which is an established idiom.

I haven’t been able to find any equivalent use of “was cake” (in quotation marks for exact match). There are sentences like When was cake first made?, We heard/were told there was cake and And then there was cake. But I can’t say that those bloggers are wrong; it’s very clear what they mean and is a natural shortening (<haha) of the idiom. Maybe people say it or write it in places Google can’t find.

According to Google Ngrams, is/was a piece of cake rose in usage in the mid-1970s. Without context, it’s impossible to tell how many occurrences before and after then were literal usages of the phrase, and how many were idiomatic. I had always assumed that it is/was a piece of cake was, in turn, a shortening of it is/was as easy as eating a piece of cake, but Ngrams shows no particular usage of as easy as eating.

Is/was a piece of cake seems to be used/usable in singular forms: My homework was a piece of cake, ?My exams were pieces of cake, My exams were a piece of cake


“Why aren’t there more fat Koreans?”

When I went to Korea for the first time, I spent several days surviving on convenience store food between going for some meals in restaurants with colleagues, sometimes with their adult students. I knew that I’d have to find a restaurant I could go to by myself and/or cook for myself (which required some planning because I had to buy cookware, crockery and cutlery – my manager provided a very nice studio apartment with bed and pillow, but nothing else). 

Most of the restaurants I could see into had low tables and floor seating, but I found one that had Western-style tables and chairs. The manager placed the menu in front of me, pointed to the first page and said “Rice” (which I could actually see myself), then to the second and said “Dock”. Was that duck or dog? I was afraid to ask, so I said “Rice, please”. She and/or (a) waitress(es) brought out a bowl of plain rice, several bowls of soup and a major array of meat and/or vegetable dishes (I seem to remember 13 – I didn’t record this story in my diary of the time). I got through the rice and halfway through the meat and/or vegetables. At the end of the meal the manager offered me a big cup of shikhye (a sweet rice dessert drink). I first declined, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I forced it down somehow. 

Along the way I discovered that she spoke passable English, having lived in Brisbane, Australia for some time. As I paid and left, I asked “Why aren’t there more fat Koreans?” She said “Oh, is all vegetables, is all healthy”.

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Kingdoms and empires

The hymn The day thou gavest, Lord, has ended (Wikipedia, performance) has as its last verse:

So be it, Lord; Thy throne shall never,
Like earth’s proud empires, pass away:
Thy kingdom stands, and grows forever,
Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway.

We quite often refer to God as king and to God’s kingdom or the kingdom of God, but we almost never refer to God as emperor or to God’s empire or the empire of God, even though King of kings and Lord of lords is more analogous to an earthly emperor than a king. 

The only reference to empire/emperor/imperial in the King James/Authorised version of the bible is in the comparatively late OT book of Esther (1:20):

When the king’s decree which he will make is proclaimed throughout all his empire (for it is great), all wives will honor their husbands, both great and small. 

(The king being Ahasuerus and the empire being Persia.)

Of the other 27 translations on Bible Hub, one uses realm, four use empire and the rest kingdom.


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Ceiling wax

One song I remember from my childhood is Puff, the magic dragon, sung by Peter, Paul and Mary and written by Peter Yarrow and Leonard Lipton. For some time I wondered what

ceiling wax

is. I don’t know how I found out that it is, in fact

sealing wax.

I obviously knew about ceilings before I knew about sealings.

Ceiling is a strange word. It ends with -ing, but it’s not related to a verb; we don’t usually ceil ceilings like we build buildings. (Someone has flippantly suggested that we should call them builts.) In fact we do, or buildingers do, whether they call it that or not. records the verb ceil, meaning

1. to overlay (the ceiling of a building or room) with wood, plaster, etc.
2. to provide with a ceiling 

dating from 1400–50, from late Middle English celen to cover, to panel, followed by a rather vague < ? 

Seal is ultimately from Latin signum and is related to sign. The animal seal is from Old English with cognates in Old Norse and Old High German. There is a story that one holder of the British government office of Lord Privy Seal objected to being addressed as such because he wasn’t a lord, a privy or a seal.  

While I was researching for this post, I found a blog called of ceiling wax, which is about “reading YA, graphic novels and the spaces in between”. Its not-immediately-named author quotes Lewis Carroll’s The walrus and the carpenter (text, Wikipedia), which I’m not as familiar with and didn’t think of. She/he also originally mistook this for ceiling wax.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.” 

Some of Carroll’s poems are direct parodies of the poems Alice Liddell would have been familiar with, but this seems to be totally original. 

PS 3 Oct: information about the poems Carroll parodied.

Nothing about everything

A few posts ago, talking about the way quotations are (mis-)attributed to people, I said:

Sometimes, an idea is stated in different ways before someone creates the most-quoted form of it, so it’s hard to say who should get the credit.

I have been thinking about the quotation, in probably its most familiar form:

A specialist knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing. A generalist knows less and less and more and more until he knows nothing about everything.

Quote Investigator traces the quotation from the first attested “We are getting to know more and more about less and less” (reported as the saying of “a distinguished Scotsman”) to various expanded forms. The exact originator depends on which exact form you use.

