What are the oldest words in English?

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Earliest known words

The earliest words in English cover the same concepts as old words in other languages and logically, relate to basic needs of communication. The University of Reading conducted a study in 2013 that came up with words that have remained unchanged for at least 900 and possibly up to 15,000 years. It is, of course, practically impossible to pinpoint the first word in English with 100% accuracy, but here are are some of the contenders that are deeply rooted in the origins of the English language.

I, we and this

It is clear that humans need pronouns to refer to themselves and objects when communicating. Therefore, hardly surprising that these words are on the list.

Mother

A little bit of girl power here, as the word “mother” is quite a bit older than “father”, and was clearly recognised as the vital starting point of the life cycle.

Black

In prehistoric times, it was necessary to have a word that indicated “no light at all.” Interestingly, the word “white” took a significantly longer time to appear in our vocabulary.

Fire and ashes

Fire was a basic element of prehistoric daily life, not only because it provided warmth. light and security but was also a cooking tool. It is a no-brainer then, for both “fire” and “ashes” to be on the list.

Old

So funnily enough, “old” is an old word. Older people in these times were generally revered for their wisdom and experience. Not always the case today…..

Hear

The word “hear” has been around for longer than the verb ” speak”. Of course, being able to hear was another basic survival skill, necessary for hunting or fleeing from wild animals, along with listening for sounds of danger or cries for help. Speaking was not as highly-rated as the ability to hear….maybe there is a lesson to learn here ?

Hand

A vital body part which may have been in constant danger in a prehistoric world, with predators, fire and other dangers from the natural world.

Spit

At first sight, this may look like a surprising entry, but spitting was another survival technique – someone had to taste those foul tasting or poisonous plants first, so we know not to eat them, right ?

Worm

Very possibly related to the need for a word to spit. And evidence that these creatures have been around for a long, long time.

Love and give

Satisying human interaction involves loving and giving, together with the fact that cooperation and teamwork were also key in the struggle for survival.

Conclusion

A common theme in this blog is that our vocabulary relates to our human circumstances. This fact is evident once more, in the words used by our prehistoric ancestors. Whilst fire, ashes, worm and spit are concepts that may have lost urgency in the modern world due to our more comfortable surroundings , several of the words in this list are still considered as basic human necessities of life itself.

British icons – the red phone box

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The great British phone box

A famous icon

Practically everyone in the Western world can probably identify a red British phone box, which is undoubtedly a cultural icon. Despite the fact that mobile phones are now commonplace, the instantly recognisable red phone cabins can still be found in the U.K. and in former or present colonies.

The beginning

The very first British phone kiosk, now known as K1, was made in 1921, using concrete. In 1924 a competition was held to design a new phone box, and the winner was Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. He suggested that the exterior be painted silver with a green/blue interior. The Post Office used his prototype but decided to paint the cast iron phone boxes in red so they could easily be identified in case of an emergency.. This K2 model is generally what people have in mind when they imagine a British phone kiosk, although in fact there have been several later versions.  As the K2’s were also relatively expensive to manufacture and transport, this particular model was mainly installed in London, and of course, is where you will find most of the remaining K2’s today. The K3 was also the work of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, due to the need for a cheaper alternative to its predecessor. The next model in the series, K4, was produced by the Post Office Engineering Department in 1927 and comprised a post box and a machine for buying stamps in addition to the phone, although only 50 of these kiosks were manufactured.

Yellow phone boxes

Some 50 years later, there was a public outcry in 1980 when British Telecom announced they were going to paint public phone boxes yellow. In the end, only a tiny percentage of the boxes were painted a different colour “as an experiment”, but the plan to repaint all phone boxes yellow never came to fruition. In 1982 British Telecom introduced the KX100, an open-sided booth that was easier to maintain and could be used by people in wheelchairs. At this point, B.T. also eliminated many of the older red phone boxes, although the British people were in uproar again over the loss of their beloved British symbol.

