Orchid English Blog

Favourite Words

Posted on May 4, 2012

When I was little sometimes I used to read the dictionary. I found my favourite word this way; “sesquipedalianism”. Doesn’t it sound elegant? Wouldn’t you be impressed if you head that? I haven’t ever had cause to use it until now but it still gives me pleasure. It means, wonderfully appropriately: “given to using long words”.

I came across a website dedicated to people’s favourite words and was pleasantly surprised to find that “sesquipedalian” is admired by other people too. I have never actually heard anyone use this word or seen it in natural use so I wonder how the others know it. Surely there can’t be many dictionary-readers out there.

My flatmate asserted without hesitation that his favourite word was “conundrum”. When pressed for a reason, he explained that he liked the way it was said. And then that the fact he liked it without knowing quite why it sounded so good was itself a conundrum.

I once asked a Japanese student of English what her favourite word was, and she replied “Rainbow”. That’s a nice one, I think. My favourite Japanese word is “Yappari” meaning “I knew it!” I think it’s mostly the sound that I like; strong and dynamic.

According to various studies Britain’s favourite words in seem to be either “serendipity” or “nincompoop”. I really hope it’s the former. Nincompoop? I can’t stand it! It sounds like something disgusting although actually it’s a playground insult.

Well I hope you solve the conundrum of your favourite word in the lexical rainbow of the English language. Just don’t be a nincompoop and choose nincompoop!

Neologisms in English

Posted on April 12, 2012

In my previous job teaching English at a language school in France, starved of material or inspiration I would sometimes look to the old textbooks in the staff room. Occasionally there would be English books more than fifteen years old. It made me somewhat nostalgic that the symbol for audio was a cassette tape but on closer inspection the grammar and vocabulary was  subtly different too.

My parents’ generation use the structure “shall” and “shan’t” e.g. “I shall do it tomorrow” or “I shan’t listen to him”. While I might use the positive “shall” in this way it would probably be ironic, and my use of “shall” is almost entirely limited to making suggestions; “shall we go to the park?” Words like “chap” and “cheerio” are rarely heard from my generation, and you won’t hear many retired people use the word “cool”.

In English speaking cultures new words are assimilated relatively easily. Some are anagrams like LOL (laugh out loud), Facebook alone has created the verb “to friend” and the opposite is the compound to “unfriend”. Even the noun Facebook can be used as a verb, meaning to send someone a message via Facebook.

A friend facebooked me recently and said that she had an “earworm”. I had to look this up on Urban Dictionary to discover that it meant a piece of music that you can’t get out of your mind. It was the second time I had had to do this for a word she has used, the first was the word “nom” (yum) which I have since heard in such guises as “nommy”. Incidentally, I am currently trying to coin the compound “nomtastic” although no-one has taken it up to my knowledge. Until it catches on, I will have to concede that my friend deserves the title of “Neoloqueen”.

The Unusual Origins of Words in English

Posted on February 28, 2012

Abby, a good friend of mine, recently started a food blog: http://bristoleatingadventures.blogspot.com and while reading about a curry she had made it got me thinking about the origins of food words in English. Britain’s most popular takeaway, which we call “curry”, does not have the a similar name in any Indian language. It is in fact a mistranslation of the word for “black pepper” in the Tamil language.

One of the biggest genres in which American English and British English differ is in food vocabulary. When I was younger I would hear the word “eggplant” on American TV programmes and wonder what it was. I thought maybe it was a vegetable I’d never eaten before. It wasn’t until I heard the word and saw a picture of it at the same time that I discovered it was in fact what we in the UK call an “aubergine”. “Aubergine” has its origins in French, and “eggplant” gets its name from the fact that the unripe vegetables are small and white like eggs.

A lot of people assume that the word “sandwich” is so called because of how it’s constructed; it’s “sandwiched” together. While it’s true that you can describe two objects surrounding something inside like this, the word actually comes from a town in the South East of England. In the eighteenth century the Earl of Sandwich decided that he didn’t want to leave the gaming table for meals. He asked his servants to put some meat in between two slices of bread so he could pick it up easily.