I am definitely a generalist. Although my blog posts are mostly about language(s) and (because I’ve most recently studied linguistics and been working as an ESL teacher and/or magazine or legal editor during this time), I’ve also posted about music (my first study), geography/travel/tourism, science/maths, history, bible study/theology and photography (my dabbles) (and probably more). If I had set out to be more general in my blog posts, I might have named it Nothing about everything. In fact, there are blogs with titles very close to that, and the Urban Dictionary has:

a genre of blogs in which the content means everything to the author but nothing to most everyone else; often abbreviated as “e/n”

(I wouldn’t say that the content of this blog means everything to me, but obviously I put some time and effort into it.)

The main reason I’ve been thinking about this quotation recently is that I’ve had a burst on inquiring about PhD study (again), and one of the problems is that PhD study is expected to be specialised; maybe one particular aspect of one particular language. I’m just not interested in spending four to six years of my life doing that. Unfortunately, universities don’t seem to give PhDs in general studies. Universities expect me to know what I will find by my research. I thought the point of research is not knowing what I will find.

Realistically, this study is less likely to happen, but I need to find out for sure. I might be able to do the same research as an armchair scholar, but there’s less incentive, mostly because there would be less (if any) recognition at the end.

PS WIkipedia has a page about misquotations/misattributions.

Abominable words

A colleague informed us that today is National Grammar Day. He also has a desk calendar of Shakespearean insults, which often turn out to be strangely appropriate to what’s going on in our team, department and company. The combination of Shakespeare and grammar reminded me of the following quotation, from Henry VI pt 2:

Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the Realme, in erecting a Grammar Schoole … thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear.

Jack Cade was the leader of a popular rebellion in 1450. Wikipedia says that this rebellion was “one of the first popular uprisings in England that used writing to voice their grievances” but Shakespeare follows Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587) and incorporates aspects of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, which “was highly anti-intellectual and anti-textual” and “ha[d] people killed because they could read”. The real-life James Fiennes, 1st Baron Saye and Sele, the Lord High Treasurer (= Shakespeare’s Lord Say) was executed for treason.

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너무너무, 정말 너무너무 and 정말정말

I noticed that one Korean hiking video blogger says 너무너무 (neo-mu neo-mu) a lot, the weather, the view or her feelings. In one video she clocked up three in the space of four sentences. I have also heard her say 정말 너무너무 (jeong-mal neo-mu neo-mu) and 정말정말 (jeong-mal jeong-mal). These are the equivalent of very very, really very very and really really in English, which are certainly encountered in informal speech. I pondered whether these are more typical of young women’s speech, but I have also heard a young male Korean hiking video blogger saying 너무너무, just not as much. I don’t know if I say them much. I probably do more than I realise. I have just searched my diary from my first residence in Korea, and found seven instances of very, very, modifying careful, lazy, soft, loud, cold x 2 and dark.

Now that I think about it, I have (probably) never encountered these in Korean or English textbooks, even though they are obviously very common in informal speech, probably in most or even all languages – I can also think of French très, très bon . I can’t remember hearing the Korean repetitions anywhere else, either in real life or on media. It’s just that I’ve been watching and listening to Korean hiking videos blogs recently. I will probably start noticing them much more now. 

PS soon after: in the next video I watched, she said 너무너무너무 행복.

PPS 17 March: in another video, she clocks up seven 너무 in a row, before 오기 잘했다 (approx “Coming here is very, very, very, very, very, very, very good”)


Yesterday I excitedly typed on Facebook to the effect of “I’ve just found this amazing travel blog by some foreigners living in South Korea”, then forgot to link to it. Soon after, a friend replied to the effect of “Well, aren’t you going to tell us which blog?”.

In some contexts this can be used as an informal and emphatic alternative to a/an: “I’ve just found an amazing travel blog” v “I’ve just found this amazing travel blog”. In others, it is definitely demonstrative; I am pointing to or showing or linking to ‘this one here’. Without spoken tone, it would have been impossible for my friend to understand which meaning I meant, but either way, he would have expected a link, or at least more information. 

But sometimes the demonstrative use isn’t possible. If I say “I ate this amazing pizza for lunch”, I am certainly not pointing to or showing you the pizza. “I ate this amazing pizza for lunch” can only be informal emphatic; compare “I ate an amazing pizza for lunch”.

The blog was this one, which, having explored further, I’m not quite so excited about, but it’s still definitely in the top 5.

Cormac McCarthy’s writing tips

The distinguished or eminent Stan Carey of Sentence First, one of the better blogs about language, has posted about the novelist Cormac McCarthy‘s writing tips for scientific writers, many of which also apply to any formal writing (and perhaps even more to fiction writing). (Read McCarthy’s tips in full before you read Stan’s post.) They are generally sound, but I could quibble with a few of them, and Stan does. I would also make the comment that very good writers are not always very good at writing about writing, though note that McCarthy is also an experienced science editor.

I seen

One of my Facebook friends mentioned the usage I seen in very unfavourable terms. Unfortunately, what might have been an interesting linguistic discussion got sidetracked, partly by my fault. 

Without a doubt, I saw is standard English and I seen is not standard English, but its usage is widespread in some varieties of English, so it can’t be dismissed out of hand. Most commenters online are immediately very unfavourable, some in most unhelpful terms. Of the few that provide an extended discussion, Anatoly Liberman of the Oxford University Press Blog starts by calling it “substandard but ubiquitous in conversational English”, and Patricia T O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman of the Grammarphobia blog note that it is heard “in much of the US, as well as in England, Scotland, and Ireland” (to which I would add Australia), and quote the Dictionary of American Regional English, which calls it “widespread” in the US, “esp freq among rural speakers and those with little formal educ.”

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