Orchid English Blog

False Friends in English

Posted on June 17, 2012

When I lived in Paris a colleague called me on my mobile, beginning in a polite tone of voice; “j’espère que je ne te dérange pas” I understood the first part; “I hope that I’m not” and, somewhat confused, reassured her that she wasn’t. I spent the rest of the conversation thinking that surely she couldn’t be wondering whether she was making me “deranged”! On looking up the word later it made sense, “déranger” in French means “disturb” in English.

I also had several strange conversations with French students of English, telling me they had just “passed” an exam. “Congratulations!” I’d reply. “Oh no, I haven’t got the result yet”, they’d reply. Confusingly, “passer un examen” means “take an exam” rather than “pass” it.

In France it is perfectly acceptable to “demande” something, it just means to “ask” and doesn’t necessarily have such a forceful nuance as English “demand”.

When English words are imported into other languages, they may take on a meaning subtly or spectacularly different from the original meaning. A French woman once told me that she had gone to the hairdresser for a “brushing”. I wondered why on Earth she couldn’t just brush her hair herself, and then noticed that lots of hairdressers in France advertise “brushing” in the window. It means “styling”, something her hairdresser probably was better at.

In Japan, at the end of the season, you might go to a “baagen” (sale) hoping to pick up something that in English is a “bargain”. But don’t be tempted to buy that ill-fitting neon tracksuit just because it’s cheap! Avoiding this common pitfall may lead you to be described as “sensu ga aru”. This doesn’t mean that you have good “sense” but rather that you have good taste. In English if you said that someone has “good sense” it would sound more like they always locked up their house properly, ate sensibly and so on.

While I was researching this I was delighted to find that the Japanese have invented the word “dokutāsutoppu”, meaning  when a doctor tells a patient to stop doing something. I don’t believe that there is a specific word for this in English. We should start using it though;

“I really love red meat but when I went to the clinic this week I got a doctorstop on it.”

“Oh bad luck”

I also found that in German “Oldtimer” means an old car, rather than a flippant way to describe an elderly person. While I do love this, I’m not sure we could absorb this seamlessly into English:

“I can’t get my car out, some oldtimer’s in the way.”

“Great trade-in prices on oldtimers!”

There are also some interesting false friends among different varieties of English.

Visiting my cousin’s house in Australia, my cousin’s daughter who was then a toddler announced to me that she wanted her “stroller”. Intrigued, I responded “That’s OK, go and get it” because I didn’t know what she was talking about. When the little girl came back pushing it, I understood. I mentioned to my cousin that in the UK we call that a “buggy” and she laughed and said it sounded like something horrible you find in your nose.

“A moot point” in the US means something unworthy of discussion, whereas in the UK it’s the opposite, something controversial or undecided. In punctuation, “hash” to me means “#” and “pound” means “£”. I discovered through using American automated phone systems that in American English “pound” means “#”. British speakers increasingly use American English words due to the influence of the media, which can create ambiguities. Does “you look smart” mean that you are dressed formally, or that you look clever?

So if English isn’t your first language take heart, there is no one “correct” version, and even native speakers get confused by other native speakers.

Rhythms in Music and Language

Posted on May 15, 2012

I recently attended a very enjoyable dance show of Nihon Buyo, traditional Japanese dance. The dancers were so graceful and the kimono were distinct and beautiful. I was pleasantly surprised at the extent to which the dancers could tell a complex story using a sequence of movements and facial expressions; a geisha waiting for her lover or a dance of the springtime.

To me the rhythm sounded quite exotic, sometimes punctuated by stamps of the feet or pauses. This “exoticness” to my ears may perhaps in part be accounted for by the fact that English is a stress-timed language whereas Japanese is a syllable-timed language. Syllables or phonemes which hold little stress in English can be got through more quickly, whereas in Japanese the syllables hold equal weight regardless of importance to the meaning of the sentence.

You may have noticed that words are pronounced differently in different contexts in English, and this can be quite difficult for those learning English as a foreign language. Take the sentence “Does Benny want to get a curry?” Can you tell intuitively where the stress placement is? It’s on “Benny” and “curry”, the subject and the object.

This leaves “want to get a” running together fast and several of the sounds that would occur in isolation omitted. It can sound something like “wanageta”. One reason for this is that it is a little awkward to pronounce two “t”s sequentially in “want to”.

A general rule for stress placement in a sentence is that the most important words for the meaning of the sentence are usually stressed. Word stress can seem quite irregular but there are some rules and it gets more and more intuitive.

One important rule is that affixes can control the stress placement, like -tion. Any word ending in -tion will have the stress directly before the -tion syllable. Test it! NAtion, disambiguAtion, proTECtion, FACtion, conSUMPtion. You can read more about sentence stress here:


If you can spare some time to read about stress and learn the rules it will help make your English sound much more natural.

Below is a photo from after the Nihon Buyo performance. Thank you very much to everyone who made it such a memorable afternoon.

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.