Reinvention

In spite of the digital era in which we now live, the old-fashioned red phone box is far from obsolete. Apart from the booths which still operate with their original intention, you can find red phone boxes being used in a variety of imaginative ways. They are used to house libraries, defibrillators, and art galleries. One is a colour therapy box and another provides hot dogs, ice-cream, tea and coffee. In the Virgin Isles, a red phone kiosk acts as a beach shower. The red phone box is a British icon which intends to remain as part of our lansdcape and lives.

Origins of the word “hipster”

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A twenty-first century hipster

1920-1940’s

The term “hipster” was first heard in the 1920’s and according to the Merriam- Webster dictionary defines “a person who is unusually aware of and interested in new and unconventional patterns (as in jazz or fashion)”. In the early days of jazz music, there were two prefixies -“hep” and “hip” which meant non-mainstream and/or “in-the-know”. However , the use of “hep” declined whilst “hip” survived.

The 50’s until present day

Towards, the end of the 50’s the word “hipster” may have drifted to become the word “hippie”, the famous youth movement that began in San Francisco and which became popular as an alternative lifestyle at the end of the 60’s. But the word “hipster” never really went away and in the 21st century has become a word for a young trendsetter, often with creative facial hair. Its meaning still focuses very much on a way of dressing, although a typical facet of a “hipster” nowadays is also being a fan of indie music. So there you have it – the word “hipster” is actually much older than you might think.

The origin of the expression “red tape”

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Graduate holding their official cerificate

    I currently live in Spain, an incredibly diverse country with a great quality of life. But one of the downfalls of living here is the amount of red tape you need to deal with at times. What does this mean? Dealing with red tape means going through a lot of (often perceived as unnecessary and finicky) bureaucracy. Everyone who lives in Spain knows how much time you can spend in a government office with regards to a bureaucratic procedure, such as applying for residency, or completing a tax return, or ……the list is long.

Why do we call it red tape? Well, if you think about historical films that depict, say, the Middle Ages, important official documents are either sealed with red wax, or yes, you guessed it, tied with a red ribbon or tape. And from this idea, administrative paperwork in the 21st century has come to be known as red tape. We still sometimes use the tradition of red tape when handing out certificates ( see photo above.).

For me, the benefits of living in Spain definitely outweigh the drawbacks, but that frustrating red tape is definitely part of the price you need to pay.

Great British traditions – a cup of tea

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A short history of the British love for tea

How did the British fall in love with tea?

According to historians, tea first came to Europe in the 16th century, via Dutch and Portuguese traders. The habit of tea drinking gradually spread throughout Europe and the first person to sell tea in Britain was Thomas Garway in London in 1657. Around fifty years later, in 1701, Thomas Twining opened London’s first teashop.

At first tea drinking was an expensive habit that only the rich could afford. Tea was classed as a luxury item with high taxes, and at one point tea tax was at the ridiculous amount of 119%. This gave rise to tea smuggling, which often involved tea adulterated with herbs, other leaves and even previously used tea leaves. Tea smuggling was generally halted in 1784 when the tax on tea dropped to 12.5%.

The East India Company was given a monopoly for selling tea in Britain in 1832. They soon began to use “clippers” – sailing ships prized for their speed. The tea market was highly competitive and the faster the ship, the more the owner could charge for the mission. The Cutty Sark is a British tea clipper built in those times, and can still be visited today in the Greenwich Maritime Museum.

Tea in Britain was originally drunk on its own, but the additions of milk and sugar increased its popularity. Sugar was becoming widely available to due to the boom in sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Originally considered as a drink only for the rich and the aristocracy, during the 19th century tea gradually became more available to the middle classes and tea shops soared in popularity. Drinking tea became the norm in middle class households.

By the 19th century, the working classes were also fans of tea drinking. It was seen as a warm, energy giving drink which was extremely useful in Britain’s cold and damp climate. The working classes probably began drinking tea as a source of energy at work before it became a ritual at home.

Although there has been a slight decline in “normal” tea drinkers in recent years, and fruit and herbal teas are becoming more widespread, tea is still very much a longstanding and essential part of British culture. Twinings is thought to be the world’s oldest commercial logo which is still in use today. Not only is tea still incredibly popular in Britain, it is estimated that the Brits drink around 60 billion cups of tea per year.

