As discussed earler in this blog, ( see “English is Alive”, posted Sep 2nd 2019 ) new words come about because a need arises for humans to be able to label a new object or concept. Earlier this month, on a trip to New York, a sign on the subway from the MTA (New York’s public transport company) caught my eye. It prohibited graffiti and scratchiti. To date, scratchiti is not officially a word, meaning that it cannot be found in the recognised leading dictionaries of the English language. But do you instantly understand the meaning of scratchiti ? Of course you do.
Scratchiti and graffiti
This got me thinking about why people feel the need to make their mark by the use of scratchiti. After all, scratchiti is not limited to the twenty-first century. In both schools and jails, scratchiti has always been commonplace. Why ? Undoubtedly, boredom plays a huge role, and possibly the need to reassert a sense of personal identity in institutions where individuality is generally repressed, for example. prisons and schools. Vandalism can never be condoned, but understanding the reasons behind it can be useful .
And what about graffiti ?
There are multiple motivations for graffiti, scratchiti’s etymological big brother. Again, boredom is obviously one of the causes, although it has been suggested that some graffiti artists are addicted to the adrenalin rush from running the risk of being caught in an illegal activity. Graffiti can also be motivated by anger, or the wish to promote awareness, especially in the case of social and political issues. Sadly, graffiti is sometimes the product of bullying and harassment. And on other occasions, it can be the outlet to showcase artistic ability in a public location, sometimes, (but not always) providing beauty and colour where there was none before. And graffiti is no longer anonymous, as it generally was in the past. Contemporary graffiti artists often tag their works, in other words, their artwork has a type of graffiti signature attached in the same way that traditional artists would sign their artwork. There are even a handful of famous graffiti artists whose works have fetched enormous sums of money.
In conclusion, this post is not an encouragement to damage property or any other type of illegal activity. But it is fascinating how human beings are drawn to express themselves in these ways, within or outside of the law, don’t you agree ?
Guy Fawkes was born in Yorkshire in 1570, during a time of great sectarian turbulence between Protestants and Catholics both in England and in Europe. Fawkes became infamous when he was arrested as part of a conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament and assassinate the Protestant King James 1 on 5th November, 1605. The failure of the plot is still celebrated on 5th November and known as Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night.
Who was Guy Fawkes ?
Although Guy Fawkes was born as a Protestant, at the age of eight, his mother remarried a recusant Catholic after Fawkes’ father had died. Recusant Catholics were religious dissenters, who refused to attend Anglican Church services, remaining loyal to their religion and the pope. Protestant England feared that the pope was looking for secular power over England in alliance with France and Spain, and consequently, anyone who was suspected of supporting the Catholic religion was penalised with fines, confiscation of property and even imprisonment. Guy Fawkes converted to Catholicism after his mothers’ remarriage and as an adult, his Catholic beliefs led him to enlist in the Spanish army in 1593 to fight in Flanders against the Dutch Protestant Army. Also known as Guido Fawkes by now, he fought for Spain again in Calais, northern France, in 1595, and these military assignments taught him how to use explosives.
The Gunpowder Plot
On Fawkes’ return to England, he became involved in a plot with Robert Catesby and a small group of fellow Catholics. They planned to overturn the Protestant monarchy by blowing up the Houses of Parliament and placing Princess Elizabeth, James’ daughter, as a Catholic monarch on the throne. The group of conspirators rented an undercroft, a type of cellar, under the House of Lords and began to store barrels of gunpowder there. Their plot was dashed when, in the early hours of 5th November 1605, Guy Fawkes was discovered with the stockpiled explosives in the cellar. There were actually thirteen conspirators in all who were charged with the conspiracy, but Guy Fawkes is the only one whose name is instantly recognizable in regard to the Gunpowder plot. Persecution of religious dissension was already the norm during this period but along with high treason, the plotters could only expect the worst punishment from the state. Guy Fawkes was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered, a horrific death. At the last minute he jumped from the gallows, effectively breaking his neck, and as a result, avoided the excruciating agony of the rest of the process.
