Totes amazeballs

I had never previously said totes amazeballs and don’t ever expect to again, and in fact the sooner it dies the better, but a lesson on ‘extreme adjectives’ was good much of an opportunity. The textbook had several synonyms for ‘very good’ and I elicited several more, then mentioned that people make up their own, including totes amazeballs. (Another is fantabulous.) One student expressed great doubt that such an expression exists, but I was able to show her on Google. (Most sources on the internet cast scorn on the expression and the people who use it.) She couldn’t figure out how a word ending with ‘balls’ can be an adjective. Basically, it can be an adjective because people use it as an adjective.

Another point is that terrific, terrifying and terrible, and horrific, horrifying and horrible should mean the same thing, but don’t. I didn’t mention Latin – I just said “Be careful about these words – they are different”. (Horrific didn’t occur in the lesson – I just mention it for the sake of completeness here.

I’m not quite sure exactly how I know this expression. No-one I know uses it. I’ve just read it on the internet enough times for it to sink in. The downside of being passionately interested in language.

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‘Hear, hear’ and ‘Aw’

I have seen, enough times to notice, people writing in Facebook comments ‘Here, here’ instead of ‘Hear, hear’ and ‘Awe’ instead of ‘Aw’ (or ‘Aww’ or ‘Awww’ etc). These are homophones – they sound the same when spoken. 

Hear, hear!’ began in the British Parliament as ‘Hear him, hear him!’ – an imperative to other members to pay attention to what the speaker (the main speaker, not the person saying ‘Hear, hear’) was saying. Now, on Facebook, there is no element of ‘hearing’, and ‘here’ is a more common word than ‘hear’. Also, someone can signal their agreement by saying or writing ‘Same here’. Intriguingly, Google Ngrams shows that ‘here here’ is more common than ‘hear hear’, but I can’t find any examples of it other than in internet forum comments or in discussions of ‘here here’ v ‘hear hear’. I also can’t think of any context in which ‘here here’ would even be possible.

‘Awe’ is a real word, while ‘aw’ is an interjection which can express ‘sentimental approval or commiseration’ or ‘disbelief, disgust or protest’ depending on the intonation’. It is possible that a Facebook commenter is expressing awe at a video of a dog and cat playing together, but I doubt it. I also wondered whether the most common spelling is ‘aw’ or ‘aww’ or ‘awww’ etc). Google Ngrams shows ‘Aw’ a long way ahead, and Dictionary.com has an entry for ‘aw’ but not for any of the other spellings.

A patient patient

I have posted before about the dangers of students picking the wrong meaning from a dictionary or translator, because many words have multiple meaning or senses. Sometimes the two words are related, sometimes they’re not.

Today, a sentence included patient as an adjective. One student used his dictionary/translator, then about a minute later said “What does this sentence mean?”. I said “You wrote down that word. You tell me what it means.” He said “A sick person”.

Interestingly, patient-noun = a sick person and patient-adjective = bearing with fortitude without complaint are related, through Latin pati, patiens to undergo, suffer, bear. A patient is someone who is suffering illness or injury. They are patient if they do so without complaint, but a patient can be very impatient (and many are). Conversely, a doctor can be patient (and, at times, a patient) or impatient.

The relationship between patient-noun and patient-adjective may not be obvious, but the two words share the same form. Also today, another student said that the adjective related to happiness is happen (and immediately realised their mistake). Happen is not an adjective, but, surprisingly, is related to happy and happiness. The connection is the very old (1150-1200) noun hap, meaning one’s lot or luck – something that occurs for some reason. Happen dates from 1300-1350 and means the actual occurrence of a hap. Happy emerged at the same time and means the feeling resulting from a fortunate occurrence – not the feeling resulting from any occurrence. Finally, happiness dates from 1520-30. Generally speaking, the more basic form came first and the more affixed form came later (though there is also the opposite process of back-formation). Hap is now a very rare word, alongside mayhap, but perhaps (by lot or luck) and maybe are very common.