Anyone for a cuppa?

Origins of the expressions “flying colours” and “show true colours”

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Ship flying colourful flags

To pass with flying colours

We usually use “to pass with flying colours” in conjunction with some type of test or exam to express the idea that the candidate has achieved high marks.  

“ My son passed his exam with flying colours”. “ Oh really, that’s wonderful!”

But where does this phrase come from? Like other expressions still in common use today, this has its origins in nautical history and refers to the colourful flags flying from a masthead of a ship. In the past, before the use of the widespread communication channels of today, a ship’s appearance was the key to how they had fared on their voyage.  If a ship had been defeated in battle, flags were not flown. But when a ship returned to port victorious from a mission, all their flags would be on display to show their achievement and to communicate this from afar, before the ship docked.

And….

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A ship destroyed by pirates

To show your true colours

In a similar way, “to show your true colours” also has its roots in naval history. Sometimes pirate ships would use the tactic of a friendly flag in order to deceive their prey and gain proximity. Once they had secured access to the ship, the pirate flag would be shown and they would attack in search of treasure. Of course, nowadays we use this expression to denote that someone has shown their real (usually unpleasant) feelings or personality after a period of initial friendliness.

Origins of the word “geek”

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Where does the word geek come from ?

A word with a story

 This word originates from the German word “geck” and was used in the 16th century to describe someone who participated in the activities offered at funfairs or carnivals, knowing full well they would lose their money – in other words, a fool. But somehow by the 16th century it had become the word to describe the people who played a part in the carnival itself. This process of gradual change in meaning is known as semantic drift.  A 16th century funfair was pretty off-putting by today’s standards, as many of these geeks entertained people by biting the heads off dead animals…. pretty disgusting and definitely not today’s standards of fun. But by the early 20th century, a “geek” was also the definition of someone who played a dangerous role in the funfair – for example, the strongman or the fire eater, but it was still used as a word to describe people who performed freaky and sensational circus acts.

Modern geeks

In the second half of the 20th century, with the emergence of computers and new technologies, the word “geek” semantically drifted again.  Society needed a word to describe people who were devoted to and often obsessed with technology, and along with their passion for technical wizardry, were often socially awkward.  During the 1980’s these people began to be known as “geeks”. It was and still is, sometimes, used as a derogatory term, but geeks are finally beginning to have the last laugh. The increasingly significant role of technology in today’s world means that people with geeky skills are more and more in demand. In addition, if you call yourself a geek, it is generally in order to validate your knowledge and passion for technology, and not in the least offensive. An interesting journey then, for the word “geek”, which over time has changed its meaning from fool to expert.

Origin of the word “freelance”

  Maybe some of you are who reading this post are freelancers, like me. But have you ever thought about where this term originated? It actually began life as two words – free lance, then was hyphenated as free-lance and today is spelt as one word.

Well, it seems to have come into usage in the 19th century and was used by Sir Walter Scott in 1819, in his book Ivanhoe, to describe what we would call today a mercenary, i.e. a soldier with his own equipment, that is, his lance, who would accept payment for the use of his weapon and his fighting abilities. Does this sound like an analogy for a modern day freelancer?  Obviously, we do not go around killing people with lances ….but for example, freelance writers have our own equipment such as writing skills and a computer with Internet access for a start, and we sell our services to who we wish, rather than being a salaried member of an organization. And in keeping with the military tone, we often have our own, less bloody, battles to fight.

In addition, freelancers are often perceived as being happier as not only do they work independently from a boss, they are generally following their passion in life be it writing, painting, computer technology, you name it…………there’s bound to be a freelancer who offers this service.

Do you know these new words?

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10 new words in English

In one my previous posts, namely English is Alive, we looked a little at the evolution of vocabulary and the way that words can survive, drift in meaning or die out. With this in mind, here are 10 new words which might make it to the mainsteam English dictionaries of the future or may just fade into oblivion…..

Badassery – I love this one where a noun has been created to describe the behaviour of a badass, in other words, someone with rebellious ways.

