Practical cats

A few weeks ago I mentioned the musical Cats, and commented about translating the title and the lyrics into other languages, including Korean.

The first song is ‘Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats’, which is not in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, so I guess it was in TS Eliot’s unpublished poems, along with Grizabella. Andrew Lloyd Webber consulted Valerie Eliot while composing this work. (Note that Trevor Nunn wrote the lyrics for ‘Memory’ (and see my previous comments about this song here.)) The song ends with a series of 22 occurrences of ‘adj cats’:

Practical cats, Dramatical cats
Pragmatical cats, Fanatical cats
Oratorical cats, Delphicoracle cats
Skeptical cats, Dispeptical cats
Romantical cats, Penantical cats
Critical cats, Parasitical cats
Allegorical cats, Metaphorical cats
Statistical cats and Mystical cats
Political cats, Hypocritical cats
Clerical cats, Hysterical cats
Cynical cats, Rabbinical cats

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‘To the egress’

At a railway station in central Sydney, I saw a door marked EMERGENCY EGRESS ONLY. I guess that at least 99% of such doors in the English-speaking world are marked EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY.

Egress is the slightly earlier word, dating from the 1530s. Exit as a stage direction (technically, a verb) as in ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ dates from the 1530s, but from the 1590s it was used as a noun, as in ‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances’ and (occasionally) a ‘real’ verb.

From about 1650 to about 1850, the two words were used more or less interchangeably, but then the use of exit grew and egress declined, probably corresponding to the growth in public railway travel. Then in the early 1970s, the use of exit skyrocketed, for reasons I can’t think of, but curiously declined from 2000 to 2008. Most of this was due to the use of exit as a noun; exit really only began to be used as a verb in the 20th century.

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re-member me

Following on from the lesson about changing nouns into adjectives and vice versa by adding or subtracting suffixes (and enhancing the meaning by adding prefixes), I pulled out an activity from the teachers book of another textbook series. There are 18 cards, each divided into four diagonally, with, typically, a prefix, two main words and a suffix in the four quadrants. The students have to match up the prefix on one card with the root on another to make a compound word, building up a 3 x 6 grid. This is harder than it sounds because so many prefixes and suffixes go with with so many main words. For example, two of the prefixes are pro- and anti-, and some of the roots were government, communist, European and abortion. (Several students chose ‘pro-abortion’. I had to explain that no-one states their own position as ‘pro-abortion’ – everyone agrees that abortion is, in general, a Bad Thing; some people just prioritise a woman’s right to choose as more important.)

Several students put re- and member together to form remember, which is wrong (in this activity) and kind of right (etymologically). I join a choir and am a member. I leave it and am an ex-member. I rejoin it and am a re-member. Makes sense. Except that’s not what remember means. The re- of remember does indeed mean again, but the member is derived from Latin memor, memory: to remember is to memory again. Compare remind, recall and recollect, which are indeed to mind again, to call (to mind) again and to collect (your thoughts) again, and contrast reminisce, which does not mean to minisce again (minisce is ultimately derived from Latin mens, mind). Member, by the way, is derived from Latin membrum.

And a song.


I have written before about strings of words borrowed from (and through) English in Korean: Maxim mocha gold mild coffee mix. It happens in English, too. Walking to the venue for dinner with colleagues last night, I saw TRUMPS ALTO EGO HOMMES FEMMES COIFFURE SPA, which contains no native English words (that is, attested in English before 900). Some of them have become (more) ‘English’ while others remain less so.

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Fine for parking here

Yesterday in class, someone, whether a student or I, said something about either one word with two different meanings or two very similar words, which made me think, ‘Oooh, are those two meanings/words actually related?’. After class, I promptly forgot about it, until mid-evening, when I suddenly had a memory of it happening, but no memory of what the meanings/words were. After some racking of my brains, I thought, ‘I’ll look in the textbook tomorrow morning’.

Fortunately, I remembered to do that, and found the word. The topic was traffic, and the textbook introduced compound nouns: bus lane, railway station, seat belt etc. One was parking fine, and I’d said something like ‘That’s not the same word as fine, ok’, before thinking ‘Oooh …’.

Before you continue, think for a moment whether fine, ok is related to parking fine, and if so, how?

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My class was practicing changing nouns and verbs into adjectives. At the end of the activity in the textbook was a series of words for them to suggest suitable adjectives for. The last one was ‘yourself’. Various students suggested various adjectives. One hesitated, dived for his mobile phone translator app and said ‘involute’ (emphasis on the second syllable). I asked, ‘What does that mean?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know’. I said, ‘Neither do I’. He showed me his phone, which had a word in his language (which uses a script I can’t read) followed by the English words ‘inextricable, involute, involved, kinky’. I said, ‘Just don’t use any of those words to describe yourself’ (especially not ‘kinky’!) (even there’s nothing wrong with describing yourself as ‘involved’).

One of the problems in relying on translator apps is that they usually don’t include information on usage, for example, whether a word is common or rare, technical, formal or slang, or usually applied to humans, animals or things. This came right at the end of the last lesson of the week, so I was unable to talk to them about that.

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Yesterday, while reading a sentence, a student tripped over the word ‘journalist’, but completed the sentence, then said “I thought that said ‘journey’”. I started to say “No, that’s a completely different word” when I realised that they are etymologically connected, through French jour, meaning ‘day’: originally, a journal was kept daily, and a journey was one’s daily travel, or travel lasting one day. Private citizens keeping journals may or may not have called themselves, or been called, ‘journalists’ (Samuel Pepys is always referred to as a diarist), and publications named ‘journal’ have never been restricted to dailies; indeed an academic journal may come out once a year, but is not an ‘annual’. A journey does not necessarily take place daily, and is often shorter or (much) longer than a day (eg Journey to the Centre of the Earth). It is probably more often used as a noun than a verb: I don’t say “I journey to work by train every day”, but might say “My journey to work takes an hour and a half”. Old French journal daily (adj. and noun) is derived from Late Latin diurnālis, and ‘diurnal’ is used in English to describe the pattern of flowers opening by day and closing at night, as well as birds and insects which are active by day ( We don’t say ‘diurnal animal’ as often as ‘nocturnal animal’ because we expect animals to be active by day, unless otherwise specified. The word ‘journalist’ was not the language point of the sentence, so I had to make an instant decision whether to mention the etymological connection or not, and if so, to how much detail (bearing in mind that I’d be explaining it on the fly to people who probably don’t know any French or Latin, or the relationship between the two). I ended up saying something like “There was a connection long ago, but now they’re two completely different words”.

PS The original French concept album for Les Miserables begins with the song ‘La Journée Est Finie’. This is not ‘The journey is finished’, but ‘The day is finished’, known in English as ‘At the end of the day’. ‘journey’ in French is voyage, which in English means a long(er) journey by boat. One would not talk about a voyage from Manly to Circular Quay, except perhaps facetiously.