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All at Sea: Nautical metaphors in the English language

Oil painting of old naval ships

Image courtesy of Blirk.net

Ian Brookes is a freelance writer and editor based in Scotland. He has edited a number of dictionaries and has written books about spelling, writing, and punctuation. In this post, he looks at the origins of several nautical metaphors still used in English today.

Learning English might be easier if people would actually say what they mean. Unfortunately English-speakers often express ideas in terms of a metaphor rather than by a literal description. So when we talk about being ‘all at sea’, we do not literally mean that we are out in the ocean, but rather that we are unsure about what to do, as though we were drifting on the water without the reassurance of firm ground beneath our feet.

Metaphors can be difficult enough to decipher even when you are familiar with the objects of comparison. In many cases, however, metaphors refer to things that are rarely, if ever, encountered any more. We still talk about something that is briefly successful as a flash in the pan, even though this refers to an old type of gun in which gunpowder made a flash in a compartment called a ‘pan’ when it was primed before firing. The original point of the comparison is now forgotten, but the idiom survives.

The same is true of many words and expressions that originally referred to sailing. Great Britain is an island nation; in the days before air travel, mastery of the sea was essential to the nation’s defence and trade. In modern times ships play a less important role, and they tend to be powered by engines rather than sails. Yet many expressions derived from sailing remain embedded in the English language. Knowing this may shed light on some apparently obscure terms.

A flagship, for example, was the most important ship in a fleet, which carried the fleet’s admiral and flew his flag. In modern English, however, the word is more likely to be used as a metaphor, so a company’s flagship store is the one that has the most importance and prestige. A mainstay was originally a rope that supported the main mast of a ship, but now is a metaphor referring to any person or thing that provides crucial support, as in tourism is a mainstay of the economy.

The influence of sailing can also be seen in some idiomatic phrases. To sail close to the wind refers to the risky practice of attempting to fill a ship’s sails with wind without losing control of it. This phrase is now used as an idiom: if you tell someone that they are sailing close to the wind you are warning them that they are doing something that is dangerous or possibly illegal. To batten down the hatches literally refers to closing the entrances to the lower part of a ship when a storm is expected, but metaphorically refers to any preparation to withstand a period of difficulty. If a ship has run aground and is unable to return to the water, it is said to be high and dry, an expression we also use to refer to a person who is left in a difficult situation without any assistance.

Some similar phrases have now lost all their original associations with sailing. It may come as a surprise to learn that under way, meaning ‘in progress’, was originally a nautical phrase meaning ‘in motion’. Another example is by and large: to the old sailors, this meant ‘in all conditions’, whether sailing into the wind (sailing by) or with the wind (sailing large), but it is doubtful whether many current English speakers are aware of this when they use the phrase to mean ‘in general’.


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The trail of the magpie: How foreign words create exceptions to the rules

Close-up of Dicionary entry in dictionaryIan Brookes is a freelance writer and editor based in Scotland. He has edited a number of dictionaries and has written books about spelling, writing, and punctuation. In this post he takes a look at where some of our words have come from.

English has been described as a ‘magpie language’. If you look up the word magpie in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary you will find a reference to ‘a popular belief that magpies like to steal small bright objects’. In the same way, the English language has been quite happy to steal useful words from other languages and add these to its vocabulary.

When English borrows words, it sometimes keeps the original spelling form, but sometimes it alters the spelling. As a general rule, when words are borrowed from unfamiliar, non-European languages, they are more likely to be transformed so that the spelling and pronunciation conform to familiar English patterns. Words taken from Asian, American, and African languages can appear in English with their spellings radically changed, as in the cases of chutney (from the Hindi word catni) and hickory (derived from the Algonquian pawcohiccora).

When English borrows words from European languages, however, it often preserves the original spelling and aspects of the original pronunciation. This is probably because native English speakers have some familiarity with the rules of French, German, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and Greek. So we preserve the French word brochure in its original spelling, and pronounce the -ch- as /ʃ/ in the French manner; similarly, we preserve the Italian spelling of pizza, and pronounce -zz- as /ts/.

Here are some other patterns of spelling and sound that do not conform to the standard English rules but are found in borrowed words:

  • -eau- is pronounced as /əʊ/ in words borrowed from French, as in bureau.
  • -que is pronounced as /k/ at the end of words borrowed from French, as in mystique.
  • -cci- is pronounced as /tʃiː/ in words borrowed from Italian, as in cappuccino.

Moreover, there are certain general rules that apply to English spelling that have to be suspended in the case of borrowed words. One of the most familiar spelling rules is that ‘I comes before E except after C’. However, caffeine and protein break this rule because they follow the pattern used in their original French and German spellings.

Less well known is the principle that native English words do not end with -a, -i, or -u. Perhaps the reason this principle is not well known is that there are so many exceptions created by borrowed words such as orchestra (Greek), spaghetti (Italian), and haiku (Japanese).

