jail/gaol and prison -er

A discussion on a linguistics forum involved the similarity or difference between between a jail/gaol and a prison (and also the difference in spelling between jail and gaol). In some parts of the English-speaking world in some part of history, those are the same thing; in others, they aren’t. I won’t go into that, but it suddenly occurred to me that a jailer/gaoler and a prisoner are very different people. 

I managed to type goal every time, which is a good reason to use jail.


When I press the button at the bottom of my mobile phone, the first screen has the time and date at the top and the instruction ‘Swipe screen to unlock’ at the bottom. In the middle are various bits of information, including notifications of missed calls or voice messages, and news from Google. Earlier today, the new was “New LPA to boost rains from habagat”. I have no idea what that means and equally no idea why Google would think I was interested. Some research was necessary.

Searching Google found the article on Inquirer.net, the headline of which had one extra, even more baffling word “New LPA to boost rains from habagat, ‘Falcon’”. The first paragraph makes almost everything clear:

MANILA, Philippines — A new low pressure area west of the Philippines will further enhance the southwest monsoon and Tropical Storm “Falcon” (international name: Danas).

So an LPA is a low pressure area (is this really commonly used in Filipino news headlines?), a/the/- habagat is the south-west monsoon (“characterized by hot and humid weather, frequent heavy rainfall, and a prevailing wind from the west” and lasting May/June to Nov/Dec – Wikipedia), and “Falcon” is an officially named tropical storm. (For the rest of the year, the prevailing weather is the amihan – “moderate temperatures, little or no rainfall, and a prevailing wind from the east”.)

What it doesn’t make clear is why Google thinks I would be interested.

PS I can imagine an Australian news source using “low” and “high” in a headline, but not LPA or HPA.

Indo-European clothes

In 2015, many of my students were from Pakistan. Some of them wore traditional Pakistani clothes, especially on Fridays, when they went from class to prayers at a mosque. I asked them what those clothes were called, and they said “Shalwar kameez”. The shalwar is the trousers and the kameez the top. It’s a long way from Pakistani men to the chemise and camisole, but the garments and the words are related. 

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When the jester sang for the king and queen

One question sparked three very interesting points about language and language learning. 

A few weeks ago I bought two boxes of question and answer cards based on colourful cartoon-style pictures of ‘Wonders of the World’ and ‘Moments in History’. I found them in the children’s section of a standard bookshop, so I guess they’re for children growing up in English-speaking countries, but most of the questions are also suitable for English language learners. I’ve used them in some classes already, and they’ve generally worked well.

One picture showed a medieval banquet with a king and queen (or lord and lady) and several others sitting at a table eating and a person in brightly coloured clothes standing in front of them doing something. One of the questions was “What colour is the jester’s collar?”.

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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.

National characteristics, according to Google Ngram Viewer

For no particular reason I started wondering what Google Ngram Viewer might reveal about countries, at least as recorded in the form ‘Australian (something)’. The results for 17 well-known nationalities are:

English … language translation law literature people history Church government army nation
Welsh … language people border Church mountains princes coal coast prince bards
Scottish … Parliament history parliament army Church people nation king nobles queen
Irish … people Catholics Sea history parliament Free Parliament nation Church members
British … Columbia government Museum Empire Government Isles troops army India subjects

French … Revolution government army troops people language king Government nation fleet
German … people government army troops language states Empire literature princes Government
Italian … Renaissance opera cities art language people style Government literature states
Spanish … America government troops fleet army colonies ambassador ships monarchy Government
Russian … Revolution government people Empire army troops empire Government armies fleet

American … Journal Society Association Revolution history Indians people colonies army war
Canadian … Journal government Pacific border National provinces history Government side people
Australian … National Journal Government government Museum aborigines colonies continent ballot Colonies
New Zealand … Journal Herald Government Division Institute Company Association troops Parliament flax

Chinese … government people characters history language Communists authorities troops Government Empire
Japanese … government War people occupation language troops Government forces army war
Korean … War government peninsula Peninsula economy people war conflict People Government

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Words from paradise

One of the choirs I sing in is rehearsing a work consisting of five movements each setting one word from the Bible. The words – holy, hallelujah, selah, hosanna and amen – are from Germanic, Hebrew, Greek and/or Latin, and are now different degrees of ‘English’.

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instantaneously v instantly

A few days ago, an article I was subediting used the word instantaneously in conjunction with transmitted – I can’t remember which way round. I started wondering if there is any distinction between instantaneously and the shorter instantly, if there is, then what is it, and if there isn’t, whether I should change it anyway. Dictionary.com defines instantaneous as:

occurring, done, or completed in an instant:
an instantaneous response.
existing at or pertaining to a particular instant:
the instantaneous position of the rocket.

It defines instant (as an adjective) as:

succeeding without any interval of time; prompt; immediate:
instant relief from a headache.
pressing or urgent:
instant need.
noting a food or beverage requiring a minimal amount of time and effort to prepare, as by heating or the addition of milk or water, before being served or used:
instant coffee; instant pudding.
occurring, done, or prepared with a minimal amount of time and effort; produced rapidly and with little preparation:
an instant book; instant answers; instant history.
designed to act or produce results quickly or immediately:
an instant lottery.
Older Use
. of the present month:
your letter of the 12th instant.
present; current:
the instant case before the court.

In some cases there, instantaneous and instant are not interchangeable. I’m not sure I’d like to drink instantaneous coffee. 

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illumine v illuminate

One of the prayers for Christmas morning asked God to “illumine” us or some people or the whole world (I can’t check because I didn’t bring the service sheet home). Illumine and illuminate are both valid English words. Both are from Latin illuminare (verb) and lumen (noun). According to Dictionary.com, illumine is earlier  (1300-50), but it is defined only as “to illuminate”.  Illuminate dates from 1400-50, and –ate is certainly a more common verb ending. 

Illumination covers actual and metaphorical light. Sometimes the Bible talks about actual light and sometimes about metaphorical light, and sometimes it is hard to know which is meant. This morning’s Gospel reading was from John 1, which includes “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood [or overcome] it” (vv4-5 NIV, see also vv8-9).

Even though illumine is the older form, Google Ngrams shows that it was very rarely used until about  1700. From about 1750 to 1900, it hovered around a quarter of the frequency of illuminate, after which illuminate has grown and illumine has declined in use.

To me, illumine sounds more poetic, and more metaphoric (no doubt the growth of actual illumination after 1900 largely accounts for the growth of illuminate). While it is possible to ask God to (metaphorically) illuminate us, it would be very unlikely for a movie director or director of photography to ask the gaffer (chief lighting technician) to (actually) illumine the set in a certain way. 

Unlike preventive and preventative, where I would unhesitatingly recommend the shorter alternative, here I would recommend the longer version, illuminate.