Live life

The noun life, the verb live and the adjective live often cause confusion for English language learners, especially the plural noun and the 3sg verb lives, and the base verb and the adjective live (in each case, same spelling, different pronunciation). Life can only be a noun, but even then could be uncountable or countable singular. 

Especially when they are reading out loud, students might say something like “Computers and mobile phones are an essential part of our /lɪvz/“. This is partly because of the fact that the plural of life is lives, not lifes – I don’t think any student would mistake “our lifes”. I usually explain it by comparing his life and their lives with they live and he lives.

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lative and fluous

I often encounter the word superlative in my English language teaching, but it also cropped up recently in a business magazine article I was subediting. When I first encountered superlative, I reasoned that it was pronounced super-lative, just as superfluous was super-fluous. But they’re not: they are su-per-luh-tive and su-per-flu-ous respectively.  

 Even though super comes from Latin, most English words starting with that morpheme are modern, and are attached to real English words, whether nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs. Super retains its usual stress and so does the real English word following it. Lative and fluous aren’t English words, but many others based on Latin ferre/fero/latus and fluere/fluo/fluxus are. Note also that superlativus and superfluus were/are real Latin words. Wikitionary says that the pronunciation of superfluus was as in English, but that of superlativus was super-lativus. (By the way, the literal meanings in Latin and English are ‘carried over’ and ‘flowing over’.)

There are three other English words which are pronounced su-per rather than super: superb, superior and the rare supernal. –b, –ior and –nal are clearly not English words, and in fact represent the Latin suffixes –bus, –ior, and –nalis – the Latin words were superbus (not super-bus), superior and supernalis (not sure of pronunciation).

To sum up: don’t embarrass yourself in public by pronouncing these two words as super-lative and super-fluous.

Cyte, cite, site, sight

Yesterday I saw a car belonging to a pathology laboratory named 4cyte (presumably pronounced ‘foresight’). Cyte is not a word by itself: *“We’re going to take a sample of your cytes for testing” (indeed Pages for Mac just changed cyte to cute and cytes to cites), but it occurs in many words meaning cell, all of which are highly technical. At the beginning of a word, it’s usually cyt– or cyto-. 

The Greek word doesn’t mean cell, though, because the Greeks didn’t know about cells. Kýtos means container, receptacle, body, and was later applied to cells. Cell, meanwhile, is from Latin cella, small room (whence, obviously cellar).

Cyte, cite (Latin, to move, set in motion, summon before a court), site (Latin, setting down, position, arrangement) and sight (Germanic, a thing seen, later the faculty of vision – I hadn’t previously realised that see and sight are etymologically related) are all unrelated. And then there’s excite and excel. Excite is related to cite (set in motion) but excel is from -cellere to rise high < celsus high. (The one ‘l’ is clue. I originally thought that excell was ‘out of the cell’.)

The optometrist’s/optician’s advertising itself as ‘A site for sore eyes’ may be a joke. 

(information from various online dictionaries and etymology sights)

incorrectly interesting

Observation 1: The big parts of language are easy; the small parts are hard.
Observation 2: Mistakes are often more interesting than correct answers.

My students have just finished the textbook and today was a revision day before the test tomorrow. One revision question was something like “My father (watch/watches/watching) television every day”. Several students chose watch. This is, of course, incorrect standard English, but only by a twist of history. There’s no particular reason why third-person singular verb forms have –s/es. There’s no possibility of misunderstanding. Many languages exist quite happily with the equivalent of “My father watch television every day”. Indeed, some non-standard varieties of English exist quite happily with exactly that. Nothing would be lost and quite a bit would be gained by omitting 3sg –s/-es, but standard English includes it, so that’s what I’ve got to teach and that’s what’s my students have to learn. (Several hundred years ago, standard English lost 2sg –est, and no-one missed it.)

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