How close are we to the universal translators that pepper science fiction? Will Google Translate be the technological equivalent of Douglas Adams’s babel fish? For simple sentences, the service works well. Google Translate can even master complicated documents or, at least, provide enough to make sense of the text. One the biggest test is whether the service can make sense of idioms. Would it translate the […]

Whipping the cat and lining your eyes with ham – idioms lost ...

Why is the word for a main railway station in Russian named after the unprepossessing London area of Vauxhall? . The Russian word for a main train station is Vokzal (воксал). Say it out loud – does it remind you of anything? Say it in a suitably English accent, and it sounds like Vauxhall. Is this a coincidence, or is there an etymological connection between this […]

Ticket to Vokzal

What connects Wales to Wallachia (in Romania) and Scotland’s Galloway with Gaul (an ancient name for France)? The answer is a shared etymological root – the single Proto-Germanic word – Walhaz – the strangers. Walhaz was a useful term employed by the Germanic tribes living beyond the boundaries of the ‘civilized’ Roman world. It can mean ‘foreigner’ or ‘stranger’, but can also be used to describe someone […]

Strangers in their own land

Archaeological discoveries around the world seem to prove an abiding human obsession about death and the afterlife. From Stone Age burial tombs to the intricate Egyptian funerary text ‘the Book of the Dead’, thinking about what happens when we die is a universal societal trait. The emergence of the Christian concept of Hell builds on earlier ideas and, over the centuries, writers, thinkers and theologians have […]

Hell – a visitor’s guide

In August, I sang the praises of Andrew Martin’s book ‘Underground, Overground: A Passenger’s History of the Tube’. At the end of that post I promised a follow up covering the Americanisation of the lexicon of travel, Brunel and the war winning boots and state funerals on the Tube. Six months is no time at all in a blog, so here (finally) is the follow up! […]

Going underground II

People are often accused of ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’; but who is the unfortunate Peter who is being robbed to pay the rather more fortunate Paul in this common phrase? This week, two politicians have hit the headlines accusing the government of ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’. In America, the looming ‘fiscal cliff’ elicited the phrase from Virginia State Senator Adam Ebbin as he criticized […]

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

The Nizaris, a deadly sect of Ismāʿīli warriors, were feared across the Middle East and beyond for their daring attacks on powerful enemies. They became known as the ḥaššāšīn or Ḥashshāshīn – a word that was modified in European languages as the Assassins. The word’s Arabic origin was, however, devised as derogatory slur to highlight a particular habit of the group. To the god-fearing, they were the notorious order of hashish-eaters. […]

The deadly vengeance of the hash eaters

French is one of the major sources of vocabulary in the English language. From the Norman invasion to nineteenth century European diplomacy, French words have percolated into English and have sometimes been swallowed whole with little or no attempt to Anglicize terms or phrases. One area of language is particularly heavily dependant on French loan words – the language of war. The impact of Norman dominance […]

The (French) language of war

What springs to mind if you think of the phrase ‘white elephant’? Monuments to a politician’s hubris? The Millennium Dome? Unused and unloved Olympic venues around the world? Few people in England would associate this idiom directly with Elephas maximus, the Asian elephant, or imagine its roots in the royal courts of Burma and Siam. The Oxford English Dictionary hints at the two meanings for white […]

White elephants and the King of Siam

The Church of the Holy Trinity in Long Melford, Suffolk, is one of the most celebrated ecclesiastical buildings in the country, dominating its host village and its 3,675 residents. It is a perfect example of the gothic perpendicular style and, in proportions, would be better suited to a cathedral or minster. Its establishment, size and splendour is a surviving testament to a single product – wool. […]

Sheep and the dimensions of the iPad

The word ‘bonus’ used to have such positive connotations. As most people understand it, it refers to something given or paid over and above what is due – a nice little extra, a financial thank you or a congratulation in cash. The Oxford English Dictionary sets out a delicious definition of bonus as “a boon or gift over and above what is normally due as remuneration to the […]

Bonus as a dirty little word

Bread is pretty important. Everyday, Christians around the world pray to be given their daily bread. Celebrating Eucharist sees the breaking of bread, which, according to the doctrine of transubstantiation (or real presence), is the “bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ”. The word ‘bread’ is used over 350 times in the King James Bible, beginning with references in Genesis: “In the sweat of thy face shalt […]

Devil’s fart bread

I was writing up my weekly blog on employment law (don’t all rush at once to ask for a copy) when I came across a statement that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was taking urgent steps to radically reduce red tape. As a phrase ‘red tape’ very effectively and concisely conveys a distinctly visual message. If the machinery of government is bunged up with […]

Tangled etymology

It seems strange to think that the historic heart of Russia was once Kiev, a city that is now the capital of an independent Ukraine. The Rus’ people had pushed south from their heartlands in Novgorod to reach Kiev in the ninth century. Kievan Rus’ became the centre of a golden age for Russia. Given the central role of Kiev in Russian history, the etymology of […]

Living on the edge

Why is there a ‘b’ in subtle? And, for that matter, why is there a ‘b’ in debt, doubt or plumber? The letter ‘b’ is not the only seemingly redundant silent letter in English – why is there a ‘p’ in receipt, a ‘c’ in indict or a ‘s’ in isle or aisle. A sensible guess might suggest that the pronunciation has shifted over the years, […]

Why is there a ‘b’ in subtle?

You are being chased through a thick pursued by horrific creatures – half man and half goat. Your heart is racing as you run, stumbling over roots and bushes, thorns ripping at your clothes and branches whipping at your face and hands. Behind you, the forest echoes with the blood curdling yelps and cries of the pursuing host. They are faster than you, more nimble in […]

Run for your life

I was walking down Roman Road in east London when I heard someone say something that made me smile. Roman Road, with its thriving street market and tight local community, is one of the most authentically Cockney places left in the capital. You’ll hear plenty of rhyming slang, strong accents and see market traders that would put Del Boy to shame. It was amongst this crowd […]

What a palaver!

There are few words that carry as much weight in the English language as ‘lord’. Lord is used to describe both God and Jesus Christ in the Bible, where the word is used over seven thousand times. The word also has a myriad temporal meanings – the master, ruler or sovereign of men. The upper chamber of the Houses of Parliament is still called the House […]

Lordly language