It is highly unusual to find a double consonant at the start of an English word. When it does happen, in the case of llama, again the explanation is to be found in the fact that the word is borrowed (in this case from Spanish).

Finally, we should note that the tendency of words borrowed from French, Italian, Latin, and Greek to form plurals following the pattern of their original languages (although in some more common words these inflections are not used or are regarded as alternatives to the simple addition of -s):

  • French words ending in -eau form plurals that end in -eaux, as in tableaux and gateaux.
  • Italian words ending in -o form plurals ending in -i, as in Mafiosi and paparazzi.
  • Latin words ending in -us form plurals ending in -i, as in stimuli and fungi.
  • Greek words ending in -on form plurals ending in -a, as in phenomena and criteria.

So if you were wondering why learners of English have to cope with so many exceptions, now you know the answer. It’s not the fault of English; it’s the fault of all the other languages!


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Academic writing and the grammar of words

Julie MooreClose-up of Dicionary entry in dictionary, a lexicographer for the new Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English, looks at the benefit of using dictionary skills in academic writing.

In ELT, we tend to approach grammar and vocabulary as two quite separate strands, mostly for the convenience of teaching. Of course, we all know that, in reality, they’re closely interwoven. And perhaps nowhere more so than in EAP (English for Academic Purposes), where complex constructions and the importance of appropriate vocabulary choices often make an understanding of lexicogrammar (the grammar of words) absolutely key to writing clearly and persuasively.

Consider the underlined phrases in the following three examples of student writing – are they issues of vocabulary or grammar?

  • This essay aims to exploring how children’s lifestyles can both cause and address the issue of increasing child obesity.
  • Some of these areas are located in seismic belts and encounter with the risk of strong earthquake.
  • In order to better understand the construction of a photoelectric sensor, a brief explanation to the working principle is given here.

In each case, it’s the grammatical features or typical grammatical patterns of these specific vocabulary items that have caused problems; the following verb pattern, the need for a direct object, and the dependent preposition respectively. This is tough for the learner because it means that it’s not enough to learn general grammatical principles and bolt on a list of appropriate academic vocabulary; they also need to get to grips with the grammatical characteristics of each individual word.

Of course, a lot of this comes from exposure to academic writing; students noticing recurrent patterns as they read and getting a feel for how particular words are typically used in context. But to me as a teacher, that always seems like rather a superficial piece of advice, a bit vague and with no obvious concrete steps that students can take to improve their next piece of writing. The process of learning how vocabulary is used doesn’t have to be a passive one though – students can be encouraged to be proactive when it comes to lexicogrammar.

Each of the students above could be pointed in the direction of a dictionary to see where they’ve gone wrong. Below are extracts from the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English, which provides a wealth of information targeted specifically at how vocabulary items are used in an academic context, both in terms of meaning and grammar.

aim (verb) … 2 [I,T] to try or plan to achieve sth: … ~to do sth The project aimed to investigate Earth history by drilling the deep ocean floor.

encounter (verb) 1 ~sth to experience sth, especially sth unpleasant or difficult, while you are trying to do sth else: One problem commonly encountered by customers ordering products over the Internet is difficulty with delivery … to encounter difficulties/obstacles/opposition

explanation (noun) … 2 [C] ~(of sth) a statement or piece of writing that tells you how sth works or makes sth easier to understand: … The author provides a brief explanation of his oral history process.

By pointing out in class how this type of information is shown in the dictionary (in each case here by expressions in bold showing the pattern and then reinforced in example sentences), students can start to see how they can learn about how words work for themselves.

Dictionary skills can be incorporated into activities where students edit their own writing (as in the above examples) or it can simply provide a regular interlude when an issue over a particular word or expression crops up in class. And as an added bonus, the processes involved in looking up the word and analysing the information they find, will help this new knowledge stick.


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#IATEFL – What exactly is ‘academic vocabulary’?

Student reading book in libraryDiana Lea is editor of the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English (OLDAE), published in January this year. In this article, she looks at what academic vocabulary is and how it differs from general English vocabulary. Diana will be speaking about the OLDAE at IATEFL 2014 on Wednesday 2nd April.

Is academic vocabulary fundamentally different from general English vocabulary? In creating the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English (OLDAE), we were compelled to think very carefully about this question in order to decide what should and should not be covered in such a dictionary. Fortunately, other researchers had already put in a lot of work in this area. Our starting point was the Academic Word List (AWL) (Coxhead, 2000), which will be familiar to most teachers of EAP: 570 word families that will account for roughly 10% of most written academic texts. But these words are all included – and marked – in learners’ dictionaries already. What more is needed?

A word list is a useful tool for setting targets and monitoring progress, as students can tick off words that they ‘know’ – but it does not actually teach. What does it mean to ‘know’ a word?

