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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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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 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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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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Learn One, Get One Free

BOGOF dictionary entryIan 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 how to learn two words for the price of one.

There is something very attractive about the idea of getting two things for the price of one. One of the more striking new words to enter the English language in recent times is BOGOF. This is an abbreviation based on the initial letters of the phrase ‘buy one, get one free’; as this suggests, it refers to a special offer in a shop that allows you to receive an extra item free of charge when you make a purchase. The fact that the word is pronounced the same as bog off, which is a mildly offensive way of telling somebody to go away, makes it sound slightly rude, and this has no doubt added to its popularity.

If the idea of getting something extra for their money is attractive to shoppers, then learners of English should be encouraged by the idea that learning one word will often bring another word – and often more than one word – into their vocabulary, virtually free of charge.

If you learn a noun, you can often form a related adjective by adding a short suffix. For example, adding the ending -y creates chilly from chill, cloudy from cloud, and dirty from dirt.

Similarly, many verbs give rise to a noun that ends in either -ment or -tion: entertain, govern, and measure lead to entertainment, government, and measurement, while collect, educate, and invent lead to collection, education, and invention.

If only you could apply these suffixes to every noun or every verb then you could increase your vocabulary enormously. Unfortunately, English is rarely as simple as that. You can’t just add the ending -y to any noun. For example, there are no words booky or cuppy. And even when you can add a -y to a noun, the meaning may not be what you expect: thus catty means ‘spiteful’ rather than ‘like a cat’ and not all bosses would like to be described as bossy.

However, there are some typical patterns of word generation that are worth knowing, and in this blog I want to look at how verbs with certain endings tend to generate a related abstract noun ending in -tion or -sion.

The most common pattern here is that verbs that end in -ate will usually form an abstract noun ending in -ation: calculate/calculation, celebrate/celebration. Other common patterns are that verbs ending in -ize (or -ise in British English) form nouns ending in -ization/-isation (organize/organization) and verbs ending in -act and -ect form nouns ending in -action and -ection (react/reaction, connect/connection).

I should stress that not every single verb with these endings will form an abstract noun that ends in -tion. But most of them will, and when they do, the noun is formed in a regular way, with no change to the stem of the word.

However, there are some interesting verb endings that form abstract nouns in less obvious ways:

  • Verbs ending in -duce form nouns ending in -duction: produce/production, reduce/reduction.
  • Verbs ending in -mit usually form nouns ending in -mission: permit/permission, admit/admission.
  • Verbs ending in -cede usually form nouns ending in -cession: recede/recession, concede/concession.
  • When other verbs ending in -de form abstract nouns, the nouns end in -sion: decide/decision, explode/explosion, intrude/intrusion.

Keeping these points in mind can help learners to increase their vocabulary two words at a time rather than word by word: learn one word, get one free!