I’ve been doing a lot of dabbling in various languages over the past few months, and I’ve really learned a lot. I’d be lying if I said I regretted it because I quite enjoy having a broad pool of knowledge (though in some parts it’s incredibly shallow) to draw from. Languages are living things which influence each other as they morph and grow, and you never know when those few words you learned in Portuguese will be useful when you come to learn Italian or French, and you can trace the differences back as far as Latin and even beyond. The one thing I do regret about this time of exploration is that I’ve sort of neglected my mother tongue – I have noticed that my English is nowhere near as good as it once was. I’ve spent a lot of time reading in Swedish to boost my vocabulary and I feel like my English has suffered as a result.
I do realise that this is probably all in my head, and that you never really forget your mother tongue – but even your first language is a muscle that needs exercise to grow stronger. So that’s why I’m dedicating this post to English – my first linguistic love – and exploring some of the weird and wonderful words that English has to offer.
The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.
The oft-cited quote by Canadian writer James Nicoll really sums up English for me. It’s a weird and wonderful mix of so many languages and cultures; we’ve been plundering words from all over the place for centuries – like our first example. The word callipygian is an utterly glorious adjective meaning ‘having beautifully shaped buttocks’. It comes from the Ancient Greek καλλίπυγος, stemming from a joining of the words κάλλος (meaning ‘beauty’) and πῡγή (meaning ‘buttocks’). When you know the root of the word, somehow it conjures Michelangelo’s David, rather than that bloke in the tight jeans you saw in the pub last week. Though both are equally callipygian, I’m sure.
People often look to Japanese as a language that has a word for everything, and it often appears on those lists of ‘interesting foreign words’. A word I’ve seen quite a lot is 木漏れ日 (こもれび, komorebi), which means ‘sunlight that filters through the leaves of trees’. And while it is beautiful, what you may not know is that there’s also an English word for this phenomenon: shivelight, coined by Gerard Manley Hopkins in the 1800s.
The origins of words are equally fascinating – for instance, did you know that the word sarcasm comes from the Ancient Greek word σαρκάζω, which literally means ‘to tear flesh’? This word in turn comes from the root σάρξ, meaning ‘meat’ or ‘flesh’, which, together with the word ἔφαγον (‘I ate, I devoured’) gave rise to the word σαρκοφάγος from which we get sarcophagus. This is apparently due to the belief that the limestone used in making Greek sarcophagi would actually consume the flesh of the dead.
The word lalochezia refers to relieving stress, pain or anxiety by swearing. This is not to be confused with dyschezia, which is a painful bowel movement. Both share the Greek root χέζω, which means ‘I defecate’. A pluviophile is one who loves the rain, lethologica (or its synonym letholexia) refers to the inability to remember the correct word, and the word poppycock (meaning ‘nonsense’) comes from the Dutch word pappekak, which can either mean ‘soft dung’ or ‘doll poo’.
Finally, I wanted to draw attention to something that’s bugged me for years. Some of you may be familiar with the work of Susie Dent – and those who are unfamiliar with the name will almost certainly know her as ‘the lady with the dictionary on Countdown’ (at least those of you who live in the UK, at any rate). It’s her job to know about this sort of thing, so people often send her questions on Twitter – and this one in particular caught my eye. She was asked as if there was such a thing as being gruntled. Disgruntled is a word in common usage these days, but I personally had never thought to describe someone as being just plain gruntled. Apparently, it’s possible! It is also possible to be kempt (as opposed to unkempt), couth (as opposed to uncouth), ruthful (the opposite of ruthless), whelmed (as opposed to under or indeed overwhelmed, but it apparently means ‘capsized’ so I’m not sure about this one) and, another one that’s always puzzled me, if you’re not gormless, you can be gorm-like! And for a while in the 1600s, you could even be shevelled, as opposed to dishevelled.
The English language has so much to offer, and honestly I’m so pleased to have been able to take this stroll through its more obscure offerings. Now, over to you – what’s your favourite word? Let me know in the comments, or even on Twitter where you can find me @sprakskatan. A lot of the words from this post came from the Twitter feed of the ever-delightful Susie Dent (@susie_dent) and the Podcast she shares with the sometimes-tolerable Gyles Brandreth – Something Rhymes with Purple, which I cannot recommend enough. Thank you so much for reading, and I’ll see you next month for Polyglot NaNoWriMo!