In the first instance, obviously, you need to know what it means. For some words this will be relatively easy, because they carry roughly the same meaning in most contexts, for example achieve. Other words have a number of different meanings; many of these may be related to each other, but used in slightly different ways (e.g. capital). Yet other words have a quite specific meaning in a particular area of study: consider the use of the words variable and significant in the context of statistics. It is fair to say that academic writing generally takes a more precise and nuanced approach to meaning than much of the speech and writing that we encounter day to day. To understand academic vocabulary in context, students will benefit from an account of these words that is based on genuine academic usage, not general usage. That means a corpus of academic English.

The 85-million-word Oxford Corpus of Academic English contains undergraduate textbooks and academic journals drawn from a range of disciplines across the four main subject areas of physical sciences, life sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Analysis of this corpus enabled lexicographers to give a precise and nuanced account of the meaning and use of words in academic writing. For there is more to knowing a word than just knowing what it means: if students are to use a word correctly and effectively in their writing, they need to know how it behaves in context and how it combines with other words. As one teacher we interviewed said of her own students, ‘They know many words in isolation, but usage they find difficult.

A complete account of a word in a learner’s dictionary of academic English needs to cover its meaning – or meanings – its grammar, any prepositions or grammatical structures it commonly combines with, any peculiarities of usage in particular disciplines, useful synonyms, and – for the most important words – lists of collocations in different grammatical relations. And all these points need to be supported by example sentences that are clear, illustrate the points well, and are based on authentic academic texts.

Cycle dictionary entryThe entry for cycle only includes the meanings that are important in academic writing. This enables the academic meanings to be treated in more detail.

A more precise meaning that is particular to biology is identified in a ‘HELP’ note.

Cross-references indicate entries for compound words with their own precise definitions.

The example sentences show genuine academic usage, based on the texts in the Oxford Corpus of Academic English.

Complementation patterns with prepositions or other words are clearly signposted before the examples that illustrate them.

Collocations and common phrases are shown and exemplified in a special section of the entry.

Academic vocabulary is the vocabulary needed to write clear, appropriate academic texts. It includes, on the one hand, a lot of ordinary general vocabulary – but transposed to an academic context. At the other extreme, there is specialist subject vocabulary. This differs between different academic disciplines and can be highly technical; typically, students will need to learn these words as part of their subject studies, whether or not they are also learners of English. In between these two extremes is the ‘general academic’ or ‘subtechnical’ vocabulary represented by the AWL. The OLDAE covers the AWL, plus all the general vocabulary needed for defining it, plus the synonyms, opposites and collocates of all these words.

A word list is a useful starting point but a dictionary sets the words in context and enables students to use them effectively in their own writing.

Reference

Coxhead, A. (2000). ‘A New Academic Word List’, TESOL Quarterly, 34(2): 213–238. See also http://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/resources/academicwordlist/

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The Sounds of Silence – silent letters in English words

Silence sign

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Ian Brookes is a freelance writer and editor based in Scotland. He has edited a number of dictionaries and has written books about spelling, writing, and punctuation. In this post, he looks at the presence of silent letters in English words and the problems they cause for spelling.

Learning to speak another language is hard enough, but students of English have to deal with further issues when they come to the written form of the language, and they soon find that English words do not always look exactly how they sound. In a previous post I looked at the presence of double letters in some words as one of the causes of spelling difficulty. In this post I will look at another: the presence of ‘silent’ letters in some words.

Why should knot be spelt with a ‘k’ when it is pronounced the same as not? And when we come to words such as knight and yacht we might begin to suspect that some letters are being entered for no other reason than to make it more difficult for non-native speakers to write the language.

Just as we found when looked at double letters, the explanation for these silent letters usually lies in the history of a word. In words such as answer and walk, the silent letters were sounded in early forms of English, but as the language developed over many centuries it became easier to pronounce the word without sounding a particular letter. The sound changed but the silent letters remained as a ghostly (note the silent ‘h’) reminder of the original sound.

Other words were borrowed from languages that use sound patterns that seem unnatural to English speakers, and so the sound of the word was changed to something they found easier to say. This is why we don’t pronounce the first letter of pneumonia (which was borrowed from Greek) or the last letter of sheikh (which was borrowed from Arabic).

Silent letters can certainly be awkward, but I can offer a few tips for dealing with them.

Firstly, note that some silent letters are actually not silent in related words. So it will help learners to remember the silent ‘g’ in sign if they can relate it to signature or the silent ‘n’ in condemn if they know condemnation. Secondly, some silent letters reveal themselves when you break down a word into its basic parts. The silent ‘p’ in cupboard (and the entire spelling of the word) can be seen if you think that this piece of furniture was originally a ‘cup board’. Similar cases include extraordinary (extra + ordinary) and shepherd (she(e)p + herd).

Thirdly, note that if one word contains a silent letter, related words will have the same silent letter. So the silent ‘c’ that appears in ascend is also found in the related words ascent, descend, and descent.

As a last resort, for words that learners find especially difficult, you can make up a memory aid or mnemonic (note the silent opening letter!) to spell out the word. One of my favourites is that you spell rhythm from the initial letters of the sentence ‘rhythm helps you to hear music’.

Know any more?

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