Bromance/ Brogrammer – The first relates to a strong male non-sexual friendship. A brogrammer, in contrast to a geek, works in technology, but takes pride in his masculinity at the same time.

Buzzworthy/Buzzkill – two antonyms to express something creating excitement amongst the masses (buzzworthy) and its opposite, advising that the buzz of excitement has been killed off.

Cyberchrondriac – a person who thinks they are ill after reading their about their symptoms on Internet.

Frankenfood – used to describe food created by artificial or scientific means

Humblebrag – to talk about yout achievements , attempting to show modesty, but bragging all the same.

Locavore – a person who sources food locally

Trashion – fashionable items made from old or recycled clothing.

Some of this vocabulary might just be a passing fad. Other words could still be around in the next hundred years. Which of these words do you think have staying power ?

Does formal English matter anymore?

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Formal English – do we still need it ?

Different registers in language

When we communicate, we use different registers of language, which, to simplify matters, in the English teaching world, we class into formal, neutral and informal. Most English words are, in fact, neutral.But if we are writing or speaking to people we know well, we are most likely using contractions, slang and informal expressions as well. Formal English is for more serious communication, such as a writing a letter of application. In these cases, we generally use longer sentences and ((hopefully) correct grammar. A lot of our communication may not fit perfectly into these formal/informal pigeonholes, but we have do an idea of the register when we look at how the writing is formulated.

Formal versus informal

For non-native speakers of English, the difference between these two registers can be sometimes difficult to understand. Students have often asked me the past if a word is “formal” or “informal” when it is a neutral word that belongs in neither category. Generally it is the words and expressions around these neutral words that lend your correspondence a formal or informal style. A good English language teacher will always tell you if vocabulary is very formal, and therefore probably old-fashioned and/or used in very specific situations, or on the other hand, very informal, and therefore has no place in formal writing. Besides, a formal register uses grammatically correct sentences, and therefore tends to have longer sentences, and unlike an informal email, has no contractions, no text language like “C u l8ter”, and definitely no emoticons.

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Emoticons – save them for your private messages

Latin influence

In English, a lot of the words that originated from Latin tend to be classed as more formal, which is useful for English language students whose first language is of Roman origin, as the word they need in English is frequently similar to the word they use in their own language, for example, ” I received your email.” and not ” I got your email “. When words began to be documented, the official language used was Latin, and its influence is still present today, even if we have anglicised the word.

The business world

The process of business writing has changed immensely since we started using email and the Internet for correspondence in the workplace. Whereas in previous centuries, formality was highly regarded, today the crucial issue is having the skills in order to express ideas clearly in a comprehensible way. Time is of the essence. But few people would disagree that a well-written business proposal looks much more trustworthy than one with grammatical mistakes. In the workplace, your emails and other written documents are an advertisement of your professional image. . This is key with clients and people you do not know well. In the business world, no-one is expecting you to be Charles Dickens or write an academic essay – in fact, this is not what they want at all. They need concise and easy to understand information.

Which register should I use ?

And if you are in doubt how to respond to an email, follow the style of the person who wrote to you. . If they say “speak to ya later ” then it is certain they are using an informal tone. This register is generally much easier to recognise and reproduce because it’s similar to the way we speak. If the writer says ” I look forward to seeing you at the meeting”, this should point you towards a more formal reply. If you are unsure about formal writing, there are tons of examples of formal letter writing on the net. Emails haven’t been around long enough to have the same amount of etiquette attached as letter writing, but on the whole, professional business emails should be written in a neutral tone, and grammar and spelling mistakes should be avoided. Save the emoticons and textspeak for your private messages.

Relevance today

So is formal writing still relevant ? Well, I would say that if you are thinking about old-fashioned expressions, such as ” I remain yours faithfully”, well, it is exactly that, an old-fashioned expression which is nowadays out of touch with the modern world. But there are certain circumstances when you may need to write very politely to someone in a superior position and/or you want to make the best impression. Formal writing, by which I mean, accurate grammar and spelling and the correct tone and format, is always going to create a positive impression.