What big mystery

Four years ago I posted about the Latin text O magnum mysterium, and explored the links between the words in it and modern-day English words. Given that English is not a Latinate language, it is perhaps surprising that all but two of the Latin words have related words in English. Or perhaps not, because Latin was the primary language of the Christian church in England for at least approximately 950 years. 

One of the choirs I sing in recently sang the anthem to this text by Francis Poulenc. On the first page of the printed score was a French translation. French is a Latinate language, and it was interesting to see the similarities and differences between the Latin and French texts. Some words are very similar, some have been changed almost beyond recognition and some have been substituted for other words.

The Latin text is:
O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, iacentem in praesepio!
O beata virgo, cuius viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Iesum Christum.

The French text is:

Quel grand mystère et admirable sacrement, que des animaux aient pu voir, couché dans une crèche, le Seigneur vient de naître!
Bienheureuse Vierge dont les entrailles ont mérité de porter le Christ – Seigneur.

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I suddenly thought that a good name for a Spanish coffee shop would be Café Olé (or maybe Cafe ¡Olé!). Not surprisingly, other people (Spanish or not) have already thought the same thing (search and you will find). But I wonder how many other instances of café olé on the internet are mistakes for café au lait. The two are pronounced more-or-less identically in English. Spanish  has /leɪ/ but French has /le/, not that many English speakers can correctly pronounce the difference. 

Duffins, cronuts and olive jars

A trip to a local shopping centre yielded two linguistic snippets. One shop was selling duffins, which it helpfully explained as “not a donut, not a muffin”. Cronuts (doughnuts made from croissant dough) have been a thing for a while now (Wikipedia says 2013). Duffins appear to be new. Wikipedia does not have a page for them and several news stories online from earlier this month talk about the product’s launch, but the company’s own website says that “The duffin is back”. Pages for Mac auto-changes duffin to muffin and red-underlines it when I change it back. 

Hang on, though. If a doughnut made from croissant dough is a cronut, then shouldn’t one made from muffin dough be a muffnut? Maybe not …

(spelling: Google Ngrams shows that doughnut is used more in BrEng, and about equally with donut in AmEng. I don’t often write about them, so I don’t know what my natural usage is. (PS My diary for my first stay in Korea 2006-9 has three instances of donut(s) and none of doughnuts, but that’s hardly convincing.)) 

(pronunciation: I had always pronounced croissant with kw-. Various dictionaries give kr-, krw- and kw-, so there’s obviously no unanimity (Wiktionary gives the most options). The other issue is -ant, which can be -ant, -ont, -ənt or ɒ̃. A lot depends on how French you try to be.)   

My wife bought a jar of olives. Around the top is a message/are messages in four languages. 


I won’t discuss these at length, but clearly, different languages say equivalent things in different ways, and use a different number of words to do so.

PS 25 Jul: at a work meeting today my manager digressed and spontaneously mentioned lamingscones (which I have now discovered is styled as Laming-Scones). Non-Australians may need to look up lamingtons and scones.  

PPS 1 Aug: today I watching a Youtube video by someone walking around Seoul. I saw a bakery advertising croiffles. 1 Sep: Another video shows croffles.

PPPS 2Aug: I mentioned this on Facebook and a friend said her local supermarket sells muffnuts.

“Some dance to remember”

One day when I was at high school, some representatives of the school newspaper asked random students what our favourite song was. When the next issue of the paper came out, there was The Eagles’ Hotel California, with … one vote. 

I don’t know why some songs remain in the individual or collective mind and others don’t. Some super-famous songs basically disappear almost without a trace, while others which were mildly popular at the time become classics. Hotel California was no 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for one week in May 1977. I can’t find any record of its chart performance in Australia. It certainly wasn’t no 1 or one of the top 25 singles that year.

It’s sometimes hard to say how much of my memory of a particular song is from the actual time, and how much is from encountering them on compilation cassettes, CDs or Youtube videos. Some songs were and are extensively featured on compilations and some aren’t. It was easy to spot, by their absence, the singers and groups (or their production companies) which didn’t licence their songs. 

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Yesterday, a colleague advised us that it was International Chocolate Cake Day. Another colleague shared an image of a chocolate cake with the text: 

I had this delicious omlette this morning. I seasoned the eggs with sugar, oil and chocolate, and threw in a little flour for texture. 

Ha ha.

A third colleague pointed out that there should be an e after the m

Inquiring linguistic minds want to know why omelette is right and omlette is wrong. 

Courtesy of the Online Etymology Dictionary, the story begins with Latin lamina (plate, layer) (with a variety of modern meanings) and lamella (small plate, layer) (also with a variety of modern meanings) and progresses through French la lemelle > l’alemelle > alemele > alemette (which is a double diminutive) > omelette to arrive in English. American English prefers omelet. Omlette and omlet exist but are rare, and at this stage are probably still mistakes rather than genuine alternatives. Pages for Mac autocorrects omlette and omlet to omelette and omelet. So omelette has the first e because Latin lamella had/has one.

For me, omelette is solidly two syllables, but Dictionary.com gives the two- and three- syllable pronunciations.