Celebration of Guy Fawkes Night
On the night of November 5th, 1605, the people of London held bonfires to celebrate the failure of the plot and the King’s escape. Within a context of religious persecution, these celebrations also promoted anti- Catholic feeling. From 1650 fireworks were added to the festivities. In the 1670’s an effigy, usually of the pope, was placed on the bonfire to burn, but in time other unpopular figures were also used. By the end of the 18th century, Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night had finally lost most of its anti-Catholic overtones and children would make effigies of Guy Fawkes and beg for money, typically with the phrase “ a penny for the guy”. During the Victorian period, the festivities began to be held away from small communities and bonfires were lit on their outskirts, resembling the modern day events held today in parks. Victorians were familiar with much older songs that usually started with the words: “Remember, remember, the fifth of November, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot”. The celebration of Guy Fawkes Day, sometimes known as Gunpowder Treason Day, also extended to parts of the British Commonwealth. Early settlers to North America took the tradition with them, where it was sometimes called Pope Day. As the American Revolution drew near and anti-British sentiment increased, the commemoration of the failure of the Gunpowder Plot went into decline.
Guy Fawkes’ legacy
Bonfire Night in England in the twenty-first century has long been a non-sectarian occasion, generally held in a park or suitably large venue with bonfires and a firework display. Effigies of Guy Fawkes can still be spotted although other unpopular celebrities of the moment are sometimes placed on the bonfire instead. Today there are concerns about public safely and the environmental risk posed by the toxins in the air from the bonfires. From the 1980’s onwards, when an Americanised version of Halloween began to increase in popularity, the story of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot has been somewhat overshadowed. Even so, in 2005, when the film V for Vendetta was released, its main character was an anarchist who wore a Guy Fawkes mask. This mask has been adopted by anti-establishment groups, is commonly seen during their protests and is to date the best-selling mask on Amazon. And did you know the Yeoman of the Guard, the famous Beefeaters, still perform a ceremony to this day, when they check the cellars under Westminster before the Opening of Parliament every year?
Words or expressions that have two contradictory meanings are known as contranyms, or contronyms, antagonyms, autoantonyms or Janus words (Janus being a Roman god who is depicted with two faces). Generally the context provides us with the intended meaning of the word ; however, these contradictions give us plenty of opportunities for word play.
A selection of contranym verbs :
To bolt: to secure /to flee
She bolted the door and then she bolted.
To buckle: to fasten/to bend and break
his belt, even though it was buckling under the strain.
To clip: to connect /to separate
She clipped the papers together and then went to the garden to clip the overgrown plants.
To dust : to remove dust/ to add dust
the kitchen while his sister dusted the cake with icing sugar.
To execute: to begin/to kill
executed a plan which would result in his being executed.
To hold up: to support/ to delay
The nurse had
to physically hold up the patient while the doctor was held up in traffic.
To trim: to decorate/ to remove any excess
trimming the Christmas tree, he trimmed his beard.
To wind up : to start/to finish
She wound up the old clock and decided to wind up her business.
How do contranyms come about?
These contradictory meanings can happen for various reasons. Sometimes they are literally two different words with a separate etymology, which purely by chance, are spelt in the same way. Or a contranym could owe its double meaning to polysemy, that is, when a word actually does have different meanings. The verb “to bolt” originates from a crossbow bolt (i.e. an arrow) which can both move quickly and immobilize someone. As a result, we use it for both ideas of running away speedily and securing an object, such as a door. Nouns such as dust can become verbs for either adding or removing the said noun. There are probably other reasons for contranyms due to the ongoing evolution of language – for example, the difference between British and American English. All in all, there are many strands to the complexity of the English language.
Hallowe’en or Halloween is a contraction of the Scottish expression All Saints’ Eve, which falls on 31st October before All Saints’ Day on November 1st. Our modern Halloween celebrations stem from a variety of much older customs, from Celtic rituals and medieval traditions.
