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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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#qskills – Should I teach only grammar when my students have only written tests in exams?

Today’s question for the Q: Skills for Success authors: Should I teach only grammar when my students have only written tests in exams?

Colin Ward responds.

We are no longer taking questions. Thank you to everyone who contacted us!

Look out for more responses by the Q authors in the coming weeks, or check out the answers that we’ve posted already in our Questions for Q authors playlist.


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#qskills – How can I teach reading skills to beginner students without focusing on grammar?

Today’s question for the Q: Skills for Success authors: How can I teach reading skills to beginner students without spending all my time on grammar issues?

Debra Daise responds.

We are no longer taking questions. Thank you to everyone who contacted us!

Look out for more responses by the Q authors in the coming weeks, or check out the answers that we’ve posted already in our Questions for Q authors playlist.

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