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


celebrate celebrities, because because

One recent grammar activity in the textbook was building abstract nouns from a given concrete noun, verb or adjective plus one of give set of seven suffixes: –hood, –ship, –dom, –ity, –ness, -(a)tion and –ment. One of the given words was celebrate. The expected answer is celebration, but one student wrote celebrity. In real life, yes, in this activity no. Maybe in these days of manufactured famous-for-being-famous “celebrities”, we lose sight of the fact that we (should) celebrate celebrities and celebrities are, literally, celebrated. A celebrated tv star is very different from a celebrity tv star (though in one or two cases I won’t name, it could be arguable exactly which side of the coin s/he is on).

But in this activity celebrat(e) + ity results in celebratity, which is wrong. But are we limited to root + suffix, or can we make other spelling changes? There’s the drop-the-e rule, obviously, and another example was possible > possibility, which needs the insertion of an i. And is celebrity an abstract noun? No and yes. We most often talk about a celebrity (concrete), but we can also talk about the idea of celebrity (abstract). Continue reading

Strenuous laboratory

Two snippets from this week.

1) My class was practicing changing verbs into nouns into adjectives and vice versa. One word was strength, to be changed into an adjective. Most students wrote strong, but one wrote strenuous. To the extent that I have ever actually thought about it, I have never thought that strenuous is related to strong, so I had to check it quickly. No – it’s not. Online dictionaries didn’t give quite enough information, but Etymology Online shows the derivation of each, slightly confusingly, but convincingly.

Strong is from Proto-Germanic *strangaz and Proto-Indo-European *strenk-. (An asterisk with an etymology means that word has not been directly attested, but has been reconstructed by comparing forms in related languages.) Strenuous is from Latin strenuus and is possibly related to stern.

The student happily accepted his classmates’ answer of strong, but I told him that if he’d written strenuous in a test, I would have given him a mark. Continue reading


There are hotels, and there are motels, and there are hotel/motels … and there is at least one mhotel. I’d rather there wasn’t. I saw it briefly as we were touring south of Sydney earlier today. I can’t remember the name of it, and wouldn’t tell you (no free publicity) if I could. Most of the results online are either M Hotel or mHotel.

In fact hostels came before hotels, and hospitales came before hostels. Some hospitales were hospitable, and some were hostile.

(Many years ago, an exchange student lived with a family we knew. At the end of his stay, he solemnly thanked them for their hostility.)

“I’ll be frank with you”

I currently have one very low level student (who would be better off in the morning class, but keeps coming to mine), who is working from the beginner textbook. One early chapter introduces countries, first by themselves, then with people from those. One country is France and one person is Franz (I didn’t note which country, probably Germany). The student noticed the similarity between the names, so I quickly said “They aren’t the same word. France is a country, like China (pointing to her) and Australia (pointing to me). Franz is a name, like [her name] (pointing to her) and [my name] (pointing to me).” She seemed to understand.

Except that they really are the same word. The names Franciscus, Francesco, Francisco, François, Franz and, according to Wikipedia, 192 other variations from 74 languages, all mean “Frenchman/woman”. Famous people with that name include Francis of Assisi, Francis Xavier, Francis Bacon (x 2), Francis Ford Coppola, Frank Sinatra, Francis Drake, F Scott Fitzgerald, Francis Scott Key, Holy Roman Emperors, kings and assorted other noblemen, the current pope, and Francis the Talking Mule. Perhaps surprisingly, given the popularity of the name overall, Pope Francis is the first of his name, compared to 16 Benedicts. I can only assume that more Benedictines have become popes than Franciscans. Pope Francis is, in fact, a Jesuit, but there haven’t been any Pope Ignatiuses. (That looks wrong – Ignatii?) Then there’s the surname Frank/Franck/Frankel/Franco/Franz (and several more variations).

Continue reading


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.

come, become, have, behave

This morning for some reason I started wondering whether behave is related to have in the same way that become is related to come. After some research, the answer is yes, no, maybe, no.

Become is literally ‘come to be’: I came to be an ESL teacher in 2006.
Behave is not literally ‘have to be’: I have to be good/bad. Rather, it is reflexive: I have myself ?good/?bad; that is, I bear or comport myself *good/*bad/well/badly. There are two clues that behave is now a different word than be + have, if it ever was ‘the same word’. The first is pronunciation. The second is grammar: have is irregular – have had had, while behave is regular – behave behaved: *I behad well yesterday.

The prefix be– used to be more common and productive than it is now. A few months ago the Irish editor/language writer/blogger Stan Carey found himself Bewondered by obsolete be- words.