Sing Noël! Sing Gloria!

It was probably inevitable that a married couple of songwriters named Noël and Gloria would write a Christmas song. Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne wrote Do you hear what I hear? (first recording, by the Harry Simeone Chorale) in October 1962. 

Or maybe not, because his name was actually Léon, and he was hesitant to write a Christmas song due to the commercialisation of Christmas. Noël wrote the words, influenced by the then-current Cuban Missile Crisis and Gloria the music.

Gloria came into English straight from Latin, and also via Old French glorie to become Middle English glory. I couldn’t figure out what the origin of noël (or noel) might be, and would not have guessed that it comes from Latin diēs nātālis day of birth (compare nativity). French did drastic things to Latin (note also that glorie became gloire), but that one is a stretch. Noël is a relatively late arrival into English, dating from 1805-1815. The First Nowell was first published in 1823.

It’s midnight, cretins

A few posts ago I mentioned a Christmas song which starts in its original language:

Minuit, chrétiens, c’est l’heure solennelle.

Inevitably, I got thinking about cretins. There is a connection. Cretins are, quite literally, Christians.

Latin Christianus became old and middle French Chrestian, modern French Chrétien and English Christian. Along the way, children with congenital hypothyroidism were called Chrétiens, to emphasise their inherent worth despite their condition. In English, this became cretins, which word was then used to describe anyone of low intelligence or who you simply did not agree with. It is now not used medically, and hopefully less in its wider meaning.

I pronounce it as creh-tin, which is apparently the British pronunciation, compared with the American pronunciation of cree-tin, which sounds too much like Cretan to me. The original cretins weren’t Cretan; they were Christian.

I have a vague feeling that there’s an animated tv comedy (The Simpsons, The Family Guy?) in which two characters quibble about the pronunciation – one calls the other a creh-tin and is immediately taken to task for pronouncing cree-tin incorrectly – but I can’t immediately find it.

Not to be confused with the former prime minister of Canada, Jean Chrétien, who was a Chrétien and presumably a Christian, but not a cretin. The modern French word for cretin, by the way, is crétine (f)/crétin (m).

Love’s pure light loves pure light

Six years ago, very soon after started this blog (I can’t quite believe it’s that long), I wrote about Round John Virgin and some other linguistic aspects of the Christmas hymn Silent Night.

Recently, one of the choirs I sing in was invited at short notice to record some items for a Christmas musical entertainment to be streamed into aged care facilities around Australia. (We have just begun to rehearse together again.) One of these was as the backing for a soloist singing a slightly jazzy arrangement of Silent Night. Among other things, there were several extra notes inserted into the melody, which then required extra words (or maybe the arranger decided to insert extra words, which then required extra notes). Small example: in one verse, Silent night, holy night became O silent night, and holy night. Larger example: Son of God, love’s pure light became Son of God, he loves pure light, which is not just adding a word, but changing the grammar and meaning of what follows.

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cumquat compote

Choral conductors often use tongue-twisters to warm up singers’ mouths and brain. Last week (in a Zoom session) the conductor of one choir I sing in presented one which a chorister had suggested. He had been visiting his mother who presented him with a jar of compote she had made from cumquats she had grown: cumquat compote. Even while I was trying to concentrate on singing that, I realised that compote is – literally – compost.

French uses the letter ô (o-circumflex) in a number of ways, one of which is to indicate that a letter has been dropped from the pronunciation and spelling of a word – most often s. Thus a hôtel is a hostel, a bête is a beast and a pâté is a paste. So cômpote is compost (it’s also related to composite). The use of circumflexes is inconsistent in English words derived from French. The more English a word has become, the less likely it is to use the diacritic: hotel and compote are now English words, pâté probably loses the circumflex in informal contexts but keeps the acute for the pronunciation (though examples exist on the internet of every possible combination), and bête is still entirely French. (Each word derives from Latin, which has the s in each.)

(Apparently, kumquat is the wider-used spelling, reflecting the Chinese original, but I spell in Australian English.)

the icon du jour

Our editor has a list of words which he thinks are overused and which he wants us to reword if possible. One of these is iconic. An article I was subediting today had it, and I mentioned it to him. He said something to the effect of “Oh, ‘iconic’ is the cliché du jour”. 

du jour is French for ‘of the day’, especially soup du jour, the soup of the day. It is perfectly good French, but may be overused in French restaurants in English-speaking and is a cliché anywhere else. In fact, Google Ngram Viewer shows that the most common noun du jour is the plat, plate. Other nouns are the point (daybreak), plats, mode (the fashion of the day), ordre (agenda), menu, compter (‘the count of the day’, Google Translate couldn’t translate in its entirety but a French-speaking friend informed me it means ‘as of the date’, ie ‘as from the date that the goods were purchased’) and naissance (birth, daybreak again). All of which shows that the French phrase really hasn’t penetrated into English.

Also de jour, either ‘by day’, but also ‘of the day’, as in the 1967 movie starring Catherine Deneuve, the blog, book and tv series Secret Diary of a Call Girl starring Billie Piper.