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).)
Last night a friend showed me a photo of his nipple. It turns out that in plumping and piping, nipple is a standard term for a small fitting with a ‘male’ thread at each end. It screws into the ends of two other pipes with ‘female’ threads. This friend is studying for an Australian trade qualification, and was showing me photos of his work and study projects. His nipple is a study project he had to design and tool. Because I was previously unaware of this metal-working usage, and previously aware of the anatomical usage, I couldn’t quite believe that he was saying what it sounded he was saying. His Korean pronunciation of English didn’t help.
I don’t know whether his workmates are predominantly Korean or Australian. For a moment, I thought that his Australian workmates (if indeed he works with any) had set him up by telling him incorrect and slightly naughty words for things, but a quick check of the mobile internet showed that he was indeed correct. There are other slightly naughty words in the metal trades: tool, nut, cock, screw and male and female parts spring to mind. I showed him a photo of an anatomical nipple, but he didn’t indicate whether he already knew that use.
One of the blogs I regularly read is English Language Thoughts, by Niall O’Donnell, an ESL teacher in Ireland. Two days ago, he posted about a BBC quiz show which asked contestants to name countries ending with two consonants. He didn’t discuss the actual answers, but rather the fact that the show officially categorises y as a consonant, regardless of context.
The most obvious set of answers are the countries which end with -land, namely Fin, Ice, Ire, New Zea, Pol, Swazi, Switzer and Thai. (I thought of most of those on the train on the way home.) There is also the Netherlands and four sets of Islands, namely the Cook, (Faroe), Marshall and Solomon, but it might be argued that these do not end with two consonants. (I put Faroe in brackets – although it was on the list of ‘sovereign states’ I consulted, it is part of the Kingdom of Denmark.)
I love a good digression, and I certainly got one last night. The main grammar point was ‘I wish I was/had/could …’, ‘I wish you/[people/things] were/had/would …’ and ‘I wish [a person/thing] was/had/would …’. While the students were completing a grammar worksheet, I typed ‘I wish I’ into a Major Search Engine to see how it would complete that. One of the suggestions was ‘I wish I knew how to quit you’, which seemed a random idea. Further investigation showed that it is a line from Brokeback Mountain, which I have never seen, but which I know the basic story of. I showed them the video of that character saying that. Most of the students knew about the movie. A Taiwanese student said ‘That was directed by Ang Lee’, then ‘I’m confused about that word directed. Is that the same as direct flight?’. My gut feeling was that it is, but I had to check. Yes, those words, and others, are derived from Latin dērēctus, the past participle of dērigere to align, straighten, guide.
Wordfind.com reports that there are 25 words beginning with direct:
noun: director, directors, directrix, directrixes, directrice, directrices, directress; direction, directions; directory, directories; directive, directives; directness; directorate; directivity
verb: direct, directs, directing, directed
adjective: direct, directer, directest; directorial; directional
The topic in the textbook was emotions and one of the questions was ‘Do you enjoy horror movies?’. One student said yes, so I asked for an example. He said ‘Saw’. Another student said ‘But that’s an action movie’. He and I looked puzzled. He quickly searched for an image of that movie and showed it to her. She said ‘Oh, I thought you said /sɔ/’, then quickly searched and showed us an image of Thor.
/θ/ is one of the last phonemes which native English speaking children acquire (indeed, some don’t acquire it (and /ð/) at all – dis, dat, tick and tin are part of several established varieties of English), and it is probably the hardest phoneme for second language learners (/ð/ is at least far more common, in higher-frequency words like this, that, these, those, there, then, mother, father, brother).
I’m surprised that this misunderstanding happened this way around. I would far more expect the first student to mispronounce /θɔ/ as /sɔ/. Anyway, the misunderstanding was cleared up, and I was able to give them a brief explanation.
One of the topics in the textbooks this week was clothes and fashion, including hair. What’s left of my hair might fairly be described as ‘greying’ (rather than ‘grey’). I said ‘My wife wants me to dye my hair. Do you think I should?’. One student said ‘Yes, I think you should dye’ — which, of course, sounds exactly like ‘I think you should die’.
die/dye is used in at least one limerick which I could vaguely remember but couldn’t find on the internet. Fortunately, one of the limerick books I have is organised alphabetically by the last word of the first line, so I easily found it there. It runs:
Said a fair-headed maiden of Klondike,
‘Of you I’m exceedingly fond, Ike.
To prove I adore you,
I’ll dye, darling, for you,
And be a brunette, not a blonde, Ike.’
I vaguely remembered the third and fourth lines as ‘To prove that I’m true/I’d dye, dear, for you’. This limerick is probably more effective when spoken rather than when read.
There is another joke which relies on dye it/diet, which I similarly can’t find. It’s something like:
Girlfriend/wife: I don’t like my hair colour/My hair is going grey. Do you think I should dye it?
Boyfriend/husband: [something unkind about her weight]
PS It might have been the other way round:
Her: My bum is too big. I’m going to diet.
Him: What colour?
On Tuesday a student about the difference between lay and lie. I gave a brief explanation to the effect that lay is transitive. It needs a direct object – hens lay eggs and humans lay tables. Lie is intransitive. It does not need, in fact it actively resists, a direct object – hens do not lie eggs and humans do not lie tables. (But some people use lay intransitively – Bob Dylan invites a lady to lay on his big brass bed and Gloria Gaynor’s ex-boyfriend thought she’d lay down and die, to varying degrees of horror from the purists.) I said to the student that it is very easy to get these two verbs mixed up, and many native English speakers do. (It does not help that the past simple form of lie is lay.)
By coincidence, Wednesday’s listening included the adjective laid-back, which I didn’t comment on at the time, because I knew Thursday’s lesson expanded on hyphenated adjectives. But it struck me that laid-back is built on the transitive lay-laid-laid and not the intransitive lie-lay-lain. If you are laid-back, then presumably it’s because someone or something has laid you back somewhere, and not because you have lain back somewhere. I’ve consulted several dictionaries and searched generally online, but I can’t find anything about this. Maybe the concept is reflexive: you have laid yourself back. Or maybe informal words don’t have to follow the rules of grammar.
In yesterday’s class, I briefly mentioned this to the student, then said ‘The word is laid-back, whether it comes from lay or lie’. Another student then asked about the other lie, to tell an untruth.