Celtic occupation of the British Isles can be traced back to the 13th century B.C. In Celtic Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, an important festival called Samhain was celebrated on 31st October/1st November, which was the beginning of a new year in the Celtic calendar. It was believed that on this first day of winter, the dead returned to Earth. The Celts in England, Wales and Brittany had a similar tradition, known as Calan Gaeaf in Welsh, also involving the belief that the ghosts of the dead were roaming amongst the living. On this day, sacred bonfires were lit, crops were burnt and animals were sacrificed. The Celts wore costumes, generally animal skins and heads, in order to ward off evil spirits, and they also told fortunes and made predictions for the coming year. Bowls of food were left out to gain goodwill from malevolent ghosts. These festivals not only marked the beginning of winter when it was thought it would be easier for spirits to enter the world, they also were a means of asking for protection from the evils of a long, dark winter period.
Some historians believe that with the advent of the Roman Empire, a Roman festival was added to the Halloween mix. Pomona was the goddess of fruit trees and orchards and was associated with the blossoming of fruit. Her symbol was an apple and as a result, this fruit became incorporated into Halloween activities, still around today in the guise of toffee apples and games such as apple bobbing. However, as Samhain and Calan Gaeaf marked the end of harvest time, it is likely that apples were already used in these festivities during the Celtic period.
During his reign from 731-741, Pope Gregory III dedicated a chapel in Rome to all saints on November 1st. In Medieval England this day became known as All Hallows and the previous day became Hallowe’en. Around the year 1000, the Church created All Souls’ Day on Nov 2nd and the period from 31st Oct to Nov 2nd was called Allhallowtide or Hallowmass. It is generally thought nowadays that the Church was trying to impose holy days over the pagan Celtic festival which was still being celebrated, but in fact, these designated holy days would begin to include some of the elements of Samhain and Calan Gaeaf.
The Middle Ages
Early traditions from Allhallowtide included the ringing of church bells for the souls in purgatory along with town criers dressed in black. By the 15th century the tradition of souling had begun, which appears to be the starting point for our modern custom of trick or treating. Families with the economic means would provide soul cakes to poor people, who in turn would pray for the souls of the dearly departed from the family. Soul cakes were small fruit-filled pastries, and, similar to the hot cross buns we eat at Easter, they were marked with a cross to show that they were given in alms, that is, with a charitable purpose. This practice was encouraged by the Church in order to replace the pagan habit of leaving food and drink to appease the evil spirits afoot at Halloween.
From the 16th century onwards souling had evolved into a practice whereby people dressed up to personify the dead spirits and received food and offerings on their behalf in return for protection. These people were guisers, or at Allhallowtide they were also known as soulers. It was also believed that by impersonating a dead soul, the soulers themselves were safe from evil spirits in the same way that the Celts had used animal skin disguises at Samhain to ward off unearthly enemies. However as time went on, in England Halloween waned in popularity, although there is evidence that it was still celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and rural areas. The emigrants from these areas to the United States, particularly the Irish, implanted their Halloween traditions in their new country. From the areas mainly inhabited by immigrants, Halloween festivities began to spread into mainstream culture.
Halloween in the 20th century
At the turn of the 20th century, Halloween games for young women included using apple peel to predict the name of their future husbands – just like the Celts had told fortunes many centuries ago. People dressed up in Halloween costumes, and went from house to house asking for food or money, a latter day version of soulers. For a time, vandalism and Halloween pranks threatened to become the main part of the festivities, but in the 1920’s and 30’s there was a concerted effort in America to make Halloween more community-centred and remove references to its more grisly and/or uneasy aspects. By the 1950’s, this aim had generally been achieved and Halloween was both a secular and family–based celebration. Particularly after the baby boom of the 1950’s, Halloween became a mainstream event for children and trick or treating at Halloween was a perfectly normal activity for younger members of the family.
Nowadays, Halloween is a hugely commercial event in the United States, generating billions of dollars from sales of costumes and sweets, along with parades and other activities. Although some people dismiss this new version of Halloween as an American import, it has, in fact, also increased in popularity in recent years in the United Kingdom and Ireland. What would our Celtic ancestors make of it, I wonder?
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.
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.
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.
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…..
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 ?
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.
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 ?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
In one of 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 ?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.