rugged v ragged

One of the choirs I sing in is rehearsing a setting of Dorothea Mackellar’s poem ‘My country’. On the first few times through, I stumbled on one word, which I then realised was “ragged mountain ranges”, not “rugged mountain ranges” as I vaguely remembered. When I got home, I looked online. Wikipedia has an image of Mackellar’s original notebook, which clearly has ragged. Many sources, printed and digital, have rugged, though. Two rehearsals ago, our accompanist said she’d always thought it was rugged, and at the rehearsal this week, one singer brought a book of Australian poems for school children, which has rugged. The accompanist said there is a recording of Mackellar reciting it, which I found (one of the available videos). She clearly says ragged. Very noticeable is her Sottish-tinged accent* (her grandparents had come to Australia almost 50 years before she was born). Continue reading

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st

Today’s psalm began “When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion” (Psalm 126, KJV).

English has three pairs of words which have two alternative forms: amid/amidst, among/amongst and while/whilst. The shorter forms are used more often, and are recommended in most style guides, whilst the longer is very rare in American English and rare even in British English, where it has a formal or even archaic flavour (see what I did there?).

Again and against started the same way, but developed different meanings. Using a different translation, we might say “When the Lord turned against the fortunes of Zion” but that would have the opposite meaning. Turning again might be positive or negative (more likely positive, as here), but turning against is always negative.

The same psalm later uses among, where amongst is possible: “Then said they among(st) the heathen”. Of the I don’t know how many translations on Bible Gateway, most use among, and none uses amongst. (Modern translations also use nations rather than heathen.)

If you have a choice, use amid, among and while, unless you are deliberately aiming for formality, and be careful of the difference between again and against.

They are the Doctor

One of the most vehemently contested issues in modern English grammar and usage is ‘singular they’, specifically its use to refer to a person of known gender, or to someone who has chosen not to identify as a specific gender.

Over lunch, I was browsing through the Wikipedia article on Doctor Who. My eye was caught by the sentence ‘The Doctor often finds events that pique their curiosity’. Since late last year, when Jodie Whittaker took over the role, it is impossible to refer to the Doctor as he, and it was always impossible to refer to him, ummm, them as it.

The Wikipedia writer(s) use(s) they once again:

All that was known about the character in the programme’s early days was that they were an eccentric alien traveller of great intelligence

(even though in the program’s early days the Doctor was definitely he).

Alongside their in the usual plural sense:

There have been instances of actors returning at later dates to reprise the role of their specific Doctor.

there is another use of their the singular sense:

The Doctor has gained numerous reoccurring enemies during their travels.

Continue reading

hearten and encourage

An article I edited during the week quoted a person connected to a certain organisation saying that a recent event was “heartening and encouraging”.

Hearten and encourage are, basically, ‘the same word’. Courage is derived from French cour/coeur, which in turn is derived from Latin cor, heart which is related to Italian cuore, Spanish corazón, and Portuguese coração. Heart is related to Dutch hart, German Herz, Danish and Norwegian hjerte and Swedish hjärta. Both words have the morpheme en, on the end of hearten and the beginning of encourage.

In fact, the further back in history you go, the more literally ‘the same word’ heart etc and cor etc are. The Proto-Indo-European word was *k̂erd. In some languages, the /k/ remained as /k/ (Greek καρδιά kardia, Latin cor and its Romance derivatives). In others, it became /h/ (English heart and its Germanic cognates) and in some it became /s/ (Polish serce, Russian сердце serdtse). These changes are not random, and can be seen in a number of other words such as Latin cornu and centum (originally and still classically pronounced with a /k/) and English horn and hundred. Experiment a bit, and you will hear and feel how similar /k/ and /h/ are – a matter of a few millimetres at the back of the throat. /k/ and /s/ might seem further away, but consider electric and electricity. These changes have happened many, many times, which is how scholars have been able to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European from the evidence of modern and documented historic languages.

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

early in [month] v in early [month]

Sometimes language chance attracts great discussion because, like, reasons. Other times it attracts no discussion, and happens seemingly for no reason. A few days ago, I encountered either late in December or in late December, I can’t remember which way round, but that doesn’t affect the point of this post. I wondered whether I should change it to the other way round. I checked Google Ngrams, but before I tell you what that showed, take a moment to think about what you would say or write, and what change has happened in the past 100 years. Continue reading

Ouch

I try. I really try. I really really try not to notice mistakes in other people’s writing, and really really try not to blog about it here. If the blog in question was just anyone’s language-related blog, I’d say ‘ouch, then bite my tongue (or the digital (in both senses) equivalent), but it’s the blog of a Major Language-Related Website, so I’ll say ‘ouch’, then blog about it here.

One post referred to the A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones character Thormund Giantsbane and the British writer Road Dahl. Ouch  and double ouch.

In real life, the spelling Thormund exists, but Tormund is much more common. (Thormund more closely reflects the original Old Norse Þórmundr.) The ASoIaF/GoT character is Tormund, although the spelling Thormund is occasionally used, more often on websites less related to the books or tv series.

In real life, Roald is still used in Nordic countries and among Nordic emigrants (but less so than in the days of Roald Amundsen and Roald Dahl). Road isn’t a name anywhere, though there are several occurrences of Road Dahl on the internet, including goodreads and IMDb. (I have a vague memory of first thinking that his name was Ronald.)

I’ll be generous and say that both spellings are the result of momentary inattention and muscle-memory influence from the much more common words Thor and road. But please proofread, especially if you’re a blogger on a Major Language-Related Website.

(Before anyone points out any mis-spellings in this post (I have re-read very carefully!), please note that this is not a Major Language-Related Website.)