I woke up in the middle of the night with the “word”


in my head.

I have sometimes got up in the middle of night to do linguistic research, but on this occasion I was determined to go do back to sleep as soon as possible. A few obvious preliminary questions: is this actually a word? if so, what does it mean and where did I encounter it? if not, why did my brain think of that combination of letters rather than any others?

If it is a word, it’s not a standard English word, because all the standard English words starting with pn– are technical and relate to air or breathing, and most of the standard English words ending with –au are French (with a few German and Welsh). 

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Extraordinarily unique

Wikipedia’s article on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan quotes “US officials” describing it as “extraordinarily unique”.

Some style guides advise or prescribe against any modification of unique. Either something is the only one of its kind, or it’s not. It can’t be (for example) very unique. While modifying unique is probably best avoided in formal contexts, there can be no doubt that many people say or write it informally and normally. Google Ngram Viewer shows not (by far the most common), very, as, most, so, quite, rather, somewhat, almost and probably unique. Some of these are (probably) more acceptable, and others less so. 

Extraordinarily unique isn’t on Ngrams’ top 10 results (its usage is about one-tenth that of probably unique), but a general Google search shows about 391,000 results, starting with blind auditions on The Voice, the Atlanta Motor Speedway and the Villa Bismarck on Capri.  

It might just be possible to describe something as extraordinarily unique if it’s extraordinary as well as unique – a whole level more unique than anything else. Australia has many unique animals, but the platypus is extraordinary. Anyone familiar with jerboas will accept the kangaroo, but when the first samples of dead platypuses (?platypi, ??platypodes) arrived in England, the experts there thought someone here was playing a practical joke on them. But “except for its size and exaggerated security measures,” Bin Laden’s compound “itself did not stand out architecturally from others in the neighbourhood.”


A travel documentary features Tongdosa temple (통도사) near Ulsan. According to Wikipedia, the name means Salvation of the World through Mastery of Truth. –sa means temple, so I can only assume that tong means ‘salvation of the world’ and do means ‘mastery of truth’, which is a lot of meaning in one syllable each. 

The first problem is that Wikipedia, as an open-source encyclopedia, is only as authoritative as the sources its editors cite. The citation for this particular piece of information is a perfectly ordinary travel guide. The temple’s own site doesn’t mention the meaning of the name (at least the English version and Google’s translation of the history of the temple in Korean don’t), and the only other similar reference I can find (a perfectly ordinary travel website) says “The name ‘Tongdosa’ was named after the belief that mankind can be saved through Buddhism”.

Assuming that that meaning is, in fact, true, the second problem is that no online or paper dictionary I have consulted has entries anything like this. But, just as Koreans turn 디지털 카메라 (digital camera) into 디카 (di-ka), it is possible that the name is a shortening of longer words tong(something) do(something), the equivalent of sal(vation) and mast(ery) making salmast  temple. In fact, compare 통일 (tong-il, unification) and the 통일교 (Unification movement, Unification church, ‘the Moonies’). 

As a general rule, throughout all languages, simple syllables and words have simple meanings, and complex meanings are represented by complex words. Unless I actually go there and ask someone, I will probably never know what the name actually means.

[PS Wikipedia also records the Chinese character name 通度寺. Google Translate translates 通 as, probably most relevantly, through, and 度 as degree, extent, measure, so the name is probably Sino-Korean rather than Korean.]

boy/girl band/group

The topic for the class was music and the one student who had shown up at that point asked the interesting question whether we say (or should say) boy band or boy group, and girl band or girl group. I was momentarily flummoxed, because I don’t usually talk about … whatever they are. Fortunately, there was a break immediately afterwards, so I did some quick research. It turns out that boy band is much more common than boy group, and girl group is more common than girl band. Among other things, Wikipedia’s relevant pages are titled boy band and girl group. Possibly the reason is simple alliteration. (Google Ngrams shows boy band from the 1860s. I wonder what kind those were then.)

There is a rock band from Ireland named Girl Band, who are all boys. On the other hand, there was Girlband, a pop group from Australia, who are all girls, and Girlband, a girl band from England, who are also all girls. 

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known for their loyalty

I had occasion to consult the Wikipedia entry for the Basij, a paramilitary volunteer militia in Iran. (Don’t ask why.) The following sentence jumped out at me:
(1) The Basij are subordinate to and receive their orders from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Supreme Leader of Iran, to whom they are known for their loyalty. (emphasis added)

I think I know what they’re trying to say, but I think what I think they’re actually saying isn’t what I think they’re trying to say. 

The second half of the sentence might mean three things:
(a) They are known to the IRGC and the Supreme Leader for their loyalty to the IRGC and the Supreme Leader.
(b) They are known to the IRGC and the Supreme Leader for their loyalty to everyone in general. 
(c) They are known to everyone in general for their loyalty to the IRGC and the Supreme Leader. 

