mesdames et messieurs, ladies and gentlemen,  신사 숙녀 여러분

At the opening ceremony of the winter olympic games (video, article), announcements were made in French, English and Korean. French is a holdover from the pre-World War I origin of the IOC. The opening formulas in each language are mesdames et messieurs, ladies and gentlemen and  신사 숙녀 여러분 (shin-sa sung-nyeo yeo-reo bun, gentleman/men, lady/ies, all people) (thanks to my wife for the last one; it hasn’t cropped up in Korean for foreigners books, as we are unlikely to be giving formal speeches).

French and English puts the women first. Is this just courtesy to the “fairer sex”? I once read somewhere that the formula was originally ‘my lords, ladies and gentlemen’, addressing the men and women of the nobility and the men with knighthoods, but I can’t find anything about that now. And that doesn’t explain the French. Most French nobles had their heads or titles removed during the revolution. The wording “gentlemen and ladies” does exist, but is about one-tenth as common as “ladies and gentlemen”. Conversely, “boys and girls” is about four times as common as “girls and boys”. “Gentlewoman” is now obsolete. Continue reading


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. 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

inning and innings, outing and outings

On  Saturday evening I went for an outing to a baseball game. This is slightly unusual in Australia (there is a baseball competition, but it is almost unknown) and very unusual for me (I would not otherwise go to a baseball game, except …).

Last year I semi-did a course in photography on Coursera (I watched the videos and did the standard quizzes, but didn’t pay money to do the assessment quizzes and submit my photos for peer review). A few weeks ago one of the lecturers (a professor of photography at a university in the USA) emailed people in Australia who’d done the course, saying that he would be in Australia in late Dec-early Jan and was planning a trip to the baseball. (Which makes about as much sense as me travelling to the USA and going to a cricket match, but his son is involved with the baseball team here.) Seven photographers and three hangers-on attended. We had a short session together, then wandered around taking photos before and during the game. After some time, we each had a one-on-one with the lecturer, and he said some seriously nice things about my photos.

Photos first, then language: Continue reading

“I ate Madonna for breakfast”

My college is around the corner from a branch of a well-known fast-food restaurant chain (no name, no free publicity, even though it’s perfectly obvious who I’m writing about). Several years ago, a student arrived in class and told us “I ate Madonna for breakfast”.

The pronunciation issue is consonant clusters. All languages have rules about what consonants and consonant clusters can occur at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of a word. Some languages allow none, some a very limited number and some many. English allows a moderately high number of consonant clusters, so most of my students speak languages which allow fewer.

Continue reading

nineteenth-century wifi

I was showing my students about using Google Ngrams to track the rise or fall of words over time. As an example of a modern word, I chose internet, which, not surprisingly, started being used about 1990. I then chose wifi, and was surprised to find that it was used more in the first half of the nineteenth century than since 2000. It’s obviously a scanning/processing error by Google Books, but I can’t think of any word which would be mis-scanned/mis-processed that much. The closest possible word is wife. Other than that, I’m pretty much flummoxed. (That’s possibly the first time I have ever typed the word flummoxed (1830-40; origin uncertain).)


I have thought of an idea for a post based on Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem Jabberwocky. I copied the poem from an internet site and pasted it into Word for Mac. Immediately, I realised that some of Carroll’s nonce words were red-underlined for spelling, and others weren’t.

Red-underlined are: toves, gimble, wabe, mome, raths, outgrabe, Jabberwock, Jubjub, frumious, Bandersnatch, vorpal, manxome, Tumtum, uffish, tulgey, Callooh, Callay (17). Not red-underlined are Jabberwocky, brillig, slithy, (gyre), mimsy, borogoves, whiffling, burbled, snicker-snack, galumphing, beamish, frabjous, chortled (12 or 13). I’ve put gyre in brackets because it exists as a noun but not as a verb, as Carroll uses it in this poem.

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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.