On the subject of sandwiches, when I taught in Italy my students were bemused to find out that in English we often call an Italian toasted sandwich “panini” if it’s singular and “paninis” if it’s plural. In Italian it’s “panino” for the singular, and “panini” for the plural. I have seen “panini” advertised in England the Italian way, but the tendency is for the anglicised “paninis”.

Do you use English words in your native language? Are they used in the same way as they are in English? It would be great to hear your thoughts.


Using “Please” Correctly in English

Posted on February 12, 2012

The word “please” is used slightly differently across languages and if you’re not careful it can have the opposite meaning to what  you intended.

I was bemused when, as a teacher in Japan, a university student came to me after class holding a textbook and said to me with a smile, “please make a copy”. The student was inadvertently giving me no option to refuse her request and projecting a real air of authority over me.

Be careful! “Please” with an imperative can very easily sound like an order with no option to refuse. If you are on the train where there are plenty of seats and you say to your friend “Please sit down”, your friend may feel offended. You appear to be presenting yourself as the director of the situation with your friend as the subordinate.

If you say “Please, sit down” to a guest in your company it sounds like a formal way to say “You’re welcome here, have a seat”. In this case, sitting down will be of more benefit to the addressee than to the speaker. Likewise, “please have a chocolate” will be of more benefit to the person being offered a chocolate than the giver who will have one fewer chocolate to enjoy.

If I want someone to do something for me, it is more polite to use a modal like “could” or “can” and make it into a question so that the person can choose whether to help you or not. If it’s a very hot day it’s best to say to your colleague “Please could you open the window?” In this situation, opening the window may have more benefit to the speaker rather than the addressee asked to do the favour. Perhaps they do not feel too hot. “Please open the window” presumes authority over the person and gives them an instruction which they have no choice over.

When people learn English at school they are often taught to say “Please repeat”. As a teacher, certainly addressing a group of children, this seems natural as the teacher has authority and is projecting this. Between adults it is much more polite to say “Please could you repeat that?” or, more casually, “Could you repeat that?” The teacher, as the authority figure in the classroom, may wish to say “please repeat” when giving instructions to the class but it sounds strange for a student to speak like this to a teacher, or for colleagues to speak like this to each other. Perhaps a director will say to a subordinate “please make a copy of this document” but there is a clear projection of authority in saying this and an implication of a very hierarchical working relationship.

On a sign, please and an instruction is natural and polite because there is no option to answer and be heard. So “Please take your shoes off here” or “Please keep off the grass” is fine. There are also some set phrases used in formal client facing situations like “please hold the line” or “please wait a moment” which are fine as imperatives as they do not require a response.

Out of office email replies don’t require a response and may contain a “please” imperative like, “I am out of the office until Thursday. If your query is urgent please contact my colleague Mr X in my absence, or I will reply to your email on my return”.

I often finish blog entries saying “Please let us know your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter” because a blog is not a two-way conversation. I might ask a direct question such as “What are your thoughts?” as an invitation to comment, but not “Please could you let us know your thoughts?”

So, please let us know your thoughts!

Why is English Spelling so Strange?

Posted on January 26, 2012

English spelling is quite irregular due to several factors. The spelling may reflect the way people pronounced the word in English historically, and it has now evolved to a different pronunciation. A great deal of words come from other languages such as French and Greek, and they retain elements of the original spelling although these words are pronounced differently in English.English spelling can trick people learning English into pronouncing words incorrectly.

I often hear people pronounce the “l” in words like “salmon” or “calm” when it should be silent: /sæmən/ and /kɑːm/. The weak vowel sound called “schwa” is the most common vowel in English but we have no special letter to transcribe it in everyday spelling. If you say “A car” the word “A” is pronounced with a schwa. It is written like this in the International Phonetic Alphabet: /ə/.

People studying English have a tendency to pronounce each vowel in a word as if it’s a strong vowel but in fact it is often a schwa especially in unstressed syllables. The word “above” has a schwa as its unstressed first syllable and the second syllable rhymes with “love”: /əˈbʌv/.

Watching TV or films with subtitles is great for improving your pronunciation as well as your listening. As you listen and read you may notice words that are pronounced very differently from the spelling.