I think they mean 3., but I think they actually say 1.

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Not so fast!

I was editing an article about intermittent fasting (that is, not eating for all or part of a day, interspersed with normal (possibly restricted) eating on other days). 

Inevitably, I got thinking about the various meanings of fast, as an adjective or adverb meaning quick(ly), as an adjective or adverb meaning firm(ly), secure(ly) and as a noun or verb meaning an abstention/to abstain from food. doesn’t help. It lists the quick(ly) and firm(ly) meanings together, and notes that they are “akin to fast2” (that is, the noun/verb). has possibly too much information. As I understand it, the firm, secure meaning came first. The abstain from food meaning came next, and means, basically, to hold oneself firmly. The quick meaning came last. If you run firmly, you run quickly. (Fast asleep means firmly, securely asleep, not quickly asleep, which might be confusing to young children, who almost certainly encounter the quick(ly) meaning first.)

From hold fast has come holdfast, which means a firm grip, a staple or clamp, or an organ by which an aquatic plant or animal can attach to a surface. Note also Holdfast Bay, Adelaide, South Australia, which got its name after Colonel William Light, the SA surveyor-general found anchorage there in a storm.

Hang on, though, I’ve encountered the meaning of a small fortress. But that appears to be used only in fantasy novels; Wikipedia’s disambiguation page gives GRR Martin’s A song of ice and fire series as an example.

PS At a funeral this afternoon, the word steadfast was used.

Brethren and sistren

Last weekend I got a card for our new local library and borrowed a book about language and the DVDs for the tv science-fiction series Firefly, which I have read small amounts about over the years but never seen. The series mixes futuristic science fiction with wild west settings, as the outer planets and moons of a complex solar system (or an inter-related group of solar systems; it isn’t fully explained) were terraformed to a basic level but the settlers are otherwise expected to fend for themselves.

In one episode the lead character unexpectedly finds himself married by local custom to a young woman who may or may not be what she seems (semi-spoiler: she isn’t). At one point she refers to “my sistren” in “the maiden house”. 

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rhyming slang

The tv comedy Mind your language ran from 1977 to 1979. I use it occasionally in class to illustrate vocabulary, grammar and communication. One episode (“Many happy returns”) is largely about money. It starts with Sid the college caretaker asking Gladys the tea lady for a free cup of tea, because he’s (something). She replies “You’re always skint, Sid!”. The subtitles (whether auto-generated or created by a human – some episodes are better than others) have “I’m a bit glacier mint”, but audibly that’s not what he says. I had always guessed that it is rhyming slang, as several other episodes show him using that, and even attempting to teach it to the students (one of whom refers to it as “cockeyed slanging rhyme”).

Fast-forward to a few days ago, when I was browsing through a book which I’ll donate or throw away soon. It has a section on Cockney rhyming slang, and one of the items is boracic lint. That is indeed what Sid says, but what is it? Wikipedia explains, quoting its entire article:

Boracic lint was a type of medical dressing made from surgical lint that was soaked in a hot, saturated solution of boracic acid and glycerine and then left to dry.

It has been in use since at least the 19th century, but is now less commonly used. When in use, boracic lint proved to be very valuable in the treatment of leg ulcers.

The term “boracic”, pronounced “brassic”, is also used as Cockney rhyming slang for having no money – “boracic lint” → “skint”.

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Another rabbit hole confounds me

Another day, another linguistic rabbit-hole.

On Sunday, we sang Universi qui te expectant by Michael Haydn, which I had not previously known. The Latin of the two verses (Psalm 25:3-4) is:

Universi qui te expectant non confundentur, Domine
Vias tuas Domine notas fac mihi et semitas tuas edoce me.

No English translation is given in the score, but at the rehearsal one of the choir members quickly found:

Let none that wait on thee be ashamed
Shew me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths. [KJV]

Hang on, though. A little bit of Latin shows that Universi is everyone/all, and that non confundentur is will not be confounded, so the verse should be translated:

Everyone who waits for you will not be confounded.

(The more common Latin word for everyone/all is omnes, which can be followed by a noun: omnes gentes or omnes generationes.) Continue reading

O great mystery

One of the choirs I’m singing in is rehearsing the motet O magnum mysterium by Tomas Luis da Victoria.

The text is:

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
iacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Iesum Christum.

One more-or-less standard English translation is:

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
the Lord, Jesus Christ.

Every time I’ve sung it, I’ve been struck by how many of the Latin words have engendered English words. English is officially classified as a Germanic language, but many of its advanced words are derived from Latin. In fact, two of the words are Greek and two are Hebrew through Greek. Some words came into English via French rather than directly from Latin. Continue reading