What’s in a sound?

Several days ago, Niall O’Donnell, who blogs at English-Language Thoughts, posted a very long story about playing a computer game “in which you travel across a pseudo-medieval fantasy land battling various undead creatures”. He usually played alone, but it’s possible to “summon” another player (who has made themself available to be summoned) to assist if required.

(Moderate strong language warning)  Continue reading


Made from advertising

One of the free samples last week was an ‘oven-baked fruit cake’. I remarked on Facebook that this seemed redundant – all cakes are baked and all baking is done in ovens. Several Facebook friends pointed out that this was not true: some varieties of cake are not baked, and some varieties of baking is not in ovens. Fair enough, but certainly most are/is, and the default are/is. So why advertise the default? It’s like advertising a ‘four-wheeled car’. Surely companies should advertise their products on some point of difference?

Maybe not. Some years ago, an Australian beer manufacturer came up with a slogan “Made from beer”. One of the posters had a picture of a brew kettle with the caption “Made in a big copper thing”. The tv ad had a lot of people in a large field forming the outline of a person drinking a glass of beer while singing “It’s a big ad” to the tune of Carl Orff’s O fortuna. (I don’t like giving free publicity to commercial entities, but in this case I just have to.) Continue reading


I’m back to choir rehearsals, courtesy of my new, daytime job. My local choir was practicing ‘Steppin’ out with my baby‘ (video) by Irving Berlin (not the choir’s usual repertoire). For a moment, I thought the words were ‘There’ll be smooth sailin’ ’cause I’m trimmin’ my nails’ (well, the bit just before that is ‘I’m all dressed up tonight’ and the bit just after is ‘In my top hat and my white tie and my tails’. What else does one do before a night out?). Then I looked again and saw that it’s actually ‘I’m trimmin’ my sails’. 

The relevant definition is:


3. to adjust (the sails or yards) with reference to the direction of the wind and the course of the ship.


Write on queue

A few days ago I had to ring a government department. I hate ringing government departments, but I couldn’t find anything on their website about this particular issue. The call took an hour and 44 minutes in total, being about one minute talking to the first person, about one minute talking to the second person who the first person put me through to, about three minutes talking to the third person who the second person put me through to, and about an hour and 39 minutes listening to ‘on hold’ music, announcements about the information I could find on the website, and automated recordings telling me that I was now the [number]th caller in the queue, starting from 59th between the first person and the second person, and 68th between the second and the third  and gradually counting down.

I mentioned this on Facebook, and one online friend who lives in another English-speaking country commented, using the spelling que three times in an otherwise perfectly written comment. I sent her a private message asking whether that was her usual spelling, or was widely used in her English-speaking country. Continue reading

MeToo, 미투, 나도

A few days ago, my wife mentioned the #MeToo movement. Not surprisingly, stories are emerging in the Korean entertainment industry. I asked her whether Korean women and news media use MeToo or 미투 (mi-tu, that is, transliterating the English into hangeul) or 나도 (na-do, that is, translating the English into Korean). Because her linguistic meta-language in English is limited and mine in Korean is non-existent, I don’t think she fully understood my question and I know I didn’t fully understand her answer.

She found an instance of 미투 캠페인 (mi-too kaem-pe-in) and asked me whether it was a campaign or a movement (which I’ll get back to in a moment). Otherwise, I have found online references to 미투 and 나도, and to 캠페인 and 운동 (un-dong). English Wikipedia’s page lists 나도당했다 (na-do dang-haet-da) and Korean Wikipedia’s page is titled 미투 운동. 운동 is usually translated ‘exercise’, but can also mean movement, motion, campaign, locomotion, effort, manoeuvre/maneuver (Google Translate). 당했다 is the past tense of suffer, so the Korean might be translated ‘I too suffered’. (Different dictionaries and translators give wildly different translations, which I won’t list. Suffer seems to be the best one. It hasn’t been in any of my Korean textbooks yet.) Currently, 미투 운동 gets about 3 millions results and 나도당했다 about 4 million.

So is it a campaign or a movement? Certainly in English, it is called a movement. To me, a campaign is more organised. Dictionary.com defines a movement as ‘a series of actions or activities intended or tending toward a particular end’ and a campaign as ‘a systematic course of aggressive activities for some specific purpose’.

Be alert

Many years ago one of my sisters gave me a calendar with a pun-based cartoon on every month’s page. One had a cartoon of two strange animals with the caption “Be alert. Your country needs more lerts.” (Or something like that. One website gives the version “The world needs more lerts”, crediting Woody Allen.)

I have recently been exploring prefixes. For some reason I started at the end of the alphabet and worked my way backwards, and have now reached a-, which is causing me great problems because the humble a– prefix has more meanings than any other.

You probably knew, or guessed, that alert is not derived from a lert. So what is its derivation? It comes from Italian all’erta, or all(a) erta, which means to or on the lookout or watchtower. Erta, in turn, is the feminine form of erto, which is the past participle of Italian ergere, Latin ērigere, meaning to erect, so an erta is something erected. So if you are alert, you are, literally, on the erection. Hmmm …

(The word often seen in close proximity, alarm, is from Old Italian all’arme, to arms – arms being from the Latin arma, not the Old English earmas.)

What rhymes with axolotl?

Not a lotl, I would have thought.

A few days ago someone posted on Facebook The Axolotl Song (earworm warning), by a music/video/comedy group called Rathergood, which consists of Joel Veitch and unnamed others. They quickly rhyme axolotl with bottle and lotl, and also with mottled, which doesn’t quite rhyme.

There is a surprising number of English words ending with -tle. Morewords.com lists 104, but there are several derived forms; for example, bluebottle is listed alongside bottle. Eleven of these have a silent t in the cluster –stle, for example, castle. There are also a few with –ntle, for example, gentle, in which the n is part of the previous syllable, and one with –btle (subtle), in which the b is silent. The one which goes closest to rhyming with axolotl is apostle, but I can’t imagine anyone fitting both of those into the same song. Otherwise, there are bottle (and bluebottle), throttle, wattle and mottle among relatively common words and pottle (a former liquid measure equal to two quarts) (why not just say ‘two quarts’ or ‘half a gallon’?) and dottle (the plug of half-smoked tobacco in the bottom of a pipe after smoking) (does anyone really need a word for this?). Continue reading