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Animal Talk: Animal-related adjectives in the English language

The origin and use of animal adjectives in English language

Image courtesy of Kapa65

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 and use of animal-related adjectives in English.

The names of animals are probably among the first things learnt by a student of a language, yet knowing the names of animals doesn’t always help when it comes to their associated adjectives—in fact, sometimes it can be downright confusing.

Most of the formal adjectives that relate to animals are not derived from the common English names but are taken instead from the Latin name of each animal. So when you are talking about things to do with dogs, you use the adjective canine (from the Latin word canis) and when you are talking about things to do with horses, you use the adjective equine (from the Latin word equus). There is one of these Latin-derived adjectives for just about every animal you can think of, and some of them can be quite obscure even to native speakers. (Not many dictionaries bother to record ‘murine’, which is the Latin-inspired adjective that refers to mice, or ‘vespertilionine’, which refers to bats.)

In a few cases the Latin name of an animal is similar to the common English name, and so it is easy to guess the meaning of adjectives such as elephantine. In most cases, however, there is not an obvious connection between the Latin-derived adjective and the English noun.

Yet the common names of animals also give rise to adjectives: ‘horsey’, ‘doggy’, ‘catty’, ‘fishy’, and ‘ratty’ are perfectly respectable—if somewhat informal—English words. A few of these can be used to refer to the animals themselves, so you can talk about ‘a doggy smell’. On the whole, however, they are more likely to be applied to people or things that exhibit qualities associated with animals.

In fact, it is possible to identify two distinct groups of adjectives that are formed from the common names of animals. Adjectives formed by adding the combining form -like to the name of an animal are usually neutral or even positive in tone (depending on the typical associations of the animal involved). Someone who moves in a stealthy manner might be called ‘catlike’, while a gentle person might be ‘lamb-like’. A more negative example is the use of ‘ostrich-like’ for people who ignore what is going on about them (a term that comes from the ostrich’s proverbial habit of burying its head in the sand).

On the other hand, adjectives formed by adding the suffixes -y or -ish to the names of animals are predominantly negative: someone who is catty tends to say unkind and spiteful things about other people; someone who is sheepish is embarrassed because they have done something wrong; someone who is sluggish moves slowly and lazily; spidery handwriting has long, thin strokes that appear unattractive; someone who is waspish is aggressive and bad-tempered.

So if you come across an adjective that looks as though it is derived from the name of an animal, the first thing to be aware of is that these words usually don’t refer to the animals themselves: people might be sheepish, but sheep are not. It is also worth noting that when these words are used to describe people, the comparison is often not a complimentary one.


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How to bluff your way through the changes affecting English language teaching!

guide to changes in ESLAndrew Dilger and Sophie Rogers, former English language teachers, are part of the Professional Development team at Oxford University Press. In this tongue-in-cheek post, they consider some of the issues that any self-respecting ‘bluffer’ should be looking at over the long summer break.

English language teaching is changing

How many times have we heard that? This time, however, it really feels like it. With the increasing adoption of digital technologies including the use of tablets and smartphones in many schools; the emphasis on differentiating the learning experience for every student; a mass of edicts and policies from education ministries, school boards and  bandwagons, the average English language teacher – already exhausted and overstretched – could be forgiven for thinking it’s time to hang up their interactive whiteboard pen.

… and we’re not equipped to deal with it (especially in summer)

The thing is, it’s summer! One of the very few times in the calendar year when we can actually stop thinking about our students and start thinking about ourselves! Given the number of blockbuster movies to see, barbecues to go to, new recipes to try out on unsuspecting husbands/wives/partners/families (who we also need to get reacquainted with, by the way, after endless evenings of lesson planning and marking), how many of us really have the time to use the summer break to ‘skill up’?

… so here’s how to bluff it!

For this reason, here’s a bluffer’s guide for how to deal with the seismic changes affecting ELT. After all, the dream will be over in September and then it’s back to the chalk-face – or given the extent to which everything has gone digital – maybe that should be the ‘silicon-face’!

