Tag Archives: language

Speech patterns and adoptive phrases

Steve Irwin

My parents have been visiting and were amused to hear me use the word ‘crikey’ the other day. My mum’s a professor of socio-linguistics so finds all this stuff fascinating.

Now I happen to remember exactly why this particular word is in my vocabulary – I used to try to do an impression of the inestimable Steve Irwin (it was terrible) for no reason other than I thought he was occasionally hilarious – and say "crikey, don’t troy this at home, kids. if he boites me Oi’m dead."

Given that the majority of that phrase doesn’t have much cause to enter every day conversation, ‘crikey’ is all that remains. By the same token my brother, over the years, has taken to saying tomay-toes instead of tomatoes – he picked a way of saying something, liked it, and it stuck.

Is this how linguistic drift happens? Or this, and the OED adding acronyms to itself?

Simple language is best

I ran a training session just before I went on sabbatical on various social media bits and pieces, showing people how to use search engines to find key phrases – amongst many other things.

Over the course of the session, which I tried to keep jargon free, I somehow managed to tell people that they should "concatenate their search terms" and use "Boolean search." I was also talking about influence and sentiment analysis, so there was a lot of jargon floating around that I couldn’t seem to avoid.

I think us social media-y types (oh, god, is that what I am?) should have our own translation engines, like the Bank of England. Check it out :

Inflation is likely to pick up to between 4% and 5% in the near term, and to remain well above the 2% target throughout 2011, boosted by the increase in VAT, higher energy and import prices, and some rebuilding of companies’ margins.

Which means:

You will continue to be squeezed in the next couple of months by the government, overseas governments and companies.

Otherwise we might as well just be doing this.

(As an aside – I love that the CItyWire piece, in addition to clever writing, included a bit of clever coding. That principle – of creative storytelling in new ways, whether through interpretation or presentation of information and analysis – is one of the key things that will keep people passionate about traditional media venues, IMHO).

British names for American ingredients (and American names for British ingredients) – a 101 guide (basic tutorial)

(Warning: the following video contains some classic Izzard swearing and might therefore be NSFW. It however perfectly sets the scene for this post, so watch it anyway).

I read a lot of American food blogs – as you may have gathered from my Kenji tribute. But one of the things that grates slightly is the fact that we have slightly different vocabularies for a number of common (and some not-so-common) cooking ingredients. I asked my friends on Twitter and Facebook to help me come up with some key points of contention and here’s what everyone came up with…

  • American – British
  • Cilantro – coriander
  • Rutabaga – swede – wtf???
  • ‘erbs – herbs
  • frosting – icing
  • Zucchini – courgette
  • Maize – corn
  • Eggplant – aubergine
  • Soda – soft drinks
  • Tomayto – tomato
  • Chips – crisps
  • Fries – chips
  • Jelly – jam
  • Jello – jelly
  • Baysil – basil
  • Arugala – rocket (seriously wtf?)
  • Scallions – spring onions
  • Baking soda – baking powder


  • Noodles – Pasta (I thought they just called it paaaasta)
  • Entree – main course (Isn’t this a French thing?)
  • Corned beef – salt beef (I thought American corned beef was tinned, processed beef hash)

Can anyone clarify?

and also…

  • Budweiser – beer (not sure these are synonymous)
  • Potato – potato
  • American cheese – wtf? (via @qwghlm, I actually think there’s a time and a place for American cheese)

Thanks to friends on Facebook – Farrah, Mary, Kate, Caroline, Lucy, James, Graham and on Twitter – qwghlm, AndreLabadie, jogblog and gateauchateau for the suggestions.

Any more for any more? I think we have the Spanish influence to thank for some of these (cilantro I think is Spanish for coriander, for example) but absolutely no idea where some of the others come from and my curiousity doesn’t extend far enough to investigate.

It’s amazing how much difference a few short centuries can make to linguistic divergence. In another few months, we probably won’t understand anything the Americans say!

In a side note, that’s the single most successful crowdsourcing request I’ve ever made. I guess you have to ask the right questions for your network!

Cultural differences in kinship terminology

I’ve been trying to work out to describe how our daughter Emily is related to the various people she’s been meeting over the last several weeks. To my Mum and Dad’s siblings, she’s a great-niece. To my cousins, she’s a first-cousin once removed. To my cousin’s children, she’s a second cousin.

This is all right and true, as established by the common European kinship relationship system, drawn out here.

A few people commented that “[East] Indians have a different way of doing it,” and indeed they do. As to various native American tribes, the Chinese, the Scandinavians and everyone else. As Emily has claim to several of these traditions, I thought I’d look into it to see if there was anything in the Dravidian kinship system (on my Father’s side) or Indo-Aryan (on my Mother’s) or Danish (on Amanda’s mother’s) side to bear this out.

Turns out, not so much. The Danish tradition looks pretty similar to the standard European one as far as I can tell, although there is gender-attribution in the kinship terminology – you reference whether the relationship is on your father or mother’s side.

