Enough students to be noticeable pronounce island as ‘ice-land’, ‘eyes-land’ or ‘is-land’. Yes, an island is land, but that’s not relevant. There never was an /s/ in the pronunciation of island – the Middle English was iland and the Old English was igland. In fact, īeg meant ‘island’, so an island is really an island-land. Then someone added the s by analogy with the unrelated isle, from Latin insula via Old French.

Iceland is an island, and what prompted this post was finding out that the Icelandic word for Iceland is Ísland, which I did not know from a childhood hobby of stamp collecting. (I can’t remember that I actually had any stamps from Iceland.) In a post on the Lingua Franca blog, William Germano mentioned that Háskóli Íslands is not ‘the Haskoli Islands’, but ‘the University of Iceland‘. Thinking about it, I guessed that Háskóli is ha (high) + skoli (school), which Wiktionary confirms, and which actually makes more sense than the Latinate university, which means approximately ‘one community (of scholars)’. According to Wikipedia, the Icelandic word for ‘high school’ is framhaldsskóli (‘continued school’). (He also ponders adopting the Icelandic name Bjór Garðurinn, which means ‘beer garden’. The Germanic-ness of that is clear.)

Ireland is also an island, and in my non-rhotic pronunciation those two are pronounced identically. I sometimes find myself introducing a small /r/ to emphasise the difference.

The spelling island took off in the 1750s, for reasons I can’t discover – it was too late for the ‘Age of Discovery’ and too early for James Cook. The spelling iland was used as late as the 1788 – one online source of the diary of a First Fleet officer gave ‘Lord Howe Hand’. When I checked with the scan of the original, I found that it was actually Iland with a curlicue on the I, which the OCR had read as Hand.


-ful and -less

One of the blogs I regularly read is English Language Thoughts, by Niall O’Donnell, an ESL teacher in Ireland. Yesterday, he posted about the (non-)word ruthful (the opposite of ruthless). He says “We don’t say ruthful though, do we? It sounds weird. It was used long ago though.

In fact, there are enough occurrences of it on the interweb to conclude that people do use it, but these may be mentions, rather than uses, for example dictionary definitions and questions like ‘Is ruthful a word?’. However, ruthless is certainly far more common than ruthful.

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Country names ending with two consonants

One of the blogs I regularly read is English Language Thoughts, by Niall O’Donnell, an ESL teacher in Ireland. Two days ago, he posted about a BBC quiz show which asked contestants to name countries ending with two consonants. He didn’t discuss the actual answers, but rather the fact that the show officially categorises y as a consonant, regardless of context.

The most obvious set of answers are the countries which end with -land, namely Fin, Ice, Ire, New Zea, Pol, Swazi, Switzer and Thai. (I thought of most of those on the train on the way home.) There is also the Netherlands and four sets of Islands, namely the Cook, (Faroe), Marshall and Solomon, but it might be argued that these do not end with two consonants. (I put Faroe in brackets – although it was on the list of ‘sovereign states’ I consulted, it is part of the Kingdom of Denmark.)

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Somewhere under the rainbow

Yesterday I noticed that two of the WordPress blogs I regularly read show a rainbow  motif across the top. Maybe those bloggers just want to make their blogs pretty, or maybe they are using the rainbow motif to show their support for gay and lesbian etc rights. That is their choice. Then I noticed that my blog also shows a rainbow motif across the top. That is not my choice. As far as I know, WordPress has decided to show this on all the blogs on its platform (one other blog I irregularly read also shows it). (Maybe it only shows in Australia, given the current postal survey campaign on marriage law in Australia. Will someone not from Australia please tell me whether or not they can see the rainbow motif on my or any other WordPress blog?

I may or may not support any or all proposals for gay and lesbian etc rights, but if I do or don’t, I will decide or not to show, voice, demonstrate etc my thoughts and feelings, including showing or not a rainbow motif at the top of my blog. I can’t find anything on WordPress’s Help about why it has done this, or how to turn it off or on.

You may or may not think that if I may or may not support any or all proposals for gay and lesbian etc rights, then I would have the courage of my convictions and say so, one way or the other. Maybe. I have thoughts and feelings on the topics, but I have no experience about writing about them in the same way that I write about language, music etc.


This afternoon in the office, a colleague offered me a Preserved Wife Plum. Gastronomically, they are small, dry, hard and flavoured, with the pit still inside. Linguistically, they are anyone’s guess. The three Chinese speakers sharing my office couldn’t tell me what the name meant. I don’t know whether it is meant to be [preserved (wife plum)] (whatever a wife plum is) or [(preserved wife) plum] (whatever a preserved wife is – it’s probably better not to ask). I thought that perhaps it was a misprint for ‘wine’, but if it was, surely one of the Chinese speakers could have figured that out from the Chinese characters.

The internet shows that the product exists, but doesn’t explain the name. The blogger gentlemanfarmer tells of his encounter with them, describing them as ‘Dried and salty and sweet and a little plummy’. He writes: ‘Also a red square with the words:  “Additional Support:  We like the new taste. We need the quality and we need the best food. Here you will find what you want. Cool fashion need Cool taste. You are the new man. How delicious can not forget special taste. Return the pure flavor.  Give you the minerable feeling.”’ The red rectangle on the packet I saw is all in Chinese. In a reply to a comment, he also speculates that it is a typo for ‘wine’.

The other most informative result is from the blogger Peverelli on the blog chinafoodingredients. S/he writesHuamei, dried and preserved plums, has been a favourite snack of Chinese, in particular ladies, for ages’. Possibly, then, they are ‘preserved plums for wives’. ‘The traditional huamei were basically dried and salted plums, scented with licorice and sometimes other ingredients like: lemon juice, aniseed, cloves or cinnamon.’


[update 13 July: the esteemed Victor Mair of the University of Pennsylvania posted about Preserved Vegetable-Students on Language Log. I took the opportunity to ask about Preserved Wife Plums and he replied with a very detailed post.]