CAUTION: If your teaching is already ‘blended’, your classroom ‘flipped’ and you know your BYOD from your BYOT, then this blog post isn’t for you. For the rest of you, read on …

1) Get to grips with the terminology

Part of the problem is the terminology – we can’t bluff an issue until we know just what all the educators are actually talking about. So here are a few useful definitions to get you started:

  • Blended learning (also known as hybrid learning) – Situation in which a face-to-face classroom component is complemented and enhanced with learning technologies. For example, it could involve teachers and students communicating and interacting online as well as in class.
  • BYOD (Bring your own device; also known as BYOT: Bring your own technology) – Policy which allows students to bring their own mobile devices (tablet and/or smartphone) to school and use them in lessons.
  • Flipped classroom (also known as reversed teaching) – Situation in which students are able to watch videos of teacher-delivered presentations or lectures in their own time. This frees up more face-to-face time for interaction, discussion, collaboration, tasks, etc.
  • LMS (Learning management system) – System for managing learning and educational records or software for distributing online or blended courses with features for online collaboration
  • VLE (Virtual learning environment) – Online space where teachers and students can interact, share work, and organize online materials. VLEs are usually managed at the level of the educational institute.

Of course, the best way to keep on top of all these terms is to put up a poster-sized glossary in your teacher’s room. That way, everyone can add to it and everyone benefits.

2) Rely on experience

The good news for bluffers everywhere is that, as much as ELT is changing, the way we handle the change remains the same. We rely on our experience and wealth of teaching techniques to get us through. ‘Change management’ consists of simply adapting what we’re already doing anyway and if you don’t yet believe it, here’s a quote from someone who knew a thing or two to back it up:

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” ~ Charles Darwin

3) Get a book

With the sheer amount of published resources available – by both global and local publishers – there’s probably going to be a book about it somewhere. And chances are it’ll be written by someone who’s more immersed in the topic than we are. Some recent examples you might want to flick through include:

  • Bringing online video into the classroom – Jamie Keddie (OUP)
  • Technology Enhanced Language Learning – Goodith White & Aisha Walker (OUP)
  • Thinking in the EFL class – Tessa Woodward (Helbling)
  • Adaptive learning – Philip Kerr (theround – free!)

4) Go online

For many teachers, the internet is the equivalent of the days when we used to walk into the teacher’s room and shout out: ‘What exactly does student-centred mean?’ Or, ‘I’ve got a lesson in ten minutes with a class I’ve never taught before. Help!’ If you’re looking for shortcuts, then the following sites contain enough classroom-ready ideas and professional insights to put you right at the cutting edge of what’s hot in the ELT methodology:

5) Ask a colleague

It’s all about shaping learning together. The trick is to make sure at least one colleague we’re shaping it with is a bit more up-to-date than we are. This way, they can bring us with them into the 21st-century. If you’re looking to bluff it on an institutional scale, try setting up a ‘buddy system’ or ‘chat group’ to discuss some of the latest trends and how you can deal with them. Meet once a month/term and each take a topic – define it, summarize the implications and pool ideas for how you can bring it into the classroom. You could even put together a regular e-newsletter on the findings. Suggestions for some of the ‘buzzier’ trends affecting ELT for your first few chat groups are:

  • Mobile learning (using mobile technology such as tablet computers and smartphones; also known as ‘m-learning’ or ‘mLearning’)
  • Special educational needs provision (e.g. helping learners with ADHD, dyslexia, ASD, SEBDs, etc.)
  • Assessment literacy (understanding how all aspects of testing and assessment impact on the learning process)
  • 21st-Century skills (including the so-called ‘Four Cs’: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity)
  • Multilingualism (how communicating in more than one language affects the learning process – if you’re feeling brave, you could also tackle ‘plurilingualism’!)

So there you go. Five easy techniques for staying ‘ahead of the curve’ and bluffing your way through the changes affecting English language teaching. Now we can get back to enjoying our well-earned summer break and working on that tan. Roll on September!

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