Similar things hold true as far as using gender to reference relationships in the various Indian traditions, but truth be told, it gets mind-bendingly confusing and no-one in my family uses these terms to mean what they mean in common English usage. From Wikipedia:

The Dravidian kinship system involves selective "cousinhood." One’s father’s brother’s children and one’s mother’s sister’s children are NOT cousins but brothers and sisters "one step removed." They are considered "consanguinous" ("pangali") and marriage with them is strictly forbidden as it is "incestuous." However, one’s father’s sister’s children and one’s mother’s brother’s children are considered cousins and potential mates ("muraicherugu"). Marriages between such cousins are allowed and encouraged. There is a clear distinction between "cross" cousins who are one’s true cousins and parallel cousins who are in fact "siblings". Like Iroquois people, Dravidians refer to their father’s sister as "mother-in-law" and their mother’s brother as "father-in-law."

As Amazing as Amanda is, I think she’d struggle with the idea that I had 8 mother-in-laws when we got married, and indeed I find the idea that half my first cousins were “potential mates” based on random gender bias more than a bit bizarre. There’s even more explanation of this perspective here. Given that I know how genetics work, I’m going to dismiss this kinship terminology as inappropriate for our purposes, especially given no-one I’m related to uses these relationships to have these meanings or consequences.

On the Aryan side, I’ve struggled to find freely available web resources explaining how the various North Indian groupings view kinship. Similarly to the Danes, there are gender specific biases (my mother is technically Emily’s “Dadi” – ‘Father’s mother’, although she doesn’t like the term so we arbitrarily use something else). Most people of my generation, rather than reference their “mother’s sister’s son or daughter” just use the word “kÓ™zin” to cover all of these (in the Sindhi tradition, according to this – section 3.2.1). Which makes it seem vaguely similar to the European tradition.

So that’s it. There’s no “grand aunts”, second cousins are what the children of first cousins are to each other and first cousins aren’t “uncles” to each others’ cousins’ children, but first cousins once removed. I’m sticking with that until I read anything obviously and heroically contradictory :-)

Of course, it’s been abundantly clear that this issue is anything but simple and a number of academic papers have been authored on the subject, including some by none other than my own professor mother. But what is clear to me is that the desire to attribute “aunt” or “uncle” ship to everyone is little to do with kinship – rather it is steeped in the culture of respect for elders and the titles are used for that purpose alone. Which, for me, is no bad thing.

Datukship for Grandpa

The Malaysian equivalent of  knighthood is “Datuk” – which is also the  Malay word for ‘progenitor’ or ‘ancestor’ according to Google Translate. In common parlance, my Dad received his Datukship five months ago when Emily was born. Technically my Mum too, although I’m not sure if Datukship is only for the men or not, but certainly they are both ‘progenitors’ of Emily!

Was amused when Aunty Maria pointed it out. Expect my folks will get the joke made to them a fair few more times in the weeks and months ahead!

Update: My Dad has not been ‘awarded’ a Datukship. He became a Datuk when Emily was born – i.e. he became a grandpa. Apparently this wasn’t clear!!

App request for Google

Can Google please upgrade the Google Translate iPhone app to include OCR so it can do this, but just for plain text on images? I don’t need a video feature or AR capability, or the clever editing that provides the illusion the translated text is on the billboard, sign or whatever, but it’d be awesome if it OCR’ed the text, translated it, and spat out a plain text English (or whatever-language) version of the sign, bit of paper, etc.

I’ve mentioned the coolness of the OCR video translation app (at least as far as the demos go) before, but if you haven’t seen it, check it out. A step towards Star Trek’s universal translators!

Epic fantasy month slows

My problem with writers that love “language” is that you end up clawing your way through pages of stodgy, turgid text in which virtually nothing happens. It’s one of the reasons that I’m generally dubious about literary fiction – a big vocabulary and ability to structure long sentences doesn’t make you a good storyteller. Case in point is the latest novel in Stephen Donaldson’s Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, which breaks several rules of good storytelling:

  1. It has so many characters and special terms (places, food, etc) it requires a glossary.
  2. It frequently uses words that really, if you wanted to understand what he was trying to say, you’d have to use a dictionary (and this isn’t me being dim…) – examples include “irenic,” “orogeny” and “frangible,” and those are just the unusual words, not the ludicrously verbose dialogue that can just about be interpreted if you stop reading for a second and think about it…
  3. Pointless use of old English in narrative flow – would it hurt to say “truth” instead of “sooth” and “virtue” instead of “virtu”?
  4. It has a higher word to event ratio than Jane Austen. The opening scene of the latest novel lasts 150 pages – in which all that happens is that they decide to go somewhere, pretty much.

So why am I still reading? I guess 15 years of being immersed in this particular story leaves me wanting to know where it ends up and my OCD is just about strong enough to see me through it. But time is against me – we go on our travels on Monday (more on that soon!) and chunky hardbacks are not coming with us!