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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’.


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!


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?


Same words, new meanings. What’s really changed in the last 65 years?

OALD CoverJudith Willis worked as Publishing Manager for bilingual dictionaries in the ELT dictionaries department at Oxford University Press before retiring in 2008. Here she looks back at how the meaning of some words has changed over the history of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary.

The latest edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary is still fresh and new but this year marks the 65th anniversary of the publication by Oxford University Press of its esteemed forerunner, A.S. Hornby’s Learner’s Dictionary of Current English. So it may be a good time to undertake some lexico-archaeology and look at the changes that have occurred over the 8 editions of the dictionary.

There are several factors influencing these changes. Dictionary users, their knowledge, their learning styles and their expectations are very different now from then ; lexicographic techniques have evolved, with the corpus revolution of the 1980s and 1990s being possibly the most significant development in these 65 years; and, of course, the language has moved on. New words are coined, new meanings attached to old words, and even when the strict meaning remains the same, words are used differently. For instance, Hornby already used the word ‘problem’ to define issue in the first edition, but the examples in the current edition, such as If you have any issues, please call this number, reflect a 21st Century form of expression.

This text is a blog post. The word post has many senses and uses (the current edition lists ten meanings for the noun and nine for the verb) and this sense of ‘a piece of writing that forms part of a blog’ is the latest addition. Just a few more examples of the ‘new meanings for old words’ phenomenon are tag = a symbol or name used by a graffiti artist, hybrid = a car using two different types of power, and the informal use of the adjective random.

As well as new senses we see shifts in frequency, with earlier uses becoming more formal (e.g. attitude, whose original first sense of ‘position of the body’ is now labelled formal and demoted to last sense, ousted by the newer sense of ‘confident, sometimes aggressive behaviour’); meanings dropping out of the language (tag as a metal tip on a shoelace); usage becoming more restricted; words crossing the part-of-speech boundary (the noun-generated verbs text as in SMS messages and trend as in be trending on Twitter); literal or concrete meanings becoming figurative or abstract; and changes of register and region, typically, American English terms becoming part of British English and informal words becoming standard.

Let’s look at a single entry – the noun wrap. This is a good example of an old word being used for new things. In the 1stedition, it is described as usually plural and defined solely as an ‘outer garment or covering, e.g. a shawl, scarf, fur, cloak or rug’. By the 3rd edition the word has acquired a ‘trade use’ with the phrases keep sth under wraps and take off the wraps. Hornby obviously sees these as commercial terms, but now the idiom under wraps is widely used in informal language.

The 5th edition redefines the garment sense as ‘a loose scarf or shawl’ and includes paper/plastic wrap. The sense of the end of filming – That’s/It’s a wrap – is in the 6th edition, and the current edition still gives the garment sense first, but now it’s even more specific – ‘a piece of cloth that a woman wears around her shoulders’. Bubble wrap sits alongside gift wrap in the paper/plastic sense, and is followed by the food sense, originally from the US, of tortilla wrap. Do a Google image search and you will see which one everyone’s talking about – or wanting you to buy! Will future editions of the dictionary see the clothing sense lose importance (it is already marked old-fashioned in the Oxford Advanced American Dictionary) and new senses appear, for example the seaweed wrap that has nothing to do with either clothing or food?

All words in the dictionary have their own stories – and histories: the noun wrap has been in the language since the 15th Century and many of the other words mentioned here have been around even longer than that. New phenomena, tangible or conceptual, appear and lead to the creation of new words like blog or else attach themselves to existing words like tweet. Listen out for yourselves and see how many genuinely new words you hear compared to venerable old words clad in new meanings.


Homophones: Some Sound Advice

Woman's earIan 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 homophones: words that sound the same as other words, but have a different meaning.

Born or borne? Discreet or discrete? Site or sight? Sink or sync? Homophones are one of the bugbears of learning a language, especially a language such as English, which can represent similar sounds in a number of different ways.

A homophone is a word that sounds the same as another word, but has a different meaning. Often two homophones are spelt the same (as in the case of a ring on the telephone and a diamond ring), but homophones can sometimes have different spellings (as in the case of their and there), which makes life even more difficult.

Homophones can create a particular problem when one of the spellings is not very commonly used. For example, the word but is so much more common than its homophone butt that when you hear a word with this sound you are likely to think that you are hearing the conjunction. However, it is worth remembering the less common homophone can crop up from time to time in phrases such as the butt of a joke.

The verbs pour and pore present a similar issue: pour is much more common, but the phrasal verb pore over involves quite a different meaning. When you pore over a piece of writing you don’t cause it to flow but you study it intently.

When the rarer of two homophones is used in an idiom or phrase, such expressions can be impossible to decipher if you are not aware that a homophone is being used. Take the example of the word bated. This is not the past participle of the verb bait. Pretty much the only time you will come across it is in the phrase with bated breath: if you wait for something with bated breath you wait for it eagerly. The phrase has nothing to do with your breath being prepared to catch a fish, but it makes use of an old variation of the verb abate, and so the idiom describes a person who is so excited that they hold their breath until a particular thing happens.

The idiom give somebody a wide berth is another where the less common of two homophones is used. When you hear it for the first time it may be tempting to interpret this as having something to do with birth. However, the term in fact comes (like many English idioms) from seafaring. A berth is the space allowed for a ship to move about when it is tied up or swinging on its anchor, and so when a troublesome person or thing is given a wide berth they are avoided and given plenty of room to go about their business.

My final example is the phrase learn by rote. When you hear this it may sound as though the last word is wrote. But this phrase has nothing to do with writing; it means to learn things by repeating them over and over rather than by understanding their underlying meaning. What makes this harder to know is that you will never come across the word rote in any other context.

So homophones can not only create problems with spelling, but they can also be quite misleading when it comes to grasping the meaning of a phrase. If you find them tricky then you can take some comfort from the fact that native English speakers often get these confused as well!


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